Sunday, November 24, 2013

Evil and Sainthood

Sometimes—in a fit of suppressed pedantry—I like to dream up plans for courses I might teach someday on wildly unlikely subjects.  One of the more plausible of these  is a projected seminar on the “pro-evil” tendency in literature and philosophy since Machiavelli.  It would be called something like “Defenses of Evil in Western Thought.” 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Why Didn't Someone Do Something?

This weekend, a friend and I went to see 12 Years a Slave-- the film version of Solomon Northrup's 1853 memoir and one of the first Hollywood films about slavery to actually tell its story through the eyes of a black protagonist. (Brad Pitt's mooning face, mercifully, only gets about two minutes of airtime.)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Self-Righteousness and Complacency

Self-righteousness and complacency.  These twin failings are the malevolent Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee of our all-too-human moral lives.  They are the two heads of the hell-beast that would drag us all to perdition.  And like everything else that comes from the devil-- so the legends tell us-- they are deceitful.  They are nearly impossible to identify for what they really are-- especially when they proceed from within us, from our unconscious motives and idealized appetites.  Self-righteousness always presents itself to us as virtuous indignation, compassionate rage on behalf of one's neighbor or one's principles.  Complacency comes to us dressed like wise and worldly detachment-- the surveying calm of a saint or a philosopher elevated above the fray.  Self-righteousness and complacency-- they are so easy to identify in someone else-- impossible to find in ourselves!  That's why the cynic's dictionary might well define the first as "what you are being when you ask me to do something I don't want to do;" and the second as "what you are being when you won't do something I want you to do."

Friday, November 8, 2013

Thoughts on Albert O. Hirschman's The Rhetoric of Reaction (1991)

Albert Hirschman was the ultimate non-economist's economist.  Well-informed with regard to his own discipline, he was also intelligible to the non-specialist and willing to draw insight from the humanities, especially history.  As a humanistic economist, Hirschman was also willing to approach the arguments made in his discipline as themselves forms of political discourse-- empirically-grounded, perhaps, but still motivated by ideological and moral concerns-- in other words, not as purely "objective" restatements of verifiable facts and scientific laws.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Sheepdog and the Lamb

When Ah regard mah ickle flock
Ah reco’nize each scar an’ pock
On sheepy visage standin’ there
Fra’ dolefu’ eyes ta woollen hair
Each looks th’ likeness o’ anither
As if each ta' each war sister'n brither
A mere dug like me caint keep in view
The diff’rence ‘tween each ram an’ ewe
 Or li’l wee sheeplings ou’ i’ the snow
They could be goa's fer all Ah know!
But they sartainly take care, one fer th’ ither
E’en in winter’s damne-ploorable wither
Ye'll grant sheepies this much, that ye can:
Sheep’s better ta’ sheep than man is ta’ man.
See ‘em, aw hooddled togither ta avoid th’ cauld
They bleat out their luve ta young n’ ta auld!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Calling a Truce on "Rights Talk"

Since the late 19th century, it has been a mainstay of Catholic social doctrine to insist that it is wrong to speak of "rights" without also speaking of "obligations."  The apparent force of this assertion stems from a basic moral intuition.  "Rights"-- at least as they are conceived in a liberal polity-- have reference to the individual.  But what makes an action specifically "moral," in our common understanding, is precisely that it is not undertaken on behalf of oneself as an individual, but on behalf of others, or of a valid principle.  This is not to say that actions undertaken on our own behalf are immoral-- we do, and must do, them every day-- every time we have a bite to eat or get out of bed to go to work in the morning.  But they can't be the exclusive basis of our social ethics.  It is this insight which gives the Catholic critique its intrinsic appeal.