The social media panopticon

May 18, 2017 § 30 Comments

Jeremy Bentham famously invented the idea of the panopticon, initially as a way to manage prisoners in a maximally efficient way.  The architecture of the panopticon enabled a single guard to monitor a large number of prisoners simultaneously.

Being a modernist, Bentham started seeing the benefits of universal surveillance in all sorts of other areas of life.  (He was also in favor of animal rights, a right to sodomy, etc — in the 1700’s, mind you).  After all, as long as you aren’t doing something that offends the gods why should you care that you are constantly being watched?  This is obviously an efficient way to design a civil society with minimal violence; a society which does not require a lot of messy exercise of easily-abused authority, authority which in any case just falls to certain people by accident of birth.  Nothing about universal surveillance in itself interferes with a person’s freedom.

Bentham’s vision has taken a long time to materialize because (as it turns out) most people don’t really like living under the constant surveillance of prison guards; guards who just might view them as less than fully human, possibly tomorrow if not in the Current Year.

But Mark Zuckerberg found a way to convince a billion people to voluntarily enter the panopticon.  He baited the trap with an irresistible siren:  a perpetual High School reunion, pictures of grandkids, and cat videos.

The idea that ideas can be property is patently ridiculous

May 18, 2017 § 29 Comments

One of the interesting things about patents (unless the law has changed since I filed mine a couple decades ago) is that the invention must be “reduced to practice” before you can even apply for one: you have to have a concrete working implementation before the patent office will even accept your application. And once a patent is granted, what the patent holder actually receives – the patent itself – is a security entitling the holder of the patent to enforceable commercial exclusivity within the jurisdiction of the patent authority.

Similar things can be said about other forms of intellectual property.

So IP doesn’t count in favor of the contention that ideas can be property. It counts against that contention.

As usual liberal modernity requires you to studiously avert your gaze once actual reality starts to come into view.

Means and ends for kindergartners

May 17, 2017 § 103 Comments

There has been a bit of ‘reactosphere’ discussion of means and ends lately.

Unsurprisingly, the aphorism ‘the end doesn’t justify the means’ is ridiculed in its strawman form: basically ‘No means is ever justified by any end.’

I’m always here to help though, and Miss Suzy asked me to visit on Talk To A Grownup Day.  So get out your crayons and let me rephrase the aphorism for the class.

The non-strawman version goes like this:

“Good ends don’t justify evil means.”

That’s a lot to take in, I know, so that is probably enough for one day.

The self-inflicted lobotomy of a society gone mad

May 17, 2017 § 18 Comments

There exist in our world what we might call ‘social beings’: institutions or communities which are composed of individual human beings but which are not reducible to nothing but the aggregation of individual human beings. Social beings transcend individuals in the sense that they are not reducible to individuals. I don’t have an overarching theory of these transcendent social beings, but I know that Italy is not reducible to the collection of all individual Italians, Catholicism is not reducible to the collection of all individual Catholics, etc.

We can refer to the good of these social beings as the common good.

Authority is a natural and essential organ of these transcendent social beings, much as the brain and nervous system are a natural and essential organ of individual human beings.

Liberalism is (as a specifically political doctrine), at least in its more advanced forms, an attempt to reduce this transcendent social organ (authority) to nothing but the collected free and equal wills of the individuals who make up a polity.  Opposing itself to natural authority as inherently tyrannical, liberalism insists that all authority must be mediated through the triumph of the human will. Authority as a real organ which transcends the consent of the governed is denied.

Liberalism is an attempt to build, if you will, a completely brainless and mechanical society in the name of emancipation from the privileges of natural authority: it is the self-inflicted lobotomy of a society gone mad.

The right to life, liberty, and cows

May 13, 2017 § 119 Comments

Modern people have been trained by centuries of usury (among other things) to have a hard time distinguishing between an actual thing and the mere idea of a thing.  

In the case of usury this failure to perceive the difference between real things and mere ideas shows up in how contracts for profit are secured: as St. Francis Xavier put it, “in the whole matter of security for contracts”.  A non-usurious contract for profit is secured by property which actually exists, and only that specifed property.  A usurious contract for profit is secured by (sometimes in addition to some actual property) the mere idea of property: by a personal IOU.

A pledge to give an investor a cow next year is not — the pledge is not — an actual cow.  It is not usurious to pledge to give an investor a cow next year as part of a contract for profit; but only so long as that pledge is secured by some property which actually does exist, which fully discharges the obligation.  The pledge is not to hand over a cow next year simpliciter, but to hand over either the actually existent security or a cow, thereby fully discharging the borrower’s obligation.  A well structured contract will incentivise but not guarantee the latter.

The term ‘right’ is (like many terms) multivocal, kind of like the term ‘cow’. A right which actually has teeth is a particular right: a specific exercise of discriminating authority which trumps all other claims in a particular instance, treating one specific claim as superior to all other claims. Bob is the owner and Fred is the trespasser, so Fred must depart Bob’s property or be dragged off to jail.

Other uses of the term ‘right’ include talking about abstract categories of rights as opposed to actual rights. Again, kind of like cows. The idea that everyone has an equal right to (e.g) property is like (indeed is a superset of) the idea that everyone has an equal right to cows.

If this right is actual as opposed to abstract then it pertains to a particular cow or cows; and no particular cow is equal to any other particular cow. If Fred slaughters and eats Bob’s beef, he goes to jail.  

Furthermore, many people don’t have a cow (other than metaphorically, when all of this is pointed out). The mere idea of beef is not a meal equivalent to actual beef.

There is nothing more authoritative and discriminatory than an actual right; nothing more empty and unreal than an abstract right with no instantiation.  Owning a hypothetical cow is categorically distinct from owning an actual cow.  Reality is categorically distinct from fiction.

It is sometimes suggested that my understanding of liberalism is flawed because it relies on a concept of rights which is “absolute”.  But what critics see as “absolute” in my criticism of liberalism is simply recognition that the difference between reality and fiction is a categorical distinction, not a matter of gradiation. The difference between the idea of a cow and an actual cow is not a matter of moving along some continuum of compromise with a possible happy medium. Being and non-being are absolutely distinct.

The liberal war on authoritative particularity arises from its commitment to political liberty framed in terms of rights: arises from the fact that nothing discriminates (contra equality) and constrains (contra liberty) like actual, real, existent particular things.  And conservative liberalism, as the more sane and commonsensical sphere of liberal societies, makes the mistake of believing that a happy medium is possible between reality and the void.

A moral theory of general relativity

May 10, 2017 § 34 Comments

In this post I will argue that usury is worse than adultery in an important sense.

First we need some background.

We distinguish between what we call venial matter and grave matter (mortally sinful kinds of behavior). White lies, for example, are the former. We should never commit any sin (by definition), but for the purposes of this post we will set aside venial sin and consider only grave matter.

Choice of grave matter justly deserves the punishment of Hell[1]. Without Christ’s freely given grace (ordinarily[2] received through participation in the sacraments He instituted), mortal sin brings the judgment of justly deserved eternal condemnation.

Contracepted sex, adultery, sodomy, masturbation, and skipping Mass on Sunday without good reason are all grave matter. (Skipping Mass is grave matter because it involves disobedience of rightful authority in an important matter).

This list is, needless to say, nonexhaustive. And particular instances of other kinds of sins (e.g. theft, lying, usury) may be grave or venial depending on content: stealing a cookie from the cookie jar is probably venial, but stealing an old couples’ life savings is certainly grave matter.

We can consider the relative gravity of kinds of mortal sins under three modes by asking three distinct questions.

1) What are the most grave sins for you?

These are the mortally sinful behaviors which you are most likely to commit. You are most likely to commit mortal sins when you have a strong temptation to them, when the means to do so are easily available, and when you don’t personally intuit (for whatever reason) the moral gravity of the offense. These are the most grave and dangerous sins for you.

2) What are the most grave sins corporately?

This follows a similar pattern but for communities as opposed to individuals.  It depends in part upon what kinds of grave sins the community does not, qua community, treat as grave sins. If in a particular community contraception is considered generally acceptable, adultery is not considered acceptable, and many more people contracept than commit adultery, then contraception is a more grave sin than adultery corporately.

3) What are the most grave sins abstractly?

Without disparaging the possibility of addressing this question philosophically, I would suggest that it is rare for people to take an interest in this mode of gravity except as a means of avoiding the discomfort of addressing the other two modes: harlots dancing on the head of a pin, if you will.

Now for the argument:

Gravity in the first mode depends upon the particular person and his circumstances, of course, and so any argument about the relative gravity of sins generally speaking will not apply.  It is worth noting though that the gravity of kinds of sins in the individual relation will have significant dependence upon the corporate relation, because man is a social animal with all that implies.  (We might think of this as a ‘moral theory of special relativity’).

Gravity in the third mode is of abstract interest, but purely abstract relations between species of sin in a Platonic sense is not the sort of gravity the argument will address.  (We might think of this as asking the question ‘what was moral gravity like before the Big Bang?’)  The argument is that usury is concretely, as instantiated in our actual present reality, more grave than adultery.

Corporately, in our society in general, there remains some resistance to the idea that adultery is a perfectly normal and acceptable thing.  Resistance to the idea that usury is a perfectly normal and acceptable thing is immaterial; in fact even basic comprehension of what usury actually means (and doesn’t mean) is extremely thin on the ground.

There is still a pretty clear understanding, in more orthodox communities, of what adultery actually is and is not; and there remains strong moral disapproval in those communities.  The same cannot be said of usury.  Even in the most orthodox communities there is confusion over what ‘usury’ actually means, despite the ultimate simplicity of the subject matter and numerous Magisterial statements over the course of millennia. Even in the most orthodox communities there is controversy where there should not be controversy: there is rejection of the Tradition of the Church and the Magisterium (not to mention a lack of financial competence) in favor of an intrinsically uncharitable, modernist, subjective approach to usury.

In short, the most orthodox of communities are not corrupted by confusion and dissent over the grave moral wrong of adultery to the same extent these same communities are corrupted by confusion and dissent over the grave moral wrong of usury.

And an important figure in Christianity once said:

Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam in thy own eye, and then shalt thou see to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

[1] The traditional conjecture that different sinners have different experiences of Hell, depending upon their particular sins, may be worth a mention.

[2] We also have the concept of extraordinary grace, which is our way of acknowledging that, while God has promised to us the efficacy of His sacraments and always keeps His promises, He is not limited to dispensing grace in only this way.  However it is also worth noting that the presumption that one will onesself personally receive extraordinary grace is, itself, grave matter.

At least there are no hobgoblins

May 8, 2017 § 28 Comments

Following Denzinger, The Summa Theologiae, and De Malo, one of the most useful resources on the subject of usury is John Noonan’s book The Scholastic Analysis of Usury. The reason it is useful is because it collects in one place a large number of sources, citing all sorts of different medieval and later scholars and quoting various arguments on the subject.

Unfortunately, the author’s own words tend to dilute the usefulness of the text rather than enhancing it.  With all the usual caveats associated with paraphrase, I’ll sum it up as follows for those who don’t want to buy their own copy:

Pre-modern people were very ignorant about property, contracts, and finance.  They simply didn’t see all the holes in their theories; holes through which creative financial engineers could and eventually did drive trucks. Modern financial technology has made the traditional prohibition of usury obsolete in practice. Those sweet preciously naive little devout medieval hearts were in the right place, and making sure our hearts are in the right place is the lesson we can still learn from the Church’s millennium of full-throated condemnation of usury.  But that business about never profiting from mutuum loans is embarrassingly passé.

Noonan had the virtue of consistency in his approach to moral theology.  He also wrote a book entitled Contraception, which follows the same basic structure and narrative.  Pre-modern people were very ignorant about biology and medicine. Modern medical technology has made the traditional prohibition of contraception obsolete in practice. Those sweet preciously naive little medieval hearts were in the right place, and making sure our hearts are in the right place is the lesson we can still learn from the Church’s millennium of full-throated condemnation of contraception. But that business about never choosing deliberately mutilated sexual behaviors is embarrassingly passé.

In Noonan’s defense, he did originally write the latter book before the issuance of Humanae Vitae.  (The same can’t be said of his usury book and usury’s Humanae Vitae).

But consistency, it is said, is the hobgoblin of small minds.  The beauty of inconsistency is that it empowers us to impose our own narrative on moral reality, rather than conforming our will to an objective moral reality which exists prior to our wishes.  Not everyone feels the need to live within the constraints of consistency (at least not, uh, consistently); let alone within the constraints of objective moral truth.

It is, after all, the Current Year.

One of the popular sub-narratives in the Current Year is that Pope Francis’ ‘pastoral’ initiatives are unique and special. Never before (and especially not before Vatican II) has a Supreme Pontiff suggested that absolution may be granted to penitents who don’t understand or don’t agree that their behaviors are gravely immoral.  Never before has a Supreme Pontiff made it official policy to absolve penitents who do not intend to cease choosing objectively immoral, gravely wrong behaviors.  Never before have those who commit manifest grave sin been given backstage passes by the Vicar of Christ to skate past the bouncers and turnstiles, and receive Holy Communion.

This is the kind of thing which could only happen in the post Vatican II Church, because Vatican II was a uniquely bad event in the history of the Church.

I’ll just note that the one thing on which nearly everyone agrees is that the Current Year is so very, very special.  As long as we don’t allow facts to challenge the narrative.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for May, 2017 at Zippy Catholic.