March 22, 2017 § 5 Comments
Sometimes folks get lost in abstract discussions, and it becomes helpful to season it with little storytelling to help get a point across. This seems especially true when it comes to grasping the implications-in-context of incoherent ideas; doubly so in the case of the cherished ideal of political liberty, that is, the doctrine that protecting and advancing freedom is what justifies the exercise of authority. Against the charge of incoherence it is sometimes countered that liberalism is not self-contradictory because (e.g.) expressly permitting abortion or public drunkenness or prostitution or gay sex parades or murder of the unfit or mass rape of young white girls by vibrant immigrants is merely passive: these are not active exercises of authority, and therefore do not discriminate, etc. Rights, it is claimed, are simply a passive recognition by the sovereign and in no way involve the sovereign in acts.
This is, of course, a load of malarkey. Whenever an authority chooses a course of action – any course of action – on a particular controvertible or actually controverted case this is always, necessarily, and without exception, an imposition of discriminating authority. There is no such thing as a “passive act”, in general. Even choices which appear “permissive” from some narrow point of view or other are permissive only relatively speaking not in some general sense: permitting trespassers to overrun an owner’s property without consequences does not permit the owner to enjoy his property free of trespassers, and permitting mothers to murder their children in the womb without consequence fails to permit those murdered unborn children to be born and grow up. Every single express permission granted by an authority implies numerous restrictions, always and without exception.
Suppose that I am the Earl of Meadistrad, and the issue of public drunkenness is brought before me because Rollo Rotgut has been making a spectacle of himself, vomiting in the street and corrupting youth. The Earldom of Meadistrad has never addressed the issue of public drunkenness before. Because the issue has literally never come up before now, the Earldom-qua-authority can genuinely be said to have been passive with respect to public drunkenness up to this point. The large number of potential ways to address public drunkenness remain possible during the time before a concrete choice has been made. It is only the case that an authority remains literally passive on a controvertible issue when that authority has never considered or been asked to consider that issue.
Once the issue of public drunkenness has been raised, though, this collapses the wave function. As in quantum mechanics, mere observation by the authority is all that is required to make a specific concrete result inevitable. Every response by the authority in question – including considering the issue and choosing expressly to decline to respond at all – converts a large number of potential possibilities for subjects into a more constrained space of current and future possibilities for subjects. Action always converts a large number of potentialities into a single concrete and particular result. That is what action means: change of potency into actuality.
It is the nature of every choice made by an authority to constrain possibility: to always and necessarily restrict freedom based on some substantive, discriminatory conception of the good. Indeed this is the nature of choices in general: choices collapse the infinite possibilities represented by real potentialities into some actual result which precludes all mutually exclusive real possibilities. When that choice is made by someone in authority acting qua authority, this always and necessarily constrains those subject to that authority. It changes all of the “might have beens” into a single “this is how it must be”.
Consider the following non-exhaustive list of possible responses I might make to Rollo’s public drunkenness once the issue has been raised:
- I express my desire to ignore the issue entirely and send the people who raised it away.
- I go on a public drunken bender with Rollo because I think he is a fun guy and his detractors are prudish busybodies.
- I declare that subjects of the Earldom are not to be punished for public drunkenness.
- I declare that no public accommodation may refuse service on account of public drunkenness.
- I declare standards for public drunkenness and prescribe punishments corresponding to those standards.
- I declare that subsidiarity authorities should handle the matter of public drunkenness, but reserve the authority to resolve it myself if they can’t get their act together.
Each of these choices is an act by me as the authority: it collapses my subjects’ possible worlds from before the choice into a world constrained by my choice. (Every act, every choice of behavior, collapses a large number of potential outcomes into one actual outcome).
Because my choice is an act of an authority-qua-authority, this act constrains my subjects. Those subjects who would rather live without vomit in the streets, or those who would rather keep the raucous party going, etc are out of luck if my choice does not produce the kind of outcome they prefer.
Note that I am not passing judgment on the merits or demerits of various choices by authority. I am merely observing that all choices by an authority qua authority necessarily discriminate based on some substantive conception of the good, in the process necessarily restricting the freedom of subjects, collapsing potential possibilities into a particular authoritative and constraining result.
So liberalism — the doctrine that liberty is what justifies acts-of-authority — is rationally incoherent.
 It does not follow that an authority never grants any sort of permission for anything, of course. That every single permission is accompanied by a multitude of constraints does not mean that permission is never granted. Permissive will is real enough as a facet or mode of a particular choice; but every coin has both a heads and a tails. Every concrete choice empowers (or “frees”) a particular actual reality to the detriment of mutually exclusive real potentialities. That God “permits” the world as it is actively precludes infinite different potential ways the world really might have been.
November 15, 2015 § 44 Comments
I’ve written before that optimization of our actions in pursuit of some proximate material goal is inherently evil, because the set of all good and evil options includes all of the good options, plus the evil ones to boot. Morality constrains action: the man willing to do both good and evil has more options than the man only willing to do good.
In the comments below Mike T observes:
I can imagine most of our domestic torture apologists condemning the Russians stridently, which would be ironic since by our own apologists’ logic what the Russians did was sound. In fact, by their logic the Russians actually have the moral high ground because in one act of torture they permanently convinced Hezbollah to check passports for Russian nationality before kidnapping.
… but what I find interesting about the Russians versus our own apologists is the fact that the Russians, in their total lack of sentimentality about what they are doing, actually ended up using far less evil to accomplish their goals. Still gravely evil, but by going forth and sinning boldly they finished in one act what takes us possibly hundreds of acts of brutality.
Hrodgar replies with one of those comments I find that I wish I had written myself:
If they actually had a total lack of sentimentality, then reason would teach them that no temporal benefit, however great, is worth any eternal loss, however small. Immorality is not an indicator of a LACK of sentimentality. Rather the reverse if anything.
Holiness, as it turns out, is the only thing objectively worth optimizing. Evil is always insane. Longer time preferences and greater objectivity seem less sentimental than shorter time preferences and lesser objectivity. They still terminate in Hell though. The most rational time preference is eternal, and the most objective frame of reference is the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
September 8, 2014 § 17 Comments
Morality is the active aspect of holiness.
The resurrected Christ is Holy.
There had to be Good Friday in order for there to be Easter.
There had to be Judas and Pilate in order for there to be Good Friday.
There had to be Satan in the Garden in order for there to be Judas and Pilate.
Does it follow that Judas, Pilate, and Satan should be emulated as models of Christian holiness?
July 22, 2014 § 33 Comments
 Seeing, saith he, I have once begun, I will speak to my Lord. What if twenty be found there? He said: I will not destroy it for the sake of twenty.  I beseech thee, saith he, be not angry, Lord, if I speak yet once more: What if ten should be found there? And he said: I will not destroy it for the sake of ten. – Genesis 18:31-32
St. Anselm famously argued that God must exist because existence is more perfect than nonexistence. Very roughly speaking, and without pretending to really do the argument justice, God is by definition the most perfect being that can possibly be conceived; if He didn’t exist then He wouldn’t be perfect; therefore He must exist.
Whatever one thinks of that as an argument for the existence of God, it is interesting to reflect on our existence in the light of Anselm’s argument. It is better for myself and all the people and things that I love to exist than for them to not exist. The fact that my personal existence is logically contingent upon all sorts of evil and suffering doesn’t change the basic fact that existence is better than nonexistence.
An infinitely loving, infinitely good, infinitely powerful God cannot do “everything” when the referent of the term “everything” includes “things” that are rationally inconceivable. Strictly speaking, rationally inconceivable “things” are not really things. An omnipotent God cannot lock Himself into a box from which He cannot escape without ceasing to be omnipotent: the “box from which an omnipotent God cannot escape” is not a “thing”, because it is not even a rationally coherent idea.
I’ve known several young men who have born terrible suffering. One young man is quadraplegic because of a botched delivery. He just graduated from high school. His parents’ marriage broke up over the stress years ago.
Another young man with terrible physical deformities used to come to our house for birthday parties years ago. He had to carry around an oxygen tank and was physically very limited. He loved sports despite his own limitations, and he had an indomitable spirit: rarely have I seen such fierce and determined joy in a human being. He died when he was twelve years old.
I know several others too: a young man confined to a wheelchair who cannot talk and who suffers dangerous siezures; a relative is eighteen and autistic, and cannot cross the street by himself. I won’t get into ‘closer to home’ examples, because they pale to nothingness in comparison to the crosses I have watched others bear and accept: not just the ‘victims’ of these maladies and tragedies themselves, but the parents and families whose hearts break at what their loved ones endure, and the limitations they face.
God watched as His only begotten son was tortured to death. This was literally for our sake in ways so comprehensive that most people – most Christians – can’t begin to appreciate it, I think.
The existence of suffering and evil is not an argument against God’s omnipotent power and infinite goodness. It is an argument in favor of those attributes. A more selfish God would not have made this blasphemous world. But as bad as we are, and as awful as the suffering in this world is, it is better for us all to exist than to not exist. In this world there is plentiful bad news; but there is also Good News. Those who would prefer Nothing over all that we are, all that we know, and all that we love, may eventually get the Nothing they crave. But not at the cost of any bit of good which can be saved.
UPDATE: Added epigraph.
July 16, 2014 § 34 Comments
There is a discussion at Bruce Charlton’s Miscellany about the “problem of evil” that some folks might find interesting. Bruce ‘solves’ the problem of evil by denying God’s omnipotence. I linked to my own take on the POE from 2006 here (which I also explained at VFR in 2003), and we had the following combox exchange:.
Bruce Charlton wrote:
I think that if you apply that line of reasoning it will take you somewhere you do not want to go. It is close to the fatalism of the other major monotheism.
The discussion is closed off, and nothing can be questioned – our job is to submit.
You are seeing Fate where I see Love.
It isn’t fatalism to accept reality as it actually is and logically must be: to accept non-contradiction. It isn’t possible for me, my actual self, to personally be here at all without my logical/metaphysical preconditions.
God loves me personally so much that this world was made literally just for me. All of the evil in it is “my fault” in an existential sense: I could not be here without it. Nonetheless God accepts all that and redeems me, and the world, because He loves me (us) that much – personally. Evil is a terrible affront to God, and indeed to all good creatures. But God tolerates it and redeems the world from it for my (our) sake – personally and actually, not as some abstraction of other creatures similar in some ways to us that he might have made (and perhaps even did make).