Spontaneous Homicide

Monday, 10-07-2019


From time to time someone argues that abortion couldn’t be against the natural law, because sometimes during the course of gestation spontaneous abortions occur.

Here is the difference.  In one case, the unborn child dies because something goes dreadfully wrong during the natural process of development.  In the other, he dies because someone kills him.

The two kinds of death are not comparable.  A miscarriage should no more be called a “spontaneous abortion” than the death of a grown man from a heart attack should be called a “spontaneous homicide.”


Posts about abortion

History’s Highest Function

Monday, 09-30-2019


“This I regard as history’s highest function,” says the Roman historian Tacitus, “to let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.”

Curious.  Today we tend to think that the commemoration of virtuous deeds and the condemnation of wicked ones is suitable, perhaps, for teaching children about the founders of the country (and perhaps not even then), but not to be taken seriously by adults.  History for grown-up people isn’t about unscientific things like virtue and vice, we say, but about causes and effects, about what makes things happen.

But whatever Tacitus may have got wrong about the history of his own people, he understood that virtue and vice are real causal factors in affairs.  Vicious persons behave differently than virtuous ones, and although there are various ways, such as checks and balances, to protect some approximation of the common good even with less virtue than we wish that we had, there is no way to get by without any.

Thus to leave virtues and vices out of the picture is not more grown-up and scientific, but less.

Math and Morality

Monday, 09-23-2019


For it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.  --  Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

How is morality like and unlike mathematics?

Alike:  In both math and morality, there are right and wrong answers.

Alike:  Everyone knows something about both math and morality.

Alike:  Both math and morality employ reasoning to find out more.

Unlike:  In math the mind uses calculation a great deal, but in ethics it makes greater use of good judgment -- that was Aristotle’s point.

Alike:  However, in both math and morality, mastery is best judged by those who have achieved it.

Because of the one unlike, superficial people tend to forget the four alikes.  They think there are no right or wrong answers in morality, that everyone is in the dark about right and wrong, that reasoning has nothing to do with it, and that no one may dare judge whether anyone is better at it than anyone else.


Thanks for Telling Me

Wednesday, 09-18-2019


From a young scholar:

I keep your How to Be Full and Exact post open on my smartphone.  Now that I've settled into my first academic job, I should really work on practicing more of your suggestions!



You would find it hard to believe how absurdly pleased that makes this humble blogger.


Old Reliable

Monday, 09-16-2019


Reliably supporting a cause is not the same thing as being consistent.  Case in point:  Old reliable Richard Dawkins, who has been writing for years about how meaningless everything is, but who can’t keep his own claims straight.

Dawkins writes, “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

Yet he expresses another of his characteristic themes when he writes, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose,” and when, to the same effect, he declares, “The illusion of purpose is so powerful that biologists themselves use the assumption of good design as a working tool.”

So one of the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, is the appearance of design.  Yes, of course.  Now that this has been explained, it all makes perfect sense.


Quotations taken from Dawkins’ books River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life and The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design.

I’m With Stupid

Monday, 09-09-2019


I am not one of those (actually there are very few) who believe that natural selection does not explain anything.  Yet this godlike properties attributed to this mechanism are more than a little bit difficult to credit.

Geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously wrote, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."  Did you get that?  Nothing.

Yet after urging that “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved,” molecular biologist and Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick remarked, “It might be thought, therefore, that evolutionary arguments would play a large role in guiding biological research, but that is far from the case.  It is difficult enough to study what is happening now.”

The contradiction between these two scientists is rather odd.  If it is enough to study living things without paying attention to natural selection, as Crick thought, then why did Dobzhansky say that natural selection is the one and only key to the study of living things?

I wonder whether part of the explanation might lie in the fact that Dobzhansky was writing not in a journal for biologists, but in a journal for K through 12 biology instructors, American Biology Teacher.

What difference would that make?  Wouldn’t the same views and arguments be expressed to teachers as to practitioners?  Not if one of the objects of preparing teachers is to propagandize them.

Philip Kitcher, a philosopher of biology and a supporter of natural selection, chastises Darwin for “appeasing his critics,” writing that “If the presence of particular goals can interfere with the epistemic evaluation of a novel proposal, then it is epistemically desirable for the proposer to respond to those goals, even if it requires deception.”

In other words, you may have to lie to the stupid people to get them to take Darwinism as seriously as we smart people do.

A more elaborate argument in favor of deception is offered by philosopher Phillip L. Quinn, who says that sometimes, in public debate over Darwinism, the only arguments that have a chance of convincing policymakers are bad ones.  He argues that presenting arguments one knows to be faulty is morally permissible, but only “provided we continue to have qualms of conscience about getting our hands soiled.”  He does worry that after presenting effective but bad arguments has become easy and second nature, one's hands “become dirty beyond all cleansing and one suffers from a thoroughgoing corruption of mind.”  But perhaps scholars could “divide up the labor so that no one among us has to resort to the bad effective argument too frequently.”  That way, “we can succeed in resisting effectively without paying too high a price in terms of moral corruption."

In others words, if you feel bad about lying to the stupid people, that makes it okay, so long as you take turns with other liars so that the habit doesn’t become so well-entrenched that it spills over into the rest of your life.  (Why, you might then begin lying to us smart people too.)

I know some very truthful people who believe in the magical power of natural selection to explain everything.  I certainly don’t think everyone who believes in this magic is a liar, or even that most of them are.  Francis Crick believed in it, as we have seen, and he was trying very hard to tell the truth.

But I do think that if everyone laid his best arguments on the table, the results would be different than what most of the smart people expect.  For not one in a thousand of them takes the trouble to find out what evidence and arguments the stupid people really offer.

Since we already know that they’re stupid, you see, it isn’t necessary.


Quotations are taken from Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution,” American Biology Teacher 35:3 (March 1973), pp. 125-129; Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (New York: Basic Books, 1988), p. 138-139, emphasis added; Philip Kitcher, "Persuasion" in Marcello Pera and William R. Shea, eds., Persuading Science: The Art of Scientific Rhetoric (Canton, Massachusetts: Science History Publications, 1991), p. 20, emphasis added; and Phillip L. Quinn, "Creationism, Methodology, and Politics", in Michael Ruse, ed., But is it Science?:  The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1988, 1996), pp. 397-398.


Where Do Rights Come From?

Monday, 09-02-2019



What exactly would you say are our rights, and where would you say they come from?



That’s a great pair of questions.  I’m not sure how helpful it would be to offer just a list of our rights, partly because there would never be an end to it, and partly because it would beg too many questions.  A classification of our rights might be a little more interesting -- for example, we might distinguish between rights to do something, and rights to have or receive something -- but by itself, it would still leave a lot to be desired, because it wouldn’t tell us the source of the rights in each category.

So let’s focus on your second question instead:  Where do rights come from?  If only we can get straight on that, then the question of what rights we have almost answers itself.  However, I can’t say strongly enough that the question of where our rights come from can’t be answered in a vacuum.  For example, I don’t think it’s enough just to think about the categorical imperative.  To reach valid conclusions about our rights, we need to have a good deal of other moral knowledge – moral knowledge of many kinds. 

For example, one way to work out our rights is to consider our duties – what we are obligated to do or not do.  Because I owe my parents honor, they have a right to receive it from me; because they have a right to receive it, I owe it to them.  As you see, such inferences work in both directions.  From either side of the equation, you can work out the other.  The same is true of the other ways of working out our rights.

What other ways?  Well, we might consider not what we are obligated to do, but what we are permitted to do.  Because I am permitted to marry a woman, I have a right not to be prevented from doing so, provided that she consents and there are no impediments to our union.

Still another way is to consider what we have agreed to do.  Because I promised to be your best man, you have a right that I show up on time.

Or we might consider the exchanges into which we have entered.  Because you accepted delivery of a certain quantity of goods, I have a right to their price.

Then again, we might consider natural institutions and practices -- frameworks of conduct that are necessary for human well-being, such as the family.  For instance, children have a right to education, to nurture, and to be conceived in the loving union of their parents.

We might simply consider the respect due to us as persons made in the image of God.  One example is that I have a right to be governed not as a slave, but as a free and rational being – although there are circumstances in which I can lose that right.  If I am imprisoned for a grave crime, then certain decisions are no longer mine to make, and rightly so.  If a people habitually sells its votes, it should not have the privilege of choosing its own magistrates.

Up until now we have been considering the implications of natural moral truths – natural duties, natural institutions, and so forth.  Last, though, we might consider just laws duly enacted by human government for the well-being of all.  For example, the law establishes an army, and so if I meet the legally specified requirements, I have the right to enlist.

These seven ways are not mutually exclusive; they overlap.  Thus, a given right can often be worked out from more than one kind of moral consideration.

Not only are rights related to other kinds of moral consideration, but they are also related to each other.  Sometimes these relations are pretty simple.  Since it is intrinsically wrong to deliberately take innocent human life, there cannot be a right to commit abortion.

On the other hand, sometimes they are pretty complex.  Take the right to religious liberty.  It permits each person to seek the truth about God, because seeking it is our duty and finding it our highest good.  It protects each person in seeking the truth about God, by prohibiting others from unreasonably hindering the search.  It supports each person in seeking the truth about God, by obligating other people to give the seeker such aid as they reasonably can.  Notice two that only the first two dimensions of this natural right can be enforced by humanly enacted rights.  The third dimension can’t – for though I ought to help others find the truth, there is nothing that human law can properly do to me if I don’t.

At bottom, all genuine rights exist to safeguard the ability of all persons to do their duties and to have the freedom of action necessary to direct their lives in order to develop their human gifts, in community with others, for both the individual and common good.

This is far from the last word on the topic, but it may be enough to keep you going for a while.