Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Real Question Behind the Question of Gay Marriage

In the March edition of First Things, the Back Page contributor, David Bentley Hart, penned a provocative, albeit erudite, reflection on a 'subtle tradition of natural law theory' that 'certain self-described Thomists, particularly in America, to import this tradition into public policy debates'. The article generated a wide range of responses, some appreciative, some agreeing, and some disagreeing, vehemently. I suspect most of the participants in the conversation knew they were talking about the question of gay marriage. Though Hart's erudition--the article was titled 'Is, Ought, and Nature's Laws', recalling such philosophical luminaries as Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, and Kant in a single phrase--raised the debate out of the muck and mire and a hackneyed partisan slur-fest.

Let's repeat this a second time for rhetorical effect. Hart's article was about gay marriage--and I say this whether Hart intended it to be so or not. The one place natural law theory keeps on creeping back into the public discourse is precisely over questions about the nature of marriage. Tired out arguments about the institution of marriage preceding the foundation of the state or appeals to the supped antiquity of marriage are trotted out again and again by political pundits. Even the US Supreme Count Justice Samuel Alito, in a recording of proceedings from the court aired on CNN this morning, appealed to these old platitudes.

I take Hart's attempt to raise the discussion above its usual expression in partisan political witch-hunting as a hopeful sign for the future. So-called social conservatives can take it as an oppourtunity for introspection and get beyond the zero-sum calculus of deciding whether a person 'belongs' or is 'one of us' if they agree with 'us' on issue X. A good number of self-appointed Evangelical leaders to whose Twitter feeds I subscribe are unduly burdened by the thought that they have been appointed gate-keepers to Evangelical identity. They need to be unburdened of the thought that the Kingdom of God stands and falls on whether the definition of marriage extends to civil unions between homosexual partners in the 21st century United States. It's embarrassing for the rest of us to see the whole of human history reduced to such a bare and unimpressive nub.

Being Canadian, I speak to a North American situation, rather than simply an American situation. Speaking to that broader situation, I see so-called social conservatives investing an incredible amount of confidence in the idea that history is on their side. They are partially right; though the absoluteness of their claim leaves them in the position of being absolutely wrong.

It is true that definitions of marriage, or more generally the household, tends to be begin with the union of male and female. The first chapter of Genesis and Aristotle's Politics are in lockstep on this point. When later thinkers reflect on the foundation of the polity--and by later, I mean thinkers from the 3rd and 4th century B.C.E right down to Karl Marx in the 19th century--they talk about its foundation in the union of man and woman. That's more than 2000 years of people talking over and over about the same thing.

But it's not true that the relationship between the family and the state, or between families (pl.) and the legislating authority of the state (s.), has remained the same. The so-called social conservative movement, in fact, has been very selective in its reading of the intellectual tradition. The contemporary nuclear family is not the same as Aristotle's household, nor the 'being united to his wife' from Genesis. Most obviously, the household of antiquity served many more economic and political functions than the nuclear family presently does.

The relationship between family and state is where so-called social conservatives get things entirely wrong--where they, in fact, cease being conservative enough, and become something more like Nietzsche's Overman, who lives merely to overcome lesser persons, imposing his arbitrary will. They assume that because the intellectual tradition has seen fit to ground their descriptions of the polity in the union of male and female, it therefore follows that political authorities should legislate in favour of a particular conception of the union of male and female. If that were the case, then one would expect so-called social conservatives to be arguing for a reinstatement of the old household idea of a matriarch and a patriarch ruling over children, servants, retainers, and slaves. But they aren't.

What they are arguing for, in fact, is a peculiar conception of the relationship between the family and the state is that is the quintessential product of 21st century America. This is not, and never was, a question about the family. Heterosexual unions will continue to outnumber homosexual unions. The simplest way to have children will continue to be one man and one woman getting to know each other better--in the biblical sense of knowing, if you know what I mean, wink, wink, nudge, nudge. People will continue to plan to raise families, regardless the situation. They will choose partners accordingly. That's the way things are. These demographic trends were never in question. This always was, and always will be, a question about the relationship between the family and the state. Which is a far more complicated matter.

And you know what? The same intellectual tradition to which so-called social conservatives make their heavy-handed appeals has an answer to questions arising from this far more complicated matter. Distinguish between individual person and the political community, between personal morality and public legality, between personal faith and public reason, yes, even between personal commitment to a communal faith tradition (church) and public submission to the executors of a corporate rule of law (state). Keep that distinction clearly in mind. Don't pretend that the two can be brought in step with each other, as if the corporate body of the state might become the receptacle of one's personal whims and wishes.

Don't pretend the historical record says otherwise. Don't pretend the whole of human history testifies to the truth of a particular way of seeing things. History, strictly speaking, doesn't do anything. It waits to be interpreted. The more one pretends history is on their side, the more one channels Nietzsche's Overman, who rewrites history to serve his own ends, and the less they look like the God-become-man who many in the movement claim to serve.

The best defense of marriage act is and always has been to love your spouse. Only after that much is admitted can we all sit down and have a productive conversation about the relationship between family and the state.

Oh, I should add, in case it wasn't absolutely obvious, I don't see any reason why homosexual unions should not be called marriage.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Research on the Brain of McGill's New Principal

There is a subdued debate shaping up around the appointment of Suzanne Fortier as McGill University's new Principal and Vice Chancellor. The appointment to the position follows the ten-year tenure of Heather Munroe-Blum, whose time McGill actively courted research monies from the private sector, while mounting tensions between the student body and the administration ended in open revolt on a number of occasions.

A well-established member of academia, Fortier comes to McGill from the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), where she is credited with courting--you guessed it!--research monies from the private sector for 'applied research'. Ivory towers, after all, don't fund themselves out of thin air. As federal funding dries up, new sources of revenue have to be secured in to maintain the relevance of universities in the knowledge-producing economy. The story goes that Fortier played a significant role in NSERC's strong push towards commercializing scientific research.

But education and commerce, it seems, don't mix very well. Thinking way back to my days in high school, I can remember student run campaigns to evict pop machines from hallways and cafeterias. The fight was played out again during my undergraduate degree. The soda manufacturers had to go...which raises questions about why they were there in the first place. Unscrupulous corporate interests? In a move perceived far less controversial, Microsoft funded a computer lab in my high school, whose nebulous purpose was to entice young people into the world of computer programming. A few of my friends followed that path to a career in the industry.

Schools have a difficult time turning away lump sums of corporate cash, which can be used to fill holes left after federal and provincial and other funds have all been spent. McGill is no different than any other school, in this regard, though more ties with the corporate world is bound to ruffle a few feathers along the way. The appointment of Fortier will probably raise the ire of the student body in a few years. If she was appointed for her experience raising and dispensing federal funding for scientific research, which would suggest that McGill wants to continue investing in scientific research, then student are going to see her policies through their lens of concern for the quality of education. I can't imagine her image will come through the process of student scrutineering very well.

Battle lines may be forming up on a second front. The Montreal Gazette published an article just last week airing the concerns of professor's and others working in the natural sciences. During her stay at NSERC, decisions implemented by Fortier saw funds move from 'basic research' projects to 'applied research' projects to the tune of $100s of millions. At stake in the minds of some of the parties involved is academic freedom and integrity. Basic research means research for the sake of doing research. Professors who have dedicated their lives to the study of the problems of this or that particular scientific field want the freedom to pursue their own interests. Applied research means research done for the sake of generating wealth and building up the economy. When a particular scientific study may be attractive to corporate interests, professors are encouraged to court outside investment in exchange for licensing and developing rights to the findings.

There are two very different visions of scientific research. Those in favour of academic freedom, who are therefore also more reliant on government funding, point to the history of scientific discovery. The greatest discoveries, they argue, always seem to happen when very intelligent people are allowed the freedom to explore. Albert Einstein is the post-child for this vision. Those in favour of 'cooperation' with the private sector, which means private funding, hold up the ideal of synergy across social sectors.

Brilliantly satrirized by Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock in his roll as the GE executive Jack Donaghy, synergy is one of those gobbledegook bullshit words coming out of the corporate training handbooks. (Much like, in fact, the word 'leveraging'.) It sounds good, and it even feels good, but it only means what people want it to mean. The synergy between academic and corporate interests to which Fortier's appointment harkens conjures up bad memories of a McGill study of long-term consequences of asbestos exposure in Quebec mines.

Now, I am in no position to pass judgment specifically on McGill's appointment of Fortier. Standing outside the natural sciences, squarely at the intellectual heart of arts faculties, though marginalized on the edge of the campus in a religious studies faculty, I can at best roll my eyes and decry the fact that nothing has changed to reverse the erosion of the study of the humanities. Which seems a little pointless.

Though I think I am allowed to wonder what, in the grand scheme of things, Fortier's appointment portends. The Government in Ottawa has deemed it important to encourage 'applied research', moving funding away from 'basic research'. The McGill administration seems in lock-step with their attempts to restructure how capital moves between public and private sectors. I have questions about whether such restructuring can engender a constructive learning environment for future generations. I also have questions about where my own intellectual passions fit in a new world order built on the so-called S(cience). T(echnology). E(ngineering). M(athematics). subjects. Nor am I so stupid as to buy into all that P.R. nonsense about how all change is automatically change for the better. Nor am I willing to swallow that tasteless pill about how sole purpose of representative government is to 'grow the economy', as if politics was just economics by another name.

I worry about the concentration of decision-making authority in the hands of persons with the most to gain financially and the least amounts of public accountability. The extension of the voting franchise in the Western world through the 19th and 20th centuries steadily eroded the ability of concentrated centers of wealth to simply dictate public policy. At the beginning of the 21st century, the economic base of our polities have fundamentally changed. It remains to be seen whether our representative political institutions will be able to adapt--or even what adapting might mean.

It seems to me, however, the form taken by our educational institutions is an important indicator of things to come. That's where the negotiation of the social transfer of priorities and values with future generations takes place.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Significance of the Name Francis

Foreign Policy has suggested 'it may be the church's ambiguous stance during Argentina's last dictatorship, which lasted from 1976 to 1983, that has done the most to damage the institution's credibility.' Numbers show a decline in church attendance and also in the level of loyalty commanded from the populace. Anecdotal evidence seems to bear these out. The new Pope Francis, formerly Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, may bear some of the blame. On his watch, the Church has reinforced a moral regime to which the monied elite can comfortably pay lip service, while receiving medical treatment in private clinics, on an impoverished population.

The FP article is one of the very few ominous clouds gathering in the afterglow of the papal inauguration. It reaches to draw its conclusions, perhaps not unfairly in certain respects, but one has to wonder about the time-frames within which it moves. Any change over the period of a decade or so is inconsequential in the life of an international body that thinks in terms of centuries, and with an eye on forever hereafter. As readers of Saint Augustine City of God discover, those who attempt to discern the signs of the times end constructing their own destructive self-fulfilling prophecies. The Church will survive. In its collective wisdom, it knows that it ought to prepare for a much longer term than the editors at FP appear to be able to fathom. Absolute numbers are important, but of relative concern. Catholic priorities are radically different; so also must be the metrics by which you measure its successes.

Most of the media coverage has been positively jubilant. Did you know Pope Francis declined most, if not all, the special treatment accorded a pope? He rode the bus back from his presentation before St. Peter's Square immediately following his election. He returned in person to pay his hotel bill. He has chosen to wear a simple silver ring instead of the usual gold. He even called the Argentine vendor who delivered the daily paper to cancel his subscription. The media has devoured these acts of humility, taking them as signs of things to come. The papacy will be less remote, more open, much more available. Cynics may point out this is all for show. They are at least partially right. It is exactly that: all for show. As leader of the Catholic faithful, the pope leads by example. In principle, he expects nothing from his spiritual constituency he would not do himself.

The pope cuts a perplexing figure across the contemporary political scene. He is the archetypal public servant: formerly the head of Christendom, called the servant of the servants of God. The papacy is not a career goal one sets for oneself to achieve, but is ideally given in trust. Conservative on the big social questions, at least in the public exercise of the authority of his office, though there has been some suggestion his private convictions lie elsewhere, his concern for the poor marks him as liberal in economic matters. Many will disagree with him on certain of his stances, but he cannot be faulted for being inconsistent. The battered, broken, and vulnerable bodies of his fellow human beings, from the fetus in the womb, the starving child, the cripple, to the very aged all to command his attention.

This pope is also, oddly enough, a Jesuit. Members of the order takes vows not to seek higher office. Which is why, though the order was founded by St. Ignatius in the 16th century, it has taken until the 21st century to see one of its members sit on the throne of St. Peter. The Jesuit ideal is on full display for the world to see in the pope's actions. The first taste the world had may have taken the form of a joke: 'May God forgive you for what you have done', he is reported to have said to his fellow cardinals during dinner following his presentation before St. Peters.

The new pope indicated his priorities by choosing the name Francis. If the humble demeanor is characteristically Jesuit, it also harkens back to Saint Francis of Assisi. The same sort of split personality those of us who are prone to divide the world between political conservatives and liberals find in Pope Francis' head, we also find here. The British Catholic controversialist G.K. Chesterton, in his book on the life of Saint Francis, noted 'Saint Francis anticipated all that is most liberal and sympathetic in the modern mood; the love of nature; the love of animals; the sense of social compassion; the sense of the spiritual dangers of prosperity and even of property.' None of these things, however, explain Saint Francis' theological outlook, his vow of chastity, the stern self-imposed moral regime to which, by most accounts, he joyfully submitted. Nor do they make the slightest sense alongside the famous poem The Canticle of the Sun, which affirms which makes all things, not just human beings, equally children of the Creator.

Let's not forget that Pope Francis follows Saint Francis in his efforts to reach out to members of other faith traditions, including those not sheltered beneath the broad umbrella of Christianity.

Here is a portion of the very first homily delivered before St. Peter's Square:
The vocation of being a "protector", however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness. In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts!
Whenever human beings fail to live up to this responsibility, whenever we fail to care for creation and for our brothers and sisters, the way is opened to destruction and hearts are hardened.
The Franciscan affirmation of the brotherhood of all God's creatures, e.g. Brother Sun and Sister Moon from the Canticle, can be heard between the lines. The points where the homily departs from the poem mark the modernity of the Pope Francis' message:
-- a hard distinction drawn between humanity and the rest of the world,
-- an emphasis placed on protecting creation beyond simply affirming solidarity with it, and
-- singling out the familial social configuration for mention.
Presumably the last point would have never crossed St. Francis' mind.

While the rest of us look on and wonder about the future of the Catholic Church and what declining numbers might mean, the Pope measures the success of his ministry on very different terms. Have we served our fellow human beings as we ought? is the question on his mind. If yes, redouble our efforts. If no, start over and do it right.

The nature of the 'ought' is going to be a point of contention, both with those inside and outside the Church. No doubt. But let's not misunderstand what the pope is signalling here. We crunch our numbers, pursue our pet peeves in that corner of the universe for which we claim a certain amount of expertise, or hum and haw about this or that narrow-minded preoccupation. But Francis is playing the very, very long game. Don't be deceived by his affable smile; it's owner is the shrewdest of operators.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Means and Ends of a War

I remember debating the merits of the Iraq War in 2003 at a special gathering of students and professors during my undergrad at Redeemer University College. The declaration of war was a novel enough event on the world stage to jolt academia from its erudite repose.

I remember also how surprised I was that the general consensus in the room seemed to be that this was a positive step forward, in particular, for the future of the region. What about collateral damage? I asked. The ends, which were the removal of a dictator from power, the establishment of democracy, and the opening up of a free society, in fact, justified the means. More to the point, I was told the end of Justice, with a capital 'J', justified the means.

Now, whether everyone in the room shared the spoken opinion, I cannot be sure. The voices in the room, though, all engaged in detached academic discussion over the ways an intellectual abstraction could be implemented on the ground in Iraq. It was a great day for Iraq--in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada.

Today, I am not sure what to make of the Iraq War itself beyond that it changed things. There's a silly game foreign policy wonks play among themselves, in which opponents are bested with counterfactual arguments. If X had not happened, then Y; or if X had happened, then Z. If the US hadn't gone into Iraq, then Saddam Hussein might still be in power angling to get his hands on nuclear weapons; and so on. These arguments obey strict logical formulations. They appeal to certain sets of correspondences between states of affairs, as they are generally understood to be true. The victor is usually the one able to point out the most obvious correspondence. But these arguments don't actually prove a damn thing. Just ask a historian. They will tell no human being has ever sketched the future state of things with anything more than the vaguest of impressions. At the distance of 10 or 20 years, all such intelligent prognostication amount to nothing more than blathering idiocy.

Though I am unsure what to make of the impact of the Iraq War on world affairs, watching it played a very large role in shaping the future course of my education. One of the first things I did was to read widely in Islamic history. I set up a Honours History independent study and wrote on Muslim Spain. I went to McMaster University and studied with the resident Ottoman specialist, eventually producing a research paper on an early modern French appropriation of the image of enlightened Turk as a criticism of the irrationalities of European society. My perspective may have broadened today into a general interest in the study of world religions. The lessons learned studying Islamic history, though, have not been lost.

I may not be sure what to make of the Iraq War itself, but I am quite sure the sort of arguments made in its favour amount to practical atheism. Not just the arguments that left such a bad impression on myself personally back in 2003, but the official position of the Bush administration, of the news anchors, of political commentators. By this I mean simply the means by which one achieves a desired end are so far out of step with the end itself that the means employed prevent the end being achieved. Persons speak in abstractions, without concern for the existing relations between persons. Such persons sees only ends, with little concern for the means. For example: the military doctrine 'Shock and Awe' was supposedly neither good nor bad; it is merely effective for achieving certain ends. Speaking from on high, from the seat of the Most High, such a person is a practical atheist.

The Daily Beast has published an article ('Iraq War, 10th Anniversary: The Last Grand Mufti') by a correspondent who spent seven years in Iraq covering all facets of the conflict. The article tells the story of Shiekh Hamza of Fallujah, killed in November of 2005 for his refusal to support the more radical action against occupying forces. The author concludes, though an Iraqi may have put the trigger,  American action put the venerable sheikh in harm's way. This is not the place for the counterfactual observation that had American's not been in Fallujah, the sheikh would still be alive today. (He probably would be, though there is no way to verify this.) It is rather to follow a series of actions and events leading up to the sheikh's death in order to understand how things came to they terrible conclusions that they did.

My take-away is that the road to hell truly is paved with good intentions--good, short-sighted, self-serving intentions imposed at will without consideration of the concerns of others involved. Service rendered to grand abstractions like A More Just Society means that simple truths like doings to others what you would have them do to you are lost.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ego Cogito

This is my final attempt to sketch, in very general terms, what separates the ancient (and medieval) from the modern. My first sketch ('Ecce Homo') looked the collapse of divinity into humanity, a narrative that was especially popular at the end of the 19th century. First there were many gods, then there was one God, and now there are none. At the end, I gestured towards possible political implications of the collapse of divinity into humanity.

My second sketch ('Fiat Lux') explored the consequences of the world being turned inside out. It is no longer a natural impulse to look up and wonder what is expected of us; now we look down and calculate, quantify, and dissemble. In the process, the fundamental categories of truth will change. Before, the natural order was a thoroughly moral order. Human beings could look up and divine the will of God from the courses of the stars across the heavens. Afterwards, natural judgements and moral judgments could be separated, each having its own proper intelligibility.

We are naturalized to this situation of distinct intelligibility. Preserving the environment for future generations makes sense to us, whereas doing it because we all have a share in Gaia-consciousness sounds a little wonky. Evolutionary theory will also make sense; what the idea that a God intervenes at specific points in the process might entail is difficult to discern. One goes to a trained medical doctor, not faith healer, to have a tumor removed. One listens to bankers and economists describe the present state of the economy, not political pundits who tell us the way things will be or ought to be. More examples could be offered.

Now, in any general sketch, one looks for examples of what one is talking about to make the sketch intelligible. Examples have to be carefully chosen, as the act of selecting one example rather than another, will inevitably skew how other possible examples might be understood. This is a problem everyone studying the human past runs up against. One possible response is to refuse to make any broad judgments about the course of human affairs. Obviously that isn't the course I have taken. Too staunch a refusal, it seems to me, is actually quite naive, since the refusal to say anything is still saying something about the intelligibility of the human past. Namely: that it's not intelligible. Which isn't true.

My third sketch specifically Descartes' claim ego cogito, ergo sum, 'I think, therefore I am', alongside the statements of comparable statements from the pagan Aristotle and the Christian Augustine.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle said,
‘...whenever we perceive, we are conscious that we perceive, and whenever we think, we are conscious that we think, and to be conscious that we are perceiving or thinking is to be conscious that we exist.’
In the various indicated places, Augustine also said,
‘If I am mistaken, I am.’ (City of God, XI.26)
‘ cannot err who is not alive.’ (Enchiridion 7.20)
‘...if he doubts, he thinks; if he doubts, he knows that he does not know’ (On the Trinity X.10)
All three thinkers come around to the conclusion the conclusion the act of thinking contains within itself the proof of one's own existence. Descartes differs from his predecessors insofar as he thinks the act of thinking, apart from any other consideration, is enough to establish one's own existence. Aristotle adds consciousness to perception in order to establish existence, while Augustine adds thinking to being mistaken. Like a bull in a china shop, Descartes says: I think...therefore I am.

What changes? Both Aristotle and Augustine have intricate accounts of the human thought process. The human mind thinks on things, usually things that ultimately derive from a sensory experience of a bodily reality. (You are using your eyes to read this line, right?) Thinkers like Aristotle and Augustine took our human experience of perceiving things and thinking about things which are perceived as indicative of a distinction between soul and body. At least, positing a difference between soul and body goes a long way to explain why, when we think about things, we always seem to be thinking about particular things. And not just any particular things: things with which we have had bodily contact (and yes, contact via the computer, telephone, or television all count as forms of bodily contact).

Hence Aristotle talks about being conscious about perceiving things and Augustine talks about being deceived about things. Having lived with our bodies, our selves, as long as we have, we are all at least dimly aware of a difference between the way we think things are and the way they actually are.

Descartes tweaks the question, ever so slightly. Famous for his resolve to doubt everything that can possibly be doubted, he sets out to 'turn off' his bodily senses. Everything that had it's origin in a sensory encounter with a bodily reality, he says he will regard an illusion. Now this is different than being wary of the bodily senses, like Augustine. It's to say they can't be trusted, therefore I should ignore them, at least for a very brief moment while I think about philosophical questions. Apart from my body, I am still left with my own thoughts--my mind.

What the human being essentially is changes. Both Aristotle and Augustine can agree on a basic account of the human being as a composite unity of soul and body, of a soul that gives animates and gives form to a body. I am this composite thing. On the other hand, Descartes begins to divide the rational faculty of the soul from the body. I have become a mind with an undefined relationship with a body. How the two relate, he thought, might have something to do with the pineal gland.

So long as the human being is regarded as having a composite nature, it is very easy to regard the entire natural order as having moral purpose. When you divide mind from body, however, you begin to isolate moral judgments from natural scientific judgments. Room is made to talk about things apart from any immediate moral considerations. The successes of natural scientific explanation in the past three or four centuries have put old notions of the human being as a composite unity of body and soul to rest. We have calculated the gravitational constant, Planck's Law, and worked out laws of genetic inheritance. Reading moral purpose back into the natural order is not possible without calling into question an entire body of scientific literature.

That is not to say, however, that the moral questions, specifically about how we relate to each other and to the natural world, have ceased to be relevant. It is telling that most post-Cartestians, when the deal with Descartes' ego cogito, never actually think about what it's relation to a material body might be. They either praise it for standing apart from the flux of phenomenal world, or fault it for doing the same. The ego cogito is not deathless, however, as some have supposed. In fact, it dies each and every time one of us dies, and is subject to our trials and tribulations of bodily life. Because the ego cogito is not some thing; it is something each of us says of ourselves.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Most Valuable Thing I Own

I had to think about it for a few minutes. It wasn't immediately apparent to me what the most valuable thing I own was. By valuable I mean something with an obvious dollar value attached to it. Intangibles like love for another person or friendships with other persons--in the broadest terms what is called 'human capital'--can justifiably be called wealth generators, but are difficult to quantify. Analysis of social trends will show that intangible are productive for individual persons. For individual persons, however, these intangibles are rather unpredictable. You never know who you might meet, what doors of oppourtunity might consequently be opened, where those door will lead, etc.

Let's me try to answer the question in a programmatic fashion, working my way through obvious things towards those less obvious items of value. I own a few computers, two more than I need. Two of them I make use of on a daily basis. The third sits on a shelf beneath the television, untouched in three or four months. Due to their age, the three computers put together probably won't be worth as much as the television.  But if we start to add up the different pieces of technological infrastructure that has slowly been built around my biological existence, the replacement dollar value for the equivalent functionality and convenience might run somewhere in the neighbourhood of $3,000. Nothing worth writing home about. I spent considerably more on jewelry and a wedding dress for my wife. Though I probably won't do myself any favours calling those items of expenditure (and by implication her) things that I own.

The other pieces of moveable property to which I can assign a dollar value? The furniture with which the apartment is furnished, including a couch and chair, queen size bed, tables, chairs, and a computer desk, as well as a few other odds and ends, have a replacement value of more than $6,000. The replacement value of my book collection runs a little higher, probably exceeding $10,000. Since the insurance company won't reimburse me for more than $2,000 of the total, it didn't make sense to calculate a more precise total.

Allowing myself to think a little more broadly about the idea of value, I realize that the apartment Sabrina and I live in has considerable value: location, access to public transport, in addition to the space itself. The apartment, however, is rented, not owned, so we could only claim to own it in the loosest of senses. There is the Ph.D program in which I am currently enrolled. It also has the potential to generate money for me down the road, though none of that is by any means guaranteed. A lot could change in the interim, including the job market and my own ability and/or commitment to completing the program

Very quickly, I discover, I have run out of things I can assign a dollar value even in the most nebulous senses of the term value. I wonder why that is. I wonder, for example, why it is that I am not living in abject poverty--given my meager amount of possessions, the moderately oppressive amount of debt I have accumulated, and all the other limitations of my ability to stop everything I am doing today, take a completely new job, and start generating a steady stream income tomorrow (or next week Monday, at the very latest). What is it that buoys up my ability to maintain a relatively comfortable material existence?

The answer that I came to about what the most valuable thing I owned is, is my Canadian citizenship. Against that backdrop, the sort of mental math that I have just been performing pales in comparison. Citizenship is a wealth generator--full stop. Of course, it takes some small amount of effort on my part to take advantage of the benefits of being a Canadian citizen, but all that is relatively insignificant alongside of the fact of citizenship.

My Canadian citizenship comprehends in very real terms all those other communities in which I participate. Family, school, religious, commercial and otherwise. Before anyone objects, I am not making a social-structural observation about how family, school, businesses, and church ought to relate to the government currently sitting in Ottawa. I am simply observing that the most comprehensive community, which establishes the legal conditions for the interaction of all other communities, is something called Canada. It is a legal reality with productive consequences. Want proof? Let's say you travel home, to school, to the store, to church. You use roads. You follow traffic laws as you negotiate a shared space with other drivers. Let's say you arrive at home, school, the store, or church. Presumably the lights are on. That electricity came from somewhere.

This puts things into a radically different perspective. Where I had been enumerating those things that I myself could 'claim' to have accumulated for myself, my Canadian citizenship is not something I can ever claim to have acquired for myself. In fact, I was born to it. All of my individual accomplishments suddenly look like dross beside a pure gold brick. The dour language of Calvinist predestinarians describes the situation perfectly: I was 'chosen' by a 'power' much higher and much more comprehensive than my individual will.

Lord have mercy! it's much worse than that. The citizenship to which I was born has made possible all my insignificant accomplishments--in the process, rendering my individual insignificance significant. The life that I lead is comparatively moderate in Canadian terms, but I can still count myself among the top 5% or 10%, measured in terms of material possessions, out of the seven billion persons currently alive today.

The interesting thing is that Canada is a relatively young country. Two centuries ago, it would not be possible for me to claim that Canadian citizenship was worth very much at all--on account of Canada not existing, and also because what would become Canada had very little to show for itself. The value of citizenship has been slowly built up over the course of those two centuries. I am the recipient of the hard work of hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, whose blood, sweat, and tears have contributed to the assembly of an aggregate 'product' that makes my life possible.

And I wonder, if this is the reality of things, why most political commentary never gets beyond asserting what mine is mine alongside a thinly veiled addendum about what yours is also mine. Have economic calculations so overridden the basic function of government that we cannot but see individual persons in terms of self-interested producers and consumers?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Fiat Lux

What sets the ancient and modern worlds apart? As I suggested a couple of days ago, the explanatory successes of natural science might be offered as an explanation. My take on the situation, however, is that the successes of natural science are a by-product of an intellectual revolution, through which the world has quite literally been turned inside out.

The short version of the story goes something like this: We no longer look up and wonder who or what is looking down on us. We no longer wonder about the standard against which our actions will be measured.  We now look down on ourselves from an artificial distance. We cut ourselves into tinier pieces. We plug into flowcharts, diagrams, and pie graphs. And we chide ourselves for thinking someone or something might have been doing the same.

In the process of the world being turned inside out, the fundamental categories of truth change. Ancient religious texts delving into the question the origin of all things invited readers or hearers to measure themselves against an infinite moral standard. The human being lived a life of bodily limitations, which ended with bodily death. What do to with that life, how to relate to other human beings, other living beings, other things, required answers. Some sort of account of how everything fit together, the way things are--which informed how human beings acted, and so was also the way things ought to be--was needed.

The modern scientific enterprise changes both the means and ends of inquiries into the truth of things. Reference to the origin of all things drops away entirely. Instead of wondering about how humanity related to the world around them, people pay much closer attention to how things interacted with each other. Standards of measurement were developed that quantified, multiplied, and formulated. Fact and value, the way things are and the way things ought to be, were held at a theoretical distance from each other.

The easiest way to illustrate the difference between ancient and modern is to consider how motion was understood. The Greek philosopher Aristotle provides the basic framework in which to understand the motion of physical objects down to the 15th century with the heliocentrism of Copernicus and Galileo's theory of inertia and the motion of living beings down to the 19th with Darwin's account of the origin of species. Aristotle held that everything, living or not, natural strove towards a state a of 'rest'. A falling rock seeks the earth. A plant seeks to realize the potential of its species. So also do animals and human beings. Only when a things innate potentials were realized was rest achieved.

In such a world, everything possesses moral significance because everything, each in their own ways, strives to achieve the same thing. The entire natural order is also thoroughly moral. The heavens speak the glories of God, and, as a consequence, the impotence of the human being to accomplish anything lasting. The natural order provides example for human action. The love of a mother bird bears her chicks shows the human mother the sort of devotion God requires her to bear towards her children. The orderly progress of sun in the sky, ruling over life on earth, provides a standard for the just rule of kings and princes who govern the polity.

Sometime in the 14th century, however, late medieval thinkers wondered about the relationship between velocity and acceleration of objects. If it was possible to determine how fast an object was going (velocity = distance/time), was it also possible to determine how fast an object was speeding up (acceleration = velocity/time)? With the advantage of the accumulated wisdom of generations, we see a very simple mathematical relationship between velocity and acceleration. Late medieval thinkers lacked that advantage.

A couple of assumptions were acquired. First, that the observable world was governed an intelligible order, in which things could be expected to behave with a lawful regularity. And second, that the regularity in the natural order was quantifiable. The first assumption very easily meshed with a belief in a Creator God, whose existence guaranteed the lawful regularity in the observable world. The second was problematic, as the enumeration of things does not necessarily yield a moral lesson, which Aristotelian thinkers had been accustomed to find in the natural order. To determine something is traveling at 10 m/s or accelerating at 2 m/s2 doesn't yield a morally significant answer, even though it may aid in the development of ever more accurate and more powerful artillery, which can be employed to rain death fro above on civilian populations that previously had been safe behind city walls.

And so a crack formed in the system of human knowledge. One could argue the crack had always existed, that distinctions between faith and reason, or soul and body attested to the same thing. What was different, however, was that thinkers began to experiment with the idea of studying the natural world 'for its own sake' without immediate moral reference to the origins and ends of all things. St. Jerome's translation of the creation narratives in Genesis had God say, 'Fiat lux', or 'Let there be light'. Henceforth thinkers would increasingly operate in a world in which God's light proceeded from two clearly distinct sources, illuminating very different truths about the way things are, only one of which seemed to have anything to say about the way things ought to be. Copernicus' heliocentrism and Darwin account of the origin of species are both consequences of this fundamental division of knowledge.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Is Capitalism Moral?

One of the most contentious questions a person can ask of the politically engaged has to do with whether capitalism is moral. It's a fairly good indication a person self-consciously situates themselves on one side of the political divide or the other if they answer yes or no. It also happens to be a fairly good indication of whether they have given the nature of the question much thought in the first place. A simple yes or no reveals a mind with a practical bent, not necessarily predisposed to theoretical reflection.

The question could intend any number of things. Capitalism has to do with the rationalization of labour, or the means of production, with the end turning a profit. Morality has to do with freely choosing to limit one's courses of action for the sake of maintaining one's community with other persons. As a consequence, a straight-forward interpretation of the question makes little sense. Capitalism does not equal morality; nor does morality equal capitalism. The two are out of step with each other. For the sake of turning a profit, an employer should fire an inefficient employee, even if that employee is family; while familial ties may encourage employers to engage in less than rational economic activities by letting the ineptitude of a family member slide. This sort of activity has a particularly has been given a name that leaves a bad taste in the mouth even as it rolls off our tongues: nepotism.

The question might imply that capitalism is moral in the sense of being a good form of economic activity. Nuance is introduced by introducing a third element into our consideration. Here we assume that capitalism stands over against something else as good stands over against bad. Presumably socialism or communism fulfills that other function. We also have to define clearly why capitalism might be thought to be good. A plausible way would be to affirm the integral place of individual initiative in capitalist enterprise. Instead of relying on the creative direction of a small number of individuals at the top of a pyramid of political authority, the better way is to encourage every individuals to create their own oppourtunities for making a profit.

Steven Pearlstein of George Mason University has published an opinion piece in the Washington Post asking the question, 'Is capitalism moral?' He argues that debates over 'libertarian nostrums that greed is good, what’s mine is mine and whatever the market produces is fair' misconstrue the import of the question. These debates tend to pit bad government intervention and regulations over a good marketplace against good government action restraining and redistributing wealth from a necessary, but evil marketplace. But he says,
In our current debate over capitalism, too much attention is focused on whether, how or how much to redistribute the incomes that markets have produced, with too little focus on the institutional arrangements that determine how that income is divided up in the first place.
His point about institutional arrangements actually changes the nature of the discussion. In the traditional right vs. left debate, the market is a place where individuals compete with other individuals. Some individuals prove themselves more capable than other individuals and become employers while the rest become employees. But in an increasingly complex economic situation, relations between employers and employees are not simple and straightforward. The economic ideal of a reward system based on individual merit fails to appreciate how capital actually moves.

Institutional arrangements, in fact, disproportionately advantage a small number of individuals over the rest of the population. (They advantage the same people most likely to argue for the reduction of taxes, fault government inefficiencies for low wages and high unemployment levels, and accuse the economically disadvantaged of being 'takers'.) Present institutional arrangements seem to be exacerbating economic distances between the wealthy and the poor. Twenty years ago, for example, wage and salaried workers claimed 75% of income in the United States, while today those numbers of fallen to 67%. Fifty years ago, the average corporate executive made 50 times more than the average front-line worker, but today they make 350 times as much. Old platitudes about the virtues of the marketplace fail to account for the massive shift in the concentration of wealth.

There is a third possible intention behind asking the question, which would acknowledge the intrinsically moral nature of human thought and action. Though readers of the Washington Post have to be content with the identification of a problem, as Pearlstein never gets this far in his analysis.
If our moral obligation is to provide everyone with a reasonable shot at economic success within a market system that, by its nature, thrives on unequal outcomes, then we ought to ask not just whether government is doing too much or too little, but whether it is doing the right things.
Notable here is that avoidance of saying anything definitive about morality. All Pearlstein says is that if X, then Y. No doubt, the rhetorical effect of this sort of structure is to invite readers into the argument. If readers agree with X, then Y should also follow. So far so good. Since morality is about self-limitation for the sake of the community of others, we have no business dictating tenets of morality to others. No problem here.

But the form of Pearlstein's conclusion is problematic in its emphases. It's about economic relations between persons, not about economic relations between persons. The conceptual weight in the sentence falls on adjective rather than the noun. Which should strike us a as being incongruous. In the same way an adjective modifies a noun, the term economic modifies what sort of relations between persons. Persons are always more real than the specific forms taken by their relations with other persons. Or, at least, they ought to be considered as such.

And if, as I claimed above, morality has to do with self-limitation for the sake of the community of others, then it follows quite naturally that capitalism is always and everywhere moral. Because it attempts to describe how human beings relate to each other, capitalism always has been, and always will be.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Ecce Homo

There is an old story told about the evolution of human thought that goes something like this: first there were many gods, then there was one, and now there are none. The story has a certain conceptual elegance and persuasive proportionality. It also helps that it conforms easily to a general account of what is called Western Civilization by those with the advantage of hindsight. The parts of the story that took place in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia hardly can hardly be called Western, and periodically so-called 'Western' civility breaks down into brutal expressions of inhumanity. But these inconveniences are neither here nor there.

Ancient Egypt  Greece, Babylon, and Rome knew many gods. Christianity took over from its parent Judaism, which had existed between Egypt and Mesopotamia, the idea of a single transcendent God. Eventually Christianity burst the boundaries of the Roman Empire, establishing in Europe a rancorous patchwork of states joined loosely together by the idea of Christendom presided over by a pope. When, in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, the loose unity of Christendom was torn asunder; every polity did as it saw fit.

Following the 17th century European Wars of Religion, if 19th century humanists are to be believed, the many ideas of one God lay scattered about a triumphant humanity, which held the field. We might quibble about the century in which humanity uncovered its sensus humanitatis from beneath the oppressive weight of the sensus divinitatis. We may even wonder, in fact, if it was recovered at all. Regardless, influential later thinkers towards the end of the 19th century did believe something like this had come to pass. Jakob Burckhardt detected the origins of this nascent humanism as early as the Italian Renaissance. One of his more troubled contemporaries by the name of Nietzsche would lament, "Ecce Homo" ("Behold, the Man"), a phrase lifted from St. Jerome's Latin Vulgate Bible, specifically his translation of the Gospel of John 19:5.

A decade into the 21st century, the historical vista is much wider than it was for our 19th century counterparts. Many gods giving way to one God, who yielded the field to a triumphant humanity, is a story that fits a little too snugly into a Anglo-Franco-German (North American and Northern European) perspective on the course of human history. There are also the great civilizations of China and India, for which some account must be given. So we debate the finer points of even this very general picture.

There remains a need to account, in a very general manner, the way in which contemporary Western civilization, which has demonstrated in mastery over the natural world via scientific methods of study and technological innovations, stands apart from the medieval Christendom and Islam, as well as ancient China and India.

Let's say one is inclined to think that cultural comparisons of religious convictions about the existence of a transcendent Something are too tenuous to infer anything about the general direction human affairs seem to be moving. Then we can still look at the commonly shared system of government across the ancient and medieval worlds: monarchy. The rule of the One over the many, a cosmological scheme, was recapitulated in the social order. Kings ruled on behalf of Divinity, or kings ruled because the distinction between ruler and subject was woven into the natural order of things. It doesn't matter which shoe fits, because both shoes take us to the same location.

Whatever else the secular outlooks of the modern Western world might share with, say, Buddhism or Confucianism, that they don't share with Christianity or Islam, secular outlooks distinguish themselves from all such classical forms of religion by being corrosive upon the claims of monarchy. Authorities today may prance around and behave like monarchs of old--they may even behave worse--but they cannot justify their rule in the same way that their fore-bearers did. The Middle Eastern kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and Jordan only appear as exceptions to this rule; their right to rule is justified by oil wealth, without which they could hardly command the allegiance of subjects that ancient and medieval forms of government were based upon.

So what exactly sets the ancient and modern worlds apart? The explanatory successes of natural science can be offered as an explanation. My own take on the situation, however, is that the successes of natural science are a by-product of an intellectual revolution, through which the world has quite literally been turned inside out. We no longer look up and wonder who or what is looking down on us. As a consequence, we no longer wonder about the standard against which our actions will be measured.

Now we look down on ourselves from an artificial distance, cut ourselves into tinier pieces, which we plug into flowcharts, diagrams, and pie graphs. And we chide ourselves for thinking someone or something might have been doing the same.

Friday, March 15, 2013

News that is Always New

Something strange happened to me during the recent American election. My patience with the comparatively plodding commentary on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) ran short. Instead, I went for my daily dose of information form the Cable News Network (CNN). But now, at the distance of a few months, my sentiments are almost entirely reversed. My appreciation for CBC is at an all-time high, just as my tolerance for fakery of Piers Morgan and faux-seriousness of Anderson Cooper has been completely spent. Even when when he clearly hasn't a clue, God bless CBC Power and Politics' Evan Solomon, for his genuine efforts at pretending he knows what he is talking about. Let us also tip our hats to the socially concerned analysis Amanda Lang provides of the latest economic trends and business news on The Lang and O'Leary Exchange.

Hindsight is 20/20. My hindsight reminds me that most news networks rarely attempt to do more than illuminate the world immediately in front of our faces.

The news is perpetually new.  It is presented in such a way that actively refuses to interrogate the long-term 'conditions of possibility' for so-called newsworthy events to occur. We are required to face the shooting, the outrage, the press conference, the natural disaster, or other such interruption into the 'normal' order of things as if these were unprecedented happenings. Only afterwards is an expert found who informs us that all the indicators were there to predict said happening. But either we didn't know how to read the signs, or we weren't listening to those who did. In retrospect, we look pretty stupid for not paying attention. Someone, a sacrificial lambs of sorts, will be fired for our collective incompetence. And so, the world will back on its ordered course.

There are two things any self-respecting reader in the history of the human race should dislike about the news media: its oppressive presentism, and its insistence that every event has a determinable set of causes. Both come out of a gross over-estimation of our individual mental awareness.

Notice when you think about something, anything, even everything, your perspective on things is always partial--and, if you are honest with yourself, extremely limited. The 'mind's eye' can only ever hold a very small number of things under its gaze. I'll admit to having trouble two more than two closely related things in mind. This and that and...and then I am looking for larger categories in which to group things together to make things easier on myself. We concern ourselves especially with what is present, immediate, or ready-to-hand. We also tend to abstract, our mentally lift, things out of the complex web of relations, extending outward in spaces and backwards in time, in which they actually exist. We suppose that this thing, here and now, can be examined on its own, or in terms of its relations with a limited set of other things. Which isn't true in the study of physics, and is even less true in the study of human relations.

We are taught to analyze human relations by breaking them down into their constituent parts. We are taught to look for correspondences and resemblances between the constituents parts. Problems are in principle identifiable; and the solutions to our problems are fundamentally mechanical. A piece is out of place, which needs to be put back in place. We are not taught, however, to follow the many branching trains of thought from a starting point. We do not confront the infinite numbers of ways into a complex system, nor the infinite number of ways out. We are not taught to think of human relations as a complex system like the human body, which can be aided through targeted treatments, but cannot be replaced when the system itself breaks down.

News that is always new is continually forgetting that the world is actually quite old. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Flattened Social Order

Expect the Catholic Church to close ranks around the new Pope Francis. Expect also most non-Catholics and ex-Catholics to find reasons to dislike the new pope. That's just the way of things.

The Catholics will close ranks around Francis for the simple reason that he stands for the Church. The reasons others will find for disliking the new pope are the same.

The problem is that most people, whether inside or outside the Church, don't think through the relationship between the Pope and the Church. The personal concerns, idiosyncrasies, predilections of a new pope aren't going to change the course of an entire Church that claims 1.2 members. He sits 'atop' a huge bureaucracy; he heads up a worldwide administration; he is the nominal head of thousands of loosely-affiliated smaller organizations that all head off in slightly different directions. These things have a life of their own.

Modern conceptions of social relations are fundamentally Protestant in their outlook. Persons identify immediately with some figurehead--a person or something, like a flag or a brand logo--in the same way that the nascent Protestant movement cut out priestly middle-men and dared believers to speak directly to God. Persons tend to forget that social relations are fundamental networks of mediation (or communication). Some of those networks, like friend groups, will be relatively informal. Others, like schools, businesses, or governments, are organized in a much more formal manner. They have existence beyond the memories and intentions of persons, and are recognized in relationships formally instantiated by documentary evidence, property, possessions, and so on. The relations between these different sets of social relations, or institutions, overlap in individual persons, which makes for a thickly interwoven, and also flexible, social fabric.

This complex weave is something each of us navigates every single day. Different nodes in the weave enable us to do different things. The barber at the barber's shop cuts our hair. The teacher at school teaches us math. A parent, at work, earns money to put food, from the grocery store, on the table, constructed at the carpenters shop, with equipment powered by electricity drawn from an electrical grid. Threads multiply in many different directions. But for whatever reason, when something is presented to us as being of monumental significance, we loose our entire grip on the reality of things.

The most recent papal election is a good example of our collective lack of sanity, as was the American Presidential election. All of our hopes and fear become invested in single persons, when, in fact, the reality of the situation is much more complex. A liberal media discovers that Pope Francis is a staunch conservative on familial and sexual matters. They lament that he has not caught up with the modern age. But, of course, Francis was promoted through the ranks of one of the world's oldest institutions, whose ability to outlast its most vociferous critics has been proven time and again. That same liberal media should have been able to anticipate the new pope's failure to measure up its own standards. Single individuals, no matter how strategically they are placed, can never completely change the way things are done. Where civil order reigns, the best any one person can do is create ripples across the surface of humanity.

Networks of social relations enable individual actions and absorb the consequences of individual actions. Changes that occur will be small and incremental. When Catholics close ranks around the pope and everyone else finds reasons to criticize him for personal deficiencies, what everyone is actually debating is the nature of that particular nodes of nodes in the network of social relations called the Catholic Church, centered on the office of the papacy.

If only our newsmakers didn't pretend the social order was flat.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Love Wins, and Tough Love Goes to Hell

About two years ago, former Mars Hill pastor Rob Bell created waves through the North American Evangelical world with his book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (2011). Critics called him many things, but objections centered mainly on Bell's apparent rejection of the sort of image of Hell one would expects from 19th century fire and brimstone, revivalist preachers or late medieval disparagers of mortal flesh immortalized in the scene of the danse macabre (which, oddly enough, looks a lot like a scene from the hit zombie-drama The Walking Dead).

Bell's point seems to have been this: Hell is not a literal place, occupying a space somewhere just beyond or behind the space of our everyday experience. No, Hell is a state we create for ourselves by closing ourselves off from God. Not being entirely sure what the latter statement means, I find it usually a good idea to go looking for those tips for 'practical application' of a teaching. And when we go looking, we find that Bell was looking for a more forgiving version of the Christian faith. Threats of eternal condemnation in a place of perpetual suffering don't measure up to the most forgiving of standards, so objective version of Hell will have to go.

The sort of argument Bell put forward is not new. Back in 1963, the Anglican bishop John Robinson published a book, Honest to God, in which he argued our ideas of heaven and hell (among other things) are outdated in a modern science age. In our churches, Robinson pointed out, we talk as if heaven is physically up above us and hell physically down beneath our feet. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Yuri Gargarin had pierced that veil of physical transcendence, looked for God, as he later reported, and did not see him. The take-away for Robinson was that we have to rethink what we mean about heaven, hell, and the fate of human beings, since cheap physical metaphors no longer work.

Now, when I first heard about Bell's book, I perked up my ears to listen to what other people were saying, but I didn't see much use in expending my own time reading. What I heard confirmed what I expected I would read. Since the commentators were stirring up a great fuss about Bell's denial of the existence of an actual location for Hell, my instincts told me that Bell was dabbling with some sort of post-metaphysical, and so post-Chalcedonian, version of the Christian faith. If you deprive theologians of the ability to use terms like human nature, fallen nature, and the two natures of the God-man Jesus Christ, talk about Hell very quickly falls by the wayside. Metaphysical nature-talk gets at something 'out there', so to speak. Which means, when mysterious the existence of evil gets affirmed, and people try to flesh out exactly how evil is going to be finally eliminated, talk about Hell as a place 'out there' also creeps in.

This morning I read Bell's book--from cover to cover, inside of an hour and found that it wasn't quite what I expected. Bell used some odd language to characterize the relationship between Jesus and God, but nothing that fell outside of the bounds of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. Indeed, he spends a whole chapter about how the man Jesus is God, how salvation is only found through Christ, and so on and on with all the standard Evangelical Gospel stuff. In addition to the whole Hell-is-not-a-place argument, some helpful questions were raised about what the so-called 'personal relationship' with Jesus actually amounts to. Nothing immediately objectionable to Christian who want to identify themselves with a tradition of orthodox teaching going back to the Apostles, Fathers, and Doctors of the Church.

That is, until I got to the part of what Bell thinks Hell actually is. There are at least two definitions of Hell presented in Loves Wins--and they are, as far as I can tell, disconnected from each other. One is a physical definition. Bell has readers think about the damaged bodies of the child-victims of war or the victims of rape, about the suffering violence inflicted on the human body causes. The other is a subjective definition. Bell tells his readers to think about people who cut themselves off from the healing message of Jesus Christ. That was the same message had by the Hebrew prophets, one of social engagement, of feeding the hungry, of aiding the downtrodden. Bell's point is that people ought not close themselves off to other people. Things go badly when they do.

And I can't figure out, for the life of me, how the two versions of Hell fit together.

Superficially, the correspondence is obvious. Victims of violence need the help of everyone, as do the economically disadvantaged. The reality of Hell, however, was traditionally associated with punishment for wicked deeds. If Heaven is the perfection of our imperfect attempt to show grace and mercy, Hell is the perfection of our feeble human attempts to balance the scales of justice. Hell is not an actual physical location; it is a place of judgment. Maiming children or raping women both fall into the category of deeds that get you thrown into prison. (As should the unscrupulous activities of bankers and politicians...) So, if you believe in God, why should it be problematic that these deeds will also get you thrown into Hell? What's the problem? If you don't believe if God, you are still stuck with the problem of whether there are certain criminal actions are deserving of incarceration, whether incarceration is ultimately a constructive practice, etc.. I am not proposing to answer either question. I am simply pointing out that Bell avoids treating the questions with any seriousness.

Bell seems to want his readers to fix problems of human suffering, but he also avoids engaging with the causes of human suffering. Somewhere he goes soft on the whole issue--not just of aiding those who are suffering--but challenging those who are causing people to suffer. And that is a very real problem, it seems to me. There's a sort of self-satisfied bourgeois mentality at play here that says I'm okay, you're okay, everything is okay. But when things are obviously not okay, all it knows to do is repeat the mantra: I'm okay, you're okay, we're all okay--which is not okay.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

History as Moral Science

Did you know that hippies in the 1960s were smelly Satan worshipers, the Ku Klux Klan were avid community service workers, or slaver owners were nice people (aside from the whole slavery thing)?

I didn't. Or, more precisely, I would have doubted these arbitrary descriptors got at anything essential about the demographics they characterized.

And now I do, all thanks to a Grade 8 textbook on American history titled America: Land I Love, published in Louisiana. This delightful addition to curious and quaint examples of Americana also informs me that hippies wore ragged unconventional clothing, fell under the influence of rock music, and belonged to Eastern religious cults.

On the balance of probabilities, and all other things being equal, the textbook is probably not lying outright. Some hippie probably thought the Devil a pretty groovy guy, some Klan members probably did do community service, and (perhaps a little more controversially) a few slave owners, according to the times in which they lived, probably weren't all that bad. As regards the hippies, some of them did no doubt smell, did listen to rock music, and did follow exotic spiritualities. The Salon report linked to above may not be wrong that this stuff 'doesn't belong in a history book', but it doesn't do a good job explaining why.

All of the focus on historical details misses the point. The sort of judgments being foisted on unsuspecting youngsters are the problem, specifically because they judgments of moral condemnation and exoneration. This type of history is written with an eye to the way the author wants to see the world, not to the way things actually were. (Yes, that was me, channeling Leopold von Ranke.) The opposition between what we want things to be and what things actually were may be a little simplistic, I grant you, but it remains a valid one.

The middle of the 20th century was a forum for some pretty interesting debates about whether a historian should also pass moral judgments on the people they were studying. Some historians held that the study of human history should aspire to strictly scientific standards of factual accuracy and impartiality. Others were willing to grant that pure objectivity was a pipe dream, considering the subject matter: the thoughts and actions of other human beings. It was hardly possible, for example, to talk about Adolf Hilter and the Nazi Party without passing some sort of moral judgment. And even if one doesn't pass judgement explicitly, there is always the question of what motivates persons to take up the study of Hilter et al. in droves instead say, of cathedral communities in 11th century Santiago de Compostella (a topic which I personally happen to find fascinating). Moral concerns also exert themselves in indirect ways and some account must be made of them. The better way, the second group of historians said, was to distance one's personal judgments from the history one tells as much as possible.

Valid points are made by many participants in these intellectual debates. It seems to me, however, most participants misunderstand the essential nature of a moral imperative. For example, if historians ought to aspire to the strict standards of scientific accuracy or ought to hold their personal judgments apart from the historical judgment, a moral imperative sneaks back into the study of history through a backdoor.

The question is why moral judgments always seem to be encroaching upon the study of history. The answer is fairly simple and straightforward: historians are human being talking about other human beings. Never escaping the circle of humanity reflecting upon itself and upon the nature of its existence, like natural scientists do when they study the natural world, things personal, things subjective, things moral, etc., etc., never actually drop out of the historians equation.

Where does this leave us with respect to the Louisiana textbook? If, as I am claiming here, the study of human history is a thoroughly moral enterprise, then we have to think about the nature of the person passing judgment and the nature of the person that gets judged. As usually happens in the study of human history, the former person is alive and the latter persons are long dead. And, we know the dead don't speak for themselves--which is just a part of what being dead means. (The hippies, of course, aren't dead yet, but the point still stands.)

Now, the person who accuses someone long dead of morally abhorrent behavior had better be sure that their condemnation of the dead is not itself morally abhorrent. The dead are dead and gone. In a certain respect, they have already paid for their sins by dying. So if we are going to disinter their memories, to hold them up to make a moral point that the dead, because they are dead, cannot themselves take to heart, we better have a damn good reason for doing so. Because if what we are really doing is fighting contemporary moral battles in the pages of human history, we are being both cowardly and duplicitous by talking away from ourselves and refusing to own our own beliefs.

Which is why professional historians tend to eschew passing moral judgment, and prefer instead to understand what people actually thought and did. Calling slave owners nice people doesn't actually get at what being a slave owner was about. Nor does calling hippies smelly Satan-worshippers get at what hippies actually thought about life. Though these things may very well reflect contemporary attitudes towards of a wealthy white population towards a perceived troublesome African-American population. They may also reflect contemporary attitudes towards the perceived excesses of disgruntled youth.

What cheap moralisms do not do is allow persons reading the Louisiana textbook to encounter persons as persons. If the only thing the textbook ever does is present persons as moral exemplars of what to do and not to do, it has violated perhaps the most universal moral statement humanity has ever possessed: the Golden Rule, which St. Augustine systematized by distinguishing human action from human nature--hating the sin and not the sinner--and is still enshrined in legal principles like due process, habeus corpus, and being innocent until proven guilty.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Guidance of the Holy Spirit?

In the time running up to the papal conclave, news networks have thrown objectivity to the wind and begun to talk as if everyone, not just Catholics, has something invested in its outcome. Anchors on CNN wonder in earnest about the sort of pope America wants. The venerable anchor of The National on CBC, Peter Mansbridge, did better in his interviews of Quebec Cardinal Marc Oulette. Managing to convey the familiarity of an insider alongside the fascination with the exotic that an outsider might have is a tall order. A testimony to his deft way with interviewees, Mansbridge pulls it off. Viewers were still left, however, with a sense of immediate relevance for them, regardless of their (non-)affiliation to the Catholic faith.

On a slightly more serious note--and let me cast my news media net a little wider to include print and electronic news sources--nobody seems to grasp what is meant is meant when Catholic priests talk about 'the guidance of the Holy Spirit'. The finer points of trinitarian theology notwithstanding, most get that the guidance of the Holy Spirit has something to do with what God wants out of the affair. And that's as far as they get.

The contemporary public mindset seems to gets no further than a simple opposition: either it's God's will, or it's human will. The either/or logic, however, actually misrepresents what Catholics are saying. The truth of the matter, at least from a Catholic perspective, is that the logic must be both/and, which admits unity with a distinction, not absolute opposition.

(Not being a Catholic myself, my Catholic friends will have to weigh in and tell me if I have got post on what the guidance of the Holy Spirit means about right.)

The New York Times has published an excellent article describing what goes on inside a papal conclave. There will be politicking, jockeying for position, vying for votes, and so on. That's the nature of the game. Other reporters have been a little less scrupulous, using the either/or logic as the hook to grab a reader's attention. Since we already know that people are vying for the position--this sort of thing happens every time a papal conclave comes around--we know that human wills are involved in the process. Therefore whatever God's will might amount to, it needn't be factored into our real-world analysis of the situation. The appeal of cardinals to the guidance of the Holy Spirit is obviously nothing more than political posturing: one step backwards in humility, two steps forward towards the throne of St. Peter.

Actually, it is difficult to think of what God's will might amount to in the either/or logic of things. If we say it's either God's will or human will, that is to assume that God's will is fundamentally comparable to human will. So if I choose to pen this blog post instead of working on other things, God also chooses to do one thing and not another. There's a problem here, though. The either/or logic cuts God, at least as he is traditionally conceived, down to a very digestible human size. It makes a man out of him, if you will, by constraining his actions, choosings, and will to the same sort of spatially and temporally limited actions, choosings, and willings of human beings.

The end of either/or logic, it seems to me, is that this very human description of God gets easily set aside. We've never seen a Big Person interfere in the affairs of us little people, ergo...

When Catholics talk about the guidance of the Holy Spirit, however, the logic employed is far more dialectical: it's a both/and logic that attempts to account a couple of very important Catholic convictions, namely, that human beings are created in the image of God, and in some sense participate in God's activity, and also that God himself became a human being.

The point is that dubious attempts to imagine God as something entirely transcendent, something completely separate, will always fail. It is the central paradox of the Book of Isaiah, which is notable here because the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all quote from it.  God says of himself, 'So are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts than your thoughts,' and also charts the failure of both the wicked king Ahaz and the righteous king Hezekiah to represent God adequately for the people of Israel. Precisely because God is so transcendent, human beings must fail everytime they speak of him. Even speaking of God as transcendent is going to run you into problems.

Which means we have instead to think carefully about what human beings ought to do with this knowledge of their inability to speak truly of God or his will. In the first place, an ethic of service towards others will be encouraged. One ought not rule like a despot if one doesn't have a clue exactly what the God one claims to rule on behalf of wants of his people. Hence the pope has been called the Servant of the Servants of God. In the second place, that ethic of service is bolstered by the image of the death of God as a human being on behalf of human beings. Hence the pope is called the Vicar of Christ.

An appropriate image for the Catholic Church is that of a pyramid always falling into itself. Of course, the image doesn't exactly reflect the reality of the pomp and circumstance, and also the long record of abusing clerical power, that will follow popes wherever they go. But human beings have rarely allowed reality to discredit long-cherished ideals. Marxism and socialism have both died a very long deaths, for example, and it remains to be seen whether they are quite dead yet. So it also does not follow that Catholic ideals must therefore die because Catholics haven't lived up to them.

The logic of both/and is built into the very fabric of the Catholic Church. To be guided by the Holy Spirit, then, means to imitate, as far as one is able, in all deference and humility to one's fellows, the God-become-man who the pope is said to represent. And if one tries to do these things, then one also places faith guidance of the Holy Spirit

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Moral Relativism

Busy writing a thesis proposal, so the time to write on other things dries up quickly. Which is not to say I am not noting things that interest me. Most of the things that I note, however, are too long to develop adequately in writing. So I am going to try to keep this brief...

Does pluralism--as in a pluralism of perspective, whether religious, political, or other--equal moral relativism? Over at the Huffington Post, Brian C. Stiller offers a surprisingly refreshing Evangelical answer to the question: 'Don't Mistake Pluralism for Moral Relativism.'

On the side of a possible religious conservative, pluralism equal moral relativism for the simple reason that different people are living their lives differently, which stands in the way of possible communal agreement moral questions. Pluralism is a bad thing because moral relativism compromises communal integrity.

On the side of a possible secular liberal, pluralism equals moral relativism because pluralism entails the right of individuals to determine for themselves the sort of life they want to live, how they want to live it, and who they want to share it with. So pluralism is a good thing because moral relativism allows individuals to express their individuality.

Stiller's position lies somewhere between the two extremes:
Pluralism is not about relativism. It is a social agreement which says, people with differing views have a right to have them heard and explored.
His position differs from the other two by being a position on persons, not on perspectives--or a perspective on persons instead of a perspective on perspectives. As a consequence, Miller advances the conversation in significant ways. Unlike our possible religious conservative and secular liberal, Miller gets that perspectives don't mean a great deal apart from the experience of people who see the world in their terms.

But Miller, in my estimation, could make a much stronger case. The ancient religious traditions, in fact, each have their own ways of making Miller's argument. They will observe that the human being is incapable of grasping the entirety of existence with their mind; they will further observe that these mental limitations have some sort of affinity to the human body. What a person knows, or can claim to know, will in some sense belong to the world of a person's experience--either direct personal experience, or indirect experience mediated by others persons or other sources of information like books or television. A personal world of experience is centered on a body that never occupies more places than one or moment in time beyond the present moment.

Recognition that bodily existence is a limited existence means no one human being has a absolute perspective on the whole. Though not every believer can be expected to draw the inference, the pious person should have recognized that this changes how one relates to one's fellow human beings. Not capable of grasping the whole of existence, one ought to be able to find oneself in exactly the same existential situation that everyone else occupies. Which means no one is in an position to 'lord' their authority over others. What authority persons might claim over others cannot be asserted as a matter of mere perspective, but must be earned in the course of acquiring experience.

And experience is marred by bodily limitation. The question of whether one knows better, or is better, or deserves better than others do, and on what ground one would base such claims, follows quite naturally. So it should surprise no one that every religious tradition has its own version of the summary Jesus provides of the Mosaic law and the Hebrew prophets: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Doing God's Work

Lloyd Blankfein has suggested bankers' salaries should not be capped because they are simply doing God's work.

Bankers, more specifically, are serving corporate shareholders, which serves the interest of society at large.

Riding this wave of corporate sloganeering, the Harvard Business Review published a verbally slippery addendum arguing that bankers do deserve their gargantuan bonuses. The author rolled out a mathematical formula for what he called 'return on invested talent' and plugged in dollar values to show, voila! bankers really do deserve to make more money. His reasoning: they deserve to make more because the volumes of capital they handle are larger than the rest of us.

No doubt, he is partially right. Persons who have been given more responsibility--or who have earned the right to take more responsibility--should be compensated accordingly. To my mind, at least, that still doesn't justify paying out gi-normous bonuses to the same sorts of people who constructed financial products that precipitated the destruction, it has been suggested, of more than $50 trillion in wealth around the world.

As a religious studies student, who cannot claim to have more than a curiosity in the wizardry called economics, I am in a position to know when someone is hiding an questionable religious or moral claim behind a smokescreen of bullshit. Doing God's work or deserving to make, not just more money, but exponentially larger amounts of money than the rest of us gets at what a person thinks about the way things are, or at least the way they ought to be. These are absolute claims dressed down in modest banker's attire. The scary part is that both Blankfein and the HBR buy into an economic determinism more deterministic than the dourest of Calvinist predestinarians.

The author from the HBR didn't argue that bankers deserve more because they are responsible for more (as I did above). If they had, then obvious moral questions of why they were responsible and to whom they were responsible would come up. To shareholders? Obviously. To customers? If they want to continue making more money. To employees? Perhaps for the duration of their employment. To government? Well, taxes must be paid and regulations must be abided by. To the wider society? Can businesses be allowed to make money without regard for their neighbours welfare? Good question.

No, the HBR argued that they deserve more pay because they handle more capital, which the financial data easy bears out upon even the most cursory of analyses. Deserving this or deserving that is a consquence of a factually determinable state of affairs. God's will is determined by counting the money and following it around wherever it goes. The argument is not unlike one you would hear coming from the mouth of profit's prophet, Kevin O'Leary.

The author even had the audacity to suggest facts demonstrated bankers deserved their bonuses, and every argument to the contrary was animated by emotions. Now this is true, but every argument, including ones made in the HBR, is animated by some emotion or other. Obviously a smart guy, the author nonethelesslacks the intelligence to differentiate between judgments of fact and judgments of value. The latter don't automatically flow from the former.

If the latter did flow from the former, then Bankfein would be justified in saying the motivations of bankers are unimpeachable because they are doing God's work. But economists weren't trained, last I checked, to speculate about God's will or the nature of morality.

Indeed, there is something self-servingly short-sighted about these sorts of arguments. They treat money as an object to do studied, much like the tides or gravitational forces are studied. But money is a human contrivance, invented to regularize human interactions, especially exchanges of goods and services. Money has no life of its own. It's doesn't move on its own. We, collectively, you and I, individuality, animate it and make it move.

It stands to reason that if money isn't a natural force whose behavior can be predicted apart from basic considerations about human behaviour, which always has a moral dimension, no answer to the question whether bankers deserve their bonuses will be answered with a mathematical formula.

What are they teaching in Business Ethics classes these days?

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Kant's Very Modest Proposal for Achieving Perpetual Peace

An episode in the life of perhaps the most influential intellectual in the last four centuries, Immanuel Kant, serves to illustrate some of the confusion perpetuated by modern thinkers about the nature of religion. In 1794, Kant was informed that the Prussian king, Wilhelm II, would no longer tolerate his increasingly heterodox positions on the nature of true belief. His 'continued obstinacy', especially with the publication of Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (1793), had tested the patience of authorities long enough. Personally wealthy at this later point in his career and capable of supporting himself, Kant still took the threat of loosing his academic posting to heart. He capitulating to the demands of the Prussian king and his royal council.

Among his other duties and endeavors, a thus muzzled Kant turned his attentions to formulating what was necessary to achieve perpetual peace in a world full of nation-states. The document can be viewed as a whole here: Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (1795). It struggled with basic questions like how one translates a set of ideas in the heads of certain people into lived reality for everyone. The document concluded:
If it is a duty to make real (even if only through approximation in endless progress) the state of public law, and if there is well-grounded hope that this can actually be done, then perpetual peace, as the condition that will follow what has erroneously been called "treaties of peace" (but which in reality are only armistices), is not an empty idea. As the times required for equal steps of progress become, we hope, shorter and shorter, perpetual peace is a problem which, gradually working out its own solution, steadily approaches its goal. (Emphasis mine.)
Though Kant was explicitly instructed not to theorize about the nature of true religion, he was able to theorize about a quintessentially religious topic: the nature of a state of existence devoid of violence, characterized by perpetual peace, which had been called the Kingdom of God by former thinkers like St. Augustine, and would be called as much by later thinkers like G.W.F. Hegel. The irony was that the authorities do not seem to have objected, which was probably because they did not know enough to draw the connection themselves. Not free to question the peculiar dogmas of the Christian faith, like the deity of Christ, the character of worship, and the nature of morality, Kant was nonetheless free to theorize about a state of peace in which the self is one with the world and the world with the self.

The Kantian coup d'etat was accomplished through sheer force of intellectual modesty. Kant claimed not to be talking about ultimate bliss, harmony, or peace; he claimed to be merely sketching out how the same might be achieved in this world. This sort of argument only flies, however, if your audience already agrees with the basic premise that religion has nothing to do with what might be achieved in this world. The following passage illuminates the nature of Kant's this-worldliness:
The state of peace among men living side by side is not the natural state (status naturalis); the natural state is one of war. This does not always mean open hostilities, but at least an unceasing threat of war. A state of peace, therefore, must be established, for in order to be secured against hostility it is not sufficient that hostilities simply be not committed; and, unless this security is pledged to each by his neighbor (a thing that can occur only in a civil state), each may treat his neighbor, from whom he demands this security, as an enemy.
Here we find Kant thinking about an original state in the larger context of argument that thinks forwards towards a desired end state. The above passage contains reference to old ideas about 'the state of nature', which thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke once debated with serious intent. 'States of nature' were secularized version of the biblical narratives of the goodness of the creation and the human fallenness. Sometimes emphasis was placed on original goodness, in which case the state of nature was also a state of innocence. Other times emphasis was placed on original fallenness, in which case the state of nature was also a state of war.

Kant's attempts to describe how perpetual peace might be achieved was an inspiration for the failed League of Nations and the moderately successful United Nations in the 20th century. Tellingly, however, 'state of nature' is today nothing more than antiquary curiosity.

As I argued elsewhere, we think as if we are ahead of ourselves. We are either thinking ahead to better days or despairing of the possibility that things might get better; we rarely think backwards with anything more than antiquary curiosity about the bits and pieces our predecessors have left behind.

Kant's coup d'etat contributes to the modern reorientation of our mental landscape. His intellectual modesty has meant we no longer know how the past, present, and future hang together. Though he uses the language of the 'state of nature', Kant no longer means the ways things were in a hypothetical or mythical past. He means the way things are right now, if a universal civil authority over all the world's nation-states wase absent. Hobbes and Locke, arguably, meant the something similar; but in deference to their religious heritage, they hypothesized as if the state of nature were found in the distant past.

The ability to think backwards and forwards from the present situation, comparing and contrasting the way things are with the way they might be, and even the way they ought to be, is at the heart of religious belief. That is why Kant's proposal for perpetual peace, though it should strike us as fundamentally religious, comes across, in fact, as a modest secular proposal.

Nothing audacious, nothing untowards. Just a slow ascent into a state of purely civil interactions between persons, each acting with restraint towards others, as if everyone else were autonomous, self-determining agents, and not means to some other self-aggrandizing end--be that fame, fortune, pain, pleasure, power, etc.--which, when you think about it really hard, does sound a lot like religious promises about a world better than the present one.