What Do You Mean, The Election Was Crooked (or Wasn’t)?

Monday, 09-11-2023


Donald Trump and his defenders argue that the 2020 election was rigged.  His critics protest that there is no compelling evidence of fraud.  A point mostly missed about this controversy is that the two sides talk past each other.  They are using different definitions, assumptions, standards of judgment, and rules of evidence.

As to definitions:  By a crooked election, the defenders mean only a fraudulent election, but the critics mean one which is rigged.   Rigged and fraudulent elections are not the same thing.  For an extreme case, consider an election with no coercion and no miscounting, in which everyone is honest, only qualified voters vote, and only one party is allowed to run candidates.  The election isn’t fraudulent, but it’s plainly rigged.  Its outcome is a foregone conclusion.

Now consider an election in which dramatic changes in voting rules make mail-in voting and ballot harvesting much, much easier.  That’s what we had in 2020, and what we may have in 2024.  Should such an election be considered rigged?

The critics think it is rigged because whether fraudulent or not, it invites fraud, as well as manipulation:  Fraud, because mail-in voting and ballot harvesting make it much easier for legally unqualified persons to cast votes; manipulation, because the earlier people send in their votes, the less information they have about the candidates.  One party or the other may be better positioned to exploit these facts, and doing so may be part of its strategy.  The defenders say all this business of inviting fraud is mere speculation.  And as to manipulation, who are we to say how quickly voters should make up their minds?

But now we come to the differences in assumptions, standards of proof, and rules of evidence.

In assumptions, the critics and the defenders are unequally suspicious.  The critics think that the stronger the temptation to commit fraud, the more people will engage in it, and the more effort it requires of them to become well informed, the fewer will go to the trouble.  But the defenders think we shouldn’t draw such dark conclusions without compelling evidence.  They resist criticism of electoral rules on the basis of what might happen, and insist that we consider only what can be proven to have happened.

In standards of proof, the critics and the defenders rely unequally on courts.  The defenders emphasize that no court has found the case for massive fraud sufficient.  “You have had your day in court, and you have lost.”  But the critics believe that although courts are right to use the standard “innocent until proven guilty” when individuals are accused of crimes, life would be impossible if we made probable judgments that way.  For judging who to marry, whether to cross the street, or how to design electoral procedures, they say, the standard should be common sense grounded in human experience.

In rules of evidence, the critics and defenders disagree about what should be counted as a fact or a possible fact.  The defenders demand judicially admissible evidence of phony votes.  But the critics believe that it is in the very nature of successful cheating not to be easily discovered.  They are also willing to weigh many sorts of evidence of phony voting which a historian might be right to take into account, but which a court of law must reject out of hand.

Logically, it would be entirely possible for those who deny that the election was fraudulent to be justified by their lights, but for those who say that it was rigged for fraud to be equally justified by theirs.  Questions about assumptions, definitions, standards of proof, and rules of evidence are largely about the meaning of fairness and the requirements of prudence.   They surely have right answers, but the right answers can’t be ascertained by the crude techniques of the “fact checkers.”

Unfortunately, the patient discussion of these difficulties is hindered and skewed by the fact that one side risks public censure or even legal punishment for peacefully pressing its views, and the other side doesn’t.



So Long as It Shall Be Cool for Us Both

Monday, 09-04-2023


On this day my wife and I celebrate our 52nd anniversary.  When we married, we had scarcely any idea what we were doing.  I am glad to announce that even as boneheaded as we are, we have learned something.

Everyone knows that the matrimonial union requires work and faces difficulties.  In traditional marriage vows, the lovers promise to love each other “for better or for worse” and “until we are parted by death.”  Today these words are often repeated with the mental substitution, “so long as it shall be cool for us both.”  In the decade in which we were married, some people actually used those words during the wedding ceremony.  No wonder so many see no difference between marrying and shacking up.

Trust me, it gets easier.  Only hang on, and you may wonder why you ever considered putting an end to your union.

The basis of the marital friendship is not primarily affection, or even sexual desire.  C.S. Lewis said that lovers look into each other’s eyes, but that friends look ahead to the task.  With appreciation for his great book on The Four Loves, I think Lewis missed something important, for husbands and wives look into each other’s eyes and look ahead to the task.  Feelings may change, and sexual desires may wax and wane, but matrimonial union is a partnership in the hope and intention of making family, in bringing the future into being.

This partnership cannot be revised or redefined.  It transcends the feelings, desires, and even personal intentions of the spouses.  So true is this that if the hope and intention of family are missing, the lovers should not be surprised to lose interest.  That’s how we are made.  Even when, through no fault of their own, a couple are unable to have children, they will naturally desire to be spiritual parents to their young relatives or godchildren.

After all, if not for making family, then what on earth would the sexual powers be for?  People say “for pleasure,” but that is absurd.  Of course sexual intercourse produces pleasure; the exercise of every voluntary power produces pleasure.  Eating does.  Looking around does.  Flexing the muscles does.  Pleasure is certainly a strong motive for employing our powers, but why we have them is another matter altogether.  We may eat for pleasure, but eating, as such, is for nourishment.  Besides, pleasure vanishes if pursued as an end in itself.  Gratefully accepted as a byproduct of doing something worthwhile in itself, it becomes surprisingly strong.

Because matrimony brings the future into being, it must be permanent.  I give some credit to thinkers like John Locke, who wasn’t strong on teleology, but at least recognized that since matrimony concerns children, the marital bond shouldn’t be dissoluble at will.  Yet Locke erred in thinking that the bond would need to endure only so long as the children were young.  This view ignores a number of reasons for permanency, which are obvious once our attention is drawn to them, but easy to overlook.  For example,

(1)  The procreative mission doesn’t end when the children grow up, because grown children need the continuing help of their parents in establishing their own new families.  Children need not only parents, but also grandparents. 

(2)  Intimacy requires security.  How can the spouses expect to have a robust confidence in their shared life, when in the back of their minds they harbor the thought that either one of them may exit at any moment?  If you expect failure, you will get it; if you hold the back door open, you will use it.

(3)  It isn’t true that if only the husband and wife have a strong friendship, they will stick together and be faithful.  Say rather than if only they stick together and remain faithful, they will have a strong friendship.

“But what if we don’t love each other any more?”  True, romantic feelings may dissipate or fade.  But although love is accompanied by feelings, the essence of love is not a feeling, but an enduring will to the true good of the other person.  You can continue to love the other person – to rejoice in her existence and will her true good every day -- even if, at this moment, you are not feeling romantic or finding much joy in her presence.

And here is the thing about lost joy:  If you keep loving, it comes back.  Often it comes back deeper than before.  And that is very cool for you both.

Related (book):

On the Meaning of Sex

Related (article):

“Thomas Aquinas on Marriage, Fruitfulness, and Faithful Love”



Virtual Jurisprudence

Monday, 08-28-2023


Before you complain that by overturning certain precedents which have stood for years, the new majority on the U.S. Supreme Court is “threatening democracy,” consider how some of the Court’s precedents were established in the first place.

One of the first warnings of how headstrong and arbitrary courts could be is due to the Anti-Federalist who wrote under the pseudonym “Brutus” (probably the New York State judge Robert Yates).[1]  His favorite example, drawn from William Blackstone, was how the Court of Exchequer in England slyly expanded its jurisdiction by allowing plaintiffs to claim that they were debtors of the crown when they were not.

An even stranger example is found in the annals of the Court of King’s Bench, which was supposed to be restricted to suits by parties who had suffered trespasses or other injuries by violence.  On one occasion, a plaintiff who was angry about having been sold diluted wine alleged that the merchant had watered it "with force and arms and against the peace of the King, to wit with swords and bows and arrows."[2]  The Anti-Federalists, who believed that under the new Constitution the judiciary would be too powerful and heedless, expected American courts and judges to behave in much the same way.

Brutus was right to be concerned.  The bizarre lengths to which determined judges can take this sort of thing is suggested by the dissenting opinion of Justice Douglas in Sierra Club v. Morton, a 1972 case in which an association of environmental activists sought to halt the construction of a resort in a national park.  Mr. Douglas proposed fashioning “a federal rule that allowed environmental issues to be litigated before federal agencies or federal courts in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded,” so that “environmental objects” could “sue for their own preservation.”[3]

The prospect of vegetables and minerals bringing suit in federal court makes today’s arguments about animal rights seem almost quaint.  Although in that case, the majority declined to swallow the particular legal fiction suggested by Justice Douglas, it would be a grave mistake to suggest that Supreme Court Justices have been averse to fictitious claims.  Courts in many of the states are still up to much the same shenanigans.

A fictitious history has been employed to conclude that the First Amendment requires neutrality between religion and irreligion;[4]

A fictitious psychology has been employed to maintain that the only possible motive for opposing special preferences for homosexuals is “animus” or irrational hatred;[5]

A fictitious embryology has been employed to insinuate that a child growing and developing in the womb does not enjoy actual life but only "potential life";[6]

A fictitious classification has been employed to characterize behavior which is lethal to babies as reproductive behavior;[7]

A fictitious teleology has been employed to suggest that the natural reason for the institution of marriage is not the protection and nurture of children but the sexual convenience of grown-ups;[8]

A fictitious semantics has been employed to interpret the Constitutional guarantee of "free exercise of religion" as having no necessary reference to religious acts;[9]

A fictitious grammar has been employed to treat categorical prohibitions as implying qualified permissions;[10]

A fictitious logic has been employed to suggest that if the Constitution protects certain highly specific and enumerated kinds of privacy, then it must also protect all kinds of privacy;[11]

And a fictious vocabulary has been employed to suggest that if the Constitution protects privacy in the usual sense of freedom from unwanted attention and intrusion, then it also protects “privacy” in the novel sense of freedom from judgment on one’s actions.[12]

For three generations, the use of fictitious suppositions has been so pervasive a feature of American Constitutional interpretion that we should no longer speak of actual jurisprudence, but of virtual jurisprudence.

How the support of such high-handedness concerning the Constitution “protects democracy” is impossible to understand.


How a Constitution May Undermine Constitutionalism


1.  Letters of Brutus, numbers 11 and 12.

2.  Rattlesdene v. Gruneston, Y.B. Pasch. 10 Edw. II pl. 37, p. 140-41 (1317) (Selden Soc.).  For discussion, see Eben Moglen, "Legal Fictions and Common Law Legal Theory: Some Historical Reflections," 10 Tel-Aviv University Studies in Law 35 (1991.

3.  Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972), at 742.

4.  "The wholesome "neutrality" of which this Court's cases speak thus stems from a recognition of the teachings of history that powerful sects or groups might bring about a fusion of governmental and religious functions or a concert or dependency of one upon the other to the end that official support of the State or Federal Government would be placed behind the tenets of one or of all orthodoxies. This the Establishment Clause prohibits.  And a further reason for neutrality is found in the Free Exercise Clause, which recognizes the value of religious training, teaching and observance and, more particularly, the right of every person to freely choose his own course with reference thereto, free of any compulsion from the state. This the Free Exercise Clause guarantees."  Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963), at 221.  Notice that the Constitution is inconsistently said to require neutrality between religion and irreligion because it recognizes the value of religion.

5.  "[T]he amendment seems inexplicable by anything but animus toward the class that it affects"; later in the same case, "laws of the kind now before us raise the inevitable inference that the disadvantage imposed is born of animosity toward the class of persons affected."  Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996), at 631, 633.

 6.  "With respect to the State's important and legitimate interest in potential life, the 'compelling' point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother's womb."  Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), at 163.

7.  "[F]or two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail.  The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives."  Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), at 856.

8.  Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015.

9.  "Our cases do not at their farthest reach support the proposition that a stance of conscientious opposition relieves an objector from any colliding duty fixed by a democratic government."  Gillette v. United States, 401 U.S. 437 (1971), at 461 (emphasis added).  Notice that the statement of the Court goes far beyond the mere assertion of a tacit condition that religious conduct be within the bounds of good order.

10.  "The essence of all that has been said and written on the subject is that only those interests of the highest order and those not otherwise served can overbalance legitimate claims to the free exercise of religion."  Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972), at 215.  According to this alleged interpretation of the First Amendment, even "legitimate" claims to the free exercise of religion can be “overbalanced” by "interests" which judges consider sufficiently important, even though nothing is said about them in the Constitution.  Yet the First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law ... prohibiting the free exercise of religion" (emphasis added).  Again notice that the statement of the Court goes far beyond the mere assertion of a tacit condition that religious conduct be within the bounds of good order.

11.  “Specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance.”  Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 US 479 (1965).

12.  Ibid.


Oppenheimer: Knowledge, Power, and Obsession

Monday, 08-21-2023


Now that the movie Oppenheimer is making the rounds, it seems opportune to repost a reflection I posted about the man back in 2020, when we were in a whirl not about bombs, but about viruses.  Read on.


+++++  +  +++++

I have been reading a famous speech of Robert A. Oppenheimer, given in 1945 to the Association of Los Alamos Scientists.  Oppenheimer had played a central role in the development of nuclear weapons.  His speech is one of the most tortuously reasoned documents of its kind that I have read.  However, it is revealing.

According to Oppenheimer, to understand the “real impact” of the invention of the atomic bomb, “one has to look further back, look, I think, to the times when physical science was growing in the days of the renaissance, and when the threat that science offered was felt so deeply throughout the Christian world.”

There is some bad history here.  Were it not for the vision of a universe ordered by Mind, a Mind that does not work capriciously but makes use of secondary causes, and that made human minds in its image so that they can inquire into its handiwork, it is doubtful whether science could have got started.  Please don’t tell me about Galileo.  The Church’s complaint against the poor man wasn’t that he contradicted the descriptions of the cosmos in Holy Scripture, which the Church knew to be figurative, but that he was doing what we now call “science by press release.”  His theory turned out to be true, but the Church protested that he claimed it was proven before it really was.  I don’t think the Church should have poked its nose into the matter at all, but even so, its complaint was scientific, not theological.

But never mind.  I understand why Oppenheimer speaks as he does, because although Christianity doesn’t regard science per se as a threat, it does regard Oppenheimer’s notion of science as a threat.

What vision is that?  Speaking of the development of the Bomb, Oppenheimer writes, “But when you come right down to it the reason that we did this job is because it was an organic necessity.  If you are a scientist you cannot stop such a thing.  If you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and its values.”

Read carelessly, the passage thrills.   Read carefully, it appalls.  There are two contradictions:  Between the desire for knowledge and the will to power, and between freedom and blind fatality.  What thrills are the parts about freedom and desire for knowledge.  What appalls are the parts about fatality and will to power.

As to the first contradiction, he starts with the idea of wanting to understand the world.  But the reason for understanding it turns out to be merely controlling it, and controlling it not according to transcendent lights and values, but according to “its own” lights and values.  That means “what we want.”

So.  Science is finding out how to do as we desire.

As to the second contradiction, he speaks of the continual growth of the power to control the world as though it were a kind of liberation.  And yet he insists that it is something the scientist cannot stop wanting, cannot stop gaining, and over which he has no control.

So.  Science is the ungovernable obsession with finding out how to do as we desire.

By contrast, the vision of science that Oppenheimer opposes – the vision of the Church -- is seeking knowledge because it glorifies God and adorns the rational mind, with the chastening reminder that not everything is to be done and not everything is to be controlled.

Put this way, the two visions do threaten each other.  I get that.


Was the American Founding All Wrong?

Monday, 08-14-2023



I’m not sure exactly what my question is, but I have long heard from more traditionalist-minded Catholics that our Constitution and the liberal presuppositions on which it rests cannot be reconciled with the faith vis-a-vis the Church’s understanding of a proper political order.  For the sake of clarity perhaps we should start there.  Do you think there is merit to that argument?



I think you’re asking about the Founders’ thought, not the political institutions they gave us.  Separation of powers, limited government, checks and balances – these are all good, though whether the versions build into the Constitution were well thought out and whether they work well is another question.  We can talk about that another time.

Although the critics you have in mind get some things right about the Founders’ thought, I think they are mistaken in at least four ways.

First, the American Founding wasn’t monolithic.  The Founders disagreed about many important matters – for example, though a few admired Thomas Hobbes, most detested him.  Lumping together thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison is also extremely misleading.  They admired each other – some of them -- but were quite different.

Second, most of the Founders considered themselves Christians, and most of those were of the Calvinist persuasion.  A politically influential minority were Deists, but outright atheism was extremely rare among them.  As to “establishments” of religion – official government churches – although the majority opposed them, they did so not because they were doubt about Christian faith, but because they accepted it, believing that God Himself disapproved of official government churches.

Third, the contrast between the classical and the modern thinkers, which we consider stark and obvious today, was contrary to their harmonizing temperament.  Rather than siding with thinkers like John Locke against thinkers like Aristotle and Cicero, they saw all these thinkers as more or less on the same page.  They didn’t read Thomas Aquinas, but they did read Richard Hooker, who was influenced by St. Thomas and who in turn influenced Locke.

Fourth, they didn’t believe in harmonizing everything. But rather than setting the ancients against the moderns, they cut across that distinction, setting writers of any age whom they viewed as sympathetic to republican self-government against writers of any age whom they believed hostile to it.

You see illustrations of several of these tendencies in the following two passages.  The first is from a letter of Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee on May 8, 1825:

This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.  The historical documents which you mention in your possession, ought all to be found, and I am persuaded you will find, to be corroborative of the facts and principles advanced in that Declaration.

The second is from John Adams, Novanglus, No. 1:

These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, and Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason; the principles on which the whole government over us now stands. It is therefore astonishing, if any thing can be so, that writers, who call themselves friends of government, should in this age and country be so inconsistent with themselves, so indiscreet, so immodest, as to insinuate a doubt concerning them.

One of the greatest reasons why thinkers of our own day misunderstand the thinking of the Founders is that too often we read into their works skeptical assumptions which they didn’t hold.  Chief among these skeptical assumptions is that reason and revelation, natural law and divine law, are at best on uneasy terms with each other.  Americans like James Wilson just didn’t see it that way.  They held the classical Christian view that reason and revelation cooperate rather than warring with each other, and that natural and divine law are two different reflections of the selfsame Divine Mind -- one discoverable by reason alone, the other discoverable in the content of Scripture, which is not provable, but reasonable to accept.

To be sure, the Founders paid a price for their attempt to harmonize ancient natural law theories with modern ones.  In order to blend the classical with the modern thinkers, they tended to read the moderns in the light of the classical thinkers, blurring the differences.  Perhaps some of them were engaged in propaganda for the moderns, playing down the radical implications of modern theories.  I think that on the whole, though, this wasn’t the case.  It was simply that not being so radical themselves, they simply didn’t think that the implications of these theories were so radical in the first place.  Christian republicans and moderate admirers of the Enlightenment made common cause.  For a while it seemed to work.

But there was no real synthesis, only a colloidal suspension.  You can shake classical and modern natural law theories in jar, but eventually they settle out, like oil and water.  I mentioned Calvinism, and Calvinism itself, I think, is itself in colloidal suspension.  It is pretty hard to maintain Calvin’s belief in natural law and natural reason alongside some of his other ideas, and many of his followers gave up, adopting a much more radical version of the doctrine of total depravity than he ever did.  Although American proponents of natural rights were the heirs of a rich and ancient tradition, they were ungrateful heirs, adopting “made simple” versions of natural law theory that ultimately came to seem unbelievable.  Consider too that from its first centuries, the Church united faith and reason, and the Founders tried to do so too.  But a lot of people, then and now, think faith and reason are natural enemies.  Fundamentalists are suspicious of reason; the most radical heirs of the Enlightenment are suspicious of faith.  Now faith and reason aren’t oil and water -- but people who believe in a partnership of faith and reason and people who reject the possibility of that partnership really are like oil and water.  If you make a colloidal suspension of those two beliefs, those layers will eventually separate too.

In fact, coming down to the present, those who formerly styled themselves defenders of reason against faith can no longer bring themselves to believe in reason either.  Abandoning God, they have even lost man.  For this reason, I think the European crisis of culture is our crisis too.  “American exceptionalism” means simply that here it has taken longer to come to a head than in, say, France, whose revolutionaries had no interest in harmonizing.

Could there have been a real synthesis of the ancient and modern influences rather than merely a colloidal suspension?  Yes -- and there still could be.  Faith and reason really are allies; not everything in the modern thinkers is irreconcilable with our classical inheritance; and our past mistakes are not an irresistible fate.  Here too, I think that I and the critics you mention are far apart.

But can such a synthesis be achieved in the way we have previously gone about it?  I think that road is closed.

This may not be what your question had in mind, but perhaps it will be a little help.



What is the way forward then?



I would say that we shouldn’t cast about for a new ideology for making over the world, but rather follow our vocations, submit all ideologies to Christian critique, try to practice virtue and political prudence, protect our children, and make the best of what good we have inherited, including sound intellectual traditions.

The world is so far into lunacy today that this answer may seem feeble, but I see no other place to start.



Writer's Block: Its Causes and Cures

Monday, 08-07-2023


Most people have come up against writer’s block at one time or another.  Some, including even some experienced writers, suffer it frequently.  I don’t suffer it often, but that’s only because I’ve learned a variety of tricks, which I now share.  I don’t guarantee that every one of them will work for everyone, but try them and see if they work for  you.



Most writers, though not all writers, are single-taskers.  They find it difficult to write unless nothing else is going on at the same time, so that they can sink into what they are doing.  You may be one of these.

Case one:  All sorts of things are happening that you can’t prevent and perhaps shouldn’t want to.  “Daddy, will you read me a story?”  Solution:  First, find blocks of time when nothing else is going on.  This may require rearranging your schedule.  Don’t overdo that – if you write all night, then you’ll be no good to anyone else the next day!  Second, find a way to organize your current writing project so that you can do it in many small chunks with frequent breaking points.  One way of doing this is to multiply your chapters and keep them short, or to build them from small sections rather writing them as continuous streams.  Readers usually find that sort of prose easier anyway.  At any rate, if you break your project into chunks, then your undistracted blocks of time won’t have to be so long, and your interruptions won’t be so frustrating and so difficult to recover from when they do come.  Instead of saying “Hold on until I finish this chapter,” you’ll find yourself saying “Hold on until I finish this sentence.”

Case two:  The distractions and interruptions are your own fault.  Solution:  Stop it.  Hang up the phone.  Get off the social media.  Turn off the talk radio and television.  If you need a little something in the background, keep it quiet and choose music that doesn’t thump.  Many people, and not just young people, think they can write and do a lot of other things at the same time.  This is a delusion.  Maybe you can cook while still keeping an eye on the kids (I hope so!), but you can’t write while still watching a soap opera.  The fact is that none of us are literally multi-taskers; our nervous systems are not wired for that.  When we think we are doing many things at once, we are really switching our attention back and forth among tasks very rapidly.  Consequently, none of the tasks has our full attention – and writing does require full attention.



For some people it’s just plain hard to start – but that may mean more than one thing.

Case one:  You may find it hard to start anything, and writing is just a special case.  Solution:  You may be depressed, or just lazy.  Write anyway.  Sit down.  Begin.  Stop making excuses.  It doesn’t matter whether your problem is laziness or depression; absorbing work is likely to help with both.

Case two:  You may not find it difficult to start other things, but just to begin writing.  Solution:  Early in your work time, before working on the project itself, spend a short time – and I do mean a short one -- writing something else, just to get in the groove.  Your little exercise needs to be something which is easy to begin and won’t take long.   It also needs to be something from which you won’t find it difficult to disengage once you’ve warmed up.  For example, answering a friend’s note may be just the thing; when you finish, you may find that your writer’s block has evaporated, and that you're impatient to begin.  But if answering your friend’s note leads to a compulsion to clean out your entire email box, find a different warm-up exercise.



You want to write, you’re ready to go, your hands are poised over the keyboard, but your mind is empty.  Or, perhaps, you experience an unusual and disturbing reluctance.

Case one:  It’s always possible that you really aren’t quite ready to write after all; your idea may need to ferment in your mind a little longer.  Solution:  Give it some time to do that.  Experience will tell you which things aid in fermentation.  If you ferment nicely (instead of just wasting time), the day will come when instead of being unable to write, you won’t be able to keep from writing.

Case two:  So far as you can tell, you really are ready to write, but the words and thoughts just aren’t coming.  Solution:  Don’t worry about it.  Set down whatever comes into your mind, even if it’s not a beginning.  Perhaps you might write a sentence about what you want to write, or a sentence about why the topic is so important.  Eventually the sentences for your opening paragraph will start coming.  When that happens, delete that other junk, and get going.  You may also find it helpful to begin at some other place than the beginning – for example, to start writing in the middle.

Case three:  You’ve been writing, but the block hits you partway through.  Solution:  Take a break, but learn to recognize which kind of break you need.  If you’ve been at it all day and you’re tired, taking a walk is good.  If you’ve been working too hard and you can afford a few days off, that can be pleasant, and your spouse will be pleased about it too.  Sometimes the best thing is what I call a working break.  This means setting aside the big project for a day, and working instead on small projects that you can finish quickly.  By the time you finish these little ones, you’ll be eager to get back to the big one.  For example, when I’m working on a book and I stall, I sometimes find refreshment by spending just one day writing short items to post later to my blog.  (I’m doing that now!)

Case four:  The reluctance you feel in writing may be a signal that there is something about what you’ve already written that you haven’t thought of – that isn’t right, that you need to reconsider, or that you just need to reorganize.  Solution:  Review.  Chew on it.  Then go back to writing.


Sculptor’s anxiety

So long as you haven’t yet begun to write, the possibilities are endless, but with every word you set down, your options for what to say next are diminished.  Knowing this, you may feel that if you make the wrong beginning, you’ll be stuck --  as though you were a stone sculptor who might ruin the marble by beginning to chisel in the wrong place.  In some people this produces crippling anxiety.  Solution:  Keep in mind that writing isn’t stone sculpting.  A sculptor can’t put back what he’s already chiseled out, but you can always go back and revise what you’ve written.


Destination anxiety

If your project is a big one, you may be afraid to begin because you’re afraid you won’t be able to finish.

Case one:   You can see the beginning of what you want to write very clearly, but you can’t see the end.  You worry that maybe the end isn’t there, and you’ll run out of ideas halfway through, so you’re afraid to begin at all.  Solution:  Get over it and begin anyway.  After all, we are rarely able to see the end of anything we do.  We don’t know how it will turn out when we begin a new friendship, or even when we break with routine to have fried eggs instead of scrambled.  Almost any beginning is better than none, and in writing, your destination will become clearer as you go along.  Even if this doesn’t happen and you do stall halfway through, the practice you’ve had will be helpful, and your next attempt to write will be better.

Case two:  The sheer size of the project overwhelms you.  Solution:  Keep in mind that you aren’t working on the whole project at once.  At any given time you are only working on this page or this section or even this sentence.  Remember too what we said about dealing with distractions, because it helps here as well:  If you organize your writing project into a lot of small chunks, then you are much less likely to feel overwhelmed.  Just write one chunk at a time.  Outlining may help with that.  Outlining doesn’t help everyone, and it doesn’t help even those whom it does help every time, but experience will teach you whether and when it will help.


Fear of failure

You may find it hard to begin because you suffer persistent anxiety that what you write won’t be good enough.  This fear especially afflicts perfectionists, who seem to be overrepresented in the ranks of writers.  Solution:  Maybe it won’t be very good.  So what?  You won’t know until you try.  Besides, first efforts are almost always bad, but the only way we learn to write well is to write, whether badly or well.  The more you write, the better you will become at it.  Do the best you can do, even if it isn’t the best you can imagine; no one can accomplish that.


Fear of rejection

You may suffer anxiety, not that what you write won’t be good enough, but that even if it is, other people won’t think so.  Solution:  If it really is good enough, that shouldn’t matter.

You may just need more confidence in your own judgment.  Although critique can be helpful, it can also be overdone.  Don’t talk about your project with a thousand others, or you will end up writing their idea of your project instead of yours.

Or you may need better judgment.  It won’t be surprising that good judgment is developed by wide reading.  By wide reading I mean not only many things but things written in many different ages and genres.  Make that your habit.

Maybe you just need to find the people who will see the merit of your work.  Try pitching your work to a more appropriate audience.

Since excellence comes only through practice, fear of getting started defeats the purpose.  It’s like being afraid to eat because you need more nutrition.  Laugh at such fears, and start anyway.

Have fun!



Intelligence, Crime, and Eugenics

Monday, 07-31-2023



I know intelligence is not the same as moral virtue.  As my mom says, IQ produced the atomic bomb. What I find, though, is that a lot of people do seem to suggest their equivalence.  For example, some social scientists claim a correlation between IQ and incarceration rates.

I am pretty skeptical about classifying the mystery of a person with a psychometric number. But what if the data really do show a correlation?

In the first place, the proposition “low IQ causes crimes” seems to me to assume determinism and deny free choice of the will.  Crimes are chosen, not caused.

In the second place, the slippery slope is very slippery.  It was this kind of thing that led to Josef Mengele.  If low intelligence really is associated with higher incarceration rates, what is to stop us from plunging headlong into controlled breeding, selecting for high intelligence?



Your mother sounds like a wise woman.  And I’m with you about the mistake of reducing the mystery of the person to a psychometric number.  But I think you are worrying too much.

Suppose there really is a connection between low intelligence and high rates of incarceration.  This would not imply either that intelligence is a moral quality, or that determinism is true.

For consider:  Temptation by itself is not sin, but a person of low intelligence may well be more exposed to certain temptations to sin than other people are.  He may be more easily frustrated, he may feel that the world has cheated him, and he may envy those who can use their intelligence to make money.

Turning the coin over, a person of high intelligence will also be more exposed to certain temptations to sin – but different ones.  He may be more prone to pride, he may think ordinary social norms are for stupid people --  not people like him -- and he may be clever enough to come up with ways to be dishonest that aren’t actually illegal (or that are illegal, but that aren’t so likely to get him arrested).

Since persons in each group tend to be exposed to different kinds of temptations, those in each group who do give in to temptation will tend to commit different kinds of wrongs.  So a highly intelligent person may be just as likely to sin -- but less likely to sin in the particular ways that our criminal justice system is equipped to deal with.

To put the point another way, although an increase in average intelligence might change the kinds of wrongs which are most likely to be committed, it would not reduce the overall incidence of wrong.

Now as to the evil of eugenics, or controlled breeding.  You are concerned about a slippery slope, but there are two different kinds of thing that might be called a slippery slope.

Sometimes a moral error puts a person on a logical conveyor belt to further moral error.  For example, defenders of abortion often argue that unborn children may be killed because they lack what the defenders consider hallmarks of personhood, such as the ability to make and carry out complex plans.  Notice, though, that very small born children lack these characteristics too.  Consequently, the “not a person yet” defense of abortion easily morphs into a “not a person yet” defense of infanticide and toddlercide.  This kind of slippery slope concern is valid.

On the other hand, the sort of slippery slope you have in mind is of a different kind, because it isn’t about moral error leading to further moral error.  Your concern is that a possible truth may lead to moral error – because if the intelligence-incarceration correlation is valid, you think, eugenicists would try to find some way to make use of this fact.  This kind of slippery slope concern is dubious.

Mind you, it isn’t that eugenicists wouldn’t try to find some way to make use of the fact.  Of course they would.  But wicked persons seek ways to make use of every fact.  That is how evil works.  It has to, because evil is a parasite on good, and lying is parasitic on truth.  The solution is to be suspicious, not of truths, but of their employment for bad ends.  Embezzlers misuse the truths of arithmetic, poisoners the truths of chemistry, but arithmetic and chemistry are not the enemy; the enemy is their abuse.  Sometimes it may be necessary to anticipate such abuses and work out ahead of time how to thwart them -- that may be what you are hoping to do.  But let us be friends with the truth itself. 

So don’t waste your waste time trying to defend against eugenics by denying a correlation which you are inclined to believe may be true anyway.  No correlation can show eugenics to be morally wholesome.  Very good arguments do show it to be morally corrupt, because humans are not stuff to be manipulated.