Dec 312002

I hate to distract AC Douglas from his battle with the benighted Elvish forces with a flank attack, but I haven’t quite finished with the Jabberwocky yet. AC’s argument, to review, was in two parts. First he argued that the criterion of art is that it fills the heads of its auditors with ideas. (The ideas are supposed to be vague.) I objected that this definition is impressionist — it depends on the auditor, different auditors react differently, and sooner or later we arrive at rank subjectivism. Later AC elaborated, or clarified, or amended his position as follows:

The J Test in no way depends on the tester finding the work under test to be personally appealing. What it does depend on is the depth of the tester’s knowledge of the domain to which the work belongs, and his ability to put aside his personal likes and dislikes, and make his judgment based on the qualities of the work itself.

“Personally appealing” is a bit of a red herring. The Jabberwocky test relies on the evocation of a response in the auditor, and its nature is beside the point. All such theories are impressionist. But in the meat of this passage AC argues, against accusations of subjectivism, that even to apply the Jabberwocky test one must be a qualified auditor. Now let’s imagine two qualified auditors, both with deep domain knowledge and the ability to set aside their personal preferences. What happens when these auditors disagree? According to AC this never happens; as he writes in his comments to my first post:

It’s quite impossible that two persons of the same degree of knowledge, and the same capacity to distance themselves from their own prejudices, likes, and dislikes, would disagree on the binary question of art or not-art for the work under test, although they may differ in their assessments of the degree of quality of that work if determined to be art.

His experience must be different from mine. Certainly in English and American poetry, a field I know pretty well, distinguished scholars disagree radically on evalulation. As best I can tell, AC would mediate such disputes by presentation of scholarly credentials; yet scholarship has little to do with talent, and judging art takes talent. C.S. Lewis read more 16th century English poetry than I ever hope to, yet he misevaulates it generally, by elevating the “Golden” style (Spenser, Sidney) over the “Drab” (Ralegh, Gascoigne, Jonson), and as a result consistently fails to find the best poems. This failure is not of scholarship but of taste.

AC may reply that Lewis never errs on the “binary” matter of distinguishing art from non-art. Since there appears to be no room in AC’s categories for “bad art,” I can’t be sure, although I doubt it. (If I am wrong about this I would find an example of “bad art” helpful.) In any case, calling a criterion binary does not make it so. The Jabberwocky test, to be useful, must be capable of finer distinctions than “art” or “non-art.” If we are to use Jabberwocky strictly to eliminate the non-art, and then substitute some new criteria for evaluation once we’ve pared down the field, then what are these new criteria, and why weren’t we using them in the first place?

Dec 282002

The Ninth Amendment, once compared by Robert Bork to an “inkblot,” states, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” In other words, rights — spheres of action in which the government may not interfere — are to be construed broadly.

The Tenth Amendment states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” In other words, federal powers are to be construed narrowly.

These powers are enumerated in Article 1, Section 8. Congress can collect taxes, borrow money, coin money, run the post office, provide for the common defense, sign treaties, declare war, regulate interstate, foreign and Indian commerce, and not a great deal else. Congress therefore has no Constitutional warrant to enact minimum wage statutes, environmental regulations, antitrust laws, workplace safety standards and the rest of the superstructure of the welfare state that we take for granted every day. The whole business is unconstitutional. All of it. Franklin Roosevelt’s purpose in trying to pack the Supreme Court was to push the New Deal through by diluting the majority of justices that believed exactly that. Here endeth the lesson.

Dec 252002

No, strike that…God’s existence not disproved…no, that’s not it either.

Jim Holt, who writes on philosophy for Slate, is often good but today, on God, he is merely facile. He manages to write 1300 words without mentioning the most obvious objection: that God is a classical violation of Occam’s Razor. He is an entity without necessity. This places the burden of proof on those who assert his existence. Holt does discuss, briefly, the equally powerful objection that God is incoherent — irresistible forces, immovable objects, that sort of thing — only to dismiss it. “This is very much a philosopher’s argument, and it has been worked over to the point of inconclusiveness.” Ah. The philosophers disagree. So we laymen can safely put it aside.

He also puts the problem of evil in its weakest possible form, by choosing as his example a catastrophe willed by men, the Holocaust. Here there is an easy answer, and Holt quotes a Professor Van Inwagen of Notre Dame, who provides it: “To ask God to give me free choice between x and y and to see to it that I chose x instead of y is to ask him to do the logically impossible.” This rejoinder has somewhat less force against an accidental disaster, an act of, er, God. The classic case, the one that shook the faith of Voltaire, is the Lisbon earthquake of November 1st, 1755, All Saints’ Day. It was in the morning, when church services were being held. Thirty-five of the forty churches in the city collapsed, more than 10,000 people died, and the faithful in church generally fared much worse than the infidels at home. This ought to persuade anyone that, if God does exist, He is at least anti-clerical.

Holt does tell one excellent joke, however. Q: How do you protest when a Unitarian moves into the neighborhood? A: You burn a question mark on his lawn.

Dec 252002

They matter no more than the politics of Bono, or Barbra Streisand; less actually, because Strummer never tried to influence policy. If artists become important in politics, the fault lies not with the idiots themselves but with the even bigger idiots who attend to them. They achieve significance, like the devil, only insofar as people believe in their existence.

So scholastic disputes about the politics of Sandinista!, the xenophobia of “Safe European Home” and Strummer’s alleged evolution into a conservative are utterly beside the point. The Clash, which even had the good grace to break up early, made London Calling and Give ‘Em Enough Rope, great records for reasons that had nothing to do with their politics, which were mostly incoherent when they were even decipherable. That’s what Strummer should be remembered for, and it’s a great deal.

Dec 232002

Steven Den Beste writes today about consequentialism. As he says, he is not himself a consequentialist; he finds all utilitarian criteria, and all other ethical rules, inadequate. This makes him an intuitionist, as I have written before. Nevertheless he has residual sympathy with some forms of utilitarianism and understates the problems with the theory.

Consequentialism of any variety founders on commensurability. You can’t compare degrees of satisfaction in different people because there are no happiness-units. In fact it’s even impossible to compare degrees of satisfaction in the same person. I prefer pears if I haven’t eaten any fruit, but if I’ve just eaten three pears then I prefer apples. So for me, what’s the relative value of an apple and a pear? Even I, with direct access to my own thoughts, can supply no better answer than “it depends.” And even if preferences were constant they would certainly not be quantifiable. This clips the wings of the consequentialist at the start. His ethics demand that he perform an impossible task.

Mill and Bentham addressed this differently. Bentham argued that happiness is internal and can be evaluated only from each person’s own point of view. Unfortunately this leaves the utilitarian actor with the problem of getting inside of everyone’s head. It also has a nasty subjectivist edge. Consider a sadist, who enjoys inflicting suffering. An act that inflicts suffering scores extra, in Bentham’s version of utilitarianism, because it gratifies the sadist.

Mill found this conclusion insupportable, and famously evaded it by arguing that there are “higher” and “lower” pleasures, and that higher ought to get more weight. Which is fine: it’s just not utilitarianism any more. The standards for higher and lower have been smuggled in from outside the theory.

Rule Utilitarianism, a further refinement, fuses Bentham with Kant:

Utilitarianism says that in any situation you should act in a way which maximizes happiness. Rule Utilitarianism says that you should follow a rule which, if always applied by everyone in a similar situation, would maximize happiness even if it does not do so in this particular instance.

Den Beste prefers this to strict utilitarianism because it’s friendlier to his ethical intuitions. Even in pure utilitarianism rules receive consideration: if you break a promise, and people find out, one of the consequences is that your reputation is damaged. (There are also secondary consequences: the taboo against promise-breaking is weakened.) But Rule Utilitarianism says you ought to keep your promises, even if nobody else could possibly find out. It says you ought not to overgraze your cattle on public lands, where pure utilitarians would have no such scruples.

Of course Rule Utilitarianism has its own problems, as Den Beste acknowledges:

My biggest problem with Rule Utilitarianism is that in practical application it’s much too susceptible to rationalization. Part of the problem is in deciding just how specific you’re going to be about “similar situations”. Different levels of scope regarding “similar” will lead to different calculations of the optimal rule, and so if you like one of them but not another it’s just too easy to decide that the scope should be such as to make that the rule you follow.

Actually, in the classical formulation of rule utilitarianism, if more than one rule applies, you’re supposed to revert to pure utilitarianism rather than choosing your own rule. Still, the scope problem is more complicated than Den Beste lets on. It’s extremely easy to devise rules that would maximize happiness if universally followed. Leftists play this game all the time. “Imagine if they gave a war and nobody showed up.” “Imagine everybody showed respect for all living things.” Of course the trouble with most such rules is that they only make sense in a world where they are universally followed, a world that does not exist. Pacifism, which I join Den Beste in abhorring, is a perfectly proper rule under rule utilitarianism.

Because it is so easy to devise these rules, many will be devised, so many that more than one will apply to any possible situation. Then we have the choice of reverting to pure utilitarianism, with the consequences outlined above, or “rationalizing,” as Den Beste describes it, by choosing the rule that’s closest to our moral intuition.

If you take rule utilitarianism seriously, you wind up with a bunch of unrelated edicts and no guidance for applying them in a particular situation. Something like, say, the Ten Commandments. Oddly, the “scientific” and religious ethics turn out to have a great deal in common.

Dec 232002

Steven Den Beste says that, no matter what words you use, the concept eventually reasserts itself, which is a cheerful thought:

The reality is that words follow concepts and not the other way around. If you force someone to use a different term for something, then the meaning of that term will eventually modify in normal use to embody the same concept that the original word meant, which is why certain members of the civil rights movement again searched for a new new term to replace the new term which had failed to eradicate the underlying belief in white racial superiority. When the bigots began to use “Black” without abandoning their bigotry, we got “Afro-American”, and when that didn’t work we got “African-American”. Bigotry in the US is in decline (thankfully) but this did not contribute to the process and may even have impeded it.

Julian Sanchez disagrees:

There’s a more general problem here I’ve noted before of what you might call linguistic hypnosis. We have a healthy enough tendency to think about “human life” in a certain way, but then we overextend our attitude towards “lives” in the sense of “how’s your life?” to the technical, biological sense of “organism with human DNA.” Then we might go back and rationalize our attitude, but the initial reaction is conditioned by the application of the same word to quite different underlying things. I think plenty of libertarians hit the same stumbling block with “intellectual property.” The Constitution, of course, never uses that phrase — it talks about “exclusive rights,” which is to say, monopoly rights that the government may grant. But we’re accustomed to calling it “property,” and libertarians are all for “property” and “markets,” so a lot of us reflexively defend these monopoly rights before we stop and ask: “well, is this really like property in, say, land? if there are differences, what are they, and how might they make a difference?” Or recall the sudden flight from the term “privatization” as applied to Social Security, which in some circles seems to have been replaced by the contentless “modernization.” Will Saletan gave a great talk about this at the San Diego seminar I attended a while back… Among the examples he cited were “affirmative action” (what the hell does that have to do with race preferences?), and “campaign finance reform” (“reform” is always an improvement, right? are you against “reform”?).

It’s a question of how widely the description varies from the thing. The fatuous cases are quickly exposed: nobody believes “people’s republics” are anything of the kind, or that the Europeans are truly interested in “multilateralism” or being our “ally.” Some of Sanchez’s examples are nearly as crude. “Affirmative action” is already on the outs and “campaign finance reform” won’t last long either. But words do influence thought, many subtle misnomers are disguised analogies, and some of them, like “intellectual property,” can dog us for centuries.

Dec 212002

From this week’s New York Observer (don’t even think about it if you have a slow connection):

A Brooklyn resident reported that while he was making a right turn onto Park Avenue from 68th Street at 2:14 PM, his car was struck by a black BMW bearing diplomatic plates. The complainant said that when he suggested that they exchange insurance information, the Beemer’s driver got out of his vehicle, pushed him and stated, “Get the fuck out of here. I do not want to give you any papers. You are inferior to me. I am a diplomat.”

The guy got the license plate number, sure enough the car was traced to a consulate, and guess which country? No, not France. Afghanistan.