Virtue and Opinion

An inchoate thought of mine, which I am throwing out for discussion.

A recurring theme in some of Cassandra's posts and arguments -- and a healthy thing to examine, whether or not she's right in each particular case -- is conservatives and libertarians falling into the same argumentative vices as their leftist opponents. It's comforting to think the other fellows are less honest, so that "the evidence of [the right side] is to be accepted against [the wrong side] in every case." But, as she's right to watch for, people sharing the true, correct opinions can and do fall into the same intellectual vices as those who oppose them.

Knowing that leaves me no less convinced that my opinions are true and correct (that's what having opinions means), but...I haven't seen strong evidence that people holding one opinion are more virtuous than people holding another, or that I can tell who's a better neighbor by what his ideology is.

(This is a moral problem I have with some world religions, incidentally, since they doom your soul based on your opinions...about whether God exists, for example, or how many of him there are. But that is another story.)

Experience and pop-psychology books convince me that it isn't really right to think of a human mind as a unified whole, with a single "virtue" statistic, but more like a set of subroutines that run simultaneously and don't always cohere. People don't think their way into being virtuous, at least most of them don't ("high-functioning sociopaths" may be an exception) and I don't see why evolution would select for logical consistency. And so perhaps it isn't surprising that a lawyer who'd go to the wall for his clients, or a soldier who'd fall on a grenade for his countrymen, can be an absolute beast to his wife. Broadly speaking it's about being concerned toward your fellowman...but it's unevenly applied. Likewise I can't help but admire a sincere patriot...but if you've served, or even if you haven't, I bet you've known a few who were "decency challenged."

Now, what's interesting to me is this -- can our experiences test the idea, about whether ideas relate to virtue? You know that Phineas Gage had much of his morality torn out by a piece of iron (though per that link, he was able to grow it back; a message of hope too often ignored). A base where I used to work went that the Air Force took over basic police functions while I was there...and one of them told me how surprised he was at how many domestic violence reports he got from the Warrior Transition Unit. I wasn't very surprised....without going too far, I had to deal with TBI soldiers on occasion, and some of them (and only some of them) really did seem to have their self-control and related virtues shaken a little loose.

None of the articles I've read about Phineas Gage relate whether his political views, his religion, or his ideology changed at all. And the nature of my duties -- and the way I prefer to conduct them -- is such that I almost never learned a soldier's ideology. I have a notion, which I can't prove, that none of these fellows took a sharp turn Left or Right, or High Church or Pentecostal, when they lost some brain functioning and some moral restraint with it...but I was wondering whether anyone here has knowledge, or experience, or thoughts, suggesting a link?

(I have one relative who made an enormous "moral leap upward" when she got religion, and her political views changed at the same time, but I think her changed opinions came as a package deal with the religious experience rather than a result of being more virtuous per se.)

The difficulty of testing cognition

With all the fuss lately about high-stakes testing and the seeming inability to make judgments of any kind about whether schools are worth the price of admission, I found this study of age-related cognition decline interesting.  The blog is entitled "The Importance of Being Wrong," apparently in honor of the author's interest in the process of learning not only by association but by elimination.  (In other words, why a really effective dog trainer--not me--not only rewards the right action but, perhaps even more important, never fails to discourage the wrong one, even when tired or bored.)

The linked post focuses on tests designed to discover whether the ability to recall words alters with age.  The author makes an interesting case that there is a stronger association of poor performance with the size of the sample than with age.  Among the possible explanations are the greater difficulty of excluding specific cognitive diseases from a large sample, or the greater difficulty of ensuring consistent evaluation techniques with a larger research staff.  It's also possible that older research subjects are more anxious being tested by youngsters, or in a university setting, than are younger subjects.

It's a tricky process, determining whether cognitive declines exist and, if so, what causes.  Nevertheless, though testing is fraught with challenges, I remain skeptical that it should be all that hard to get a rough idea whether a group of youngsters is noticeably less ignorant and untrained after a year of publicly funded instruction than before, though I suppose it can be quite tricky to compare two such sets of youngsters, taught by different people or methods, and obtain any certainty about which techniques were more effective.

Another post by the same author explores the difficulty in teaching children to recognize color apart from the objects conventionally associated with it.  Very young children may know that bananas are yellow and apples are red without gaining much skill in assigning colors to neutral objects in the laboratory.  I thought that was interesting in light of our discussion a few weeks ago about the oddly indeterminate use of color in Homer, and the differences in color language across cultures.  Anyone who's ever tried to paint in color knows how surprisingly hard it is to choose a color from a palette that will genuinely recreate the impression of a colored object in the real world.  It's not necessarily a natural skill to tell what combinations of frequencies correspond to what we carelessly call "red" or "blue" in various objects.

Ukraine & Tolkien

An Artist's tale.

Some appropriate music to listen to while you are scrolling through the gallery.

Contracting Movement

On January 29th of this year, the federal government posted an advertisement seeking bids for a vendor contract to handle “Unaccompanied Alien Children“.

Not just any contract mind you, but a very specific contract – for a very specific number of unaccompanied minors: 65,000.

• Why would DHS and ICE be claiming “surprise” by the current influx of unaccompanied minors on the border in June, when they were taking bids for an exact contract to handle the exact situation in January?

• Secondly, how could they possibly anticipate 65,000 unaccompanied minors would be showing up at the border, when the most ever encountered in a previous year was 5,000 total ?
The contract posting is listed at the General Services Administration's contract website,, and looks legitimate. The claim that 5,000 was the previous maximal total, however, looks to be false, if we judge from this UNHCR report. The figure hasn't been that low since 2011; it doubled in 2012 and doubled again in 2013. So a 65,000 estimate is assuming a rate of increase that falls rather than continues steady. If the UN report is right, all the states bordering Mexico are seeing such immigration attempts up by about 400%.

So DHS is guilty of good planning, I guess.

Friday Night AMV

Yep, we're all living here.

Gene Hackman on Independence Day

My other favorite cowboy sentiment on the holiday:

In honor of which, today's beer is one I haven't tried before. It's from a company tagged "Lonerider: Ales for Outlaws."

I'll let you know how they turn out.

John Wayne on America

It's an interesting list of reasons, and easy to support: one of the crowning glories of America is the freedom to move at will across this beautiful continent, on vast highways or country blacktops, on the rails or in the air. Political systems aside, the thing itself is beautiful, and lovable, as is the freedom to go out and see it.

Happy Birthday, Revolutionaries.

Vive la france

It's Independence Day, and normally I'm not in a great mood about the French.  But, you know, they did help us during our War of Independence, and by golly the little buggers can cook.

We have a neighborhood party to attend this evening, complete with (I hope) excessively dangerous fireworks.  After considering several things to bring, I opted for lazy security in the form of a big loaf of French bread, now that I have the technique down.  Today's batch is particularly easy, because the NPH, with a higher tolerance for these things, dragged down the old Sunbeam mixer and figured out what was wrong with it that made us put it away on a top shelf years ago.  Now it works like a charm and makes the dough-kneading a snap.  Two big loaves are rising at this moment.

The extra loaf of bread inspired me to get ready to make some onion soup.  My indispensable new Michael Ruhlman cookbook, "Twenty," surprised me with the claim that my onion soup would be better made with water than with chicken stock.  I tried it some a few weeks ago:  he was right.  It eats up some time, but otherwise couldn't be easier.  Starting early in the day, you slice up about eight onions of any kind, pour them into a large heavy pot with a tablespoon or so of butter and some salt, sweat them for a few minutes with the lid on, then cook them down slowly for several hours at whatever temperature you're willing to monitor them at:  the slower, the less often you have to check.  They'll be in there for quite a while before they lose enough water to need much attention.  Towards the end, it's best to keep a sharp eye on them.

When the onions get dark, dark, dark brown after three to five hours, and have shrunk down to quite a small volume, you have not only the makings for instant onion soup but a confection with unlimited uses.  The dark, caramelized flavor is unbelievable, especially if you get a truly dark brown, crunchy bit.  Put them on anything, or refrigerate or freeze them at this point, or go ahead and make soup.

All the soup requires is pouring six cups of water onto the onions, heating it up, and adjusting it to taste with any or all of the following:  salt, pepper, Vietnamese fish sauce, anchovy paste, vinegar, sherry, or red wine.  Then, of course, top it with slices of bread covered with toasted Swiss and/or Gruyère cheese.  Traditionally, you put the bread and cheese on top of individual oven-proof bowls and melt them that way, but I don't have any such bowls at the moment, so I toast the bread-and-cheese on a cookie sheet, then plop one onto each serving of soup.  I'm keeping my eyes peeled for a set of bowls in local antique shops, though, so I can achieve this effect:

It's peasant food, and great stuff.  Not counting the cheese, the whole batch (including the whole loaf of bread) costs about $6 in ingredients.


Matt Walsh ponders our different response to African big-game hunting and abortion:
I can sit here all day and write poems about the beloved walrus or the hallowed dolphin, but my pro-animal stance will likely never require anything of me. . . . A humpback whale will never show up at my door and ask me to take care of it for the next 18 years.  A Siberian tiger probably won't come to my house one day and demand that I change my entire life to accommodate it.  I might go out and adopt a pet, but that is always a deliberate act.  Babies, on the other hand, happen when we have sex.  But sex is fun, and babies are hard work.  Babies intrude on our fun.  They ruin it.  This, and only this, is the reason why we defend the slaughter of children while weeping over the remains of a murdered leopard.
He goes on to wonder how people explain their hierarchies of right and wrong.  Why is killing an endangered species wrong?  Where do you get that idea from?

The Time Has Come

Steve Forbes is not a stupid man, of course. Still:
The current IRS scandals are now bigger than those of Watergate in the 1970s and Teapot Dome in the 1920s. The most powerful and feared government agency was turned loose on groups of citizens who the White House and congressional Democrats felt threatened their power. President Franklin Roosevelt used the IRS against opponents, as did Presidents John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon....

This should be closely followed by attacks that culminate in defunding almost all of the IRS after the midterm elections, which the Democrats will lose badly. There can be no more continuing resolutions that allow the tax-collection agency to operate business as usual, even though Congress hasn’t passed an appropriations bill. If a continuing resolution is necessary to avoid a government shutdown, then by all means pass one–but specifically do a near-zeroing-out of the IRS (the only exception would be a handful of clerks to process refunds) until these scandals are fully and credibly investigated. If the President vetoes such a budget resolution, the onus is on him, not Congress.
So the idea is that the way to address a scandal worse than the Teapot Dome is to pass a resolution that will certainly be vetoed, thus cementing the IRS's personal loyalty to the President?

The right way to address the issue is to disband the IRS entirely, replacing it with a Federal sales tax that will be collected at the point of sale like other sales taxes. Such sales taxes can be overseen by the state agencies that already oversee them, or by new agencies among the states that lack them. Then we need not worry about audits that can be used to harass political opponents, nor do we have to worry about approval of tax breaks for left-leaning organizations while right-leaning ones are delayed, delayed, delayed.

There are lots of things not to like about sales taxes, especially their regressive nature. But their real benefit lies in a relative absence of tyranny. Stripping the Federal government of the mechanism to act like tyrants is a wise domestic policy, here as elsewhere.

The Fourth of July is tomorrow. It's worth remembering that the Founders were revolutionaries. The document we celebrate on the 4th is not the Constitution but the Declaration of Independence, with its signal guidance "That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Whether we alter or abolish, let the replacement be one in which the government has much less oversight over the private aspects of our lives. Let it lose the power to command us to sign away our Fifth Amendment rights when we file and sign a mandatory tax return. Let it lose at least those powers that have become concentrated in the IRS.


Delicious tears

I like the way Kevin Williamson thinks, probably because I'm not a nice person.
Progressives mad about Hobby Lobby started a campaign under the motto: “Not my boss’s business.” But Obamacare makes it — pardon me for noticing — literally your boss’s business. And I don’t mean “literally” the way Joe Biden uses it; I mean “literally” the way literally literate people use it. The alternative is this: Your money, your pills, your call. If what you care about is access to contraception, then that’s a pretty good model. If what you care about is using the levers of the state to force moral uniformity on the entire country so that atavistic Evangelical types have to knuckle under to your demands — well, you lost.


Phenomena, which is the site that hosts Not Exactly Rocket Science, has a post today about Archaeopterix, the "wingless bird with hairy feathers" we all remember from the old cartoon "B.C."  A new specimen preserves some fantastic detail in the feathers.  It seems that dinosaurs first developed feathers for insulation, display, or some such thing, and only later did some species find them useful in developing flight.


Looks like the military's planning in Baghdad is structured around covering State's retreat.
Officials would not say how many of the armed helicopters have been sent to the country, stating only that they will be based in Baghdad and could assist with evacuations of American personnel....

"The threat to Baghdad is still very legitimate. And we also want to make sure that we are doing what we can to help our colleagues in the State Department continue to function out of the embassy there and to have the flexibility, if they want to make resource and manning changes there, that we're able — we're in a position to help them do that," [RADM] Kirby said.
UPDATE: This aspect of our withdrawal is the one that I find most morally troubling, and one that is going to be a large stumbling block now. Why would they trust us now, those who were Sons of Iraq, if we did try to reach out to them? We made a lot of promises about ensuring fair treatment during the Surge that the Obama administration just walked away from.

Vox Vulgaris

December Talks To May

A part of an essay by a formerly drug-addled Boomer on reaching 60:
And don’t believe the beauty page gush that you are in fact only as old as you feel. It’s a nonsense, based on the assumption that ageing is primarily a physical process. It isn’t, it’s a maturing one. It’s not a feeling, it’s an experience. You are as old as you can remember....

A contemporary of mine, after a number of marriages, found a girlfriend less than half his age of a transcendent pneumatic beauty who hung on his every word — and dumped her after a couple of months. Why, I asked — she was perfect! “Too many things we didn’t have in common,” he said sadly. Like what? “Well, the Eighties.”

Correlation. Causation?

Gallup correlates two of its polls worldwide, and finds that the answers line up.

Poll 1: Is corruption in your government widespread?

Poll 2: How satisfied are you with the freedom you have to live your life and make your own decisions?

Americans have fallen to 36th place in the second poll, out of the top few in 2006. Nearly four out of five agree that corruption is widespread in our government.

Trust Me. I'm Not Very Nice.

People with more agreeable, conscientious personalities are more likely to make harmful choices. In these new obedience experiments, people with more social graces were the ones who complied with the experimenter's wishes and delivered electric shocks they believed could harm an innocent person. By contrast, people with more contrarian, less agreeable personalities were more likely to refuse to hurt other people when told to do so.
As subsequent studies will doubtless show, bikers are the most trustworthy of all. Interdisciplinary research is already pointing in that direction.

And Now A Moment of National Unity...

Since we've had such a bitter outpouring of divisiveness today, how about a story we (almost) all agree upon?
71% Think IRS Likely to Have Destroyed E-mails to Hide Guilt

Most voters think it’s likely the IRS deliberately destroyed e-mails about its investigations of Tea Party and other conservative groups to hide its criminal behavior. Two-out-of-three now believe IRS employees involved in these investigations should be jailed or fired, and most suspect the agency of targeting other political opponents of the Obama administration.
See? We're not so different after all.


Matt Walsh encapsulates the unhinged reaction to the Hobby Lobby ruling:
If you won't give it to me, then I cannot have it.  This is what a child might accurately say to his parents.  However your employer is not your parent, and you are not a child.

That SCOTUS Ruling We've Been Awaiting

It turns out to be a very narrow ruling, not a ringing defense of religious liberty, but nevertheless better than an endorsement of the Administration's principle that people must submit their religion to the state if they enter the market. It also isn't an attack on the idea that free contraception should be made available to women as a matter of state policy:
Alito also said the decision is limited to contraceptives under the health care law. "Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance-coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer's religious beliefs," Alito said.

He suggested two ways the administration could ensure women get the contraception they want. It could simply pay for pregnancy prevention, he said. Or it could provide the same kind of accommodation it has made available to religious-oriented, not-for-profit corporations. Those groups can tell the government that providing the coverage violates their religious beliefs. At that point, the groups' insurers or a third-party administrator takes on the responsibility of paying for the birth control.
Given the narrowness of the ruling and the fact that it doesn't interfere with the government's preferred policy outcomes, you might have expected this to be another unanimous ruling. No, it is not: it was a 5-4, conservative/liberal split. Justice Ginsburg, indeed, took the time to read her dissent in public. Her opinion is that this ruling won't turn out to be as narrow as it was crafted to be: she thinks it will have a sweeping effect that will create "havoc" for attempts by the state to impose its values on religious dissenters to assert a uniform corporate law.

Why Not Weigh The Fish?

On the intersection of Thales, Hume, a Thracian servant girl, and the Merry Monarch.

Violations of Human Rights

Did you know that the United Nations has found Detroit in violation of internationally recognized human rights? Specifically, the right to water.
“Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying," said Catarina de Albuquerque, who is the U.N.'s special rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation.

"In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections."
That's an interesting claim, probably incompatible with the American understanding of rights. It's philosophically defensible, though, if you believe -- as one long tradition does -- that rights come from specific human needs. According to this tradition, if a thing is truly necessary for human beings to exist (like water), or truly necessary to develop their basic capacities (like education), such a being a right to it.

A right to be provided with something you don't pay for, though? Who then must pay for it, and how do you guarantee that there will be enough of it if paying for it is not required? That's the conundrum behind the American concept, whereby your only (mostly) unlimited rights are rights to be left alone -- freedom to choose to practice your own religion, say. Even these rights, which require nothing from anyone else, are subject to practical limits. Even this morning we're waiting to see how unlimited that freedom is. The "Hobby Lobby" ruling is due today.

Still, it's interesting to see Detroit of all places hoisted on the UN's petard. It was the core of what Dr. Mead calls "Blue Model" Liberalism during the 20th century, the same sort of Liberalism that produced the UN and its structures.

UPDATE: Of course, health care is a human right, too.


I tried my hand at setting a bluesy Bonnie Raitt number to musical notation.  As before, you can hit the automated "play" button at the bottom left.

Jobs Aren't Fiefs

In his new(ish) digs at Takimag, Theodore Dalrymple takes a swipe at a French campaign "For Women in Science" - featuring posters that declare, "Science Needs Women." His case hits the main logical points you'd expect - "Science does not need women any more than it needs foot fetishists, pole vaulters, or Somalis. What science scientists." A couple of thoughts of my own:

There's a brand of sub-economic thinking that I think lies behind these posters. It's thinking of jobs (jobs as scientists in this case; but other jobs in others) as fiefs. If you're the Thane of Cawdor, you're entitled to the rents, and no one else; if you're also Thane of Glamis, you get the rents of Glamis and no one else. Presumably the King would like to have a good fighter in those positions, but more importantly he wants someone loyal (through family ties or otherwise), and the central concept is that whether you earned the fief through good service or not -- it is an award of the King's favor; it might go to anyone of any ability; but he chose you. There are only so many little plots of ground in the kingdom, and one more for someone else is one less for you. And if your family isn't getting these favors while his new in-laws are, they're "favored" over you, and if you felt entitled, you may just be angry. ("False, fleeting, perjur'd Clarence" may've been so motivated in his plots against Edward IV.) Naturally, then, in our world of political "tribes" -- you want your tribe to get its share, and you'll clamor and rebel 'til it gets it.

Since jobs, contracts, wealth, and talent are not like that -- abilities are not evenly distributed, and neither are the habits and attitudes that put those abilities to work; and a contract to perform services is not an entitlement of royal favor -- the campaign is as absurd as Dalrymple paints it, though it flatters resentment.

Unfortunately, in the midst of striking down one kind of sub-economic thinking, he falls into another himself:
In any case, we all know that commercial advertising is not intended as an enquiry after truth: it is in general trying to make us want what we do not need, an endeavor which makes the economic world go round. If consumers suddenly decided that they would buy only what they needed, they would do more damage to the economy than whole skyscrapers full of bankers misappropriating shareholders’ funds!
Cute, maybe, but poorly thought out. Firstly he doesn't say what he means by "need" -- an important qualification. "Need" for what purpose? To live another minute, or something more? Maybe he knows what kind of good life we "need" things for, but he ought to have specified or provided a link. (Normally someone who tells me I don't "need" something wants to justify taking it from me...Dalrymple, at least, isn't thinking that way, though I wish he'd watch that kind of language.) Assuming he has something in mind -- bare survival to an average age of 35, say -- I have two answers for him.

The first is from King Lear:
O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady.
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm....
A perceptive thought from a man Dalrymple often recognizes as unsurpassed in his understanding of human nature. Humans as they are do not limit themselves to "need," and do not need anyone's advertising to persuade them to strive for much more.

My second response is indirectly from Jean-Baptiste Say -- who in turn formulated it in response to an earlier brand of subeconomic thinking. (Into which Dalrymple seems to be falling.) The economic world does not go 'round because we're overproducing stuff that advertising tricks us into wanting (so that our failure to want it would be a terrible harm, and we're only one great moment of enlightenment from collapse); but by people's efforts to get what they want. If we decided, all together, to acquire only what we "needed," we'd decide at the same time to produce only what we "needed" -- and at the end of the adjustment (which might be quite a shock, I grant) the economy would tick along just fine.

Doubtless it would be an economy of extreme poverty, and probably support only smaller populations - maybe built around some kind of subsistence farming, or maybe less than that - but in the world he hypothesizes, so what? No one would mind. It would fit the "needs" of that society. Rousseau might've approved, and we'd have no worries about who practices science...which, presumably, we would not "need" at all.

Iss a puzzlement

The central banks try to figure it out:
"Overall, it is hard to avoid the sense of a puzzling disconnect between the markets' buoyancy and underlying economic developments globally," the report read.
My husband adds:   "It is almost as if the true price of money has been obscured, but that's crazy talk."