Two puzzles of violence

Catholic critics of Pinker’s Better Angels have pointed out that he doesn’t include abortion as an example of violence, and a fortiori he doesn’t include pill-induced abortifacients that prohibit implantation of fertilized eggs. There are other modern innovations that deserve mention: COFA lots for cattle, scientific animal testing, animal extinction caused by human expansion, factory farming (especially of chickens), lifelong prison terms, etc. My point isn’t to criticize Pinker’s thesis but to articulate a puzzle about recognizing violence. Violence is against one’s will, but (a) it is not clear how far willing extends and (b) even if we can figure this out, still, nothing is necessarily good because humans or animals want it, and so nothing is necessarily evil for contradicting desire.

(a) The first problematizes any sort of violence not inflicted on full-grown humans. I can make sense of causing animals pain, but is this acting against their will? One supposes that abortifacient pills don’t count as violence for the same reason: what sense is there to contradicting the will or desire of a single-celled organism? If this is violence, then antibiotics is genocide, right? I know intellectually that when I spray Raid in a room the mosquitoes and flies are dying a slow and painful death, but I honestly feel nothing about this. I know others who are bothered by killing mice with glue traps, but this causes (at most) a faint and momentary twitch on whatever meter measures my moral concern. So I know that I can tolerate some degree of slow and painful animal death, the question is simply a matter of drawing a line past which something deserves to be called “violence”. True, there are some easy calls, but this still allows for billions of instances of torture and death to fall into disputed territory, which is exactly the sort of thing that might problematize the thesis that violence is declining.

(b) The main difficulty is that violence is always condemned within a theory of justice. Sometimes cruelty is an easy call, but figuring out whether killing animals or non-sentient fetal humans is cruel and violent is much more dependent on our theory of justice. We are horrified when Pinker narrates the tale of a cat-burning, which apparently was a popular theater event a few centuries ago, but if we view the matter in cold logic we can sympathize with our ancestors who didn’t share our moral horror. If I can butcher a cow because I enjoy the steaks, why can’t I burn a cat because I’m amused by its screams? A cat, after all, is self-evidently a non-person, and everyone is familiar with arguments that take it as axiomatic that non-persons have no rights that a man is bound to respect.



Losing the war

For Plato, the rule of money arises from disillusion with the belief that war gives glory. Battle ceases to be seen as the supreme proof of manhood and comes to be seen with horror and contempt. Put in pop-art terms, we go from a John Wayne depiction of war to the depiction of Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, or Apocalypse Now. Told from the later point of view, we’ve shed naive rah-rah nationalism and awoken to the horror of war. We’ve finally seen the reality behind the scenes, and now know that war is just a cynical power-grab that is inflated with propaganda until the poor are willing to kill and die for the benefit of those who have much to gain and little to lose.

The older world of heroism and battle glory deserves a right to respond to what replaced it, and their best response is probably this: any account of the life worth living will take willingness to sacrifice for good as a measure of virtue, but the common goods of the regime are the highest goods and life the highest sacrifice. A cynical view of war as such is impossible, and it in fact misses what would be so wrong with war if it really were like what its critics say it is. A war that is for the private good of the few deprives it of exactly the sort of good that is worth both dying and killing for. The dissolution with war is from a betrayal, but one can only be betrayed by things meant to be good.

This account, however, leaves out that our contemporary dissolution with war arises from the sense that war itself has changed to the point where heroism is no longer possible, or at least that any example of heroism is dwarfed and eclipsed by the horrors of mechanization and technology. Battle heroism threatens to be as quaint and absurd as Don Quixote (and Quixote himself seems to both recognize and repeatedly make this point in his own way). So sure, assume that Pinker is right that the An Lushan Revolt was statistically more bloody than both the World Wars, and a fortiori more bloody than Verdun or Hiroshima – it will still makes a difference if you get to meet your death face to face with another  and with a sword in your hand than if everyone is unsuspectingly and randomly vaporized from miles away. It’s not the numbers or proportions of killing that tell the story, but horror that technology might have severely alienated the ancient connection between battle and honor. It’s this depersonalizing of war that we find horrible, not the per capita body counts.

This alienation leaves us with two options. Having lost the middle-ground of honor and the goods of the spirited man, we either have to ascend to logos or descend to the rule of appetite, which latter begins with the worship of wealth before collapsing into the love of unprincipled freedom and, finally, to the tyrant who promises to save us from it. The love of honor, chivalry, battle glory, etc. were never the highest life, but they played a crucial role in elevating the lower passions. Obviously the fulfillment of spirit is still to some extent possible, but it has (arguably) lost its paradigm fulfillment in war-heroism. This is a different but perhaps more vexing and irremediable way in which the contemporary world makes “men without chests”. There is no transformation of violence but only a universal condemnation of it, and since violence just is what is contrary to the will we are left only able to persuade others to goodness. The persuasion of Socrates, however, is not the persuasion of the sophists.

Active participation in the liturgy

You are trapped behind enemy lines and can communicate with the resistance only by picking up the radio broadcasts they make from far on the other side of the line. In such a state, the best way to actively take part in the resistance building a radio.

But christianity sees this as the basic state of life in the world, i.e. the state of the Ecclesia militans. The greatest active participation one can make with the cause of heaven is to build what detects and broadcasts its signals. This is above all change of heart supplemented by all the familiar disciplines of the church.

My point is not to critique the idea that active participation involves the laity speaking during the liturgy (I’m pretty sure such a critique can’t be made, and I don’t see any way to read Sacrosanctum Consilium except as insisting on greater verbal and visible liturgical activity by the laity) but to contextualize any verbal or gestural involvement in the liturgy within the change of heart that both laity and clergy are called to make in order to fulfill the command of active participation.

Reduction to the intelligible


1a.) Lassie is a dog

1b.) Fido is a dog.

1c.) McGruff is a dog.


2a.) Light moves at 300,000 km/ sec

2b.) Magnetism moves at 300,ooo km/ sec

2c.) Radio waves move at 300,000 km/ sec.

Both historically and by experience, the response to the (2’s) is to believe that there is no difference between the things but they are simply modes (or perhaps mere arbitrary verbal distinctions) between one and the same concrete reality, sc. the EM-spectrum. There is, so we think, no difference between light and magnetism. The two have been unified. I suppose we could think the same thing about Lassie and Fido (if we were extreme Platonists) and we might even think this if we did generic-evolutionary work on dogs that, say, unified them with wolves or rat-sized-proto-dogs or whatever. Surprising genera are replacements for their subsets in a way that familiar ones are not.

The point here is not critique but to illustrate an ambivalence we have about the reality of the general to its subset (whether a species or individual). The fight between Plato and Aristotle is happening here, and trinitarian their gives the reason why: the only way to allow for the reality of both the concrete and abstract is to ascend to the divine.


Trinitarian aporetic syllogisms

While teaching class, I was halfway through giving an objection to the trinity…

The Father is God

The Son is not the Father

therefore, the Son is not God.

but before I could write the conclusion I saw it was invalid. It would be like arguing

Lincoln was president

Clinton was not Lincoln,

Therefore Clinton was not president.

In the case of the trinity, one can attempt to save the objection by asserting a numerical identity between a person of the trinity and God, where x and y are numerically identical whenever it’s true to say both x is y and y is x. But then we commit ourselves to

God is the Father

The Son is not the Father

The Son is not God.

The syllogism is valid, but the problem, of course, is that no trinitarian has ever asserted the major premise. God is not the Father precisely because God is triune.

But this seems to give us another problem, based on laying out the two great mysteries of the faith:

God is triune/ the trinity

Jesus is God

Therefore, Jesus is the trinity

So why can we accept each premise but not the conclusion? Probably for the same reason we do it here:

Whoever calls you an animal speaks the truth

Whoever calls you a jackass calls you an animal.

Therefore, whoever calls you a jackass speaks the truth.

In fact, any two things that share a property can be proved the same by a formally valid syllogism:

Whoever calls (thing 1) a (name the property) speaks the truth

Whoever calls (thing 1) a (thing 2) calls it (name the property)

So I am president, a woman, blessed, damned and even Unitarian! Hey, they’re all human, right?

The point is that it’s not enough to have the same term be both subject and predicate, the mode of predication has to be the same. So “God is triune/ the trinity” is said in the mode of identity (if all one means by this is that the terms are convertible) but “Jesus is God” is not said according to the mode of identity.

Notes from 11-29

-Spacetime = The state where things cannot have all their goods. I can either have the comforts of home or the beauty of Paris, the energy of youth or the experience of age. The properly eternal leaves this behind.

-I can make sense of “the cake is done now” but one needs pretty peculiar circumstances to say “2+2=4 right now”. A clock is simply not a useful measuring tool for whatever exists as an equation. Even if we imagine some things as true at all times, what this means is that differences in time make no difference in the thing.

-Evil involves taking one good so as to be unable to take the one we wanted. Evil therefore exists only in time. At the limit case (hell) all the goods we reach for make us unable to get the one we wanted.


Punishment and proportionality

A: So you’re saying if I allow for any punishment, I have to allow for every punishment?

B: Exactly, though you left off my insistence that I was speaking in principle.

A: So if I allow any punishment in principle, then I have to allow every punishment in principle.

B: Now that’s exactly right.

A: But that sounds as ridiculous and morally repugnant as what I said before. If I allow you to give parking tickets I have to allow you to flay people alive?

B: In principle?

A: Yes, fine, I have to allow in principle that you can flay them alive?

B: Right.

A: That’s nonsense.

B: Isn’t punishment just giving someone what’s deserved?

A: I guess.

B: And by “deserved” you mean greater punishments for greater crimes and lesser for lesser?

A: Yes.

B: But the only limit you could put on this would require saying that there is a limit to how great a crime could get. Is there any such limit?

A: No, crimes can get worse without limit. But there has got to be some other limit that kicks in.

B: Like what?

A: At some point trying to proportion the punishment to the crime will require us to be cruel and inhuman.

B: Based on what you’ve agreed to, this is the same thing as saying “At some point justice no longer becomes possible”.

A: Right.

B: And it becomes impossible because it is no longer a virtue, but is cruel and inhuman?

A: Right. Giving the worst offenders what they deserve would mean breaking them at the wheel or flaying them alive, and asking someone to do that isn’t just.

B: But what you’re saying is that at some point justice is not a virtue, and this is nonsense. I can understand some amount of drinking that is no longer a virtue, but not some amount of temperance that fails to be.

A: Why can’t there simply be limits on justice? Why assume that human justice is infinite, or that it has an answer to every problem? Why doesn’t this place in principle limits on what we can do?

B: You can’t just assume that limits like that are in place.

A: Fine, I’ll argue for them. Any principle pushed to extremes distorts the very virtue it once gave rise to, and the principle of proportionate punishment is just such a principle. QED.

B: Is that true of a principle like “don’t kill the innocent” too?

A: No, that seems less like a principle and more like a tautology. “Innocent” just means “those who should not be harmed”

B: That’s its etymology, sure, but there’s probably the same thing between just or fair and proportionate.  What you call “tautology” I just call insight.

A: That might all be right, but I can’t get past the idea of proportionality only working within limits, even if I don’t know what the argument looks like for it. Crimes that are too unusually cruel simply can’t be met with the cruelty they deserve. There is some in-principle limit on how far one can push cruelty. The line won’t be drawn everywhere equally, but it has to be somewhere.

B: So the limits of proportionality would be historically variable?

A: Right. So maybe when the murder rate was astronomically higher in the Middle Ages (didn’t Steven Pinker prove this somewhere?) then racking and burning wasn’t beyond the limits. Who knows, maybe the limits were all but unreachable. But now it’s at least arguable that deliberate killing is so rare that even state killing is beyond the in-principle limits of how far punishments can go.

B: You want to argue that certain punishments were once right in principle but now no longer are, based on limits to proportionality that are somehow measured by what is cruel and unusual by variable social standards?

A: Yes. Proportionality has an in-principle limit by what is cruel or unusual, but what falls under this description will be variable.


The ontological argument as a critique of atheism

What gets called Anselm’s Ontological Argument starts as a critique of atheism, i.e. the whole argument is a response to Ps. 13 and 52: the fool said in his heart ‘there is no God’. So why not keep it as a critique of atheism? So taken, Anselm is only obliquely interested in proving “God exists” but is directly interested in showing that atheism is incoherent.

The bones of the argument are

Atheism requires thinking about God and judging he is non existent.

Thinking about God and judging he is non existent is impossible.

Atheism is impossible.

The first premise is a definition, so all the interesting work is happening in the other premise. As I’ve argued many times before, the Anselm is tacitly starting with chapter 7 of Augustine’s De doctrina, where Augustine claims that if you are thinking about X but can think of something better, then X is not God (call it Augustine’s axiom or AA). In other words, the argument starts with a criteria to sort out thoughts and determine whether they are not about God. There are interesting conceptual difficulties with AA (isn’t the thought of God plus chocolate better than just the thought about God?) and they need to be met with a robust sense of transcendence, but either leave them aside for the moment or limit yourself to considering just strata of being and not any putative merological sum.

By contraposition AA states that God is that than which nothing greater can be thought, but keep it in its original form. Anselm’s argument then becomes:

1.) AA

2.) Anyone who (supposedly) thinks about God as non-existent can think about something that would be better if it existed (namely, God as existent)

3.) Therefore, whoever thinks about God as non-existent is not thinking about God.

4.) But atheism requires thinking about God and thinking about him as non-existent.

5.) Therefore, atheism is impossible.

Notice the argument never leaves the head. We are simply asking whether we can conceptualize God as non-existent, and Anselm claims that this involves a fundamental incoherence that goes unnoticed by atheists. Better yet, since Anselm is as free to define his terms as any man, he can claim that what he means by God is something that makes atheism incoherent. If one defined God as “thinking” he could get the same result, but what makes Anselm’s argument so interesting is that he starts from an account of God that is far more plausible than claiming “God is thought”.

Notice that the Guanilo parody arguments seem to miss the point against the argument given here. Guanilo would have to replace “perfect island” for “God” in AA, but this only gives us an obvious falsehood.

So there might be more bite to the OA as a critique of the possibility of a certain kind of thought (namely, atheism) than as a proof for a being existing in the real world. That said, if atheism were impossible, then theism would be true, and if theism is true, God exists. That’s just how contradictories work.


-Even if one were praying solely out of his own self-interest he would still pray to our father or for us sinnersThe normal way of acquiring goods is getting them from those who already possess them, whether by gift or learning or seeing things modeled.

-One of Socrates’s central teachings is less often recognized than explicitly made.  While even the sophists could accept that the tyrant doesn’t do good things, Socrates insists on a claim, verging on the bizarre, that the tyrant is the least free of all men and never does what he wants. He makes it explicitly in Gorgias, he builds a whole city in defense of the claim in Republic, etc.

Suffering and the human person

-If there is a self, there is suffering.

Christianity = yes, and there are selves.

Buddhism = yes, but suffering can cease.

Modern World = No, selves will do away with suffering. There are two variants:

(Christian variant) God and the Church exist to humanize us, minimize suffering, and lead  all things lead to heaven

(Secular variant) the main task of reasoning and science is relief of man’s estate. We will humanize him, provide more goods, figure out the laws of nature and put them under our control. Humans do not need to wait for heaven to enjoy the life of a self without suffering.

-Humility is selflessness, so both Christianity and Buddhism involve fundamental selflessness. For the Buddha, the last obstacle to conquer is the comparison of oneself to others. For Christianity, one of the two ultimate goals of human life is to see persons as other selves.

-For Christianity, to deny the reality of the person is to deny God first. Personality exists in excelsis though unfathomably. Freedom and power exist without unactualized possibility, communion exists with absolute sufficiency of each self, the goodness of each person is equal to their community, and (most of all) origination exists without causality.

-The West has not lost the theological conviction that the self exists in excelsis. Our humanist atheism is unthinkable except as the substitution of man for God, i.e. placing humanity in the empty space of the God who does not exist, and who somehow kept humanity ignorant, violent, and without technology. That this substitution was even a possibility is something we learned from Christianity first, which consists in just this sort of man-God substitution.

-If the West lost this sense of personality in excelsis nothing in our present consciousness of the world would make sense.

-New atheism is the last mode of prophesy, perhaps even the last call to repentance. At bottom it is the horror that we would lose the ability to curse God, blame God, substitute humanity for him. We can only live in the hole left by the god who never existed. Sure, Dawkins is blaming christianity and Pinker is proving it is violent, backward, stultifying, irrational, but there is a critique of atheism-as-oblibiousness too since if we lose the sight of humanity as divine substitute then we will lose humanism too. For example, the central humanist value of compassion is based on an account of humanity as a species fundamentally willing and able to do away with suffering. Humanist compassion must see humanity’s motives as pure, its power and technological potency as unlimited, its knowledge of the true causes of things as having no fundamental limitation. Sure, Pinker would deny this if we put it so explicitly, but the denial could never enter into the structure of humanist compassion, since humanist compassion could never be, say, Mother Teresa’s compassion of solidarity in suffering and an acceptance of its redemptive power and our inability to meet it with some final solution. Saintly compassion is exactly the sort of misguided compassion that our technological and social engineering is already solving and will continue to solve.




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