Ticking Moral Bankruptcy

January 31, 2006 § 4 Comments

Hypothetically speaking, isn’t it possible that pursuing certain kinds of hypotheticals – say ticking bombs justifying torture, or terrorism justifying counter hostage-taking – is itself an evil thing to do, objectively? That is to say, isn’t it possible that not only are the acts themselves objectively wrong, but that the mere postulation of the acts, with the intention of considering them as serious options, is also objectively wrong?

The philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe famously denounced “consequentialist” moral theories for what she saw as their damaging effect on real-world moral understanding and practice. In her view, to consider even for the sake of argument whether it might be justifiable deliberately to kill an innocent man for the sake of a greater good is already to manifest “a corrupt mind.” And when a vulgarized form of this consequentialist attitude becomes widespread, the result can only be a morally bankrupt society.

Is it just me, or does the fact that it has to be debated whether …

There is, on this account, nothing intrinsically evil about killing innocent people, stealing from them, lying to them, raping, torturing, or mutilating them, or doing anything else to them you feel like doing. But since a rationally self-interested person does not want these things done to him, he will, as it were, abide by a “contract” with all other rationally self-interested persons to refrain from doing these things to them as long as they extend to him the same courtesy.

…show that it isn’t just bankruptcy that we are facing, but debtor’s prison?

Dominican Poetry

January 30, 2006 § Leave a comment

If I have to explain the joke, that will spoil it.

Torturous Definitions

January 28, 2006 § 10 Comments

The torture-licensing project which insists that we do not have a satisfactory enough definition of what torture means in order to avoid doing it is objectively a wicked project. We do understand what torture means well enough to avoid doing it.

The corollary torture-licensing project, which insists that we don’t know whether or not the Church categorically condemns torture so it might be OK under limited circumstances, is also, objectively, a wicked project.

We do know what torture is well enough to avoid doing it. We do know that the Church categorically condemns torture. Anyone who has doubts about the details, wants additional references, feels an abiding uncertainty, etc. has a moral duty to err on the side of prudence.

No torture. No excuses.

UPDATE: Same goes for hostage taking.

Faustian Epistemic Randomness

January 11, 2006 § 10 Comments

We are often told that the randomness in neo-darwinian theory just means that the mutations in the genome are unpredictable, and nothing more. So I propose a compromise between neo-darwinians and darwinian sceptics over what can be taught in high school. Instead of calling the mechanism evolution by random mutation and natural selection, we can call it evolution by mutations of unknown origin plus natural selection. That ought to make everyone happy, don’t you think?

Or perhaps more accurately still, evolution by mutations of unknown origin plus natural selection, operating on a genome of unknown origin.

Can’t we all just get along?

Can You ID The Scientist?

January 9, 2006 § 34 Comments

At Catholic and Enjoying It various usual suspects (including yours truly) are haggling about Darwinism again, prompted by Cardinal Shonborn’s recent article. One of the main threads of conversation revolves around what can be legitimately called science and what should be called philosophy, presumably because for some people the latter is equivalent to “inconclusive nonsense that can be ignored” or at least “stuff you bloody well better keep out of science class, you theocratic religious nutcase”. Another revolves around the meaning of chance, which I have posted on before.

It is going to be very interesting to see what happens in biology as it changes from being an inductive, mostly nonmathematical, storytelling science into a deductive mathematical science, with the rise of computational biology and bioinformatics. I don’t think the computer and math geeks who will be running the biochemistry show in a few decades necessarily live in the same metaphysical cul-de-sac as today’s Darwinists. Maybe that explains some of the religious vehemence with which the present crop of Darwinists insist on ruthlessly and comprehensively controlling the education of the young.

My friend and future drinking buddy John Farrell posts the following quote in the comment thread there:

ActionBioscience.org: How do scientists interpret “chance,” and does it play a role in natural selection?

Futuyma: Philosophers and scientists use “chance” only in the sense of unpredictability. Chance means essentially that you cannot predict the outcome of a particular event.

Now John’s reason for posting the full quote (or at least the one I got from it), which I only partially reproduce here, is to point out that the neo-Darwinian theory is not a “chance-only” theory. Yes, random chance provides an input to the process, but the overall process is far from random. It is a point worth making, and I’ve made it myself many times (I’ve even designed systems that use randomness as an input to the system: randomness is not the intrinsically unproductive thing that many take it to be).

But Futuyma’s initial contention is not really accurate. The big dispute between Einstein and Bohr was over what exactly the chance element of quantum mechanics means. Bohr thought the chance was ontological, that is, it was a real randomness in the nature of reality. Einstein thought it was epistemological, that is, that it just reflected our lack of comprehensive knowledge about what was going on under the hood: “God does not play dice!”, he insisted. Many people thought that this was a “philosophical” (see definition in the first paragraph of this post) distinction. But then good old Bell came along, and he proved that quantum mechanics would give different results based on the two different possibilities – that is, he proved that no (local) “hidden variables” theory of quantum mechanics could account for the actual experimental results that we see from quantum mechanics.

So it seems to me that the folks who are pooh-poohing a discussion of the meaning of chance in science, or who think that its meaning has no testable real-world consequences, or who think that philosophy has no bearing on the actual observable results in science, are getting more than a little ahead of themselves.

The challenge for Darwin sceptics (which I think consists of more than just the Discovery Institute and the ID folks) is to find the equivalent of Bell’s Theorem in the domain of biology in order to settle – or perhaps unsettle – the matter. That seems to be what Dembski and Meyer are working on, and though they have quite a long way to go** the notion that what they are working on is intellectually dishonest, or is not science, or is not at least ultimately pertinent to what ought to be taught in science classes, etc. is quite wrong.

If the equivalent of a Bell’s Theorem in biology were to be found, and it were definitively proven that (even given some very complex primer DNA, replication forks, mRNA, an entire cell substrate in which to replicate the phenotype, etc. as a starting place) random mutation and natural selection is incapable of producing the sort of phenotypes we see today, I wonder how many of today’s Darwinists would be prepared to accept the result.

Not many, is my guess.

** Part of why they have such a long way to go is that biology, again, is more of an inductive/storytelling science at present than a deductive/mathematical science like physics. But that is starting to change.

Judge Declares it Illegal to Teach String Theory

January 6, 2006 § 7 Comments

Just Death Penalty

January 6, 2006 § 7 Comments

John Doe is convicted of murder. He is executed for that murder. He was also found guilty of other crimes, but that specific murder conviction is what led to his execution. He would not have been executed if it wasn’t for that murder conviction. It may have been theoretically just for him to be executed for his other crimes, but we are morally certain that the competent authority (let’s say the people, the Congress/jury, and the President/prosecutor) would not have executed him for those other crimes (and in fact did not execute him for those other crimes).

It is later found out that he was not guilty of that murder. The prosecutor argues that his execution was not a mistake. It was still morally just because the perp theoretically (and lets say actually) deserved to die for those other crimes.

Is the prosecutor right? Of the three possible moral categories (just, unjust, honest mistake), which one does this actual execution which actually took place belong in, objectively?

Clearly it was a mistake, at best, as a moral matter.

Dirty Laundry Lists

January 5, 2006 § 41 Comments

When it comes to having reasons for being involved in a war, more is better, right?


We often hear that WMD’s being transferred to Al Qaeda was not the only reason we went to war in Iraq. The public record shows many reasons for the war, in fact, and most of them are in fact good reasons. And having lots of good reasons must be better than having only one good reason, musn’t it?

Well, no. In fact, counterintuitively, the opposite is the case.

In order to justly enter a war, the purpose of the nation justly entering the war must be to counter a particular lasting, grave, and certain threat. That particular threat is key to determining whether a particular party has entered a war justly. A list of additional reasons – good ones, bad ones, or indifferent ones – doesn’t have any effect whatsoever on the fundamental question of whether entry into a war is or is not just.

The laundry list of reasons is not directly relevant to the justice of the war, but the existence of the laundry list does cast doubt on the credibility of the justification for war. A nation may have many different reasons, some of them perfectly rational and even good, to want to go to war with another nation. But the existence of the laundry list of reasons is bad in at least two ways. First, it creates a conflict of interest with respect to the actual threat that justifies the war. There is a temptation (for example) to exagerrate the credibility of that threat in order to achieve other purposes, and in general all of the issues involved in conflict of interest apply. Second, it becomes a temptation to substitute items from the laundry list for the threat if the threat turns out to be less than presupposed before the war, and the whole integrity of making judgements about war through application of the Just War Doctrine becomes corrupted.

That is precisely what has occurred with the Iraq war. The lasting, grave, and (putatively) certain threat that justified entry into the war was the threat of Saddam Hussein giving WMD’s to Al Qaeda. Other reasons abound, and many of them represent quite good subsidiary reasons and goals, but they are not the specific threat and are thus irrelevant.** Because the credibility of the WMD-to-terrorists threat has gone to effectively zero – that is, it turns out that the threat was not certain: that it was at best a mistake – the other reasons from the laundry list are being put forward as justifications for the war.

And this corrupts the whole process.

** (I can tell this definitively by asking the question “Would we have actually gone to war if the subject of WMD’s had never come up?”, to which the only sane answer is “no”. And please note that the question isn’t “Would we have been justified in going to war for some other reason?”; the question is “Without that threat, would the United States have actually entered into the war with Iraq?”)

Epistemic Spelunking

January 4, 2006 § 14 Comments

When out shopping for a moral license to do as we will rather than as we should, one of our common human tactics is to hide the morality of the desired act in an epistemic cave. Because only I can know the interior moral dimensions of my act, this approach holds, only I can tell whether or not my act was good. “Judge not” means that the moral nature of an act is utterly mysterious to everyone except God and the person who performs the act. Therefore nobody is in a position to criticize an act other than the person who actually performs it (unless God personally speaks on the matter, of course).

Naturally everyone who takes this approach does so selectively, only with respect to whatever particular sorts of acts they want to protect from public moral critique. But it is such a commonplace tactic that it doesn’t fool anyone other than the acutely slow-witted and the person himself, hiding in his epistemic cave: “I may be wrong but you can’t know that I am wrong.”


This approach isn’t limited to those on the political and social left, out fishing in their usual places for moral and political licences to commit consequence-free fornication, adultery, sodomy, murder, divorce, and other moral crimes.

When it comes to the Iraq war, one of the common claims in comment boxes (here is the blog post to which the comments are attached) is that we as laypeople are not qualified to judge the justice of the war because we are not the competent authority. Only George W. Bush truly knows whether the war is just, because he is the competent authority charged with making the prudential judgement about whether the war is just. That is, it is GWB’s role, and only his role, to apply the Just War criteria to the facts and make the definitive and binding determination of whether the war is just or not. Anyone who states as a fact “the Iraq war was just” or “the Iraq war was unjust” independent of the President’s judgement is making an outrageous presumption, on this epistemically peculiar view.

Even as well (and rightly) respected a Catholic figure as George Weigel falls into this self-deceptive trap:

Finally, the criterion of “competent authority” involves the “location” of moral judgment in matters of war and peace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is quite explicit: “the evaluation of these [just war] conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good” [No. 2309]. Responsible public authorities make the call. Religious leaders and religious intellectuals must teach the relevant moral principles, insist that they inform public and governmental debate and bring their best prudential judgments to bear in those debates. But the call is made by others.

The equivocation is breathtakingly obvious, and is unworthy of a man of Weigel’s intellectual stature. Yes, the nation-state and specifically the President are the competent authority, and it is his responsibility to make the decision whether or not to go to war. The war would necessarily be unjust if it were waged by someone other than the competent authority. But that doesn’t mean it is epistemically impossible for the poor incompetent rest of us to determine as a matter of fact whether or not the decision to wage war was just. Even though I was not the duly elected Chancellor of the Reich during World War II I am perfectly comfortable saying that Germany’s war on the allies was unjust. And I am perfectly comfortable saying this not as an uncertain opinion but as an unequivocal fact: that only someone with a terribly damaged ability to reason or a complete ignorance of the facts could possibly disagree.

Where Am I?

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