Why I’m Confused about my Upcoming Wedding

I’m getting married soon.

Of course, I’m super stoked about the upcoming wedding. I cannot wait to start taking the world by storm with my best friend and bride to be. I’m definitely looking forward, moreover, to kicking off our life together by celebrating with a bunch of people I deeply care about.

Perhaps surprisingly, I’m also a little confused and worried about the upcoming wedding. I’m not confused about whether I should wear a bow tie or a straight tie. (The answer is obviously a bow tie.) Nor am I confused about what food to have at the wedding. (BBQ is objectively the best choice.) My confusions and worries stem from the fact that we, as affluent residents of the first world, are constantly living in a Good Samaritan situation. Let me explain what I mean.

We live on a pretty broken planet. Some children starve, some women are forced into sexual slavery, and some men persecute those who are powerless, which often causes more starving and more slavery. This is nothing new.

We also live on a pretty connected planet. We know that the world is broken because we get live updates on our televisions, computers, smartphones, and whatever else the kids are using these days. We also have the means to intervene, to save lives, and to give people the gift of freedom with very little sacrifice on our part.

Now, here’s where I start to get confused: when I consider that the world is both broken and connected, I realize that I am always faced with a choice, a choice that is not unlike the one that the Good Samaritan faced: I, while surfing on the web, can click that button and order a DJ for my upcoming wedding or I can click that other button on that other page and send a dehydration pack to a dying child in Cambodia. Every DJ I hire is, in virtue of my residence in this broken and connected world, also a choice to let a child die. I’m constantly in a Good Samaritan situation.

Those last few sentences will probably sound crazy to most readers, but I think that this is just because the fact that we are constantly in a Good Samaritan situation is, unlike the fact that we live in a broken world, a relatively recent development. The proliferation of technology over the past few decades has been truly breathtaking, and while we have managed to pause long enough to figure out how to capitalize on the benefits of living in this connected world, we have rarely taken that additional moment to consider that these new connections might bring new challenges and new responsibilities.

…And now there’s a wedding to plan. I can choose to hire a DJ for my wedding. Or, I can take that same money and free an Indian slave. The Good Samaritan situation invited himself my wedding. Rude.

So, now you can probably start to see why I’m confused: I’m supposed to be getting married. This is supposed to be a very special day during which I have license to indulge myself, but do I really have such a licence? Do I really have the right to choose the musical delight of 150 of my closest compadres over the freedom of a human being?

At this point, some may think that my confusions and worries are misplaced. Some of my own family members have thought that I was literally slightly insane to be thinking about these sorts of questions while discussing wedding plans. (That’s ok. Their concerns about my sanity places me in good company.) So, let me for a moment try to convince you that I am not completely off my rocker.

Some might think that I’m a little off because I need to be reminded of how difficult it is to solve these problems that make up our broken world. “Poverty, slavery, and tyranny cannot be ended merely by foregoing a DJ for your wedding,” some might say, “so don’t be concerned about starving children on your wedding day.”

My reply: that’s a fair observation with a not-so-fair conclusion. Yes, poverty will not be solved by telling DJ Diggity-Dawg to go home, but I’m not talking about solving every problem ever. I’m just talking about the opportunity to give one child medical attention that may allow her to grow into adulthood or the opportunity show one person that there’s more to life than her master’s will. So, even though my choice to forego the DJ does not entirely change the world, it can definitely change someone’s life, and so, there is reason, I think, to be confused and worried about planning a wedding with a DJ in the world in which we live.

Other readers might point out that my confusions lead to “absurd” conclusions, and they might use this “fact” to show that we shouldn’t be confused about our role in this broken, connected world at all. “If what you are saying is correct,” they might say, “then that means that we shouldn’t buy anything ever and just spend all of our time and money helping poor, sick, enslaved, people. But that’s a crazy conclusion!” To such an argument, I think we might justly reply: “That’s a crazy conclusion? Are we sure about that? Because a life spent being devoted the least of these sounds an awful lot like the life that Jesus led, and aren’t we all trying to live a life that’s more like that anyway?”¹

Of course, these responses do not exhaust all of the questions some may have about my sanity, but answering all of those questions would no doubt exhaust more than all of the space that I had for this article. So, let me just say, by way of conclusion, that I don’t know the way to resolve these confusions and quiet these worries. I’m just sort of trying to figure things out as the wedding draws closer. I do know, however, that they are confusions worth exploring and worries worth praying about, and for that reason, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to share them with you.

Notes:

1. There’s a way to respond to this objection without whipping out the Jesus card. Peter Singer does a good job with this somewhere in this article. In fact, everything that I’ve said here has pretty much already been said by him. Turns out there’s not much that’s new under the sun.

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Should there be stricter gun-laws?

The Sandy Hook Elementary shooting has reinvigorated the gun-control debate in America. The debate centers around this question: How ought we – as makers and members of this democracy – respond to this tragedy? Some have called for a change in gun-laws. Others have suggested that the root cause of these events is our “violent culture” and that this must change if we are going to avoid future tragedies. Still others think that “the solution” is an increase in school security.

I think that the current – and past – state of the conversation about gun control is itself tragic. I think that the way in which we “debate” this issue reflects a lack of appreciation for the complexity of the question at hand. Insofar as we are members and makers of this democracy, our lack of careful thinking about this issue is culpable. People have died in part because we have been intellectually lazy. Moreover, the “debate” seems to have shown some of us to be more interested in drawing lines in the sand than in actually having a fruitful conversation. I worry that because of the poor state of our national conversation, that we may fail to respond sensibly to this unthinkable event.

To be sure, I too have been guilty of failing to think carefully about this issue and I have also reacted to this event with my emotions, by simply taking up a side rather than contributing to conditions under which my conversation with others could be useful. (This is why I used the collective pronouns “we” and “our” in the above paragraph.) It is my intention in what follows to take steps towards remedying these failures. After all, I think that having a careful and reasonable and sympathetic conversation is of the utmost importance, for these conversations are the starting points of change for the better. In a word, this situation calls for some good philosophy, and I am here inviting you, the reader, to participate in some (hopefully) good philosophy and thereby in the remedying of my aforementioned failures.

Let us begin by characterizing two views we might have about how to respond to Sandy Hook. Some say that the right way to respond to this tragedy is stricter gun laws. Let’s call this the “liberal view.” Others think that the right way to respond to this tragedy is to leave gun laws as they are and to instead hold individuals responsible. Let’s call this the “conservative view.”

Now, what might be said in favor of the conservative view? One phrase that might immediately come to mind is this: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Let’s look at this claim.

It is not always clear exactly what people mean when they say “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” However, I think that they might be making the following claim: the root cause of gun-violence is people acting inappropriately. When I say that something is the “root cause” of some event, I just mean that the event could not have happened without that root cause. Thus, when people say “Guns don’t kill people. People do,” they might be saying that people’s poor behavior is a necessary link in the causing of gun violence; guns don’t just hop of the table and start shooting people. This is something, I think, that everyone can agree on. In fact, this statement seems trivially true.

Presumably, people mean to say more than this trivial truth when they claim that “People kill people.” Maybe they mean to say that because people are the root cause of gun violence, we do not need stricter gun control laws. If this is what people mean, however, they seem to be making a mistake in reasoning. To see this, let’s examine this “People kill people” argument closely.

The “People kill people” argument says that

(1) People are the root cause of gun-violence.

and

(2) Therefore, we have no obligation to enact stricter gun-control laws.

This is, I think, an invalid argument. (2) does not follow from (1). Even if (1) is true, (2) is not necessarily true.

I think that we can all agree that this is an invalid argument if we consider the following facts. We currently have some gun control laws. We do not, for example, give weapons to people who are mentally ill or people who have a criminal background. Presumably, we have these laws because we believe that although people are the root cause of gun violence, we ought to take sensible steps to prevent further gun violence from occurring. We think that taking these sensible steps means that we should make it illegal and difficult for both the mentally ill and for criminals to obtain weapons.

Here is another example. It is true that the root cause of vehicular manslaughter is people. It is true, in other words, that “Cars don’t kill people. People kill people.” Despite this truth, we regularly take steps to try and prevent car accidents. One of the ways we do this is by making people take tests to get their license. We also make sure that people obey certain traffic laws.

To be sure, there are important dis-analogies between driving cars and shooting guns. Moreover, just because we already restrict people’s usage of vehicles does not automatically mean that we ought to have stricter gun laws. My point here is just that the “People kill people” argument is a bad one. It is a bad argument because, as these two examples show, we all already agree that even if people are the root cause of some problem, this does not mean that we have no reason to try to prevent this problem. Even if people kill people, this does not mean that we should not keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. Even if people kill people, this does not mean that we should have no traffic laws.

Let us consider another interpretation of the claim that “People kill people.” Perhaps folk who say this mean to emphasize the importance of freedom and personal responsibility. On this interpretation, they might be claiming that because certain people are the root cause of gun violence, those people and those people alone ought to be held responsible for their acts and that for people who use weapons appropriately, there is no reason to restrict their freedom, their right to purchase firearms.

This seems like a sensible claim. Why should anyone be forced to give up something that they enjoy simply because others cannot behave? Although this claim seems sensible, I do not think that it can justify the claim that there should not be stricter gun-laws. Again, let’s look at the argument:

(3) People’s inappropriate behavior is the root cause of gun-violence.

(4) I enjoy purchasing and firing guns.

(5) If my purchasing of fire arms is not the root cause of gun-violence, then there is no reason for anyone to restrict my freedom in this way.

(6) Therefore, I, or anyone else who so desires, ought to be able to purchase guns, provided that we will use them properly.

This argument certainly seems more plausible than the first one. Let’s call this argument the “argument from freedom.” Before we examine this argument, I want to consider one objection someone might have to the way in which I’ve formulated the argument from freedom.

Someone might say that (4) is too weak. They might say, “Its not just that I enjoy purchasing fire arms. It is my right to bear arms.” Perhaps this person might here appeal to the constitution to justify his or her right to bear arms. I think that in this case such an appeal would be irrelevant. Appeals to the constitution cannot settle moral issues. The constitution is not God. It is merely a document that specifies how our democracy works. No one thinks that appeals to the constitution could have settled the issue of whether slavery was morally permissible and we have no more reason here to think that the constitution can settle the matter about gun control.

Alternatively, someone might complain that we have a moral right to bear arms, a moral freedom to do so. On this view, (4) is too weak because we have a moral right to bear arms as opposed to merely a legal right. But what is it for someone to have a moral right to something? It seems to me that to say that someone has a right is just to say that the person is entitled to have that right respected; it is to say that we ought to let someone exercise a certain freedom.

But this is precisely the thing we are trying to determine. We are trying to figure out whether people ought to be able to own weapons or certain kinds of weapons. We cannot therefore simply assume that people have a moral right to bear arms without begging the whole question. We cannot assume that we have a moral right to bear arms, but we might argue for it. So, let us return to the argument from freedom.

(5), the claim that if my purchasing of firm arms is not the root cause of gun-violence, then there’s no reason to enact stricter gun laws, might follow from a more general principle that we might find plausible, a principle that J.S. Mill called the “Harm Principle.” Roughly, the principle states that

(7) I should be allowed to do as I please, provided that I am not hurting anyone.

So, maybe people think that (5) is true because they think that (7) is true.

Actually, if we are careful, we will see that people don’t actually think that (7) is true, although they do think that something close to (7) is true. Moreover, we will see that we should not think that (7) in this unqualified form is true. In qualifying (7), it will be helpful to introduce a weird philosophy term. Sometimes we think that we have what philosophers call a “prima facie” duty to do something. A prima facie duty is a duty that we have, provided that there are no other duties that are more important. For example, we think that we have a prima facie duty to tell the truth, but many of us do not think that we have a duty to tell the truth if doing so would lead to the death of others. (The classic case is one in which Nazis knock on your door and ask if you are hiding any Jewish people. You are in fact hiding Jewish people in your attic. Maybe people think that you should lie in this case.)

With this term introduced, we can say that instead of believing (7), we actually believe something like

(8) Prima facie, I should be allowed to do as I please, provided that I am not hurting anyone.

This just means that unless there are important moral duties that outweigh my moral freedom, I ought to be able to do as I please. In order to see that we believe (8) instead of (7), consider the following example. (This example is borrowed from Peter Singer) Suppose that I am walking past a pond and I see that a child is drowning. I know that I can wade into the pond and my feet will still touch the bottom. I can save the child with no risk to myself. Surely in this case we would say that I ought to wade in and pull the child out and that refraining from doing so simply because I did not feel like it would be – to use Singer’s phrase – “morally monstrous.” Thus, we do not think that we ought to be able to do whatever we want as long as we aren’t hurting someone. Sometimes, we think that we ought to help people, even if doing so means that we are inconvenienced and cannot “do as we please” for the moment. We believe that our moral right to do as we please is merely prima facie; it is a right that we have provided that we do not have any other more important moral duties to attend to.

Now, I have my doubts about (8), but we needn’t go into that here. This is because although I think that this is the strongest point that can be made on behalf of the conservative view, I do not think that it is enough to defeat the liberal view, the view that we ought to enact stricter gun control laws. (8) is not enough to defeat the liberal view because this case does in fact involve a duty that is more important than my moral right to do as I please: the duty to try and prevent the death of innocent people.

Now, it is important that I have said that we have a duty to try to prevent the death of innocent people rather than saying that we have a duty to prevent innocent people’s death. Some people have claimed that stricter gun control laws will not be effective in reducing gun-violence. This is a huge sticking point in the national conversation about gun control: Will gun control prevent gun violence? This question is often not appreciated for how difficult and complex it really is. Often times, we seem content to speculate about the causes of gun-violence from our psychological and sociological arm chairs. This is clearly an inadequate way of resolving the issue.

Fortunately, we need not try to settle this complex empirical issue to decide the moral one. That is, I think that the question of whether gun control laws will be effective in reducing violence is irrelevant to whether we should create such laws. I realize that this might strike some as a strange or ridiculous claim, but I think that it is true despite its initial implausibility. I will argue for this claim in the second part to this post. 

For now, let me review what we’ve said so far. The “people killing people” argument is invalid. Our current efforts to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill combined with our laws about vehicles suggest that even if people are the root-cause of some problem, this does not mean that we have no reason to try to prevent that problem through legislation (or through other means for that matter).  Appeals to our constitutional right to bear arms cannot settle the moral question we’ve been asking, the question of how we ought to respond to the Sandy Hook shooting. Finally, the argument from freedom seems to be the strongest argument that can be made in favor of the conservative view. This argument rests on the claim that (8) I ought to be able to do as I please provided that I am not hurting others and provided that I have no other more important duties to attend to. I think that our moral right to do as we please may be outweighed by a more important duty: the duty to try and prevent the death of innocent people. In the case of gun control, I think we have a duty to enact stricter gun control even if such legislation will be ineffective, but I have not yet argued for this claim.

By way of conclusion let me note that it is of course possible that some or all of what we’ve said here could be false or confused, but that is why I have you, dear reader. If you feel that I have missed something, let us converse about it together. May our conversation be less like a debate and more like a cooperative endeavor to get at what we all care about.

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Parsimonies and Providence

The teleological/fine-tuning argument for God’s existence runs something like this: Look at how amazing the universe is! Look at how the universe had to be just right to turn out to be the kind of place that could sustain life! Isn’t it unlikely that our universe could arisen this way by pure chance? Therefore, God.¹

A standard response to this argument is to suggest alternative cosmological theories that make it less unlikely that we happen to be in a universe that can sustain life. One example of this kind of theory is the multiverse theory. According to this theory, there are many universes and we happen just happen to be lucky enough to be in the universe that can sustain life.

The idea here is that this theory makes it far less unlikely that there is a universe like ours, that is, a universe that can sustain life. After all, if the cosmos has multiple shots at creating a life-sustaining universe, then its not crazy to think that the cosmos will eventually “hit” on the right combination of physical laws so that I can exist and type this silly blog post that no one will ever read. Thus, the multiverse theory looks like it can explain why there happens to be a life-sustaining universe in the cosmos.

At this point, however, all we have are two competing hypotheses that explain why we find ourselves in a life-sustaining universe. If both of these hypotheses explain the phenomena equally well, then parsimony will settle the tie-breaker. The multiverse theoriest will boast that their hypothesis doesn’t require the positing of a god, and thus, their theory wins out.

After writing a paper for one my classes this semester, I am no longer sure that this is all that can be said about this particular conversation.² For one thing, we might distinguish between two kinds of parsimony: qualitative parsimony and quantitative parsimony.³ Once we make this distinction, we can ask some interesting and important questions that can move the aforementioned conversation forward.

A theory that is qualitatively parsimonious posits the existence of fewer kinds of entities. Since God is an entirely different kind of entity than those found in the natural world, religious hypotheses are less parsimonious in the qualitative sense. Quantitative parsimony, on the other hand, is parsimony with respect to the number of entities in a world. If I suppose that there are multiple universes, I am endorsing a theory that is less quantitatively parsimonious than a theory which supposes that there is only one universe. Thus, it seems clear that the multiverse theory fares worse than the god theory in terms of quantitative parsimony.

Moreover, this seems to count for in favor of the religious hypothesis. After all, surely quantitative parsimony counts for something. If two theories explain some phenomena equally well, it seems like we should favor the theory that posits a fewer number of entities.

Now, here’s a question: Which theory is more rational to endorse? A quantitatively parsimonious one or a qualitatively parsimonious one? The multiverse theory wins out on qualitative parsimony, but not on quantitative parsimony. The religious theory, vice versa. Which one is rational to believe?

Answering this question requires a closer look at the philosophical justification for favoring parsimonious theories in general. I’m not really familiar with how philosophers have traditionally done this, but I do have one reason why we might think parsimony is important: non-qualitatively-parsimonious hypotheses can be used to explain anything and there is no limit to the number of non-parsimonious hypotheses that could explain some phenomena.

I could explain my ability to walk as the product of invisible, intangible “step-leprechauns” that can read my mind and know when I want to take a step. Or I could just say that I have a brain that can communicate with the required nerve and muscle systems so that I can walk. To reject the importance of qualitative parsimony is to open up the possibility of having to take the leprechaun hypothesis seriously.

Can the same kind of problem arise with respect to quantitative parsimony? Can we generate non-quantitatively-parsimonious explanations for any phenomena? Its not obvious that we can. Thus, the philosophical justification (if there is one) for quantitative parsimony must lie elsewhere. The relative importance of quantitative parsimony to qualitative parsimony can only be determined once I find this justification, and that is something that I must look for on another day.

Notes:

1. “Therefore, God.” is not the best way of stating the conclusion of the argument. It is perhaps better to say something like “Therefore, creator(s).” As Hume has pointed out, there could be multiple creators or the creator could be a jerk. My point, in short, is that we can’t get from a teleological argument to the God of (one kind of) Christianity.

2. The paper explored Russell’s account of our knowledge of the external world. Considerations of parsimony arose because Russell’s account posits infinite amounts of sense-data. However, Russell’s account is more qualitatively parsimonious in that it gets rid of Kant’s thing-in-itself. Here is where the question is which parsimony should be privileged first arose.

3. The terminology for this distinction was stolen from the Stanford Encyclopedia article on simplicity.

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Christian Americans or American Christians?

I’ve recently noticed something a little strange about the relationship between politics and Christianity, something that can be seen by looking at some of the remarks in the above video. The speaker is Dinesh D’souza, a Dartmouth graduate, former policy adviser for the Reagan administration, and a Christian apologist. That strange thing that I’ve noticed is this: there seems to be a conflict between what is described in this video as “Our founding father’s dream” and “Our Father, who art in heaven’s” dream. It seems, moreover, that there might be a lack of introspection that would lead Christian Americans to see this conflict, a kind of forgetfulness regarding the supremacy of our Father over our founding fathers.

Now, it might be the case that this is not at all what is going on in this trailer. I have not seen D’souza’s movie, nor have I read the book upon which the movie is based. Whether my interpretation of D’souza’s words are correct, however, is largely irrelevant. I am not here attempting to attack D’souza (or anyone else for that matter). Rather, I am interested in examining a certain kind of mentality that seems common enough among my brothers and sisters to warrant some comment. Again, if it turns out that D’souza is not in fact exhibiting the kind of mentality that I wish to examine here, one can simply look to some of the rhetoric spit at the RNC this week, rhetoric that I am sure will also be employed next week for the DNC, for an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about.

To the trailer then. After looking at the trailer, it seems that one of the central claims of the film is that Obama’s dream for America is for it to be “downsized” in order to right the wrongs of colonialism. (Of course, we can question whether this is actually Obama’s intention, but that’s not what I’m interested in. Let’s assume D’souza is right. Let’s assume, that is, that Obama really is trying to downsize America.) Now, it seems clear enough that D’souza seems to think that this is bad. We are presented, at the end of the trailer, with an alternative: the dreams of our founding fathers, and the dreams of founding fathers seem to be presented as (comparatively) good.

Do you see the weird part yet?

If not, let’s ask these questions: Why is a Christian appropriating the “dreams of our founding fathers” as the dream to which we should aspire? Why, moreover, is a Christian (seemingly) frowning upon the possibility that America might seek to right the wrongs of the colonial past? Answer: Because maybe this Christian is an American Christian, rather than a Christian American. Maybe, in other words, the identity of this Christian has been partially superseded by the American one.

A Christian American, as I see it, should look at the “choice” D’souza is painting in the following way: Which choice would bring heaven closest to here? (Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.) This is a different kind of question than D’souza seems to asking. His question seems to be: Which choice would be in keeping with who we are as Americans?

If we ask the former question, then I think we will get a different feel regarding the choices with which we are presented. Couldn’t it actually be a good thing if colonial injustices were addressed, even if that meant America got downsized a little? What if America prioritized justice over its economic growth? What if starving children that are partially the products of colonial injustice had food to eat? (If you don’t think that the statement assumed in the previous question is true, then ask a slightly different one: What if starving children had food to eat?)

After looking at the choices this way, I’m no longer sure that “down-sizing” America would necessarily be a terrible idea. After all, aren’t we merely strangers here? Do we have an eternal interest in the continued economic and military power of America? Is it not the case that we are citizens of a higher kingdom, a kingdom in which the ideal of justice is perfectly realized? Is it not true that our duty as citizens of that kingdom is to see justice and compassion brought down here?

And what of our founding father’s dreams? What of liberty? To be sure, liberty is baller, but despite the way D’souza seems to present the issue, I’m not sure we have to choose either/or here. Remember he says, “America has a dream from our founding fathers…that together we must perfect liberty, and America must grow, so liberty grows.

Huh?

Is it really either/or here? Is it really the case that America’s economy must be bigger in order for liberty to “grow?” Well, I suppose that depends on how you define liberty, but if we define it as the freedom to realize our own conceptions of the good life (as long as we aren’t harming others), then I’m not sure why America would need to continue to grow economically for that to happen. Economic growth does not seem necessary for the realization of liberty. Nor does it seem that we will be guaranteed liberty if we do continue to grow economically. One look at China is sufficient to see that economic growth doesn’t guarantee liberty.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that America’s prospering is a bad thing. I like America. America is pretty freaking sick. I am only wondering whether there might be better things that we should aim for.

So, perhaps it is appropriate to conclude the examination of this seemingly strange mentality with a choice of our own, a choice that we, in some form or another face everyday, a choice that I have without a doubt sometimes failed to respond to appropriately, but yet a choice that I have been trying to bring to light so that we might hold one another accountable: Will we, as we contemplate our decision in the coming election, be Christian Americans or American Christians? Will we let the dreams that captivate us be replaced by something less than eternally good?

“Which dream will we carry into 2016?”

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Jesus and Individuality

I just read something that reminded me of Jesus:

Persons of genius are, ex vi termini, more individual than any other people…If they are of a strong character, and break their fetters, they become a mark for the society which has not suceceeded in reducing them to commonplace, to a point at with solemn warning as ‘wild,’ ‘erratic,’ and the like; much as if one should complian of the Niagara river for not flowing smoothly between its banks like a Dutch canal.

The above quotation comes from Mill’s On Liberty, a treatise in which Mill attempts to defend the value of liberty. The context surrounding the quotation is that of a defense of the individual against the customs and conventions of society. Mill complains that the society in which he finds himself is becoming more and more threatening to invididuality. He claims, moreover, that people’s capactity to have their own individual hopes and dreams is in danger of being stamped out. This danger arises not simply from an individual accepting that she will never be able to express her desires over and against the conventions of the culture but also from the deadening of the desires within her very self, a deadening that is a direct result of the tyranny of the masses.

(Mill’s complaints here, by the way, remind me of some remarks made by Kierkegaard, a contemporary of Mill.)

The above quotation reminds me of Jesus because, in my mind, he certainly is like that “Niagara river” who others complained about (curcified even) for not fitting their conventional “canals.” The masses certainly did not succeed in reducing him to common place. The very possibility that the individual can triumph over the masses is, I think, is an inspiring one.

I was immediately struck by the beauty of this possibility, and I felt a personal connection to the kind of struggle that Mill is talking about here, a struggle that is exemplified in the life of Jesus. I felt that personal connection, no doubt, because I have a desire to be an individual that is not subdued by the artibrary demands of others.  I have even had a fear for a few years now that that is precisely what would happen as I grew older. That fear is in me even now. As I type these words, I worry that I’ll sell out in due time and that the subversive spirit within me will succumb to the seemingly silly demands of that voiceless abstraction “normalcy.”

But from where does this subversive impulse come from? Why is it that I desire to cultivate it? Here again I have to look at Jesus, and, more generally, I have to look at the Good and the Beuatiful. The subversive implulse results from the disparity between the Good and the way things are. To be a follower of Jesus, to be a lover of the Good is be invited into a life of subversion. It is to struggle against the way things are. It is to respond to statements like, “Life isn’t fair.” by saying “That’s all the more reason to make the world a fairer, more just place.”

This struggle, I think, allows me to be an individual. Because Jesus’ calling is counter-cultural, because it flies in the face of conventions, I can be called to something that is unique. Like Kierkegaard’s Abraham in Fear and Trembling, it is only by being above morality that Abraham can be a true individual. Similarly, it is only be being above the conventions that I can be distinctly me.

I rebel, therefore I am.

Well, that sounds pretty cool, but there’s something strange with this line of thought. We are all called to live a certain kind of life. And this kind of life is indeed a convention of its own, with its own individual-stifling tendancies. Indeed, we are called to die to ourselves and to take part in a new life, to be a new creation.

But what is this new thing? Is it an individual? How can it be? This new thing is nothing but a perfect being in that it exists in conformity with the Good. I’ve asked these questions before.  (And these questions, like last time, were inspired by me “witnessing” the beauty of individual expression.) This time, however, I’ve got some ideas about how we can have individuality, along with some feelings that God does, in fact, care about such things.

First, why God might give a crap about individuality. If we think about relationships in general, we’ll find that we value the originality of the people with whom we relate. If our relationship with God is anything like the relatinship we have with others, then, there’s probably good reason to think that God digs those qualities about me that distinguish me from others.

How we can get individuality in spite of perfect adherance to the Good: there must be a realm of choices or qualities that is untouched by the Good. Whether I prefer cookies and cream over strawberry icecream might be an example of such a non-moral preference. With these non-moral qualities in place, I can still be unique even if I am a new creation, the kind of person that is an ethical baller.

Meh…this is probably garbage.

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Employment Ethics

I’m working on becoming a vegetarian, and I happen to think that there are at least two really good moral reasons for other folk to start working on that veg head project as well. I also happen to think that as a result of our relatively recent ability to significantly and positively impact the life of the world’s poor, that we have a pretty serious obligation to help them out. We are in a perpetual good Samaritan-situation. We have to daily choose between a new pair of shoes and the life of some Haitian child, and I think a pretty good case can be made for choosing the life of the Haitian. So, I think it would be good if folk ate less meat and spent more money on helping the world’s poor.

Enough of my eccentric moral convictions for now. More practically (and self-interestedly), I am also working on becoming an employee somewhere, sometime during this summer. There seems to be an interesting conflict here, a conflict that’s got me a bit confused about how I (morally) ought to behave, or, alternatively, how God would have me act.

Here’s the conflict stated simply: I think the world would be a better place if we didn’t eat meat and stopped choosing new shoes over the lives of Haitian babies. However, many of my employment opportunities are going to be at establishments that run on meat-eating and on caring-about-shoes-more-than-starving-Haitians. So, this question arises: Should I contribute to an establishment that runs on practices that I think makes the world a crappier place?

Here’s one answer: It does not matter if you contribute to these establishments as an employee since you already contribute to these establishments as a consumer. Two (related) things can be said in response to this. In the first place, it might be wrong to contribute to these establishments both as a consumer as well as an employee in which case I should refrain from buying junk from these places and from working at these joints.

Secondly, even if I am permitted (or excused) for contributing to these establishments as a consumer, that might not be hold true for my contributions as an employee. One reason why this might be so is that I will obviously be contributing much more to these morally problematic establishments if I happen to work there than if I simply bought a few things occasionally. Thus, this answer doesn’t really settle the issue, and it’ll take some deeper digging in order to come out with a more helpful answer.

Here’s another (deeper) answer to the question: You are not responsible for the decisions of others. If they want to eat meat and/or buy clothes, then there is nothing morally problematic about you providing them what they want. And in any case, they are going to buy that stuff anyway. If you don’t work there, someone else will and in the end it won’t make a difference.

In order to see that this answer is also problematic, lets consider a case of something that is obviously morally problematic: rape. Now, consider the fact that the same reasoning in the above paragraph can be used to justify working at a brothel that runs on rape: “You are not responsible for the decisions of others. If they want to rape others, then there is nothing morally problematic about you providing them what they want.  And in any case, they are going to rape people anyway. If you don’t work there, someone else will and in the end it won’t make a difference.”

This is clearly a reductio of this line of reasoning; if we can use this argument to justify working at a “rape brothel,” then its probably a bad argument. I think, moreover, that we should conclude from this failed argument that we intuitively think that we are some times  when we are responsible for the decisions of others, or, at least, that we ought not to contribute to the conditions under which people will make morally problematic choices.

Here is another (related) argument that might fare better: Its not buying shoes in itself that is morally problematic. Rather, it is the purchasing of extra pairs of shoes at the cost of failing to aid the dying destitute that is the moral error. Not all consumers are making this moral error, and thus, your work in retail need not necessarily be morally problematic since many customers will be making unproblematic purchases. Similarly, some customers at restaurants will order vegetarian options, so you need not worry about the morality of working at these restaurants.

I am afraid, however, that not even this argument can stand up. Let us return to the rape brothel example. Suppose that the brothel offers a mixed batch of services: the conjugal services of both consenting and not-so-consenting adults. Even assuming that there is nothing morally problematic about prostitution itself,  we intuitively think that it is morally problematic to work even at one of these brothels.

Working at a restaurant that offers a vegetarian option seems uncomfortably like working at this kind of mixed-service brothel. In order to work at either establishment, I would have to consciously recognize that some of the services that both offer are morally problematic, yet still think that (somehow) its not morally problematic that I work there.

Lets pause for a moment and review the answers we’ve examined so far. One answer was that working at an establishment that runs on morally problematic practices is not problematic since we already contribute to such establishments as consumers. My response to this answer was basically this: maybe we shouldn’t be contributing to these establishments as consumers in the first place, and even if we are permitted to contribute qua consumers, it is another thing entirely to contribute qua worker since contributing in this way is much more extensive than contributing simply as a consumer.

Another answer was that we are not responsible for the decisions of others and that our lack of contribution to morally problematic establishments wouldn’t make a difference overall, so I should just go ahead and work wherever this summer. The problem with this answer is that the reason upon which it relies also justifies working at rape brothels. Yikes.

Finally, we considered an answer that noted that not all purchases in retail and at restaurants are going to be morally problematic, and thus, working in either of these industries need not be problematic. Unfortunately, this answer is uncomfortably similar to trying to justify working at a “mixed brothel” simply because some of the workers happen to be consenting adults.

I cannot address all of the possible ways we could answer this question, but I think that these are some rival answers that might contend with the answer I am not about to articulate.

This, I think, is how we should respond to the question we have been trying to answer from the outset: Working in retail or in food is only justified insofar as it is necessary to further the moral goals to which I am committed. Working at, say, Ross, in other words, is only justified because I can use the funds I gain from this morally problematic institution to put myself in a financial situation in which I can further the cause of the economically least of these.

The upshot of all of this is that I have an additional reason – aside from the fact that we are in a perpetual good Samaritan situation – to use the funds that I receive in a way that will allow me to help the world’s poor: if I refrain from doing so, my working at Chickfila or Ross or whatever will not be justifiable, and I will be culpably complicit in participating in a process that makes the world a crappier place, i.e., I will be hindering the coming of the kingdom.

May I be given the discipline to be one of those who aids in the ushering in of the kingdom rather than the hindering of it.

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Pens, Some varieties of Theism, and the Essence of My Religion (part 1)

In this post, I attempted to explain (to myself) the reasons why I’m only occasionally interested in doing philosophy of religion. I concluded that one of the main reasons was the pretty radical belief vacillation that occurs when I begin thinking about God. I then used one Heidegger’s concepts in this post to think about the causes of effects of this kind of belief vacillation.

In both posts, I was concerned with whether this indeterminacy of my beliefs was effecting my ability to walk with the Divine. After thinking some more about my situation via Heidegger’s concepts, I concluded that it did not matter whether I knew the ontological status of the Divine. This was a mistaken conclusion.

Recording that mistake is the first reason I’m writing this post. There is a second reason I’m interested in recording this mistake: it was an instructive one. That is, although the conclusion I ultimately drew was mistaken, it was based on a line of reasoning that, when applied correctly, led me to finding the essence of my religion. And now that I think about it, I’ve been on a quest for this “essence” in some way or another for at least 4 years now.

It does not matter what the ontological status of God is. This was the (radical?) and mistaken conclusion I drew. Basically, I was saying, it does not matter whether God exists as a being or as Being (in some kind of pantheistic sense of the word) or as that in which we live and move have our being (in some kind of panentheistic sense of the word). It does not even matter, on this mistaken conclusion, if God does not exist at all. It could be the case that God is simply the personifying or the metaphorizing of our ultimate concern.

The conclusion was reached by considering a Heideggerrian analogy. As I mentioned in the aforementioned previous post, Heidegger has two concepts called “ready-to-hand” and “present-to-hand.” (I’m not going to explain those concepts here. See the link in the previous sentence.) My line of reasoning was this: we only consider, for example, a pen as a theoretical object when it falls to perform its function. In Heideggerrian terminology, we only consider the pen as present-to-hand when it fails to satisfy its in-order-to.

I have never thought about what a pen is made of while I was using it. Moreover, there is a sense in which it does not even matter what the pen is made of. The pen could be made of plastic or it could be one of those cardboard pens or it could be made of metal. More radically, the pen could not exist at all as a mind-independent object. Rather, if we were idealists, it could merely be an immaterial idea in my mind and the mind of God. Whatever the pen is made out of, I don’t care as long as I can write with it. We only ask questions about the pen when it stops working.

The same can be said about God. The theological questions that trouble the common man are questions that arise when God appears to fail to satisfy Its function. The question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Arises because believe that the function of good God is to ensure justice. Moreover, the question, “How is it that I can be aware of God communicating to me?” arises because we we believe that it is the function of God to guide us. These are the enduring and important theological questions.

Just as most folk do not consider a pen as a theoretical object (nor do they consider ontological status of a pen) unless it fails to satisfy its function (or if they are doing science or philosophy), they also do not even consider God as a theoretical being/entity unless God fails to do what It is supposed to do. This, then, was the first premise of my thinking about whether the ontological status of God matters: Ontological status only matters when the object in question fails to perform some desired or expected function.

(A parenthetical parrying of an objection: It is no objection to this line of reasoning that there are some folk who do exhibit an above-average concern for proper theology. Pardon the armchair psychology of religion here but I suspect that their above-average concern for proper theology arises at least in part because they think that somehow “getting it right” is eternally important, and if that’s the case, then they are concerned about God because they are worried about securing some benefit from having the correct theology. If this is the case, then pointing to these folk counts in favor of the premise I am currently articulating.)

Here’s the second premise: in whatever form God exists, It satisfies the function that I understand God to have in my life. To return to pen example, I don’t care what the pen is made out of as long as I can write with it. This premise, in my case, is pretty serious. I am essentially saying here that it does not matter that much if God exists or not. In other words, I do not need a “flesh and bones” God, in order to make sense of the function God plays in my life. If an atheist definitively proved that God did not exist, I would still go to church, I would still pray, I would still read the bible, I would still hang out with homeless folk. (This is actually true regardless of the mistaken conclusion I drew.)

God is that which I worship. It is that which I love. It is that which I seek to organize my life around. God gives me a sense of purpose. It gives me a sense of identity, a sense of self. I don’t need God to ensure my safety. In fact, as I noted in this post (echoing De Bouivoir), that might defeat the whole point of living anyway. I should not need God in order to feel like there’s a heaven after all this, for I am working on conquering my fear of death.

The list of things I don’t need could go on for a bit. But the point is that as I understand God, I’m not sure I need anything beyond an ultimate concern kind of God. Obviously, a God who looks out for me on occasion and who would ensure eternal life would be freaking fantastic, but that is just icing on the cake. A bare-bones metaphoric “God” that “provides” my life with meaning and purpose and “gives” me a sense of identity is already pretty freaking awesome.

And we’re now at the place where we can see the mistake in my reasoning. The mistake becomes visible if we set our eyes of Jesus for a sec. For Jesus, God is not merely that which gives his life meaning and purpose. It is not merely that which directs his steps. It is not merely that which ensures his (and others’) eternal well-being. God is, for Jesus, “Abba Father.”

And so we can see the mistake I made in my thinking: God can not essentially be a practical or existential or even an explanatory tool. God must essentially be a dear friend. Without this, there really is no necessary pragmatic difference between theism, pantheism, panentheism, and atheism (or non-realism). What this means is that I should make a choice. It means that it should choose among the different ways of understanding God because it actually does matter.

Now, it might still be the case that non-realism is the way I should go, and I could live with that. The question, however, is whether I want that. The question is whether a Divine Being is something that I want to hang on to and fight for. And when I finally got to this point where I realized the essential difference between a-being-theism and all the other varieties of theism, I felt very strongly that a Divine friend is worth hanging on to.

I say “hold on to” because it is going to take some (philosophical) work and/or some faith to hang on to a-being-theism. Conceiving of God as a being is, I think, very problematic. In fact, many of the philosophical problems that arise in thinking of God in this way are precisely what led me to consider God in other ways in the first place. Regardless, the Divine is pretty freaking boss, so I’m down to wrestle.

This “essence” that I’ve discovered is actually embarrassingly obvious. How could it be the case that its taken me this long to understand this? That, in think, is an interesting question, but it is a question that I will have to explore on another occasion.

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