April 30, 2009 § 14 Comments
I am morally certain that some folks use the term “morally certain” as a rhetorical claim of certainty when in fact they are anything but certain.
This is not the only place in our culture where the term “moral” seems to be employed to mean “unreal”. But it is a rather insidious one, it seems to me, because every time someone employs the term “moral certainty” in this way it reinforces the idea that morality is unreal.
I’ll explain how I think the term ought to be used. When someone says “I am morally certain of X” (as in e.g. “I am morally certain that Bob is about to murder me” or “I am morally certain I am married to Jane”), what he ought to mean by it is “I am certain enough of X that I am betting my immortal soul on X being true”. That is what the “morally” modifier entails, after all. The “morally” modifier does not mean “unreal”, as in “uncertain certainty”, and people should really stop using it that way for reasons already stated.
April 29, 2009 § 11 Comments
U.S. and Pakistani authorities captured KSM on March 1, 2003 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. KSM stayed mum for months, often answering questions with Koranic chants. Interrogators eventually waterboarded him — for just 90 seconds.
KSM “didn’t resist,” one CIA veteran said in the August 13 issue of The New Yorker. “He sang right away. He cracked real quick.” Another CIA official told ABC News: “KSM lasted the longest under water-boarding, about a minute and a half, but once he broke, it never had to be used again.”
Today, Library Tower looms 73 stories above Los Angeles. But the Pacific Coast’s highest skyscraper might have become a smoldering pile of steel beams had CIA interrogators not waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) 183 times in March 2003, as recently released memoranda reveal.
My point is just that if we take the parameters “stayed mum for months” and “once for 90 seconds”, and measure how close that came to, you know, the truth – immediately and 183 times over a period of a month – that probably gives us a good idea how to properly calibrate the claim “… might have become a smoldering pile of steel beams …”.
April 25, 2009 § 7 Comments
Strong positivism insists, from one point of view, that unless we have a theory of everything X we don’t know anything relevant about X. (Another point of view is that it insists that anything not expressed in our theory of everything X is irrelevant, which amounts to the same thing). I’ve talked before about how the positivist-postmodern dynamic works out in practice: positivists believe (contra all evidence and reason) that we can formally express everything true (or relevant) about X. Postmoderns conclude that because positivism is irrational we don’t really know anything about X. Both positivism and postmodernism, then, depend on a particular approach to knowledge: an approach which insists that completeness is required in order to have relevant knowledge at all; that incomplete knowledge is invalid. In a sense, then, they both confuse the incomplete with the indefinite.
Modernity exists in a stew of positivism and postmodernism. Because of this, arguments often proceed as though definite conclusions cannot be reached until a comprehensive definition or “Theory of Everything X” is produced.
But we don’t need to have a Theory of Everything in order to know some things. For example, we don’t need to have a Theory of Everything Abortion to know that when a woman has the living child suctioned out of her womb because she doesn’t want to get fat, she has procured an abortion. And we don’t need to have a Theory of Everything Torture in order to know that when we waterboard a prisoner to get him to talk, we have committed an act of torture. Sure, stating what was done in that manner doesn’t fit a careful and formal deontological casuistry of the morality of acts, and it doesn’t provide us with a Theory of Everything with respect to the moral subject matter in question. But that doesn’t mean we are even slightly uncertain as to whether what was actually done in the particular case was abortion or torture.
April 25, 2009 § 9 Comments
I have called the blog Vox Nova “debate club at Auschwitz” because the contributors generally take an airy academic inclusive approach to publicly discussing abortion, in this day and age with the mass scale horror all around us, on a blog which specifically advertises itself as Catholic perspectives. One of the contributors publicly stated that subsidiarity justifies the pro-choice position, for example, and other contributors have defended him. The point to the “Debate Club at Auschwitz” label is precisely that ambivalent public airy academic discussion in the presence of an actual moral horror which should be unequivocally rejected is inappropriate, like a debate club airily and academically discussing the Jewish Question at Auschwitz.
It isn’t an accusation that the Debate Club is gassing the Jews, or is in favor of gassing the Jews. Rather, it is an observation that there are times and places where it is simply wicked to engage in airy, public, ambivalent academic discussion of certain kinds of moral horror. One of those times and places is here and now; one of those subjects is abortion. Deliberate engagement in airy ambivalent inclusive public academic discussion is perfectly capable of itself – the discussion – being a form of wickedness, in certain circumstances.
The same thing applies to the Right’s public airy academic ambivalence on torture in the face of the fact that we have tortured prisoners, at least one and probably more of them to death, in the GWOT.
The unwinding of the pro-life movement from the inside by strongly associating it with despicable moral wrongs that appeal to the political Right, the home of the genuine pro-life movement, is Satan’s plan. We get to choose whether we will cooperate with that plan, or not.
That includes not waffling over the supposedly puzzling question of whether waterboarding is torture. Waterboarding prisoners as we have done is torture, without any question or ambiguity. You are either with the torturers, or against them.