Monday, December 22, 2008

Tyndale, a faith hero

I was pointed to this great article by HB over at CT. Here's a nice excerpt:
His ruling passion was a simple one: he wanted to render the defining texts of his age and culture—the Old and New Testaments—in an accurate English translation which even “the boy that driveth the plough” could grasp. And the fact that he eventually fulfilled this aim, and paid for it with his life, should be acknowledged more frequently by anybody who cares about freedom of expression.
Go check it out.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Called to do the irrational

Lately I've been thinking about the story of Abraham and Isaac. For those who are unfamiliar, or need a refresher, here's the story in the first part of Genesis 22 (emphasis mine):

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.

Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."

Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you."

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?"
"Yes, my son?" Abraham replied.
"The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"

Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.

"Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided."

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, "I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."

The reason I bring this story up is because I want to highlight an important contrast, one I've been struggling with. Faith and reason do not seem to belong together. In fact, I don't think they can speak to each other at all. You can't honestly ground religious faith in rationality (including philosophical theology), nor can rationality exclude it. Something is amiss about comparing them. A blind person would not call a song yellow, nor would a deaf person say a painting is out of tune. The inapplicability of the one to the other does not mean that either is deficient in any meaningful sense. We don't say sight is deficient for not being able to hear a melody. Rather, we don't think hearing applies at all to our sense of sight. I think something like this may be going on with faith and reason, though saying this does give me pause.

Kill Isaac. Sacrifice him. This is what God commanded Abraham to do. Under no circumstance, short of some absurd utilitarian justification, could this ever be the morally right thing to do. God commanded Abraham to sin, but sinning is disobeying God. Nothing about that makes sense. No rationalization makes it okay for Abraham to kill Isaac, nor does it seem right for God to ask him to. Yet, strangely, I still believe that Abraham did as he should, even if what he should have done was not right. This is where I'm struggling. If God says φ, you φ. If φ is morally wrong, what does that make God? I realize that theologians have been thinking about this story for centuries, and yes, I plan on revisiting my favorite Christian existentialist soon, but I do think there's something to be said about puzzling this out on a personal level.

Part of my struggle has to do with, in general, squaring up my faith with stuff I encounter in philosophy. Philosophers worship reason, in a way. I hesitate. Reason is fantastic, but it can't be enough. You can't be complete if that is all you have. We've been talking about reasons for action in class quite a bit, and it worried me that people may not have a reason (independent of themselves) to do the morally right thing. What is that about? But on the other hand, something is missing from morality if it really boils down to what is rational for a person to do. And then there's this other dimension where both reason and morality are subordinate to faith, something totally unjustifiable yet simultaneously authoritative. You believe in what you do not see, and you act accordingly. What can that mean? Reason can't speak to this, for or against. It's a whole new dimension.

I like being reminded of Abraham and Isaac whenever I start rationalizing God. God says do this because ... x, y and z. God would only have commanded this for x reason, etc. Something is wrong about that. If God is anything like who we think he is, then he's way above whatever we could possibly comprehend. He says φ, I φ. There's something liberating about that, but scary at the same time. There's a deep level of trust there. That's what Abraham had, trust. Abraham didn't ask God how his sacrificing Isaac would bring the greatest aggregate utility to society, nor could Abraham will that every father sacrifice his son. Abraham trusted, and then what happened? God provided. There is something really cool about that, something I can't understand.

God didn't make Abraham kill Isaac. But God sacrficed his son. For us, for a bunch of selfish slackers. That is irrational. That is grace. Grace surpasses the right. Grace surpasses reason.

(excuse the ramblings today. mulling this all over is difficult. since it had been so long, I figured I'd take a few minutes to type out the thoughts, just so I don't completely fall out of habit --and this forces me to think more about it. some political philosophy soon!)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

New layout

So I may be toying with the layout/colors for the next few days. If white on black is hard to read, let me know, and I'll make it easier. I just wanted to somehow incorporate this picture I have (now in the title) of some mountains in the alps that were covered by clouds. It seemed fitting.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama on Religion and Politics

Watch this video of a speech given by the new President Elect:

The speech is from 2006, transcript here, actually, you really should just read it all. Whoever edited the video took out a lot of good stuff (perhaps because the video on youtube is titled: Obama versus religion). But even edited it'd be hard to come to that conclusion. Here is a good part not in the video:
In fact, because I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality, I would rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and who is also secular, affirm their morality and ethics and values without pretending that they're something they're not. They don't need to do that. None of us need to do that.

But what I am suggesting is this - secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Moreover, if we progressives shed some of these biases, we might recognize some overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation, the need to think in terms of "thou" and not just "I," resonates in religious congregations all across the country. And we might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of American renewal...

...[Conservatives] need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn't the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn't want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

The part in the video about translating religious values into something universally acceptable makes me think someone has been reading Rawls (or, I suppose, almost any modern political philosopher). Do I think doing this compromises religious belief? Not at all. In fact, I'm glad of it. I've written about the role of religion in political life before, esp for Christians. This isn't new, though sometimes I struggle with just how much my personal convictions should influence how I participate in our political system (the short story: I care when there is negative interference with non-consenting others, where others can be human or, more broadly, animals and the environment). In essence, I think we are called to stand apart from society, not take it over. We are to be lights, not tyrants. We are to love, not discriminate or spread hatred. Etc.

As an aside, this is the 4th time in the course of 2 days that I've come across the Abraham and Isaac story. Once was after class with a fellow student. And then the chapters I happened to get to in my nightly read through the Bible were about it, and the devotion for the day in My Upmost. I feel like maybe I should be thinking more about it, what do you think? I'll probably try and revisit Kierkegaard's discussion about it too.

So, really soon I will have a post up about Abraham, God, and the irrationality of theism (and for the less religiously inclined, morality). I will try and magically tie it in with a paper I'm working on about Williams' Internal and External Reasons (and a response by Scanlon). I have high hopes.

In the meantime, you should read this if you haven't already. It's a letter from Jim Wallis contra Dobsons' idiodic scare letter (about what America would turn into if Obama got elected). Obama is left of the right, so he's no danger. What I'd really like to see is real wealth spreader in office (wink wink).

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sorry for the absence.

Hi again. It's been awhile since I've done any substantial posting. My apologies. I've just started grad school, and it's been hectic. But I do have some ideas floating around that may or may not turn into posts soon. I've been thinking about things like the difference between moral obligation and moral permissibility, acting from moral duty, and the difficulty of talking morality with a non-philosopher. So many thoughts, so little time.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Why I'll miss Wisconsin

Check this out:

It's the sign from my friend's church in Wausau. Oh how I'll miss this state. For the not-so-sporty readers, famed QB for the Packers, Brett Favre, recently came out of retirement to play for the Jets. So in case you were worried, no, God will not leave you for the Jets. But Favre will.... trader.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Beware of the pickle jar effect...

I'm totally baffled by a recent episode of Oprah that I was watching the other day. I'm still not sure why I was watching it, but when you watch too much tv (like I do) you're bound to catch an episode or two of Oprah. It just happens. Well this is what I learned from her guest Patti Novak, the dating expert:

Allison's take-charge attitude is what Patti calls the pickle jar effect. "We are so successful today, women. We're fabulous. We work hard. We make good money. We parent. Sometimes what happens when we spend a lot of time alone, we forget to let them open the damn pickle jar," Patti says.

"The one thing I don't think is ever going to change on this planet is men still need to feel like men," she says. "So let them open it."

So how does a woman ask a man to do something without compromising herself? Patti says that if he's not in the room, go ahead and open your own pickle jar. But if he's standing there, Patti says it's just as easy to ask him to open it. "And know that you are the smarter, clever one for doing it," she says. "It's about attitude."

You can follow up on that episode here. I'm unsure what to think about advice like this. Is it giving up feminist ideals to submit to (and reinforce, perpetuate) patriarchal social norms? Does it sacrifice the integrity of women? Or, as Patti implies, is this merely a way for women to assert their superiority by use of some subtle manipulation? I'm not sure which is worse. Is it worse for me to "pretend to be incapable" of doing something that I know very well I can do on my own in order to let a man feel like a man, or is it worse to "pretend to be incapable" while feeling smug about my own cleverness? One step, two steps, a giant leap back? No?

This seems too much like those times when girls pretend to be dumber than a boy in school (mustn't damage the ego), or when a woman at work (or in politics) feels like she has tone down her "masculine" attributes (ambition, aggression) that are otherwise rewarded in her male coworkers just because those very same coworkers are threatened by her lack of femininity. It's sad enough to see this happen in the classroom and in the work place... but is it something we should then condone in the context of a relationship? If you can't be yourself with the person you're most intimately connected to... well that bodes ill for women everywhere. Oprah, so many people watch your show, so why are you sending out a message like this?

Don't get me wrong, I caught the part that acknowledged a woman's ability to open the pickle jar herself (metaphorically). That's important. I'm just disturbed by the message that says I must change who I am and hide what I can do if I want to be successful in the dating world. Any type of man that needs to be manipulated and hidden from, well he's not the type of man I'd want to date (or would want my sisters to date, or my friends to date, etc). Maybe it's time for men to redefine what makes them a real man, and not just what society tells them a man ought to be.

This is an unusual post, I'm aware. Feminism isn't typically a topic on my radar often (perhaps because I've been fortunate enough to have good acquaintances/friends/coworkers/teachers etc that don't treat me like an inferior). But when I see the most powerful woman in the world send out a message that I ought to compromise myself for the sake of a man, well I just can't be silent. So there you have it.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Is Batman a consequentialist?

People are dying. What would you have me do?” Bruce Wayne (Batman) asks his butler. Alfred responds, “Endure. You can be the outcast. You can make the choice that no one else will face—the right choice. Gotham needs you.”

The Dark Knight, what a movie. I'll admit, I went to Batman on opening night at midnight (not my idea, actually, but I'm glad I went). I only vaguely remembered the Batman movies of old, though I was always a fan. The new Batman movie, as you may have heard, is pretty intense (and dark) in comparison to the previous films. What I didn't expect, and this is always a delight, was that this particular summer blockbuster actually had some intellectual food for thought, philosophical issues at that. I was overjoyed. In fact, the movie happens to coincide quite well with a collection of essays that I'm currently making my way through (slowly, but surely, as always). The essays all focus on consequentialism, and for this post, I'll pay close attention to an essay by Bernard Williams called, “Consequentialism and Integrity.” I want to discuss two moral dilemmas in the film, though I'll try and keep the spoilers to a minimum. Take this as a warning, though, so if you don't want to know what happens, I'd stop here.

The first moral dilemma is somewhat comparable to Williams' Indian example, so I'll outline both. In Williams' article, there is a man named Jim who faces a tough choice. He stumbled onto a scene where a government official, Pedro, is about to make an example out of a group of Indians (all names/groups, kept the same as the original story). Pedro has decided that he will kill all of the Indians that are tied up, but he has offered Jim (an outsider) a special privilege. If Jim kills one Indian, then the rest will be spared. If he refuses, then Pedro will kill all of the Indians himself. What should Jim do? What is Jim required to do? What is he allowed to do? The consequentialist will answer this question by comparing the possible end outcomes that Jim could produce. If Jim kills one Indian, then the rest are spared. If he doesn't, then they all die. The latter outcome is clearly worse than the former, on purely consequentialist terms (or more specifically, utilitarian terms-- and yes, I'm skipping the complicated bit about determining which states of affairs are better or worse than others). If picking between preferable end outcomes is our only moral guide, then it seems that Jim has no choice but shoot one Indian. How can that be? Can you be obligated to take a life (or perform any act that is usually considered to be morally wrong)? It seems like there's something wrong with making that option an obligation (though it does seem okay that that option would be morally permissible for Jim). With that scenario in mind, let's take a look at the boat dilemma from the Dark Knight.

There are two ferries floating in Gotham's harbor, and the Joker has rigged both with an explosive device that he can activate. One boat is carrying the who's who of Gotham's elite citizens. The other is full of prisoners. Each boat has detonator that will blow up the other boat, and the Joker gives the passengers a choice: either blow up the other boat before midnight, or he will blow up both boats. What should they do? They can't contact the other boat, and they can't diffuse the explosives. What would a consequentialist moral theory tell us? Well, as a passenger I'd have to take a good look at what I had the power to do or to let happen (negative responsibility is a huge factor in consequentialist theories – you are just as responsible for what you allow or don't stop as for what you actually do, which means you have to factor in the actions of other agents in your deliberation). There are three options: 1) everyone dies, 2) the elites of Gotham die, or 3) Gotham's most wanted die. As a passenger on either boat, what is your moral obligation (or, what are you morally allowed to do?)? You don't know what the other boat will choose, and you have a clock to beat, so time is also a factor. It's possible that both boats could blow each other up at the same time, but unlikely (unless both do it fairly quickly after the Joker's announcement). From a consequentialist standpoint, you have a few considerations: the total number of deaths, and the types of people being saved (if, of course, that can be weighted). Does one boat have a duty to blow up the other, or is it at least allowed to? I have a feeling that the consequentialist would choose to blow up the prisoners (because the city needs officials/leaders to run it), though at a minimum a consequentialist would want to minimize the total number of deaths. So however you slice it, someone has to step up and detonate the explosives for the other boat.

What is the problem with that? Well, should anyone ever be morally obligated to kill others (even if it would save more lives)? What about, as Williams argues, the integrity of the person put in this situation (Jim and the passengers)? The consequentialist view is more worried about minimizing damages than dealing with the internal moral struggle of the agent. There is, after all, a difference between what we actually do and what we allow other people to do. Here's what I mean: both scenarios depend pretty heavily upon a bit of knowledge held by the agent that is more than a little uncertain. Will Pedro really kill the other Indians? Will the Joker really blow up both boats? This type of knowledge, key to consequentialist deliberations involving negative responsibility, is highly dubious. How certain can I be, really, that the other agent will act as they say they will act. Sure, in thought experiments we can stipulate certainty, but in real life (and real life does happen to be our actual moral battleground) how sure can we be? If you've seen the movie you know what I'm hinting at: the Joker never blew up the boats. Some high minded passengers prevented their fellow passengers from hitting the button, and the Joker never got the chance to do it himself. That uncertainty makes my inaction quite a different matter from another agent's possible action. [This also reminds me of the Prisoner's dilemma, given the lack of knowledge on all sides, though it's not quite the same.]

Which leads me to an important question: am I really responsible for Pedro or the Joker's morally wrong acts? What responsibility do we have beyond our own actions? Are we responsible for allowing bad things to happen (if it was in our power to prevent them)? I do see what would motivate us to give some moral weight to what we allow to happen. The kid who silently watches the awkward kid being bullied at school is no hero, and he is not morally praiseworthy for his silence... However, he is not to blame, morally, in the same way that the actual bully is. If I sit by and let the Joker blow up both boats, then I haven't myself blown them up (even if their doom was in someway causally effected by my inaction). Perhaps I should act, but must I? The bully example is less clear because standing up to the bully (which may itself incur risks to the agent) does not require me to do something morally suspect (unless we say that the only way to silence the bully is to punch him/her in the face). Killing some people to save others does. There is something that makes one uneasy about following the consequentialist's prescription on this one. Perhaps it would be okay, maybe even good, if I could ignore my moral squeamishness for the sake of the greater good –but I don't think I am obligated to. Perhaps there is a something more valuable than the end state of affairs that isn't captured by your typical consequentialist or utilitarian solution (though sophisticated versions of these theories do try and take the following into account). As a moral agent I have a moral character, and I build and change that character by my moral decisions. It is a violation of my moral integrity to obligate me to do something that (though it maximizes the good) is itself a morally abhorrent act. Even sophisticated consequentialist arguments can't capture this, as Williams argues, because in the end my squeamishness (or my protectiveness over my integrity) is irrational –because it doesn't contribute to the only morally valuable consideration: the end outcome. Maybe our integrity is valuable enough, that it's morally okay (or maybe sometimes morally praiseworthy) to not make a choice that violates my moral character (and by character I mean the principles upon which my normal moral decisions rest). Asking me to toss them aside for the sake of the bottom line might just be too much (again, not that it wouldn't be allowed, but whether I should be obligated to). Or perhaps I'm just too preoccupied by moral agency and purity, maybe I need to get over it (I'm sure if I were one of the Indians I'd want me to). But then again, why should someone else be made the means to another person's survival (cue the now cliché example of slicing up random people for organ donations, etc).

And this leads me to the other dilemma. In this case, Batman understood a thing or two about both the consequentialist solution and moral integrity. In the quote above Batman was unnerved that the Joker was killing people systematically unless Batman turned himself in. Batman's choice was more complex. His inaction led to other people's deaths, but it also allowed him to remain a fighting force against the Joker and his ilk. In the end, Batman knew what needed to happen, and sometimes that meant performing the unsettling act. He knew that it must get done, but he also knew that the regular citizens of Gotham were not the right ones to do it. They needed to preserve their moral integrity (well, some of them). Is he doing the right thing, being the vigilante? Is it better for some “guardian angel” to do the consequentialist-determined “right act” without requiring that of the masses? I'm unsure.

I had more thoughts about the movie and worries about consequentialism, but I'll end my thoughts here. It's all much less developed than I'd like, but there's never enough time to complete my thoughts. Oh well.

For those who saw the movie, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

First Blog Meme

So I've seen these meme things float around, but never have I posted one (or been tagged, I guess you'd say, thanks Harry). Unlike Harry over at CT, I do have quite a few guilty pleasure songs. The problem is picking just 5, and not embarrassing myself too much...

So I guess here are my 5 most recent ones:

1. See you again, Miley Cyrus (aka Hannah Montana)
2. Cold as Christmas, Elton John
3. Camisa Negra, Juanes
4. Le plus beau du quartier, Carla Bruni (yes, France's first lady)
5. Last name, Carrie Underwood

Beat that randomness. I think this is where I tag 3 people, but Harry is the only blogger I know, so.... if you want to be tagged leave a comment! (I'm a failure at blogging, I tell you)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Part Two: History vs Philosophy

Here continues my debate with a history graduate student about the merits/disadvantages of using history and philosophy for studying justice. Please read part one (if you haven't already), before reading this section. My apologies, I didn't split the two parts very well, so this post is rather long (though hopefully you'll find it interesting). Again, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

HISTORY STUDENT: Ah, dear. No, I am neither a consequentialist nor a utilitarian. What I am saying, however, is that (a) within any moral system, an examination of consequences of behavior is necessary in order to flesh out the details of a just society, and (b) human thought is itself inherently historical.

As for (a): Only rarely can I identify a behavior or system as a clear-cut violation of a moral law. In the case of slavery, for example, the Bible allows it, and so does Aristotle, and so have most societies, even philosophically inclined ones. There are abstract arguments to be made against slavery, but these are relatively new and (especially from an old-fashioned biblical perspective, which doesn't put much stock in self-ownership) far from conclusive. So I mostly condemn slavery not because it inherently violates an unchanging moral law, but because it has been shown to make many clearer violations more likely. I look at the history of how different slaveowners have treated their slaves. That record suggests that slavery typically -- though not always -- involves various moral crimes such as murder, torture, and rape. However it is that I have reached the conclusion that these are indeed moral crimes -- there are many different ways I could have -- their relationship with the social practice of slavery is revealed to me through historical thinking.

Or to take another example, the example of torture: Even if everybody in America today accepted that torture is wrong, we would still be left arguing about whether "waterboarding" specifically is torture. It is very difficult, apparently, to convince some Americans that having water poured on their face is terribly painful. There's nothing in the words themselves to indicate that it would be: "simulated drowning," "a wet cloth placed over the face with water poured over it," or (as Dick Cheney put it) "a dunk in the water" -- it sounds sort of soothing. What might help out in the debate is testimony. And no, not everybody would agree even then. But at least we could start to make sense of our fine words about not-torturing people.

As for (b): Everything I do or think has a context. There is a reason -- aside from mere biology -- that our thought typically becomes more sophisticated as we get older. We have more information, more experience, more understanding of real-world cause and effect, more awareness of different kinds of pain and joy. We have a better sense of who we are and how we respond in different situations. And we have a better idea of what other people are like. This is just history writ small.

So when I was 12, for example, I probably had the vocabulary and the raw processing power of a lot of people older than I, but I lacked other qualities necessary to sound judgment, qualities that I could only get through greater experience. I would jump to conclusions about life based on what I had read in books -- conclusions that made perfect sense logically -- or based on how I would behave, not recognizing that other people behave differently. That is how, for example, I came to be a libertarian for several years. On paper, libertarianism often looks great; it prescribes a very pure, purposeful, tidy sort of government that strictly follows its own founding law. It also claims to maximize general prosperity, minimize arbitrary transfers of wealth, and maximize personal freedom. I could easily have become a communist or a theocrat the same way, had I read different books. All three of these systems put great stock in purity of principle, in logical application of moral law to every aspect of life. All three, in other words, are based on fanatical consistency with moral principles that I pretty much agree with. And in practice, all three systems are likely to have terrible consequences -- "terrible" according to the same moral system that would lead me to embrace them. I base my analysis of that likelihood on history.

You seem to think that humans vary a great deal in their underlying conceptions of justice. I do not think so, on the whole. The communist is not always so very different from the libertarian; both are likely to share a great deal of moral intuition and usually a great deal of acknowledged moral law. Their morality may be terribly sloppy, but it is rarely diametrically opposed except artificially, that is, as a result of being too attached to their respective dogmatisms. Committed Christians from similar churches can be libertarians, communists, or theocrats without too much trouble. Or to take what might be a more persuasive example: I could favor the invasion of Iraq or I could oppose the invasion of Iraq, for exactly the same primary moral reason (wanting to minimize the violent deaths of innocents). This fact astonished my conservative friends in college; in almost every respect imaginable, I agreed with them, yet I was fiercely opposed to their politics in the end because of what I knew about Iraq's past and the history of similar experiments. If anything, my pro-war friends were the ones most concerned about following through on moral principle. They mounted impassioned pleas for liberty and humanity, while I argued that justice is not always attainable, and that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Both of us agreed on what the perfect and the good were ... and although the conservatives refused to believe it, we were pretty much on the same page as most of the liberals and the French as well.

ME: Okay, let me be clear about something: I do think history is important. I agree with you that there is an underlying commonality in our moral intuitions (in basic form), and I believe this because I don't think that each person can make her own morality. I believe morality is an independent thing from human agents, something above us. Your examples illustrate what I mean. When you talk about history/slavery/communism/whatever --you are making value judgments. Sure, you try and make them based on life experience and common sense, and that's fine, but it is still a judgment about value, and that (in essence) is the role of the moral philosopher. So we think morality is too complex/difficult to fully understand based on our intuitions --well that seems to be what you're saying anyways. Only we don't look just to events, but rather look at those events and then beyond them. Sure, you judge slavery because of the murder, rape, or whatever else that tends to accompany it. Well, on what grounds is murder/rape wrong (you do admit that these are moral crimes, but why?? what makes them morally wrong)? That's a moral judgment, not a historical one (though that doesn't mean history has nothing to say about it). You could answer: societies that are rampant in this don't last long, well that's a utilitarian (or efficiency) concern --belying that you value the durability of a society over other considerations. You could answer: it violates respect for other moral agents...well that is a claim that needn't be tied to history (I could claim that we ought to respect aliens from Mars if they have the sort of moral capacities that we do –even if that's only a hypothetical event with no history at all). In the end you have to make judgment calls, and in the end those calls can be messy and complicated, though based on some underlying agreement about principles. Philosophers look to society, past and present, and work through the tangled web of morality --hoping to guide future action. Sure, some things seem evident, but isn't it cool to study why certain evident moral precepts are valued the way that they are? And it's important to remember that some things that were "evident" and "agreed upon" by past societies are now looked at as wrong. We can't rely solely on consensus or what seems to be obviously true.

If a principle cannot be put into place (at this time) without morally bad consequences, that is not always a reflection of the principle itself --but rather our method of applying it. Communism's principles weren't the problem, it was the method used to "implement" them. Equality isn't bad just because some political party got it wrong. Equality can be good regardless (I use that as a blanket term for other justice values, though I don't think it's the most important). So I agree that people differ in their plans of implementation (though they also disagree on the priority of principles, and even on the principles of justice themselves). But that doesn't mean they didn't at some point make a decision about which principles to adopt (whether this decision was made consciously or not).

A woman at a talk I recently attended said, "A moral claim must be wrong if it comes from a morally suspect source." But if Hitler says murder is bad, does that make murder good? No. If communists failed to put their principles into practice, does that mean the principles are themselves wrong? No. They just didn't have the right way to go about it OR there are other, more important, principles. Yes context is important, and it can help enlighten us to moral truths, but it's not the authority on morality. Ultimately, you have to make a value judgment that goes beyond context, and that is moral philosophy, whether you like it or not.

You seem to think I that I want to ignore history, but I don't. It is important. But it's not what solves moral dilemmas, because in the end you appeal to something beyond the immediate circumstance (or even collective history) to some greater principle(s). Whether you notice that you're doing it, or whether you care that a whole field of people spend lifetimes working on these problems, is beside the point. Yes, history helps us get a grasp on the bad consequences of certain institutions or practices. But no, history doesn't tell us why those consequences are bad to begin with. There is always something more to it.

This is where you come back in with: well if it can't be implemented, why bother? Because no matter what you can't escape the type of philosophy I do. You do it yourself, you just underestimate what it is you're doing.

HISTORY STUDENT: For my part, I think you underestimate the importance of historical context (broadly defined) in the conclusions that philosophers reach and their methods of getting there. The thinker is not prior to historical inquiry; being a thinker is historical inquiry. To ask what rape is, is to ask what form it has taken in the past or else how it relates to other past things. To define lying is to describe what lying has or has not been. Even Kant, as far as I can tell, in trying to identify his universals, could not escape the locatedness of immoral actions; he simply tried to locate them everywhere. Intuition itself is largely a product of experience, immediate or vicarious, from which we subconsciously draw inferences. Jesus and his chroniclers induced us to love our neighbors by telling us stories -- and living out a story for us. And even an authoritative moral text has to be interpreted in light of past interpretations and past known uses of the terms in the text.

Now, I am of course saying that history and philosophy are inseparable -- indeed, that history and everything cognitive are inseparable. So perhaps we're not that far apart. But I do not accept the idea that philosophy or any other method of discovering a moral principle is in any way prior to history.

Yes, it is quite true that many people have, in the past, excused (e.g.) rape. I suspect that this favors my way of looking at things more than yours. For it suggests that nobody has ever actually transcended her historical context when reasoning about these things. Generally speaking, the people who first turn against a particular moral evil aren't the people who have attained some sort of intellectual detachment. Instead, they are people who have noticed historical evidence that others have not -- or more likely, who have lived through things that others have not, perhaps by living among the homeless, tending the wounds of war victims, or listening to a former slave. It is probably through hearing the testimony of rape victims, not through abstracted speculation, that we came to condemn rape. And it is through publishing victims' stories that we are likely to persuade others. History makes it possible for those who have not experienced various evils to imagine them clearly.

As a discipline, in other words, history can help us get a little closer to context-transcendence by showing us how things could be different from the way they are for us -- which is essential to minimizing the danger of subjectivity. Without extensive historical knowledge, we tend to assume that everybody is like us; we, or our local sources of information, become the universal standard. This severely limits the value of any rational inquiry. With historical knowledge, however, we can tune our moral intuition to the experiences as well as the common moral sense of others.

ME: I think I see where our paths cross. You want me to recognize, more so, the importance of history as something prior to our transcendent philosophizing. I agree. I just want to make sure you realize that after you study the context, you do make judgments that (in essence) transcend that very context you're studying. So I agree with you that I can't think abstractly until I can understand my reality, even my history. To understand what rape is, I have to understand it's history, other people's stories, etc. This touches on philosophy of language, where the meaning of words (or utterances) is not divorced from circumstance, but rather springs up from our real experiences. That's okay by me. Where I differ is not in our need to understand what things are (or how things were), but in how we understand the way things ought to be. Moral philosophers like to invoke the constraint of "ought implies can." If I ought to do something, then I better be capable of doing it. I think history can play an important role in answering what we 'can' do. We can't begin to understand what we ought to do until we understand what we're doing now, what we have done, what we are capable of doing. But then there is another step, a step that goes beyond historical context. That is the ought. Among the various options for what we 'can' do --and other humanities disciplines are better at getting to these-- we need a mechanism for choosing which ones are better, which ones we ought to do. How do we understand what better is? We need some sort of standard for what is best, or some way to compare the options available to us, even if what is 'best' is not in our grasp.

How do we begin? Well you're right in that we begin after already operating within a historical context/understanding/familiarity or whatever. But then we try and rise above with what's called the reflective equilibrium. The reflective equilibrium takes our context, our intuitions, our history and tries to make a coherent principle that adequately captures our values, and is compatible with our other beliefs (about morality, about reality, etc). The reason I'm okay with relying on intuition about moral judgments (and many philosophers aren't okay with this), is that I believe we were specifically equipped to tap into moral knowledge. I attribute this to the divine, others attribute it to our capability to reason (the same capability that lets us discover mathematical and logical truths, truths I think are akin to moral truths ---though again, not all philosophers would agree). So objective? Yes, because I believe moral principles like "respect fellow moral agents" is as evident as 2+2=4. I think we can all see that when we boil it down. And I think that a moral principle is true regardless of time/location. In a similar way (though probably not entirely the same), the mathematical fact that 2+2 will equal 4 is true here and in China and in back in the year 1500 and even in the year 3500. Yes, we use context to understand those truths (like counting m&ms to figure out the solution, but if you used apples, you'd reach the same answer!). Once we're there, the principles can apply to a multitude of contexts. In the case of the moral truth, it's application can and will vary in appearance dramatically --and it's application will be aided tremendously by understanding historical contexts and such. Take “respect fellow moral agents” as an example. Respect in a Western society will vary quite a bit from respect in an Eastern society (though in some ways it won't or shouldn't), and that's okay. The application can fit the specific context while the principle itself remains unchanged.

Make sense? I don't really think we ever disagreed. I think we both just want our disciplines (or my future one at least) to have their proper due. I wanted you to recognize where you transcended history, and you want me to recognize where I use it. Understood.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Part One: History vs Philosophy

The following is a rather interesting discussion I had with a history graduate student. After discussing a recent approach in political philosophy, our conversation turned to the merits (or faults) of our respective disciplines when it comes to studying justice. Below is the first part of our discussion, and soon I'll post the later portion. We disagreed, mainly about the use of ideal theory, but I think down the line we both gained a (better) appreciation for the other's discipline. Your thoughts are welcome, as always.

HISTORY STUDENT: If you'll forgive me, I'm not convinced that it is valid to talk about "political" philosophy unless there is some kind of practical policy application. It would be sort of like arguing about automobile philosophy in the absence of a practical application to cars. It might well be useful for something, but it wouldn't be automotive, and I could hardly blame a mechanic for completely ignoring my insights.

ME: I see the role of the political philosopher as figuring out what is valuable in terms of justice. Before you can make policies, you have to know what is worth pursuing. It sounds easier than it is. Philosophers look for what is valuable, and an ambitious philosopher will even try to determine some sort of ranking for what is valuable (with arguments that would/could appeal to any rational being, etc). More often than not, they don't get that far. And that's okay. Why? Because it's better to figure out what is valuable, if anything is, than not. Philosophers can argue about values, and prioritize them, and even try to get the proportions of importance correct without knowing exactly how things should be actualized in the real world. However, as you can imagine, this is a daunting task, and it takes a complex strategy to even attempt such a feat. Philosophers try to decide *what is good, or what helps people flourish (flourishing is haphazardly used a lot, and I don't like that, but does have some sort of basic meaning that everyone can grasp)? They construct arguments. Your question is an important question, one that philosophers talk about alongside these issues -- though rarely with complete answers.

So think of it this way. Maybe I don't know how to get Florida. Maybe I have no clue. Maybe I'm pretty sure I should head West. If someone can at least tell me to start going South, than I'm in a much better position than I was before. I'd be even better if they knew what states I should pass through, or even better what roads. You seem to think policy makers already know what justice is and what's valuable, but that's just not the case. I'm not sure I could tell you. But that doesn't mean I don't think there is an answer to be found out.

"Political" in political philosophy is a misnomer (if it weren't, I wouldn't like it). It's about explaining/understanding justice, not politics, not even the government. So really it's just a branch of ethics that focuses on justice over other values. And within ethics it's hard to make trade-offs (political philosophy is the most practical, I think; metaphysics might be the least).

After all, what do historians contribute to politics?

HISTORY STUDENT: Historians, my friend, would say that these questions are impossible to answer apart from history. For there is no such thing as justice outside of an historical context, if only because there is no so thing as personality outside of an historical context. "I" do not have any identity unless I have a past. Is a person a murderer, a lover, an artist, a boon companion, a befriender of small animals, a needer of hugs and fuzzy slippers? The only way to know -- even if I am that person -- is to preserve some memory of that person's past. And is a person's behavior just or unjust? The only way to know (whether or not we take a technically "consequentialist" view of morality) is to maintain a record of that behavior's consequences.

Example: Could we reasonably have a discussion about the morality of slavery in the absence of historical evidence about slavery's effects on real people? We could try, I suppose, but it would be highly unwise. People can justify (or condemn) anything as long as they can defer examination of that bottom line. In/justice isn't something that happens to propositions or ideals; it is something that is lived out by people.

For exactly the same reason, I am highly suspicious of anyone's attempt to discuss justice without discussing the means by which it is to be secured. In a perfect world, so to speak, everybody would have a pony. But I am going to benefit far more from the work of somebody who does not recognize the central importance of ponies yet makes ponies possible, than from the work of somebody who understands that ponies are essential yet fails to provide me with any means of getting one. The one makes justice possible (albeit not inevitable); the other merely talks about justice while the real world waits desperately for its ponies.

Sure, it is possible to do both -- to talk about ponies and deliver them, too. But the two things cannot be assumed to go together or even to be compatible with one another. If I miscalculate in the course of a practical campaign to deliver justice (as, say, Mao or Robespierre or G.W. Bush did), I may very well make the world worse than if I had left people alone to pursue justice in their own slapdash ways.

ME: All well and good, but I don't think you quite get it yet. What you're saying already depends upon a specific concept of justice. You're talking about consequentialism, at a minimum, but you have no way to decide which consequences are good and which are bad (though it sounds like you might go with utility --and you should be strongly suspect of utilitarianism). Sure, you have inclinations, but you haven't given me reason to believe that the effects of slavery, for example, are wrong in any sense of the word. You could argue that it's inefficient perhaps, but you haven't given a concept of morality with which to condemn it (or even to way to judge the effects). To measure something you need a ruler. To judge something you need to understand the standard that it's being judged against. Before you can compare the heights of two people, you have to have a concept of tall, and what it means to be taller. The standard can't merely be left to whim or intuition (though our intuitions can help us understand it), or even to what has historically been considered morally right. So you do your work with preconceived notions of morality, some of which may be right (after all, I do believe our intuitions are able to tap into an actual moral truths -- but not everyone believes this). You just aren't giving a concrete way to make those judgments.

How did you even figure out that it would be better for everyone to have ponies? You didn't. You guessed. You have to support it with an argument that is at the same time divorced from specific circumstances, and still responsive to facts about human nature and society (so no, we don't turn a blind eye to historians, sociologists, political scientists, psychologists, etc).

Don't get me wrong, I prefer a theory of justice that's not too pie in the sky, but at the same time if it's too dependent on current circumstance then it won't fully appreciate what could and more importantly, what should be. Philosophers give us the goals, the direction, what's valuable to pursue, and other social scientists/historians/whoever else can tell us what's feasible and how to reach those goals.

Even though other political leaders have pursued injustice, or justice in a misguided way (if you can even call it that), does not mean justice isn't a worthy goal to pursued by a collective force (over our individual slapdash ways).

So you say justice or injustice relates to people, and I agree, only I see them as moral agents operating against an actual moral standard (which is not a person on some views, but I believe the actual standard to be God, so perhaps I believe the standard is also an agent, I'm unsure) -- a standard that has principles independent of historical context (though not independent of the nature of the agents themselves). Human abilities to act morally remain unchanged ( at least since we acquired a conscious moral thought that conflicted with survival and instinctual response, if you like). We can do good or bad. Be selfish or altruistic. Pursue the excellent or pursue nothing at all. Yes, the outcomes have been different over time, and in some ways the same, but studying the outcome isn't enough, not without a standard to go by.

I'm giving you a hard time now because I think so many other humanities folks underestimate the importance of knowing where to go, actually knowing what is just. Guessing, pure intuition, personal taste, that's not enough. It's important because, as you say, if it's not justice we pursue than there are bad consequences, it's just you have to make sure you know how to tell what is bad and what is good. Sure, philosophers would do well to then determine which of our values (deemed as such) are feasible and which must wait for another time. That's fine. But our job is not defunct even if other people don't take a critical look at their own (sometimes unnoticed) moral judgments. Perhaps this calls for some teamwork across disciplines?

Continue to part two.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


So I was bored today and instead of finishing up one of my many drafted posts, I decided to put RLN into Wordle. This is what I got (from the posts on the first page). Interesting. I recommend clicking on the image because it's easier to read.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Quick thoughts on epistemology

Okay, so in my efforts to prepare for graduate school, I've started to look (and will continue to look) at some problems in epistemology --a field I know next to nothing about. The last time I studied epistemology (for the layman: the study of how/when we know things) was about 4 years ago in Professor Stampe's Philosophy 101 class. It's been awhile, but believe it or not, I really enjoyed what we briefly discussed (likewise when we looked at phil mind, metaphysics, and free will). A good starting point is this famous excerpt from Edmund Gettier entitled, "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge." The short answer from Gettier is: no. The question is: why?

So there's the common conception (I suppose that's what you'd call it) that a person knows something IFF (if and only if) she both believes it to be true, it actually is true, and she was justified in holding her belief (iow, she had satisfactory reasons, adequate evidence, etc-- as vague as all that is). So Gettier lays it out like this:
S knows that PIFF
  1. P is true,
  2. S believes that P, and
  3. S is justified in believing that P.
Gettier gives a couple counterexamples that show an inference Q, drawn from P, that is both true, justified in the mind of S, but not true for the same reason that S believes it to be true. In other words, Gettier's talking about coincidence. Instead of using the same examples in the excerpt, I'll give the one that Professor Stampe used in class (an example that may or may not be from some other philosopher, I have no idea). And I've changed the names, because I don't recall the ones used in class.

Mindy lives in Milwaukee, and in Milwaukee there is a big clock (the Allen Bradley clock for those who care). The Allen Bradley clock has, in the past, always kept the right time, without fail. On Monday, Mindy looks at the clock and the clock reads 12 noon, so infers from that that the actual time is 12 noon. She has good reason to hold that belief (the clock keeps impeccable time). Now let's say that the time actually is 12 o'clock, so Mindy's belief is true. Let's also say that the clock is broken, and the arms of the clock were at 12 o'clock when it stopped ticking last. Mindy does not know that the clock is broken, it is merely a coincidence. Mindy fits all of the conditions above for knowledge of a proposition, however, her belief that it is noon is not what we'd think of as proper knowledge. Her belief is true, but not for the same reasons that she believes it to be true.

The problem with the aforementioned knowledge conditions is that they are not sufficent for knowledge (even if they may in themselves be necessary). The problem is the condtions don't take into account the possibility that you can be justified in believing something that's false. That could lead you to a belief that is in fact true, but what you then believe is in no way knowledge. So the above conditions are not sufficient to define when we know something; there has to be another condition. (Here's where a broader knowledge base in epistemology would be helpful, for I'm sure others have already exhausted this topic, but for my own edification I'll do some pondering)

So suppose you add some condition to the effect of: S is justified in her justification of P. Well that looks like it (as a premise) will have the same failings of the premise it's trying to rescue. What if the further justification is wrong, etc? I'm tempted to throw in the towel and say, "Well S must also know that S knows P!" Hmm. Same problem, only removed a bit further. How do you know that you know P? You'd have to know that you knew that you knew P, or something. Craziness.

My stronger temptation is to say, screw it, no one knows anything! We have a bunch of beliefs, some of which are true, and some that aren't, and we just don't know which one's we know, because we can't know a dang thing. That's a sort of defeatist, and it doesn't capture our intuition that we have some beliefs that are either more likely to be true than others, or that we have better reason to believe than others. Or do we? I'm skeptical that we can know when we know things, even if somehow we can know things. Perhaps that's because those conditions above require that P be true, but S really only believes that P is true. The evaluation of said piece of knowledge (or justified belief, or whatever) is sort done by some God-like omniscient evaluator, or not done at all. No one can evaluate the knowledge conditions, least of all S. Only some removed and all-knowing being could know whether S's justification is even justified, removed to infinity, or whatever. I must do some perusing of other epistemology works, because I know (ha!) other people, smarter people, have hashed through this before.

Last thought: what does this mean for my belief that God exists? That's a belief that plays a central function in how I order my life, so I'd like to know how I can know it to be true (if I even can). But this time, my case looks even more dim than the one above. It probably goes something like this (assuming God does exist):

L thinks she knows that G exists because:
1) G is true.
2) L believes that G is true.
3) L is inclined to believe that G is true.*
4) L has some other reasons to believe that G is true.
5) L's reasons are internally/subjectively adequate justification, but probably not externally/objectively/actually adequate justification.

I'm willing to conclude that even if God really does exist, and even though I believe that he does, my believe probably won't qualify as actual knowledge of God's existence. Does that mean I have to be agnostic, resigned to admitting that I can't, we can't, know whether God exists? Perhaps. But there's something not really captured by agnosticism, and that's my belief that G really is true (however lacking in justification, and whatever other premise is required for knowledge --if we can have knowledge at all). I'm willing to admit that I don't know, even if it turns out that I am right. I'm willing to concede that I what I hold is not knowledge, just belief. I'm okay with that.

But is the whole knowledge or belief distinction is more than a squabble over terminology? If what I hold is knowledge (or could be), well that will certainly play a role in how this belief shapes my life. But can it shape my life in the same way if I admit that it is merely a belief, a belief that even if true could never really be knowledge? On that account, I'm unsure. My intuition is that the nature of religious belief and how it plays out in our daily lives is such that it is meant to be belief and not knowledge, for that is the entire point of faith. But more on this later, maybe.

*I do think that I am inclined to believe in God, because I have (at times) tried to distance myself from that belief for a period of time to better evaluate his possible non-existence. It doesn't work. No amount of skeptical philosophy has swayed my heart, though it has (and will continue) to give my mind pause. It's a phenomenon I've ventured to explain before, though it's not entirely clear, even to me. Rationally speaking, I think I'm probably nuts. But somewhere in there I just can't not believe. So I admit that what I hold isn't knowledge, because I can't prove it to myself adequately from an objective/rational perspective. But I also don't think that gives me reason to abandon my belief (though I'm sure many people would say I ought to), because I'm not a worshiper of reason. I think reason, logic, etc, are awesome. They really are great. But they are not all that there is. The heart has it's place too, and sometimes it's foolish and wrong. But other times the heart can access things that reason could never reach. Call me crazy.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sorry for the silence...

So I realize it's been awhile since I've posted, and I'm afraid it will be a little while more until I post again. A series of trips, etc, has kept me busy, but eventually I'll get back to it. I'm thinking about writing a few thoughts on Rousseau, since I've recently had the good fortune of chatting with a Rousseau anorak (new word, couldn't help it) about the Social Contract --a book I should have read long ago. Other than that I'm up for ideas, so if you have topics you'd like me to think/write about, let me know. (This goes out to the lurkers who come to read but never say hi...input is always welcome!)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Cleanliness is not akin to Godliness: why evangelicals ought to muddy up the waters

I spent too long trying to think of a clever title. Success? I doubt it. But, regardless of my failure on that account, I hope to succeed on another account, on dispelling an annoying (yet common) conception of Christianity. Yet again I've run across a ridiculous rant against progressive Christians, and this time I took it to heart. As you may remember, this whole Evangelical Manifesto is causing quite the stir. So even though I already gave my thoughts on the manifesto in an earlier post, I thought I'd take the time to respond to an interesting response I found on townhall dot com. Now I've never been to that site, nor have I ever heard of Dr. Crouse, but google has a way of introducing you to strange new worlds. Dr. Crouse wrote a post called "Muddying the Evangelical Waters," a passionate response to the manifest, and I found it both both extremely disheartening and utterly ridiculous. I'm sorry, but it really was just silly. Here's a summary of what she had to say: the manifesto is secretly trying to turn Christians into liberals, and that's bad because liberals are going straight to hell. Okay, that's quite uncharitable, but that's what the article screamed out at me from my computer screen. Actually, what she did say was based on some truth (more at the end); however, the whole post was overstated and narrow-sighted. Here's what I found, line by line: (mainly sarcastic here, and remember this is all in response to the manifesto)

1. ...the closed group of people working on the content apparently excludes traditional conservative and pro-family evangelical voices.

Okay, so I don't recognize enough of the names to know which of the charter signatories is an actual conservative, but I will bet my life that they are all pro-family. And I am certain that some are conservative, if not at least moderate. The great part here is the reference to pro-family as though it is mutually exclusive with leftist policies. Wait... don't some lefties want to promote family policies like better leave for parents (including fathers!), better daycare options, etc?? I know that I, at least, am very very pro-family. I think families rock, and I think the government should help families out more (though I admit, I'm not sure how). I also, admittedly, lean to the left these days (though not always, depends on the wind), and I haven't come across a liberal who was anti-family (but I'm sure they're there, just not that I've encountered). Of course if your definition of family means one wife, one husband, and 2.5 biologically related offspring, where traditional gender roles are upheld...well perhaps I'm not pro-family after all. I'm pro whatever family you've got where you receive love and support. Not everyone has the luxury of a Beaver-style nuclear setup.

2. “Progressives” criticize traditional evangelicals because they are overwhelmingly Republican, without acknowledging that the Republican platform, which has been consistently pro-life, is congruent with the moral values of evangelicals whereas the Democratic platform is not.

Whoa there... The Democratic platform is not congruent with moral values? Says who? Oh that's right, I've forgotten, the only moral issues are abortion and gay marriage. The environment, poverty, war, access to healthcare... none of that has any moral dimension. We have no duty to protect our planet (command from God in the garden of Eden...), protect our neighbors (call to love them?), or live in peace (other cheek?). How silly of me.

3. “Progressives” criticize traditional evangelicals because they focus on individual sins and the two major moral issues of abortion and homosexual marriage, instead of focusing on what they call “structural sins” like poverty, war, oppression and destruction of the environment. Typically, when “progressives” talk about “broadening the evangelical agenda,” they mean making their so-called “structural sins” the priority instead of emphasizing the “personal sins” that concern traditional evangelicals.

Now this is a distinction that I find quite interesting. It's one I've discussed numerous times with friends. The question is how to deal with sins on a personal level, committed by a person in such a way that may only affect that person (and perhaps other consenting persons), versus sins that affect non-consenting persons and/or evils that arise from the structure of society. This is an important distinction, as Dr. Crouse notes, only I prioritize it a bit differently. We can expect fellow believers to live lives accountable to the commands in the Bible, but not non-believers. Example, Christians are called to moderation when it comes to substances like alcohol. Abuse is a sin (get drunk on the Spirit not on wine!). Can we expect non-believers to drink in moderation because the Bible says so? No. Now if they are drinking and driving and putting other people in harms way, then we have a case for complaint, but it's not exclusively a Biblical complaint. This logic can take you down several paths, one path will sort of leave you between party lines. Example, if you take a fetus to be a person (or a being worthy of protection from interference/harm), then you have cause for complaint --at least a starting point, because there is a non-consenting third party involved. In the case of gay marriage, however, you don't have any harmed third party (except the bogus claim that it degenerates the family as a structure or something). In the one case, the sin interferes with an innocent party, or at least could be claimed as such. In the latter, the sin affects none but the person choosing that lifestyle. As Christians, we are called to hold fellow Christians to the commands of God in Scripture. Heck, even Jesus said it would be a waste of time to try and convince a non-believer to live by Scripture (pearls and pigs). So why make Scripture a part of national law?? Unless a third party is harmed, God will deal with personal sinners, not us. Remember the tax collectors and prostitutes (committing personal sins)? Jesus ate dinner with them. The pharisees wanted to stone them. Christians today fall into which camp?

4. The “progressives” package their thinking in traditional Biblical rhetoric fusing traditional values with populist ideals and themes of the liberal left (like a Marxist-flavored version of social justice and racial reconciliation) and latching onto trendy secular causes like climate change, poverty, globalism, immigration and political correctness.

Now this one is fun. I didn't realize that climate change, racial reconciliation, etc were merely secular causes. Apparently the earth is not worth the effort for Christians, nor are immigrants. We take care of our neighbors, but only if they have a valid social security number, and if they're white.

5. Further, a significant number of evangelicals (according to George Barna’s polling) live no differently than their so-called “progressive” counterparts. These lukewarm believers (who critics say are less concerned about their salvation than their status and more concerned about money than morals) are easy prey for feel-good faith that puts few limitations on the believer — making no demands and establishing no boundaries. They are theological sponges — absorbing anything that “sounds” traditional and/or religious.

Pulling out the big guns now. Apparently, if you are a progressive, then you MUST be a wishy-washy Christian. I'm glad she let me know, because I was beginning to worry that I actually believed in something, like God or a personal savior. Glad to know I was mistaken, as it couldn't possibly fit with my heretical social agenda. Also note, apparently it is only liberals who are concerned more about money than morals. I suppose that's fair, after all, I've never met an affluent conservative Christian who has gripped about high taxes and undeserving welfare leeches. Never. Damn liberals.

6. As Christ warned the Disciples, standing for truth is not the route to public acclaim. The term “evangelical” means a Biblical worldview and this dictates a philosophical/theological perspective on the timeless moral issues of Scripture. Those positions ought to be clear and unequivocal, rather than muddied by sophisticated rhetoric and clever obfuscation. The subtle danger is, as the old axiom states: “Those who stand for nothing will fall for anything.”

I completely agree. However, it's better to be unsure yet continually thinking about what you stand for than to blindly stand for the WRONG thing. Be careful. Very careful. We will be held accountable for what we stand for, and stand we must, but woe unto those who stand for the wrong thing.

Okay, I'm done. Really, I do realize that there are tons of wishy washy Christian liberals out there. But what Dr. Crouse doesn't seem to acknowledge is that there is a multitude of conservative Christians out there who are theologically unsound (at best) and often morally questionable. The liberal platform has many virtues, and they are not inherently secular. The conservative platform has some virtues too, but it has it's vices. Branding a whole movement of Christians as theologically unsound and immoral is not only wrong and unjust, it's just silly. I sympathize with liberal causes. I sympathize with conservative causes. I have friends in both camps, and I see virtues in both. I also have friends with whom I disagree, but that's okay. If they disagree with me, that doesn't automatically mean they are theologically unsound or worse. Maybe sometimes they are, maybe sometimes I am, but you can not assume to categorize an entire movement (esp without a critical look at your own side). Sometimes things aren't neat and clean cut. I'm sorry Dr. Crouse, but cleanliness is overrated. Sometimes you just have to get a little muddy. (yes, cheese-tastic end here, don't judge)

Disclaimer: I am not a fan of the Democrats. I may lean to the left, but I lean way past them when I do. This is not an endorsement for that party, nor necessarily an anti-endorsement of the GOP. Just thought I'd make that clear. Also, I encourage you to read the comments on Dr. Crouse's post. They are priceless. I'm pretty sure some of the people leaving comments would stone me if they had the chance.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Manifesto? Really?

So I'm sort of in shock over this whole Evangelical Manifesto that's made its way onto the scene recently (some of the charter authors are pretty well known, and one is my old pastor -Stuart Briscoe from Elmbrook Church, one of the coolest pastors on the planet). It is, undoubtedly, evangelical, but not everyone is sure its really much of a manifesto (a postive response here). I'm in shock that these leaders have assembled themselves to write such a thing, to try and define a wildly diverse group of people, to try and give them common definition and common aim. It is a hefty task, and in some respects I think the manifesto fails to do what the authors intended (namely, the whole bit about who we are as evangelicals is not to my liking). But in other ways, I think it does what it should, and I'm going to talk about where I think the manifesto gets it right. To be truthful, I got bored with the actual manifesto, and I think the summary is better anyways, so I'm really going to be talking about the points brought up towards the middle/end of the shorter version. (I'm allowed to do this because I think readers are more likely to fully read the summary--6 pages instead of 20-- than the whole manifesto, esp given the intro of the manifesto)

One of the bigger parts in the actual manifesto (and the beginning of the summary) is the section about the evangelical "identity." I've already delineated my views on what it means for me to be an evangelical, and while I think the manifesto does a decent job (though not a great job), it's really not the part I want to focus on here. I do agree that it's important for evangelicals to be better understood; no one likes to be misperceived, after all. But that's not really where the manifesto packs its punch, nor really where it needs to be fighting. Yes, it's awesome that you want to the world to understand us better, but so what? The world will never fully understand us, and why do we have to painstakingly defend our identity? We don't. Rather, we need to do a better job of integrating our identity into our public lives, and that brings us to the part I liked.

From the summary:
First, we repudiate two equal and opposite errors into which many Christians have fallen. One error is to privatize faith, applying it to the personal and spiritual realm only. Such dualism falsely divorces the spiritual from the secular and causes faith to lose its integrity. The other error, made by both the religious left and the religious right, is to politicize faith, using faith to express essentially political points that have lost touch with biblical truth. That way faith loses its independence, Christians become the “useful idiots” for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology. Christian beliefs become the weapons of political factions. Called to an allegiance higher than party, ideology, economic system, and nationality, we Evangelicals see it our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, or nationality. The politicization of faith is never a sign of strength but of weakness. (emphasis mine)

So the authors recognize two equally dangerous poles on the spectrum of faith in the public square. There are the personal believers, who keep faith at home and in their own hearts, never to be brought out into the open. This is just silly. If you really believe in an Almighty God and the grace of His Son then you can't genuinely compartmentalize your life. You can try, and some do, but they aren't being honest with themselves. You just can't be honest in that belief and then disown that belief when it's convenient. Sure, it would be easier for me to believe at home and check that belief at, oh I don't know, let's say the classroom door. It's certainly easier to be a philosopher these days if you don't own up to any sort of supernatural faith. But it's not honest, not if I really believe. I can't believe at home and not at school. That doesn't mean I proselytize at school, but it does mean I don't try and hide it. This goes for all public realms. If you ask me, I will be honest with you. When my faith points me to a certain decision, I will be true to that and will be open about it. If it comes up in discussion, or you seem interested in hearing more, I will tell you. I can't be a Christian on Sunday and not on Tuesday. I just can't. It doesn't make sense.

And then there's the other danger: the political Jesus freak. Being a Jesus freak is awesome. I wish I was more of one. But being a Jesus freak in order to support some other political party, ideology, etc is not cool. I think I've said something about this in earlier posts, and so did CS Lewis. You can't use God as a means. He is too freaking amazing to be the means to some other end. God is the end, the ultimate end. Peddling God for votes, or to engineer patriots, or to achieve some other ideological end is just wrong. Doing so belies a serious crisis of priorities. Even if you're not a ring leader, you too are culpable if let yourself be duped by one of these leaders. A politician waiving the banner of God might as well be waiving a huge red flag. Be careful, for there false prophets and swindlers running a muck with masks of holiness on their faces.

And my favorite bit:

...we repudiate the partisans of a sacred public square, those who would continue to give one religion a preferred place in public life. In a diverse society, it will always be unjust and unworkable to privilege one religion. We are committed to religious liberty for people of all faiths. We are firmly opposed to theocracy. And we have no desire to coerce anyone or to impose beliefs and behavior on anyone. We believe in persuasion. On the other side, we repudiate the partisans of a naked public square, those who would make all religious expression inviolably private and keep the public square inviolably secular. This position is even less just and workable because it excludes the overwhelming majority of citizens, who are still profoundly
religious. Nothing is more illiberal than to invite people into the public square but insist that they be stripped of the faith that makes them who they are. (emphasis mine)

So again, two dichotomies: the sacred and the naked public square. This balancing act called for in the public life may be what led to charges from some that the manifesto is "insistently moderate." But you know what I say to that, three cheers for moderation!!! I see moderation as a virtue, and I also see that the Christian community, particularly the evangelical community, lacks said virtue. Sure, maybe this is nothing new to the secular readers, or non-evangelical readers of the manifesto (though I don't believe non-believers and non-evangelical Christians have got a firm grasp on this virtue either, and they really ought to heed the lesson too), but for most evangelicals this is a new call to action. It is telling other evangelicals that Christianity cannot be the ruling religion in America, or anywhere, because a country shouldn't impose religion on its people. This does not often come out of the mouths of evangelicals, so in that sense, it is as revolutionary as it is common sensical and obvious. At least, that's how I see it.

And then there's that other extreme, an extreme the evangelicals are certainly not guilty of. The second warning is for all those secularists (including religious secularists), who are trying to completely rid the public square of any trace of religion. This manifesto speaks to you as well. Stop it. You're not doing any good. Public life must leave room for people to express their identities, what makes them who they are. For many people, there will be a religious component to their identity, and making them take that off or deny it robs them of their voice. Everyone in a liberal democracy has the opportunity to express her voice, to persuade others to her cause, to be persuaded by others, to let her convictions influence her decisions. You can't ask a religious person to truly do this without any reference to who she is, to what she believes. There is a place for discussing religious values in the public square.

The manifesto summary calls for a civil public square, one that incorporates religion without letting it dominate: "We are committed to a civil public square – a vision of public life in which citizens of all faiths are free to enter and engage the public square on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed to be just and free for other faiths as well. Every right we assert for ourselves as Christians is a right we defend for all others. " That sounds about right to me.

As I've discussed before, I think that religious values are important in public life, and I also believe that you can hold onto those values while still finding common ground for agreement with non-believers. It's a balance. It takes moderation. It requires compromise. This sounds simple, and it doesn't sound like a new idea. But in practice, it is new. Put into practice, it would be like a revolution, a good revolution. All the nay-sayers of the manifesto can complain about the defensive tone, the lack of relevance. But in the end, they're wrong if they think it's unimportant. Anything that calls upon religious and non-religious people alike to both embrace their beliefs and work through their differences together without forcing them to hid their convictions but also without unduly imposing thier beliefs on each other, well anything like that should be read by everyone. The way things are done now sucks. The way many religious leaders want(ed) them to be done is wrong. The way many secular leaders want(ed) them to be done is wrong. So calling on people to find the right balance, well I'd say that's a pretty good start.

One of the other charges against the manifesto is that it doesn't say how we can achieve the balance I spoke of above. Well, I think a good first step is talking about this balance, and having everyone agree that a balance ought to be our aim. Reaching agreement on this matter would be a monumental step. So I don't think the manifesto is as deficient in this respect as it has been charged with. What to do next, well I'm still thinking about that, and so are many other people much smarter than myself. I'll keep you posted. (This is where you should point me to good articles/books about this topic if you have any...thanks!)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Teaching Philosophy in Schools

Harry has a nice post up at CT about teaching Controversial Issues to high schoolers, with a link to his paper about it. I encourage you to read both. The idea is that philosophy is important, because it equips us with certain skills that we need to navigate our moral life (among other skills like reason/logic, critical thinking, etc). An ethics course can equip students to analyze arguments and make their own, all in the attempt to discern some ethical truths. Now Harry rightly points out that this sort of course does not work until you first strike down the pop philosophy concept of moral relativism (which is more prevalent in mainstream thinking than you'd suppose). After all, if there is no moral fact of the matter, however hard it might be to know, then there really is no use discussing these things, because you can't reach a truth that doesn't exist. Assuming you get everyone on board with that, there's a lot that you can do with philosophy, even with younger children. So before I say anything else, I want to be clear that I am definitely on board with more philosophy in schools. My concern, however, is how this can be done well. If it can't be done well, than I think perhaps it shouldn't be done at all.

Take the Controversial Moral Issues class as an example. This sort of class is different than your typical high school class. It does not involve memorizing and repeating facts, and starkly opposing answers can (if argued well) all be given a good grade. The focus is less on the answer, though the moral answer is important, but more on the process of arriving at that answer. Now, teaching a class that focuses on method and not a set of answers is tricky, because as the teacher you have to be comfortable with the method yourself. The method is often called the reflective equilibrium, which is a fancy way of saying that you think of some assumptions we can agree upon and then you reason out to a conclusion. You can argue with each over the truth of the assumptions or the validity of the logic. This is not an easy task, esp not to teach. The Socratic method is also fun, but not easy. How can you make the students arrive at the answers themselves by only asking questions? You don't want to lecture at them, but you want them to learn something. It's a tough balance, and I'm afraid that balance may not be teachable.

Here's a real life example. This past year I taught English in a French high school. In one of my classes, I taught a CMI-like course. I knew the material, the articles, the arguments, etc. I was very comfortable with what I was teaching, having studied it quite a bit as an undergraduate (something not most teachers have done). When I started teaching that class, I was floored by how poorly it often went. Why? I knew the material, wasn't that enough? Not hardly. I had to figure out, somehow, how to teach my students how to think. It seemed impossible. How do you change how they think??? How do you teach them to be critical and logical? I'm not sure I know. I had some classes that went well, while others bombed. I'm not sure I know why in either case. One thing that did work sometimes (though this may have been cheating) was being horribly uncharitable to an author's argument. Flaws in philosophical work are often subtle, and most high schoolers (and college students) will have a really hard time catching them. So to help my students out, I rewrote the arguments and exaggerated the "holes" (as I called them). I made the faults look as obvious as possible, but even then, my students had a hard time finding them (I admit, part of this was the language barrier). Eventually, some of my students learned how to spot the holes. Most of my students did not, but some of those at least started to understand the holes after I pointed them out. One thing I never accomplished, arguably the most important thing, was to get them to argue something for themselves. To be original and creative. Maybe it was my own fault, or the language thing, or just that the students weren't ready to do that yet. I'm not sure. But I do know this much: that class was not easy to teach.

So why do I worry about how well a teacher can teach the class? I worry for the sake of the student, because a poorly taught ethics class is worse than no ethics class at all. Worst case scenario: a teacher teaches dogmatically (either because she wants to promote her own views or, more likely, because she is under pressure from the school and parents to teach a certain view) and the students come out with a certain set of "answers" fed to them in class. Perhaps they were even taught the best arguments for those answers, but even so, they did not learn how to think about those answers critically. In fact, a student coming out of a class like that is more likely to be confidant that those answers are right, than a student who (never having had a class in ethics) is still unsure what she thinks about it all. I'd rather a student be unsure but not brainwashed than the opposite. A commenter at CT replied to my concern with a good point. The response was that sometimes our concern for "impartiality" puts up too many unnecessary roadblocks. Yes, I agree that teachers could never be completely impartial, and that's okay, but that doesn't mean some teachers (perhaps due to school pressure or liability) won't be unacceptably partial. Even without outside pressure, it's very hard not to let your own views creep in and color the discussion (it certainly was for me --in fact, to offset this, I tried to fight for the opposite side more, or make sure I was fighting for the side that was the least popular in class).

Teachers will always have biases in their classes, but some classes should be taught anyways. I think that a college level CMI course, even if biased, is better than none. However, I think a biased CMI course in a high school is worse than none at all. Part of this is a distrust that a high school student could recognize bias and file it away as such. When I was in high school, I was much more trusting of the authority of my teachers than I was at university. Part of that was due to the fact that I had many more professors at university that had contradictory views (making it clear that neither side was decided upon). But a bigger reason, I suspect, was that I was more mature as a student in university than I was in high school. In high school I was too inexperienced to mistrust the views of my teachers, and I was much too easily swayed. Now I'm not saying this is true of all high schoolers, certainly not. And maybe if it is true that would in fact be another reason to have CMI course, so that students could be taught to be more critical. There's also the concern that not everyone, in fact most students, won't go to college (or if they do they may not take a basic ethics course). The CMI's of today are important enough that everyone ought to be thinking about them, so maybe high school is the best place to start that process. And I want schools to have well run CMI classes. That, to me, would be amazing. But I just don't know. If the course is poorly done, that may cause more harm than good, and that wouldn't be a worthwhile trade-off.

So I'll follow the comments over at CT, and maybe if I see some good suggestions for how to train teachers to do this (and give them the academic leg room they need to do so), then I'll be less worried about it. Or maybe the jobless philosophy phds should step up and help out. Who knows...