Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Music on My Mind

Chris Schoen, "World". (Sorry! Accidentally pasted in the wrong video! It's now fixed.)

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Millian Collapse

One of the interesting features of recent modern (post-WWII) society is the collapse of classical liberalism. Classical liberalism is characterized by a number of features, the most famous of which is Mill's harm principle:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

Note that the harm principle applies to 'compulsion and control' generally; Mill does not restrict it to government action. It would include acts like voluntary public shaming and shunning. In modern Western societies there are currently no major political groups that accept this principle. Conservatives have historically either not accepted it or only accepted it with major qualifications. It is inconsistent with typical Socialist or Green-style progressivist politics. Liberals do not generally seem to accept it. Even Libertarians, who do affirm a harm principle, only do so for government. It is really remarkable, actually, that Mill's harm principle keeps popping up in more abstract discussions of politics and in political philosophy given that everybody these days seems to think it obviously wrong.

I was put in mind of this by this recent xkcd comic:

This is one possible account of the right to free speech (one historically associated with libertarians in particular); it would not be a Millian or classical liberal account. This is somewhat interesting because there's an argument to be made that historically the right to free speech was often understood in broadly Millian terms: the arguments that guided how one understood the right to free speech in the government case were in reality more general principles about freedom of speech that did not exclude 'moral coercion' like bans, and so forth. What's more, it's not difficult to find people still understanding the right to free speech in this way, even if they are not consistent: the political self-expression movement, for instance, tends not to make sharp distinctions between what the government is doing and what society as a whole is doing to interfere with political self-expression, and it's not difficult in the United States to find people who will claim that such coercive measures are contrary at least to the spirit and principle of the First Amendment even if not strictly contrary to the letter of that law. One way one could interpret this is as the fading residue and remnant of the earlier understanding. If this is in fact the case, it would be interesting to look at the history of the collapse of the Millian approach to free speech and what factors were involved.

Of course, as I noted in the previous post, Mill's liberalism was itself an innovation, so perhaps we're really getting the dominance of an idea that was always there, and that it's really more a story of this idea slowly pushing classical liberalism even out of the honorary position of receiving lip service that it had through the influence of Mill. Any number of other things could be going on, too, of course.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

William James and James Fitzjames Stephen

William James's essay, "The Will to Believe", is widely read by philosophers, but one thing that I have never seen anyone remark upon is the relation of the essay to the work of James Fitzjames Stephen. Nonetheless, there is good reason to explore the relation, not least because James opens the essay with an anecdote about Fitzjames Stephen and closes with a quotation from Stephen's Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, which is an attack on Mill's On Liberty.

Like Mill, Stephen was a utilitarian. Like Mill, he was a liberal. Unlike Mill, he was what would have been at the time a more typical representative of both. It can be difficult for modern philosophers to put themselves back into that frame of reference, but it really is quite important for understanding both. Mill's On Liberty may be a standard text of what we call classical liberalism, but many liberals in his day considered it to be a dubious contribution to liberalism. And the reverse is also true; James Stephen often gets branded as a conservative, but he was a reformer and liberal through and through -- he just thought that Mill's version of liberalism was incoherent and that it cut off too many of the means by which genuine reforms could be furthered. This is precisely what Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity is: an argument that a coherent liberalism involves the use of means that Mill's ideas ruled out of court. In particular, he argues that genuine reform requires the use of government force in the interests of morality and religion, and that it is not only undesirable but impossible to regulate a nation and maintain it on a path of progress entirely by free discussion, with coercion only being used to stop or remedy definite cases of harm.

One of the things that Stephen considers problematic about Mill's account is that his restriction of coercion (not just government coercion but also the coercion of public opinion) amounts to an insistence that certain kinds of passions -- like fears -- should not be part of one's system of governance. This would have been very high on Stephen's list of concerns; when he wrote Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, he was traveling back from India, where he had been on the Colonial Council and had been working on drafting laws to reduce the power of the caste system -- for instance, he was responsible for new rules of evidence according to which there was only one standard of evidence for everyone, regardless of caste or religion. While Mill very carefully formulates his harm principle so that it does not directly interfere with colonial policies (a fact usually overlooked in discussions of On Liberty), people like Stephen did not see themselves as doing in India anything other than the same kind of thing that utilitarian and liberal reformers were doing in Britain itself -- they were just at a different stage of progress. Stephen considers Mill's restriction of compulsion to be both detrimental to progress and inconsistent with human nature. Human beings, when deeply interested, as in cases of morality or religion, are drawn to the insistence that everybody should be on board with whatever moral or religious principle they are deeply interested in; it is not possible, in the statistical main, to have a society in which this has no effect whatsoever. This is not purely restricted to moral and religious matters, although those are the ones with which Stephen is primarily concerned; Stephen notes the acrimony that builds up in fairly abstract disputes and takes it to be the sign of an obvious fact, that we are not, and are not capable of being, purely neutral, however much we might try to hide it. Feelings occupy a great deal of our decisions and reasoning.

It is when considering this aspect in the context of religion that Stephen makes the remarks James quotes:

What do you think of yourself? What do you think of the world?...These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are riddles of the Sphinx, and in some way or other we must deal with them. . . . In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark....If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ' Be strong and of a good courage.' Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes....If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.

James, of course, is not committed to Stephen's broader ethical and political views, just as Stephen is not committed to James's own ideas. There are certainly aspects of thought that James shares more with Mill than Stephen. But it's impossible not to recognize that Stephen's attack on Millian liberalism has broad resemblances to James's attack on Cliffordian ethics of belief. They both deny that the matters in question -- politics in the case of Stephen, inquiry in the case of James -- can be purely abstract; they both insist that the passions play an important and ineliminable role in guidance of their respective fields of discussion, and in some ways the important role; they are both insisting on what today would be called naturalizing the fields in question -- they are taking some normative principle held by their respective proponents on purely abstract principles and insisting on subordinating it to psychological facts; they both insist on the importance of action to our beliefs.

Breathe a Breath of Life Forevermore

An Easter Flower Gift
by John Greenleaf Whittier

O dearest bloom the seasons know,
Flowers of the Resurrection blow,
Our hope and faith restore;
And through the bitterness of death
And loss and sorrow, breathe a breath
Of life forevermore!

The thought of Love Immortal blends
With fond remembrances of friends;
In you, O sacred flowers,
By human love made doubly sweet,
The heavenly and the earthly meet,
The heart of Christ and ours!

Radio Greats: Easter Sunrise Service (The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet)

Ozzie and Harriet Nelson are easily in the running for being the king and queen of situation comedy. Their radio sitcom was a major fixture from 1944 to 1954 and was one of the radio shows that easily made the transition to television, where it ran from 1952 to 1966, making them, as their tagline always was, "America's Favorite Family". The first few years on radio their children were played by various actors, but eventually David and Ricky Nelson began playing themselves; and the television show eventually show launched Ricky Nelson's music career as a teen idol.

The basic premise of the show was modern suburban family life, with lots of humor, but always put in a positive light; it was intended to be a comic, rose-colored-glasses version of the Nelsons' own family life. It was such a major fixture that many of the aspects of sitcoms that we regard as formulaic or cliched were developed by the show and just became standard.

Great situation comedies tend to be characterized by consistently OK or good episodes rather than by any particularly great episodes. But sometimes special-occasion episodes do stand out as both combining the basic features of the series and doing something a little different with them. The "Easter Sunrise Service" episode (also just known as the "Easter Show"), from April 1949, is an example; Easter-themed classic radio episodes were not very common, unlike Christmas episodes, which would have made it a rare treat -- and it was actually a relatively popular episode in part because of this. It also captures a lot of the rather lighthearted and easygoing humor of the series, and it's late enough that the entire Nelson femily is on the cast.

You can listen to the show online at My Old Radio.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Music on My Mind

Praeconium Paschale (also known as the Easter Proclamation or Exsultet), sung by Rev. Jonathan Gaspar. I truly think this song, on the Easter Candle, has claim to being one of the great songs of Western civilization. The felix culpa section, which has had an extraordinary influence on thought and literature, is based on discussions by Ambrose and Augustine; the awesome section about the bees is influenced by Virgil's Georgics. Jesus is referred to as the Morning Star in the book of Revelation. The origins of it are not clearly known; but the melody is thought to go back at least to the seventh century, perhaps much earlier, and some of the lyrics as well. In one form or another it has been sung at Easter Vigil in the West for over a thousand years.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Poem Draft

Good Friday in the Year of Our Lord 2014

Most holy God,
the darkness shades across the sun in heartfelt sky,
and how can otherwise it be when I yelled, "Crucify!"
or how can otherwise it be when on the cross you die?
And yet you know, you voiced the secret fears,
you spoke it on the bloodstained cross of tears,
"Eli, eli, lama sabachthani," you, dying, cried;
you spoke my anguish, you spoke it as you died.
As Peter wept, and still is forced to weep
those three dark days on which entombed you sleep
as all your people scatter, wolf-scared sheep,
as them, so I, I falter, shatter, fail,
and stumble on this self-wrought path to hell,
alone, in realms no forward travels tell,
by sin destroyed, through sin entrapped, deceived,
by sin, my own, of God Himself bereaved,
and yet--
you do not cease to aid
and yet--
you a new salvation made,
are making, as you, entombed in cold and musty grave,
unleash the ancient plan -- and nations save.


A reason it has been quiet around here recently is, besides increased grading as the end of term approaches, that it is Holy Week; I helped read on Palm Sunday, I read the first reading today for Good Friday, and I will be reading at least one of the readings for Easter morning. That's a lot of preparation-heavy work. (The above was scrawled out after the service tonight.) I wasn't too worried about today's reading (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) -- I did it last year -- but it's a tricky passage and I don't think I got the pacing right last time. This time I got the pacing right, but I felt it came across as a bit bland while I was doing it. I had several people go out of their way to compliment me on it, though, which practically never happens, since the parish I attend is a tad picky about liturgical matters. I never know what to think about that, though; on the one hand, it's a great feeling of relief that you've passed the neverending exam, but on the other hand, there's always that part of me that thinks that if they are noticing you rather than the passage, you are simply doing it wrong. In any case, not much time to stop and fret about it -- on I go to Easter morning.....

Not So the Thief Was Moved

Good Friday
by Christina Rossetti

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood's slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon--
I, only I.

Yet give not o'er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Government Ethics Crossword

Today we looked at government ethics in my Ethics course. It's a brief little glance as they get their major projects ready, so it's not intended to be a heavy-lifting class. We look briefly at the civil service, and at the Pendleton Act and why it developed, and I give them some standard training materials used by the U. S. Office of Government Ethics for ethics training and (very briefly) discuss them. And then I have them break into groups and do this crossword puzzle (PDF), which at one time was regularly used as a training tool -- it's slightly dated at this point, being a few years old, but still gives a sense of what is done to avoid conflicts of interest at the civil service level.

18 Down is the clue, "Once you receive ethics advice, _________ it" (six letters), and my students (some of whom work for companies that do contracting for government and so are familiar with complications involved in these matters) joked that the answer was "forget".

Chrysologus for Lent XLIII

Pray, brothers, that we also may die to the vices and be buried to temporal vanities, so that we may rise to eternity in Christ, and be found worthy of being placed on his right and hearing: "Come, blessed of my Father, receive teh kingdom which has been prepared for you from the beginning of the world."

Sermon 82, section 4. And this brings it to the end.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wild for the Hunter's Roving

by Archibald Lampman

Far in the grim Northwest beyond the lines
That turn the rivers eastward to the sea,
Set with a thousand islands, crowned with pines,
Lies the deep water, wild Temagami:
Wild for the hunter's roving, and the use
Of trappers in its dark and trackless vales,
Wild with the trampling of the giant moose,
And the weird magic of old Indian tales.
All day with steady paddles toward the west
Our heavy-laden long canoe we pressed:
All day we saw the thunder-travelled sky
Purpled with storm in many a trailing tress,
And saw at eve the broken sunset die
In crimson on the silent wilderness.

Chrysologus for Lent XLII

And if, brothers, the voice of God, the trumpet of Christ, throughout the course of days, months, seasons, and years, calls, retracts, brings out, brings back, restores, orders to be, causes not to be, consigns to death, and restores to life, why might it not be able to do once for us what it always does for everything else? Or does the divine power lose its strength only when it comes to us, solely for whose benefit God's majesty has performed everything that has just been mentioned? O man, if all these things come back to life again from their death for you, why will you not come back to life from your death for God?

Sermon 103, section 3.