Sunday, 25 November 2007


I leave you this fine evening with a column by George Will.

Baseball Quiz

1. Translate “The Big Hurt Takes the Big Unit Downtown.”

2. Translate “Zisk Nixes Pact” (a newspaper headline from many years ago).

3. Name the two Pudges.

4. Which pitcher won three games in the 1968 World Series?

5. How many home runs did Al Kaline hit?

6. What was the theme song of the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates?

7. Who played second base for the Toronto Blue Jays before going to the NBA?

8. Which university did Dave Winfield attend?

9. Kirk Gibson wore which number when he played for the Detroit Tigers?

10. Mateo Rojas _____.

Anscombe, Blackburn, Teichman (Part 3)

I promised/threatened that I would criticize Simon Blackburn’s review of G. E. M. Anscombe’s collected essays. The review is online, so I will reproduce it here in its entirety while interpolating my comments and criticisms. Blackburn’s paragraphs are indented.

Elizabeth Anscombe was widely recognized as the most brilliant of Wittgenstein’s students, as well as the pre-eminent translator and interpreter of his works. She was also an original and formidable philosopher in her own right, apparently able to reconcile a staunch Roman Catholicism with what she had learned from Frege, Aristotle, or Wittgenstein himself. She had a subtle and probing mind, often coming at questions in a seemingly oblique way, and whether it is the nature of the soul or the nature of the distinction between acts and omissions, she has interesting and challenging things to say.

KBJ: I share Blackburn’s sentiments, but find his use of “staunch” interesting. Is anyone on his side of the political, moral, or religious aisle staunch, or does the term apply only to those on the other side?

She was also a person of legendary force of character, frightening or charming, apparently according to the luck of the draw. Her world was Manichean, and like others in her Church she was quick to diagnose any hint of dissent as a symptom of darkness and corruption, and therefore to be treated as enmity or heresy. Fortunately, she also relished taking the gloves off, as was apparent from her joyously abusive vocabulary. In the present work, Mill is “stupid”, Sidgwick, “vulgar”, Butler “ignorant”, Hume “sophistical”, Kant “absurd”, and the proponent of “hideous fantasy”, while even her beloved Aristotle is sometimes reduced to “babble”. Lesser thinkers are generously sprayed with the acid of her contempt. Philosophers are a robust lot, but even righteousness can be overdone, and one does not have to be a disciple of Nietzsche or Foucault to begin to wonder a bit about the will to power. Nor are suspicions in that direction stilled by the adoring accolades of many of her students, since those prompt only the thought that the students who survived to give the accolades are just the ones who were overpowered.

KBJ: I couldn’t help but think of Brian Leiter as I read this. His world is Manichean; he cannot tolerate dissent; he has legions of overpowered sycophants; and he has a “joyously abusive vocabulary.” It would have been nice if Blackburn had pointed out that the personality traits he mentions occur at all points of the political spectrum, from the moonbat left to the wingnut right. Blackburn himself has many of them, as you know if you’ve read much of his work. By the way, Blackburn is alluding to Jenny Teichman in the final sentence.

The twenty-three papers in this collection include five that have not been previously published in English. Of the published papers by far the most famous is the 1958 broadside, “Modern Moral Philosophy”, although that has often been anthologized, and is to be found in the third volume of her collected papers; it adds weight and gives perspective to the current collection. The papers are divided into three groups: human life, action and practical reason, and ethics. The seven papers on human life centre upon such questions as the nature of the soul, the arrival of life, and whether a zygote is a person. The four on action and practical reason discuss such matters as whether an action could be the conclusion of an inference. The twelve papers on ethics explore and defend her rigorous Roman Catholic ethic of absolute prohibitions. Her brilliance is perhaps best displayed here in another well-known and anthologized paper, “Practical Inference”.

KBJ: Blackburn is being a good reviewer here. One responsibility of a book reviewer is to describe the contents of the book. Only then should the book be evaluated. I do wonder, however, about the word “broadside.” The term is usually applied to polemics. Anscombe’s essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” appeared in one of the most prestigious of philosophical periodicals: Philosophy. It is one of the most important philosophical essays of the 20th century, as Blackburn goes on to note.

“Modern Moral Philosophy” initiated the return to the idea of virtues as the central concepts needed by moral thought. It was enormously influential, turning firstly most of her Oxford generation, and then probably a majority of philosophers worldwide, against utilitarianism as a moral and political theory, but also against the then-prevailing view that ethics is at bottom a matter of personal commitment or choice, a tool for voicing persuasions or exchanging social pressures. If this was not enough, it was also remarkable for two other theses. One is that “the concepts of obligation and duty—moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say—and of what is morally right and wrong and of the moral sense of “ought” ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals, or derivatives from survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it”. That earlier conception of ethics is one which gives central place to a divine law, and Anscombe’s thought was a version of the Dostoievskian claim that if God is dead everything is permitted: “where one does not think there is a judge or a law, the notion of a verdict may retain its psychological effect, but not its meaning”.

KBJ: I have no problem with this paragraph.

Anscombe herself, of course, had no intention of jettisoning the concepts of moral obligation and duty, which are needed to frame her other principal claim, which is that certain things are forbidden, whatever the consequences. There are things that the virtuous person simply will not contemplate—he will not even talk about them, in advance (a peculiar qualification, whose significance has been the subject of discussion). This fragrant bunch includes euthanasia, abortion, idolatry, sodomy, adultery, and the making of a false profession of faith. It is not so clear, although in the first case one can probably guess, where she stands on other things that have at one time or another got onto the philosopher’s index, such as masturbation, or selling your own hair for making wigs. Her favourite example is procuring the judicial execution of the innocent, which does indeed sound beyond the pale, except perhaps to recent Home Secretaries.

KBJ: Blackburn’s snideness begins to appear in this paragraph. I have no idea what he means by “fragrant” in this context, but it can’t be good. (Does he mean stinky, odorous, noxious?) If Blackburn thinks masturbation is morally permissible, he should make a case for it. Or does he think it needs no defense? Maybe he will enlighten us as to which human activities need no defense, so we won’t waste our time arguing against them. Anscombe and others have argued that masturbation is wrong. He should attend to their arguments rather than pander to his readers’ presumed prejudices. The business about Home Secretaries must be an inside joke, because I don’t get it.

The first of these claims, about the disappearing concept of moral obligation, has been surprisingly influential. It is found in some form in writers as diverse as Iris Murdoch and Alasdair MacIntyre, who share Anscombe’s woe at the disappearance, or John Mackie and Bernard Williams, who do not. And it has a philosophical pedigree stretching back beyond both Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, to the seventeenth-century equation of atheism with libertinism, and then to classical times. I suppose it is a permanent feature of the human condition that persons who entangle their notion of morality with some notion of divine authority cannot imagine that there might be people who have the morality, but who have no need of the supernatural prop. This may be a natural enough frailty, but philosophers should be better able to overcome it, both because there is nothing serious to be said for it and because it was refuted by Plato.

KBJ: Blackburn doesn’t get it. Anscombe is making an interesting and important claim about the concept of moral obligation, not a silly claim about the logical dependence of morality on religion. She is saying that the conceptual framework that gave the concept of moral obligation its meaning has crumbled. Either we rebuild that framework, in which case we can continue using the concept, or we build a new framework with new concepts. She knows full well that atheists can make moral judgments, propound moral theories, and use moral concepts. After all, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the atheistic founder of utilitarianiam, had been dead for nearly a century by the time she was born.

Thus suppose you are a colleague, and I find you taking bribes in order to fiddle exam results and am shocked and horrified as a result. I believe you have failed in your duty, that you have betrayed your obligations to the university and to your students. Is this “merely” psychological, and am I using words with “merely” talismanic force? Well, just try me. Suppose I break off relations with you, or make the matter public, or invoke sanctions, strip you of your rank or drum you out of your job. Suppose in addition I look askance at anybody who fails to share my outrage, and strenuously try to change their minds. Am I supposed to say, po-faced and even while I do these things or worse: “by the way, I do not say that what you did was morally wrong. That’s a concept I cannot deploy”? This is poppycock: what I do shows in spades that this is exactly how I regard you and your doings. I may choose to avoid the words, if I wish, but that is by itself of no interest, and if I feel I must avoid them because I have been told that they are the private preserve of people who believe in divine law, then I have been hoodwinked and robbed.

KBJ: Blackburn thinks he’s criticizing Anscombe, but there is nothing in this paragraph with which she would disagree. She would simply say that the word “moral” is being used in an extended sense. Atheists such as Blackburn should enclose the word “moral” in quotation marks, for, coming from them, it is ironical.

Can the weight of Anscombe’s claim be borne by those sinister italicizations of the word “moral”? The idea would be that while secularists, along with other cultures and theorists, might have boundaries and sanctions, and notions of defects and of agents falling short and missing the mark, real morality comes only with the Judeo-Christian law-based conceptions of what is required and prohibited. Often this is supported by citing the supposed absence of any term meaning “morally wrong” in Aristotle. I understand that this claim in turn depends on resolutely avoiding a natural reading of terms like hamartanein, adikein, or dei, and I defy anyone to read Sophocles or Aeschylus without noticing that they think of some things as obligatory, binding and required, so that falling short properly requires shame or guilt and expiation. And if it looks like a moral demand, behaves like a moral demand, and quacks like a moral demand, then that is what it is. This is not to deny that the Judeo-Christian tradition injected new elements into classical ethics, but simply to flag that it is not so simple a matter to describe what they were.

KBJ: This is exasperating. Anscombe is not arrogating morality to herself. She is merely pointing out that the moral concepts we use originated in a theistic context. They continue to be used, by “secularists” such as Blackburn, in a different context. I have no idea why Blackburn can’t grasp this simple point.

Anscombe’s claim is important, because people can come to live down to it. The bribed colleague may want me to lighten up, and think of me as a bourgeois, middle-class prig, carrying on like that. There may be whole circles, in politics for example, where the decline is already well advanced. Ministers resign in apparent disgrace only to pop back a week or two later, all smiles and cheer. The word “disgrace” can only be used with inverted commas, and any idea of real wrongdoing is a ghost of its former self. But philosophers should not aid and abet such declines into villainy by portraying them as somehow intellectually forced upon us.

KBJ: Let me get this straight. Anscombe, rather than, say, atheism, is to be blamed for rampant nihilism—merely for observing that the moral concepts we use originated in a theistic context!

Anscombe’s other major theme was a morality of absolute prohibitions. This has its strengths, and we only have to think of the grubby pragmatism of a Rumsfeld or a Blair in order to become aware of them, although in these papers Anscombe showed little interest in applying her doctrine to political rights. Rather, she was interested in the ethics of various medical interventions, particularly at the beginning and end of life. Her case, naturally, hinges on the strict requirement of respect for life, and particularly human life. The things she regards as absolutely wrong express and generate “alienation from belief in the dignity and value of human-ness”. She does not explain why this respect is incompatible with, say, voluntary euthanasia, although she is insistent that it is.

KBJ: What possesses a person to take potshots at public officials in a review of a serious work of philosophy? Is this Blackburn’s way of endearing himself to his (presumed) progressive audience? It must be, because history furnishes many better examples of “grubby pragmatists,” such as Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Oh wait; they’re leftists. That destroys the effect. Blackburn may not be aware of it, but Anscombe applied her “doctrine” to political rights in many places. In “War and Murder” (1961), for example, she argued against the wartime killing of civilians. In “Mr Truman’s Degree” (1957), she argued that President Harry Truman was a mass murderer (literally) for ordering the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Anscombe was a devoted defender of human rights. She would be categorically opposed to torture, as she was to euthanasia. If Blackburn would take the time to read Anscombe, he would understand why voluntary euthanasia is incompatible with human dignity—or rather, how an intelligent, sophisticated person such as Anscombe could believe as much. Then again, maybe he wouldn’t understand. He seems determined to misunderstand. As for Anscombe being “interested in the ethics of various medical interventions, particularly at the beginning and end of life,” so are the likes of Peter Singer, Dan Brock, James Rachels, and Bernard Gert. Bioethics is a thriving subfield of practical ethics. Anscombe was doing bioethics almost before there was a bioethics. That Blackburn doesn’t like her conclusions is neither here nor there. If he thinks she’s wrong about something, he should engage her arguments. To my knowledge, he has never done so.

This is the more surprising since she believes that right respect is compatible with swift capital punishment, since this does not “just as such” sin against the human dignity of one who suffers it. Apparently fierce justice can trump, or perhaps nullify, or at any rate live alongside, respect for the dignity of life, but compassion cannot. I could not discover why. There are other arguments against voluntary euthanasia, and Anscombe herself hints at worries about the “slippery slope” which it could open up. But I think it is impossible to base the prohibition on respect for life (let alone respect for dignity), since what it really requires is not respect for life but respect for dying—that is, for treating nature’s frequently cruel, painful, undignified and intolerable procedure for our dissolution as itself sacrosanct.

KBJ: What Anscombe opposes—categorically—is the intentional killing of the innocent. Why Blackburn thinks this principle applies to convicted murderers, who have forfeited their innocence by taking innocent human life, is beyond me. Did I mention that Blackburn seems determined to misunderstand Anscombe? It’s disgraceful. By the way, Anscombe was not opposed to pain medication. Indeed, she was not opposed to the use of pain medication where one foreseeable consequence of its use is the death of the patient! Surely Blackburn has heard of the doctrine of double effect, but you would never know it from this review. If he thinks the doctrine is incoherent, he should say so and state his reasons. If he thinks it’s coherent but rejects it nonetheless, he should say so and state his reasons. What he should not do is ignore it, when it’s clearly doing the work for Anscombe in these cases.

Even more strange is the demand that we respect procreation by sexual intercourse as the “means of reproduction belonging to our life as the kind of life we are”—this as the ground for prohibiting artificial conception ex utero, and eventually contraception and coitus reservatus and presumably sodomy and the rest. This is the kind of argument Michael Frayn parodied with his invention of the Carthaginian Monolithics, who forbid looking backwards while travelling forwards (and hence ban driving mirrors) on the grounds that they are both contrary to natural law (or else why are our eyes in the front of our heads?) and revealed scripture (Lot’s wife). I could see no good reason why cycling should not equally be prohibited, as failing to respect walking as the “means of locomotion belonging to our life as the kind of life we are”.

KBJ: What is this, argument by parody? With all due respect to Blackburn, there is nothing in this paragraph except ignorance and snideness. Blackburn appears not to have heard of natural law, which is the oldest of ethical traditions. Perhaps he should get up to speed by reading John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980).

While one must balk at some of the applications of Anscombe’s ethic, all moral theorists share the need to articulate the central ideas of the dignity and value in human life, and of the virtues necessary to living it well. She is not dealing with trivial issues, and if we are appalled at some of the prohibitions she willingly embraces, then these essays may force us to ask ourselves why. I am tempted to end on this conciliatory note, but I cannot imagine it placating her embattled spirit, and perhaps the incivility of righteousness is catching. She herself often preferred to end with a parting kick, like this: the index lists eleven pages for justice, and none at all for altruism, benevolence, charity, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, mercy, sympathy, or love.

KBJ: As even the utilitarian John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) observed, justice (giving people their due) is more important than beneficence (doing good). Could that explain why it looms large in Anscombe’s thinking? Here is my parting kick: Anscombe’s index lists five pages for “care.” I wonder why Blackburn didn’t mention that. Oh wait, I know. It disconfirms his prejudice and ruins a good story. For the record, Anscombe has 11 pages for “justice” and five for “altruism” &c. (I used Blackburn’s method of counting.) In his two books on ethics (Ruling Passions and Being Good), Blackburn has two pages for justice and five for “altruism” &c. I guess Blackburn doesn’t much care for justice.

The Democrat Party

Michelle Malkin asked her readers to “posterize” the Democrat Party. Here are the finalists.


Will Nehs tried to get me to eat Skippy peanut butter this morning. I’m serious! There is only one peanut butter, and that’s Jif. I can’t even imagine anything better. Now we know why Will is so cranky all the time; he’s eating bad peanut butter!

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “Child Matadors Draw Olés in Mexico’s Bullrings” (front page, Nov. 19):

It is so sad to see children being taught to torture and kill calves. For what? The tradition and glory of bullfighting? Please!

Bullfighting is simply prolonged animal torture. Most children start life with a love and reverence of animals. Cruelty and disregard for them are taught. In this country, this lesson is usually less direct: that it is somehow logical to teach kids to love and respect animals while feeding them animals that have been raised and slaughtered in genuinely terrible conditions.

Our world would be a much better place if we could teach our children respect for all living creatures.

Edward L. Machtinger
San Francisco, Nov. 19, 2007

Note from KBJ: I would replace “living” with “sentient.” How do you respect a plant?

A Year Ago


From the Mailbag

I’m finishing Bob Novak’s book “The Prince of Darkness.” Enjoyable enough as it unearths recent memories, but one thing is clear as you learn about his world of politicians—present and past: they are all ego-maniacs who perceive their I.Q.’s to be about 20 points higher than they actually are and virtually none can be trusted. This sentiment builds as he ticks off one memory after another from 50 years of reporting. He holds them all in disregard and leaves you wondering how we’ve made it this far. Clearly, our best and brightest (as I’ve been saying . . .) do NOT seek office leaving Washington, D.C. a city trusted as much as used car salesmen. Perhaps the last 100 pages will offer better tidings. Nah. You DO get the feeling he is truthfully blunt . . . but then he ALSO is an ego-maniac if slightly more principled(?).

Sadly, the best deceivers among us have this maniacal thirst for power. ’Tis in our genes I suppose. Elections are won by those best able to deceive, or so Bob Novak believes. But in the end we have pretenders at our helm. Our Founders would all have agreed and were therefore gloomy on the prospects of a country of free people.

Will Nehs

Note from KBJ: The framers of our constitution understood these things, Will. It’s why we have a tripartite government and a system of checks and balances. It’s worked pretty well, wouldn’t you say?

Curro Ergo Sum

Yesterday afternoon, in Pantego, Texas, I did a 5K race (my second race in three days). It was rainy and cold all day, but that doesn’t deter serious runners. The worst part was waiting for the gun to sound. I was shivering. Once the race started, I forgot about how cold I was. Luckily, the rain let up, or I would not have been able to see through my glasses, which get covered with droplets. The road was wet the entire way, which made turning corners (of which there were many) perilous. I was surprised to see “7:08” at the first mile marker. I would have sworn that I was well under seven minutes. I had 14:15 after two miles. I knew it was going to be hard to break seven minutes overall. Frances McKissick, one of the top female runners in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, was behind me for the first mile. When she passed me, I stayed on her wheel (so to speak). I knew that if I stayed with her, I’d have a good finishing time.

During the final quarter of a mile, I thought my heart was going to explode. I shouldn’t push myself so hard. But hey, if I die running, it will be a good death. I finished right behind Frances (the overall female winner). She said, “I thought you were going to catch me.” I told her that I was trying to stay with her, not pass her. I did the final 1.107 miles at a 6:41.33 pace, which gave me an overall mile pace of 6:58.17. (Elapsed time = 21:39.28.) If the course was long, as I suspect it was, then I went even faster. There is no better feeling in the world than being done with a footrace, however long. I hate running. It is absolutely, positively awful (and, in anticipation, dreadful). But I love having run. I won the second-place medal in my age group (men 50-54). The worst part about racing is waiting around afterward for the award presentation. By the way, the temperature during the run was 40º Fahrenheit. I know that won’t seem cold to many of you, but keep in mind that until a few days ago, it was 80º in these parts.

Safire on Language



The first- and second-ranked teams (LSU and Kansas) lost this weekend, so Missouri and West Virginia should move into the top two positions in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) rankings. Both teams play next week. If both win, they’ll meet in the BCS title game. If either loses, the other will play Ohio State in the title game. If both lose, it’ll be Ohio State against Kansas (each with one loss) in the title game. What a season it’s been! I expect big things from my Arizona Wildcats next year. Their victory over second-ranked Oregon was magnificent. If the Cats beat their archrival Arizona State this Saturday, they’ll finish 6-6 and be bowl eligible.

Addendum: Here are the latest BCS rankings. I can’t believe Georgia (with two losses) leapt over Kansas (with one). Georgia lost to unranked South Carolina and unranked Tennessee. Kansas lost to fourth-ranked Missouri. If both Missouri and West Virginia lose, it’ll be Ohio State against Georgia (not Kansas) in the title game.