What Maketh an Exact Twelve Year Old

Monday, 04-25-2016

Don't overlook:  Book Trailer


I've been following your blog for a few years now, and I wonder if you could help me.  Recently I've recently decided to homeschool my daughter, who will be twelve soon, and was excited at the prospect of having some sort of logic textbook that she and I could delve into together.  You wouldn't happen to have a title handy, would you?  I am far from being an expert, so she and I will be at almost the same level.


More power to you.  We began home-schooling one of our own daughters at the same age.  Though I have no logic textbook to suggest for that level, I think twelve may be a little early for a logic textbook anyway.  Our approach was to have our daughter keep a logical fallacies notebook.  We emphasized the fallacies of distraction, which are challenging enough for an early middle schooler.  The formal fallacies can probably wait for a year or two.

Each day our daughter had to come up with at least one fallacy.  It might come from any written or spoken source, including literature, newspapers, and conversations, but it had to be unintentional – contrived fallacies like the examples in logic textbooks weren’t allowed.  Each time she found a fallacy, she had to record it, classify it, explain how it went wrong, and indicate where she had read or heard it.

As you might guess, she became quite adept at recognizing some kinds of fallacy.  These she would pounce upon with glee.  Other kinds were more difficult to spot, but by the end of the year, with just a few hints, she had found at least a few examples of even the hard ones.  She took it as a challenge.

Since I love to encourage home schoolers, may I throw in another suggestion?  As one English author said, “writing maketh an exact man” – so consider giving your daughter a daily brief writing assignment too!

Make each writing assignment different.  Give each one a twist.  Something like this:  Tell which you think better, asparagus or broccoli, and justify your answer.    Vividly describe what it might be like to be a fish, without using adverbs or adjectives.  Rewrite this week’s newspaper weather forecast, in the style of Edgar Allen Poe.  Compose directions from our house to the grocery store, making sure they could be followed even by someone who didn’t know the neighborhood.  Solve the following simple puzzle, then explain how you worked out the answer.  A wicked witch has turned you into a toad.  Describe how you could get our attention and explain what has happened, bearing in mind that we don’t know who you are and don’t normally let toads in the house.

Just a thought.  I hope you both have fun!



Sunday, 04-24-2016

Don't overlook:  Book Trailer

“Every religion is equally valid.”  But most religions hold that not every religion is equally valid.  So if every religion is equally valid, then it is equally valid to deny that every religion is equally valid.  Let us give up the silly pretense of agreeing with everyone; courtesy and reason are enough.


Liberty License

Saturday, 04-23-2016

Don't overlook:  Book Trailer


You write in your post “How the Meaning of Liberty Did and Didn’t Change” that history presents us with two nearly opposite meanings of freedom.  Among the classical thinkers, you say, the term referred not to the absence of governance, but to a certain kind of governance.  But among the modern writers, it comes to mean not freedom from the wrong kind of rule, but something more like freedom from rule.

How did this shift take place?  I suspect that it was messy.


Your suspicion is right.  It was messy.  In the first place, the ancient meaning of liberty is not entirely unknown to the moderns:  When Alexis de Tocqueville writes in Democracy in America about “free” local institutions, he means local institutions of self-government.  In the second place, the meaning of liberty which predominates today was not entirely unknown to the ancients:  Florentinus is quoted in Justinian’s Digest as defining liberty as “one’s natural power of doing what one pleases, save insofar as it is ruled out either by coercion or by law.”

Usually, however, the classical writers called liberty in this sense mere “license,” distinguishing it from liberty in the sense of being able to govern oneself properly.  And although the modern writers too distinguish liberty from license, they become less and less able to explain the difference.

The new conception of liberty is perhaps most dramatically on display in Thomas Hobbes, who writes in his 1651 work Leviathan that “‘The right of Nature,’ which writers commonly call jus naturale, is the liberty each man hath to use his own power as he will himself for the preservation of his own nature, that is to say, of his own life; and consequently of doing anything which in his own judgment and reason he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.”  He says a few lines later, “it followeth that in such a condition every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body.”

In other words, my “natural” liberty is doing as I please, even if I think I need to kill you.  By this way of thinking, the fulfillment of our nature isn’t the cure, it’s the disease.

We see in Richard Price, a contemporary of the American Founders, something of how the older language of self-government became blurred so that it actually seemed to mean the mere absence of restrictions.  Here is what he says in Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, written in 1776:

“By physical liberty I mean that principle of spontaneity, or self-determination, which constitutes us agents, or which gives us a command over our actions, rendering them properly ours, and not effects of the operation of any foreign cause.  Moral liberty is the power of following, in all circumstances, our sense of right and wrong, or of acting in conformity to our reflecting and moral principles, without being controlled by any contrary principles.  Religious liberty signifies the power of exercising, without molestation, that mode of religion which we think best, or of making the decisions of our own consciences respecting religious truth, the rule of our conduct, and not any of the decisions of our fellow-men.  In like manner civil liberty is the power of a civil society or state to govern itself by its own discretion or by laws of its own making, without being subject to the impositions of any power in appointing and directing which the collective body of the people have no concern and over which they have no control.”  Price adds, “there is one general idea that runs through them all; I mean the idea of self-direction, or self-government.”

Taken at its word, this passage would seem to mean that simply by submitting to a just civil law with which I happen to disagree, I am deprived of my power of self-government.  Price doesn’t actually mean this, for in the next section he says liberty is the opposite of licentiousness.  So here, when he speaks of conscience, he probably means something like conscience well-formed by the natural law.  The difficulty is that he doesn’t say so; he doesn’t specify it in his definition.  So conscience comes to seem merely another word for will, which is how many people use the term today.

What we see is that more and more of the equipment of the classical natural law tradition was discarded with the aim of clarifying and simplifying matters.  Yet rather than being clarified and simplified, they became confused.


The Smallest Worm Will Turn

Friday, 04-22-2016

Don't overlook:  Book Trailer

Not so very long ago, many of my students would be angered by the mere suggestion that there might be anything morally problematic about abortion.  A decade or two later, the suggestion that abortion might be wrong is much less likely to provoke anger, and a greater proportion of my students concede that the practice is at least morally suspect.  So is the pro-life side gaining?

In that way, yes.  But now the plot thickens.  Fewer and fewer of the young people I meet on either side of the abortion controversy consider it a major issue any more.  These days, what stirs student emotion is the suggestion that there might be anything morally problematic about extreme sexual promiscuity.

That’s especially interesting, because for a while, attitudes toward sexual promiscuity had been going in the other direction.  I don’t mean behavior was becoming more chaste; quite the contrary.  But students were also becoming much more willing to acknowledge the tawdriness and emptiness of the hookup scene.  Sometimes they even expressed relief merely to hear that there might be a rational basis for traditional sexual ethics.

These days I hear such comments less often.  Mind you, people don’t claim that promiscuity is working for them, but they are angrier and more defensive when someone suggests that it may not be.  Not many students on the other side are willing to speak up publically.  The result is that I hear one point of view in the classroom, and an entirely different point of view during office hours.

Yet an underground movement is growing.  In 2005, students at Princeton University founded the Anscombe Society, named after the famous twentieth-century English analytical philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, for the purpose of affirming “the importance of the family, marriage, and a proper understanding for the role of sex and sexuality.”  From this seed sprang the Love and Fidelity Network, a growing alliance of student groups which now has a presence at 39 universities, including Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Brown, Columbia, Duke, UCLA, and the Universities of Wisconsin and Virginia.

These students aren’t angry, but they are very tough and smart.  Could it be that the little worm is turning?


Good Manners Are Not Political Correctness

Thursday, 04-21-2016

See also:  The Moral Case for Manners

Don't overlook:  Book Trailer

The Demagogue’s foul manners – making fun of a crippled man, gratuitously insulting the wives of his competitors, saying that a journalist who asked him hard questions had “blood coming out of her whatever” -- are widely viewed as a reaction against political correctness.

Nonsense.  Political correctness is not good manners, but ideologically tendentious manners.   The PC commissars are totalitarians who defame those who hold opinions with which they disagree as part of a policy of humiliating and silencing them.  It is a part of good manners not to behave that way.

Actually, The Demagogue behaves much like the commissars himself, but goes one step further.  The tyrants of political correctness might defame you for disagreeing with the tenets of radical feminism, but The Demagogue defames you just for belonging to the sex which has a monthly period.  This is progress?

If you want to get rid of PC, don't attack good manners.  Restore them.


The Treatment of Wounds

Wednesday, 04-20-2016

A new study from the National Center for Health Statistics, publicized by the Institute for Family Studies, suggests that young American adults may be turning to cohabitation largely because so many of them have painful memories of their parents’ divorce.

Who could feel anything but compassion for these young people?  Yet to treat the pain of broken commitment by avoiding commitment is like treating a wound by pouring acid into it.

Besides, breaking up is painful for cohabiters too.  The motives that lead some young people into the hookup culture are not so very different from the motives that lead others to cohabit.  They think that by removing sex even further from relationship, they will be spared the sorrow of any sort of breakup whatsoever.

Since that is not how we are made, the wheel of loneliness keeps turning.


How the Politics as Usual Explanation of The Demagogue Misses the Mark

Tuesday, 04-19-2016

Lately, various writers, including some good friends, have expressed what might be called the “politics as usual” explanation of The Demagogue.  They say that his triumphal march through the primaries should neither surprise nor alarm us, because he is merely appealing to the interests and the honor of his supporters, as politicians always do.  He appeals to their interests, for example, by promising to stem the influx of illegal immigrants, and to their honor by mocking their mockers and defying the conventions of what may be said.

This argument is not exactly wrong, but it misses the most important thing.  It is like answering the question “Why did the airplane blew up?” by saying that an intense exothermic reaction caused burning gasses to expand at high velocity and pressure.  What we really need to know is how a bomb got into the luggage compartment.

Certainly The Demagogue has stoked the anger of those who fear unregulated immigration, but someone who supports him for this reason has to believe that he means what he says about it.   How can anyone who is paying attention believe that he means what he says about anything?  As Weekly Standard writer Stephen F. Hayes writes, “Trump says he'll rebuild the U.S. military and in the next sentence says he will cut military spending. He opposes entitlement reform and promises not to raise taxes but says he can eliminate $19 trillion in U.S. debt in eight years. He's been ... for and against changes to abortion law, for and against fighting ISIS, for and against outsourcing, for and against H-1B visas, for and against the Dream Act, for and against single-payer health care, for and against the Obamacare mandate, for and against gun control” – and, Hayes points out, for and against amnesty.

And certainly The Demagogue has mocked those who mock his supporters, but he mocks them himself:  They have made of one of their chief scoffers a symbol of their pride.  This is the man who brags that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody without losing voters, who disparages their patriotism by mocking their wartime heroes, who tramples their moral beliefs by boasting that he buys politicians and has been unfaithful to several former wives, and who shows how little he thinks of their faith by modestly declaring that he is too good to need God’s forgiveness.

Is it plausible that his followers do not know of these things?  They were not said and done in a corner.  The media dote on every word that falls from his lips.  By one widely-reported estimate, he has received over $2 billion in free publicity.  His followers know what kind of a man he is, but do not care.

They do – of course they do -- view him as the champion of their interests and honor.  Considering how he makes sport of their honor and disserves their interests, what remains to be explained is how that is possible.  Something is at work:  Something darker, stranger, and more disturbing.

So I understand about the exothermic reaction.  Now tell me about the bomb.