Minute Particulars

"...minute and particular." -- Enormous Generalities

Friday, May 23, 2003


It's probably not very helpful to state what seems obvious, but this excerpt (via Diotima) from Behind Every Choice Is a Story, written by the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Gloria Feldt, is not only creepy, but seems to unravel its own point:
But in my own life, what's happened is nothing short of a miracle or, perhaps, a redemption. My children, who thrived in spite of parents who were children themselves [Gloria was a teenage mother], who endured my bumbling efforts not to make the mistakes I felt my parents had made (thereby inventing a whole new set of mistakes), who through no fault of their own had their lives disrupted while I found mine, have experienced the incomparable joy of planned, wanted children. I’ve had the double bonus of experiencing how the children I gained from my marriage to Alex have also been able to make the choices that were best for them, supported by family and friends and technology, comfortable in a world where planning to have children -- or not -- is truly a choice. Those who have given birth are incredibly wonderful, nurturing parents. Those who have not are incredibly wonderful, nurturing aunts.

In the short space of a generation, I have had the great privilege of helping change the world, at least for them. I can think of no greater joy.

Have you ever walked among the headstones in an old cemetery? Not only is it filled with the graves of women who died by the time they were forty, exhausted from endless childbearing, but also with the tiny headstones of the many babies who didn’t survive. No more. Nor must it be, ever again. That is the mantle all of us who value freedom and justice must wear. We must be eternally vigilant, and we must continue to advance our laws and practices toward greater freedom and justice.
Should "technology" really come in the same breath as "family and friends"? It all seems a bit clinical. But my real point is that she claims that her children, some of whom perhaps were not "planned" or "wanted" if I'm following her logic, turned out just fine and have actually "thrived." Shouldn't we conclude that her desire now that all children be "planned" and "wanted" is a little weird and seems to derive from some abstract, utilitarian conception of how things should be rather than from her own experience, which, um, seems to have been to have children who've "thrived"? It's like saying,
I've made some mistakes, but things turned out just fine.
Still, I don't want you to make the same mistakes.
Perhaps the notion of "mistake" should be examined in this case?

This is just an excerpt so I'm obviously not suggesting the whole book follows this strange rhetoric; but it's from a sample chapter of a site promoting the book, so one wonders.


Thursday, May 22, 2003


These kinds of connections usually require a catalyst , but it recently occurred to me, in a sober state, that the bizarre field of cryonics might suggest that all human life from conception to death exists on a continuum that can't be divided. I've argued in the past that cryonics based on preserving the human body after death is philosophically untenable because death is a substantial change that is irreversible. But preserving a living human being is not philosophically untenable, and we have disturbing evidence that it's scientifically possible with the existence of many thousands of frozen human embryos:
The freezers of U.S. fertility clinics are bulging with about 400,000 frozen human embryos, a number several times larger than previous estimates, according to the first national count ever done, released today.

The unexpectedly high number -- by far the largest population of frozen human embryos in the world -- is the byproduct of a booming fertility industry whose success depends on creating many embryos but using only the best. Although most of the embryos are being held for possible use by the couples who wanted them, a large proportion will never be needed, experts said.
I don't know what the success rate is for successfully thawing, implanting, and giving birth to frozen human embryos, but I assume it's fairly feasible -- otherwise, why freeze them? That it's possible to preserve embryos and not yet possible to preserve and . . . uh . . . "thaw" living human beings in a cryonic state seems a technical issue related to the organic complexity of a living human adult when compared to a human embryo, but it's certainly not an issue about whether an embryo is human or even a person.

If the technology ever gets to the point where a living human adult is frozen and brought back to 98.6 degrees with no damage to his or her organs, have the cryonics folks suddenly transformed the paradigm many hold about frozen human life? At the moment, advocates for fertilization techniques which result in unused embryos, or advocates for embryonic stem cell research, often make the claim that embryos are only potentially human beings. But human embryos and adults, in a frozen state, will, I think, have identical properties: no heartbeat, no brain waves, no apparent vital signs of any kind, and yet they emerge from this frozen torpor as human beings, albeit the embryo still needs developmental time.

The explanation for this will, I presume, revolve around the fact that even frozen, the organizing principles exist and the principle of life still resides in, is still "active" and animating, the organism. In this sense, at least philosophically, something has to be going on even in the frozen state, for a thing (principle of life for a human being) cannot exist without "doing" something (in this case, animating a human being).

The key in this silly speculation with genuinely tragic aspects to it (400,000 frozen human embryos facing destruction) is that cryonics, if it's ever successful with human adults, levels the playing field for human embryos by providing an example of a state in which both embryo and adult are identical with regard to the "signs" that many who deny that embryos are human beings require: brain waves, vital functions, etc. I wonder if a frozen embryo and a frozen human being set side-by-side, assuming both can be successfully warmed up without damage, will add a new dimension to the debate about whether a human embryo is a human being?




Camassia always gets great responses to her questions on matters of faith; and her recent post, Bringing on the dead, has generated some very smart comments from Disputations, Sursum Corda, and Noli Irritare Leones. At the end of her initial comments, Camassia asks,
So I'm curious to know what the rest of you think of this. Is faith something you know, or is it a matter of probability? Do you know or care if the resurrection is supported by historical evidence?
See my below response, FAITH AND HORSE RACES, for my take on approaching the Resurrection as a matter of probability. Tom of Disputations deftly swings both a tack hammer and sledge where needed with these kinds of questions and, assuming I understand his comments, I think I would situate things similarly.

The interesting question for me is not "Did Jesus rise from the dead?" so much as "What does the Resurrection mean for us?" And this is not because I already believe the historical facts behind the Resurrection and therefore want to move on to more interesting questions, though I suppose that's part of it; but it's because the Resurrection as a historical fact and in the context of history is simply one miracle among many, and some seem far more impressive. After all, creation ex nihilo appears to be several orders of magnitude greater than being raised from the dead. On one level, if you believe that God created the Universe ex nihilo, then isn't any miracle that follows somewhat trivial? And if you don't believe that God created the Universe ex nihilo, then how could some archaic story about a man rising from the dead be of any interest?

But there is, of course, another level that is deeper than even the metaphysical notion of creation ex nihilo. That God would become fully human and dwell among us, that He would enter into personal relationship with us, that He would suffer at our hands, die, and overcome death is a far more profound set of facts than anything suggested by creation ex nihilo, apart from the obvious fact that none of these could have taken place outside of God's act of creation. In this sense, then, the question of the fact of the Resurrection, while temporally preceding its implications for us, is trivial when set down beside the question of the effect of the Resurrection on each of us personally.




It's summer rerun time. A response to the question of approaching the Resurrection as a matter of probability.

Mark Twain wrote, “’Twere not best that we all think alike, it’s difference of opinion that makes for horse races.” I was reminded of this quote when I read this article in Sunday’s NY Times. It’s a report on an attempt to assess “the probability of the Resurrection” and it’s a sad commentary on a common misunderstanding of faith:
In plain English, this means that, by Mr. Swinburne's calculations, the probability of the Resurrection comes out to be a whopping 97 percent.

While his highly technical lectures may not net Christianity many fresh converts, Mr. Swinburne's efforts to bring inductive logic to bear on questions of faith have earned him a considerable reputation in the small but vibrant world of Christian academic philosophy. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Swinburne and a handful of other nimble scholarly minds - including Alvin Plantinga at the University of Notre Dame and Nicholas Wolterstorff at Yale - religious belief no longer languishes in a state of
philosophical disrepute.
Is it just me or is there a lack of plain ol’ horse sense causing this misconception about the mechanics of faith? I’ve touched on this before, so I’ll just make a brief pass here.

Reducing the event of the Resurrection to probability is akin to reducing it to a wager or bet. But anyone who does this either:
a) doesn’t understand the nature of a historical event
b) equivocates when using the word “Resurrection”
c) conflates reason and faith
d) or, commits all of the above
One “believes” in the Resurrection because the event is not simply historical, like Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, but because it is a historical event upon which Creation hinges. Such an event is impervious to reason because:
1) we can’t be there ourselves to witness it
2) we can’t gather evidence about it empirically (e.g. an attempt to find the bones of the historical figure Jesus Christ or some such silliness to disprove it)
On the contrary, we “believe” because this is the only mechanism by which we can have knowledge of the event. And by “believe” I simply mean “a participation in the knowledge of a knower,” to use Josef Pieper’s phrase. With the Resurrection, the first “knowers” are those who knew Christ and testified to his words, actions, and eventual resurrection from the dead. If we could “know” as these followers of Christ “knew,” we wouldn’t need to “believe” because we would have the more certain knowledge of seeing and hearing the Word Made Flesh in the flesh (albeit without the Grace of the Holy Spirit as promised at Pentecost). Hence, Aquinas's famous remark that “Other things being equal, seeing is more certain than hearing.”

To believe in the Resurrection is an eminently reasonable thing to do: not because it is reason exercising its powers to investigate the event, but because it is reason understanding the dynamics of such an event and concluding that we can only come to know it by believing the testimony of another and “participating in the knowledge of a knower.” In fact, as Pieper again points out,
the credibility of the witness whom we believe cannot also be the subject of belief; this is where real knowledge is required . . . if everything is said to be belief, then belief has been eliminated.
What this all boils down to is not a wager or bet, but knowledge of the credibility of witnesses and assent to the content of their testimony.

Thus, Aquinas writes
Now, whoever believes, assents to someone's words; so that, in every form of belief, the person to whose words assent is given seems to hold the chief place and to be the end as it were; while the things by holding which one assents to that person hold a secondary place. Consequently he that holds the Christian faith aright assents, by his will, to Christ, in those things which truly belong to His doctrine.


Tuesday, May 20, 2003


Disputations found a nice interview, Faith and the God of the Philosophers by Ralph McInerny, that is brief, but very good. Years ago as a college freshman I and a few other philosophy students had a chance to have lunch with McInerny prior to his giving a lecture at the college. I, of course, had nothing to say and remember feeling pretty dim while some of the older students kicked around the latest from an article he had written. I'm sure I'd have the same reaction again today. Anyway, here's a sample question and answer from the interview:
Q: Why is it important to distinguish between natural theology and religious faith?

McInerny: Faith consists of truths about God accepted on the authority of his revelation, whose interpretation is in the custody of the Catholic Church. Truths like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, forgiveness of sins, etc., cannot be proved by appeal to the ordinary canons of proof. They can be proved to have been revealed, but that is something else.

Natural theology is an achievement; faith is a gift. To demand that the mysteries of faith be proved in the usual way, is the beginning of the loss of faith.
One of the biggest misunderstandings between theists and atheists is caused by the failure to distinguish knowledge derived from reason and knowledge derived from faith. This might seem an easy distinction at first, but you see a failure to make this distinction whenever the existence of God is denied because the content of what He has revealed can't be known from reason alone.

Something is "revealed" because it cannot be known apart from it being revealed.* A simple but profound example is your name. Unless you're named "Red" and have bright red hair -- and even then one couldn't really be sure "Red" was your name even if one guessed it -- your name is something that another person can never know unless you, or one who knows you, reveal it. This is the same dynamic involved in God's personal revelation to human beings. To claim that revelation is superstition simply because the content of what is revealed could not be known from reason alone is to claim that believing me when I tell you my name is "Mark" is superstitious and silly because you can't know it from reason alone.

* - Aquinas does point out that:
The existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles; for faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes nature, and perfection supposes something that can be perfected. Nevertheless, there is nothing to prevent a man, who cannot grasp a proof, accepting, as a matter of faith, something which in itself is capable of being scientifically known and demonstrated.
And so, we might say that the existence of God can be known by believing His revelation, but this, in context, doesn't vitiate the distinction between reason and faith, hence the important distinction Aquinas makes between "articles" and "preambles" of faith.




Calpundit had a nice blurb on statistics recently that struck me as about 95% right.

Matthew Yglesias had a comment on one of Kevin's points which I quote in full to convince you I'm not yanking things out of context:
Kevin Drum's ten errors in statistics are worth looking at, but I'd like to draw special attention to problem #3:
Does A really cause B or might there be another explanation? If A and B are correlated, A might indeed cause B, but it's also possible that it's just a coincidence or -- even more likely -- that some third source is causing both A and B. This problem is especially rampant in social science studies where virtually everything is related to everything else and even well designed multivariate analysis is extremely difficult.
Mr. Yglesias then does something puzzling:
I think this one is worth noting because most of the other errors are really just that -- errors that a careful person ought to avoid. This one, however, is trickier and not just because multivariate analysis is hard but because there's a significant philosophical problem regarding what the relation "cause" is supposed to amount to. Normally, unsolved philosophical problems don't lead to real world problems, because the pragmatic way to cope with the situation is typically quite clear despite the philosophical issue. As Kevin notes, however, disputed causal claims are extremely common. This means that while it's pretty easy to keep the negative claim (i.e., correlation does not imply causation) in mind when looking at someone's work, it's very hard to say what the appropriate positive claim (i.e., what does imply causation?) should be. And yet, it doesn't seem like we can have reasonable policy discussions without figuring out what causes what.
Huh? Is causation, or specifically "what does imply causation?" really at the forefront of philosophical inquiry these days? Haven't we moved beyond this?

Spurred on by all the hubbub around The Matrix Reloaded (which I haven't seen yet and so I'm waiting to comment), I've been rereading a little book by Etienne Gilson called Methodical Realism (yes, "little book" ought to be accompanied by "I reread," not "I've been rereading," but it's tough going). He points out that the idea that "philosophical reflection ought to necessarily go from thought to things" (which is the only way one can even begin to question causality),
derives from Descartes, or from Kant, or from both together, and whatever other distinguishing features a system may have, it is idealist to the extent that, either in itself, or as far as we are concerned, it makes knowing the condition of being. (emphasis added)
In one of the better images I've seen to describe idealism or a philosophy which moves from knowing to being, Gilson quotes from a work on epistemology (by L. Noel):
If you have a hook painted on a wall, the only thing you will ever be able to hang from it is a chain also painted on a wall.
But the more relevant point to those still grappling with "what does imply causation?" is the following:
The Catesian experiment was an admirable metaphysical enterprise bearing the stamp of sheer genius. We owe it a great deal, even if it is only for having brilliantly proved that every undertaking of this kind is condemned in advance to fail. However, it is the extreme of naivety to begin it all over again in the hope of obtaining the opposite results to those which it has always given, because it is of its nature to give them.


Monday, May 19, 2003


Sunday's Gospel has the familiar vine and branch imagery, but I was particularly struck by the following:
I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. (Jn. 15:5)
This is a challenging statement for several reasons. First, we know that there have been and will continue to be many who have not explicitly heard the Word of God. Others don't believe. And still others outright renounce such things as the Gospel of John. Yet all of these folks may be good, intelligent, sincere people. What can "without me you can do nothing" mean in such cases?

There's a further bind that this statement seems to place us in. Such an insistence on Christ's role in our "doing" anything worthwhile as humans seems to diminish if not deny the importance of debate among believers and unbelievers that is intelligent, good-willed, and productive. Certainly I've harped here before on the importance of clearing and clinging to the common ground of reason that believers and unbelievers share when it comes to important moral issues. This appeal to reason is not some "shortcut" to get consensus; rather it's a practical way to address the many volatile moral matters that press on our consciences with those of different or no belief. Believers and unbelievers really can discuss abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia and the like by appealing to what we all hold in common as human beings: our human nature and our ability to reason. Yet, in the extreme case of good works accomplished by unbelievers with no explicit appeal to Christ, how should we understand "without me you can do nothing"?

I think these are fairly open-ended question that don't have easy answers. Obviously, at least at first glance, unbelievers are capable of doing "worthwhile" things without an explicit appeal to Christ. And, in fact, many believers probably do many "worthwhile" things without a conscious appeal to Christ. But I wonder if the beginning of an answer lies in a distinction that needs to be made about what we mean by "doing something worthwhile"?

No one can do anything worthwhile that doesn't derive from what is good and true and beautiful in our world unless we empty the term "worthwhile" of any real meaning. For the Catholic, Christ and the source of all that is good and true and beautiful in our world are one and the same. We find this, of course, in the Nicene Creed in the theological truth (from Jn. 1:3) that all that exists was made through Christ: "Through him all things were made." This highlights the metaphysical depth of Jesus' words in that nothing comes to be except through him, a truth that affects all human beings regardless of the creed they profess if any.


Sunday, May 18, 2003


Here's an article reporting that the ol' "120 over 80" isn't as great as it used to be:
A federal committee on Wednesday dramatically redefined high blood pressure, urging doctors and their patients to start working to achieve much lower readings -- below those once considered ideal.
The article also notes that:
Anyone with a blood pressure of 120/80 or more should make life changes, including eating more healthy foods, exercising more getting to a healthy body weight, the committee said. A healthy diet includes lots of fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products, but limits fat, sodium and alcohol consumption, the committee said.
Another article made similar recommendations for lowering blood pressure which included "exercise, a healthy diet, and not reading silly newspaper columns."


Tuesday, May 13, 2003


Sunday's Gospel had a rather jarring claim: it gives the reason God loves someone. I say "jarring" because I think we're all used to how-do-I-love-thee statements, but not really very comfortable with the why-do-I-love-thee type. Love is a mystery, after all, and can't have reasons that can be articulated without reducing it to some kind of calculation, right? In fact, I'd say that the moment anyone suggests there's a reason to love is the moment when we probably become suspicious of that love. And yet we find in the Gospel of John:
"This is why the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.
I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.
This command I have received from my Father." (Jn 10:11-18)
Sure this is the love of the Father for the Son, and so there will be an asterisk whenever we apply it to us; but, when we say "Thy will be done" we are praying that we do the Father's will, not ours, in this life. Jesus prayed the same to the Father. And so the reason the Father loves us is probably similar to the reason the Father loves Jesus. The challenge, I suppose, is trying to grasp how the reason the Father loves the Son applies to us.

Love is an intelligible thing -- certainly from the divine perspective -- and therefore we can infer that there is a "reason" for love. Love, of course, is the most perfect act we are capable of toward our God and each other. That there are reasons for this, even if we can't glimpse them from our human perspective or at least from our common way of thinking of things, shouldn't really be too surprising even if it's a bit counterintuitive when first encountered.


Monday, May 12, 2003


Confessions of a former spammer is an interesting look at the techniques behind all that spam you get.
Understanding Shiels' [the confessing spammer of the article] software is key to understanding why spam is so difficult to fight.

His most basic program coordinates the four computers and enables them to send thousands of e-mail messages a minute, culling e-mail addresses from one database and sending them messages he designed.

But to send e-mail, he needed addresses of recipients. Another program harvests e-mail addresses from Web sites. That's why people with e-mail addresses listed on public Web pages will likely receive floods of spam.

Besides scanning Web pages for e-mail addresses, it also searches Internet newsgroups -- public bulletin boards. And it automatically deletes addresses that have such phrases as "info" and "service," those that likely don't immediately bounce to an actual person. It also tests for unpublished addresses by combining user names -- the portions of e-mail addresses before the @ symbol -- with domain names of other addresses.

To get started, Shiels also paid colleagues from the spammer clubs for a list of e-mail addresses. Ten million addresses cost about $1,200, he said.

"There are people in the industry that sell addresses and there are people that send, and they're usually never combined because both are full-time jobs," Shiels said.
He said he shot out as many as 10 million messages in one day, often reusing addresses.

"The idea is it's just like a commercial," Shiels said. "You don't just send it to one address once. You send it to one address five or six times. Do commercials only come on once? You get the same crap in your e-mail more than once. You have to bombard the person."

With the sending software installed and configured properly, Shiels never even had to hit the "send" button. The computers automatically pulled e-mail addresses from the Web and sent messages about 18 hours a day.




Sssssssssssssssomeone actually tried thisssssssss?!
A single computer was placed in a monkey enclosure at Paignton Zoo to monitor the literary output of six primates.

But after a month, the Sulawesi crested macaques had only succeeded in partially destroying the machine, using it as a lavatory, and mostly typing the letter "s." . . .

. . . The six monkeys - Elmo, Gum, Heather, Holly, Mistletoe and Rowan - produced five pages of text which consisted mainly of the letter "s" . . . .

. . . But towards the end of the experiment, their output slightly improved, with the letters A, J, L and M also appearing.

However, they failed to come up with anything that remotely resembled a word.

Paignton Zoo scientific officer Dr Amy Plowman said: "The work was interesting but had little scientific value, except to show that the 'infinite monkey' theory is flawed."
(via BoingBoing)




I haven't seen much comment about this article (via Calpundit, who wondered in jest if the site had been hacked because it's so staggering an admission):
Frustrated, U.S. Arms Team to Leave Iraq
Task Force Unable To Find Any Weapons
BAGHDAD -- The group directing all known U.S. search efforts for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is winding down operations without finding proof that President Saddam Hussein kept clandestine stocks of outlawed arms, according to participants.
Just as it's consequentialist thinking and therefore poor moral reasoning to say
If we find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq then all our efforts will have been justified
it's likewise not valid to say
If no weapons of mass destruction are found then the war was unjust
And this, of course, because the moral rightness or wrongness of invading Iraq stems from the decision at the time, not hindsight thinking and calculation (cf. my previous post, ENDS AND MEANS).

Still, it's disconcerting to read the above. Why? Well, the existence of these weapons was a premise in many of the arguments to invade Iraq. And the existence of such weapons has been seen by many as a factor or even principle that changes how we apply just-war theory.


Friday, May 09, 2003


Ted Barlow (via Calpundit) has an interesting response to the "bull-headed resistance to actual facts" that he sees "again and again when conservatives set their sights on human rights organizations." He gives a fairly long analogy that extends the following screnario:
Thought experiment for my right-wing friends.

I want you to imagine that you're clicking around the web when you come across a liberal blogger who is pointing out a particularly egregious of poverty in, say, Houston. Let's call the liberal blogger "Steve." He links to an article describing the poverty of a Houston African-American community in detail, and then asks, "Why doesn't the Catholic church spend some time caring about the people who are already here, instead of spending all of their time hassling pregnant mothers who want abortions?"

You're a little taken aback, but you respond politely. You explain that Catholics do, in fact, spend tremendous resources fighting poverty all over the world. In fact, as you point out, there is a Catholic initiative in the Houston area to help the very same community described in the article. You explain that you understand that Steve has a very different position on abortion than the Catholic Church. However, that difference of opinion does not invalidate all of the good work that Catholic charities do to combat poverty and ease suffering, and you would appreciate it if he would reconsider his dismissive attitude in light of these facts.
He continues with two more similar examples of what seems the same kind of flawed reasoning. He winds up his "thought experiment" with,
You've probably guessed what I'm getting at by now. Steve would be showing the same bull-headed resistance to actual facts that I see again and again when conservatives set their sights on human rights organizations.
I have to admit it's a good point. When you look at the list of concerns that groups like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch have, it does seem that many who object to what they are doing (or not doing) are simply picking some low-hanging fruit.

I'd want to distance myself from many if not most of the conservative gibes against human rights groups (e.g. this recent entry at InstaPundit that prompted this post at Calpundit); but I'd also want to be careful that one doesn't assume, as I think Barlow does in his post, that issues like abortion can be compartmentalized. While it seems clear that a human rights group that doesn't consider abortion a grave wrong can do much good: freeing those unjustly imprisoned, stopping torture, feeding the hungry, eliminating the death penalty, and so on, human rights issues aren't isolated from each other and can't be treated as such without distorting the big picture.

Human rights derive from human nature. For Catholics (and I'm still not sure what Barlow's -- ironic from my perspective -- use of "Catholics" in his examples was meant to imply, if anything), there is a deeper foundation to human rights, and that's the dignity of every human person. Issues like abortion or human sexuality can't be pinched off and discarded if one really seeks to consider the whole human person in all of his or her complexity.

And so, while I agree that many of the accusations against human rights groups are ludicrous grabs at "low-hanging fruit," a human rights group that fails to protect the unborn or fails to acknowledge that human sexuality touches human beings at a very profound and mysterious level will likely, from a Catholic perspective, lack a certain vitality and completeness. Perhaps that's inevitable with ostensibly secular organizations and it doesn't necessarily suggest a deep flaw. But the Catholic approach attempts to see human beings as organic wholes and human society as something that derives from human nature in all of its aspects. A Catholic critique of a human rights group that lacks a focus on abortion as a human rights issue would be a poor critique if it dismissed the group outright because of this; rather, it ought to show how a failure to address abortion impacts other issues that the group cherishes.




This headline has probably been sitting on some editor's desk just waiting for the right moment.




New Flag

First Official Flag of the Confederacy

The new flag of Georgia, Bill Cork points out, is based on The First Official Flag of the Confederacy. I don't quite get it since I thought the reason for replacing the recent flag was that many considered it racist because of its association with the Confederacy. How does using the First Official Flag of the Confederacy eliminate this problem?




Tom of Disputations, in his Certitude and risk post, suggests that some folks look at a preemptive or preventive war through the lens of "risk management":
In a simple version of risk management, you weight a risk by multiplying the probability it will occur by the cost of it occurring. You then think of the best way to mitigate the risk, by reducing its probability or its cost. If the cost of mitigating it is sufficiently less than the weighted cost, and you can afford it, you go ahead and mitigate.

I don't know if anyone who favored attacking Iraq went through any sort of structured analysis, but language like, "What if we do nothing and they blow up Buffalo?" is fundamentally an appeal to risk management, a willingness to act -- in some cases an insistence on the moral necessity to act -- with explicitly less than moral certitude.
This is probably an apt description of how many worked through justifying a preemptive war. I've certainly read plenty of do-we-have-to-wait-until-they-nuke-an-American-city arguments that attempt to justify preempting a possible attack.

But "risk management" or "probability" or "extrapolation" or "do-we-have-to-wait-until-they-nuke-an-American-city" arguments, while firmly espoused by many and rhetorically persuasive on many levels, simply will not yield good moral arguments, as I pointed out in my ENDS AND MEANS post below. And yet, these arguments are probably the most common way we think about events in our everyday lives, and for good reason. While every action of ours is a moral action, not every action requires gut-wrenching hand-wringing consideration. Obviously. And yet I wonder if much of the confusion about justifying a preemptive war stems from a poor understanding of how one might distinguish important actions from insignificant actions?

I admit that saying "all actions are moral actions" sounds a tad catawampus. But "human action" and "moral action" are basically synonymous terms. There is no amoral human action: but obviously there are distinctions between the moral gravity of choosing between Chunky Monkey and New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream and choosing to go to war. Both are prudential judgments and in both cases we really can speak of possible "moral certitude," but, of course, saying you're morally certain that Chunky Monkey is your preference is silly! But it's not silly because of the action per se, it's silly because the object of the action is about as insignificant as one can get. Human actions and the decisions responsible for them don't follow a different path because their object is insignificant. Our intellect proposes a good to our will which is naturally inclined to seek a perceived good. But the key is how we establish that something is good in the first place.

This is an important point to keep in mind if we want to distinguish between our normal day-to-day activities where "risk management" makes a lot of sense, and activities where "risk management" is less applicable as a model of how we ought to proceed. Thinking based on probability, unless the very object we're pondering is meant to or can only be couched in probability terms (e.g. statistics, quantum mechanics), is really a shortcut to keep us somewhat sane.

I put outlet covers in outlets my 16-month-old son can reach and don't give him metal paper clips because I'm trying to prevent him from doing something that I can't ever really know he'd do with certainty until he did it, which of course, I don't want him to do. I am preempting a possible event. This is reasonable and responsible. But it is based on probability and the fact that human beings at 16 months can't understand that sticking a paper clip into an outlet is not good. But this reasoning is not appropriate for adults who are capable of comprehending their environment and its dangers. When I invite adults over, I don't scramble to cover the outlets or hide the paper clips (though I do hide the good scotch unless I know them well). Adults who know better don't need to be protected from things they can fully understand.

Traditional morality has mature adults in mind fully capable of understanding the consequences of their actions. As I've said -- and perhaps tyrants who might possess weapons of mass destruction changes this -- preemptive action has not been morally justifiable in the past because the seriousness of the moral object (attacking a sovereign nation) and the assumption that all participants are free and really do grasp the gravity of their actions make it clear that it is an instance of an end justifying the means to that end (cf. the above mentioned post).

When a preemptive or preventive war is justified with "risk management" or "probability" or "extrapolation" or "do-we-have-to-wait-until-they-nuke-an-American-city" arguments, we presume that a sovereign nation consists of or is led by human beings who don't know better and therefore don't warrant our applying traditional morality in our disputes with them. I suppose one could argue that a tyrant who might have weapons of mass destruction doesn't deserve a moral response that assumes he is free and understands his situation fully. Perhaps. But denying someone a proportionate moral response is a morally tricky thing to engage in even if it's easy to do. In essence, we assume the role of adults in a room full of children, taking dangerous things from them, keeping them from bullying other children, putting them in "time out," and so forth. Assuming one knows the difference between this and a moral response due one's peers, it ought to be done with great trepidation.


Wednesday, May 07, 2003


Bill Cork has a brief post on canon law and its underpinning principles regarding the removal of a bishop. Here's an excerpt:
When we consider the office of Bishop, we have to understand the the Bishop is vicar of Christ for his local Church, not a branch manager reporting to a CEO, as some people imagine. Also, I think some people are operating out of the lop-sided view of papal authority that prevailed following Vatican I, which was cut off before it could discuss the role of the Bishop. That was corrected by Vatican 2, and by the current Code of Canon Law.

In discussing the hierarchy of the Church, Lumen Gentium, starting with par. 20, goes from Jesus' mission, to his sending of the apostles, to their appointing of successors, the bishops. Then, in par. 22, it discusses the specific role of the head of the college of bishops, the pope. This order is important, for it is the foundation of the principles outlined in LG 27 on the relationship of the bishops to the pope.
This section from Lumen Gentium, excerpted in part by Bill, is especially important:
The pastoral office or the habitual and daily care of their sheep is entrusted to them completely; nor are they to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiffs, for they exercise an authority that is proper to them, and are quite correctly called "prelates," heads of the people whom they govern.(59*) Their power, therefore, is not destroyed by the supreme and universal power, but on the contrary it is affirmed, strengthened and vindicated by it,(60*) since the Holy Spirit unfailingly preserves the form of government established by Christ the Lord in His Church. (LG, 27)




Whether you think the war with Iraq was a fine and noble venture or a huge mistake, I've noticed that two related questions still remain just out of focus beneath many of the reactions and comments I've read:
1) Was the war a preemptive or preventive strike?
2) Can an end ever justify the means?
The first question may seem old and stale and I'm not going to drag it through another round of debate here. But how you answer the question is significant. If you say,
No, it was not a preemptive strike, it was self-defense and as such it was well within just-war requirements,
then my concerns are moot. But if you answer
Yes, it was a preemptive or preventive strike,
then your answer to the second question, I think, will need some nuance. While there are many interesting and even intelligent explanations of how the war was not preemptive, I think most people understand that it was a preemptive or preventive war, a strike to thwart a future and likely threat.

Now, unless you simply give no credence to just-war theory, a preemptive or preventive strike, when you look at it in plain bright light, simply doesn't fit into most descriptions of traditional just-war theory. This doesn't mean at first glance that preemptive strikes can't be used justly; but it's tough to find it in the traditional sources and current articulations of just-war theory. And actually, in light of the moral principles behind most just-war theory, there's a good reason for this. A preemptive or preventive strike is not considered a viable option, I think, because it is an instance of the end justifying the means.

While most of us have a notion that "an end never justifies the means" or some variation of that, I wonder if many realize that this is what preemption is? Wouldn't we describe a preemptive strike in this or a similar manner:
The threat of a looming danger moves one to eliminate a possible event (the end) with a strike (the means) that is not directly linked to any actual event (e.g. the actual use of weapons of mass destruction) but only to a possible event (e.g. the possible use of such weapons).
The reason this is an end-justifying-the-means scenario is that a possible event does not have the same moral weight as an actual event; and so whenever a possible event is the object of a moral response, we are no longer in the realm of traditional morality which requires actual events to judge.

To this, some may say,
Fine, then traditional morality is going to have to stretch or change because preemptive or preventive strikes are warranted when there's the possibility that weapons of mass destruction will be used.
Maybe. But if that's your sense of things you may have a difficult time lashing your moral sense onto a firm metaphysical foundation.

I think part of the trouble here is a failure to grasp why the end never justifies the means. This is not just some lapidary maxim that sounds nice but doesn't ring true when things get rough and we have to cut moral corners. It's a rock-ribbed truth of existence and human nature. In this case, an end (preventing a possible event) has prompted a means (war with Iraq to eliminate the possible event) in a manner that is morally disproportionate -- not because of any specific aspect of the Iraqi situation, but because a possible event is not a morally valid end.

A moral judgment is made when we apply principles to a present situation. Why "present"? Well, the present is all that exists from moment to moment. A "moral" judgment is emptied of meaning if it is not about human beings acting and being acted upon or if it is not applied to existing beings in existing circumstances. I can't condemn a murderer for murder until the murder actually happens. That's why we distinguish murder from attempted murder. In a way, you'd think we wouldn't make such a distinction. If you shoot me in the heart and my bullet proof vest saves me, you won't be charged with murder, but attempted murder. While it seems that you are morally culpable for murder if you knew nothing of my vest and intended to kill me by shooting me in the heart, we don't make such jumps into events that don't exist. My murder didn't occur and so you aren't charged with it.

Human beings are free and have actions that cannot be anticipated with any moral certitude. If we apply principles to a future situation, a situation we anticipate and conjecture about, we are no longer making a moral judgment, we're making a bet, a wager about the outcome of something. If the outcome we've anticipated actually occurs, any previous moral judgments are still just that, previous moral judgments that don't apply to the event that actually occurred.

The obvious, though myopic, objection to this runs something like this:
So, you're saying that until someone plants an axe into my skull, an axe that someone is currently swinging toward my head, I can't -- let's say I can freeze the action and ponder it -- I can't with moral certitude state that they are going to murder me!?
Well, yes. But obviously this is not to say that I can't or shouldn't move out of the way or even shoot the person swinging an axe at me to stop him -- assuming that's the only reasonable means I have. And this is the point that some of the preemptive strike advocates have missed.

Preemption attempts to anticipate with moral certitude what another person will do before they do it. This, of course, by definition can't be done. "Moral certitude" and "anticipate" don't go together. I don't think you can wiggle out of this bind unless you either deny that your action is preemptive or that the action you anticipate is freely done.

Surely the relationship between sovereign states is more complex and different than the simplistic examples used here and in most moral examples. But the principles still pertain. Either the principles are wrong or ends-justifying-the-means approaches, even when they involve massively complex situations, need to be seen for what they are. Some have suggested that weapons of mass destruction have so changed things that we have to rethink the traditional approaches and prohibitions against preemptive or preventive attacks. But surely the first step in rethinking such things is a recognition of what is being proposed.




This column by Rod Dreher, includes this intelligent and judicious comment:
I hold no particular brief for Bishop Galante, but the man was owed an opportunity to prove himself as vain, craven and altogether mediocre as nearly everyone else on "this hapless bench of bishops" (the phrase belongs to Fabian Bruskewitz, a Nebraska bishop who is a happy exception).
and ends with the following sage and insightful statement:
Surely somewhere in the Catholic hierarchy, there must be a bishop or two who see the episcopate as a form of service, not as personal property of the sitting bishop, to be defended no matter what the cost.
After this rebuttal appeared, William A. Donohue, the president of Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, responded with a wise and coherent defense of Dreher:
Re: "News won't give bishop ounce of credit," by Bronson Havard, yesterday's Viewpoints.

According to Bronson Havard, the "newly arrived" Dallas Morning News columnist Rod Dreher is guilty of "arrogance, stridency and viciousness." Now how could it be that Mr. Dreher changed so fast? When in New York, Catholics who knew him regarded him as serious, sober and reflective.

It is not hard to figure out why Mr. Havard is angered by Mr. Dreher. Mr. Havard was a staunch supporter of the failed ABC show Nothing Sacred. His hero was Father Ray, the pro-abortion hippie-dippie priest who exploited the poor and defied the church. Unfortunately, it was precisely those malcontents in the church (exemplified by Father Ray) who created the sex abuse scandal.

The Dallas Morning News is lucky to have Rod Dreher. It is clear that a new Catholic voice is needed in Dallas.
I guess I would just add that Rod Dreher is as lucky to have Donohue defend him as The Dallas Morning News is lucky to have Dreher.

(links via Disputations)




The Tablet has a blurb (via Mark Shea) entitled, "Cardinal says Pope prevented anti-Christian backlash," which contains the following:
Cardinal Ignace Moussa Daoud I, a Syrian who heads the Vatican's Congregation for Eastern Churches, said that Arab Christians in the Middle East were grateful for the Pope's public statements which had helped to prevent an anti-Christian reaction in the Muslim world. "There was a big danger that Christians would be considered allies of the Americans, but thanks be to God all this was avoided because of the positions taken by the Pope and the Vatican", he said. The Pope's statements against the concept of a "preventive war" had won new friends among Muslims, he added.
But Mark follows his mention of this with,
I think Mike Petrik (one of my most insightful readers) is right when he says that, at the end of the day, it looks like Bush and JPII both did the right thing. God writes straight with crooked lines sometimes.
While God may indeed write straight with crooked lines, which I believe is an old and wise Portuguese saying, He cannot write squares and call them circles. If the pope thought the time was not right for a war with Iraq and President Bush thought the time was right, then you have contrary opinions and they can't both be right at the same time in the same respect. Even in hindsight I would suggest that you can't say this without emptying moral judgment of all meaning. Either the time to invade was right and morally proper or it was not. Either the pope was right or President Bush was right; but not both about the same issue at the same time in the same way.


Tuesday, May 06, 2003


What a great phrase. Click here to see the context. Click here and scroll if the archives aren't working. Click here if you haven't used scold as a noun before.




Stumbling Tongue is an interesting blog I recently found by looking at my referral logs (the best reason to have a site meter). Here's a sample:
In Germany, they even teach the American states. But I went to a San Francisco public school, and instead of the map of Africa I had been taught the name of a kind of potato pancake they make in the Andes. This was part of "social studies."




Dioceses nationwide wait on Bend case:
In a case with broad financial implications for the U.S. Roman Catholic Church, a judge in Bend will decide this week whether the local diocese will become the first in the nation to have its assets frozen because of pending sexual abuse cases.
This, of course, is a tangled issue and it will likely take years to iron out all the legal wrinkles; perhaps this or a similar case will make its way to the Supreme Court? The article also had the following:
In fact, law school experts see it as negligent if a church doesn't set up its corporation that way, he says. In the 1980s and 1990s, after another wave of sexual lawsuits hit the Catholic Church, many dioceses transferred assets to their parishes, Schiltz notes. This was done so that if a priest in one parish sexually abused someone, the diocese wouldn't have to close down, for example, its homeless shelter to pay for it.

"Imagine if a member of a parish works hard to build a school and a priest 100 miles away molests someone," said Schiltz. "They don't even know the guy. Should they lose their school to a judgment?"
It is, of course, a very delicate matter to decide how much compensation is just for victims of sexual abuse. But should programs that are really doing some good be eliminated or greatly curtailed to pay for such compensation simply because they are sponsored by the diocese? Perhaps so. But is there a point, and it will obviously depend on the diocese, where one ought to be able to say "this far and no farther" in liquidating the assets of a diocese to compensate for abusive priests and negligent bishops?




Climber Amputates Own Arm to Save Life is a bizarre yet impressive story of survival. This reminded me of two of my favorite "survival stories," though they're quite different.

One story I read years ago (I'm afraid I forget the title and author and no longer have the little book) is a true story about two climbers roped together and crossing a glacier when one of them slips and slides over the edge and out of sight. The other climber plants his ice axe into the glacier and succeeds in arresting their fall. However, the rope remains taut suggesting that the climber who went over the edge was hanging in the air on it. The climber still on the glacier, who is narrating the story, can neither see nor hear his friend who is hanging on the rope over the edge. One thing he knows for sure is that he won't be able to hold his friend for very long as his ice axe and crampons are beginning to slip and continue to even when he kicks in again for a better hold. An hour goes by and he's getting so weak that he fears he's going to lose his grip on the glacier and be pulled over the edge with his friend. In his frantic attempts to dig deeper into the ice he spots his knife on his belt. It occurs to him that his only chance for survival may be to cut the rope so that his friend won't pull him over the edge. But, of course, he doesn't know if by cutting the rope his friend will fall 5 feet into soft snow or 1000 feet down a ravine. After attempting again and again in vain to get a response from his friend who is hanging over the edge, and slipping closer and closer to the edge from the weight of his friend on the attached rope, he decides to cut the rope.

When he looks over the edge he cannot see his friend, only a deep crevasse that looks to be several hundred feet deep.

Anyway, the guy who cut the rope eventually makes it back down the mountain and notifies the search and rescue folks. They soon find his friend, barely alive and saved by a fluke where the cut rope had gotten caught and broken his fall. The two friends meet again but things aren't quite the same.

It's quite a moral dilemma. Do you ensure your safety by cutting the rope or get pulled over the edge because you can't bring yourself to cutting your friend's lifeline?

The other story, again true, is from Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Terre des hommes. He speaks of his comrade Guillaumet who survives a plane crash in rugged and remote terrain. Guillaumet endures an unbelievable and harrowing ordeal trying to get back to civilization. At one point he realizes that he may not make it and his thoughts turn to his wife and family and the fact that they will not get insurance money from his death for many years unless his body is found. So he begins to think of how he can position himself so that his body will be found easily! It's classic Saint-Exupery gritty stoicism with an impressive ray of hope. Guillaumet is found alive and he has what must be one of the great lines of the survival story genre:
Ce que j'ai fait, je te le jure, jamais aucune bete ne l'aurait fait.
[What I did, I swear to you, no animal would ever have done.]