The Ironic Pose

Monday, 08-13-2018


The philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous article, “The Absurd,” concludes, “If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.”

I’ve quoted that statement before, but until recently, I hadn’t realized that some people find it uplifting.  One online reader remarks, “This is the most beautiful thing I've ever read.”

Let’s think about it.  If it is true that nothing matters, then what difference does it make whether we live ironically, heroically, or in despair?

Forgive me for being obvious, but if it does make a difference, then something does matter.

Our task, should we choose to remain men – and we always have the option of declining -- is to find out what.

Related posts:

Déjà Vu, Part 1 of 2

Déjà Vu, Part 1 of 2


A Gender Studies Hoax

Wednesday, 08-08-2018


Satire is a wonderful tool, but what do you do with something like gender studies?  Its craziness accelerates so rapidly that by the time the satire is published, reality has outpaced it.

These folks have figured it out:  Get it to satirize itself.

Their article is titled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.”  It’s pure, deliberate nonsense.  But it was submitted and accepted for publication as bona fide scholarship.

If you haven’t come across this before, the authors describe the scam here.

It’s a nice touch that they incorporated text into the article from the Postmodernist Essay Generator.  I’ve had fun with the generator for years.  You can generate new, nonsensical postmodernist essays as often as you like, just by refreshing the screen.

The climate change touch is nice too.  One day at the elevator a colleague and I were chatting about how cold winter was that year.  Tongue in cheek, I offered the explanation, “Global warming.”  Not realizing that I was joking, he agreed.

Alan Sokal on his own classic hoax

The Sokal hoax itself


Too Much Virtue Signaling, Not Enough Virtue

Monday, 08-06-2018


Last week on the Opinion page of the Wall Street Journal – a newspaper I began reading during my socialist days to keep track of what the capitalists were thinking – I ran across an article by one of my favorite essayists, Joseph Epstein.

Epstein argued that one of the problems of today’s politics is that a person’s political beliefs represent his highest view of himself, so that opposing his politics is resented as a slam on his virtue.

Very true.  But I wonder  if I might quibble a little.  My first grumble has to do with the title of the piece, which I’m sure isn’t Epstein’s fault, since editors often choose embarrassing titles without consulting the authors.  The title was “There’s Too Much Virtue in Politics.”  Spare us.  That isn’t what Epstein argued.  What he really said was that there is too much virtue signaling in politics, and that is correct.  I would say that there is not nearly enough virtue in politics.  We pay far too much attention to arbitrary symbols of virtue, and far too little attention to the thing itself.

A point I think Epstein could have made more clearly is that some policy positions really are correlated with traits of character, although most, as he sees, are not.

If someone supports infanticide, you can confidently say that he isn’t playing with a full moral deck.  Infanticide is murder.  There are a number of issues of this kind.

But you can’t draw such conclusions about a person’s virtue from his view of, say, government handouts.

Epstein gets it half-right here.  Liberals may “see their virtue” as lying in compassion for the poor, and conservatives may “find their virtue” as lying in things unrelated to the well-being of the poor.   But although Epstein is not a liberal, that is a characteristically liberal way of explaining the difference between liberals and conservatives, and it leaves out half the picture.

For a good case can be made that some ways of trying to help the poor – especially government handouts – actually hurt them, not only morally but materially, by generating perverse incentives and undermining families.  Consider what that implies.

Yes, a liberal might support the expansion of handouts because he believes they help the poor.  I’m sure some do.  But if he knows better empirically (as he should), then his real reason for supporting their expansion may be that he wants the poor to be permanent dependents who will reliably vote for his party.

Yes, a conservative might oppose the expansion of handouts for reasons unrelated to the well-being of the poor.  No doubt some do.  But if he believes them to hurt the needy (as he should), then his real reason for opposing their expansion may be that he does care about the well-being of the poor.

And what do liberals and conservatives think about all the other ways of trying to help the poor, especially those which don’t involve the government?  A virtuous person might support some ways while opposing others – and so might a cynic, but for different reasons.

The upshot is that in most cases, to judge someone’s character you need to know more than what policies he supports.  You have to know what he believes the empirical effects of the policies are -- and you have to know his motives.

This has nothing to do with “liberal virtues” vs. “conservative virtues.”  But it may have a lot to do with virtues.


On Not Being Too Quick to Smirk

Can Politics Be Reduced to a Science?

Bad Man, Good Statesman

The Decent Folk Paradox

The Permanent Advantages of Good and Evil

The Threshold of Judgment


Considering the Audience

Monday, 07-30-2018


I sometimes have my students read excerpts from Warren Hern, who defines pregnancy as an illness which may be treated by the evacuation of the uterine contents, or from Alberto Giublini and Francesca Minerva, who defend infanticide by maintaining that it is merely “after-birth abortion.”  The purpose is to illustrate to them the depth and gravity of the disagreements in the culture war.

Despite the fact that my students are in the thick of it, many of them don’t fully grasp that there is a culture war.

But they aren’t the only ones who are learning something in these exercises.  Their reactions to such readings teach me quite a bit about the state of the culture war too.

Some of them, of course, simply cannot believe that such authors really mean what they are saying.  Others say that they are horrified and sickened.

But still others respond with comments like these:  “What a fresh and interesting perspective!  I had never considered regarding pregnancy as a disease.  That makes a lot of sense.”

A colleague of mine – who assigns such readings for very different reasons -- is shocked that the students are ever shocked.  He thinks it means they don’t have open minds.

My view is different.  Certain grievous and widespread moral fallacies must be challenged publicly.  On the other hand, the very mention of certain fallacies may pose a danger to those whose intellectual grasp of good and evil is weak, and who lack the tools to understand the challenge.  One must always consider the audience.


Does Faith Make Reason Less Reasonable?

Monday, 07-23-2018


God created human reason; one should reject Christian faith if it makes reason less reasonable.  But what if it makes reason more reasonable?  Could that be so?  It is the claim of Christian faith that it is so – that faith does not contract reason, but expands it.  It leads reason to probe more deeply and ask more penetrating questions, and it provides reason with additional data.

Perhaps it is not surprising that many atheists do not know this.  However, it is amazing that many Christians do not know it.  They have been listening to how their adversaries describe faith, not to how the saints describe it.  They think they must uphold an entirely un-Christian view of faith as something that detracts from reason.

I will not say they are not Christians for thinking so, but their view is in the most precise sense contrary to the faith, and tends to withdraw them from it.

As Benedict XVI argued, “Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature."  And as his predecessor wrote, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth, and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know Himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

Related posts:


Is Believing in God Like Believing in Zeus?



Can Justice and Mercy Embrace?

Monday, 07-16-2018


“Love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss,” says the psalmist.  But mercy might involve remission of punishment.  Doesn’t that violate justice, which means giving each person what is due to him, honor for good, penalty for evil?

No, justice and mercy can be reconciled.  We can see how this is so by reflecting on the reasons why justice requires punishment in the first place.  Thomas Aquinas lists them as follows:

  • To correct the wrongdoer himself, “since the very fact that man endures toil and loss in sinning, is of a nature to withdraw man from sin.”
  • To correct others, “who seeing some men fall from sin to sin, are the more fearful of sinning.”
  • To relieve the person whom the wrongdoer has injured, “who is compensated by having his honor restored in the punishment of the man who has injured him.”

It follows that with although deserved punishment may not be lessened indiscriminately, it may be lessened, with no relaxation of justice, just to the degree that it does not impair these purposes.  One must never punish the wrongdoer more than he deserves – not even to correct him, to correct others, or to relieve the person whom he has injured.  But if the three conditions have been satisfied, then one may punish him less.

On the part of the human judge, then, the three conditions for mercy would seem to be as follows:

  • The judge must have well-grounded confidence that the wrongdoer has in fact been corrected.
  • He must have good reason to believe that lessening the wrongdoer’s punishment will not shock the community into carelessness about wrongdoing.
  • He must make sure that lessening the punishment will not mock the person who has been injured by treating his injury as though it did not matter.

Since mercy concerns not only the wrongdoer, but also the person whom he has injured as well as the community whose moral order he has disturbed, all three conditions must be satisfied.  The outcome may be to remit deserved punishment, remit part but not all of it, or decline to remit any of it -- depending.

When these three conditions are satisfied, then our justice and mercy can embrace.  Otherwise, we have only divorced them.

Related posts:

Have Mercy

Mean Moralists


Friedrich Nietzsche – And Why I Believe in Penance


A Tasket, a Tiskit, a Green and Orange Statistic

Saturday, 07-14-2018


I wasn’t planning to post today, but my eye was caught by the news headline, “There’s a New No. 1 In Presidential Rankings.”  Based on a new Pew Research Center study, the article breathlessly reports that Mr. Obama is now more popular than any other recent president.

Pew is a careful polling organization, and no doubt this is an accurate report of what the survey respondents said.  However, such a finding means almost nothing.  Take a look at the following chart.  Does anything arouse your suspicion?



Right.  The popularity of recent presidents is largely a function of how recently they held office.  The lesson:  People have short political memories, and even shorter historical memories.

You will probably never see me do it in this blog again, but to find out just how strong the relationship is, I performed a few statistical tests.  Based on the data in the table, the correlation between a president’s popularity and how recently he held office is about .69.  This means that the amount of variation explained by the relationship about 47%.  (If we run the statistics again without Mr. Trump, so that we are only considering presidents no longer in office, the amount of variation explained is even greater -- more than half.)

If you’re like me, perhaps you would rather have a picture.  Here is a plot of the data.  The horizontal axis is the order in which the president held office, and the vertical axis is his popularity according Pew.  The line shows the relationship.



“Findings” such as which recent president people say they like most have no enduring value.  Wait until the current occupant is out of office; the presidential popularity data will have changed again, just because people’s memories will have changed again.