Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Link: Pope Francis: Marriage is Indissoluble

Pope Francis states, in very clear terms, the traditional Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, here.

Quote: Foot Making Fun of Expressivists

In her book 'Natural Goodness' Philippa Foot criticizes (lightly mocks) expressivist accounts of moral evaluation because they seem to make evaluation of human action completely disconnected from our evaluation of other biological aspects of human well-being, as well as the evaluation of the goodness of other kinds of animals and plants.

"For it is obvious that no expressivist account will do in those other domains: we cannot think that the use of the word 'good' is to express a 'pro-attitude' in what we say about the roots of nettles or the fangs of ferocious beasts. Nowadays such evaluations are apt to be marginalized as if they were fanciful extensions of the 'proper' evaluations that express our attitudes, practical decisions, or desires. But when I was told by a certain philosopher who wanted to explain 'good' in terms of choices, that the good roots of trees were roots of the kind 'we should choose if we were trees', this finally confirmed my suspicion of the kind of moral philosophy that was his."

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Libraries: A Case of Practical Incommensurability

In debates in ethics (among new and old natural law theorists for instance) one problem that comes up is the incommensurability of certain types of goods. What this means is that it doesn't seem that in general we can even weigh certain goods against others (for example, say, aesthetic experience and friendship). An apparent problem for utilitarians and consequentialists of various stripes, among others.

I'm not sure how much this has to do with that, but it struck me now as I'm working in my personal library of books how much incommensurability considerations affect me on a concrete, everyday level.

I was sitting here looking over a syllabus, and I realized I will have a week-long break or so in a couple weeks, and I'm going to probably pick a book or two to read over that break. Thinking about that, I realized that at a practical level, I have so many books to choose from that I probably will not read all of them straight through any time soon (if I'm honest with myself, maybe even ever). So it'll be a tough decision. I'm probably going to spend at least half an hour going through my long series of unread books and deciding which category of philosophy to even read from (if I can get myself to the point of deciding to read philosophy instead of something else). Then, supposing I've chosen a category (say, ethics), I'm going to have to decide which of several monographs within that category to choose.

One might think that when I'm choosing which book of ethics to read there must be something which marks one of the books off as more worth reading than the others. But I don't think so; I'm probably just going to have to pick one among equally reasonable options. Assuming the authors I'm considering are all equal on obviously measurable standards such as clarity in writing, intelligence, standards of rigor, etc., what other criteria of goodness would there be here? Quality of subject matter? How can I weigh that? If not that, what else? And even if I were to grant that I do a straightforward weighing along a single or several variables, this suggestion seems much less plausible when I'm making the higher-order choice of which philosophical area to read in (or the choice whether to read philosophy at all!).

You might then think that instead of saying my choice was among incommensurables I had multiple choices with an equal degree of goodness along all the variables of goodness, and my choice was arbitrary. In other words, the choices are commensurable, but they just happen to all be equal on the scale of goodness. But as I mentioned above, the subject matter of the books for instance does seem to play into my decision (at least in my case; I don't know about everyone else), and yet this doesn't seem like something I can literally weigh against the alternatives. Probably other incommensurable considerations play into my decision too.

(Note: Making a choice based on considerations and choosing one among alternatives doesn't by itself imply that the alternatives are commensurable. In fact, even if one choice is more rational than another, that doesn't imply the goods chosen are commensurable with those forgone qua goods. There might be some other considerations, for instance purely about what's constitutive of rationality, that bears on what is to be done.)

Maybe this is a case of incommensurability even within a particular category of basic good (viz. knowledge). I wonder how a utilitarian picture of everyday deliberation of this sort would go. And thinking about my own experience, I wonder whether a utilitarian could give a plausible model of such experience.

Okay, that's enough of that. Back to work.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

I Need to Blog More (About More Important Things)

Lately I've been noticing two problematic aspects of my philosophical behavior. First, it's been striking me that I haven't been writing about topics that are obviously deep and important. I haven't written about political philosophy, or skepticism about the external world, or free will, or God's existence, or the Forms, or what's right and wrong, or anything like that, in quite a while. Second, even though I feel I know a lot more than when I started studying philosophy many years ago, each year I seem to write less and less.

I think the first problem arises from my belief that most of the answers to the "big" questions in philosophy are most fully understood if we have an understanding of certain technical issues. I didn't just get interested in counterfactuals or quantifier variance for no reason. I think the answers to important questions about God, man, and the world are affected by the answers to questions like these. So, while I think these technical topics are interesting in themselves, I am also working with the background belief that understanding of these topics provides insight into more "first-order" and "important" areas of philosophy.

I think the second problem of not writing often arises from a fear that what I say might not be fully polished or tightly argued, as well as a growing realization that most arguments and positions in philosophy are on quite fallible ground. I also worry what I would say isn't very original or isn't worth saying. In addition, I feel like I have less and less time.

But in reflecting on all this I remembered a quote from St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the first thinkers to get me interested in philosophy in the first place. In one of the few instances where Aquinas waxes eloquently, he comments that "... even as it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so is it better to give to others the fruits of one's contemplation than merely to contemplate." (Summa Theologica, II, II, 188, 6)

As a philosopher, I think it would hardly make sense to sit in my study all week, poring over material, and not share anything I might have gleaned with anyone. Philosophers should be pursuing wisdom, and wisdom shouldn't be pursued in a bubble. We should at least be of service to others by making our thoughts available. Moreover, as a Catholic philosopher I feel I have a duty to thoughtfully interact with the world from at least one faithful Catholic's perspective, a perspective which otherwise might not be heard or understood. People are looking for answers, and one place people look to is the Church. I hope I can indicate to at least some people that maybe they are looking in the right place.

As such, I hope to write more on this blog about things that matter to people (or at least things that directly matter to people). I still plan to write my more technical posts, but I also want to write on things people are actually concerned about and where I might be able to say something helpful and understandable to someone. This includes current events, religion, politics, as well as more controversial topics in philosophy. Not all posts will be equal in the amount of time or effort I've put into them. But I hope that by covering a more wide range of subjects I can present a relatively coherent, reasonable, and philosophically informed view of the world. And when need be, I'll be happy as I always have to dig into those technical philosophical questions that bear on the answers to the more big picture ones.

I don't know if this is a good move or not -- I feel that most of what I've written about is pretty abstract, so it will involve a change of tone for this blog -- but if even one more person finds my material helpful it'll justify the change to me. Plus, it'll give me an outlet for things I think about often but don't ever have an opportunity to say to anyone, as well as a forum to organize my thoughts.

To be honest, I've come to resolutions about blogging in the past and failed to follow up with them, but that's not a reason not to try. God willing I'll try to post at least once a week, and hopefully even a little more.