Thursday, February 18, 2016

Deontological and consequentialist morality

I enjoy reading about different theories of morality.  Not, mind you, that the different theories usually come up with different versions of morality itself.  Rather, they are different ways to think about morality, which in most cases match our moral intuitions and thus come to the same answers.  The places where they differ are controversial questions, and that's part of the reason it's helpful to consider them methodically -- so that we have a way to resolve difficult questions besides just following our hunches.

One of the main divisions in ethical theory is between deontology and consequentialism.  Deontology is morality that comes from law.  That is, there are certain rules which may never be disobeyed.  Consequentialism says that morality comes from the practical results of an action.  Actions are judged based on whether they are likely to produce good or bad effects, and any action which is harmful is per se an immoral action.  As an example, a deontologist will say, "Do not steal, because stealing is wrong," while a consequentialist will say, "Do not steal, because that will harm the person you steal from."  (For more on consequentialism, this is an excellent short resource.)

Catholicism is mostly deontological -- there are laws which cannot be transgressed even for the most pressing reasons.  The morality of an action is said to exist in the nature of the act itself, not in the possible results.  The positive side of this is that it allows perfect moral clarity in almost all cases.  Instead of having to ask, "Is it more important for me to save my own life, or the life of my unborn child?" a deontologist can simply know that anything which directly takes a life is wrong, while something that does so more indirectly (tube removal in the case of ectopic pregnancy, taking chemotherapy to cure the mother's cancer) may be permissible.

But even Catholics use consequentialism in many of their arguments.  That's probably for two reasons: first, we all feel on an intuitive level that the results of our actions matter; and second, many people today are consequentialists and the intended audience for these arguments.  Paul VI used both deontological and consequentialist arguments in Humanae vitae.  His deontological arguments included references to Scripture, Tradition, and a philosophical understanding of the ends of the marital act, while his consequentialist arguments included predictions that birth control would weaken marriages, cause a disrespect for women, and encourage governments to mandate it for their citizens.  When I hear arguments about birth control, they tend to focus on these latter arguments rather than the former, because people find them so compelling.

And it can be argued that there will be a consequentialist argument for every moral law of the Church -- because, after all, the reason God made these rules is because they will have good results.

Consequentialism places the moral value of an act in its consequences.  This is practical and coherent with a theory that morality is simply those behaviors which work out well for the common good.  The disadvantage, though, is that you can never know for sure what the consequences of your actions might be.  When a deontologist votes for Bush because he is pro-life, and he later goes on to do little about abortion and also invade Iraq, he can say, "Well, I did my best, I couldn't have known, I obeyed the moral law, so I am blameless."  A consequentialist who makes the same choice is faced with the understanding that he did something wrong, which, though not malicious, had bad results which he is responsible for.  This present remorse may be a good motivator toward better evaluation in the future, but there is no guarantee of ever evaluating perfectly.

It seems to me that one of the biggest sources of misunderstanding between religious and secular people is a failure to recognize this deep difference in moral systems.  For instance, some time ago I read a secular argument that Catholics don't really care about embryos because if they did they would spend more effort on preventing miscarriages than ending abortion, since more embryos die of miscarriage.  Apart from practical considerations, this displays an ignorance of what Catholics actually understand their responsibility toward embryos to be.  They don't feel like they are supposed to work toward a maximum number of babies making it to term (though that would be nice), but that they are morally forbidden from taking lives.

Likewise, on the question of socialism, a consequentialist may think, "It will benefit society if we tax the rich to build safety nets for the poor, therefore it is a good thing to do."  But deontologists reply, "Taking from some to give to others is stealing, and stealing is bad."  That's the end of it, from their perspective, unless their moral law is more complicated and has special rules for what the government may do.  It frustrates me to see people making these arguments at each other while failing to realize the massive rift between their first principles.  Perhaps an argument could be made, if the consequentialist in the discussion asks why stealing is bad, and if the bad effects of stealing actually hold true in the case of taxes.  Or the deontologist might focus on the bad results of socialism rather than assuming that simply applying the word "stealing" ends the discussion.  But unless this gap is bridged, all conversation on the topic is doomed from the outset.

I think a finely-honed deontological system, like Catholic moral teaching, is useful.  But more simplistic deontologies are terrible.  Why would anyone expect that a single sentence or paragraph would be able to summarize all moral actions?  The non-aggression principle bugs me for that reason.  "One must not initiate aggression against another's person or property" sounds great on paper, but it just leads to more questions.  What is property?  How do you prove that it's yours?  Once someone else has aggressed against you, does your response have to be proportionate in any way, or can you shoot them for walking across your lawn?  Do you have any positive duties -- for instance, if you can save another person's life at no cost or inconvenience to yourself, are you morally obligated to do so?  And why is this the rule anyway?  Was it handed down from heaven, or were its inventors seeking to achieve a certain goal with it?  If the goal of the rule is "the benefit of everyone," then it's simply consequentialism, one step removed.  But perhaps the real goal is "a moral justification for libertarianism, the political system which I happen to prefer," in which case calling it morality is a bit of a stretch.  Any simple deontologist dictate tends to devolve in this way.  Morality is complex; rules must also be complex.  But in order to shape the rules to the sorts of choices we face, we must have some sort of higher goal to which we subject the rules we make.

On the other side of the question, consequentialism has serious flaws as well.  In focusing on the results, it's easy to ignore the human actor.  For instance, it fails to distinguish between positive and negative morality.  It seems obvious to me that there is a huge difference between killing two innocent people in order to save ten people, and saving ten people while accepting the inevitable consequence of two people dying that you couldn't save.  That's intuitive to me, and I think it comes from a recognition that killing two people has an effect on me that not saving those people won't have.  It changes me into the sort of person who kills people.  Because that's a consequence, of course consequentialism can account for it, but most consequentialists don't, and that's a problem.

You see, there must be a difference between positive and negative morality, or else the five dollars I spend on a tub of ice cream which I could have spent on a measles vaccine for a kid in Africa is morally equivalent to murdering that kid for a tub of ice cream.  I can't get behind that.  Never killing anyone is a law I can reasonably be expected to achieve, while saving everyone is not possible for anyone.  Heck, if saving a greater number of people is all that's required, then I should donate my body for organ transplants, thus saving several people for one life lost -- one for my heart, one for my liver, and so on.  It devolves into absurdity.

Another issue is that I am not always in a state where I can reason about consequences.  Some moral choices are made in a heartbeat where I have no time to think; others in a situation where I don't have very much information; others when I am under the strong duress of my emotions and thus tempted to rationalize something I would otherwise agree was wrong.  That's why rules are helpful -- if you have rules for your life you follow all the time, the force of habit will carry you through at those moments when you can't clearly assess the consequences.

That's why I have such a strong sympathy for rule utilitarianism -- consequentialism is used to shape the moral rules which one lives by, but after that one simply follows the rules.  Your choices shape the person you are, and the person you have become shapes your future choices.  That means that even small choices that "don't hurt anybody" may come to have serious consequences down the line, when your failure to be disciplined in little things has made you a weaker person.

But, in the end, this post doesn't have a hard and fast conclusion.  Both deontological and consequentialist moral systems have flaws, but they both can be useful if they are influenced by one another -- when consequentialist morality acknowledges the usefulness of rules, and when deontological morality recognizes that many rules are only shown to be good by their good results.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The deification of romance

Romantic love is one of the more powerful emotions humans can experience.  Your heart pounds, you feel weak, you feel butterflies in your stomach.  And those feelings can last your whole life long, if less dramatically as time goes on.  People have died for romantic love, and they've killed for it.  And, of course, it's where new people come from.

As a kid, I idolized the idea of romance.  In my imagination, my whole life was just waiting for this perfect man to appear and sweep me away.  He would love me for me, and he would love me more than anything else.  I would be the number one thing in his life.  I rarely imagined having kids, or if there were kids there was always a nanny around.  I didn't want to be bothered with other relationships -- the romantic one was the one that mattered.

There's a lot that goes into this primacy we give romance.  For one thing, the drive toward it is very powerful, a both emotional and sexual impulse that is extremely hard to repress, even if you want to.  For another, the kind of relationship it is fulfills a longing we have as humans -- the desire to be observed, understood, remembered.  The human condition is to be terribly lonely inside our own heads, knowing no one else will ever understand us fully.  Romantic love can be a remedy -- a single person is dedicated to understanding us, and we in turn understand them.  Finally, romantic love is the foundation for many of our other relationships -- it leads us to begin families and have children.  All of our familial relationships begin with romantic love experienced at some point by someone.

I still think romance is great.  I mean, about once a day I think, "Boy, am I glad I'm married."  It's nice to have someone around who loves me and whom I love.  And yet, I have started to feel that our society gives too much attention to romance and not enough to other kinds of love.  Movies and television almost have to have romance -- even action or science fiction shows have romance in them somewhere.  Most hit songs are love songs.  Novels usually include a romantic side plot.  Girls in particular are encouraged to think about love from a very early age -- the other day I noticed a three-year-old friend of ours making her action figures "fall in love."  And I keep hearing, over and over, the important advice to put your spouse ahead of your children, to make sure both your spouse and your kids know that your spouse is more important to you.  Why?

You see, there's a downside to overfocusing on romantic love.  First, it encourages us to devalue or ignore other kinds of love.  The love between a parent and a child, for instance, is an extremely powerful kind of love.  Friendship is another.  And both of these have something of what we look for in romance -- another person to go through life with, someone who values you for who you are, who seeks to understand you.  Parental love is usually one-way -- we all hopefully receive it from someone, and we can give it in turn to someone else without respecting a response -- but it isn't less essential or powerful.  When I was a child longing for a prince to come sweep me away, I was ignoring the fact that I already had people who loved me unconditionally, who wanted to understand me, who treasured my various good qualities and didn't let my faults drive them away -- my parents.  Of course, they were imperfect, unlike my imaginary prince.  But real love always is.

The second problem is that when you see romantic love as the only love that matters in life, the love that will make you whole, you seek it so ardently that you're tempted to compromise -- settling for a terrible relationship because then at least you're not alone.  You're less vulnerable to this danger when you have solid, supportive other relationships -- parents, grandparents, siblings, friends.  You don't need a partner, even if you want one, because you're not alone without one.  And when you have a partner who starts to treat you badly, you aren't afraid to end the relationship because you have relationships outside of that one to support you.  A person who devalues non-romantic love needs love too much to ever find the real thing.  At worst, their neediness drives potential lovers away.

What's the solution then?  I don't entirely know.  Romance is too powerful a drug to be unimportant to people.  Audiences want it in their movies and books.  Kids dream of it and teenagers can barely think of anything else.  It's always going to matter.  But I do think we could stand to tone it down a bit.

For instance, I don't put my husband before my kids.  I love my husband and my kids, in different ways, and they know it.  Both of those ways are important.  I also have been sheltering them, so far, from romance in the media they consume, just as I shelter them from violence.  I don't think they're ready for it, and I think this time, when they're young, is a good time to teach them the value of other things.  We're making a big deal out of Valentine's Day this year, because I've discovered that the kids and I share an enthusiasm for making a big fuss over every holiday ever.  They made cards for their loved ones (grandparents and friends) and we had heart-shaped cookies.  Tomorrow we're having a fancy-dress party with some friends.  (We also took some time to learn about what real hearts really look like and what they do, because Marko was curious.  Unschooling FTW.)  To us, it's a day of love, and love has no limits.  It's not for couples only, because everyone can love and deserves to be loved.

Happy Valentine's Day to everyone.  I seem to remember St. Valentine was a celibate bishop who wrote loving letters to his flock from prison.  Perhaps that's a good root to get back to, instead of making a giant sappy fuss over romantic relationships.  Today, appreciate all of your loved ones, and remember that you are loved whether or not you have a date today.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

7 opportunistic takes

That is to say, I have an opportunity to write them today, which I didn't on Friday, so I'm going to just go for it.  Living on the edge, that's me.


Last week I had a music-sharing session with a friend of mine.  That is, we got together and spent the afternoon playing our favorite songs for each other.   This was very scary for me because, on the one hand, I usually don't enjoy music till I know it well enough to follow along, and on the other, sharing music I like is as scary as wearing clothes I like.  What if people don't like it?  (And of course people generally don't like it, because I like very inaccessible music.)

However, it turned out all right, because much of the music my friend likes turned out to be quite enjoyable on first listen, and if she didn't like everything I shared, she didn't mock it either.

Anyway, she introduced me to a song which I think is going to be my anthem for this year -- considering my word for the year is TRUTH.  Probably everyone who hasn't been living under a rock knows it already, but as I didn't, I'm going to share it anyway.

The music video is great too.


This has been a very disappointing year for Republicans, thanks to Trump.  Trump is the worst.  And not because, as many people are, I am afraid he will become president.  I think that's highly unlikely.  Even him becoming the nominee is fairly unlikely -- though that would probably destroy the Republican Party, at least any segment of it I had any sympathy with.  John is worried because, as a card-carrying member of the party, he is supposed to support the eventual nominee, whoever it is.  If he doesn't, they could kick him out.  I think this is absurd and a great way to remove from your party anyone with a lick of principle.  But perhaps that is the goal.

But my real issue with Trump is what he has done to the rest of the field.  He's made Cruz look like a reasonable choice!  And he ate up all the contrarian, populist vote which, up to then, had belonged to Rand Paul.  It's very sad.  Rand Paul had a great "moment" two years ago, back when Americans cared about privacy and didn't want to invade Syria.  Now, with ISIS on the move and several terrorist attacks in the past year, paranoia has set in and people want a strong leader who will read all their emails, shut out immigrants, and go to war in as many places as possible.  I cannot blame the "system" for this. In so many past years, I believed that deep down most Americans wanted what I want and things were just stacked against people who want what I want.  This year, I have to confess that they don't want what I want.  They want to feel safe, even if it means tyranny.

When Rand dropped out of the race (sob!) I went and researched all the other Republican candidates.  Not one is even mildly non-interventionist.  Cruz said he'd carpet-bomb ISIS (which is located inside civilian cities, remember) until the sand glowed ... and he is the least interventionist of the Republicans, apparently.  Many of the candidates also believe in deporting all undocumented immigrants who are currently here, which I think is inhumane and also really expensive and bad for the sectors of the economy which rely on immigrant labor.  Many of the candidates are pro-life, which is good, but not something I've focused on much since I realized no one is interested in doing jack about abortion.  Instead the Republican pro-life position has been a way to coerce single-issue voters into voting for them regardless of how much they suck otherwise.  Or, in Mark Shea's phrase, "Vote for us or the baby gets it."


So where does that leave me?  Don't hate me, but .... I'm seriously considering Sanders.  He is reasonably non-interventionist, not just in a faddish way, but on principle -- he was an anti-war protester back in the day and he was one of the very few who voted against the Iraq War.  (It's so easy for candidates to condemn it now, but do they think we forgot they were in favor of it then?)  Surprisingly, he also wants to audit the Federal Reserve, which I had thought was a conservative position, but apparently it's just the logical position of anyone who isn't funded by big banks.  He supports some campaign finance reforms that I think would be a good idea, and because of this he doesn't accept money from big businesses and PACs.  He seems like an honest, principled guy and that's more than I can say for anyone else still standing.

Of course there are huge downsides.  His "free college" idea strikes me as ridiculous and I have no idea if his healthcare plan would work.  (Of course, I think almost anything is likely to be better than what we have, but ... still.)  But I put a lower priority on those things because I know they're politically unviable.  The GOP will have a majority in the House, at least, so it's not going to be possible for him to increase taxes the way he means to.  He'll have to settle for some more reasonable compromise.

But foreign policy does not require the backing of Congress, not really (as Obama proved in his Syria involvement) and so it's vital to have someone I actually trust in that position.  I like that Sanders isn't going to ditch the Iran deal -- which, maligned as it is by conservatives, seems to be our best hope of keeping Iran peaceful.  I like that he has been willing in the past to cross Israel -- and he can't get called anti-Semitic for doing so, because he's Jewish himself.  (Whereas Cruz was a jerk to a group of Palestinian Christians because they wouldn't "stand with Israel."  I find that really absurd.)

Now I really, really don't want Clinton for president.  Her foreign policy is dreadful and we have plenty of evidence of it, since she was secretary of state.  She wanted boots on the ground in Syria.  And, of course, she might be going to jail for the emails thing.  And yet, I think that the Democrat is likely to win in the next election, seeing how nasty the GOP has been lately.  I mean, the nasty rhetoric on immigration wins with the base, but 75% of the country is against mass deportation.  They're not going to vote for a guy who won the nomination by suggesting it.

As a result, I don't think I will vote in the Republican primary, because there is no candidate I like in the running.  Virginia has open primaries: I can select whichever party's ballot I want on primary day.  So I think I will vote in the Democratic primary and vote for Sanders, so that Clinton won't get it.  In the general election, though, I'm still undecided.  It sort of depends on who's in the running at that point.  If I really don't like either main candidate, I might vote for Gary Johnson or maybe, just for kicks, Jill Stein.  Why not?


We had massive quantities of snow in that "blizzard" the other week.  We were snowed in from Friday afternoon till Monday evening.  It was nice.  The kids found it too cold to play in much (despite all their longing for snow!) but we went for walks in the snow and said hi to our snowed-in neighbors doing their shoveling.  And we bought Star Wars: A New Hope on Amazon for the kids to watch.  Marko has chosen to watch a few minutes it almost every night ever since, for his bedtime show.  I think he's gotten through the whole movie at least four times.

Once it warmed up a bit, we actually did get to build snow caves and snowmen, so the kids got some fun out of it.  Michael kept insisting it was a white Christmas.  Whatever, dude.

Michael shoveling while the snow falls -- so he can experience what it's like for me to clean up while he's in the process of making a mess.  He didn't mind though.

The height of the drifts the morning after the storm, with a Marko added for scale.  Pretty sure that's the most snow we've had since we moved here.

A full moon setting the morning after the storm.


 The kids are in a rather easy phase at the moment.  (*waits for smiting by Internet gods*)  They just play Star Wars all day.  Sometimes there are fights because Michael is talking in English and Marko says he has to speak only in Wookie language, or whatever, but it's pretty chill.  Marko still sings and hums pretty much nonstop, but as his repertoire increases it becomes even more overstimulating.  For instance, he'll be humming the Star Wars theme, then O Christmas Tree, then the Imperial March, then Ode to Joy, then Angels We Have Heard on High, then the Han and Leia theme ... in the course of a few minutes.  On the bright side, he's started stammering a lot less.  Maybe music is helping, or maybe his mouth is catching up a bit with his brain.  He also has managed to talk to other adults a bit -- we successfully left all three kids with friends when we went to see the new Star Wars, and no one was any trouble at all.

Michael is less needy than he used to be, by a long shot.  He still will hug and snuggle any time, but he isn't so demanding about it.  I guess I should expect this, seeing as he's almost four, but he's always seemed younger than his age, so it's weird that he's suddenly pretty low-maintenance.  He throws a fit sometimes if he doesn't get what he wants, but he will usually snap out of it if you offer a hug and a kiss.  His grammar is full of errors ("goed," "brung," and "mans" appear in his speech often) and he mispronounces some words (like "Star Vors" or "somefling") but he's very fluent.  And also hilarious.  He is so imaginative and he likes to say some crazy thing and then give this huge grin, like "can you believe this stuff?"

Every night, he watches his cartoon (usually Peep and the Big Wide World) and when it's over, he sometimes makes a bit of a fuss.  But that ends when John says, "Go give Mama a hug and kiss."  He runs over with this huge smile to get a "picking-up hug and kiss," or sometimes three or four of each.  Meanwhile Miriam runs to the bedroom and gets in Michael's bed, which is a personal joke of her own.  Michael goes in there to get into bed, finds Miriam there, and often begs me to let her stay (which I don't, she won't sleep).  And then he gives her a big hug and kiss.  It's the cutest thing that has ever happened.

The past couple of weeks, we've instituted a clean-up time so that they actually clean up their toys.  It's accomplished with lots of threats and rewards and nagging, so I hate it, but on the other hand, I feel much more relaxed about letting them make a mess when I know I'm not going to be the one to clean up.  Marko does most of the work while Michael goofs around, but then, Marko didn't clean anything either at that age.  And if I say, "Hey, Michael, Marko's winning!" he'll hurry and pick up a toy.  Somehow adding competition to anything, whether between each other or against me, makes things super exciting and fun.  Perhaps a boy thing?  It's hard to say.


Miriam suffered through a week in which her right upper molar was coming in and the gum over it was hugely swollen and purple -- which, amazingly, didn't seem to make her too fussy, but she did nurse a lot and sleep badly.  And now that it's in, along with all her canines, she's feeling much better.  I mean, she plays independently for whole minutes!  This is dangerous, of course, because I think she doesn't need me for a minute and I go wash the dishes, and then I look over and she's emptying out John's desk drawers or something.  She's kind of a menace.

BUT!  She has reached the magical age where I can see her going for something she's not allowed to have, and I say, "No," and she flings herself on the floor and sobs.  This does not sound like progress, but it beats ignoring me and continuing to go for the forbidden thing over and over until I have to drag her out of the room.  The next step is for her to eventually learn which things are forbidden and just leave them alone, but ... that will take quite a bit longer, if my memory is right.

She says a lot of words: yeah and no, meat, beans, piece, bite, cat, dog, baby, ball, up, down, hot, cold, on, off, out, shoe, shirt, pants, butt, parts (our word for genitals -- because I'm a bad parent who doesn't do proper words for things like I'm supposed to), knee, ear, eye, nose, hair, poop, pee, too (as in, me too), kiss, hug, me (as in, who wants a cookie? ME!), bed, Mama, Daddy, Michael, Marko (both of which sound like "ko" but whatever), book, hands (meaning, wash my hands), apple, cracker, cookie, eat, food, hungry, yum (when she wants your food, she'll stand by you saying "um, um!" meaning she wants a bite), chair, go .... probably more I'm not thinking of.  She never fails to get her meaning across these days, which cuts down on frustration but also leads to some confusion -- when she successfully communicates, for instance, that she wants me to eat a piece of baloney that she just took out of her mouth, and I don't do it.  She just keeps insisting "eat, eat!" more and more clearly because she thinks I don't get it.  I mean, she is being GENEROUS!

Her favorite thing in the whole world is to stand on a chair or couch, grab your hands, and leap off ... assuming, of course, that you will "fly" her down.  You have to be on the lookout for it because she'll get hurt if you think she's just trying to hold your hand for no reason.  She does so many cute things it would be hard to enumerate them all.  She likes to grab your hand and lead you around the house to show you things.  (Who can resist?)  She borrows my purse and carries it around.  She plays ring-around-the-rosy with her brothers.  She holds out her hand to the kitty and then insists on a kiss as if the cat had scratched her, because she knows that's what cats do.  She loves hugs and kisses and never seems to get tired of them.  She puts her finger over her lips and says "shh!"  She hugs the dog.  She has a stuffed cheetah that she carries around, and she will give it a hug and then hand it to you so you can give it one too.  She likes to get in bed and pull the covers up to her chin and pretend she's sleeping.  She will play peekaboo with everyone, even if they're not playing with her.

In short, she is that special stage of adorable only a seventeen-month-old can be.  She is all kinds of trouble, but it's okay because she's cute and we will forgive her anything.


As for me, I'm up and down.  Periodically I announce to everyone that I'm all bounced back from Miriam and have energy again and will now commence to achieve things.  Then a week later I'm wiped out again and can barely get the dishes done each day.  I'm not sure what's going on.  It's not strictly correlated with sleep, though perhaps in the long term a lack of sleep is part of it.  I am convinced that eating a raw spinach salad gives me energy -- or at least, it makes me feel healthy.

It's possible that I'm anemic.  Or maybe I just don't have the momentum to accomplish stuff and if I just pushed myself to get started, I'd get stuff done.  Some days I certainly do.  But if I leave the house, even if it's just to go to the library, the rest of the day is generally a wash.  On the bright side, my mood is noticeably better than a few months ago -- I feel happy most days, I don't yell much, and every day when I've felt down in months, it was for a good reason.  Anyway, I'm trying to be patient with myself and remember that just because I can't do much right now doesn't mean that my entire life is going to be like this so that I never write another book or finish another spinning project again.

I finished Buffy (which was great, and the ending was not the horrible tragedy I was expecting) so I've started a couple new shows: Dark Matter and Gilmore Girls.  Why two shows at once?  Because neither has everything I want -- one has adventure and mystery and the other has humor and relationships.  So when I'm feeling like something to get my heart pounding, I watch Dark Matter, and when I just want something to entertain me while I do a little knitting, I watch Gilmore Girls.  So far I'm a whole season into Gilmore Girls and only three episodes into Dark Matter, so that'll tell you something.  Both are quite good and I'd recommend them.
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