It’s MY Purpose. Hands off.

Monday, 11-08-2021



In an explanation of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law, you say that the purpose of the common good “belongs” to the whole people.  Could you tell me how a purpose "belongs" to someone?  Any light you can shed on this would be very much appreciated.



I don’t mean anything terribly abstruse.  A purpose belongs to me if it’s my purpose, belongs to you if it’s your purpose, and belongs to the community if it’s the community’s purpose.  Terms like “my” can be puzzling because they are used in different senses.  For example, if I speak of “my” car, I mean that I own it, but if I speak of “my” wife, I mean that I am the person who is related to her as husband to wife.

How then is a purpose mine?  It’s mine when I am interiorly ordered or directed to it.  Ordered or directed to it how?  Well, it may be my subjective intention (for example, I may want to get some ice cream), it may be my inbuilt or natural purpose (for example, even if I want to die, I am naturally directed to life and flourishing), or it may be both (I am naturally directed to life and flourishing, but I subjectively aim at a flourishing life too).

We’re also speaking in both senses when we say that the purpose of the common good “belongs” to the political community.  Certainly the community cannot be said to flourish unless it really is enjoying the common good; as Aristotle says in Politics, Book 1, the city “comes into existence for mere life -- but exists for the sake of living well.”   So the purpose of the common good is natural to it.  But unless the common good is the city’s subjective intention too, it is hardly proper to call the city a “community.”  The very phrase calls attention to what it cherishes and pursues in common.  I hope I’ve cleared up the puzzle!


Universal Higher Education -- Just a Thought

Thursday, 11-04-2021


Sending everyone to college hasn't given everyone a college education.  That can't be done.  It's given everyone what used to be a high school education.  A very, very expensive high school education.


The Genetic Basis for Sacrifice

Monday, 11-01-2021


If evolution is driven by the survival of the individual, then it’s pretty hard to explain why anyone would sacrifice for anyone else, since any impulse to do so should have been bred out of us long ago.  Theorists of “kin selection” propose a solution to the puzzle.  Does it work?

According to this theory, the unit of natural selection isn’t the individual, but the gene.  My close relatives share a lot of my genes, so in some cases the survival of the genes we share – in this case, the very genes for sacrificing for relatives -- is better promoted by my sacrificing for them than by my clinging to life at their expense.

Such explanations do have value.  Kin selection explains some animal behaviors quite well.  In the case of the social insects, it has been a spectacular success.  But if kin selection is all there is to it, then why would I ever sacrifice for neighbors who aren’t close relatives, persons with whom the value of my coefficient of genetic relatedness is very small?

Evolutionary psychologists have an answer to this one too.  I am able to sacrifice for non-relatives by viewing them as though they were my relatives.  After all, don’t we say that all men are brothers?  And don’t we call that saintly woman Mother Teresa?

Hold on a moment:  The explanation doesn’t work.  If the kin selection hypothesis is true, then although sacrifice for close kin is adaptive, sacrifice for unrelated people whom we merely think of as though they were close kin is maladaptive.  On balance, it makes the survival of my genes less likely, not more.  So by this hypothesis, even though we should be strongly motivated to sacrifice for real kin, we should be strongly averse to sacrificing for merely figurative ones.

We may concede that the impulse to sacrifice for non-kin is rather weak and unreliable.  But it exists.  Moreover, we applaud it and believe that we ought to cultivate it.  On the kin selection hypothesis, not only should the impulse to sacrifice for non-kin not exist – not only should we have the opposite impulse – but we shouldn’t even think we ought to cultivate such a motive, for the inclination to think so would be maladaptive too.  We should have evolved to think that we shouldn’t view all men as brothers.

So there are two possibilities.

1.  Natural selection is the whole story, but we don’t yet have all of the pieces.

2.  Natural selection isn’t the whole story.

The materialist will back hypothesis 1.  He will do so on grounds of faith – and yes, it is a faith – that material nature is all there is, so that even if we don’t see how it could be, one day we will.  I find a faith that is open to the possibility of additional, non-materialistic explanations much more persuasive and interesting.  Follow the evidence where it leads.


What Conscience Isn’t

So-Called Evolutionary Ethics


Why the Nazi Analogy is Overused

Thursday, 10-28-2021


Why is the Nazi analogy so overused that it loses its force?

To understand the reason, consider first that almost all of the overuse is on the Left.  Opposing critical race theory is like Naziism.  Believing that there are two sexes is like Naziism.  Disapproving riots is like Naziism.  Supporting anyone who isn’t Woke is like Naziism.  Practicing faith in God is like Naziism.

The fact that the analogy loses its force by being used for so many things that are not in the least like Naziism doesn’t matter to the Left.  For in the long run, the analogy cannot be allowed to retain force.

For if it were used only for things that really were like Naziism, then it would certainly be used most of all for our own equivalent of the Nazi genocide, the genocide of babies, the Left’s most sacred cause.

In the meantime, using the analogy for everything but what is really like Naziism is a pretty good distraction.


Shaving with Ockham’s Razor

Monday, 10-25-2021



Ockham’s Razor is the rule that we shouldn’t assume more kinds of things than we need to.  Roughly, if a simpler explanation can do the job, then simpler is better.  It’s a pretty good rule of thumb if it is used correctly, but it usually isn’t.

I came across the following bad example in a review of a book written to celebrate the Razor:

If a friend tells you “I’ve seen a UFO!” what would you think?  It might have been an alien spacecraft -- or perhaps the friend was mistaken.  The first possibility requires numerous unproven assumptions about extraterrestrial life; the second is consistent with what we know about human fallibility.  The 14th-century Franciscan friar William of Ockham was never troubled by flying saucers, but he did see the importance of eliminating unnecessary assumptions -- the principle known as Occam’s Razor.

Now it’s true that a friend who says he saw a UFO – which means an unidentified flying object, mind you – may think that what he saw was an alien spacecraft, and yes, that would assume the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence.  But which hypothesis assumes less – the one that assumes that there might be extraterrestrial intelligence and that this experience counts as evidence, or the one that assumes that there couldn’t be extraterrestrial intelligence so that nothing at all could count as evidence?

Assuming a negative isn’t the same as not assuming.  And it isn’t assuming less to assume a universal negative.  Besides, the idea isn't to posit the fewest suppositions, but the fewest suppositions to account for the facts; a simpler hypothesis is better only if it explains just as much or more.

Before speculating about a friend’s sighting, I would want to know exactly how what he thought he saw looked, why he thought it odd, whether anyone else saw it, whether there is any corroborating evidence, whether he is truthful, whether his observations are generally reliable, the state of his sobriety when he made the sighting, and a lot of other things – including what other hypotheses might be offered to explain it.  Note well, the reviewer has no other hypothesis.  He only assumes, Well, it couldn’t be that.

Turning from UFOs to metaphysics, the reviewer thinks Ockham’s Razor proves that things don’t have essences.  For it is much simpler not to assume essences than to assume them; the only reason we call cats “cats” is that we have placed them in the set of things we do call cats.  We don’t need to assume some mysterious thing called cat nature, or catness.  But wait a moment.  Why do we place certain things in the set of cats, and not place others there?  We don’t call them cats because we have placed them in the set; we place them in the set because they are cats.  They all do have catness.  Dogs don’t.

Pushing essences out the door turns out to be harder than it looks.  In fact, it’s something like pushing – well, cats.

Leaving the book reviewer to his devices, let’s consider another common abuse of Ockham’s Razor.  A certain attempt to refute one of the current arguments for the existence of God runs something like this:

a.  On a certain hypothesis – call it fine-tuning -- the physical constants of the universe have the precise values they would need to have to permit the existence of life like us, so there must be a First Cause to give them those values.  Call it a Creator.

b.  On another hypothesis – call it the multiverse -- the appearance of fine-tuning is an illusion, because there is actually an infinite number of universes, each one with different physical constants.  We just happen to be in one in which the values of the constants permit us to exist.  Lucky us.

c.  But the multiverse hypothesis is simpler, because it doesn’t need to assume a Creator.

d.  Therefore, we should prefer the multiverse hypothesis.

The problem with this reasoning is that the multiverse hypothesis is not simpler than the hypothesis that the universe was created.  In fact, it is both more complex, and explains less.  For in the first place, it assumes an infinity of universes which are all, in principle, unobservable, just to avoid assuming a single Creator.

And in the second place, it doesn’t avoid the Creator after all, for it still doesn’t answer the question, “Why is there something and not rather nothing?”  It merely replaces the question of why (instead of nothing) there is one universe, ordered in a particular way, with the question of why (instead of nothing) there is an infinite array of universes, each ordered to all the others in a particular way.

All other things being equal, simpler explanations are better.  But be careful about what you call simpler and what you call equal.

Consonants and Culture

Thursday, 10-21-2021


It’s fascinating what one can pick up purely by accident from internet search results on unrelated topics.  Recently, while looking up how certain consonants are formed in the mouth, I learned something about a genre of popular music.

The item on my search results list was a snippet from a music review:  “The only qualm encountered with the vocals is the lack of high screams to match the gutturals.”  So I’ve learned something new.

There was no need to open the item to read further.  That was quite enough.


The Secret of Liberal Guilt?

Monday, 10-18-2021


I don’t think we get it about liberal guilt -- and by the way, it isn’t just a liberal phenomenon, though liberals display it more conspicuously than most.  As a society, we love to be condemned, so long as everyone knows that we join in the condemnation, everyone sees us beating our chests, and everyone knows that we want someone to do penance for us.   We convince ourselves of complicity even in things we haven’t done.


Many say the guilt arises from a sense of undeserved affluence and good fortune.  After all, isn’t the accusation “privilege”?  Affluence may be a contributing factor, but I don’t think it explains liberal guilt all by itself.  Perhaps such guilt has something to do with failure to use affluence for the good of others.  On the other hand, those who are most afflicted by it do claim to use their affluence for the good of others.  Don’t they support all the right causes?  And don’t they let everyone know it?

It seems to me that we are most likely to feel guilty about affluence if we are already disposed to feel guilty for other reasons.  What other reasons?

Clue:  The people we are talking about don’t usually accept every accusation; they don’t feel guilty about everything whatsoever.  They convict themselves of all charges except the ones that are most obviously true.  Why?  Because they deny the ones that are most obviously true.

The nail driven into conscience seeks relief.  We are a people who slaughter our babies and the babies of the poor, so we accuse ourselves of white supremacy instead.