All Cases Make Bad Law

(Half-formed thoughts, subject to revision. More than usual, I mean.)

Two anecdotes:

As a  young man, worked briefly in the insurance industry, for a while as a personal lines (auto, home, that sort of thing) underwriting analyst. The particular company I worked for had a marketing strategy by which they would approach certain groups – the California Teacher’s Union being the biggest – and offer them some special deals if they’d agree that we were their official insurance company and let us market directly to their members that way. A very interesting business model, and how I came to have a small bit of personal contact with the uppity-ups in the Teacher’s Union. One part of the typical deal was an appeals board that included some actual union members, that people insured could make appeals to if they didn’t like how the insurance company treated them. (1)

One task we with the Underwriting Analyst job title would do is look over the more crazy, out there claims and issues, including stuff that had been appealed to these boards. One time, we were discussing a case where a dreaded Young Male Driver was appealing non-renewal (when the insurance company says ‘no thanks’ to another year of coverage). Over the previous year or so, he had multiple moving violations to the point where his licence was near being revoked, and had made a couple of claims (those things do go together). He was shocked and claimed it was totally unfair of us to not renew his policy – that his driving record was no worse than anybody else he knew. For all I know, he was completely sincere.

Now, an underwriting analyst has access to much accumulated insurance wisdom. Using this wisdom, I know I am a fairly typical driver: in 40 years of driving, I’ve had 2 at fault accidents (both in the first year of driving, when I was a dreaded Young Male Driver myself) and 1 moving violation. That averages out to 0.05 accidents and 0.025 tickets per year. Having more than one ticket in a year is very unusual, and raises a lot of red flags, because getting tickets and costing the insurance company a lot money do go together. This kid was a phenomenal outlier and probably a menace. But he was sure he was typical, and no amount of information could convince him otherwise.

Second anecdote:

Almost the last time I listened to NPR was years ago, a Terry Gross interview of some legal scholar. They were addressing the issue of how real life changes faster than laws can get written, so that judges are faced with cases laws never anticipated and for which there are not any really valid precedents. Their conclusion: of course judges must make the law! With a strongly implied ‘how could anybody seem so stupid as to imagine otherwise?’

Instead of discussing the need for balance – the need for the written law to be respected and weighed against the occasional need to rule on a situation that lies outside the written law – we just chuck the written law! What could be simpler?

A common thread in the above is how a a thing, a ‘this’ in Aristotle’s way of talking, presents itself for consideration. In insurance, a thing might be a claim; in law, it might be a case. As a claims adjuster or a judge, the units of interest to you arrive to your awareness prepackaged, as it were, by rules and laws, assumptions and theories – as facts, as things made, in a traditional configuration. Yet what’s missing, what is critical to making wise decisions, is the knowledge of the wide cultural and moral context within which the claim or case is made.

Such a moral and cultural context is not strictly objective, in the sense that it’s not something to be learned merely by looking at how things are at some time and place. It includes, at least in the West, recognition of imperfectly realized ideals. Without this cultural context taken in the widest possible sense, a sense that includes Jewish reverence for the law of God, Greek logic, and Christendom’s ancient sense of salvation history, not just hard cases, but all cases make bad law.

This is where case law gets tricky. If we look to precedent, what we are doing should not be just sussing out how other judges judged and seeing if their judgement applies to the facts in this case. We should also try to to understand that constellation of moral and cultural beliefs that made that judgement seem just to that judge.

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Righteous mustache, I must admit. 

I’m not a lawyer, and have felt only the slightest attraction to that profession(2). But I love philosophy. I’ve read just enough (very little) of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr to be dangerous.  OWH Jr assures us that law is, in its essence, philosophy (3). Well, then! Here we go.

If I understand justice to be essentially something eternal and unchanging, along the lines of a Platonic form, more or less, I will look at case law as perhaps revealing something true about justice. At least potentially, all those decisions will reflect all the judges’ best cogitations on the same truth. Like science, it would be acknowledged up front that all such attempt are provisional, that something that comes along later might require reexamination of assumptions. But the basic shape of the process is also like science – it assumes the existence of an objective reality to which our best efforts are an approximation. Over time, we should hope that the approximation gets better. In the meantime, we get useful gadgets and useful rulings.

Hegel, whose influence, fell and dread, was strong on OWH Jr, teaches that the methods of science is not suitable for true philosophers. By this, he does not mean the (real and true) limitation of modern science to things that can be measured. Rather, he refers to the logical processes that underlie not only science but all prior philosophy. Science works by ‘propositional logic’, moving step by careful step from premises stated and restated to be as clear as possible, using logic as beloved by Aristotle and Thomas to reach valid conclusions. Hegel dismissed such efforts as something engaged in by the little people – not by true philosophers like himself.

True philosophers use speculative reason, a phrase redefined away from its traditional meaning by Hegel to mean insights gained by whatever it is that Hegel does to get insights.

The most fundamental of all realities to Hegel are not immutable truths, but Progress. The Spirit reveals and comes to know itself through an endless series of revelations. Reason that relies on logic as an immutable foundation is thus never going to get it right – people wedded to logic, to the notion that true things need to make sense on some level, will reject the latest revelation on the grounds that it is irrational – that it is self-contradictory. To Hegel, this is both of the nature of revelation – it wouldn’t be a revelation if it made sense – and the reason to reject *logic*, at least in philosophic discourse.

Human beings struggle to come to grips with these revelations, struggle to shed the previous rigid thinking we’d settled into after we’d incorporated the last revelation into our consciousness. Those who cannot incorporate the new revelation – those unable to suspend the contradiction within a dialectic synthesis – are left behind, are on the wrong side of history, or, worse yet, are trying to turn the clock back.

Hegel has never been accused of being clear.

We see a meeting of soul-mates. This is not a coincidence. Hegel was a conventional Lutheran. For 300 years, Lutherans and Calvinists and Protestants in general had asserted the rational superiority of their beliefs to Catholicism. Yet both Calvin and Luther famously denigrated reason – ‘that whore’, as Luther called it. I suppose that’s one of those contradictions subsumed in a synthesis, a contradiction in creative tension.

If you define ‘rational’ as ‘falling under the purview of the methods of Aristotle and Thomas’ the teachings of Calvin and Luther will lose that argument (4). That’s why Philosophy since 1630 or so has been exclusively devoted to dismissing or ignoring Aristotle and Thomas. Just as Holmes’ inherited convictions from his Harvard crowd about how the good and holy Puritans Unitarians secularist progressives should be in charge survived his rejection of the God upon the understanding of Whom such claims of superiority were initially based, the efforts to find some other way – any other way! – to think about reality than using Aristotelian logic survived the Academy’s rejection of all things theological. The lust for power survives any particular justification for it.

To be continued.

  1. Aside: you’ll sometimes hear an insurance company tout its 97% customer satisfaction rate with its claims services. Duh. About 97% of the time, the claim is obvious and any half-way respectable insurance company will promptly pay it – reasonable people are pretty satisfied with that. The other 3% includes the very rare hard case,  where it’s not clear at all that the insurance company should pay, a few fraud cases, but mostly, I’d guess about 3% of the population simply does not want to be satisfied no matter what. I suspect we all know people like that, and thus suspect anything over a 97% satisfaction rate doesn’t include a representative sample of humanity.
  2. Taking my father’s oft-stated belief that education was for getting a better job, I couldn’t see law as anything but a job that claimed to be a vocation that has no justification outside of working for justice. In other words, a lawyer making money is a sell-out by definition. Of course, a couple of my college roommates became a judge and a worker’s rights lawyer, which kinda works…
  3. And, in the course of assuring us of this, dismisses the vast bulk of lawyers as just journeymen of a craft, with no real understanding. This goes back, I would think, to his bedrock Harvard/Boston/essentially Puritan roots, institutions founded on the belief that people like him – the smart, good people – should be in charge of the less smart, less good people. Even losing his faith in God didn’t damage his faith in his own Brahmin class’s meritocracy and fitness to rule.
  4. The Catholic Encyclopedia, whose side in this dispute should be obvious,  says of Robert Bellarmine: “In 1576 …the lectures thus delivered grew into the work “De Controversiis” which, amidst so much else of excellence, forms the chief title to his greatness. This monumental work was the earliest attempt to systematize the various controversies of the time, and made an immense impression throughout Europe, the blow it dealt to Protestantism being so acutely felt in Germany and England that special chairs were founded in order to provide replies to it.” Thus began Catholic attempts to make sense of the mish-mash of Protestant claims and arguments. That there are so many conflicting claims and arguments has always testified against them – Does human will count for anything? Does a plowboy need any help understanding Scripture? Do we need baptism or not? Once, or more than once? What, if anything, does the Eucharist represent? And on and on and on. It is obvious that, if these claims represent superior rationality, that rationality cannot be based on the belief that the Truth is One. Thus, Aristotle and Thomas must be rejected.

Peace, Love and Misunderstanding

Stating the obvious this morning.

1. The name is not the thing. Focusing on the political side of things for now, calling a nuclear missile a Peacekeeper or thousands of pages of unread federal laws and regulations the Affordable Care Act, for example, does not automatically keep the peace or provide affordable care. It matters both what the thing is, and how it is used. What its proponents call it, not so much.

Yet, judging by what one reads, some people are convinced that questioning anything about the ACA is the same as not wanting affordable care, and is, in fact, indistinguishable from tossing sick poor people out of their hospitable beds to die in the street. Others, aware enough so that the (predictable and predicted) failure of the ACA to in fact provide affordable care has gotten past their defenses, seem baffled or betrayed, even, that the thing isn’t exactly what it was called. (1) These reactions reveal a charming innocent faith that the name is the thing, that voting for the right name is the same as voting for what the name says it is.

This magical belief differs from the traditional belief in the power of names, in that, under the traditions of many peoples, the true name, the name that is bound to and reveals the true nature of the person or thing named, is something to be discovered, or bestowed with great care. Under the modern practice described here, the process is reversed: simply by naming something, we make it what we’ve named it. So, not only is a muddled mess of a bill affordable care, but a man is a woman is the Eiffel Tower.

2. Along the same lines, what a politician says he is or is doing does not necessarily conform to what he actually is and is doing.  This one is bifurcated: politicians on my team are who they say they are and are doing what they say they’re doing, while politicians on the other team are never who they say they are, and are always lying about what they’re doing.

If forced to choose – and we are not – I’d go with filter B: they are all lying, power-hungry hypocrites and require evidence to the contrary before believing anything a politician has to say.  The party affiliation hardly matters, in general, except for times (like now) where one party is so wedded to profound unreality and the tyrannical enforcement thereof, that a sane man can conclude that anyone promoting that line is proven, at best, the victim of long-cultivated delusions or, in the case of politicians,  more likely a lying tool. See, for example, the positions of major politicians on gay marriage 10 years ago versus now.

3. That the other side is wrong has no bearing on whether your side is right or not. Both sides can be wrong. In general, that’s probably the most likely situation, as there seem to be many more ways to be wrong than to be right. The existence of a two-party system (or, frankly, a system of parties of any number) all but guarantees that, on most issues, both sides will be wrong. Why? Because parties take positions as a function of getting support, or at least of not alienating constituents too much. If a position arrived at by cooking up such a stew happened to be right, it would be a happy and unlikely accident.

4. Properly speaking, the terms right and wrong apply to principles. Terms such as effective or ineffective, prudent or imprudent and the like apply to policies or courses of action, and the bills, programs, departments, cabinet secretaries and so on instituted to carry them out. Thus, the principle that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights may be true or false, right or wrong, while the Constitution instituted to promote and protect a nation embodying that principle may be wisely or unwisely wrought, or well or ill executed.

shrek
Ya – Like that’s ever gonna happen.

An exception might be the case where a law, etc., is proposed that violates a principle it is said to promote and protect. Such a law would be wrong in principle, or, at least, its proponents would be making a poor (or, more likely, dishonest, sad to say) decision or argument.

Thus, we voters, to do our jobs, would need to understand the principles underlying a proposal (or candidate!) and how it is that the proposal (or candidate) is designed to better realize those principles. Then we make a judgement call. To do otherwise reveals us for posers and rubes.

5. Finally, I’m not sure whether the bigger problem is seeing what we want to see or refusing to see what we don’t want to see. Take Bernie – please. I see what is irrefutably true: Bernie is a rich white man – richer than me, that’s for sure. He is nearly in the 1%. He and his wife owns 3 houses, at least two of which sit unused at any given time. His family net worth was conservatively estimated at about $1.7 million (2). He has far better healthcare and retirement benefits than me or anyone I know. According to his tax returns, he gives next to nothing to charity – way less than I do, at any rate.  With all that wealth, several times more wealth than an average American, he and his wife support only themselves. By comparison, I, like millions of Americans, support a family with several children with my income.

Now, I’m totally cool with this – Bernie has largely lived the American Dream, he and his wife – mostly, his wife – worked for a lifetime and have some security and stuff like houses to show for it. I hope to do as well.

But his attacks on rich people ring more than a little hollow. Is ‘rich’ defined merely as ‘has more stuff than me’?  Bernie is richer than 98% of Americans.

Why are these facts not relevant? I’ve never heard them discussed at all by Bernie’s supporters. How about this fact: just as every wannabe tyrant in a democracy for the last 2500 years – Greeks, Germans, Italians, Latin Americans – everywhere there has ever been a democracy – Bernie explains to all the little people – you know, the 98% that aren’t as well off as he is – how the *real* problem is those *other guys* who, by having stuff, ruin it for the rest of us! If only I ran things! If only I  had the (of necessity, by definition, totalitarian) power, I’d get those guys! I’d take their stuff! I’d fix everything! Skittles and beer all around!

All tyrants begin as friends of the people – Plato.

A result – an intended result – of the systematic destruction of American education over the last century or so has been the elimination of the kind of learning that would allow people to hear Sander’s rhetoric as the demagoguery of a typical wannabe tyrant. (3) If you come to appreciate Plato and Aristotle as great repositories of wisdom, you are likely to notice; if they are just dead white(ish) males, then they are easily dismissed, and their observation cannot serve as warnings.

  1. Then there are the cynical Alinskyite types, who knew it wasn’t going to work, didn’t want it to work, or, more accurately, were counting on its failure to provide the crisis under which yet more power would be centralized. Present yourself as the only solution to a crisis you caused or exacerbated  – a playbook any number of ancient Greek tyrants would have recognized 2500 years ago.  Those would be the true architects of the bill, and those most willing to lie to get it passed, all the while patting themselves on the back over how brave and progressive they are to say and do whatever is necessary to get the poor slobs – that would be the rest of us – to do what’s good for us. Thus, presumed moral superiority goes hand in hand with a willingness to lie, cheat, manipulate and even resort to violence to get their way – a topic for another set of musings, perhaps.
  2. Nobody really knows the Bern’s net worth, they back into it based on required Senate disclosures, which provide wide enough ranges as to be almost useless. And his wife is most likely the major source of family income over the years – she was a college president, among other things. The Sanders did recently drop $600k on a lakefront vacation home, something he can afford to do, I imagine, because his Senate pension is *nice* – no need for the Sanders to pinch pennies for old(er) age.
  3. Worse than a tyrant, actually – a savior. As C.S. Lewis points out, when a do-gooder starts in fixing people, there is no end to the misery he may cause, because he’s doing it for our own good, and  with a clear conscience.

Progress versus Progress

Progress with a small ‘p’ is like a certain kind of good story, one with a clear beginning, middle and end, where things are left better in some way than they were at the beginning. A protagonist is faced with a problem or challenge – the beginning – and takes action and faces challenges – the middle – until a state in some way better is achieved – the end.

An example – and it is typical of such small ‘p’ progress that the example is small and personal – is my front porch. The Beginning: the 1940s vintage concrete slab that lead from the driveway to the small concrete porch had been lifted a good 4-5 inches by walnut roots, making it something of a trip hazard. The porch itself is ugly, if inconspicuously so. The Middle: plans were made – we could take out the concrete path and replace it with brick (after removing the ancient walnut tree that caused the uplift) and clad the porch itself in matching brick. It would be much more level and attractive. Of course, this involved Plot Complications: hiring professionals to take down the tree, gathering bricks (with Craig’s list, and a lot of elbow grease, bricks are ‘free’) and taking out the slab (21 year old son, a strapping, clean limbed and clean living young man, volunteered and did it, Abe Lincoln style), cleaning out the offending roots, for which the 13 year old son volunteered. (Daddy is pushing 60 hard – my sledge and axe swinging days are behind me. To 21 and 13 year old suburban punks, it sounds like fun – which it is, in small doses, when you’re young).

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The Caboose, swingin’. This path/porch thing is a sub-project to the grander 4 year Front Yard Project, of which the foreground bricks and potting soil are a further sub-project.

The End, which I’ll need a week or two more to finish, will be a pretty and more useable front walk and porch.

That’s how small ‘p’ progress works. Somebody notices a problem or opportunity, enlists the aid of others in finding and executing a solution, and then executes it. Having fixed one thing, people will then have the opportunity to work on something else. Multiply this process by millions and spread it over centuries, and you have accounted for much of what sane people mean by progress – things getting a little better over and over again. Small ‘p’ progress doesn’t solve, and doesn’t pretend to solve, giant problems. But it gets a septic tank put in, a road paved, a house built and a garden laid out. It is of such things as these that real progress is made.

Small ‘p’ progress is the only sort of progress that works.  Capital ‘P’ Progress, on the other hand, doesn’t have a Beginning, a Middle and an End. Problems to be addressed by believers in Progress are always described in the most vague terms possible: the problem is Injustice, or Oppression, or Bigotry or some other amorphous and fluid thing. No end is really an end, but is rather only another step on a road to – someplace. A Progressive is in favor of making Progress without making much of anything else.

Example – and it is typical of such capital ‘P’ Progress that the examples are large, the goals vaporous but high-sounding, and the end indefinite and unmeasurable – health care reform. Eight years ago, something like 42 million Americans did not have health insurance, and the cost of health care was increasing every year. Note that often the problem or challenge was phrased, not as “how do we provide health insurance to these 42 million people?” but rather as “Healthcare is broken and we must do something!”

It was continually asserted that one way healthcare was broken was in ever-increasing costs. Note that ever-increasing costs are also characteristic of education, and of government in general. Somehow, schooling and government are not characterized as broken, at least, not by the same people who describe medical care that way. No serious attempt at controlling education or government expenses is ever made. In those cases, the only solution is to add more money – this is the simple historical fact.

Thus, the year the ACA took effect, when we had our annual health insurance review at work (we’re an odd company – we bring in a pro every year to explain to us what’s going on with our health insurance), the woman whose job it is to understand what’s going on mentioned in passing that there were, effectively, no cost control measures in the ACA. Events have since shown this to be true.  Just as with education and government in general, the solution to increasing costs is to merely shovel more money at the problem. This creates a moral hazard, to put it mildly- why not see how high you can raise prices, when the buyer is likely to pay you no matter what? That’s how you end up with $60K/yr undergrad education and $1,000 hammers. Under what theory would healthcare be any different?

We start  with a gigantic ill-defined problem, propose actions which do not address even the problem as defined, and end up – where, exactly? With better healthcare, in general or in particular? How? For whom? The number of uninsured people has decreased less than a third, leaving nearly 30 million uninsured. Costs continue to rise. And this is setting aside that only the seriously math impaired could believe this model is sustainable.

There seems to be a counterexample for every example of improvement. For example, the people in my company were well satisfied with our insurance coverage, yet had it yanked out from under us and changed into something we like less. This seems to be a common occurrence. We weren’t being asked to sacrifice for the common good – there’s no logical connection between making coverage people were happy with illegal and providing coverage to the uninsured. If there were, then all those union and government plans exempted from the ACA rules would need to change as well – and they weren’t. (1)

A practical person in favor of small ‘p’ progress would first ascertain *why* people don’t have insurance, to see if, in fact, people not having insurance is ever or always a problem that can or should be solved. Maybe it’s a bunch of different problems, maybe it changes over time for different people. Maybe some people don’t want to pay for health insurance. Maybe there are lots of different causes that cannot be addressed with a blanket solution. Small ‘p’ progress could be made by identifying and addressing as many different problems as could be addressed with comparatively small projects with definite ends. At that point, we’d stand a better chance of seeing what, if anything, is left that requires vast action.

But such an approach would never be tolerated, even though it has worked – it is very nearly the only thing that has ever really worked – repeatedly throughout history. The mere existence of healthcare is the result of some medieval men and women deciding to care for the sick right there in front of them, organizing others to help, getting some buildings, and – caring for the sick. The descendants of these men and women brought this concept to America, where it spread. That’s how we get so many Mercy or St. Mary’s or St. Luke’s Hospitals, Methodist, Baptist and Jewish Hospitals, and how the major clinics got founded. As we got richer, collectively, and technology improved, hospitals became more professional – and more expensive. (Something rarely noted: if we would accept 1960s level health care, then providing it to all uninsured people would be a simple and cheap program. It’s the fancy stuff that costs, almost all of which has been developed in the last 60 years.)

But as in all things made by man, even the best things, healthcare falls short. It is rarely noticed that it mostly fall short where it has fallen away from its roots. The poor are made to wait in the emergency rooms of the county hospitals, when the Sisters of Mercy used to take in everyone who showed up; fancy clinics with state of the art care charge vast sums to whomever can pay them, drawing their customers from distant lands – a feature as much of English socialized healthcare as of American private healthcare.

In a flat moral universe, failure to be perfect is perfect failure. Thus, America can have the best health care for the largest number of people of any nation in the history of the world, which it objectively does, yet that’s not good enough. (2) The methods by which we got the best healthcare in the world have not produced perfect healthcare, and thus must be abandoned in favor of methods that brought the world Soviet health care (3).

To the true believers and useful idiots, the ACA is Progress. The ACA *IS* affordable healthcare, and opposing or even questioning the concrete law is, to them, hating the poor and wanting them thrown out on the street to die. It simply doesn’t matter what the details are, or even if they actually do anything that they were sold as doing. Pelosi understood her audience when she said we’d need to pass the law to see what’s in it. To supporters, the ACA was not just some bill that would do some particular things in good or poor ways – the ACA was in fact affordable healthcare itself! For doers, for the little people who make small ‘p’ progress every day, such a claim is sheer insanity. But years and years of government education and concomitant social pressure has made the insane seem real to an alarming number of people.

Finally, the small people doing small things that add up to big improvements over time require the freedom and rights to do those things. My little porch project is improving my house, yes, but also my neighborhood. Judging by comments I’ve gotten while laying bricks out front, these little projects can help inspire others to undertake their own little improvements. It’s not much, but, over time, a million such projects end up making for a prettier, neater place to live. Capital ‘P’ Progress invariably consists of forcing many people to do things they would rather not do. To Progressives, this trade-off is invisible: millions of small acts are wiped out in order for a big thing to happen, in the same way that the $20M spent by a million individuals $20 at a time is invisible, but the $20M in tax dollars spent on some pet project or other is a triumph. To a Progressive, there is simply no trade off at all! Individuals are assumed to waste their money, while sweetness and light rule government expenditures.

Orestes Brownson’s observation about the inappropriateness of government schools applies here as well: such behavior would be acceptable under the premise that the wisdom of the nation resides in its leaders, but is wholly unacceptable in America, where the nation is founded on the principle that the the wisdom of the nation resides in the people.

  1. For the sake of this example we’re pretending the ACA isn’t just a massive governmental power grab. Described that way – honestly, in other words – it works just great.
  2. Healthcare is not fungible. Getting your health care at John Muir or Stanford medical center is not the same as getting it in a county hospital, let alone the same as getting it in a clinic in Brazil.
  3. And before throwing Sweden out as the counterexample, note that wealthy Americans go to the Mayo Clinic, or John Hopkins or Stanford when they want the best care, not to Stockholm. Follow the money.

Every Argument is Convincing

(My head today is like an industrial coffee percolator: full of mineral deposits and in desperate need of a good scrubbing. No, wait – bubbling over with ideas! That it! That’s the image! Well, maybe a little of the other, too…)

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates is accused of possessing the evil superpower of ‘making the weaker argument appear the stronger’. Be that as it may, the curious part of this  accusation these days lies in noting that the Athenians were evidently under the quaint impression that some arguments are better than others.

Clearly haters.

An unavoidable impression one gets from reading Plato is that, in the Athens inherited by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, argument was both a full-contact extreme urban sport, as well as a spectator event. The Sophists, who really did teach how to make a weak argument appear strong, seemed to be everywhere, and an enterprising Athenian could probably have sold a lot of peanuts and Crackerjacks to the crowds that formed whenever Socrates took one on.

Callicles, and probably his teacher Gorgias as well, believed and taught that the stronger argument is the one that wins. Callicles cared nothing for the truth except insofar as it might help or hinder his attainment of Excellence, defined by him (and multitudes before and since) as the power to reward your friends, punish your enemies and indulge your every desire.

It’s not like our modern obsession with truth being relative and a good argument being one that gets me what I want are new things under the sun. They may qualify as baseline human behavior. Those who argue that free will is a sham, that it’s deterministic turtles all the way down, are not really arguing anything different – they are just trying to place the blame somewhere else, like in a mirthless, mechanistic universe rather than in the hubris-ridden soul of Callicles. (1)

Sometimes one might read of someone who fully embraces lying to get whatever they want with bracing honesty. Alinsky springs to mind. But mostly, our children and ourselves back at least 3 generations have been taught that truth is relative, that arguments are acts of aggression, that reason has no privileged place in conversation or even in argument. What was done through omission furtively is now done in the daylight.

Frankly, what is surprising is to see anything else. Socrates leaps off the page with his willingness to follow wherever the argument leads; Aristotle is perhaps braver still: he lays his arguments out right in the open, for anyone who wants to to approach and attack.

But the hero of argument, the towering peak of all that is good about disputing among friends to get closer to the truth, is St. Thomas. Two things that are often missed: first, he knew and taught that what the Scholastics were doing was trying to get closer to truth, not settle everything once and for all. The conclusions reached by a team of people, the small group of friends gathered at the feet of the Master to play the Questions game, did not and were never meant to settle the issue in the sense of cutting off further discussion. We do the best we can, trusting that all Truth is One, and all Truth is God, Who lovingly wants us to understand.

Second, and this is utterly missing from the modern world, there’s a deep devotion to fairness. It would be unsatisfactory and a waste of time to argue against anything but the best, strongest, most convincing argument your opponent can put out. Whenever possible, you restate the argument and get sign-off from your opponent – yes, this is exactly what I mean. (2) Like a true sportsman, they don’t want to win if they have to cheat to do it.

Reading Aquinas, even for a guy like me who lacks much of the background to really understand him, is like breathing the fresh air on a high mountain, after having climbed from the dirt and gloom of the valleys below. The eagerness to hear the arguments out – the opposing view is always given first – and the care and honor given to even pretty weak arguments is unlike anything you’re likely to run into today.

Thus, reading St. Thomas, one realizes that all arguments are good, in the sense that, in the hands of a master stating them as clearly as possible, all arguments sound reasonable enough that you would not hold anyone in contempt for believing them. Nowadays, we settle for that superficial argument without ever pursuing the question: are there other arguments even stronger?

Half truths told by liars are the coin of the realm these days. Of course there is oppression. Of course life isn’t fair. But is that the whole story? Like Thomas, it would help greatly to lay these arguments out as strongly as possible, and then see what can be rallied against them. Or watch them crumble from their own flaws.

  1. One day, when I have a month or so of free time, I’ll need to do a Luther/Erasmus/St. Thomas three-way comparison of Free Will. But it is not this day. Suffice it to say: Thomas says that to be rational, we must have free will. This is one of those so obvious it’s easy to miss things.
  2. Since a cultivated mind is one which can consider an idea without agreeing to it, Thomas and his buddies were uniquely qualified to work through and express their opponents’ arguments. He may have had the most cultivated mind in history.

 

A Thought on Eternal Evil

Eternity is not just more time, in a sense similar to how  God is not just a bigger cause. As God is the Cause of causes – the Unmoved Mover, in classic Greek philosophy, wherein, in Christian theology, all created things live and move and have their being – eternity is that within which time takes place. Eternity is more than the sum of all time.

This has implications for redemption and repentance. We, bounded by time, find it strictly unimaginable (strictly, since our acts of imaginations are realized over time) that a creature could act eternally. Angels are such creatures. We, having been given eternal life, are also such creatures, though we haven’t (in both senses of that word) realized it yet.

Image result for the fall of luciferWhen we talk of the fall of Satan and a battle in Heaven, we are speaking about events that take place (if that’s a meaningful way to say it) in eternity – they are not something that happened in the past. Satan is falling now, has fallen in the past, will continue to fall in the future – that’s how events in eternity necessarily look to us living in time, like seeing a 2-dimensional slice of a three dimensional figure, and trying to imagine the figure – only it’s worse, since eternity is not just the sum of a bunch of snapshots of time.

People sometimes wonder if Satan or any human in Hell can repent and be saved. If eternity were just more time, then that would be an interesting question. But if eternal acts are eternal, there is no ‘later’ in which to reconsider or be redeemed. This will be our fate once we realize, in the sense of make real to our own eyes, our eternal nature. This is why saints, as they start to see God, are mortified by their slightest fault – becoming more Christ-like is also becoming more aware of their own eternal nature, and how their sins tend to become eternal as a result.

So here’s the mind-bender: Satan and his angels knew all this. Their ‘act’ in falling away from God included all the temptations, manipulations, possessions and horrors by which we see evil unveiled over time – and their defeat at the hands of Christ. All these acts took place at once, as it were, as it was, is now and ever shall be. The fall of the angels IS the evil they work in the world and our lives. There was no ‘before’ Satan fell, and no ‘after’. He is falling now; he is rejecting God now; he is hating us with a white-hot passion now. And he will be doing all this for ever – for all eternity.

The fallen angels knew all this, saw how it worked out to their own destruction and pain, and rejected God anyway.

Christianity proposes we all get to make eternal decisions, that there comes a point where we pass from time within which one can change one’s mind, to eternity, where knowledge and decisions are complete.

Perfect Solutions

One thing working with one’s hands gives us is a perspective on perfection: there ain’t any in this life. You can work longer or with greater skill at something – laying a brick, painting a picture, sewing a skirt – but you will never get it perfect. What you can do is keep improving, learning more skills and (as important) more patience.

For an adult or even a sane child, that is enough. What is frustrating is working hard and not seeing any improvement. To expect improvement shows a hopeful yet rational grip on reality; to expect  perfection is to live in constant frustration in an unreal, irrational world.

I’ve written about the difference between a flat and a rich moral universe. The ultimate morally flat universe is nihilism in its various manifestations: it supports only a homogeneous 2-dimensional world of actions in which one might move around on the plane, but where no act is morally any higher or lower than any other act.

Slightly more interesting and much more common is the moral landscape of power dynamics: either you are oppressed, in which case everything you do that can be construed to have resisted oppression is good, and anything you might do as a victim of oppression is presumptively excused. Or you are an oppressor, wherein suicide of one sort or another (you may keep your body for the time being, but your intellect and integrity must die!) is the only possible morally good act you can perform. Everything else you do, no matter how apparently innocent, is an act of oppression and thus eeeevil.

In such a world, there are nothing but failures and perfect solutions, meaning there are nothing but failures. People who are oppressed can’t make small improvements in their lot over time – as long as they remain oppressed, they are objectively miserable no matter how happy their little improvements may seem to make them. The only success allowed is movement toward the day they shall be free from oppression, which mostly means getting more miserable – because happy people don’t usually have revolutions.

So, in yet another Orwellian moment, Misery is Happiness; Failure is Success. No really: as some wit once said, Marx’s call to revolution sounds a lot less convincing when all you have to lose is your suburban home, a couple of cars, a snowmobile, 4 weeks vacation, health care and all the rest of your stuff. Better you be destitute and miserable, as that is closer to Paradise. (1)

The lack of perfect solutions is used as a criticism: since there is STILL injustice in the world, every effort made by every man, woman and child,  has FAILED. Everything that has created a better life for several billion people is not good enough. The world *should* be perfect!  We may think the small and shrinking percentage of people worldwide in true poverty is a good thing, that the growing number of people who are not insecure for their persons, who have food, clothing and shelter, is a good thing – but they are not good enough! In fact, insofar as they delay the true freedom only to be had via revolution, they are eeeevil.

On the other hand, if all one hopes for is improvement, one can realistically hope to achieve something. This happy state requires a rich moral universe, where our choices and actions are judged within a moral framework with room for nuance – with room for improvement, one might say. In such a world, it is possible for such subtle shades as it being  wrong that I murdered somebody richer than me, or right that I paid him for that snowmobile. My faithfulness or unfaithfulness to my spouse is not washed out to meaninglessness by my presumed membership in one or the other of the oppressed/oppressor pair, but has – at it most certainly appears to have – real, concrete, *moral* consequences.

The richest, most detailed and thus most lovely and terrifying moral universe ever described can be seen in Dante, or in the Catechism. That is a Universe without perfection in this life, but of improvement within it. Within it can be lived a life of meaningfulness, a life standing against the blandly evil and tasteless flat moral universes being pushed upon us more every day.

  1. The devil parodies in Marxism the voluntary surrender of goods in this life for greater goods in the next.

Bullet Points,Stream of Consciousness Friday – You Weird, Too?

(TMI. You’ve been warned!)

Stream of consciousness:

  • Image result for weird talesDo you recall the point at which you became officially weird? That point where you realized that the rest of the world wasn’t sure what to make of you and wasn’t particularly interested in figuring it out? For me, two incidents from 5th grade made this all clear. I don’t remember the order, but, taken together, I came to realize that I really didn’t fit in. These, along with a couple other less amusing incidents, are what made me, effectively, a drop-out in spirit: my body was in the desk, but my mind was elsewhere.
  • Incident 1, circa 1968: someone had the brilliant idea to get TVs for all the classrooms at St. Mary’s of the Assumption School in Whittier. This being SoCal and all, sometimes it was so hot and smoggy that, by the afternoon, teachers and students hTaj Mahal in March 2004.jpgad had their fill. Our 5th grade teacher decided one day that enough was enough, and deployed the TV – she let us watch Jeopardy! for a half hour. So, suburban 5th graders hear an answer something like: “This masterpiece was designed by Ahmad Lahauri to house the remains of the Shah’s favorite wife.” – something like that. From the back of the room where I was even then hiding out, 10-year-old me says: “What is the Taj Mahal?” followed one beat later by “What is the Taj Mahal?” from the TV. Approximately 3 dozen sets of eyes turned toward me – at least, that’s how it seemed to me.
  • Image result for moonIncident 2, same circa: The teacher was trying to explain astronomy, and said that the moon, since it always faces the earth, does not rotate on its axis. Well, I started in simply objecting: of course it does, once every orbit. A room full of eyes rolled hard. Then, having not learned to shut up – a lesson still not learned nearly 50 years later – I jumped up, and walked around the teacher, showing that, if I did not turn, I would be facing the window – only by turning could I keep facing the teacher. Didn’t click. After wearing out the already thin patience of the class, I sat back down in frustration. In some fuzzy way, I learned that I was not like other people.
  • A thought constantly before my mind: I am an intellectual cripple. Oh, sure, I’ve got more than enough horsepower to be a pretty good scholar, but I almost completely lack – something. Perseverance? A methodical approach? Patience? Whatever it is, on those rare occasions where I try to be scholarly about something, really get down and understand and properly reference my sources and build valid arguments from well-supported premises, I usually end up petrified in short order.
  • Instead, mostly, I rely on what might be called a gift, but might be a curse or might be at least a temptation: my mind’s barely, if at all, conscious compulsion to make connections. On a trivial level: almost any event can trigger a song to run through my head. If I deign to notice it, I will find that it is in fact the perfect song for the situation, that the lyrics fit exactly what I’m experiencing at the moment. Weird. A more profound example: I went from questioning school to Calvin’s Catechism in an instant, when the whole inevitable drift from the anti-reason of the great reformers to the current totalitarianism most perfectly expressed  in classroom schooling (1) was suddenly clear. While recognizing the risk of confirmation bias, it’s still true that everything I’ve read since that touches on the topics confirms this.
  • My mind works like that all the time. I’m often unable to sleep, or sleep very poorly, because these connections suggest themselves, and will not leave me alone. If only I were a better scholar, maybe I could write them out, as in write them until they are out.

On the reading front:

  • Conclusion to an epic review and analysis of Nethereal (pronounced to rhyme with ‘ethereal’ – isn’t that much better?) found here, spread across many posts at the Puppy of the Month Book Club. Spoiler-rich, so read the book first. Even though I’ve read Nethereal three times, the review was still full of stuff I didn’t catch/didn’t know. In addition to increasing my appreciation for the novel, I came away in awe of the reviewer’s chops – he’s catching Biblical, Dante, anime, RPG and video game sources, as well as the usual SFF stuff. I mean, dude! Dude!
  • Finishing up Souldancer, the middle volume in the Soul Cycle trilogy after Nethereal. Next up on my reading list is Uncertainty: the Soul of Modeling, Probability and Statistics by William Briggs of the renowned Statistician to the Stars blog. Since I lack the both the math chops and the discipline to get them any time soon, I’m boning up on logic instead. This was really interesting, and reminded me of how difficult, at first, I found the classic Monty Hall problem. If any additional evidence of the poor state of mathematical reasoning to which I have descended were for some ineffable reason required, it took me several passes to get how the base rate fallacy worked – just as Feynman recounts the story of the two mathematicians arguing over a proposition, where the first asserted that it was obvious, then proceeded to perform a half-hour long explication, at which point the other mathematician concurred: ‘You’re right – it’s obvious.’
  • After that, will try to work in Nine Princes in Amber in the next month, as it is the next book up in the Puppy of the Month Book Club. My wife read it years ago, says it was good – I never have. It’s short – we’ll see how it goes.
  • Then, as the days grow short and darkness envelopes the earth (and, sure, spring has always followed winter in the past, but are we really sure it will again this year? Huh?)  I will turn my baleful eyes back to Hegel, education history, and the biographies of the great educationists. Then write essays, blog posts and even perhaps a book about it.
  • Also will try to sneak in some Flynn, Wright, and Wolfe which have been giving me the stern, accusing eye from their lofty perches up in the bookcase for lo these many months. And there’s a couple novels on the Kindle still to get to. And  a disorderly pile of Asimov’s and Analogs on the floor…
  • Aaaaand – just bought Feast of Elves, the second book in John C. Wright’s  A Tale of Moth and Cobweb series. Book 1, Swan Knight’s Son, I review here. At least it’s not too long…

As far as writing goes:

  • There are reasons I’ve got 67 and counting draft blog posts in the folder, chief of which is that, somewhere during the drafting, I lost hold of whatever weakly-formed ideas I thought I was pursuing, so that, like one whose ill-behaved dogs got off leash, I’m reduced to comically chasing them around the park, intermittently pausing to shake a fist and utter curses. Which gets old fast, and doesn’t make for a very good blog post. So, before I inflict any more of them on you, my gentle readers, I’ll try to ask that eternal, hard question: what, exactly, am I trying to say, here? and require a satisfactory answer before hitting publish.
  • Seems I’ve got maybe a couple dozen pages of notes and diagrams that represent what might be generously called research or, even more generously, an outline to this dream of a shadow of an idea for a novel that’s been rattling around in my head for a couple decades. I need to do more: since I envision it, in however a blurry fashion, as episodic – one could think of it as checking in with the protagonists and their descendents every few decades or centuries – it would be quite possible, nay, advisable, even, to simply write it as a series of short stories/novelitos. I’ve even sorta kinda started doing just that more or less on purpose. I need to sit down and get serious, settle on and spell out in some detail a timeline, major characters’ development, tech, and, most important of all, the social underpinnings. All that, and setting up a decent final story – so far, I’ve got three major arcs going, roughly settlement, a crisis of connection, and a bit of romantic/comic relief.  The second story is very dramatic and tragic, but I think it needs to be second. The first might end up as two or even three stories…. See why I’ve got to get serious?
  1. A good portion of this blog is devoted to this idea. Short version: the Aristotelian/Thomistic idea that all truth is one, that what is known through science cannot contradict or be contradicted by what is know through revelation, was targeted by the Reformers immediately. No, revelation (which, in practice, meant Luther’s or Calvin’s interpretations of Scripture, no matter how idiosyncratic or inconsistent) trumps human reason always. Luther responded in a very modern way when any of his myriad logical inconsistencies were pointed out – he attacked his interlocutor, accusing him of being at best an idiot or scatologically gifted devil. See: Erasmus and Luther‘s back and forth for examples – while Erasmus is not above the occasional low blow, Luther has nothing else. Luther wanted the state, assumed to be and always remain under the control of solid Lutherans, to run the schools – in order to produce those solid Lutherans, complete with his solid contempt for human reason. From this foundation springs Kant, Fichte and Hegel, from which springs Harvard and Horace Mann, from which spring schools designed to make our children mindless sheep.