Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Subjunctive Moral Arguments

Over at Evangelical Outpost, Joe Carter theorizes that pro-choice lefties contradict themselves when they hold both the view that abortion ought to be legal and that we ought to oppose Bush's tax shifts because they impose a high burden on future generations. As he writes:

So what's a good pro-choice advocate to do? The option is either to concede that we have a moral duty to allow humans who have not yet been born to exist or to give up the idea that any particular political policy toward them could be “unfair.” The abortion rights supporter can’t have it both ways and be consistent. Neither moral language nor logic can be stretched that far.

It's a pretty interesting argument, really. The idea seems to be that, since we don't give ethical rights to a fetus to exist, we can't give ethical consideration to future generations on pain of contradiction.

On further inspection, though, I don't see how it holds. The proposition set forth by the opponents to shifting our current tax burden to future generations is 'If and when future generations exist, it is unfair to saddle them with debt they didn't accrue.' In this elementary form, it's difficult to see what this has to do with abortion. If one could infer from that proposition that future generations ought to exist, then there'd be a good argument, but that doesn't seem to be a valid inference. For example, I may think that if my study-partner were to show up for our study session, then I ought to treat her with respect; however, it doesn't follow from this that I think she ought to show up. Put more abstractly, believing a subjunctive proposition (if x, then y) doesn't logically entail that the subjunctive predicate ought to happen. If my study-partner shows up, then I certainly should treat her with respect, but the proposition passes in silence the question of whether I think she ought to show up.

Similarly, we can't infer that a future person that should be granted rights when they come into existence ought to exist in the first place. Steve Verdon from Outside the Beltway writes:

I mean in one case, the argument is that the fetus is not a person and hence has no rights. People three or four generations from now also do not exist, and thus also have no rights. The idea that something is "unfair" to them is just patently ridiculous...using the above reasoning.

When we talk about future generations, we're using subjunctive moral reasoning: 'if X, then Y.' If these future generations come into existence, then they'll have certain rights. Given that we're talking about a condition that hasn't yet come to pass (their existence), we're not talking about present conditions of fairness, we're talking about future conditions of fairness (which present actions influence). In other words, it's not unfair to them now (and to think of it that way doesn't even make sense; they don't exist); but if they do come into existence in the future, it's unfair to create conditions that will affect them negatively.

Mssr. Carter's later formulation of the problem is this:

That being the case, the AFG [Abstract Future Generations] not only does not currently exist but cannot exist unless women “choose” to bring them into existence. Since it is not “unfair” to prevent them from ever existing, it can hardly be considered unfair to treat them in a particular way before they do exist.
As I read it, this is a conflation of subjunctive moral reasoning and present moral reasoning (sorry, there's no pretty way to say that). In other words, as he reads it, the subjunctive claim entails a positive moral duty to bring the condition to pass. However, the form of this reasoning doesn't seem plausible when it's translated into other hypos (ie my study-partner hypo above).

In the relatively short time I've been reading his blog, though, Mssr. Carter has shown himself to be a very insightful person, so it's no surprise that his reasoning perfectly tracks an influential reconstruction of the Kantian Categorical Imperative. This is the practical contradiction theory of the CI, which holds that we can't universalize a maxim that in the future might cut against our present ends. Just in that little sentence, we can already see the same conflation of present ends and future or subjunctive interests.

Come to think of it, this post may just be an unleashing of my enmity toward Kant.

More on Christians and Intellectual Honesty

A few days ago, this story began making the rounds of conservative and religious right circles. The Reuters story reports that a teacher in California has been prohibited by the principal from using handouts that refer to God. The part that's getting everyone frothing is that one of the documents from which quotes were cribbed is the Declaration of Independence. As it's being passed along, however, the story has mutated into the claim that he has been forbidden from teaching the Declaration because it refers to the creator.

Here's Seeing the Forest on the controversy:

The school did not "ban the Declaration of Independence" -- that is just a lie. This story is like when you hear that a man was "arrested for praying" and you find out he was kneeling in the middle of a busy intersection at rush hour and refused to move.

This is the BIG STORY today, on Rush, and Drudge, and the rest of the Usual Suspects. And it is a carefully planned and carefully timed lie.

That's pretty much dead-on. I mean, this story obviously doesn't pass the smell test; what's probably happening (and what I suggested when told about it) is that the teacher is a lunatic that's cutting and pasting quotes from the founding fathers in order to support his thesis that America is a 'Christian Nation' that's favored by God, who has actively intervened to show his favor. Or if not precisely that, something equally suspect and controversial. The key, though, is that we're just not sure at the moment what's going on. We can conjecture, but we can't make conclusions.

At any rate, the actual issue is probably something like 'Should a teacher be permitted to instruct his students that there shouldn't be a wall between church and state?' or possibly 'Should a teacher be permitted to instruct his students that America should be a Christian Nation?'

Instead, the issue is being presented as 'Should a teacher be allowed to teach his students that some of the founders believed we have rights that derive from a Creator?'

Now, it's entirely possible one could believe that a teacher should teach that America ought to institute Christian policies, but the important thing is that we argue honestly about it, which is to say that we argue about the actual issues at stake. In the present case, the Alliance Defense Fund distributed a press release which contends that the handouts were banned because they contained references to God, which probably isn't the case. Of course, the ADF is a Christian legal fund, so it could be argued that they're selectively using facts to their client's advantage, which is what lawyers are supposed to do. The problem with this is that while they are a legal organization, they're also a Christian legal organization, and ought to hew more closely to standards of intellectual honesty.

Anyhoo, the end effect of dishonesty of this sort (and having participated in Christian chat boards, I know that the level of dishonesty and/or gullibility is stunning) is to create a closed circuit that amplifies itself: the more the religious right hears this stuff, the more likely they are to be hornswoggled by the next allegation (the closed circuit thinking would go something like this: 'Well, this story is plausible, because I know from that last [bogus] story that the country is going to hell in a handbasket' and so one). I wouldn't consider merely believing the story to be dishonesty, but Christian groups and news organization that disseminate these stories clearly have a heightened ethical obligation to perform some due diligence on the facts that underpin their arguments. In constructing arguments, we have a duty of intellectual honesty to have reasonable assurance that our facts are correct, and to rejigger the argument if the supporting facts are shown to be dubious or false.

The lesson should be a familiar one: Trust, but verify.


Looks like At Ease has a good bead on one of the fliers the teacher was using. Here's an excerpt:

What Great Leaders Have Said About The Bible:

George Washington...It is impossible to rightly govern the world without the Bible.
John Adams...The Bible is the best book in the world. It contains more than all the libraries I have seen.
Thomas Jefferson...The Bible makes the best people in the world.
Abraham Lincoln...But for this Book we could not know right from wrong. I believe the Bible is the best gift God has ever given to man.
Ulysses S. Grant....The Bible is the anchor of our liberties.
If this is indeed the flier, then the teacher has clearly stepped over the line. Teaching kids that belief in the Bible is necessary for a free people just ain't allowed. It's notable that in the teacher's complaint, it's stated that all this was part of the Judeo-Christian underpinnings of the Founding. Given that the handout includes quotes from such non-founders as Grant, McKinley, Hoover, and.......wait for it.....Jesus Christ (!), and fails to mention quotes (of which there are plenty) that cut against the Judeo-Christian Founding hypothesis suggest that this teacher has An Agenda that violates the law.

Finally, here's a story which utterly violates the norms of intellectual honesty from the loony-toons Praise-God-and-Pass-the-Ammunition stalwart Talon News:

Williams has been barred from giving out copies of the Declaration of Independence to his students by the school's principal, Patricia Vidmar, because it refers to God....This has led to other materials that refer to God or Christianity being rejected, such as George Washington's journal, John Adams' diary, Samuel Adams' "The Rights of the Colonists," and William Penn's "The Frame of Government of Pennsylvania."

William's attorney, Terry Thompson, claims his client is being singled out for being a Christian.

This story has everything: breathless indignation, misinformation, and the paranoid everyone's-out-to-get-christians complex. The only thing missing is a connection to the UN's grand scheme to create the Godless New World Order.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Protecting What? And How?

Slactivist discusses one of my pet peeves: the way disingenuous or stupid (take yer pick) sloganeering replaces argumentation and logic in the debate over same sex marriage.

He writes:

If they were honest, they would have said something Fred Phelpsian -- something that captured the essence of Ohio's campaign against gay couples, like "God hates your kind of love" or "Legal limits on love. Vote yes."

But the yard signs -- like the whole Ohio campaign and the entire presidential race -- probably weren't that honest. They likely didn't present their explicit prejudice quite so explicitly. They likely used the same generic, innocuous-seeming euphemism of "protecting marriage."

Is it possible that banning same sex marriage might shore up the institution of marriage? Sure, inasmuch as the possibility isn't analytically impossible the way a square circle is. But the claim is prima facie implausible; as has been noted by many people, it's just weird to think that two women getting married would have a deleterious impact on the marriage of a man and a woman down the street. My hunch is that the sheer vapidity of the 'protect marriage' slogan masks the absence of a real argument. As it stands, the slogan version presents the argument as a consequentialist exercise in instrumental reasoning: 'If we want x, we must do y.' As Mr. Clark suggests, though, the real rationale is deontological: '~y is bad.' The instrumentalist version relies on a causal link between y and the realization of x. Absent a causal mechanism, though, the argument obviously falls apart, and the religious right hasn't really presented one (or if they do, they resort to wildly over-reaching arguments about the debasing of the culture, in which case we could just as easily ban sexual content on TV to protect marriage. Put differently, the net cast by this line of thinking is so huge that it proves too much).

The rational reaction is that the instrumentalist slogan is a facade masking the true reason: '~y': gay marriage is bad. Of course, they can't do that politically, since it would open a can of worms and deflect the argument from the value of marriage to the legitimacy and validity of conservative Biblical reasoning. So they have to jawbone the public with a bogus and incomplete contention that same sex marriage would, through some unspecified and magical mechanism, destroy marriage.

With respect to Ohio, this dissimulation is two-fold: not only is it not clear how a ban of same sex marriage would protect marriage, but the amendment itself goes far beyond banning same sex marriage.

What is especially disturbing is that some of the major proponents of the ban were Christians. The lack of intellectual honesty evinced is stunning, and goes a way toward explaining why it is that many people so disdain the religious right.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Pauline Event Context

Over at Bad Christian, the eternal issue of Paul's legacy in Christianity rears its head. Paul's privileged position within protestantism is troubling to many of us. I mean, the guy seems to be a bit of a nutter at times. So how do we deal with that? If I read him right, Brandon's first response is to question Paul's authority:

Paul saw Jesus on the road to Damascus, you say. I buy it. I just don't think that does much for Paul as an intellectual source. 90 seconds with Jesus, a blinding light, and wham...instant genius. He can write spiritual truth with almost omnicient maturity. Doesn't seem very plausible to me.

Frankly, it doesn't seem very plausible to me, either. However, the unthinking acceptance of Paul's authority doesn't bother me so much as the notion that all we have to do is 'clear our minds' and the text will become transparent to meaning. As much as I'm skeptical of Paul's revelation, I'm far more skeptical of the claim that a lazy and uncritical reading (which, as a translation, is already a reading) will produce Truth. There are two huge pillars in comtemporary American protestantism: first is the notion that the Spirit will act as an epistemic guarantor; second is the idea that we all 'ought to become like children'.

Perhaps each is true when considered in isolation, but when combined in a certain way, they make for a perverse witch's brew of dumb that rewards non-thinking ahistoricism.

Fatal Strategies: Marriage and Meaning

In his book Fatal Strategies, Jean Baudrillard writes of the off-balance feeling we experience in the media-saturated society:

The reaction to this new state of things has not been a resigned abandonment of traditional values, but rather a crazy overdetermination, an exacerbation, of these values of reference, function, finality, and causality.

What Baudrillard is telling us is that, in this modern world in which all is in flux, people latch onto traditional values for their own sake. We value inertia for its own sake, if only to ward off the vertigo caused by a rapidly changing culture. The strategy adopted in response, then, is to make the object sancrosect at the expense of the subject.

This is precisely the same vertiginous logic that has seized the anti-gay rights movement. Time and time again, we see the argument that marriage ought not be 'redefined'. Why? Because the current version is pretty old. Rather than control our social institutions, we let social institutions control us.

Often, the opponents of redefinition point to the dire consequences that may follow if are allowed to arbitrarily redefine our social institutions. This is a slippery-slope argument: 'if we redefine marriage, then we're well on our way to a kind of semantic nihilism, where there'll be nothing to stop us from redefining tables as food, and pretty soon people will start choking on the legs of endtables, and you'll be sorry then that we redefined marriage!'

What troubles the proponent of this line of thinking is that, in a world in which gays can marry, we have lost control of meaning altogether.

I've always had quite an interest in legal formalism, which proceeds along a parallel track, so I'm not unsympathetic to the redefinition argument. As I see it, though, the argument from redefinition starts from an inadequate theory of meaning. At the risk of sounding Clintonian, it really does matter what meaning means. In fact, the redefinition argument turns on a particular theory of meaning.

This slippery slope concern is mitigated if we can show something internal to the meaning of meaning itself that limits arbitrary redefinition. The threshold inquiry, then, is how things come to mean. The anti-gay rights crowd would obviously have us believe that there are essential meanings; there's a 'Big Book of Meaning' somewhere that lays down the essence of things. This is referred to as semantic essentialism.

If this is how meaning is construed, though, it's clearly inadequate to account for the variety of marriage across the world and in history. An arab may be married to several women, which contravenes the meaning of marriage as understood here. If the semantic essentialist view is right, the sentence 'Mohammed had several wives' would literally be non-sense (it may be a metaphor, as in 'I'm married to my job', but it in the literal sense it's non/sense - in my case, though, the metaphor is also nonsense). Obviously, though, that proposition does make literal sense. The fact that semantic essentialism can't account for how it makes sense to us strongly suggests that its view of meaning is wrong.

So where does meaning come from? It's often said that marriage is a custom, and that we look to our customs to glean its meaning (hence the anti-gay rights emphasis on the history of marriage as the source of its meaning). This is a good insight, but it needs to be asked: whose custom? Different communities have different customs, so if we tie the meaning of marriage to its origin as practice, we ought to expect a range of meanings of marriage corresponding to the different communities from which the customs and practices of marriage arise. In this way, we can ditch the semantic essentialism that is unable to account for the different ways that marriage is seen, while granting it a kind of flexibility that still remains within boundaries. Marriage-as-practice, then, captures different senses of marriage while preventing wild-eyed redefinition of marriage as any old thing we want.

Obviously, this doesn't directly respond to the question of whether the government ought to recognize any given understanding of marriage, but it does redirect the focus back to where it should be ("should we have gay marriage?"), and away from the canard of the 'meaning of marriage'.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Reflective Equilibrium: Methodology and Phenomenology

In the previous installment, I discarded two prominent modes of Christian apology, and suggested that there was a third way. This third way draws on John Rawls's seminal theory of Reflective Equilibrium. So, let's cut to the chase:

We all enter the world with certain pre-existing substantive ideas about the nature of justice and desirable states of affairs. These are the philosophical questions of the Right and the Good, respectively. How do we come to believe in a God that is both Right and Good? Say we had good reason to believe that Godn existed, but also commanded that murder is good and something we ought to do. Justifiably, that commandment would probably derail our belief in Godn. The upshot of this is that, despite empirical and philosophical evidence, if a given Godn doesn't square with our strong pre-existing beliefs B about the Just and the Good, we are severely disinclined to sacrifice B for the sake of Godn. In keeping with our greater disinclination to believe in that God, the evidence E for Godn has to be correspondingly greater. So the evidence needed of God is inversely related to the differential
D between our pre-existing notions of the just and that which is entailed by belief in that given God. Put mathematically:

E Godn = 1/D((B)( Godn))

Hey! Looks like math! Pretty sweet, huh?

Of course, we'd all agree that the fact that it looks like math is justification enough, but this is actually just a formal extension of the above idea that we need more evidence for a religious idea the farther it diverges from our pre-existing beliefs.

And would that I were so smart to have come up with this all myself. Sadly, the kernel is derived from a man far smarter than me, John Rawls, author of the seminal A Theory of Justice. The basic concept that I've mathematically inscribed is known as 'reflective equilibrium' (RE). The gist of RE is that we already have certain first order normative judgments (moral knowledge about what's right and wrong in a particular situation - for example, the judgment that it's wrong to kill Mr. X), and second order principles that codify and generalize those judgments (for example, "murder is wrong"). The interesting thing about RE is that it isn't deductive. Whereas previously moral philosophers had puzzled about the gaps between the two levels of judgment, or the judgments that didn't tidily fit within clear principles, Rawls's theory recognizes that the two levels of moral theory are interpenetrative. According to the strength of the first order belief, we may adjust our second order belief and vice versa.

In a way that I find rather compelling, Rawls's theory is both explanatory and justificatory. To return to our murderous God, our belief that it'd be wrong to kill, if sufficiently strong, is enough to defeat the plausibility of a God that commends murder. If, however, our belief that murder is wrong is weak, the evidence that there is a God that commends murder would be enough to attenuate the hitherto unchallenged belief that murder is always wrong. Reflective equilibrium, then, both explains how we've come to a given conclusion and justifies why we've done so.

So this is the backdrop against which I read the Bible. Given that I have certain strong beliefs, these beliefs will influence my reading. Some of these beliefs are substantive moral beliefs (feminism; gay equality), and some are logical (God ought to be logical. To the extent that Paul's writings evince a profoundly illogical thinking style, I will interpret him non-literally. I just can't accept that God is so illogical as to reason in question-begging and tautological ways).

Having explained my method, and how my reading of the text is necessarily and justfiably mediated by extra-textual considerations, on to the things themselves!

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Bush II: The Two Tiers

In this post, I wrote:

So between distributive regressivity and the combination of lost union jobs with a lack of state support for unionization of new sectors, we're well on our way to a two-tier system of professionals and service workers.

Looks like Bush's health care policies may also speed this along. I had always thought Bush's health care credit was a terrible idea in practice. In theory, it's kinda cool: provide people with a way to get health care that isn't moored to a job; now that there's so much horizontal job movement, elimination of those 3- and 6-month waiting periods before the new job offers health insurance is a great idea. In practice, though, it's....not so good. As with many Bush proposals, the devil's in the details. In order to get the credit, you have to have a fair amount of money up front to get the insurance. Further, private insurance is really only feasible for the reasonably healthy, since premiums rise exponentially as health declines arithmetically. So what would happen? The rich and healthy would leave the corporate insurance pool, leaving the sick and the poor. Premiums rise, fewer can afford them, etc.

One question that always seemed open, however, was whether the Bush admin had thought of the potential of the health care account to wreck the company insurance system. After all, there are some smart people working on these things, and they must've thought of this and calculated that any damage to the system would be minimal. I mean, they couldn't just want to destroy the cornerstone of the American health care system, could they?

Well, yeah. They could.

Via Atrios, we learn that the administration is considering eliminating corporate tax deductions for health insurance.

This is a little baffling. What could be the point of this? I suppose the idea is to disincentivize corporate spending for anything other than investment, but isn't it a Really Bad Idea to consider killing off company health care without having a workable system to take its place? It suggests that Bush really didn't think he made any mistakes whatsoever in his planning for Iraq; far from considering the lack of post-war planning a failure, it seems he's using it as a model for other policies.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Liberalism, Tolerance, and Missed Metaphors

Over at Obsidian Wings, Von takes issue with the mini-trend on the left toward a rhetorical equation of fundy Christians with fundy Muslims:

But I do take exception to the implication that such folks, however foolish or ill-intentioned, are the moral equivalent of the Taliban or a Wahhabist -- and, in particular, to the use of the term "madrassas." Let's save this word for true madrassas, and not weaken it by rhetorical hyperbole.

I think this misses the mark of the metaphor. Metaphors, of course, are notoriously context-dependent. I think the Wittgenstinian read on metaphor is the best one: we read a metaphor within a determinate linguistic context, and the success of the metaphor depends on the recipient's recognition of the correct context. Given that, the above seems to me to be quite a bit like the Purloined Letter; with all the fuss that's been going on about the political theory of tolerance that undergirds liberalism, the aim of the metaphor is right in the open. The problem with fundy Christians isn't that, like some Wahabbist fundies, they want to kill innocent people; it's that, like Wahhabist fundies, they have a totalizing, communitarian and eudamonist political ethic. Historically, this is why fundy Christians have been fans of separatist communities: by exiling themselves, they were able to create their own little Cities of God. Due to certain shifts in eschatology, though, they've decided to export those cities into the society at large, and reproduce their ideal communities in society writ large. Tolerance, then, is anathema to the recent fundy impulse: the recent fundy political movement is rooted in reproducing the City of God throughout the nation, and making it co-extensive with the country.

Since metaphor-missing became a cause celebre among the right during the recent election, I've grown increasingly concerned about it. While the knee-jerk post-structuralist reaction is to chalk it up to differences between semi-discrete semantic communities, many of the misses have been pretty egregious. So what the fuck is going on? And has this last election sounded the political death knell of metaphorical reasoning? Metaphors may have become too dangerous to employ in such a contentious political climate in which political adversaries are all-too willing to miscontrue the obvious prima facie context in which metaphor is deployed.

Update: Von from the ObSi 6 claims that my take is inapposite and "arrogant." I'm not sure where these come from. It's not unreasonable to argue that the Xian-as-Taliban metaphor is over-the-top, but I don't see how it's inapposite or arrogant. Going back over the initial post, it seems even clearer that the metaphor has been fundamentally (ha!) misread:

After all, one can be an idiot who must be opposed without being a galactically-dangerous idiot who we might have to kill.

Well, yeah.. But that just misses the point, which is that both are totalizing ideologies that think that their adherents can only really thrive or go uncorrupted in an homogenous social space (see: the fundy homeschooling movement, much of whose impetus derives from a freakish epistemology that tracks Original Sin: one taint, and the whole pedagogical project is potentially fucked). I could concede that the metaphorical equation might result in some weakening of our disapprobation, but I'd only do so with much more than the moral equivalent of "This is my hand."

Friday, November 12, 2004

On Common Method

I had previously wondered why people would become Christian in the first place. There seem to be a number of different approaches that have been advanced: first, there's the top-down, historical or analytic approach, in which the questioner dutifully goes through the historical record or philosophical arguments (McDowell and Pascal, respectively*), confirms the veracity of Christianity, and then adopts the religion lock-stock-and-barrel. Another avenue by which people seem to come to Christianity is akin to Dantean psychology; the subject goes through some horrible period, in which life 'loses meaning' or something similar, and then seems to just latch onto Christianity. I find neither of these compelling. The Dantean avenue just seems odd; even if one were to bottom out, the need for recourse plainly underdetermines any one mode of restoring meaning or whatever hippie crap is being sought. Put plainly, it just begs the question to use some kind of purely formal want or need as evidence that Christianity, specifically, can fill that need. People routinely say that they became Christian because they 'felt a hole in their soul,' but this doesn't tell us anything about why Christianity, and Christianity only, could do that; it merely tells us that Christianity meets the minimum requirements of what a religion is supposed to do.

The analytic method leaves me unmoved for two primary and interlocking reasons: first, I have pragmatic or temperamental reservations. Josh McDowell, in coming to the conclusions that led to Evidence That Demands a Verdict, went through thousands of documents and a whole lot of time. This was no small feat; as a matter of fact, the herculean nature of his task was precisely the ground on which much of the credibility of his project rested. Contra McDowell, I simply don't have the patience to slog through bazillions of pages. This reticence is both a function of temperament and philosophy: as one predisposed to philosophical arguments, I tend to look skeptically upon empirical arguments**
. The simplest way to put this philosophical objection to the historical method is by way of reference to the historiological axiom that empirical evidence always underdetermines historical conclusions. In other words, history as a discipline is isomorphic with science in this respect; one starts with provisional evidence, moves on from that to a provisional*** hypothesis, and from there starts to accumulate evidence. Because of the distinctly inductive nature of this process, though, it's logically impossible to prove an hypothesis. One can make good guesses, but one can't prove anything per se. Put differently, the inductive nature of empirical methods always leaves an epistemic gap between hypothesis and truth. That gap leaves me very wary of putting too much stock in the hypothesized propositions. In the case of the Christian analytical method, this gap is two-fold. Not only is there the question of whether Jesus truly existed and rose from the grave, but there is the equally important and possibly more vexing question of whether the Bible, as the curious admixture of ancient Hebrew and newer Greek texts, is in fact the definitive collection of God's writings. The upshot of these concerns, then, is that I really don't think the effort required by the historical approach justifies the payoff.

What else is there, though? There seems to me to be a third way that wends its way between these two, which borrows the force of the intuitions of the Dantean method and the some of the conceptual rigor of the analytical method. Since I'm going long, I'll reserve my positive statements on method for the next post.

* While Pascal is the obvious embodiment of this methodology (Pascal's Wager), it's not entirely clear whether Pascal is an ideal exemplar of the top-down philosophical method. Given that he was also the author of the fabulous maxim 'kneel and ye shall believe,' which seeks to build faith on repetition of practice, one could argue that his method was distinctly bottom-up, rather than top-down.

** I'm fully aware that this predisposition toward philosophical arguments could be considered another species of temperament, but at least prima facie they seem different in kind; at the least, analytical clarity recommends taxonomical differentiation. So, while "laziness" and "skepticism" may both be features of temperament, then, either bide with me as I try to build a case for their difference, or be a fellow pragmatist and accept that this bifurcation will facilitate ease of reference in the future. Heh.

*** Note the pointed description of pre-hypothesis evidence as provisional: many philosophers of science will contend that evidence isn't properly evidence until it's oriented by a hypothesis; before a kind of Kiergaardian leap of faith to a hypothesis, it literally doesn't mean anything (see generally: Helen Longino). This is a tenet of a certain kind of radically skeptical philosophy of science, and the fact that I buy into it probably says more about my anti-empirical bent than it does the strength of the theory.

Introduction to a study of Christianity

About a half a year ago, my brother sent me a letter in which he explained his movement toward Christianity and urged me to the same. Over the course of the subsequent months, and despite several mishaps (at least two of which were cat-named-Ndugu-related), I managed to produce a lengthy, probably boring response in which I laid out the source of my own interest in Christianity, the obstacles to my acceptance of Midwestern evangelicism, and the likely trajectory of my faith. Since it's become more of an always-already work in progress (meaning that, for my own purposes, I rather like its perpetual incompleteness), I've figured it'd be more appropriate for the blog format than the letter format. The latter creates a logocentric illusion of permanence, while the former fosters a discursive flux which, to me, seems a form more adequate to its content.

In the next few weeks, then, I'll be posting a series of mind-numbing exegeses on the phenomenology, practice, hermeneutics, and ethics of Christianity through the lens of yours truly. Since, contra the central thesis of Lutheran-derived Protestant ideology, this stuff doesn't emerge ex nihilo, comments - especially critical ones - are thoroughly encouraged. Despite my own intuitions, I probably won't get smarter and wiser in a one-sided conversation.

Anti-gay rights amendments and ambiguity

Via How Appealing comes this article about concerns over the enforceability of certain legal agreements between same-sex partners. An excerpt:

Kent Ostrander, who led the pro-amendment Vote Yes for Marriage coalition and helped draft the amendment, said that language should not affect individuals' contracts.

And he said amendment advocates "don't plan on tracking things down" and challenging contracts.

This is a rather puzzling statement. I'd be a little surprised if the Religious Right were to start challenging these contract, but that's not really the concern. A gay couple in Kentucky probably isn't overly concerned about Kent suing; what they probably are and should be worried about is a nasty relative suing to throw a will out, for example, on the grounds that their web of contracts and powers of attorney create a "legal status similar to marriage."

It'll probably happen sooner rather than later that a values-voter will sue to take custody of a same-sex couple's child when the legal guardian partner has passed away.

My question is, why have all these amendments been drafted so ambiguously? For one thing, it's a clear invitation to what RRs refer to as 'judicial activism.' Given that legal ambiguity so obviously cuts against their main goal of staunching judicial political power, I can't help but read some nefarious intent into the poor draftsmanship.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Four more years: domestic edition

(myspace pals: yep, it's a repost from there. sorry.)

So Bush won. I'm gonna go through the major issues and tells ya what I thinks (sorry, I'm still in the-sky-is-falling mode. This'll probably be heavily edited or amended as I mellow out).

Structure of political power: By this, I mean primarily the balance between federal and state government. This one is probably a wash, which is one reason many bona fide conservatives had real problems with Bush (dems historically being the great agents of centralizing government). He's been a tireless proponent of sucking up power into the federal sphere that had hitherto been considered the right of the states to exercise. IMHO, this is the biggest ideological break between Bush's political philosophy and classic conservative political philosophy. I'll probably delve into this in greater detail later tonite when I should be studying.

Economy: The net economy should show progress. I'm sure that it'll pick up speed and do fine eventually. My concern, though, is with the distributive effects of Bush's policies, which aren't captured by net numbers. Several of Bush's econ policies have a detrimentally regressive effect; in other words, the poor get hit harder. If this were true, though, wouldn't we have seen a widening of the rich/poor gap in the past four years? Yep. And that's exactly what we saw. Between Bush's trade policies (which hurt the poor by eliminating jobs that have historically been points of entry into the middle class) and his tax policies (which disproportionately impact the poor, with the result that their savings rates have plunged to all time lows, while their personal debt rates have soared to all time highs), this gap will increase. Further, due to the skyrocketing deficit, the dollar will probably grow increasingly weak as the government struggles to service its debt. Who gets fucked by a weakened dollar? Poorer people, who are only able to maintain a reasonable standard of living through the purchasing power of the dollar. A weaker dollar, for all intents and purposes, is another form of regressive tax.

Perhaps I shouldn't care; after all, I'll be in that upper class of people that stand to gain the most. But, I have this conscience thing that I just can't shake.

So between distributive regressivity and the combination of lost union jobs with a lack of state support for unionization of new sectors, we're well on our way to a two-tier system of professionals and service workers. But, JP, you might ask, is that so bad? And I say it's worse than you can imagine: take a look at McDonald's employees. Walk in, and stare at them for a good 10 minutes. They're all ugly, aren't they? Bush isn't just going to make the poor poorer, he's going to make them uglier.

Civil Rights: I think we can safely say that abortion rights are in serious trouble. Any justices he appoints better be in the mood for the ugliest battle they've ever seen, because it'll get nasty. If my man Schumer can't keep the Dem senators from losing their backbones, abortion will most likely get the whammo. Ordinarily, I'd say "whatever. That's why I moved to the east coast, so my state legislature wouldn't exercise their new-found power to ban abortion." The problem, though, lies at the juncture of Bush's substantive conservativism (abortion is bad) and his procedural liberalism (strong central government). The danger, which was evidenced in the dubious commerce clause section of the ban on dilation & extraction abortion (partial birth abortion, for the brainwashed among you), is that the US Congress may just try to ban it all, lock-stock-and-barrel.

On the whole, there's stuff that worries me, but enough of it is contingent on other things happening that I'm not in panic mode.


Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Ashcroft resigns....4 years too late

It's good for everyone involved that Johnny Reb (as I like to call him) resigned. Not only was he profoundly weird (see, eg: hates calico cats, thinks they're satanic; covers up classical sculpture, no doubt in anticipation of Janet Jackson fracas), he was a genuinely bad Attorney General. He was utterly incompetent at prosecuting terrorists (what with his 0-3 or so record), and his zany forays into going after porn and bong-lovers didn't really help Bush's PR. And, if the media were responsible, they would've picked up on his support for torture.....er......I meant "extraordinary rendition."

Well, at least he has the free time to devote to his songwriting and his rematch against Mel Carnahan.

Sunday, November 07, 2004


Thanks for swinging by, family and friends (oh. and you). Most of you know that, in conversation, I oscillate between daft and bombastic. Hence the title: L'esprit d'escalier is a French expression that literally means "the spirit of the stairway." The spirit of the stairway is that which grabs you on the way out and tells you what you should have said when you were in that apartment (or 'flat', to be ethnologically consistent....).

Since I'm on a first name basis with l'esprit, I figured it would make an apt title. Visit early and often. So it is written, so shall it be done.