Environmental Non Sequiturs

Monday, 11-12-2018


For an old style car, first you refine hydrocarbons – say, oil.  Then you transport the resulting gasoline into the car’s fuel tank.  Then you burn it to make the car go.

For an electric car, first you refine that oil.  Then you burn it in a power plant to make electricity.  Then you transmit the electricity to a battery charging station.  Then you use the electricity to charge the batteries.  Then you use the batteries to make the car go.

Can someone tell me why a process involving five steps is more efficient than a process involving only three?  I concede that it is not mathematically impossible – with the right relative conversion efficiencies, anything is possible -- but forgive me for nursing a doubt.

Again, both the three-step and the five-step processes release waste heat and waste gasses into the biosphere.  But the five-step process releases not only these, but additional problematic substances including cobalt and cadmium.

This time can someone tell me why the five-step process is friendlier to the environment?  I may be missing something here too, but it isn’t obvious what.

And we haven’t even compared the health risks of coal miners and gas and oilfield workers with those of coal miners, gas and oilfield workers, plus cobalt and cadmium miners.

I want a clean planet too, but the political enthusiasm for electric vehicles is fueled largely by payoffs, sometimes called subsidies, and unexamined assumptions.  Thus far it seems to be much more about virtue signaling than about virtue.


This post began to spark correspondence the moment I posted it online.  Thanks to those who have written!

Yes, I know that not all electricity comes from burning hydrocarbons, and I share the hopes some readers have expressed for better alternatives than we have.  Solar power generation isn’t there yet.  It may never be, and not just because it requires the right climate and lots of sunny days.

We speak as though what we do now has environmental risks and what we propose doing doesn’t.  Has anyone tried to estimate the effect that devoting enormous acreage to solar collection would have on temperatures?  Some authors have proposed putting the collectors out in space instead and beaming the energy back down via focused microwaves, but I would hate to be in the way if the aiming software failed.  Zzzt.

Fission is not on the table; we all know why.  Fusion would be great, but we don’t know whether we can get it to work.  For the foreseeable future, the other alternatives, such as tidal and geothermal electric power generation, seem more plausible as supplements to the conventional methods of power generation than as replacements.

Last point.  When I said I might be missing something, I meant it.  I don’t have the answers.  What do I know?  But sunny assumptions aren’t answers either.


A New Twist on Conspicuous Consumption

The Church and Public Policy

Too Much Virtue Signaling, Not Enough Virtue



Character May Be Destiny, Personality Isn’t

Monday, 11-05-2018


Though never nurtured in the lap of luxury, yet I admonish you,
I am an intellectual chap, and think of things that would astonish you.
I often think it's comical ... how Nature always does contrive ...
That every boy and every gal that’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative!

-- Private Willis, in Gilbert and Sullivan, Iolanthe


Recently one of my students asked me to listen to a video of psychologist Jonathan Haidt arguing that liberals and conservatives differ not just in opinions but in personality.  Apparently it is making the rounds.

Haidt’s opening example is that liberals are more “open to experience” than conservatives.  To illustrate, he asks us to imagine a liberal, “Adam,” and a conservative, “Bill,” who travel to Italy and see Michelangelo’s David for the first time.  Adam is transfixed by its beauty.  Bill is transfixed by embarrassment, because of “the thing there in the center.”

The example is pretty silly.  Do we really gain anything by lumping beauty together with nudity and calling them both “experience”?  Such terms are overly broad.  What Haidt’s illustration really insinuates is that liberals are more appreciative of beauty (which I gravely doubt) and that conservatives are more embarrassed by seeing the thing there in the center (which may be true, though it probably depends on the setting).

If we look closely, I think we will find that liberals are not more “open” to “experience” in general.  Rather liberals are more welcoming to certain kinds of experiences, and conservatives are more welcoming to others.  In his book The Righteous Mind, Haidt unwittingly demonstrates my point by showing that conservatives tend to be much more accurate in explaining how their opponents answer moral questions than liberals are.  In short, conservatives understand how liberals think, but liberals don’t understand how conservatives think.  According to Haidt, this too arises from a basic personality difference.

Now think:  Why would conservatives be so much more likely to grasp how their opponents think unless they were more “open” to hearing the arguments of the other side?  Isn’t hearing the arguments of the other side an “experience” too?

There is a deeper problem with the emphasis on personality.  Although it may be true that liberals and conservatives tend to display different personality characteristics – and I do not fault Haidt for pointing this out -- it would not be helpful to make too much of the fact.  Human beings are made to know the truth, and we approach the truth by reasoning as clearly as we can.  Suppose you are explaining to your friend some of the reasons for believing that God exists, and he dismisses all your reasons by saying “You believe that only because you have a religious personality.”

That is not an argument, but a diagnosis.  Besides being insulting, it is a distraction.  Unfortunately, the substitution of diagnosis for argument is one of the great fallacies of our time.  You don’t hold an opinion, you have an “animus.”  You aren’t persuaded by reasoning, you have a “phobia.”

Diagnosis has a place.  It may be appropriate when the other person is irrationally resistant to argument, and you are trying to understand why.  But it is not in itself a reason for believing or disbelieving anything the other person thinks.  The present difficulty is that it makes your friend – how shall I phrase this? – insufficiently “open to the experience” of hearing you out.

Besides, character may be destiny, but personality isn’t.  Nothing prevents a person with a “religious personality” from being an atheist.  He will merely pursue his atheism religiously.


Monday, 10-29-2018: Good Sins?

Monday, 10-29-2018


In the name of mercy, some recent theologians have suggested that there are elements of good in some objectively wrong acts and relationships.  For example, friendship is good, and there certainly is an element of friendship in an illicit sexual relationship.

Or for that matter in the collusion of two thieves in a theft.  Funny that we don’t apply the argument to theft.

We always stop with sex.

But why?  There may be an element of intelligence in a well-planned fraud, an element of the love of kin in genocide, and an element of the love of beauty in the theft of a work of art.  Friendship, intelligence, love of kin, and love of beauty are all good in themselves.  But this is irrelevant to the question of whether these acts and relationships are wrong.

The question should not be whether there are elements of value in sins, but whether there is anything valuable about sinning.

Consider:  No one can love evil for its own sake.  The only thing it is possible to will for its own sake is good.  Thus, the only way it is even possible to will an evil is that something about it seems good to us.

But something seems good to us in every evil, because evil cannot exist in itself.  The only way to get an evil at all is to take something good and distort it.

The upshot is that the fact that evil contains disordered elements of good doesn’t mean it isn’t evil.  What this fact shows is why evil can be attractive.

Now back to mercy.  If I am hurting myself by what I am doing, if I am hurting others, if I am separating myself from God -- then I want my friends to love me enough to tell me.  Lying to me in the name of “elements of good” does not help me.  It is not mercy but indifference.

So although it is certainly possible to tell the truth without being merciful, it is impossible to be merciful without telling the truth.

Answering a Question with a Question

Natural Law and Original Sin, Part 1 of 3

Natural Law and Original Sin, Part 2 of 3

Natural Law and Original Sin, Part 3 of 3



Knowing the Law

Monday, 10-22-2018


Now and then I realize how much of my writing results from trying to make up for having answered someone’s good question badly.

Thomas Aquinas spends a good deal of time in the Summa discussing whether the detailed precepts of the Old Testament law are all the same kind of thing, or whether, instead, we should say that some of them are moral, some ceremonial, still others judicial – that is, some of them about how to live, some about how to worship, and still others about how to regulate the community.

This may seem like hairsplitting.  One of my graduate students asked me recently what difference it makes whether we get the answer right.  Here’s what I should have said.

Two things depend on getting the classification right, one of them practical, the other theoretical.

The first issue is whether any of those precepts could have been have been different than they were.  Answer:  Some couldn’t, some could; it depends on which kind of precept one has in mind.  None of the moral precepts could have been different, because they reflect general precepts of natural law.  Having created the good of creaturely life, for example, God will not now say “Go murder.”  The wrong of murder is in the nature of the things that He made.

But the ceremonial and judicial precepts could have been different, because they are what are called “determinations” of the moral precepts:  By divine authority, they pin down the precise way in which the moral precepts should be observed, in cases in which more than one possibility may have existed.  Ceremonial precepts pin down the details of our duty to worship God Himself.  Judicial precepts pin down the details of our duties of justice to man in God’s image.

Human law is like this too.  The lawmakers cannot release us from the duty to take care for the safety of others.  On the other hand, they can pin down whether we are to drive on the right or the left.  In much the same way, not even God Himself can release us from the duty to worship Him and Him alone, for the rightness of worshipping Him inheres in Who He Is.  Nor could he release us from the duty to do justice to our neighbors.  On the other hand, some of the details of divine worship and executing doing justice might have been arranged differently than they were.  This is why, for example, it was possible for Jesus to modify the Jewish Passover so that it became Holy Communion, and why we are no longer bound to punish adultery by stoning.  There were good reasons for the old ceremonies and judicial regulations – but by divine authority, certain changes were possible.

By the way, by considering these good reasons for the old regulations, Christians can learn from the ceremonial and judicial precepts of Old Testament law too.  The fact that we are not required to obey them does not mean that we should be indifferent to them.  They were part of the divine pedagogy.

The second issue is why it matters whether we get any definition or classification right.  Answer:  Yes, because the mind uses these things to engage the shape of reality.  Do we wish to understand how things really are, or don’t we?  A dog is not a cat, nor a triangle a rhombus, nor a person, thank God, a thing.  Contrary to the views of postmodernists and some Justices of the Supreme Court, we cannot change the basic structures of reality just by defining them perversely.  At stake is the rational mind’s privilege and calling to know what is

Now at the bottom of what is, we find Eternal Law:  The pattern in the mind of God, by which He created and governs the universe.  Although we cannot know it as His infinite intellect knows it, we can certainly know it through its reflections, by reason in natural law, by direct verbal proclamation in biblical law.  This is how He imparts it to us.

Thus:  Even if there were no practical reason to know how many kinds of

Old Testament precepts there are, it would be worthwhile to know the answer simply because knowing is our vocation.  By doing what we are made for, we give homage to the Author of our minds.

The Blade, The Ear and The Corn

Natural Law and Divine Command

Is Natural Law Really Law?

Does Sola Scriptura [for Protestants] Mean “No Natural Law”?

How the Natural Law Thinker Thinks

Is That Everything?



The Good Old Days?

Monday, 10-15-2018


When people say that the standard of virtue is declining, it is considered shrewd and knowing to reply “Every age thinks it was better in the old days.”

Perhaps every age does think it was better in the old days.  But morally speaking, some ages really have been better, and some really have been worse.  People in better days who say “It was better in the old days” are mistaken.  And people in worse days who say “It was better in the old days” are right.

So maybe it was just as bad in the old days as in our days, but what makes us so sure?  Perhaps we should work harder to avoid being smug, since the five most common ways to attain complacency seem unconvincing.

One is to consider the evidence selectively.  After all, we no longer mistreat people in certain ways.

The second is to deny that our favorite vices are vices.  How could anything we really want to do be misbehaving?

Third, and more radically, redefine vices as virtues.  This is how the coarse and profane becomes frank and refreshing.

Conversely, redefine virtues as vices.  Consider all the virtues at the mention of which sophisticates are supposed to smirk.

Fifth, simply deny the possibility of moral judgment.  This is the most interesting, because it is the most irrational.  Among other things, it implies that no one should even try to examine his own conscience.

For who is he to judge?


Song of the Thomists

Monday, 10-08-2018


(To the tune of “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” here sung by Fats Waller.

I'm gonna sit right down and write a good objection

And then show why it can't be true

I’m gonna fill it up with smarts

It’s gonna fly right off the charts

A lot of comments on the margin

It’ll be a bargain


I’m gonna smile and say I hope I’ve got an answer

And close the way I always do

I'm gonna sit right down and write a good objection

And then show why it can't be true



Monday, 10-01-2018


We are not just knowers, but seekers, who spontaneously incline toward certain realities other than ourselves.

When I say that this attraction is spontaneous, I do not mean that it is arbitrary, because that is not the way that we experience it.  One way of saying this is that we do not merely experience ourselves as drawn to things; we experience the things themselves as being such as to draw us.  Our word for their being so – and there is such a word in every language – is “good”; goodness is the quality of being such as to draw us.

So another way to express what I am saying is that we experience certain things as good, and experience ourselves as drawn to them because of their goodness; we are designed to be so drawn.

We are magnetized.

With an air of demystification, subjectivists like Thomas Hobbes announced to us that it is the other way around.  They deny that we are inclined toward things because they are good.  Instead, they say, we call them good because we happen to be inclined toward them (as we may happen to be inclined to different things tomorrow).  Goodness is merely a name, and inclination does not point outside itself after all; it just is.

But this is not just bad theory, it is a bad description of the experience.  If you ask a man “Why do you love that woman?” he does not normally reply by telling you about himself – “I just do” – but by telling you about her – “Because she is wonderful.”




Getting Out of Dodge