A challenge to eternity

Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

                                 — Albert Einstein

I cringe a bit to read one of my heroes say the phrase “believe in physics” (he would not have been the great scientist he was if he had believed in physics as bequeathed to him), but Einstein’s conclusion that the loss of death is an illusion does seem to follow from the block universe conception of time that I myself have defended.  Facing the prospect of being annihilated tomorrow and being reassured that one’s occupation of a certain chunk of spacetime is immutable, does it not seem that physics must be leaving out something terribly important?

I don’t have a conscience. Neither do you. They don’t exist.

…if geometry were as much opposed to our passions and present interests as is ethics, we should contest it and violate it but little less, notwithstanding all the demonstrations of Euclid and Archimedes…

                                                                             — Gottfried Leibniz

Obviously, “conscience” in the general sense of a capacity for moral deliberation exists.  However, when contemporary Catholics invoke “conscience”, they seem to refer to a particular mental faculty.  It sounds very sophisticated to say that moral rules cannot be mechanically applied to particular cases.  Each case is unique, meaning no finite number of specifications suffices for one to deductively apply general moral rules.  Even for a unique case, moral evaluations perhaps reveal themselves only from the first person perspective.  This is done through a mysterious, mystical faculty called “the conscience”, through which each person intuits whether or not the relevant general rules apply to him.  “Conscience” is thus some sort of moral authority independent of the deductive application of universal norms to specific cases.

Examples of the need for this mysterious supra-rational moral sense are unconvincing.  A popular one is the poor remarried divorcee who has to render the adultery debt to her new partner for some dire reason–to keep her partner around for the children being the only one I’ve seen.  That’s funny in itself:  there are supposed to be an infinite number of distinct situations so that we could never hope to formulate universal rules, yet very few examples (namely one) are given as evidence of this.  Couldn’t we at least try refining our general rule?  Suppose, for the sake of argument, there really are cases of morally acceptable adultery.  Then we need to alter the sixth commandment to something like “Thou shalt not commit adultery except in case of dire need of someone within one’s care”, and we’d have to define “dire need” with sufficient precision that one’s own “need” for companionship and sexual fulfillment do not qualify.  But the Church has recognized similar qualifications to “Thou shalt not steal” for centuries without the exceptions swallowing the rule.

Yet the Kasperite party, which now rules the Catholic Church, will not follow this path.  Their whole claim to orthodoxy is that they have not admitted the existence of categories of morally permitted adultery, only individual cases.  How can this claim be tenable?  If one woman is justified in committing adultery to secure some good for her children, then surely every other woman in similar situations is also so justified.  Surely we can identify the morally relevant facts of the case and use it to define a category.  To avoid this conclusion, the Kasperites must invoke “uniqueness”, i.e. that the morally relevant facts are infinite in number or somehow do not survive abstraction.  This despite the fact that, in their one example, only a few facts seemed to be needed to morally size up the situation.

The new Catholic party line conflicts with modern ethical philosophy on a deep level.  Kant, for example, saw abstraction as a key part of moral reasoning, particularly with his formulation of the categorical imperative that we must be able to consistently will our acts to be universal laws for everyone in like situations.  Morality is associated with the third-person view, of replacing the question “what should I do” with “what should one in this situation do”.  Because of our interests and passions, it has been assumed that people are less reliable moral reasoners when analyzing their own cases.

Despite the insistence of clerical hacks, the new official Catholic doctrine of “conscience” also conflicts with her own ethical tradition.  Thomas Aquinas denies that conscience is a distinct power, identifying it rather as the act of applying general moral principles to specific cases.  Moral reasoning is, for the Thomists, a deductive “top-down” affair.  Moral first principles are innately known by synderesis.  They are elaborated into secondary principles (like “don’t commit adultery”) and properly applied through the virtue of prudence.  It would be a grave misreading to assign prudence a role similar to the Kasperite conscience.  An analogy inspired by Leibniz’s quote above should make this clear.  In Euclidean geometry, all demonstrations proceed from the five axioms.  This is like the first principles of practical reasoning known by synderesis.  The truth of any conclusion depends only on the axioms and the logical validity of each step of the proof proceeding from them.  Certainly, geometric reasoning involves a sort of skill (analogous to the virtue of prudence), but this skill is not a separate source of information; it reveals nothing not logically deducible from the five axioms.  In this analogy, conscience is like the result of a geometric proof.  It is inconceivable in a system like Aquinas’ for conscience to turn against, to grant exceptions to, the moral rules of which it is only the application.  Nor should we respect a man’s conscience more than we respect his arithmetic.  An outsider can detect errors in the one as surely as he can detect errors in the other.

To deny “conscience” is to deny the existence of a moral sense that judges particulars and does not depend on general rules.  Against this, one could point out that people don’t start out with perfectly refined sets of moral principles.  Moral education proceeds by recognizing certain acts as worthy of praise or condemnation and then asking why, and how could this process get off the ground without something like “conscience”?  I suspect that moral education must start with a presentation of heroes and villains, clear cases where the synderesis can be applied even by the unpracticed.  From the case of clearly treacherous adultery, one comes to understand what is wrong with adultery in general.  Then knowledge of the general rule makes it possible to judge more complicated cases with morally irrelevant distractions to one’s sympathies (“…but her husband didn’t appreciate her, and she was lonely…”).  These “complicated cases” are not ones where we must set aside general rules and return to undifferentiated synderesis, but are in fact the ones where general rules are most important.

It’s not clear if Catholic moral theology is salvageable.  I suggest that a sane ethics of the future must drastically reduce the role played by “conscience”.  Surveying the larger history of ethics, this should not be so shocking.  Plato and Aristotle discussed ethics at length without needing it.  It was only with early 18th-century philosophers like Shaftesbury and Butler that conscience assumed the dominant role we think natural today.  We are used to hearing conscience described as an interior authority, as the ultimate authority.  However, this does not reflect our actual experience of conscience.  My conscience applies the general rule “Thou shalt not commit adultery” to “I should not have sex with Alice, the cute girl in the office next to me who is a woman other than my wife.”  The authority here is not in the application itself, but in the general rule.  Whatever authority “I shouldn’t sleep with Alice” has, it derives from “nobody should commit adultery”.  But what about the duty to obey an erring conscience?  Even here, the authority one experiences comes from the general rules one is misapplying, and the sin in failing to obey comes from the intention to violate these rules.  One cannot appeal to one’s conscience as some sort of separate authority.

It’s only dissent when conservatives do it.

That was the first thing I thought, reading Austen Invereigh’s claim that critics of communion-for-adulterers (or even those requesting clarification as to whether that is now official policy) have crossed the line “into dissent”.  After all, Cardinal Kasper was promoting his heresy long ago.  Popes John Paul II and Benedict VI answered quite unambiguously that unrepentant adulterers cannot receive the Eucharist.  Wasn’t Kasper obliged to accept this ruling with full sincerity, to accept its teaching as his own belief and to never raise the issue again?  What’s the difference?  Why is it that when liberals don’t get the answer they want, it just means they should keep asking, whereas conservatives have to accept any answer, or ambiguous non-answer, we don’t like?

Invereigh claims that today’s critics of Amoris Laetitia resemble past heretics and schematics, but the resemblances are peculiar.  One resemblance is supposed to be our insistence on logical deduction from accepted principles.  One notes here the anti-intellectualism Pope Francis has fostered across the Catholic world, its hostility toward clarity and precision, its interpretation of questions as attacks.  More vaguely, there is the criticism that critics are failing to move with the Church.  One suspects that for some people, the Pope is only to be obeyed when he contradicts previous teaching, because only this constitutes “movement” which is our new sign of the action of the Holy Ghost.  It is a prejudice directly opposite of the traditionalist’s.  Thus the deepest fears of the Eastern Orthodox regarding the papacy would be confirmed.  Papal authority would then be said to exist not as a weapon to preserve the immutable deposit of faith, but as an instrument to authorize unlimited novelty.

On female genital mutilation 2: natural law arguments

WARNING:  There’s nothing grotesque in these posts.  I’ve tried to avoid too much detail about the conjugal act, but may not have succeeded well enough for some readers.

In The City of God, Saint Augustine ponders our need for privacy during sex.  He could see nothing shameful in the conjugal act per se–in fact, he points out that men would not want others to imagine they did not have carnal knowledge of their wives, that their marriages were unconsummated and their children illegitimate.  Augustine suggests we are ashamed of the fact that our sex organs “move” without our deliberate control, an intimation of our fallen state, that by rebelling against God above us, we lost the full and rightful authority over our bodies beneath us.  In a prelapsarian state, erection and ejaculation–for example–would be as subject to a man’s rational/volitional faculties as are the movements of his fingers.  No doubt many women having difficulty achieving orgasm and many men struggling with premature ejaculation would see the attraction of this idea, but I’ve come to regard it as a “near miss”.  (I certainly don’t find Augustine’s writings on sex silly, as many of my contemporaries seem to.)  We need privacy during our sexual responses not because they are shameful (whether or not they are shameful depends on entirely separate criteria) but because they are intimate, and they are self-revealing partly because of the loss of control involved.  If a man’s ejaculation were willed, it would reveal only the decision that caused it.  If it were involuntary in the way a sneeze is–simply bypassing the conscious faculties altogether–it would reveal nothing at all.  The orgasm as we experience it in mankind’s current state is something we do not directly control, but is something that follows upon a definite sensory and mental state.  Only the man must climax for reproduction to occur, but both male and female orgasm are conducive to intimacy and thus to one of the natural goods of married life.  Thus, even apart from the fact that the woman’s body is designed to enjoy sex, we can tie this to an intelligible good of human nature.

What about the concern that the way women experience sexual excitement is unfeminine or otherwise defective?  First of all, it’s clearly not true that women’s sexuality is the same as men’s except with the nerve endings in the wrong place.  That sexologists could make such a commotion about discovering the importance of the clitoris proves it.  No man ever needed to be told where he can feel sexual pleasure or how to masturbate.  Women’s sexual response is clearly more diffuse than men’s, presumably because the clitoris is mostly internal.  We men are more given to specialization, so it is fitting that for us sexual stimulation entirely concerns the penis.  It is appropriately feminine that women are not like this, but experience things more holistically.  One can even see some appropriateness in the fact that female orgasm takes more time and effort from her husband, that she must be carried across the threshold, as it were, of sexual release.

We have undertaken what may seem an excessive amount of effort to argue against something we knew from the first was wrong and grotesque.  Perhaps Dr. Cocks was wise to establish the wickedness of FGM briefly and then move on to the more important question of why students wed themselves to a worldview that would countenance such abominations.  (Then again, we only have the summary of his argument.  Maybe he did spend a lot of time arguing against genital mutilation before turning his guns to cultural relativism.)  However, I’d like to make two wider points.  First, it is intellectually defensible for traditionalists to criticize other peoples’ established customs.  However, we must be very careful in doing so.  We must be sure not to give any ammunition to the common enemies of all traditional peoples.  (This was my criticism of Professor Cocks’ arguments against the burka.)  Second, we get an idea of how natural law arguments against mutilation might go generally.  One shows how a given alteration of the body impedes either functionality (related to some objective good of human flourishing) or symbolism.  Thus, we can see–even aside from issues of safety and coercion–why female genital mutilation is unacceptable while male circumcision and earrings are unproblematic.

On female genital mutilation 1: the problem

WARNING:  There’s nothing grotesque in these posts.  I’ve tried to avoid too much detail about the conjugal act, but may not have succeeded well enough for some readers.

At the Pope Center webpage, Orthosphere contributor Richard Cocks describes his attempts to wrestle his students out of their moral relativism by arguing that female genital mutilation is wrong irrespective of culture.

I often describe female genital mutilation, practiced in places like rural Sudan and argue that it is immoral because it is painful, involuntary, can lead to infection and death and removes the possibility of feeling sexual pleasure. Thus, this practice is immoral. But my students frequently respond, “That’s just your perspective. The Sudanese would be unlikely to agree with you.”

I’m a great fan of the clitoris and would recommend all married men familiarize themselves with it, so I would like to strengthen and expand Dr. Cocks’ arguments.  I’m sure that he would agree that clitorectomy is wrong even in the absence of some of the above criteria.  In fact, in many places in the world where FGM is common, the practice is not involuntary, and encouragement comes largely from older women.  Some forms of FGM are more painful and dangerous than others, and with Western surgery and anesthesia these concerns could be removed altogether.  Yet, most of us would recoil at even chosen, safe, painless genital mutilation.  We object to it precisely as a mutilation, in a way that we do not recoil from ear piercings or male circumcision.  I agree with Dr. Cocks that this response is not mere cultural conditioning, but is a matter of natural law.  According to classical natural law theory, our bodies are not property with which we may dispose as we please.  They come with meanings and a standard of excellence/right-functioning that precede and inform our choices.  With regard to female sexuality, one must consider the natural functions:  procreation and pair bonding.  One can also invoke the standard of femininity itself–regarding masculinity and femininity as universal principles transcending human nature, as did the ancient Chinese and Captain James Kirk.  One can argue that un-mutilated female sexuality better conforms to the ideal of femininity.

Now, natural law strictures against mutilation are not absolute.  Medical necessity may justify amputating limbs or donating healthy organs.  Thus, we cannot condemn the barbarians without first understanding their motives.  In the link above (here it is again), anthropologist Bettina Shell-Duncan explains to The Atlantic

The woman is going to go live with her husband’s family, and it’s part of inclusion among other women whose identity is as a circumcised woman. She’s reliant on her mother-in-law and her husband’s kin. So it’s part of becoming inducted into this female network that’s really important.

Also, for us, we believe that bodies are natural and perfect. Not everybody believes that. Some people in Africa believe that bodies are androgynous and that all male and female bodies contain male and female parts.

So a man’s foreskin is a female part. And for a female, the covering of the clitoris is a male part. The idea of becoming a wholly formed female includes being cut—having any part that is somewhat male-like removed from the body.

The sort of feminist argument about this is that it’s about the control of women but also of their sexuality and sexual pleasure. But when you talk to people on the ground, you also hear people talking about the idea that it’s women’s business. As in, it’s for women to decide this. If we look at the data across Africa, the support for the practice is stronger among women than among men.

So, the patriarchy argument is just not a simple one. Female circumcision is part of demarcating insider and outsider status. Are you part of this group of elder women who have power in their society?

Where did these savages get the idea that the exterior clitoris is a “male part”?  Is this just some random superstition?  In fact, I’ve come across similar ideas in several American sex books which describe the clitoris as in some sense a “female penis”.  Cursory readers might well go away with the idea that before the 1970s, with the rise of sexologists like those books’ authors, women didn’t enjoy sex because all they got was vaginal intercourse, which doesn’t hit the right nerves very strongly.  It turns out women’s bodies are designed for orgasm by masturbation or oral sex.

In fact, this isn’t quite the story that the “sex experts” settled on.  The clitoris is a large organ, mostly internal, that can be stimulated in a number of ways.  Still, the fact that the clitorolotrous phase of the Sexual Revolution could match so well the beliefs of African tribalists shows that we are not dealing with a random superstition, nor one that we must look to other cultures to understand.  And if it were true that this part of the woman’s body is a female penis designed for sexual gratification by nonprocreative acts, would it not be reasonable to conclude that this is a bug rather than a feature of the female body?  Putting aside the question of why God would do such a thing, is it not odd that natural selection should have left such a design flaw for so long?  If it makes evolutionary sense for women to have a bundle of nerves to make them enjoy sex, wouldn’t we expect it to be concentrated to reward the kind of sex that will get them offspring?  The Africans might claim that natural law is actually on their side, that mutilated women are more functional and more feminine!

As I said, things are actually more complicated than that.  Still, it’s true that women’s arousal is not concentrated in the vagina the way men’s is concentrated in the penis.  It is for us natural lawyers, defenders of God’s creation, to argue that this is a feature, not a bug.

Against interdisciplinary studies

“Interdisciplinary” is an academic buzzword.  Therefore, it must be bullshit.

How do we know in this particular case?  Because all the power science, mathematics, literary criticism, and history have, both to acquire truth and to improve the minds of their practitioners, comes from its practitioners subjecting themselves to a specific mental discipline.  (See my objection to education-by-newspapers.)  Interdisciplinary studies mix disciplines by definition, thus sacrificing the epistemic and moral guarantees of each component.  Mixing together basketball and baseball doesn’t make something twice as fun; it makes an incoherent mess.  Mixing your time between the discipline of being a celibate monk and the discipline of being a married man responsible for a household doesn’t mean twice as much discipline; it means neither discipline.

Nobody will take the replication crisis seriously until it hits chemistry or physics.  Everybody always knew deep down that social sciences are BS.  They had to be!  They’re interdisciplinary, i.e. undisciplined:  trying to answer humanities questions with scientific tools.

Bits and pieces can be salvaged.  Anthropology has distinct components.  Evolutionary anthropology is a science, albeit a speculative one.  Recording and interpreting other cultures’ folkways and myths is a respectable humanity.  Cut out the advocacy, which has no epistemic value, and one has two rather humble disciplines.  Psychology is not a science, but it has picked up some useful lore for teachers, leaders, and parents.  Some of microeconomics appears to be on solid ground.  And so on, though all the social sciences.  There are nuggets of modest knowledge, but will social scientists have the humility to give up their philosopher king aspirations in exchange for more solid epistemic grounding?

The good side of formalized evil

At least then it is limited.

I’ve noted several times that it would be better for us if the Left were to codify their rule in precise laws, at least in those areas where they haven’t already done so.  We may not do evil because it is the lesser of two evils, but there is nothing wrong in recognizing which evil is the lesser.  Also, accepting unfairness that we have no power to redress is not itself an evil act.

My proposed “grand bargain” between the races is grossly unfair to whites, and like all forms of socialism, the only thing it will efficiently produce is misery, but it does grant us some legitimacy.  It shifts the frame of racial justice from retribution to distribution, where, because aspirations are finite, they can be satisfied while leaving some room for the other goods of common life.

I’ve said before that it would be a great boon for academic freedom if Leftists would make their speech codes explicit.  No fuzzy talk about being “offensive” or “marginalizing” special groups.  Just a list of words that may not be used and propositions that may not be asserted.  That’s how we Catholics did it when we ran things.  That’s what you do if your goal is to defend an orthodoxy, not wield a general-purpose bullying stick.  The list can be as long as they like with a formal process for additions; perhaps it can even have provisions that some words and ideas are forbidden only to certain classes of people.  We Catholics never did anything so wretchedly iniquitous, but Leftist orthodoxy seems a bit more fragile, so maybe they need more fine-grained restrictions.  But, given the list, no one can be punished for non-proscribed speech or research.  Nulla poena sine lege.  The limits are precise, so we may freely and safely explore everywhere outside, even up to a hair’s breadth of those limits.  This would be the main advantage.  A secondary advantage would be forcing the Left to own up to their own restrictions.  With the current rules about not generating “hostility”, liberals always play the game of saying when challenged that they’re only protecting civility but then in practice taking these vague injunctions as a mandate to penalize dissent.  Any criticism of Leftism is defined to be stirring up hostility toward its clients.

Explicit racial quotas would be much better than forcing every institution to make “diversity” its main goal.  Thing of how much better college would be with any specified demographics but without all the diversity bullshit.  Without explicit quotas, the only way to get an “acceptable” number of non-Asian minorities is to lower objective standards and introduce subjective components in the admissions process, i.e. to add enough noise to drown out the signal.  Of course, we suspect that essays are in fact being used to identify desired minorities with plausible deniability (i.e. to unofficially have quotas), but that is actually the optimistic case.  What if subjective pieces are mostly just introducing randomness?  Wouldn’t it be best to use one’s white slots for the most academically gifted whites, the black slots for the most academically gifted blacks, etc?  This clearly optimizes academic talent given the constraint of racial diversity.

“Hostile work environment” is another case of liberals getting to pose as mere protectors of civility while actually policing political opinions in the private workplace.  We should not let them control the debate like this.  Let’s all acknowledge that government is now in the business of using employers to enforce Leftist orthodoxy on matters of sexuality and race.  If the Republican Party has any use at all, it should set goals to limit how this is done.  I have suggested before a law to the effect that requirements to maintain positive work environments for protected class employees shall not be construed to require employers to compel affirmations of any idea or group from employees.  Silence shall be considered sufficient.  If employers want to persecute their “racist”, “homophobic” employees, so be it, but they are not required to do so.  A second, stronger, law would be to withhold government contracts from businesses that penalizes employees for failing to affirm particular positions on the moral status of sodomy and the like.  An even stronger law could forbid the government from working with companies that penalize their employees for political speech made outside of the work environment and not made in the employer’s name.  Legal guarantees for government employees should certainly be an achievable thing.  The Left will scream bloody murder, but if they want to make it so that teachers, policemen, and firemen can be fired for incorrect thoughts expressed outside of work, they should be forced to defend this.  It should be the center of debate.  Don’t let them play the game of “Of course these people are safe, only a paranoid person would want such a law”, then 5 minutes later, “Of course we can’t allow homophobes into positions of power”.

Step 1:  realize how bad things really are.  Step 2:  proceed from there.