Saturday, 10 March 2007

Twenty Years Ago

3-10-87 Like a flash from the blue, a paper topic struck me yesterday. I’ve been thinking a lot about the relation between rights and duties, and yesterday it occurred to me that there’s a better way to handle the problem of charity than the perfect-imperfect duty distinction. Rather than say that we have a duty to perform charitable actions, but that it’s imperfect (that is, has no correlative rightholder), why not just say that we have a duty to be charitable, but not a duty to perform charitable actions? The distinction makes sense of our intuitions about charity, lets us maintain the correlativity thesis about the relation between rights and duties, and avoids reliance on the troublesome distinction between perfect and imperfect duties. I scrambled around last night looking for discussions by [Immanuel] Kant and [John Stuart] Mill, and today sat down to write something up. Believe it or not, there’s a publishable paper in here. I composed a first draft at the [Kaypro II] computer this morning, then gave a copy to Bob Schopp for comments. I hope to work on the paper little by little until it’s polished. [This essay was published as “Duties, Rights, and Charity,” Journal of Social Philosophy 18 (fall 1987): 3-12. It has been reprinted at least once in an anthology.]

We’re still discussing autonomy and sovereignty in Joel Feinberg’s [Philosophy of Law] seminar. I haven’t read Harm to Self [1986] in a couple of years, but I recall the main arguments. Tonight David Cortner and another student argued that what a person chooses is necessarily what is good for that person. This strikes me as just crazy, and I said as much in class. Let me try to clarify things. The basic question is this: What is the relation between what a person chooses and what is good for that person? The answers fall into three categories: (1) conceptual or logical; (2) factual; and (3) normative. One might say this, for instance: The good for a person just is what that person chooses, or would choose, if the situation were to arise. On this view, it is self-contradictory to say that person P chose object O, but that O was not good for P. But we say such things all the time, and they make perfectly good sense. So there is no conceptual equivalence between what a person chooses and what is good for that person. [Put differently, not everything in which one is interested is in one’s interest.]

The second claim, a factual one, can be stated in many different ways. The strongest is this: As a matter of fact, it is always the case that what a person chooses is good for that person. But this is obviously false. All it takes is one instance of choosing something that is not good to refute this claim. The same goes for a weaker version: that as a matter of fact, most choices are good for the person choosing. A still weaker claim, however, is probably true: As a matter of fact, it is sometimes the case that what a person chooses is good for that person. I suspect that David and others were making a normative claim, the third kind, when they argued this evening. This claim goes as follows: Although persons do not always choose what is good for them, they are better judges of their own good than anyone else, so we ought to permit them to do their own choosing and acting. Actually, this is my view. Government is big, clumsy, and sometimes self-defeating. If government or other people were permitted to intervene in our affairs on a regular basis, whenever it was believed that we were harming ourselves or not benefitting [sic; should be “benefiting”] ourselves, the world would be even worse than it is. So all things considered, we ought to leave people alone.

Notice the difference in these views. The first is absurd, the second is just false (at least the stronger versions), and the third is true. I suspect that David and others hold only the third, but are confused about the kind of claim they are making. I got extremely impatient this evening while listening to their arguments. Do you blame me?


I leave you this fine evening with a column about Newt Gingrich, whom I would love to see as the Republican standard-bearer in 2008. (I haven’t given up on Mitt Romney. It’s simply nice to have two people I can wholeheartedly support.) The problem with Newt is that his negatives are high. This may not matter if he runs against Hillary Clinton, who also has high negatives; but if someone besides Hillary (such as Barack Obama) gets the Democrat nomination, Newt would be in trouble.


Here is a New York Times story about the greatest game ever invented. I say that as someone who has had his heart broken by the game—many times. As former commissioner Bart Giamatti put it, “Baseball breaks your heart; it was designed to break your heart.”

Dissecting Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, the militant atheist who is paid by Oxford University to spread the gospel of Darwinism, is not faring well among critics. Even his fellow progressives, such as Terry Eagleton, think his latest book, The God Delusion, is claptrap. Keep in mind that Dawkins has no formal philosophical training. Such training is not a prerequisite of making cogent arguments, obviously, but it does help one avoid the grossest fallacies, such as inferring the falsity of a belief from its “disreputable” origin. (That’s known as the genetic fallacy. It’s taught to every student in every introductory philosophy course in the world.) An even worse sin is that Dawkins appears not to understand religion, perhaps because he has so much hatred toward it. The first rule of philosophy is to understand that which you criticize—before you criticize it. As I wrote the other day, with friends like Dawkins, atheists don’t need enemies.

Addendum: I’m shocked to see that in the course of criticizing Eagleton, philosopher A. C. Grayling commits the genetic fallacy. See here. Grayling writes:

Religion is . . . the pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics of our forefathers, which (mainly through the natural gullibility of proselytised children, and tragically for the world) survives into the age in which I can send this letter by electronic means.

Note the reasoning: Religion has disreputable origins; therefore, religion (i.e., religious belief) is false. I guarantee you that Grayling teaches his students to avoid this fallacy. Why, then, does he commit it? Does he have a get-out-of-fallacies-free card?


Here is an excerpt from The Truth About Leo Strauss, by Catherine Zuckert and Michael Zuckert. Roger Kimball wrote the following about this book:

Catherine and Michael Zuckert have performed a signal intellectual service. They have taken one of the most willfully misunderstood and unfairly vilified philosophers of modern times and treated him to the lucid scrutiny of dispassionate analysis. Most of what you hear about Leo Strauss—his work, his supposedly malign political influence—is the product of misguided political animus. The Zuckerts set the record straight with graceful aplomb. The Truth about Leo Strauss is essential reading for anyone who wants the real story behind this subtle and important thinker’s intellectual achievement.

Strauss is the brooding omnipresence in debates about American foreign policy.

Richard John Neuhaus on Persons

The defense of the dignity of the human person at the points of his or her greatest vulnerability is the foundation of social justice. If we don’t get this issue of social justice right, we will not get anything else right.

(Richard John Neuhaus, “The Public Square,” First Things [January 2007]: 65-80, at 71)


What is the greatest moral issue of our time? Jihadism? Poverty? Nuclear proliferation? Illiteracy? Abortion? Warfare? Human chattel slavery? Genocide? Racism? Sexism? The treatment of nonhuman animals as mere objects? The editorial board of The New York Times deigns to tell us.

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

As sponsors of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, we take issue with Christa Weil’s views on the horsemeat industry (Op-Ed, March 5). The horse slaughter industry in the United States has nothing to do with feeding hungry people and everything to do with animal cruelty. The facts are these:

¶Most horses that end up slaughtered are bought by buyers acting on behalf of slaughterhouses. Many of these horses have been stolen or were surrendered to buyers who promised to care for them but who sell them to slaughter instead.

¶The transport and subsequent slaughter of these animals is brutal. They are often crammed into trucks built for cattle and pigs and subjected to starvation, exposure and abuse. At the slaughterhouse, improper use of the stunning bolt frequently results in horses’ being shackled and dismembered while still conscious.

¶Every year, 100,000 horses are slaughtered at foreign-owned slaughterhouses in the United States to satisfy the palates of wealthy diners in Europe and Asia.

Last September, the House voted 263 to 146 to pass this legislation. Congress ran out of time before the Senate could act.

We urge our colleagues in the House and the Senate to take up the matter again and put an end to this barbaric practice.

(Senator) Mary Landrieu
(Rep.) Jan Schakowsky
(Rep.) Ed Whitfield
(Rep.) Nick Rahall
(Rep.) John Spratt
Washington, March 6, 2007

From the Mailbag

It is a given that the Dems will vilify whomever the Republicans choose. Therefore should it be a factor in the selection process? Should Newt not be chosen because he will cause the biggest outcry and mass hysteria? I lay awake nights dreaming of a free-flowing, open debate between Her Nibs and Newt. “Like-ability” is a nebulous concept but not often mentioned in the same breath as The Smartest Woman in America. In either event, Newt versus Hillary would be each party STICKING IT to the other in spades and would divide this country like never before. Perhaps a catharsis is due.



Two guys—best buddies—are camping. They’ve just crawled out of their tents after a night’s sleep. One of them spots a grizzly bear in the distance, approaching the camp at full speed. Frantic, he informs his buddy, who proceeds to put his shoes on. “You can’t outrun a grizzly bear!” he screams. The other guy says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear; I just have to outrun you.

A Year Ago