Situational ethics

From Theodore Dalrymple, via Maggie's Farm, a quotation from Golden Harvest:  Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust by Jan Tomasz Gross, about what Dalrymple calls a "transvaluation" of moral values:
The takeover of Jewish property was so widespread in occupied Poland that it called for the emergence of rules determining distribution.  Thus when in August 1941 a certain Helena Klimaszewska went from the hamlet of Goniądz to Radziłów “to get an apartment for her husband’s parents because she knew that after the liquidation of the Jews there are empty apartments,” she was told on arrival that a certain “Godlewski decides what to do with ‘post-Jewish’ apartments.”  She presented her request to him but, she later testified in court, “Godlewski replied, ‘don’t even think about it.’  When I said that Mr Godlewski has four houses at his disposal and I don’t even have one he replied ‘this is none of your business, I am awaiting a brother returning from Russia where the Soviets deported him and he has to have a house.’  When I insisted that I need an apartment, he replied, ‘when people were needed to kill the Jews, you weren’t here, and now you want an apartment,’" an argument that met with a strong rebuttal from Klimaszewska’s mother-in-law:  “They don’t want to give an apartment, but they sent my grandson to douse the house with gasoline…”  And so, we are witnessing a conversation between an older woman and other adults that is premised on the assumption that one gains a right to valuable goods by taking part in murder of their owners.
It's a shift in moral perspective powerful enough to permit its participants to feel genuine outrage at their mistreatment according to the new rules.  "That's not fair" is a cry that always resonates, even among people who deny the power of any traditional system to restrict their own behavior.

What is the Hall's reading list?

Grim has very generously offered to let me put a question before the Hall, and I consider it a great honor that he has extended to me.  In short, I have received a new Kindle (thanks to my lovely bride) and given both my parsimonious nature (I'm a cheap son of a gun) and the fact that there's a world of free literature out there, I have not gone to the electronic book stores to fill it, but instead to sites like Project Gutenberg.  So my question is, what does the Hall recommend?  What are your favorite "classics"?

Better Living Through Science

A company based out of Boston has developed cups that change color if date-rape drugs are introduced to their contents. It's sad that it's necessary, of course, but it's a nice idea all the same!


A friend who adopted a Russian girl about five years ago posts a quotation from Glenn Styffe:  ‎"I used to wonder if I was ready to be an adoptive (or foster) parent, until I realized that children are never ready to be orphans."

Having no children of my own, I often thought of adopting, but we never felt it was the right thing.  I'll always wonder.  I suppose I was influenced by my stepmother's experience:  a childless woman not bonding well with her motherless daughters.  Perhaps it wasn't in the cards for me to be a mother, and it's best that I adopted animals instead.  Is it true that some people shouldn't raise children, or does everyone think that until they do it?

It struck me to the heart a couple of years ago, reading that my friend's adopted daughter's favorite verse from Scripture was John 14:18:  "I will not leave you as orphans.   I will come to you."  Her blog is amazing and worth a read, by the way.  She has been an inspiration to me since junior high.

A World Without Consequences least, for North Korea.
North Korea defied the UN again to launch this rocket, an action proscribed by a sheaf of UN resolutions that Pyongyang has ignored for decades. Will this have any negative consequences for the Kim regime? Almost certainly not....

CNN interviewed a professor of international relations in Seoul to discuss the consequences for Kim Jong-un. It becomes clear pretty early on that the expert wants to argue that there will be some, but can’t think of any.
It's not just the UN. Our own 'smart diplomacy' is a contributing factor.

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts

Instapundit mentions a band I always liked, for reasons that are hard to lay out. They have a stripped-down sound most of the time. I think I first liked it just because the singer was a tough, roughneck girl. When I met my wife, she carried a big knife through the front of her belt and wore camo pants and tank tops. She's a little more sedate now, for a biker girl.

Hey, that was a biker jacket Joan Jett was wearing just there, wasn't it?

The piece the Sage of Knoxville linked to has a little fancier sound, but that's according to the original.

'Give Chivalry Another Chance'

We'll skip over the first part of this article, which starts with the Titanic, ground that Cassandra has more than adequately covered as you will all well remember.

As you know, I'm entirely devoted to the order of chivalry. Naturally, then, I find it appealing to see a magazine as left-leaning as The Atlantic raise the issue of taking it seriously. I don't wish to underrate the achievement; it's going to have been quite hard for the author to have written the piece, and even harder for readers to take her seriously given how baldly the terms violate their assumptions.

Nevertheless, I do wish to point out that she hasn't quite got the thing she's talking about. I'll borrow a few words I've written elsewhere, recently, to clarify just where she is wrong.
Chivalry is about respect. It is about not harming or hurting others, especially those who are more vulnerable than you. It is about putting other people first and serving others often in a heroic or courageous manner. It is about being polite and courteous. In other words, chivalry in the age of post-feminism is another name we give to civility.
Well, if it's just another name for civility -- to paraphrase Flannery O'Connor (excellent article, by the way) -- then to hell with it. Civility is certainly included in the virtue of chivalry, where it is appropriate: but so is defiance, where that is what the virtue demands.

Chivalry is not only about civility. Sometimes it is about dying. A moral order that you cannot die for is not really a moral order at all, because it can contain nothing greater than the individual. But any moral order must be about things greater than the individual, or else it cannot demand that the individual should sacrifice in favor of that moral order.

This is why Hannah Rosin was wrong to say that something 'more' than chivalry was at work in the Aurora theater. Nothing more is entailed, and nothing more is required.

The important thing about chivalry is the understanding that it is a set of chains. Sometimes it is about things you must do. Sometimes it is about things you would never do.

It is a discipline, in other words, one that takes God-given strength and uses it not to dominate but to serve. If it is done this way, with an honest heart, it produces the best and noblest kind of man that humankind has ever learned to produce.

That Depends. Can the Grassroots Take a Punch?

This will be an interesting episode. Dr. Althouse wonders if the unions know something about authority's willingness to enforce the law. Well, there are two things to know about it:

1) The policemen who might be making the arrests are part of a brother union.

2) The fine for simple assault is small enough that the union can readily pass the hat for it, if in fact the law is enforced.

What the unions know, in other words, is the product of more than a hundred years of leveraging violence as part of their politics. They're good at it, and this model once brought them astonishing gains. There's no reason it shouldn't be persuasive again, because people don't really like getting punched in the face.

During the period between the end of the Indian Wars and WWI, the US Army's main business was putting down labor strikes. After that corporations hired private armies to deal with them for a while. Finally, everyone surrendered. By now, the unions control the Democratic Party and the President of the United States is their firmest ally because he knows how important they are to him and his agenda.

I don't think the unions are the least bit afraid of the "grassroots," and why would they be? The grassroots aren't ready to stand up to violence, let alone to employ it themselves as part of a broader political agenda. They certainly aren't prepared to organize along those lines, as the unions have done and been doing for more than a century.

What are you 'grassroots' folks going to do about it? Tweet?

An Argument for the Existence of God, From Morality

This gentleman is a professor of philosophy at Boston College.

I find his argument flawed on two points, but I want to save laying out the second point -- the one I really think is decisive -- until we discuss it in the comments. I would like to talk about the first point, because it touches on an old debate we've had here many times, and it situates Joseph W. and I in strange places.

He argues that evolution cannot be the source of morality, because if it were, moral standards could change in ways that we don't intuitively want to accept. He frames this argument badly, I think, by making it sound like cultural change is an evolutionary process: his example is the current moral norm against slavery, which was not recognized in ancient times. In fact, even in modern times -- in the 1850s, say -- there were very strong advocates for slavery as a positive moral good.

(On the other hand, he treats what would more usually be called "evolution" under the heading "human nature," so what an evolutionary psychologist would say is captured -- it's just captured in a strange place. Furthermore, the point he's making about drifting moral standards holds even in cases of genuine evolutionary change in humanity, should there be any.)

So the problem is that we want to be able to say that slavery is really a moral wrong: and that it is a moral wrong now, and previously, even in the ancient world. The reason we want to be able to do that is that otherwise we can't say that society has improved by banning slavery: it has simply drifted from one norm to another. If it should drift back to slavery, there would be no moral harm to society, because there is no overarching standard against which you can test the proposition.

That lands us in odd places because Joseph W. is a strong advocate for moral progress, but not much given to belief in the supernatural. I have no problem believing in God, but have often argued against the idea that society engages in moral progress: I think that at least most of the time what we take for progress is really just change. Since on any timeline more recent societies are more like us (in terms of ideas about morality and otherwise) than more distant ones, from any perspective you will observe a change from more-distant moral ideas to closer moral ideas to your own moral ideas.

Of course that looks like an arrow of progress! But in fact, it would be true from any perspective. If in a hundred years Americans have decided to re-institute slavery for reasons of their own, they will regard us as further away, the middle-time when the pressures came up that caused the re-institution as a sort of period of progress, and their own time as having the enlightened truth. From their perspective, that is what will look like moral progress.

So one way of answering the mail on this question is to do what the professor does, and hold that it must be that God has given us laws that serve as a firm ground for moral standards. Then we can judge progress fairly, and not become confused by our perspective.

Is there another? I think so, but as I said, I'd prefer to leave it for the discussion.


Big 'un

The ladder is eight feet tall, as is the top of the window frame.  I think this tree is about eleven feet tall:  twice my height.  My husband begged me to be more reasonable next year.


I have begun reading "Complications" by Atul Gawande, a discourse on the fear and confusion inherent in learning to practice medicine, written by a surgical resident near the end of his eight years of training in general surgery.  He describes the agonizing process of learning to insert a central line, something the more experienced residents made look easy:
Surgeons, as a group, adhere to a curious egalitarianism.  They believe in practice, not talent.  People often assume that you have to have great hands to become a surgeon, but it's not true.  When I interviewed to get into surgery programs, no one made me sew or take a dexterity test or checked if my hands were steady.  You do not even need all ten fingers to be accepted.  To be sure, talent helps.   Professors say every two or three years they'll see someone truly gifted come through a program -- someone who picks up complex manual skills unusally quickly, sees the operative field as a whole, notices trouble before it happens.  Nonetheless, attending surgeons say that what's most important to them is finding people who are conscientious, industrious, and boneheaded enough to stick at practicing this one difficult thing day and night for years on end.  As one professor of surgery put it to me, given a choice betwen a Ph. D. who had painstakingly cloned a gene and a talented sculptor, he'd pick the Ph. D. every time.  Sure, he said, he'd bet on the sculptor being more physically talented; but he'd bet on the Ph. D. being less "flaky."   And in the end that matters more.   Skill, surgeons believe, can be taught; tenacity cannot. It's an odd approach to recruitment, but it continues all the way up the ranks, even in top surgery departments.  They take minions with no experience in surgery, spend years training them, and then take most of their faculty from these same homegrown ranks. 
And it works.  There have now been many studies of elite performers -- international violinists, chess grand masters, professional ice-skaters, mathematicians, and so forth -- and the biggest difference researchers find between them and lesser performers is the cumulative amount of deliberate practice they've had.  Indeed, the most important talent may be the talent for practice itself.   K. Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist and expert on performance, notes that the most important way in which innate factors play a role may be in one's willingness to engage in sustained training.  He's found, for example, that top performers dislike practicing just as much as others do.  (That's why, for example, athletes and musicians usually quit practicing when they retire.)  But more than others, they have the will to keep at it anyway.