Saturday, December 31, 2011

You've Not Got Mail (So Stop Checking)

"In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office." -- Thoreau, "Life Without Principle" (1854)
My New Year's resolution is to spend less time checking my e-mail. I check it more than frequently, and more than is necessary, even when I'm not expecting anything in particular to come. (What am I expecting?...) Thankfully, I don't (yet) have a smartphone, so I have to go to my computer to check it. This means I have some hope of checking it less, and I should do less pointless checking at home. This will also keep me off the computer when I'm not doing something (comparatively more) important like writing. How often does a quick email check turn into wasted time on the internet!

Good luck with your own resolutions, and Happy New Year to All!

Unbolting the Dark

"If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn." -- Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (p. 105)
I was happy to receive for Christmas (thanks, Mom!) a copy of Lynne Spellman's memoir Unbolting the Dark. Lynne was one of my first philosophy teachers, and some of my formative moments as a philosopher--and perhaps more simply as a person--occurred in her classes. It was interesting (if surprising in some ways) to learn that Lynne was, in some ways, just returning to philosophy with renewed interest, after a long period of disillusionment with academic philosophy, at the time that I was one of her students. It was also around this time that she was ordained as an Episcopal priest.

Unbolting the Dark is a relatively short book in which Lynne describes and reflects upon about a twenty year period of her life from her late thirties to her late fifties (when she was ordained), but which also reaches back into her childhood, as she sought to come to terms with the death of her mother (who died of breast cancer when Lynne was twelve), while also seeking to come to terms with her own yearning, as she would say, for God. It is, in that sense, the story of a mid-life crisis that took two decades to resolve (and which, among other things, sees her relationship with her husband Jim take many strange turns and endure, against their own expectations, many long separations). But it is also a story of spiritual journey, in which Lynne seeks to come to terms both with her own past and with the idea of God, a journey informed by the mystical tradition reaching back to Plato and neoplatonism (Lynne is a specialist in Ancient Greek philosophy) and strongly informed by contemporary contemplatives such as Thomas Merton. (I took Lynne's honors course on Merton at one of the darkest points in my own life, and in some sense, that class saved me from my own despair.)

I started with a quote from Merton both because of his influence on Lynne, and because his point about criticism touches on one of the smaller themes in her memoir, which was her nearly crippling fear of rejection. I am glad that fear did not prevent this book from seeing the light of day.

I can't "review" the book in any sort of objective way since I know Lynne, and so my interest in reading it will not be shared by those reading this post. But I think it would be a good book for anyone dealing with profound and sustained grief, and for those seeking an example of religious seriousness and searching at its best. Philosophical and theological reflection are interwoven with the narrative of Lynne's journey, and she offers many insights, but no "theory," as it were. She speaks instead, as Wittgenstein would say, for herself. It is in large part because of Lynne that I had to get over the temptation to reject religion as silly, because I know Lynne and do not think she is silly.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Seneca on Anger

From On Anger (Book III):
The mark of true greatness is not to notice that you have received a blow. So does the huge wild beast calmly turn and gaze at barking dogs, so does the wave dash in vain against a mighty cliff. The man who does not get angry stands firm, unshaken by injury; he who gets angry is overthrown.
This is from Book II:
Nothing, therefore, is more conducive to anger than the intemperance and intolerance that comes from soft living; the mind ought to be schooled by hardship to feel none but a crushing blow.
This second passage (which is earlier in the essay) seems utterly "hardcore," extreme, and macho in a not obviously good way. It seems to reflect what critics of Stoicism would the insensibility of the Stoic ideal. And while I can't countenance all the details of Seneca's writing, I think his arguments against anger, and against the Aristotelian idea that anger can be useful to virtuous action (e.g. as a spur to courage) are worth consideration. For Seneca, anger is essentially a form of temporary madness, and although an emotion it is the product of (always incorrect) judgment. In rejecting anger, Seneca does not argue that we should try to deaden the natural impulses that sometimes result in anger--that is, he distinguishes between anger and our impulsive response to, for example, moral wrongdoing, but argues that this impulse should be governed by reason rather than given over to anger. On the Stoic view, we allow ourselves to become angry--we allow annoyance and frustration to overtake us and, as it were, "overthrow" our reason. This is why actions undertaken in anger will seem, in hindsight, foolish and rash--viz. because they most likely were (and if they were not, we were only lucky that our anger didn't lead us to do something worse).

When we are tempted to anger--when we are affronted by insult or harm--Seneca counsels patience, that is, delaying our response. Importantly, his point is not that we should not respond to those things that often make us angry, but that we delay our response so that it is wise and proportionate. (Often, if we give ourselves time to cool off, we will find, he thinks, that what we received as a harm is not worth the trouble with which we would have repaid it in anger.) This seems like perfectly good advice: Stoic detachment is not an end unto itself, but rather a means to wise (and patient) action. Anger in itself solves nothing and, if Seneca is right, only makes matters--either for ourselves or others--worse.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Here's the latest installment in my (less academic?) reflections on conviction and integrity, on "consistency." The essay opens thus:
Without some degree of consistency amongst our beliefs, as well as our desires and emotions, and between our inner life and our outward actions, things fall apart. Our own lives can become too confusing to bear. Without some way of matching the life we are trying to live to the world and the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves, we run the risk of losing touch with reality, or of being crushed by it. Integrity would seem to require both inner consistency—that the elements of the psyche be more or less integrated into some kind of coherent, harmonious whole (call this, if you wish, the self)—as well as outward consistency—that one’s beliefs, desires, and emotions, and one’s actions, too, be appropriately responsive to how the world actually is. We would not say that someone who has fallen prey to a massive delusion, who lives, as we might say, in a fantasy world, has integrity. Nor would we say of it of someone who is utterly paralyzed by inner conflict and indecision, who vacillates between various options, says one thing and does another, or changes his or her mind every time the wind blows. Consistency—both within oneself and in relation to the world—is important. However, if there is something important in Whitman’s, at first glance, irrational embrace of self-contradiction—and I think there is—then it is possible to care too much, or in the wrong way, about consistency. In that case, we can’t simply equate integrity with a life of practical and psychological consistency, even if a life of integrity requires these in some degree. Or, paradoxically: consistency might sometimes require that we live with inconsistency.
I fear I may be playing much too fast and loose (a little fast and loose I can live with, for now at least), so comments will be appreciated. I anticipate a separate essay on steadfastness (in which, among other things, I will again take a crack at Winch's discussion of the Amish elder in his essay, "Moral Integrity"), although you can probably get some ideas about where that might go if you make it to the end of this one.

UPDATE (12.16.11): It occurred to me last night that one thing I should consider here relates to what Gaita says about the "child of two cultures" he imagines in his own discussion of integrity--that the conflict between the two cultures is the source of this person's weaknesses and strengths. I want to think about what some of those strengths might be. (This probably connects up with Whitman.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Saving Lives?

Yesterday, on my drive home, I saw this sticker on someone's car. Does this make any sense? It's not clear to me how spaying and neutering pets "saves" lives. It may prevent unwanted animals from being born, but isn't that different from saving lives? We wouldn't tell sexually active teens to use contraception in order to save lives, would we? Preventing a life from coming into existence is not a way of saving a life. I don't know what sense of "save" the person who designed this sticker could possibly have in mind.

The only way I could make sense of this is if we think that unborn pets live in some kind of pet-heaven, and spaying and neutering is a way of saving unborn pets from being born into circumstances where they will be unwanted, abandoned, or abused. But that's silly, as is this sticker.

Monday, December 12, 2011

On the Idea that Courage is Fearing the Right Things...


A man feared that he might find an assassin;
Another that he might find a victim.
One was more wise than the other.

from Stephen Crane's The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895)

I think I know exactly what Crane is talking about. I think it has, in part, to do with anger.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Those Wicked Toads...


"Think as I think," said a man,
"Or you are abominably wicked;
You are a toad."
And after I had thought of it,
I said, "I will, then, be a toad."

from Stephen Crane's The Black Riders and Other Lines

Saturday, December 03, 2011

If panpsychism is true, then vegans are screwed

I've been thinking about consistency lately in connection with integrity, and Mark Rowland's visit to EKU got me thinking again in a more active way about animals.

On p. 131 of The Philosopher and the Wolf, he says of veganism that "it's the only consistent moral position on animals." This is something I've heard before, and I didn't think to press him on this during his visit, as I was more interested in his views on animals as moral subjects. But I'm not sure that the claim is true. In fact, I'm pretty sure that it's both false and misleading (with all due respect to Mark!).

First, it seems that other views about our relations to, and uses of, animals could be consistent, though the vegan might think those views are unsound. I think of something I overheard a local cattle farmer say at a farmers' market one summer morning: "God put them here for us." Now, this person doesn't think that means that anything goes, and his cattle are locally raised, on pasture (but I think fed some grain), slaughtered locally, and sold locally. From a bioregionalist perspective (as well as the theological one), there's a lot of "consistency" in this kind of agriculture. When I'm in an environmentalist mood, I think I should buy his beef instead of lentils imported from God knows where. But I still buy the lentils; I've been off the beef long enough now that I don't find it appetizing, even though fast food still smells good in the abstract. At any rate, I don't think this farmer is in any obvious way inconsistent. He might be wrong, but that's another matter.

Second, and this connects to the first point, there are going to be different ways of drawing lines between the morally edible and the morally inedible (and the morally instrumentalizable and the morally non-instrumentalizable). Sentience is one way of drawing that line, and I can accept that sentience is morally significant. But being a living thing is arguably a morally significant distinction, but not one we could use in deciding what is and is not morally edible. As my jokey title suggests, if a certain kind of panpsychism were true (so that plants are sentient, too), then we couldn't use sentience to draw that line anymore either. So, there's nothing essential about our drawing the line at sentience. (That doesn't mean it isn't the most reasonable line given the way the world is, of course.) But this gets at a point that others have made, which is that the feasibility of veganism is itself contingent upon one's circumstances and place in the world. Even Rowlands acknowledged that he had to go pescatarian when he moved to southern France; veganism was just not an option. Supposing that bioregionalism represented the most sustainable way of living, then there would likely be bioregions where animal agriculture would be more viable than vegan alternatives. Thus, a hidden assumption of the consistency claim on behalf of veganism is that sentience is the only relevant value at stake in determining the morally edible.

I think the truth in the claim is that if you think you shouldn't be eating cows, for example, then depending upon your reasons for thinking that, you probably shouldn't be wearing cow either, or playing catch with a cow-mitt (or, mutatis mutandis, tossing around a pigskin). Though perhaps a leather jacket would be a nice way to commemorate the years of milk your cow Bessie gave you. Hard to say; that might just be macabre.

Of course, vegans, I take it--at least of a certain sort--forgo all animals and animal products. But the line between animal and non-animal is (a) vague and (b) doesn't obviously track the sentient/non-sentient distinction (and what "sentient" means is up for grabs, too). My wife insists that we eat fish occasionally, though I tend not to go in for it myself (occasional sushi aside), but I will eat boiled shrimp with abandon. But not boiled lobster--too macabre for me. Now these are both crustaceans, and they have similar kinds of nervous systems. They have nervous systems. They produce opioids (which help control pain in us). So maybe I'm being inconsistent. (And I honestly don't know how sustainable shrimp is, but at some point I have to stop deliberating, so that I can eat, so that I can deliberate more later...[UPDATE: the news on shrimp doesn't look good...]) The consistent thing to do might be to be safe rather than sorry.

What did Elizabeth Costello say? "Degrees of obscenity." That's not an excuse. But if we really want to push the limits of moral considerability, then a certain kind of consistency becomes less and less livable. This is why some complain about expansive conceptions of intrinsic value and moral considerability that want to be extremely inclusive. (I think that complaint misses the point.) At the limit, consistency might mean owning up to the fact that some things die so that others may live. Maybe the "only consistent position" is being mindful that you don't cause more death than the continuation of your life, in the whole balance, is worth. And maybe cultivating a kind of mindfulness about our use of animals (and other living and non-living things) that doesn't just add up to a persistent feeling of neurosis and guilt that only destroys you, or makes it impossible for others to live with you. (Cf. Elizabeth Costello.)

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Why Be Patient?

I've been having a discussion about secular vs. theist ways of grounding (or just making sense of) patience with my colleague Mike Austin. Here is what Mike suggests about theism providing a stronger ground for patience of certain sorts:
Consider the virtue of patience. I think it is clear that it is reasonable to be patient. But certain forms of patience are not reasonable, if naturalism is true. On naturalism, I can be patient in line at the store, or with other drivers, or with my children, because of the therapeutic and relational value of patience in these realms. However, the naturalist cannot as easily account for the patient endurance of suffering or trials, in the following way. What am I waiting for, in the midst of terminal illness, challenging trials and tribulations, or an apparently irresolvable situation, when the desired states of affairs are outside of my ability to bring about? On naturalism I’m waiting for “my luck to change” or something along those lines (and whatever that means). This seems to be a weak basis for patience, and not a good reason to think that whatever I am waiting for will in fact occur. On naturalism, the attitude is “Wait and see.” By contrast, on theism I am waiting for God to come through. The attitude is not merely wait and see, but rather “Wait and see how God will prove his faithfulness.” For the theist there are positive reasons for patience, for expecting something good, sooner or later, to happen. There are reasons to be hopeful in patience. This is not the case on naturalism, making patience in many contexts, for the naturalist, irrational.
I suppose the "naturalist" could just accept this, and say, sure, there will be points at which there remains no reasonable ground for hope or patience. (I will not worry too much here about how Mike may be running hope and patience together here; I agree that patience only makes sense when there is room for hope of some sort.) What I want to object to is the implicit assumption that patience is passive--that it is just a kind of waiting for someone else (e.g. God) to do something or something else to occur (e.g. a turn of "luck"). I think we can also talk about being patient with oneself, and in the sort of case that Mike seems to think pose a problem for the naturalist--where great adversity must be endured--it might be argued that we sometimes need patience with ourselves, in terms of our current ways of understanding our own situation, in order to make room for other ways of seeing the situation that make it more bearable, or which allow us to see a (new) point in enduring. I don't just mean being patient until one is struck--either by divine grace or dumb luck--by the "silver lining." Rather, I mean the patience, roughly, to explore other possible ways of seeing the situation, and perhaps along with this a kind of hope that we can find a way--through our own creative thought, the example of others, and so forth--of making sense of our situation that gives us some reason to endure.

One could object--if naturalism is true, then there's no guarantee that this as-yet undiscovered perspective is "out there." The situation may indeed be hopeless. But there's also no guarantee that there isn't. One reason for patient endurance in the face of adversity is the possibility of learning some lesson, which may only be clear when and if one comes out the other side. And here, I would emphasize that patient endurance would only be one part of the story, since such endurance is renewed by the continued search for a meaning within the situation (i.e. by activity).

Of course, that reason seems moot when the affliction one faces is, as it were, "terminal"--what room for hope, and so patience, is left there? Here, perhaps the issue depends on what one thinks it means to die with dignity. Suicide might seem to be the cardinal sin against patience, particularly if one thinks that we should always wait for death to come to us. But given medical technology, and the ability to keep a brain-dead body alive long past any point of possible recovery, and the presumption that loss of autonomy can be completely psychologically overwhelming, such that it becomes impossible for a person to be an agent (and so to exhibit any virtue, let alone patience), I'm not sure that the decision to end one's life in some situations is the same thing as losing one's patience.

At any rate, the short story is that I think Mike is wrong to think that the naturalist is short on grounds for patience even in fairly incredible situations, in part because waiting needn't be waiting for something external to happen, but waiting--and working--for a shift in one's own perspective, the creative discovery of a reason, as Dylan Thomas put it, to rage against the dying of the light.