Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Common Word: Islam and the Limits of Dialogue

Christopher Blosser writes about A Common Word, an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI on the part of 130+ Islamic scholars from all branches of Islam, calling for deeper and more open dialogue between Islam and Christianity. (He provides a follow-up post with more Christian reactions to the letter here.)
The origins of this apparently lie in the pope's Regensburg address, in which he talked about the intimate connection between faith and reason, and used traditional Islamic teaching as a counterpoint to that example. According to a John Allen column (quoted by Blosser in his post) the scholars who started the initiative felt that the Vatican was only willing to deal with Islam at a diplomatic level, not a theoligical one:
Hossein charged that the Vatican has rebuffed attempts to engage Muslims in theological conversation, instead concentrating on the diplomatic level.

“Muslims thought of choosing a small team of 4-5 people, leading Islamic thinkers, to be able to have a dialogue on the deepest theological issues with the Vatican, including the pope himself,” in the wake of controversies over Regensburg, Hossein said. “At least, that’s the condition I put down. Nothing came of that, there was no response from the Vatican.”

Esposito said he too was aware of a high-level attempt to open a new channel of dialogue with the Vatican by Muslim leaders after Regensburg that was rebuffed.

“Most of the response that has come from the Vatican, after the Islamic protest and all of these things, has been diplomatic, not theological,” Hossein said.
The Common Word letter attempts to underline common religious beliefs which could serve as the basis for ongoing dialogue:
The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbour is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity. The following are only a few examples:

Of God’s Unity, God says in the Holy Qur’an: Say: He is God, the One! / God, the Self-Sufficient Besought of all! (Al-Ikhlas, 112:1-2). Of the necessity of love for God, God says in the Holy Qur’an: So invoke the Name of thy Lord and devote thyself to Him with a complete devotion (Al-Muzzammil, 73:8). Of the necessity of love for the neighbour, the Prophet Muhammad r said: “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbour what you love for yourself.”

In the New Testament, Jesus Christ u said: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. / And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. / And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
Thus in obedience to the Holy Qur’an, we as Muslims invite Christians to come together with us on the basis of what is common to us, which is also what is most essential to our faith and practice: the Two Commandments of love.
The letter goes on to quote extensively from the Qur'an and from the Torah and the New Testament to underline the common elements of monotheism and love of neighbor in the three religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The site also includes a number of responses from Christian and Jewish leaders.

Certainly, this is an encouraging thing to see coming out of a large number of Islamic scholars. From what I understand, theological and juridical consensus in Islam is often achieved by the number of scholars who endorse a particular interpretation of the Qur'an -- and so seeing 130+ scholars from throughout the Islamic world endorse something like this is an encouraging sign, though I'm not in a position to know how the signatories rate within various national and theological groups in the Muslim world.

But aside from the undoubted point that a call for peace (especially if it results in more peaceful co-existence where Christians live under an Islamic majority) is much more encouraging than the reverse -- what should we as Christians make of this?

While I respect the sincerity of the signatories of A Common Word, and agree that the three great monotheistic religions do share in common principles of love of God and love of neighbor, I'm not clear how much of the deeper dialogue which they wish the Vatican were more open to is actually possible. For once we have discussed the love of God and love of neighbor, where exactly could we go from there? The one-ness of God, it would seem, and yet here we immediately run into one of the great historic differences between our faiths. Islam does not admit as possible that God should be three in one. And while explaining the Trinity in such terms as to be understandable to a Muslim audience would be a worthy occupation, if a consensus on this were achieved my understanding is that this would consist (for the Muslims) of rejecting traditional Islam. You cannot, so far as I can understand, both accept the trinity and be a good Muslim.

Which brings us to the central problem of religious dialogue: What exactly is the goal? Clearly in such areas as dialogue with the Orthodox Churches, the goal is a reunion of the great historic branches of Christianity. But in holding interfaith dialogue between Christians, Jews and Muslims there is clearly no possibility of reunion short of conversion. And while I'm very much in favor of our non-Christian brothers converting, I doubt that that is the goal of the Common Word signatories.

Thinking about this, it occurs to me that in historical terms it is much easier for the children to hold out desire for dialogue than for the parents to appreciate it. Thus, as Christians we may affirm that the Jews hold true to God's original covenant, and remain in a sense His chosen people, even while believing that in Christ the old covenant found its fulfillment. In that sense, Christians can see a fair amount of point in holding dialogue with Jews because we hold their beliefs to be true within a certain context, though not the fullness of truth.

However, from a Jewish perspective, Christianity is a corruption of the truth that was already full. If Christ was not the promised savior, than there's really not much to be said from the Jewish side, so far as I can tell, other than: "Please don't persecute us, and when you're ready to give up this savior-already-came nonsense, we're happy to talk."

The same problem, it seems, arises when Muslims want to hold dialogue with Christians. Perhaps open-minded Muslims are ready to grant that Christianity is mostly true so far as it goes (though can we maybe gloss over a few major dogmas like the Trinity, the Eucharist, etc.?) and in that sense are open for deeper theological dialogue. But from a Christian point of view the entire revelation of Mohammad is a human invention/delusion at best, and at worse something rather more sinister.

At that point, no wonder the Vatican seems more eager to pursue things on a diplomatic than a theological footing. At the level of achieving greater peace between Christians and Muslims, there's much to be achieved. At the level of theological dialogue...

Well, I think there are probably good things to be achieved there, but they would need to be achieved through a very non-goal-oriented approach. That, I think, has been the problem with many recent attempts at inter-religious dialogue. Too often these things seem focused on "let us agree on something we can sign together" rather than "let us attempt to find a way in which our beliefs can be presented to each other through a theological/philosophical language that both of us can understand". There would, I think, be a value in achieving some sort of common theological language that would allow Muslim theologians to understand what Christians mean by things like the Trinity, the Eucharist, etc. Then, at least, we could be clear on it is that each other are talking about. But I'm not clear if that's the sort of dialogue that people are looking for.

Robert Goulet, R.I.P.

I saw in the paper this morning that Robert Goulet had passed away, and alas, the first thing that passed through my head was Will Ferrell on SNL bellowing, "GOU-let!" This is for my brother Will, a Ferrell fan extrordinaire:

Note: contains a bit of language

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Conservative Approach to the Reform of the Reform

There's been recurrent talk at The New Liturgical Movement over the last few weeks about the difference between (if any) "the reform of the the reform" and "do the red, say the black".

The "reform of the reform" seems to be used to refer to a desire to see changes in the current missal to bring it more into line with the 1962 missal -- or more properly, into line with what might have been the result had the post-conciliar liturgical committees stuck to a faithful and straightforward implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium in making changes to the 1962 missal.

"Do the red, say the black", or DTRSTB, is used to cover the range of things under general heading of celebrating the current missal without informal additions, without abuses, and as much in tune with the traditional manner of Roman liturgy as possible (due place to Latin, chant where appropriate, incense at high masses, etc.)

One of the things that has struck me in watching these debates is that in many ways I find myself in the peculiar position of defending the new missal because of conservative liturgical principles.

Not to say that the new missal is itself conservative. Though I'm certainly not as educated in such things as some, it's pretty clear to anyone reading the two side-by-side that a great deal was changed in the 1970 missal -- rather more I think than was really called for by Vatican II. And making all these changes to the text of the missal, while at the same time making available a bunch of options left entirely to the celebrant (whereas in the past differences in form were usually determined by season and occasion) and also allowing for the mass to be celebrated fully in the vernacular, and doing all three of these at time of great cultural change (indeed, cultural iconoclasm), certainly gave people the impression that "everything is changing" and often "everything is up for grabs".

However, the new missal has been in place for nearly forty years, and as such it is the only missal that the majority of the world's Catholics have ever known. It's all very well to point out that the old missal was the same in most essentials for over a thousand years, but if the people you're telling this to didn't experience any of those years, the point is in some ways rather academic. Suggesting (as some have in the flush of excitement since the recent motu proprio liberating the old missal) that hopefully within a decade or two the new missal will be gone and only the old one will be used amounts to a massive liturgical change for most Catholics. If one imagines a fully realized reform of the reform world, in which a new missal is put out which represents going back to the '62 and then setting out on the process of reform all over again -- we'd not only be changing everyone's liturgy but changing it to someone no one, not even the traditionalist communities, has experienced before.

Certainly, from the point of view of those of us used to the news cycle, and those of us excited enough about liturgy to want to see positive things happening at a discernible pace, the "do the red, say the black" approach may seem boringly slow. But I think stability is something we desperately need in liturgy. And indeed, in a world where many priests still free to ad lib -- or at least add comments -- fairly often, making changes in the missal would achieve relatively little. In this sense, if we spend the next forty years working to get the vast majority of our priests (and congregations) used to simply performing the liturgy in a stable, reverent manner, that would be great progress. And that, it seems to me, is what the conservative must wish for: stability, not change. Getting rid of irregularities, inventions and inconsistencies will be good for our liturgy, but this does not seem like the time to be contemplating revisions. And if during that time the number of masses according to the old missal gradually grows, that will serve to acclimate people to where our liturgical tradition lies.

Of course, "do the red, say the black" holds little appeal to those who consider the new missal seriously deficient. For those people, I think there are two key points:
1) Be thankful that Pope Benedict XVI has provided us with the motu proprio, making it much easier for you to attend masses according to the old missal.
2) Try to chill out about it all. I think many would agree that the way the post-conciliar committees went about their work is regrettable, but at the same time, what they produced is not necessarily in itself bad.

That latter point is something, I think, that those who read too much about liturgy should make sure to keep in mind. At one point I had (with much reading) worked myself up to a point of indignation over the three new "invented" Eucharistic Prayers that were added to the mass. Then that week as part of a digression at bible study, our assistant pastor started reading aloud and discussing Eucharistic Prayer III. And having been impressed by that, I went back and read all three in a a literal translation.

And honestly? If one can get out of one's head the self-inflicted indignation over "the prayer Bugnini's committee invented", they're all very beautiful prayers -- none of them theologically deficient. Sure, maybe it was a bad situation that gave them to us, but we have them now, and in and of themselves they are very worthy prayers. Why get mad over them? Perhaps sometimes conservatism needs to be more a matter of holding to what you have instead of looking at how it got there.

Virtual Carving: the Pumpkin Simulator

If, like us, you haven't bought a carving pumpkin yet, check out the Pumpkin Simulator. It's good for hours of amusement -- I just kicked the girls off the computer so that I can take a turn.

Monday, October 29, 2007


We've just hit 100,000 visitors to DarwinCatholic!

The lucky reader arrived at 4:55 from Phoenix, Arizona. Don't know who you are, but here's your 15 seconds of fame, sir, and thanks for making us the kind of 100,000-visitor site we are today.

Lost In Translation: This Week's Gospel

The story of the pharisee and the publican is one of those bits of the bible that is so familiar you could paraphrase it pretty easily on request. Indeed, I had a very specific line in my head in regards to it: "O Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men."

Thus, it was with mild surprise that I heard our deacon read out yesterday:
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity --
greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ (Lk 18:11-12)
Yep, even the self-satisfied old pharisee, though he has no problem with accusing everyone else of being greedy, dishonest and adulterous, apparently doesn't want to be caught using non-inclusive language.

So what's the actual text? The Vatican provides the neo Vulgate (the official Bible of the Church) text as follows:
11 Pharisaeus stans haec apud se orabat: “Deus, gratias ago tibi, quia non sum sicut ceteri hominum, raptores, iniusti, adulteri, velut etiam hic publicanus;
12 ieiuno bis in sabbato, decimas do omnium, quae possideo”.
A fairly literal translation of this would be:
The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: "God, I give thanks to you that I am not like the rest of men: greedy, unjust, adulterous -- just like this publican. I fast twice in a week, and I give a tenth of all I possess."
I find myself kind of curious: Where does my specific memory of the Pharisee's prayer come from? I tried checking the KJB (as the most likely to hear in literature) and the Douay Rheims, but both have slightly different formulations (though of course they use the m-word). I've no idea, though I must admit I find "the rest of humanity" from the NAB rather lame.

Six Minute Iliad

So forget Harry Potter -- let's focus on the classics. But who has time to just sit down and read the Iliad? DarwinCatholic presents, for your enjoyment, Garrison Keillor's Six Minute Iliad, starring Jack Nicholson, Elvis, Ross Perot, and Mr. Rogers as Odysseus.

GK: Thus did Achilles answer his old friend Odysseus. But wily Odysseus tried again.

TR (MR ROGERS): That's not very cooperative, is it? No, I don't think so. Mr. Agamemnon said he was sorry, and I think that a real hero would accept his apology and return to the battlefield and hack and hew and slay indiscriminate thousands and scatter their flesh for dogs and carrion, don't you? Hm?

The sound quality is a bit fuzzy, but who cares when the classics are this much fun?

Recipe for Sunday Morning Confusion

Print the church calendar to show that Daylight Savings Time ends on Oct. 28th rather than November 4th.

To our credit, we did catch on to this before arriving at church: at that ticklish point where (according to the correct rather than imagined time) MrsDarwin was due at choir practice in ten minutes and the children were not yet bathed and dressed. Sunday morning fun for the whole family.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Oakes on Schonborn

John Farrell links to Fr. Oakes' review of Cardinal Schonborn's new book in First Things.

Oakes is by far the best of the First Things authors on this topic, and he has a great deal interesting to say in this piece ranging from science and philosophy to economics.

The Boring Kid with the Long Leash

Sometimes, some event from the past suddenly resurfaces in memory. As I was sitting her contemplating my lack of any ideas for a post this morning, I recalled a conversation with a long forgotten school friend, not long after my tenth birthday had brought me a much awaited BB gun.

Friend: Wow. A BB gun? Where do you shoot it.
YoungDarwin: In the back yard.
Friend: That's so cool. I want one of these. The first thing I'd do is shoot my sister right in the butt. Do you ever do that.
YoungDarwin: Ummm. No. [Thinking: And that's why I have a BB gun and you don't...]

The fact is, I was always one of those boring "good kids" in most respects. Which is why at ten I got a BB gun, at thirteen I was allowed to buy a black powder revolver and start visiting shooting ranges, at fifteen I was allowed to brew my own wine, etc.

And knowing that I got unusual access because I was boring was one of the things that made it satisfying to remain boring and give my parents few worries. (Other than a tiresome habit of going on for hours about political subjects that didn't interest my mother.)

So if you are possessed of a boring child, make sure that being boring hath its privileges. Sometimes its that quiet, slightly nasty sense of superiority that makes it easy to remain upon the path.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Positivism and Post-Potter Revelations

This post is a continuation of a discussion in the comboxes on Darwin's earlier Harry Potter post.

It seems to me that two discussions are going on at the same time: the question of the validity of Rowling's post-series revelation that Dumbledore is gay (as in, he once had a crush on a guy); and the issue of positivism as it relates to a text. The two may or may not be related.

First, what exactly is positivism? Commenter Zippy used the term in his first reponse:
"But the idea that Dumbledore's gayness is only pertinent if it can be verified in the canonical text (using some unspecified verification procedure) is a form of positivism; and you probably know what I think of positivism. Sola the canonical text doesn't work any better as a theory of meaning in literature than it does as a theory of meaning in theology." When I asked for a further clarification of positivism, he replied: "For the purposes of this discussion, by "positivist" I mean someone who believes that a text taken alone is meaningful."

Wikipedia tells me that "Positivism is a philosophy that states that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method." The American Dictionary of Cultural Heritage defines positivism thusly: "An approach to philosophy frequently found in the twentieth century. Positivists usually hold that all meaningful statements must be either logical inferences or sense descriptions, and they usually argue that the statements found in metaphysics, such as “Human beings are free” or “Human beings are not free,” are meaningless because they cannot possibly be verified by the senses."

Now perhaps there is a theory of literary positivism not covered by my above sources, but I wonder if positivism can be applied to a work of fiction. Since the writing of fiction is an act of sub-creation (in that the author is [or ought to be] constructing a fictive world in which his characters and plot advance) it's incumbent on the author to develop his narrative in such as way that it's coherent enough to be understood in and of itself, and then allow it stand on its own. The story ceases to exist simply in the mind of the author and begins to exist in the mind of the reader as well, and the reader, before grappling with appendices, post-scripts or revisions, must first grapple with the book that is presented to him.

In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers says that "For the reader, that is, the book itself is presented as a three-fold being": the book as Thought (that is, the book in the mind of the author); the book as Written; and the book as Read. The author is of course free to later expostulate on the ideas and motivations and sources that induced him to write the characters as he did, but the fact remains that the reader encounters what the author has chosen to write.

So positivism doesn't really seem to be a useful description of the kind of criticism that involves by comparing a statement about the book (even if made by the author) with the book itself and saying, "Eh, not so much." The text has to be jumping-off point for discussion, or else there's nothing to discuss. Perhaps a better comparison is that the text is magisterial, and that authorial press conferences are like private revelations?

Now as to Potter. The issue with Rowling's outing of Dumbledore (as I see it) is that it is indeed a revelation: the story that she created and published bears no reference to homosexuality. The events that would seem to justify her revelation -- a young man gets excited by the ideas of another young man, and is led into endorsing some Bad Ideas -- are more convincingly and satisfyingly explained by the motivation contained within the work itself: pride. "But I loved him!" is less interesting from the point of character development than "I'm better than all you fools, and the fact that this charismatic figure here agrees with me is proof!" If, as she was writing the novel (for given her plot innovations with each successive novel, it's improbable that she came up with the "gay" idea before she wrote book 7) she suddenly realized that Dumbledore was inclined to man-love, she was careful to put no hint of it into the book itself.

In that case, it becomes gnostic knowledge, unknowable except to the fans who will remember this press conference after it fades from public memory (say, next year). But frankly, evaluating literature in terms of gnosticism or positivism seems to stretch those terms far enough past their definitions that they just become jargon to sling around.

And rouse him at the name of Crispian

Jay Anderson, who is better about keeping his English history front of mind than I am, points out that today is St. Crispin's day. Commemorated on Oct. 25th, the feast celebrated the martyrdom of twin brothers, Crispin and Crispinian, in the third century. However, the feast was removed from the Roman Calendar after Vatican II on the basis that it was questionable whether the saints had actually existed, rather than being Celtic mythological characters adopted into Christian usage.

Be that as it may, it's not a bad time to recall the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V:
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies, and Abortions

I've been meaning to dig in and take a stab at this myself, but via the Curt Jester I see that Aggie Catholics has asked a statistics professor to take a quick look over the study that the Guttmacher institute recently released on world-wide abortion. (Abstract here, full text by subscription to The Lancet only.)

The Guttmacher institute (the research arm of Planned Parenthood) releases one of these studies every few of years: the last one was in 1999 I believe. Each year a couple of specific angles are taken with the press. This year one of these is the claim that countries with legal abortion do not necessarily have higher abortion rates than those where abortion is illegal, but that abortions are far less safe in countries where it is illegal.

The professor points out a number of good methodological questions. At a more broad level, one of the things that struck me even in looking at the popular articles I've seen on the study is that since this is a country-to-country comparison, and primarily looks just at legality and frequency, it ignores a number of other factors. (For instance, the US has less legal restriction on abortion than Western Europe, yet twice the abortion rate. Africa is estimated, and there are some very big questions about their estimation methods, to have twice the rate of the US, despite abortion mostly being illegal there. And yet countries like China and Vietnam in Asia have twice the abortion rate of Africa, despite the fact that abortion is legal there.)

So yes, abortion rates vary a great deal as a result of factors other than legality, but this does not in any sense mean that outlawing abortion has no effect.

But since Aggie Catholic's professor has spent time with the actual source study (while I just read what was in the NY Times and such) go read what he has to say.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Meddling in the Affairs of Wizards

Ian McKellan call your office...

So it seems what while I was off busy with real life, J. K. Rowling answered a question from a fan by explaining that Dumbledore was gay, and had been in love with dark wizard Grindlewald. (For those who haven't read the books, in his youth Dumbledore and Grindlewald plotted to rule the world together "for the greater good", but eventually when Grindlewald's got his dark wizard groove on and was carrying on a reign of terror over in Eastern Europe, Dumbledore headed over, defeated him in a duel, and consigned him to a life sentence in wizard prison. In the process, Dumbledore's sister was killed, and he foreswore the idea of ruling others for their own good.)

Now, there's no particular evidence that Dumbledore leans that way in the books, and since I'm a "what does the book actually say" kind of reader, that means I don't really find this fru-fraw very interesting. Perhaps this has all sorts of deep meaning (disappointment for some, exultation for others) among the sorts of people who spend their time reading The Definitive Guide to the Potterverse or writing FanFic. But as far as I'm concerned, this just doesn't mean much of anything unless she goes on to write a book about it, in which case the book might be good or it might be lousy. In the world of books, even kid-lit, it's books rather than press conferences that matter.

However, that doesn't keep there from being lots of fuss. Jay Anderson has covered a bit of it, and Mark Shea has a very reasonable post about it, followed by 200+ comments, most of which are predictably not very reasonable.

I honestly don't have anything to say on the revelation itself. Both it and the rumpus a few days earlier when Rowling "revealed" that the Potter series contained some Christian imagery strike me as not very interesting. (The one great author revelation I'd be interested in is when the dream starts in Brazil.) But what does strike me as a bit interesting is the reaction of a number of the people concerned with the issue.

So for instance, The Herald announces:
Well, the cat is well and truly out of the bag now. Like every writer, Rowling has a back story for her fictional characters and ... there can never more be any doubt about Dumbledore. On balance, I think his gayness is a good thing and its revelation has been cleverly executed. First, Rowling built the character layer by layer. She built him to be the acme of all that is wise and kind; dutiful and virtuous. She put him in a position of trust; headmaster of a mixed boarding school. She made him a champion of the underdog and a protector of the excluded. She even killed him off in a final heroic act of self-sacrifice. And having placed him as far beyond criticism as her fertile imagination would allow; abracadabra - she revealed that he was gay.

Let the prejudiced, the gay bashers, the bigots try as they might; they won't be able to tear this icon off his pedestal. Rowling has held a literary mirror to their narrow-mindedness to let them see for themselves how purposefully blind it is. And as they wrestle with the invisible knots she has tied them in, they'll hear, if they listen, her metaphorical laughter. It's the laughter of a Pied Piper as she leads their spellbound children to the broad sunny uplands of tolerance.
While at the other end of the ideological spectrum, blogger Zippy (never a man to be accused of mild opinions) opines in Mark Shea's combox:
I think Rowling has single-handedly called "game over" here, for all practical purposes. There is no need for someone who enjoyed the series to "un-enjoy" it, as if such a thing were possible; but on a future-looking basis HP is now just another turd-bomb in the culture wars, like it or not. Its author has clinched the matter, seemingly deliberately.
What strikes me as tiresomely similar about both "sides" in this discussion is that neither one seems to have a well ordered idea of the book as text, rather than the book as whatever-the-author-and-fan-communities-mutually-say-it-is. So for instance, it seems to me that marxist/atheist Jean Paul Sartre actually wrote just as good (if not better) an illustration of sin and its consequence (hell) in "No Exit" than C. S. Lewis did in any of his books dealing with the topic -- though Lewis's books are certainly good. Sartre didn't intend to do this, from what I can tell. He intended to write a play showing how we are controlled by other people's ideas of us. However he was a successful enough observer of human character and its flaws that I think he actually succeeded in writing something which can be seen in a very interesting Christian way. This is not to say that a work is totally defined by how it's audience reacts to it -- that would be rather tiresome and post-modern. Works of fiction are best seen, it seems to me, as acts of sub-creation -- things are are seen as true so far as they are related within the context of the text. And how good that text is (leaving aside issues of prose style and such which are obviously key) has a lot to do with how successfully it conveys a sub-creation with "rings true". Do these people seem like real people? Does the world work in a real way? Does it convey something that seems true/worthwhile/interesting?

All this argumentation, on the other hand, not only strikes me as a bit off base, but as coming from people who don't actually read fiction all that much. Having hit a fairly adult reading level by age nine and going through books pretty rapidly in my youth, I was reading a lot of varied stuff by the time I was in the 10-14 age range which is probably the right age-range for the latter Harry Potter books. Sure, I read the canonical stuff like Narnia and Lord of the Rings, but I also a whole range of stuff by a lot of science fiction and fantasy authors (I was a genre reader as a youth) most of them very clearly with non-Christian viewpoints on the world. And my faith and sense of morality survived just fine. (Honestly, if your kid is getting his sense of morality from a seven book kid-lit series rather than you and your parish -- there's probably something wrong with the family communication level.)

Indeed, my sister used to refer to the "Aristophanes principle of pagan inoculation", which was basically that running into non-Christian characters and values for the first time via non-Christian literature (read in the safety of your home and discussed with your family) is much safer and lower pressure than running into it for the first time with close friends in a personal crisis.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Means of Production

If you arrive at the office after about 8:30am around here, you get to park out at the far end of creation, and thus have plenty of time to think as you hike in towards your building. Finding myself in this position a few times last week, I fell to thinking: several thousand people report to these buildings every day and spend a good portion of their energies and waking hours here, but no physical product ever leaves this building. All the manufacturing is done elsewhere. And although there are definitely things we accomplish in our groups, they're often rather abstract. For instance, I built a new set of data models for my team a few months back -- which was generally recognized as a major undertaking. But there's no product to look at, just a couple of databases which are updated every week and then dumped into Excel for people to work with.

Thinking about this, I found myself wondering if this is at the root of a number of the difficulties that our culture seems to have in thinking about work: what its purpose is and what its value is. Imagine a society at its simplest level, where everyone is either involved in food production or else is only one step removed from someone who is (e.g. a priest/shaman who receives offerings from farmers/herdsmen, a craftsman who makes goods which are traded for food, etc.) In that sort of situation, it's pretty clear how much work is needed to sustain a person, who's getting enough, and who need the help of other in order to survive. Whether you're directly producing food or producing secondary goods/services, it's very clear what you are doing.

Our own society, however, is much more highly fragmented through many layers of specialization, and our standard of living provides many other things besides basic food, shelter and clothing.

Because there are so many layers of specialization, the connection between the work that you do and the production of some specific thing that people need or want (and which provides clear value to the work) is often unclear. As a result, we often perceive the work we do in a rule/contract sense rather than in terms of production. Even for people direction involved in manufacturing, since modern manufacturing is very far from a craftsman model, the experience is of: "I show up and do this set of actions repeatedly, and try to make sure that I do them to these specifications so that I'm not disciplined -- in return for which I'm paid X amount per hour" rather than "I built ten lawnmowers, each of which can be sold for $250."

This seems unfortunate, though I know of no particular escape other than, "look for a job where the distance between you and what you produce is as short as possible". When it's not clear to us what we're producing, work too often becomes a matter of, "I show up and follow the rules as much as I have to in order to avoid trouble and in return they pay me X" in which it's unclear, "Why am I paid X instead of X+10?" and "Why do I have to follow these stupid rules anyway?"

It also starts to lead to questions of, "Why should we all have to work anyway? Isn't that just a social convention?" For all it's charms, the classic '30s play "You Can't Take It With You" seems a prime example of this mentality setting in, the plot being that the head of an eccentric family (with plenty of money yet no apparent source for it) realizes one day that there's no point to all this work, and why shouldn't he just go off and do whatever makes him happy. (What makes him happy is going to college commencement addresses and the zoo.)

It also leads to the idea that having to work to support yourself is somehow a conformist and unfair idea. I seem to recall that in Nickeled and Dimed the activist author Barbara Ehrenreich complained it was unfair that society didn't provide more support for "those who justifiably want to opt out of the tyranny of the work day". By the point someone can make that kind of statement, we've lost any concept of work actually being something that is necessary to support oneself. It's become a social convention, which independent spirits should be exempted from.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those for whom work, or more properly "career" has become definitional. For these, the first job out of college, the solid resume builder, the MBA, the consulting period, and the first executive position are the sacraments of a secular priesthood which is almost as divorced from what work is really for.

Because at the end of the day, the purpose of work really is simply to produce: to produce food and goods and art; to produce for necessity and for pleasure. And so while work should be clearly centered on the production of whatever it is we do, work should also be firmly placed in context as that activity which provides the things we need in order to continue and enjoy life. Not the purpose of life, and yet one of its conditions. Not the fulfillment of it, but the means of producing the tools for fulfillment.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Where Are the Men?

Bearing asks, Where are all the Catholic men when it comes to discussing NFP?

Now, I gather that women have these forum things on which they discuss NFP and their DHs and DDs and DSs and I suppose also Drs. We guys don't do this. If we're going to venture onto a forum it's got to be on a topic with serious testosterone cred (like guns or cars or, or, or... something) or else it's got to be about something we can argue about (like politics or religion or politics or... cars or... yeah.)

However, sometimes we do hold serious conversations about discerning God's will, keeping the mind chaste, and having lots of good "friends" time so that we don't think we're only married to... Well anyway, when these conversations do take place, you can bet that they occur in Matthew Lickona's comment boxes, and include Ol' Man Matt's Endothermic Underbritches for Grave Reasons for Abstainimating.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Bragging Rights

Goodness knows, there are lots of ways that liberals and conservatives manage to annoy each other. Still, one that has struck me recently is an odd sort of bragging rights.

One of the main divisions between these groups at this point in time is over how the less vulnerable in society are best provided with care. The liberal view is generally that comprehensive government programs should be set up to assure that everyone in society has a certain basic level of food, income, medical care, housing, babysitting, rice pudding, etc. The conservative view is generally that guaranteed government handouts create dependency and hurt people in the long run, and that short term help for those in trouble is generally better provided by family, church or private charity.

The problem comes when members of these two groups get together and start arguing about how to help others. At this point, the liberal may say, "I advocate this particular program currently up before congress, which will provide housing, medical care and rice pudding subsidies to at least ten million suffering people who current lack at least one of these things. How can you possibly be against giving these basic needs to people who don't even have rice pudding? To pay for this, we will charge a five dollar tax on every large, ugly pair of shoes best suited to stomping on innocent bunnies that is sold. This will not only help those without rice pudding, but create an incentive for people to stop stomping on innocent bunnies."

What can the conservative reply to this?

He might say, "I really think it's better if people without rice pudding receive temporary help from their families and communities until they're back on their feet. And however one may feel about stomping on innocent bunnies, work boots are generally worn by the lower classes and so the tax you are suggesting is regressive. Many of the people wearing bunny-stomping boots themselves have trouble affording rice pudding."

He might well say that, but in some senses it's an unsatisfying answer. The liberal may rest assured that he is personally doing something both to help those without rice pudding and to remove the means to stomp bunnies, while the conservative is vaguely suggesting that someone-or-other (who may or may not actually step up to the plate) ought to do the helping instead of the government.

In other words, the liberal gets to sound like he is personally doing something about the issue by supporting legislation which will in turn tax everyone and help large numbers of people. The conservative says he supports more local/charitable efforts, but while it's considered polite to talk up the legislation you support, it's not considered polite to brag about recent charitable donations you have made. It may be that the conservative just wrote several large checks to rice pudding-providing charities, and perhaps even takes potentially stompable bunnies into his home, but if he brings this up in conversation, he sounds like a jerk. Plus, no matter how much he's doing at a local level, it can be assured that these local efforts are not helping all ten million children currently without rice pudding who would be helped by nationwide legislation.

This, in turn, makes the conservative growl inside and gnash his teeth, since he knows that he's coming out sounding like he doesn't help anyone (and doesn't want anyone helped). It doesn't help when the liberal then announces something along the lines of, "You conservatives only care about making sure the rich have rice pudding," or "You conservatives care plenty about the unborn, but once they're old enough to eat rice pudding you walk away."

So the conservative thinks that the liberal is a hopeless bragger who doesn't do anything to help the poor himself but is happy to tax others; the liberal thinks the conservative is a heartless skinflint who doesn't lift a finger to help those without rice pudding; and the local rice pudding charities wish that everyone would stop overlooking all the hard work they do just because they don't have the nationwide scale (and confiscatory authority) to help ten million people at a time.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Our Lady of Reparation

Let Us Pray

Every so often, you run into a post that you keep wanting to comment on, and yet keep hesitating. Such a case I find myself in with regard to Scott Carson's two recent posts on prayer of petition. (The first post talks about prayer of petition in a more general sense, the second talks about it in regards to an objection to his first post based on the Pater Noster.)

From the first post:
As long as I've been a believing Christian, I've been troubled by a certain attitude towards prayer in general and towards the miraculous/mysterious in particular that is illustrated in these petitions. Before I converted, I knew folks who would drive around a parking lot praying to find a good parking space, folks who would pray for "miraculous" cures for some specific case of "incurable" cancer, folks who would pray for their favorite team to win a sporting event, folks who would pray for world peace. Some of these petitions seem to be rather evidently better than others as petitions go, at least if we are to judge such things on the basis of their more universal appeal and benefit to the common good, but in a certain sense they are all the same: they all ask God to do something for us that we would like to have done right away and that we cannot accomplish on our own. To the extent that some of them seem beyond the reach of natural processes, such as the healing of what looks to be an incurable cancer, to have such prayers "answered" in a certain way would seem "miraculous", and given that God's omnipotence is beyond our understanding, such "answers" to prayer would also seem "mysterious".

This attitude towards prayer, that is, prayer as a means to obtaining something tangible in this way, is obviously a very naive notion, but it is fairly widespread. I don't think there's anything that can be done about this attitude, but I think it is mistaken. It seems fairly clear to me that God does not, as they say, "work that way". Folks who adopt this attitude towards prayer, however, get a little riled up if you suggest such a thing....

My own view is that the purpose of prayer is not to bring about a satisfaction of material desire in the first place. Its purpose is to satisfy a different sort of desire, namely, the desire for closeness to God. It seems to me that the happiness one experiences, when one obtains satisfaction of material desire, is in itself merely an image of the much greater happiness that we experience when we have friendship with God, just as the pain that we experience in this life is an image of the pain that is sin, i.e., separation from God. All sickness, disease, and death have fully naturalistic explanations, of course, but that does not mean that in the greater ontology that goes beyond mere materialism they are not also signs of something else. The Christian must always be on the lookout for the deeper meaning that is shot through all of material reality, because the Christian is not a materialist: he does not believe that material reality is all that there is, even though it is all that we have access to via the senses.... So the Christian cannot view prayer as a mere means of rearranging the material furniture of his earthly existence, since that furniture is nothing but a sign of something else and is, in itself, utterly meaningless. If I pray for anything at all, whether it is a parking place or a cure for cancer, what I ought really to be praying for is friendship with God. If I have cancer, I may well be dying. Both the cancer and the process of dying are fully materialistic processes, when viewed from one perspective; but viewed from the Christian perspective they are also signs of sinfulness. Not of some specific, unconfessed sin that I bear on my conscience, mind you, but of the general separation that exists between man and God as a consequence of the Fall. Thanks to Christ, that separation has been healed, but strictly by the grace of God, not in virtue of anything that we have done that deserves a treat or a reward from God in the form of a material answer to a prayer for material comfort.

Instead, God answers prayer by drawing us closer to him. In this sense, I would say, not that God answers every prayer but the answer is sometimes 'no', but I would say rather that God answers every prayer and the answer is always 'yes', even though we may sometimes fail to see the answer, because, like the woman at the well, we don't always know what we're asking for. If I continue to die of cancer, in spite of prayers that I be saved, it is not because God "has other plans" for me. He is, in fact, answering my prayer by loving me and the faith that I display in him by uttering the prayer in the first place.
I find myself a bit divided in reading this. Being the sort of Christian that I am, this is very much the sort of way I tend to think about prayer. Certainly, I think that this explanation of "unanswered" prayers is more sound than any other that I run into. And yet, I'm not sure that I can actually agree that God doesn't "work that way".

I've generally found it hard to pray for miracles, for the simple reason that I find it very hard to expect them. And yet we have many cases of miraculous answers to prayer which the Church does find "worthy of belief". One is certainly not required to believe in such things, and yet the Church clearly holds the material fulfillment of prayer to be something that can and does happen.

That, of course, leaves us with difficult questions -- questions that annoy me because they do not seem to submit well to rational analysis. Why should some people be healed in a seemingly miraculous fashion and others not? I don't know, and I'm not sure that there's any point in trying to come up with an explanation. (The explanations I've heard, as Dr. Carson points out, are not good.)

Certainly, there are attitudes towards prayer of petition that bother me, or seem rather silly, and there are some specific prayers that have always just struck me as odd, perhaps because I think too much. My grandmother used to add after any other prayer, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we love you, save souls." This formulation always bothered me, because it seemed to imply that if we didn't love them, they might not be inclined to save souls, and because if the will is truly free to accept or reject God, I'm not sure how someone else intervenes and saves ones.

Perhaps God deals with different people at different levels. Those of us who seek for reason certainly find it, perhaps those who seek for miracles, and actually believe them likely, are the ones who get them.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

When "Incentives" are Inelastic

As I wrote about a while back, one of the things I sit around and do all day is price a couple thousand personal and business electronics items. One of the key factors in deciding how to price a product is its price elasticity. Briefly put, the price elasticity of a product is how responsive that product is to changes in price. A highly elastic product will see many more sales if the price goes down, and many fewer if the price goes up. An inelastic product will sell roughly the same number of products no matter how you price it (within a certain reasonable band -- it's always possible to find elasticity if you go far enough.)

It struck me recently that this is an interesting property when it comes to taxes that are supposed to provide people with an incentive to change their behavior.

So for instance, it's often suggested that the Federal Government put an additional tax on gasoline in order to incent people to drive less and/or buy more efficient cars. That in particular is an interesting suggestion, though, because although the price of gas has nearly doubled in the last 4-5 years, gas consumption has not changed notably. Some people have bought more efficient cars, some people have arranged to work from home or live close to work, but mostly people just shrug, grit their teeth, and pay. Gas prices have proved fairly inelastic over the last 4-5 years.

Why is kind of an interesting question. I suspect that a lot of it has to do with the methods of changing your gas consumption often being expensive. Selling your old car and buying a more efficient one is a major capital investment. Moving closer to work or finding a new job closer to your home is also, usually, a very costly (or at least troublesome) operation.

This would seem to suggest that adding a $0.50 or even $1.00/gal tax might well simply collect lots of government money without actually reducing gas consumption much. (A cynic might suggest that this is exactly what advocates are hoping for.)

Further, if the theory that capital investment is the main thing keeping people from reducing their gas consumption is correct, then the people who would actually reduce their consumption would be the value-conscious middle to upper class group -- while poorer citizens without the ability to move or buy a new car would simply buckle down and pay the higher prices. If that were correct, what was intended to be an incentive to reduce consumption would turn into a tax on people with low capital resources.

Two other interesting examples are cigarette taxes and state lotteries.

Smoking has decreased over the last twenty years -- though how much of that is the result of the taxes that now make up as much as 50% of the sticker price of cigarettes in some states is unclear. However, it's also pretty clear by this point that smoking is primarily become a working class phenominon. People who are still serious smokers at this point are pretty clearly price inelastic -- whether it's because they're too hooked, too stuborn, or simply too price-unresponsive to quit. So I think there's a legitimate question: goes raising the taxes further really stand much of a chance of decreasing smoking, or does it simply soak a generally low-income group for more money?

State lotteries are possibly the worst of all. The idea was that this was a voluntary tax: no one has to spend money on the lottery, but if you do most of your money will go to the government (generally public schools.) Yet really, lotteries primarily appeal to people who do not exect to ever see any large amount of money through the course of their normal lives. People with comfortable incomes, large annual bonuses, investment portfolios, and good prospects for advancement don't buy lottery tickets. People who can't imagine how they'd ever come into a large sum of money do. I would like to think it was not consciously planned this way, but the state lotteries as they stand now seem well calibrated to take spare money from people in a manner inversely proportional to their ability to afford it -- taking the most from those who have least hope of building capital resources any other way (and least knowledge of the statistics arrayed against them.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Economics of Morals

Yesterday Jay Anderson of Pro Ecclesia linked to a post by Vox Nova blogger Mornings Minion, by far the most left-wing of an already leftward leaning group, who when confronted with the ire of the bloggers at (who had singled Vox Nova out as an "anti-choice" site) responded by asking, "Is a truce possible on the Abortion Issue?"

After taking a few paragraphs to concede that it's unlikely that Catholics will stop calling abortion evil or that feminists will stop calling it a right, and firing off some of the tired old "they only care about children before they're born" rhetoric at the pro-life movement, Mornings Minion sketches out the following rather familiar line of thinking:

...[I]t is quite clear to me that abortion is related to poverty and prevailing social conditions. Declines in abortion in the US occurred most rapidly during times when poverty rates were falling– most notably under the Clinton administration.... Look at some of the statistics: 57% of women opting for abortion are economically disadvantage, and the abortion rate among women living below the federal poverty level ($9,570 for a single woman with no children) is more than four times that of women above 300% of the poverty level (44 vs. 10 abortions per 1,000 women). And when asked to give reasons for abortion, three-quarters of women say that cannot afford a child.

And yet, the political pro-life movement often ignores this aspect. Not only that, it often uses the abortion issue to cover some less savoury aspects of policy. Note that when supposed pro-life candidates are elected, we see little impact on abortion, but a major advance in economic policies that foster upward redistribution. And too often, the pro-life lobby contents itself with minor victories that have little direct impact on abortion, but do rally political support. Case in point: I am pretty certain that S-CHIP will do more to lower the abortion rate in the US than the partial-birth abortion ban, which everybody pretty much agrees will do almost nothing.

It is also the case that banning abortion often does not really impact on its incidence. Ireland has a robust abortion rate, even though there are no abortion providers in Ireland, because travel within the EU is so easy. I often wonder if a repeal of Roe v. Wade, when the issue gets pushed to the states, will have much impact on abortion? Personally, I doubt it, except for the very poor who cannot travel to states that allow it. And while I believe the repeal of Roe would be good, simply because I cannot accept abortion as a “right”, I believe a political strategy focused solely on this goal is fundamentally misplaced. We need to create the conditions that would encourage women not to have abortions in the first place.
None of this is new to those who are used to the "seamless garment of life" argument (a garment which is too often a rather brazen attempt to rename a turncoat), but since this piece of clothing gets trotted out every so often, perhaps it's still worth asking the obvious question:

Does the author really imagine that the only solution to sin is prosperity?

We live in the most wealthy country in the world, with one of the highest abortion rates in the world. Is our problem really that we're not wealthy enough?

Not only the average citizen of our country, but the poor of our country are far, far wealthier than they were 100 years ago. And yet, as we have become wealthier, the institution of the family has collapsed, illegitimacy has become a pandemic in the lower economic reaches of society, divorce has become commonplace, abortion is common -- used by some parts of society as a last resort, and by others almost as backup-birth control. (The stats I've seen on abortion repeat customers are pretty terrifying.)

And yet the problem, we are told, is that our country is still too poor to have a lower abortion rate? The claim is, quite frankly, so ludicrous that it's hard to believe the author even means it seriously. Sadly, though, I think he does. So far have some progressives gone down the determinist rabbit hole (without, in most cases, even realizing it) that I fear convinced Christians progressives like this author really do believe that economic redistribution is the shortest road to moral improvement.

Now, at the same time, it should be made clear: morality is also not built strictly by governmental fiat. If the "war on drugs" has shown anything, it is that making something illegal without a social consensus against it does not result in a vanishing of the behavior. (I'm not against illegal drugs remaining illegal, and indeed I suspect that drug use would go up in some very undesirable ways were it made legal, but it certainly underlines the point that making something illegal doesn't make it go away.)

However, in the case of abortion, I think there's a strong case to be made that its legality and status as "normal medical practice" is one of the things that causes it to be so widespread. While most people intuitively feel that lighting up a joint isn't going to directly affect many people beyond themselves, there is a fairly widespread feeling (which even forty years of pro-abortion rhetoric been unable to destroy) that abortion is not a nice and desirable thing. (Every so often, when dipping into the left-leaning blogsphere or media, one runs into frustration that abortion is so infrequently portrayed positively in movies or television.) The status as "legal" and "just a normal medical procedure" can be used to dull that innate moral sense, but the moral sense is still very much there. That is why I think we would indeed see a significant drop in abortion begin if abortion were removed from its supreme-court-imposed shrine in our judicial system.

While Americans do not have a universal respect for the law (think of how many people truly respect the speed limit or the drinking age), there is a very real way in which legality is used to define cultural moral norms. Going even to the limited sort of restrictions found in most of Europe would indeed make a difference in that.

The other element of change which is necessary to reduce abortion in our society is cultural, religious and moral. We will need to reach some sort of cultural conclusion as to what abortion is and whether it is wrong. The current churning of the "culture wars" is not only a sign that this is an undecided point, but also a sign of how unstable our culture is right now. In some senses the last century has suggested to many people that human nature is malleable, and that things may be right now which were not right before -- that humans may be something different than we thought before -- and that long held understandings about the human person and morality are simply "out of date". Where we go, as a culture, as a species, in the coming decades and centuries will start to make the answers to these questions clear.

And this really, is where Mornings Minion is farthest of the rails with his "economy first" approach to morality. If you look at the posts by the secular feminists who had come down like a sack of bricks on Vox Nova, and started this whole discussion, you can see that their understanding of the need for abortion springs from their view of the human being as homo economicus -- economic man (or since these are feminists, should I say "economic person"). Abortion must always be available, they argue, because without the combination of legal abortion and available birth control, a woman cannot control her body enough to compete equally with men in the economic world.

This presents a view of what the purpose of humanity is that is fundamentally incompatible both with traditional Christian beliefs and with the facts of our existence as a species. We are not, fundamentally, economic creatures who only reproduce when we find it profitable to do so. We are biological creatures who reproduce when we have sex. We are rational creatures who can think about the results of our actions. We are religious creatures who contemplate the question of where we go when we leave this mortal world, and what to teach our offspring about the meaning of life and death.

Until we sort out these questions and recognize ourselves for who we are, no amount of government redistribution of wealth will change the incidence of abortion.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Our Daily Bread

Once you get used to turning everything into a metric, it's sometimes hard to turn that part of your brain off. Thus, when you're sitting, watching a fountain in the evening with your wife, after a rare dinner out, you may find yourself inclined to calculate that it just took you an hour and a half to eat a meal that cost you the amount you would make in three hours. And then wonder how many other similar meals your server would have been serving simultaneously, and thus whether if the other couples being served tipped at the same rate the server could have managed to equal your per-hour rate of pay by means of tips.

If you're not a rather hopeless sort of fellow, you don't share these meditations at the time, but in this particular case I found myself wondering the following as well: How does the percentage of income spent on food by modern US citizens compare with most skilled workers throughout history?

In the Pater Noster the only earthy petition mentioned is "give us this day our daily bread" (though as some have pointed out, this can be taken and primarily a Eucharistic reference, and thus not a strictly earthly need). Now, I suspect that for the average household in the modern US, our "daily bread" makes up no more than 10-20% of our household expenses. Why not "give us this day a roof over our heads" or "give us this day a mode of conveyance" or "give us this day affordable insurance"?

Well first of all, food is very basic. One can live without a fixed place of residence or a car (or camel), and it's been pointed out that food will get you through times without insurance better than insurance will get you through times without food.

But it strikes me that this is not just a "back to basics" petition. I'm suspecting that for a basic worker in the ancient world (indeed, perhaps in any primarily agricultural world), food was the largest regular expense. Your earnings might only very slightly exceed the price of obtaining or producing your food for the day.

What, after all, was the cost of clothing? Well, at a basic level, the cost of feeding someone during the period it time it took that person to make them.

The cost of a house? Feeding the workers it took to build a house. I suspect that in a fairly static, agricultural society, there was very little market for selling a house, so the value of a house would be pretty much equal to the materials and labor in building it.

Now clearly, there's more to it than that. People did more than just eat, but not necessarily huge amounts more (in terms of expense) at the lower levels of society -- which meant most of it. I should hunt around a bit and see if I can find some economics work on the question of food as a percentage of personal/family economy in agricultural societies. I could be wrong, but I'm suspecting that the distinction between "poor" and "well off" was very clearly linked to the amount of resources you controlled beyond that necessary just to feed yourself -- and that the values of things were fairly closely tied to the cost of providing food to the workers necessary to produce them.

Vanity of Vanities

Life is not perfect, and at every turn there are little reminders that this mortal coil is a vale of tears: an incontrollable urge to sneeze during that exquisite marriage proposal; uncomfortable theater seats at the show of a lifetime; the glorious sunset that enthralls you while the mosquitoes feast on your flesh. Pure bliss is not to be achieved in this life, and when circumstances seem most favorable, you can bet dollars to beignets that the wheel of fate will turn, and quick.

Last night I couldn't get to sleep. My pillow was hard, the bed refused to yield, and the cat (who had managed to get outside earlier) turned up like a bad penny and cried at the back door until I stumbled down and let him in. (I aimed a passing kick at him as he streaked past, but I missed.) I trudged up and climbed into bed again, and suddenly everything clicked. The mattress and pillow were gracious, the sheet was kind, the temperature was mild, and I nestled down with a sigh. Sleep held out her hands with a welcoming smile, and I was perfectly comfortable.

And the smoke detector emitted five ear-piercing bleats.

The rest of the night passed in undisturbed silence. The girls slept peacefully and the cat quietly meditated on his wrongs. But our ragged nerves allowed only fitful rest until the sky began to lighten and the birds took up their morning anthems, and at last we relaxed and drifted off.

And the alarm button glowed on the clock as the seconds slipped by...

Friday, October 12, 2007

Awarded are the Peace Makers

Al Gore and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this year.

Some might consider it odd for the award to be shared by a committee whose stated purpose is simply to assess trends and recommend solutions rather than to actually do anything. However, I think it's clear that the Nobel committee's purpose (as has been the case with several recent Nobel awards) is more to say "this is important -- listen to this person" than actually to acknowledge accomplishments. In making the award the Nobel committee said:
"He is probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted," said Ole Danbolt Mjoes, chairman of the Nobel committee.

In making the announcement, Mjoes said, "Through the scientific reports it has issued over the past two decades, the IPCC has created an ever-broader informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warming.

"Thousands of scientists and officials from over 100 countries have collaborated to achieve greater certainty as to the scale of the warming." (CNN story, source)
One wonders, however, whether the Nobel committee (whose wisdom has not exactly been unquestioned recently) is picking the best course here. Certainly, it's true that Gore is probably the most well known person associated with global warming advocacy. However being the best known if not necessarily the same as being the best.

If one wants concern over global warming to be taken seriously, and I would assume that the Nobel Committee falls in this category, you would think you would want to avoid being fully identified with someone who is seldom afraid to let the scientific facts get in the way of the message when it comes to global warming.

For instance, unable to resist co-opting a disaster in the news, Gore famously announced that the destruction of Hurricane Katrina was the result of global warming, and that unless we were able to put in place stricter environmental controls, we could expect more of the same. In fact, the connection between global warming and hurricane frequency and strength is fairly tenuous, if it exists at all. The issue with Hurricane Katrina is that hurricanes don't know whether they're hitting populated areas built below sea level, or unpopulated areas. When you have a form of natural disaster which only arrives in full force (a maximum strength hurricane) every decade or two, and only hits a heavily populated area one time out of several -- it's entirely reasonable to expect this kind of event to happen on a century or greater spacing. That doesn't necessarily mean that this particular occurrence is the result of the cause celebre of the moment. It just means the occurrence is rare. (Galviston was leveled by a massive hurricane back at the turn of the last century -- an event that was fairly clearly not caused by global warming.)

Two things really bother me about the global warming movement as we see it now:

First, many modern environmentalists seem to see the Earth as a steady-state system. They imagine that the "natural" course is for the climate to remain the same, species never to go extinct, and regional ecosystems to remain stable. This often seems to lead to an attitude that sees humanity as The Problem. (Queue the Matrix' Mr. Anderson: "Humanity is a virus.") If only we didn't have six billion people mucking the planet up, everything would remain peaceful and beautiful just the way it is.

Now the fact is, to the extent that we humans are products of this world, we are products of the earth. Like every other species (and if one doubts this, one doesn't know much about how animal populations behave) we desire to be fruitful and multiply. Given the resources, we eat what we find, have children, and spread. Like other creatures, if we can change our environment to our benefit (or simply survive the changes that our spread causes) we continue to spread -- even if that results in effects that are negative to some other creatures. (If you think we're unique in this, ask a Australian cane toad.)

I don't want to suggest that we should not take into account the results of our actions. Unlike other creatures, we have the capacity to reason (when we're not watching TV or reading political forums, at any rate) and are called to be good stewards of the earth. However, this is where the fact that the earth is not static comes in. The earth has, at times, been much warmer than it is now, for completely natural reasons. It has also been colder. There have been times when ice sheets came down as far as the modern mid-west US (which is probably easy to believe in Chicago around January). As recently as a thousand years ago things were warm enough that Greenland was readily habitable, and grape vines grew wild in Newfoundland. Around ten thousand years ago, it was the increasing drying of the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East that drove populations into the river valleys, where agriculture and civilization began.

So while it's true that human activity is probably at least in part responsible for the current warming trend -- the fact also remains that we cannot assume that the earth won't go through changes all on its own that will have a highly negative impact on us humans. The planet is going to survive global warming just fine. The issue should not be "save the planet" but "save the humans".

This works around to the second thing that bothers me about the global warming movement: While on the one hand frequently exaggerating the possible dangers (threatening larger and more frequent hurricanes; claiming sea levels will rise over 2-3 decades rather than the scientifically supported 2-3 centuries) the solutions suggested by the global warming movement don't come anywhere close to dealing with the problem. If it's correct that the warming that has been observed is indeed evidence of a long term trend, and if greenhouse gas emissions caused by industrialization are the primary causes of that warming trend, then unfortunately driving a Prius and supporting solar and wind power generation aren't going to solve the problem.

It's often pointed out that the minority of the world's population that lives in the developed world is responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions. This is true. However, when you look at greenhouse gas emission divided by gross national product, you find that the economies of the developed world are in fact the most efficient about avoiding greenhouse gas emissions in the world. In other words, the only reason why the undeveloped nations are currently emitting so few greenhouse gasses is that their economies are practically nonexistent. So even if the first world cut emissions by 50% (which is highly unlikely given current technology no matter how many Priuses people buy), if the third world gets anywhere close to modern first world standards, total greenhouse emissions would be up by a factor of 2-3.

So does that mean we should just throw up our hands an not do anything?

Well, no. Call me stingy, but I figure it's always one's duty not to use more resources than necessary. Conserving resources is good. However, ridiculing everyone who drives a fullsize pickup truck instead of a subcompact is not going to save the world. And unless one can somehow convince oneself that telling the third world to remain undeveloped (or coming up with some way to cut the Earth's human population in half) is anything other than wildly immoral -- we're going to have to face the likelihood that current levels of greenhouse gas emission aren't going down any time soon.

Given those things, I think the following are some of the more important things to think about:

-We'll have to wait and see how the evidence shapes up as far as whether this is a long term or short cycle warming trend that we have observed. A couple decades are next to nothing in the history of the planet, and our records on global climate cycles don't really go back accurately more than a couple hundred years. We also don't yet know how self-correct the climate is -- the Earth may well have its own ways of rebalancing the system.

-It certainly doesn't hurt us to try to be as efficient as possible and shift from fossil fuels to nuclear energy for power generation: there are a host of reasons that make that a good idea from oil politics to the mess involved in coal mining and burning. (And people who prefer solar and wind power need to recognize that these are not net positive enough in energy creation to be large scale successes.)

-We should put some serious research into CO2 reclamation possibilities. The most obvious solution to this is something many traditional environmentalists may not like: CO2 is consumed by plants. If you want to get rid of lots of CO2, you want to develop a plant that grows very, very quickly and ends up in some sort of fairly easily dealt with solid waste. (If plant material decomposes or decays, you get the CO2 back out again.) Perhaps there are other good methods of reclaiming CO2 as well. However, whatever they are, they may well involve genetically modified organisms and other things that many environmentalists don't like. They'll need to deal.

-And finally, we may simply have to deal with the fact that the earth is changing -- if it is. The history of humanity is one of migrations and changes. Goodness knows, it would be horrendously sad if 300 years from now Venice is thirty feet under water. And yet, if one thing has been constant throughout human history is has been that we have dealt with change. We've moved, we've built, we've moved again. We've found new ways to feed ourselves, new places and ways to live. It would be terribly sad if it turned out to be the case that the oceans reclaimed many old sea-side cities a couple hundred years from now: and yet the real treasures of humanity are the several billion souls that are living out their lives on this planet.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Polish "Rebel Nuns" Evicted

When you get known around the office as "the Catholic one" you occasionally get odd stories tossed your way. So this morning it was, "Do you know anything about those nuns who got evicted by the police on Poland?"

Well, no I didn't, but I guess now I do, at least a bit. MSNBC runs an AP story:
KAZIMIERZ DOLNY, Poland (AP) -- Police pushed their way into a Polish convent Wednesday and evicted about 65 rebellious ex-nuns -- arresting the mother superior and a monk who had occupied the complex with them illegally for two years.

The women had taken over the building in a rebellion against the Vatican, which had ordered the replacement of their mother superior, Jadwiga Ligocka.

"They were disobedient," said Mieczyslaw Puzewicz, a spokesman for the Lublin diocese of the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican formally expelled the women from their Sisters of Bethany order last year.

Police arrested Mother Jadwiga and a former Franciscan friar, Roman Komaryczko, who had been living with the nuns, and planned to question them, police spokesman Mariusz Sokolowski said. He would not say what the specific charges were.

A locksmith had opened the gate to the walled convent in the eastern Polish town of Kazimierz Dolny and police in riot gear pushed forward, encountering an onslaught of verbal aggression from some of the former nuns, Sokolowski said.

Several hours into the operation, the women, in black habits and each escorted by two policewomen, began filing out of the building. Some carried musical instruments -- guitars, a tambourine, a drum -- while others bore simple backpacks or carried large blue garbage bags apparently packed their with belongings.

The women walked calmly out of the convent, through a tree-dotted courtyard, and onto one of three buses, the last of which finally pulled away more than six and a half hours after the operation began.

Among the ex-nuns were five citizens of Russia and Belarus living in Poland illegally, Sokolowski said. They will likely be deported, he added.

The diocesan spokesman Puzewicz, who was at the convent site, said the ex-nuns were acting "as if they are being manipulated" psychologically.

He did not say who he thought was manipulating them, but he did say that the former friar, Komaryczko, had had a "negative influence" on Mother Jadwiga.

When the Vatican formally expelled the nuns in 2006, they refused to leave the building, cutting themselves off from the outside world.

The church eventually sought legal action to remove them, and a court in nearby Pulawy ordered the eviction -- a step they had previously resisted. The convent's electricity was cut off earlier this year, but local residents sympathized with the ex-nuns' plight and secretly funneled them food in the night.

Polish news media have reported that Mother Jadwiga was a charismatic figure who had had religious visions, and was attempting to transform the convent into a contemplative order.

The Lublin diocese hinted at that in a statement on its Web site, which said that "Mother Jadwiga's private revelations and the fact that she made it a guideline to stick by them caused unease to the Congregation."
I can't seem to find any coverage that isn't sourced off the AP story, so I'm not exactly clear what Mother Jadwiga's alleged private revelations were about -- but given that such things can never be made binding (which she according to the story was doing) that certainly sounds like the theological problem.

I was a pleasantly surprised, actually, that the AP appeared to get the point that the Vatican has control over things -- calling the sisters "ex-nuns" based on the fact that they'd been expelled from their order a year ago.

I was also amused that even though the "rebel nuns" wear traditional habits, they carry bongos. Some things must be universal.

If anyone knows of a more complete story, I'd be curious to hear of it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Because it had to be done

Matthew Lickona and his commenter Ernesto have been engaged in a project of massive import: casting the African-American Lord of the Rings, complete with head shots. (Or you can just scroll down from the top of the blog.)

These boys win my nomination for the 2007 series of posts that rock the hardest. Gentlemen, I salute you.

The Numbers Game

Yesterday a friend emailed me a link to a post and its comments which strike me as somewhat endemic of a certain divide between "liberal" and "conservative" attitudes, and the moral difficulties that come with both. (Perhaps one of the few things that all of both persuasions agree on is that these terms are imprecise, yet they do evoke roughly what I'm looking for here, so I'll use them and consider all necessary provisos and qualifiers said.)

The topic is the S-CHIP legislation that made its way from congress to the president's desk, where it was vetoed. I'll admit, I haven't been following politics terribly closely the last month or two, but the basic purpose here is to federalize funding for a set of state programs to provide government paid healthcare to children in families up to twice the poverty line. You can read a pretty balanced (kudos to the NY Times) piece on the immediate debate that inspired this piece in this editorial. The thing that is causing so much controversy as of now is that the families the legislation is designed to help are decidedly middle class: Maryland has a household income cap of 55k/yr, and NY recently tried, but failed, to raise their cap to above 80k.

Now, it's true that there are certain circumstances in which even a middle or upper middle class family can have trouble getting affordable health insurance. Some friends of ours own their own fairly successful small business -- but their youngest daughter has Down Syndrome and even small business insurance refuses to cover her. They have to use a state program by which they can pay a flat amount per month (I believe around 500 dollars -- we had to look at the same possibility in our pre-corporate days because one of our daughters has a heart murmur) and get subsidized insurance for her separately.

However, given that independent estimates say that the proposed S-CHIP legislation would probably cover 6 million children, of which 30% would be children already covered by private insurance who would transfer out onto the public dole -- there are I think legitimate questions as to whether this is a good use of resources. While some underline the necessity of helping middle class families with undue burdens, others (and I would tend to fall in this camp) would tend to think that under certain circumstances it behooves you to seek out a job working for the state or federal government or for a large corporation in order to make sure that you can get the kind of insurance your family requires.

The actual question of the wisdom of the legislation, however, is not what I want to address. It seems clear to me that there are many different conclusions that reasonable people could come to in this situation.

Rather, what stikes me is a particular mode of moral thinking that seems deeply problematic. The interchange is taken from the discussion on this post. The two people talking are the author of the post (Katerina) and a commenter (Blackadder):
Democrats = kill the babies in the womb
Republicans = kill the children by not given them healthcare!

There are approximately 1.3 million abortions in this country every year. How many children die in this country because they don’t have healthcare?

So you’re reducing the value of human lives to mere numbers?
Wow. What an ethic of life you have there.

No, I’m not reducing the value of human lives to mere numbers. But you didn’t answer my question. How many children die in this country each year because they don’t have healthcare?

...I repeat it again: I don’t reduce human lives to numbers: if Democrats kill more than the Republicans and all that nonsense discussion. Even if there is only one child who has passed away because of the lack of healthcare insurance is enough for me....
Now, the blog author is very young, and so try to overlook some of the more college-activist phrasing here. That's an easy target, but that's not what I think is interesting about this exchange.

What is interesting is the modification of a very sound moral principle into an open mandate for unlimited government action. It is an oft observed principle that one may not perform a lesser evil (but still a clear evil) in order to avoid a greater one. The classic (though unlikely in any practical terms) example of this is the "If you kill this once innocent person, some great world improvement (end of hunger, peace between nations, etc.) will be achieved" illustration. Performing a "smaller" objectively evil act in order to achieve a good of a great magnitude is falling into the error of proportionalism. This is the issue we have when people argue: Sure, cloning human embyos and then killing them for their stem cells may be wrong -- but surely it's okay in the context of all the great cures we might achieve as a result.

What Katrina is doing, however, is not simply avoiding proportionalism. She's engaging in a very key shift in analysis. When she says "I don’t reduce human lives to numbers: ... Even if there is only one child who has passed away because of the lack of healthcare insurance is enough for me." she is arguing that a specific remedial action (funding $35 billion in additional government-paid healthcare) is morally necessary so long as it saves at least one human life.

In a sense, this is very similar to the argument for gun control which I was arguing against a while back, which went essentially: "So long as it is clear that some number of gun deaths, however small, will be averted by additional gun control measures -- the moral necessity of avoiding death trumps any desire some people may have to possess dangerous objects."

And yet, if one thinks about it, almost any government funded service or increased level of regulation could be justified by the claim that it must save the life of at least one person. Can it be that we are morally required to turn over all money to government programs and institute all possible safety regulations (to the point of having every person wear a padded suit and banning all means of fast transportation other than emergency vehicles) simply because that would doubtless save some number of lives? Generally speaking, I am hesitant to claim that patently absurd precepts are necessitated by moral theology. That would be to assert either that theology itself is patently absurd, or that our faculties of reason are so terribly malformed that moral necessity looks like absurdity to us. A failure to "ring true" would seem to indicate a need to look deeper.

While I don't have a neat and clear solution to this problem, a couple of principles occur:

1) While at an individual level we have a duty to perform all reasonable acts to care for and protect those around us, trying to provide or regulate such things at the governmental level results in extreme inefficiency. So for instance, when it comes to gun safely, it is my clear duty to keep my guns in locked cases, keep ammunition out of reach and out of site, never shoot at an unknown target, and never use a weapon to threaten those around me. Following all of these rules carefully, and adapting them to the needs of changing situations, it is highly unlikely that my guns will ever be a threat to anyone. However, when the government tries to assure a similar level of safety across all gun owners and potential gun owners, we end up with a huge number of regulations, which still don't succeed in restricting people enough to avoid all crimes and accidents.

Similarly, if someone in your immediate circle desperately needs help paying for medical expenses, it's a clear and straightforward process for family and parish members to step forward and collect the needed money. However, when a government program attempts to insure that every such needy person is taken care of via government paid insurance, they end up paying all medical expenses (not only emergency, but routine and affordable) and also building a wasteful bureaucracy to do so.

2) While I don't for a moment think that fundamental moral principles change due to changes in technology, we currently have a lot to sort out in that medical care has moved, in the last 100 years or so, for a personal, corporate work of mercy, to a high technology and thus potentially high expense field. Once upon a time, the need to care for the sick was pretty much a need to devote as much time and patience as necessary to nursing. It's something that is often not fun, but is intensely doable. However, in this day and age, there are at times situations where the money required to perform some exotic operation (and honestly, that's what we need insurance for, not to pay for the $70 doctors visit and the $50 anti-biotic) can be tens of thousands, hundreds or thousands or even millions of dollars. What are we to make of the call to care for the sick, when providing the maximum of care for one person can, at times, take the financial resources that could feed thousands or tens of thousands of the world's poor?

3) Is there a fundamental difference between the level of charity which individuals may be morally required to provide to each others, and the level of government mandated "charity" which can or should be rightly exacted from society and given out to those determined to be "in need"? I suspect that, given government's lack of discernment and inefficiency, and the fact that such an act is not actually charity on anyone's part, the level of moral obligation government institutions have is different from that which individuals have -- but I'm not sure how to look deeper into the question.