Minute Particulars

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

Saturday, June 28, 2003


Is Potter-mania a sign that we've lowered our expectations for our kids (or simply lowered our punches when reviewing something so popular)? This article (via A&L Daily) claims that:
Since it began, Potter-mania has represented a cultural infantilism, that only grows as the years go by. It is about what we expect from our kids, our books, our value system and ourselves. Whatever happens in The Order of the Phoenix, the story of our obsession with Harry Potter is unlikely to have a happy ending.
I think there are some good points here, but I also think we should be careful about assuming that,
1) popularity is a sign of a lowering of standards
2) a good book is necessarily a difficult book
I've only read the first Harry Potter and don't remember it enough to comment on whether it represents a lowering of literary standards; but I do wonder if some of the talk about a lowering of standards might be a reflection of a disdain for what becomes popular and, conversely I suppose, a delight in the esoteric and an implicit or even explicit promotion of elitism.

While it would be a mistake to confuse "popular" with "common," I think we can assume that something popular must appeal to some aspect of what is common in us, an appeal that, of course, may be wholesome or harmful; but it's an appeal that is common nonetheless and therefore touching on something essential about us. As Chesterton put it:
the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men.
An obvious and good example of this is our sexuality. Art can appeal to our sexuality in a manner that is wholesome or harmful and a "lowering of standards" in art is not so much a matter of the object being "too low" so much as the use and interpretation of the object being jejune, inappropriate, or foolish.

And so, criticism of Potter-mania would be more sound if it focused more on what is not quite right in its presentation of what we hold in common rather than on how it must be bad art because so many seem to enjoy it so much.

I'm reminded of the fracas between Franzen (of The Corrections fame) and Oprah caused by his thumbing his nose (much to the chagrin of many aspiring writers) at Oprah's Book Club for selecting his book because he thought that it would give the impression he'd lowered his standards or sold out. Perhaps that would indeed be the impression people would come away with, but I remember it seeming a bit elitist and snooty.

Another possible reason the Potter books are so popular is that they're an easy read. Well, yeah, if they're really meant for children and adolescents then adults ought to find them "easy" in some sense. I suppose, as the above article points out, this could also be a sign of a "lowering of standards." I mentioned an essay by Franzen in a post back in October where I thought he made a good point related to this:
He [Frazen] . . . points out that "One pretty good definition of college is that it's a place where people are made to read difficult books." I think there's something to that. I can't imagine slogging through Moby Dick without the pressure of a paper or being called on in class. Ideally this shouldn't be the case. But realistically I think most people simply don't have the long stretches of time and lack of distractions to read lengthy, difficult books.
But I wonder if "difficult" sometimes refers to the accessibility of a work to someone of average intelligence and education more than its literary depth. A book might be difficult if it constantly makes references to other literature or distant events or cultural proclivities that I as a person of average intelligence and education find difficult because the references are too esoteric and most people with my background wouldn't know them. On the other hand, if I'm a somewhat unthinking person who insists that anything worthy of my attention ought to be gleaned quickly and easily, then I might find much in literature "difficult" and dismiss it prematurely.

I'm probably not going to attempt another Potter unless my son wants me to read them to him (he's only 18 months now, so I've got some time) or wants to read them himself and I want to be able to discuss them. I'll be sure to post any insights I might have regarding their merit in, oh, four or five years. Stay tuned.




Unqualified Offerings (via Eve Tushnet) has a provocative post on the continued use of remote controlled weapons in assassinations:
This was not a wartime operation to capture a strategic crossroads. This was, supposedly, an effort to detain specific fugitives in a country where "major combat operations have ended." In that context it is not moral to kill strangers because one or two of them might be in your deck of cards. Too often now our government behaves as if what we can do and what we are justified in doing are the same thing. They are not.
One Good Turn has a related and more general concern about the ease with which we seem capable of wishing the deaths of others:
In a recent post discussing rising protest in Iran, Glenn Reynolds says the following: "The mullahs are nervous. That's not as good as them being, say, dead . . . but it's a start." I share his sentiment, but it is interesting to me how comfortable we have become with openly wishing death upon specific people. The recent war with Iraq is another example; not only did Bush specifically target Hussein, but quite a few people expressed the desire that he succeed.
This is, of course, a complex moral issue and a little blog post won't burrow into it far. But surely some things are pretty clear. First, can't we say that unless the target is engaged in a capital offense at the moment he or she is assassinated, the assassination is an execution without a trial? Shouldn't this be a bit troubling? Also, there have been many innocent civilians killed in such attacks. Most of these attacks, from what I've read, suggest that we had a pretty good idea that there would be innocent people with the target and that we even knew who these innocents were: family members and the like. Should we be concerned that the children of an evil tyrant or terrorist leader will surely die in an assassination that destroys a car or building that they are in?

My sense is that the moral justification for assassinations is eerily similar to those of torture: principles must yield in times of crisis and what is most expedient may not be the kind of thing we would normally sanction. But there's the rub. Principles ground our actions and it is precisely in times of crisis that they ought to be held to as tightly as possible.


Friday, June 27, 2003


Interesting piece (via A&L Daily) on jargon and eschewing obfuscation in language:
‘[English] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.’ [George Orwell] pleads for a return to linguistic simplicity, letting ‘the meaning choose the words and not the other way round’. Otherwise, he fears that the language of politics in particular will become an instrument not for expressing, but for concealing or preventing thought.


Tuesday, June 24, 2003


An article on the shriveling Y chromosome with palindrome genes.




Interesting post and comments (via T.S.O'Rama) on writing and keeping your day job.
But how many people in the country actually manage to make a living writing books? A couple of hundred.

Millions would like to do it. A couple of hundred actually manage it.

In other words, your chances of making a living writing books are perhaps better than are your chances of ever playing in the NBA. But not all that much better.




As always, How Appealing has the best roundup of links on the recent Supreme Court decisions.


Monday, June 23, 2003


Mark Shea and others have raised concerns about the problems you'll encounter if you think politically rather than, oh, faithfully, when addressing issues the Catholic Church is confronting. I have myself wondered at the lack of "dissonance" on many blogs that comment on politics and the Church.

Here's what I mean. I doubt many folks, if any, would ever claim that the U.S. is a Catholic country. I doubt as well that many would ever claim that either major political party is Catholic at heart. So why is it often difficult to distinguish the "Catholic theme" from the "political theme" on many blogs that readily delve into both? I don't have any specific blog in mind now as I write this, only the impression that I'm often left with:
That's odd, it seems that the understanding of Catholic and political positions always seems perfectly interwoven and the two always seem to sing out harmoniously on this blog. So why do I often find discordant clangs between the two? How interesting.
Okay, I suppose that's not quite how I think to myself, but you get the idea.

I would think that blogs that espouse Catholic thought and a pretty clear political leaning would grind a few gears on occasion when trying to get everything to mesh. Does the Republican Party or Bush Administration really jibe so well with Catholic Teaching? Does the Democratic Party really resonate so perfectly with Catholic Teaching? I often come away with that impression. Where's the dissonance?




Richard Dawkins thinks (via relapsed catholic) "atheists" ought to be "brights":
Those of us who subscribe to no religion; those of us whose view of the universe is natural rather than supernatural; those of us who rejoice in the real and scorn the false comfort of the unreal, we need a word of our own, a word like "gay". You can say "I am an atheist" but at best it sounds stuffy (like "I am a homosexual") and at worst it inflames prejudice (like "I am a homosexual").

Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell [here's their link], of Sacramento, California, have set out to coin a new word, a new "gay". Like gay, it should be a noun hijacked from an adjective, with its original meaning changed but not too much. Like gay, it should be catchy: a potentially prolific meme. Like gay, it should be positive, warm, cheerful, bright.

Bright? Yes, bright. Bright is the word, the new noun. I am a bright. You are a bright. She is a bright. We are the brights. Isn't it about time you came out as a bright? Is he a bright?
If he's a "bright" I'll happily remain a "dim."


Thursday, June 19, 2003


The recent New Yorker has a very fine article (via T.S. O'Rama) on Helen Keller:
Nevertheless, she was a warrior in a vaster and more vexing conflict. Do we know only what we see, or do we see what we somehow already know? Are we more than the sum of our senses? Does a picture—whatever strikes the retina—engender thought, or does thought create the picture? Can there be subjectivity without an object to glance off? Theorists have their differing notions, to which the ungraspable organism that is Helen Keller is a retort. She is not an advocate for one side or the other in the ancient debate concerning the nature of the real. She is not a philosophical or neurological or therapeutic topic. She stands for enigma; there lurks in her still the angry child who demanded to be understood yet could not be deciphered. She refutes those who cannot perceive, or do not care to value, what is hidden from sensation: collective memory, heritage, literature.

Helen Keller’s lot, it turns out, was not unique. “We work in the dark,” Henry James affirmed, on behalf of his own art; and so did she. It was the same dark. She knew her Wordsworth: “Visionary power / Attends the motions of the viewless winds, / Embodied in the mystery of words: / There, darkness makes abode.” She vivified Keats’s phantom theme of negative capability, the poet’s oarless casting about for the hallucinatory shadows of desire. She fought the debunkers who, for the sake of a spurious honesty, would denude her of landscape and return her to the marble cell. She fought the literalists who took imagination for mendacity, who meant to disinherit her, and everyone, of poetry. Her legacy, after all, is an epistemological marker of sorts: proof of the real existence of the mind’s eye.




Disputations has a new mascot and some fine responses to those who think Catholics are idol-worshipping pagans.




Old Oligarch ran into Battleground God, a cute quiz that I mentioned here last year. What a splendid opportunity for a summer rerun!

The quiz asks you questions about your position on the existence of God. If you contradict yourself by answering an earlier question one way and a later question another, you'll take "a hit." If you answer in a way that needs special clarification, you can "bite the bullet." I won't ruin it for you by listing the questions here. But I will say that the creators of the game have made a number of classic errors in their clever game.

First, regarding God's omnipotence, they claim:
You say that God does not have the freedom and power to do impossible things such as create square circles [this is correct, I did answer this way], but in an earlier answer you said that any being which it is right to call God must be free and have the power to do anything [well, I assumed they meant the power to do anything possible]. So, on your view, God is not free and does not have the power to do what is impossible. This requires that you accept - in common with most theologians, but contrary to your earlier answer - that God's freedom and power are not unbounded. He does not have the freedom and power to do literally anything.
As you can see from my inserted remarks, the game is rigged a bit by a mistake on the game makers' part in assuming that one can mean anything when saying "God can make a square circle" or "God can make 1 + 1 = 72." God cannot make a thing both exist (square) and not exist (not square, but circle) at the same time in the same respect. If you don't understand how this follows then you simply don't understand the terms used. When someone asks "Can God make a ______________?" what goes in the blank is a concept of something that doesn't currently exist, e.g. gold mountain, unicorn, and so forth. If "square circle" is in the blank, it's not a concept pointing to some potentially existing thing; rather, it points to a number of concepts that you are toggling back and forth in your mind and you're fooling yourself if you think you've actually got a single concept of something God should be able to make. This is because no one can even think of something existing (square) and not existing (not square) at the same time in the same respect. What happens in this classic error is that folks are assuming they've actually said something meaningful when they've uttered "square circle." They haven't. Nor have they said anything meaningful in saying that God can't make a square circle.

The other classic error in the game is evident from the following:
You claimed earlier that there is no basis for morality if God does not exist [true, but I knew this was going to be another contradiction since this is a very common misunderstanding]. But now you say that if God does exist, she cannot make what is sinful good and vice-versa [again, true]. But if this is true, it means that God cannot be the basis of morality [this doesn't follow]. If God were the basis of morality, then she could decide what is good and what is bad [not quite since this assumes that existence (being), unity, truth, and goodness are intrinsically unrelated]. The fact that you think that God cannot do this shows that things must be right or wrong independently of what God decides. In other words, God chooses what is right because it is right; things are not right just because God chooses them.
Again, you can see that the creators of "Battleground God" adhere to a rather naive and unsophisticated metaphysics -- and by "metaphysics" I'm speaking only about a philosophy of existence, of being, derived from reason. As I suggest in my inserted comments, they've not realized that existence (being), unity, truth, and goodness are intrinsically related; these "concepts," called "transcendentals" in traditional metaphysics are assertions about perfections that "transcend" all classifications and differences. Even if I could, I wouldn't attempt to unpack the deep implications of this in a little blog post; but one thing implied is that goodness and existence while they can sort of be treated as separate categories (hence the transcendentals) aren't separate in any real sense. And like the square circle example, suggesting that God could change what is good and bad, what is right and wrong, given the current existence of all that is, is suggesting that God could make something exist and not exist at the same time in the same respect (by the way, this error is similar to the implications made by those who suggest that God could make a completely different universe) [more on this in a later post].

Still, the game is cute and a provacative way to get people thinking about flaws in their own reasoning about the God.


Tuesday, June 17, 2003


I'm taking some heat (email and blog responses) for my EX POST FACTO JUSTIFICATION post below. You'll find "fallacious," "obtuse," "false" and other adjectives describing me, my position, or both. The objections I've seen can be plopped into three types:
1) We can't always know everything; we went in with good intentions; and so no WMDs is not a problem
2) A reason discovered after the fact, assuming it would have been a good enough reason to begin with, only verifies the justness of the action
3) The existence of WMDs was only one of several reasons to invade, each of which could have justified the action
Objection 1 is an appeal to the fact that humans err and good intentions are what really matter. Well, I don't deny that mistakes are possible and don't necessarily imply incompetence or ill-will. But moral agents are still responsible for mistakes even if they are well-intended. Obviously the culpability is attenuated when a mistake occurs. Think of the classic example of the hunter shooting at what he thought was a deer only to discover it was another hunter. Assuming he doesn't claim that he shot at a deer wearing a bright orange vest and baseball cap, the hunter would likely only be charged with involuntary manslaughter or something else less than murder. So, to this objection I would simply point out that a poor moral judgment doesn't become a good moral act simply because we are well-intentioned. While diminished, perhaps markedly so, culpability for actions remains.

Objection 2 I've addressed in my previous ENDS AND MEANS post.

Objection 3 is a misunderstanding of what specifies a moral action and I'd like to explain this with an example of what I call "rocks-in-a-burlap-sack" morality. Let's say you and a friend are perched high on a cliff above a lake and you spot a small boat directly below you that you've determined is up to no good. You see a bunch of large rocks strewn around you but you're not sure you could toss the rocks separately. It occurs to you that you could put the rocks into a burlap sack that you happen to have with you and then sling the sack of rocks over the cliff and onto the boat with a force that will surely sink it. You want to put a dozen rocks into the sack and fling it onto the boat, but your friend has some moral concerns. He suggests that: "For each reason you can think of for why the boat should be sunk you may place one rock into the sack. That way your sinking the boat will be justified since every rock used will have a reason for its inclusion into the sack before it's flung over the cliff. When you run out of reasons you can then sling the sack and sink the boat."

You swiftly think up five reasons and place five large rocks into the sack. You spin around a few times and let the sack fly over the edge; your aim is perfect and the force of the rock-filled sack hitting the bottom of the boat crushes the boat's hull and the boat sinks seconds after. Upon climbing down the cliff and to the lakeshore, you and your friend realize from some of the debris that has washed ashore that a couple of your reasons weren't correct. You ponder this a bit and then take comfort in the fact that from the height you were dropping the rocks, just one would have easily sunk the boat and so the fact that you had a few extra needn't concern you.

To stay with this silly example a few more sentences, the error in reasoning with this objection is not so much the rocks-in-a-burlap-sack model of morality so much as the application of the example. The error stems from not lining things up properly in the analogy. Some who make this objection think the morality of the decision is analogous to putting the rocks into the sack; others think it's analogous to the collection of rocks held together by the sack; and finally, some think it's analogous to actually flinging the sack containing the rocks.

Those who espouse one of the above aspects of a rocks-in-a-burlap-sack morality would probably exclaim,
Look, so we had a rock or two in there that we now realize shouldn't have been in there. So what! The boat still needed to be sunk and the fact that it was done with a sack that had five rocks in it rather than three or one is irrelevant as long as even just one rock in the sack (which would have probably sufficed to sink the boat) could be justified.
The problem, though, is that the better way to line things up, if we're going to stick with the rocks-in-a-burlap-sack example, is to highlight the intention of the person throwing the sack of rocks over the cliff. The problem with this objection is that it assumes the wrong object is specifying the morality of the action. It is not the reasons (rocks), nor their being yoked together (sack of rocks), nor the act per se (hefting the sack over the cliff) that constitutes a moral act; it is the intention of the moral agent, in this example, the intention of the person flinging the sack of rocks onto the boat.

Notice how this makes a difference. When the two moral agents climb down the cliff and examine the damage they've done, they shouldn't be saying to each other:
Damn! I guess two of the rocks shouldn't have been in the sack.
Oops! I guess we shouldn't have used a sack to hold the rocks together.
Hell! It's too bad you flung the bag in such a way that it sunk the whole boat.
since these all miss the point. The question that really ought to be asked is,
Why did you want to destroy the boat by flinging a sack of rocks onto it in the first place?
Moral actions are specified by the intention of moral agents when the decision is made to act. Having various reasons to invade a sovereign state doesn't mean you have several intentions from a moral perspective when you act. The intention in a good and just moral decision is evident by the end sought when the decision to attack is made. If the end is not something actual, if it is a fuzzy probability that one really won't know until one attacks, then one has slipped into an end-justifying-the-means-to-that-end approach that is problematic. The intention in a moral action is not analogous to the number of rocks or the burlap sack holding the rocks as it flies toward a target or even the throwing of the sack. The intention resides in the human being who has hurled the sack of rocks, and this intention is what specifies, what determines the kind of action that human being has done.

Now this example is by now so stretched and distorted that it probably is of little use. The whole point was to highlight the fact that a moral action is not a conglomeration of intentions some of which might, in hindsight, be mistaken or ill-willed. A moral action is either good or bad primarily because of the intention of the moral agent as he or she does the action. This intention becomes clear when we know what end is sought. But if the end is not something actual but something we are anticipating then our intention will reflect this inadequate end to our moral act and the act will have problems. If we understand the end as one thing and represent it as another, perhaps for political expedience, again, our intention will reflect this and the morality of our action will not be gauged by what we've claimed our intention was but what our actual intention was.

Now, I'm obviously alluding to concerns I have about our invasion of Iraq; but I'm not making any definite claims. As I've said before, I simply don't know enough and I think many share my ignorance about the specifics. My concern throughout has been the lack of rigor to moral claims many have made and the ease with which some toss out moral principles when they're not convenient. Morality based on an end justifying the means to that end or ex post facto reasoning is flawed, whether it's applied to individuals or sovereign states.




I'm catching up on reading some bookmarked articles that I ran across over the past few weeks and noticed a link to a post by Amy Welborn who linked to this article on Rose Hawthorne Lathrop. The article mentioned that,
[I]n February, Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York began canonization proceedings for [Nathaniel] Hawthorne's daughter, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop. She became a Catholic in 1891, and-with the assistance of Alice Huber, an art student-began caring for terminal cancer patients in a three-room tenement flat on Mott Street, on New York's Lower East Side. Two years after her husband's death in 1898, Lathrop took religious orders, and, as Mother Alphonsa, cofounded the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne. Today, the order runs six hospices in five states.
You'd think an article on the canonization of someone like Rose Hawthorne Lathrop wouldn't generate any wisecracks or be subtly gainsaid. But you'd be wrong. I suppose there are folks who would even rant about how Christ spent too much time with undesirables if he were somehow up for canonization. These I call "The Bitter Ones."

Anyway, the mention of Rose Hawthorne Lathrop brought to mind the book, A Memoir of Mary Ann, written by the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne. It's sometimes referred to as "the book with the Forward by Flannery O'Connor in it". It's true, the Forward is remarkable, but the book itself is a testament to an unsentimental innocence that is rare these days. Certainly it would find no place among The Bitter Ones who snipe in comment boxes and reduce any report of goodness, just plain goodness, to suspicion and innuendo.

I'm sad for them. I don't quite know how else to describe it except to say that there is a certain innocence that is no longer possible to express among these folks. And that's a shame. What do you suppose The Bitter Ones would do with the opening paragraphs of A Memoir of Mary Ann?
Mary Ann Long was three and a half years old when the doctor of the Tumor Clinic in Louisville, Kentucky, broke the news to her mother: the child had a malignancy. The removal of her eye, the blood transfusions, the radium, the x-rays, everything that had been done for her during the past three years had been in vain. The tumor on the left side of her face would continue to grow and would cause her death. It might take six months -- perhaps more, perhaps less -- but even though the child required skilled nursing care, she could no longer be kept at the hospital.

The mother, young but exhausted, stared at the doctor dully when he told her this. . . .

The family doctor made a suggestion which seemed preposterous to the Longs. He advised them to send Mary Ann to a house in Atlanta where Dominican nuns took care of cancer patients . . . .

The day before Mrs. Long and the little girl arrived in Atlanta, Sister Veronica, who was then Sister Superior of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home, received a letter from a research social worker at the Tumor Clinic in Louisville. Such letters generally stick to business, but this one contained the unexpected sentence: "This patient is a very lovable little girl and one who touches the hearts of all who come in contact with her."
The Bitter Ones would surely have already had plenty of bitter thoughts about what they'd read. "Why couldn't the mother care for the girl herself?" "Why would the family send her to some silly Dominican nuns?" "What is this pap about a lovable little girl touching hearts?" Pshaw!

And yet, the book is profoundly wise. It's true that many would find it simple and perhaps uninteresting. I don't begrudge those whose tastes simply don't allow them to find this kind of book intriguing. It's certainly not for everyone. But I wonder if for some, yes, The Bitter Ones, it wouldn't be so much a matter of taste as it would be a flat denial that innocence and holiness are possible and that some special few can lead remarkable lives untainted with the pettiness that afflicts most of us.


Wednesday, June 11, 2003


Unless you are privy to intelligence information common citizens don't have access to or part of a well-connected investigative team with the time and resources necessary to track down these things, the debate about whether there were really weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the quantity and quality of such weapons if they were present, and the role they may have played in convincing various leaders to go to war is, well, a debate that's a bit futile.

Think of it this way: let's say your neighborhood newspaper runs a local story that you want to verify. You probably could track down who said what, when, and where since you might be able to actually talk to the folks involved or go and see for yourself. But it would still be difficult and take more time than you probably have. In this context, something as international and cloaked in secrecy as the existence of WMDs in Iraq is likely too big and far away to get a complete handle on; certainly there's not much an ordinary citizen can dredge up on his or her own. And, really, would any of us actually know a weapon of mass destruction if we saw some satellite photos of one or stubbed our toe on it? At some point we all have to trust somebody on these issues, as on most issues of any importance, beyond our little patch of reality.

But we're a republic after all, not a pure democracy. We couldn't and shouldn't have to track down the sources and veracity of testimony for every critical issue our nation faces; we trust elected representatives and/or those whose job it is to examine the actual situation, do the right thing, and explain their actions promptly and with as much candor as national security permits. Most of us don't know what evidence was presented to the decision makers and really have no reason to assume any malfeasance, and probably, though this can be unnerving, we ought to assume those in power are well-intentioned until the facts prove otherwise.

What's surprising is not that trusting somebody can be difficult and often proves disappointing (that's life after all), but that folks discuss this issue as if they've seen and handled the evidence firsthand, as if they could properly interpret what must surely be highly technical data. I'm amazed at some of the comments from people who have no better access to what really happened than I do about the righteousness or wickedness of our actions in Iraq.

But if the debate about what really happened is academic to the extent that we aren't part of those who really do know what happened, maybe we plebes ought to at least admit it's academic and clear the ground of all the pundit debris. This would have the advantage of actually giving us something we can discuss in a reasonable manner below the hyperbolic din. And shouldn't we all first start with what we hold in principle before getting so sweaty about who said what, when, and where?

One way to shake out where we all really stand is to put forth a relevant but hypothetical situation, a situation about which we can indeed know the details. Let's say we invade a country for one reason, let's call it reason A, and discover after our invasion that reason A actually didn't pertain, (we might call this reaction OOPS); but let's also posit that we discover circumstances that present us with another reason, let's call it B, that would have been just as valid a reason as A was had we only known it prior to invading. In fact, A and B, while substantially different, seem to have equal moral weight and urgency. Now then, does the discovery of reason B after our invasion justify our invasion even if we had vehemently stated prior to attacking that we were doing so based on reason A?

Yes or no? Let's not talk about what you read or heard on talk radio. Let's stick to basic moral concepts that we all ought to have pondered on occasion. In principle, can one do something because of A, discover that A doesn't apply, discover that B would have been just as valid, and justify one's actions now with B after the fact?

If you say "yes" then you're comfortable with an end justifying a means to that end, and further, you're comfortable with discovering that end after the fact.

If you say "no," then you're aligned with what I think is the traditional moral stance on ends and means, the principles of which I discussed briefly in my post last month, ENDS AND MEANS.

Examples of folks abandoning the traditional moral understanding of ends and means without a second thought are legion these days. But it's appearing in spaces where careful thought is usually the norm; so much so that I'm wondering if the lapidary moral maxim "an end never justifies the means" is being dismissed as unrealistic or not universally applicable anymore.

Here's a recent example from many I could link to: Calpundit had a post where he asks, "When is it OK for a president to tell a lie? A big lie?" While the context is Iraq, he gives an example from the past:
Let's take the canonical case in recent history: FDR and World War II. Did Roosevelt know that the Japanese were planning an attack on Pearl Harbor? This is still a matter of intense speculation, but let's suppose he did. Was he right to let it happen anyway?

In hindsight, most of us would say yes. The dual threats of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany were so great that he was justified in getting America into the war regardless of whether he gave honest reasons. History has proven that his judgment was wise, and if it took a lie to convince America to go to war, then that lie was warranted.
This, of course, is an ex post facto justification of a crucial event in history. And it's a perfect example of the end justifying the means to that end in moral discourse. Tacitus also sees no problem with ex post facto justification, as this surprising post (via The Poor Man) makes clear:
In the absence of a WMD threat, I might note that this wouldn't be the first time that a war received ex post facto justification. The Anglo-French aim of a free Poland was not secured at the end of World War II, but that seems to matter little; instead, we find that a principle moral justification for that war was one thing that almost no one at the time was actually fighting for -- an end to the Holocaust. . . .

So by all means, take the Administration to task for pushing the WMD line as it did. But don't travel from there to a point wherein the war itself was wholly immoral. A savage tyranny that filled mass graves with hundreds of thousands of its men, women and children was destroyed forever. That's justification right there. Simply because you wish to deny credit -- however rightly or not -- for that deed does not mean you must maintain that the deed was not done, nor that it was ignoble.
The problem with these kinds of approaches is simply that the moral principles that prohibit an end being used to justify the means to that end are not contingent upon the importance or urgency of the action involved. The traditional argument against this kind of reasoning is grounded in our human nature and the metaphysical principles of act and potency, principles which simply don't change when the stakes are high or the time short. What does seem to change, it seems, is our perception of these principles. When the stakes are really high or when we are convinced of the outcome of a potential event we tend to cut corners a bit and justify what would normally be a wrong action.

This, of course, is nothing new and probably something only saints steer clear of habitually and consistently. We all cut corners; it's called sin. What's disconcerting is not that we might have cut some corners in our moral judgments of late, but that lopping off corners is readily admitted by many as the only way out when the going gets rough.


Monday, June 09, 2003


My 17-month old knows about numbers and is starting to touch his fingers in a counting gesture. I bought him a little puzzle that has wooden cutouts of the numbers 1 through 9. It also has a zero, in fact the numbers are all lined up starting with zero, and I have to admit I wasn't quite sure what to do with it at first (other than use it to make 10, 20, etc.).

I started associating zero with "all gone" and "not there anymore" and now he says "na na na na" when I point to zero. I'm not sure when he first connected "na, na, na, na" with something missing or no longer there, but I think it was many months ago when a flower he had been keeping track of in the backyard was gone one day. He still says "na, na, na, na" when he looks at the scraggly plant that no longer has flowers. In fact, he seems a bit agitated when things disappear that "should" be there, like the backhoe that was down the street for several weeks. We went and watched it most days and when we arrived one day to an empty lot he went into his "na, na, na, na" chant. He still says "na, na, na, na" each time we pass the lot that now has a foundation for a house.

I was happy to find this article on zero recently because it made me realize that my confusion about how to present "zero" to my son baffles even the experts:
Darryll McCall asks, "Is zero a number?" Is it a real integer, a counting number, or just a vertical line on a time line? Tony Grafton, of Princeton, sees zero for calendrical purposes as a line between increments rather than as an increment per se. I called the math department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to find out the proper way to count and whether zero is a real number. Apparently, counting is not MIT's forte. I was told that no one in the math department would comment on that topic. As for zero, a department administrator said, "Our people are interested more in numbers invented after 1972." He told me I needed a number theorist.


Friday, June 06, 2003


Stumbling Tongue on the basics (go read the whole post):
I was struck by a comment on One Good Turn, on how lacking people are in basic knowledge:
On the other hand, how many people can prove that the earth and all the planets rotate around the sun and not vice versa? I'm not sure I could, even though I have spent time with some of Galileo's texts that helped establish the point. I'm guessing that most people would be even harder pressed than I....
This is a familiar complaint. And at this point the standard response is to throw up our hands and blame ourselves for the collapse of civilization. At least, this is always the drift of articles reporting the results when some malevolent bastard, armed with a clipboard, ambushes innocent pedestrians with questions of basic knowledge. Who was the 19^th^ American president? What's the atomic weight of nitrogen? When is the passive paraphrastic used in English? Quick, quick!

Oh come on. Let's not get upset about this. There is something ritualistic and phony about this business. It's my theory that we make a big show of worrying about this issue because we know damn well that we couldn't answer the questions either. No one could. The emperor has no clothes on, people!
This reminded me of an old article, Uncontrollable Emissions, from The Underground Grammarian:
It should energize people to learn that only a few hundred pages of information stand between the literate and the illiterate, between dependence and autonomy.
We predicted, in September of 1985, that one E. D. Hirsch would emit a book [Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know ]. It seemed the politest apt word. He has now done it. What you see above is from that book, and the "few hundred pages of information" to which he refers will surely be emitted in the near future by some pack of educationists. Somehow, as dearly as we would love to put away dependence and learn autonomy, we are not entirely energized by the suggestion that some bits of information will set us free.


Thursday, June 05, 2003


Mark Shea has generated some interesting comments regarding a recent Disputations' post with the title, The fully human person is divine. French Dominican Jean Corbon has a passage on this that I think makes some important nuances:
In our baptism we "put on Christ" in order that this putting on might become the very substance of our life. The beloved Son has united us to himself in his body, and the more he makes our humanity like his own, the more he causes us to share in his divinity. The humanity of Jesus is new because it is holy. Even in its mortal state it shared in the divine energies of the Word, without confusion and in an unfathomable synergy in which his will and human behavior played their part. Jesus is not a divinized man; he is the truly incarnated Word of God.

This last statement means that we need not imitate, from afar and in an external way, the behavior of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel, in order thereby to effect our own divinization and become "like God"; self-divinization is the primal temptation ever lurking in wait. On the contrary, it is the Word who divinizes this human nature which he has united to himself once and for all. Since his resurrection his divine-human energies are those of his Holy Spirit who elicits and calls for our response; in the measure of this synergy of the Spirit and our heart our humanity shares in the life of the holy humanity of Christ. To enter into the name of Jesus, Son of God and Lord, means therefore to be drawn into him in the very depths of our being, by the same drawing movement in which he assumed our humanity by taking flesh and living out our human condition even to the point of dying. There is no "panchristic" pseudo-mysticism here, because the human person remains itself, a creature who is free over against its Lord and God. Neither, however, is there any moralism (a further error that waits to ensnare us), because our human nature really shares in the divinity of its Savior.

"Human beings become God as much as God becomes a human being," says St. Maximus the Confessor. Christian holiness is divinization because in our concrete humanity we share in the divinity of the Word who married our flesh. The "divine nature" of which St. Peter speaks (2 Pet 1:4) is not an abstraction or a model, but the very life of the Father which he eternally communicates to his Son and his Holy Spirit. The Father is its source, and the Son extends it to us by becoming a human being. We become God by being more and more united to the humanity of Jesus. The only question left, then -- since this humanity is the way by which our humanity will put on his divinity -- is this: How did the Son of God live as a human being in our mortal condition? The Gospel has been written precisely in order to show us "the mind of Christ Jesus" (Phil 2:5); it is this mind with which the Holy Spirit seeks to fill our hearts.




Here's a very funny parody of The Corner (via Redwood Dragon)




The usual very smart comments on Disputations; in particular, I have in mind his The fully human person is divine post. Tom has also provide a very fine example of the Parvus Error In Principio Method* for reviewing books that is my preferred approach. What is this method?

The Aristotelian maxim that "a small error at the outset can lead to great errors in the final conclusions" has applications in all kinds of places and it's at the heart of the method. In fact, the Parvus Error In Principio approach to book reviews is just one example of its many applications. The method can save you a lot of time and energy by encouraging you to stop reading once you know a train wreck is inevitable. It's a kind of brusque and grumpy tool that, to be fair, isn't always the best approach; but it's certainly the most efficient I've used. It insists that an author be taken about as seriously one can, perhaps too seriously, by encouraging a quick toss of the book when you see that early statements will lead to disaster down the road.

Tom uses the method on an excerpt from the first paragraph of The Meaning of Jesus, by Borg and Wright (Camassia and Telford Work are reviewing the book chapter by chapter). Now, in this case, there are two authors, so it is likely that tossing the book because one has slipped into a problematic position is not fair to the other. Still, encountering the problems Tom finds so early in a work ought to make one reconsider spending any more time on it. There are surely plenty of books that don't limp so early in the game.

Also, be sure to try the Parvus Error In Principio Method with movies, restaurants, and parties. It's a great time saver.


Wednesday, June 04, 2003


If you haven't tried the Wayback Machine before, you're in for a treat. Like Google's cache feature, it can show you web pages as they were on a particular day in the past, a kind of snapshot of the Internet. Unlike Google's cache, the links on the page are also usually archived so it mimics what it would've have been like to visit the page and follow its links.

So, you can, for example, see a Yahoo News page from 1997, what Google looked like in 1998, or what the N.Y. Times webpage looked like on this date two years ago.

With all the blog anniversaries, I ran a few through the Wayback Machine. The results were sporadic. Some blogs show up with their original templates, others have their newer templates. Some blogs have hardly changed. Others have changed quite a bit. Take a look at St. Blog's pioneer Amy Welborn's blog back in Sept. of 2001.




Cardinal Dulles has a nice survey of various theological positions on the question of whether all or only some are saved (notice that "none" is not an option in the Catholic Tradition since there are saints). That the question doesn't resolve into a clear and distinct answer is not surprising. The fuzziness is likely the result of one or both of the following:
-- the answer requires revelation from God and He has not chosen to reveal it
-- our limited intellectual wattage as human beings prevents us from a clear grasp of the answer
Regarding the former, tracking the various scriptural passages for hints and clues has proved important but, I think most would agree, not wholly satisfactory. I know that even the most learned presentations leave me with an uneasy feeling that something doesn't quite add up.

As to our ability to comprehend such things, we are, as Pegis once wrote, "intellectual rustics" dwelling in the "shadow of intelligence" (the famous phrase cited by St. Thomas Aquinas). The problem of infinite mercy meeting infinite justice may just be too big for the human mind. I also wonder, though, if the question of who will be saved is a bit premature in light of our ignorance of even more profound questions.

For example, if you even briefly ponder the astounding fact that there was no necessity on God's part to the act of Creation, that it was not necessary that God create us, immerse us in history, and somehow let us work out our salvation with His grace and our free will, then I think you'll begin to see how the question of universal salvation seems a bit rash. To answer who is saved, or how God can be both infinitely merciful and infinitely just, don't you have to first know why God even bothered to create us and why He created us as He did? I suppose the classic answer,
God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.
is about as fine an answer as any. But does it really get at the "Why" we seek? Wouldn't the answer we're looking for look something like:
God made us because He wanted to zorbidoo the fragligs and hargmarglin the rostulations while keeping the gimblonies in weltonsingflees . . . .
What we want to know is not the reason from our perspective (to know Him, to love Him, etc.), but from His perspective. The reason we can't know this, the reason any such answers dissipate into silliness, is, of course, because we can't know such things from God's perspective and our attempts inevitably reflect the fact that our intellects dwell in the shadows and can only delve so far. The answer we really want may simply require more light than our human intellects can muster. And if we can't glean a satisfactory answer to this most fundamental question, how can we expect to answer a question about our salvation which surely requires our standing on solid answers about why we exist to be saved in the first place?

But please don't misunderstand me. I come to praise such questions, not bury them. I only want to point out that these questions are really only signs that point to blips on a horizon that will forever slip away from us this side of Heaven. And while they have and will continue to produce profound and useful answers, these answers are at best oblique approaches to the questions at the heart of our world.


Monday, June 02, 2003


Cardinal Arinze's much criticized commencement speech at Georgetown has had plenty of commentary. For thoughtful comments see Sursum Corda (be sure to see the comments section as well) among others.

But unlike many, I don't presume to know whether Cardinal Arinze's words were appropriate. I've never been to Georgetown, I didn't hear the speech, I don't know the history of the institution, and I wasn't privy to the arrangements and agreements explicit and implicit that occurred in order to have the cardinal give the commencement speech. I don't doubt some or even many were offended. But, of course, that speaks to decorum and context, not to whether what he said was true or false, wise or silly, authentic or contrived.

The offending passage seems to have been this little nugget:
In many parts of the world, the family is under siege. It is opposed by an anti-life mentality as is seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. It is scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions and cut in two by divorce.
And, judging from the headlines and many comments I've read, the locus of offense seems to be the words, "mocked by homosexuality."

The fact that there were surely some who enjoy pornography and some in sexual relationships outside of marriage at the commencement doesn't seem to be what got many so angry. Obviously the remark that homosexuality "mocks" the family is what got folks fuming. Why this crack is more offensive than the slam against those who participate in or use pornography, they "scorn" and "banalize" the family, or more offensive than the slight to those in sexual relationships outside of marriage, they "desecrate" the family, is not clear to me. I know this will seem politically or culturally naive, but if you claim that "family" is intimately related to "marriage," and that the only appropriate sexual relationships are those in marriage, then anything else will "scorn," "banalize," "desecrate," and "mock" the family. In fact, one could probably swap the verbs "scorn," "banalize," "desecrate," and "mock" in the speech and convey the same meaning. In essence, the cardinal could have rephrased his words to something like this:
Sexual relationship outside of the Sacrament of Marriage scorns, banalizes, desecrates, and mocks the family.
and conveyed the same truth. And I'm confident if he had made such a statement the commencement speech would have never made headlines. After all, a cardinal of the Catholic Church saying "Sexual relationship outside of the Sacrament of Marriage scorns, banalizes, desecrates, and mocks the family" is sort of boilerplate stuff; it's what you'd expect a cardinal to say.

If you're going to say that the cardinal made inappropriate comments, and if you want to be consistent, then you should really say that any comment similar to, "Sexual relationship outside of the Sacrament of Marriage scorns, banalizes, desecrates, and mocks the family," is false. If you only object to his "mocked by homosexuality" utterance, then he is perhaps guilty of poor rhetorical skills, but he's not guilty of stating a falsehood in light of what the Church teaches on marriage, family, and sexual relationship. My concern is not that those who object to the language "mocked by homosexuality" are wrong or shouldn't be offended; my concern is that they ought to be consistent in what offends them. If a sexual relationship is contrary to the Church's teaching on marriage, family, and sexuality, then the Church's teaching ought to be responded to in principle, not in particular.

Obviously many in fact do object outright to everything the Church teaches on marriage, family, and sexual relationship. But many sort of pick and choose what they find offensive, with perhaps ulterior motives, rather than objecting to the whole package. And, ironically, this does them a disservice. Objecting to a particular application of Church Teaching when you don't understand the universal principles underpinning that teaching is foolish. You can either object to the universal principles themselves and demonstrate that they aren't true, or you can object to the particular application of those principles. But if you don't object to the universal principles, then your only recourse is objecting to their application, an objection that I suspect in this case would run aground not long after it was launched. What many who were offended by the speech seem to be implying is that the Church's teaching on marriage, family, and sexual relationship ought not be applied consistently and in all cases. But while consistency may be the "hobgoblin of little minds," it is at the heart of reason and revelation.




This recent speech by Cardinal Arinze has generated lots of blog buzz. I'm going to add some thoughts in another post, but I did want to mention that it's simply not true that the cardinal once made statements that in essence blamed 9/11 on the fact that abortion, euthenasia, and experiments on embryos occur in the U.S. This Falwellian nonsense continues to be attributed to Cardinal Arinze even though anyone with sixth-grade reading skills, assuming they actually take the time to read the actual text, can see that this is not what he said.

In fact, if you look at the text from last year -- you ought to look at the whole text, it’s short -- you’ll see that the critical words are these:
One of the most important human values is doubtlessly the right to life, to be protected from the moment of conception up to the moment of natural death. However, it must be considered a serious paradox that this right to life is threatened precisely by today’s highly advanced technology. Such a paradox has reached the extent of creating a “culture of death”, in which abortion, euthanasia, and genetic experiments on human life itself have already obtained or are on the way to obtaining legal recognition. How can we not make a correlation between this culture of death in which the most innocent, defenceless, and critically ill human lives are threatened with death, and terrorist attacks, such as those of 11 September, in which thousands of innocent people were slaughtered? We must say that both of these are built on contempt for human life.
Cardinal Arinze obviously means that it is the terrorists’ contempt for human life that results in terrorist attacks. Regardless of your position on abortion, euthanasia, experimentation on embryos, or terrorist attacks, you simply can’t twist the Cardinal’s words into the Falwellian notion that “God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.” Notice that when Cardinal Arinze says “the most innocent, defenceless, and critically ill human lives are threatened with death,” and when he says “terrorist attacks, such as those of 11 September, in which thousands of innocent people were slaughtered,” the common word in each phrase is “innocent.” Probably those who continue to twist Cardinal Arinze's words in this manner don't really care what he actually said, but even when you disagree with someone, even vehemently, you ought to at least give him or her the benefit of interpreting their words in a straightforward manner.