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May 02, 2011



And, there may be a few of us yet intent to see if we can read the whole thing without coming nigh to the stridency demanded by "I am right and you are wrong."

On another note, when I saw you reference ideology and hermeneutics I could not help but think of Zizek via Fitch.

Lunch soon so we can discuss.


While I pretty much agree with your assessment of the debate, Greg, I do think it leaves out one fairly obvious alternative available to Christians which is to reject biblicism. Doing so dissolves the debate since it requires rejecting the whole idea that a bible passage could be cited as evidence for the truth of an ethical position.

Trevor Palen


What do you mean by evidence? It doesn't seem to me that rejection of biblicism necessarily requires rejecting the capacity for truth to be discovered through the bible deductively. I think rejecting the idea that a text can substantiate a truth claim is good as far as it goes and leads to rejection of biblicism, but doesn't inhibit that a text can still be evidence/representative of the truth if truth is consistent.

Trevor Palen


The ideology as basis for hermeneutical position is spot on, IMO.

I can't tell for sure whether or not you're precluding a middle ground between the two positions, but I do think one exists.

From my vantage point, killing Osama was a justified action, but that doesn't mean that we should rejoice in it (which seemed to be the flavor of a lot of Americans last night).

As to the broader issue: I question if Christ really appealed to a systematic ethic. It seems to me that Christ promoted an ethical filter. I think the story from the beginning of John 8 (even though it's "extra-biblical") perfectly exemplifies the effect of Jesus' "higher ethic". That effect for us is paralysis. It brings us to a place of inaction because it does not innately make sense. I think a moment of hesitation to question our disposition before we act is a lot of what Jesus promoted.

I think the middle-ground between the two perspectives could be called comprehensive. In this case, acting on what seems to us to be the most just action (determined methodically and comprehensively) is the right thing to do, but it is to be done in humility, understanding that if we are justified it is not because we carried out a just action but because God justifies our action. In fact, I think the situation propels us to plead with God in humility (because we "know not what we do") to reveal Himself and His ways in the situation…otherwise we are arrogant and at risk of becoming like that which we sought to destroy...The fact is, either action we take could be wrong, and we're not likely to know this side of death.

I think the line is very thin, but I think it's there, and I think it can begin to be illuminated in time through prayer, study of scripture, and dialogue with others.


By 'evidence' I mean broadly a reason that can properly ground belief. There's of course then something to be said about what 'properly grounding' is. This probably gets cashed out in terms of probabilities such that the truth of x (the reason) makes the truth of some proposition p (the object of belief) more likely than not (there's room to quibble over the actual threshold for belief, and in fact I I think the standard probably stiffens and relaxes depending on the circumstances). Given that understanding of evidence, I see no fact of the sort "There is a passage in such-and-such book that says such-and-such" which could possibly satisfy the conditions in regards to belief about morality. This seems pretty likely to me, but I'll admit, I haven't thought much about actual cases. There might be obvious (or not) counterexamples that just aren't occurring to me. If I were teaching a class, this would be the point where I'd say, "That sounds like a good paper topic for someone interested in sacred texts as evidence for belief."

There are some obvious ways in which texts do seem to count as evidence for some beliefs, such as historical accounts, but even there, there is a great deal more that must be said about the text and the belief it is meant to ground before it can be taken as evidence.



From my vantage point, killing Osama was a justified action, but that doesn't mean that we should rejoice in it (which seemed to be the flavor of a lot of Americans last night).

Personally I would use a different word than "justified," but this is basically my attitude toward the situation. When what seems to be the best of available choices is either a form of evil or likely to provoke evil, we don't want to second-guess it based on some abstract principle of "never doing evil," especially when inaction would have been worse. But neither do we want to celebrate it, because it is (as previously mentioned) evil. I probably shouldn't be surprised at how many people have a basically medieval view of foreign policy and patriotism, but it has been an interesting couple of days.


I wouldn't say I have a clear counterexample. But if you want to expand the notion of ethical behavior to include the Buddhist idea of "right thoughts" -- i.e., dwelling in a state of mind that is more likely to give rise to outward ethical acts -- then a text whose contents have helped cultivate that state of mind might have some subjective plausibility when talking about things less familiar to its reader.

I dislike this approach for two reasons. First, thinking prescriptively, I prefer to measure the ethical content of actions by their outcomes; with around seven billion people in the world, love will get you through the day, but it won't solve quantitative problems by itself. Second, I have a hard time seeing how someone could coherently take this approach with a collection of texts as disparate as the Bible. It's one thing to give the weird parts of the Diamond Sutra the benefit of the doubt, but I'm really not convinced that any moral credibility earned by the gospels ought to be applied to the middle of Leviticus.


First, I think that's an interesting case. I wish I knew enough about Buddhist philosophy and practice to try to judge whether or not it satisfies standards of evidential support. (Hopefully I'll get a chance to learn more about this in the next few years as our department just hired a Buddhist ethicist.) I will say that if the practice you describe looks anything like the the practice of Christian mystics, then I doubt it serves as a counterexample since any justification conferred would be so wrapped up in extra-textual experience as to make the claim that the text itself was evidence somewhat murky if not downright equivocal.

As for the 'justification' of killing Bin Laden, I don't want to quibble over the word: it may in fact be the wrong one. However, I think that if we want real people to do it for us, then it comes off as bad faith to treat the action as evil. I like the analogy to sandbagging in the face of a coming flood. The work of sandbagging itself is neither good nor bad, but it protects the communities ability to keep doing good things. The difference with killing a man of course, is that we do not think of killing as a morally neutral action, but do we really want to use 'evil' as a descriptor in this case? I'm more inclined to say it's the case that proves the rule: killing people is evil; just look how difficult we find it to break that rule even when it is obviously all-things-considered good to do so.

Finally, this is a bit of a tangent, but in favoring outcomes as the standard for moral action, do you not worry about the kind of de-personalizing effect Bernard Williams describes in his critique of utilitarianism? It seems like focus on outcomes forces agents to forego building their lives around the kind of personal projects that seem to be constitutive of robust agency in the first-place. This is a major bullet for the consequentialist to bite.


Personally, I don't think that textual approach would satisfy anything from an objective, evidentiary perspective. Subjectively, a lot of people are going to take that approach, and a lot of the time it does help them make better decisions. Sometimes it doesn't. But I do tend to approve of things that make people more mindful and aware of their surroundings.

"Evil" probably carries some emotive baggage that I didn't intend. Does English have a word for an action that we recognize is necessary, or the least unfortunate of outcomes, but is still not appropriate to celebrate? I want to distinguish between how we credit (or blame) the actors and decision-makers, and how we approve or condemn the outcome itself.

I should clarify that I prefer consequentialism only as applied to decisions made by nation-states and other large groups. You are probably right that individuals trying to live their lives as consequentialists would run into problems, but since people can't do it consistently, that's where I've stopped thinking about it, to be honest.

With regard to state decision-making, I'm not so much worried about Williams' objections; I think the impossibility of reliably predicting future outcomes is a much more serious problem. For instance, whatever the ethical content of killing bin Laden, we've now complicated our relationship with a nuclear power in ways that no one single person can analyze.

Part of why I don't think the removal of agency is an issue for large-scale decisions is that in practice, descriptively, the unpredictability of free agency tends to disappear in aggregate. This doesn't mean we assume that individual people are automata and their highest goods are purely mechanical things, as Williams does in his strawman. But we can abstract away a lot of the humanity of people whose lives are affected when we predict the responses and behavior of populations. I think this is where his specific example of consequentialists being forced to advocate the death penalty for illegal parking is really silly: the backlash that would either bring down the government or lead to an authoritarian hell would be a negative consequence far in excess of whatever benefit the temporary reprieve from illegal parking would provide. The process for evaluating outcomes may be mechanistic, but the way you wind up predicting those outcomes can be really freakishly complicated, and I think if you do it right it will probably avoid the problem of oversimplifying policy into absurdity.

Anyway, I wouldn't say I'm firmly committed to consequentialism (not least because it's been years since I've actually read up on it). Because of the problems with prognostication, it will tend to favor a more conservative approach to domestic government than I do. (It may be possible to goose this to consider the overall happiness of future generations as well, but this would make the problem of short-term prediction seem tiny.) But I do think it's a better heuristic than, say, overthrowing a dictator because your father didn't, or letting corporations poison the populations of entire regions because they have been generous with campaign contributions, or ignoring genocide because it happens in a resource-poor area.


'Lamentable' is the best word I could come up with, but I think my actual concern is less what word is used than that it not be applied to the action of killing him but to the overall situation, which bin Laden originally possessed the power to prevent unilaterally. As such, I can't see any reason to be upset by his death, though the facts that necessitated it were certainly lamentable or evil or whatever you want to call them. I guess ultimately, I see his death as a good thing given the way his life played out. That said, I'm not setting off fireworks or anything, and I do find the people doing so to be pretty obnoxious. Honestly, though, I tend to find those people (the Toby Keith set) obnoxious anyway, and I think that would be true in a world where bin Laden never existed.

Yeah, I find Williams's parking meter case pretty silly as well. I actually had in mind his cases regarding the loss of selfhood entailed by making all choices based on utility calculations, particularly the cases of George the biochemist and, though it is less compelling, Jim and the Indians.

As for state action, I think I probably agree, though I find most political philosophy very nearly unreadable. (Bully for me that I'm currently research assistant for a political philosopher...)


I suppose I'm just less interested in bin Laden's actual death than in what happens next. Pakistan is arguably close to civil war anyway, which is not a fun situation for a nuclear power. I don't think killing him was a bad thing, but I also don't understand the point of celebrating it. (But I don't understand ceremonies generally, so I assumed it was just me.)

I guess I didn't understand George the biochemist's example. Is that a situation where people might actually decide not to take the job? I don't know of any father that wouldn't, if the alternative really were to let his kids go hungry, and to me it's more of an example of how some choices are not made rationally. Maybe I have experience with too small a set of fathers or something. If the paradox is actually the point - that seeking the greatest good may well lead to the greatest harm - then I think that is a (possibly insoluble) problem with predicting outcomes, not with the kind of outcomes being sought. In any case, there's always the possibility of doing something like what Heisenberg did (it's unclear whether it was intentional or not) - his misplacement of a crucial decimal point was the only thing standing between the Nazis and a functioning atomic weapon. Sometimes a little creativity can skew the moral calculus in a good direction.

Jim's example always seemed about as silly as the parking example. If we're talking specifically about South American juntas, I don't think it's reasonable to assume that the captain's terms are truthful; it seems more likely to me that he would kill the other 19 captives anyway, or try to use the situation to extort or blackmail Jim.

Do you have a sense of how often political philosophers wind up working for government agencies or corporations that do a lot of foreign policy? I know political science and economics backgrounds are common, but I haven't come across many people in those areas who (1) have a philosophy background and (2) didn't also go to law school.

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