Monday, October 14, 2019

Robert George on Mill and Newman


Every so often, the Catholic Church goes through the bizarre process of elevating one of its adherents to the status of saint. This absurd spectacle demands that the wannabee-saint be responsible for at least two miracles. Now it's the turn of John Henry Newman (1801-1890), a British theologian. For some inexplicable reason, although Newman died almost 130 years ago, it's only quite recently that prayers that invoked his name have had the desired effect.

Jack Sullivan supposedly had back pain, and he claims to have been cured after praying to Newman. Well, it's not like spontaneous remission of back pain ever happens, right? It must have been a miracle!

Melissa Villalobos supposedly had internal bleeding while pregnant. She also prayed to Newman, and claimed to be healed. It must have been a miracle! No one could possibly come up with any other explanation, right?

Recently on twitter, Princeton professor Robert George celebrated this momentous event by recalling his paper on John Stuart Mill and John Henry Newman. I have to admit, I am not usually in the habit of reading papers published in obscure religious journals, but I was intrigued. So I read it.

That was a mistake.

It is pretty bad. Here, very briefly, are just a few of the things wrong with it: it's sloppily proofread; it uses private redefinitions of basic terms; it doesn't so much as argue as just make assertions; it's full of bafflegab; it doesn't adequately support its main contention; and it fails to be a scholarly contribution.

Sloppy proofreading: I'll just cite two instances (there are others): "defenses f freedom" in the very first paragraph! Then, later on, "neither to each other not to some common substance" ("not" instead of "nor"). Did anyone -- author or publisher -- make even the most cursory effort here?

Makes assertions instead of argues: "Christian philosophical anthropology ... has proved to be far more plausible and reliable than the alternative that Mill, quite uncritically, accepted". No actual argument or citation provided.

Private redefinitions of basic terms: religion is defined as "the active quest for spiritual truth and the conscientious effort to live with integrity and authenticity in line with one’s best judgments regarding the ultimate sources of meaning and value, and to fulfill one’s obligations (spiritual and moral) in both the public and private dimensions of one's life". A dishonest rhetorical ploy: define "religion" so broadly it encompasses nearly every action by an ethical person.

Bafflegab: top, p. 42: George uses 17 lines to make the trivial observation that happiness and human flourishing are functions of multiple variables with no obvious way to compare or weight them, in order to achieve a maximizing outcome everyone will agree with. Then why not just say that?

More bafflegab: "the dignity of human persons" (p. 44). "Dignity" is the ultimate weasel word; what you regard as essential to human dignity (e.g., forbidding contraception) I could just as easily regard as an example of human indignity.

Very few citations: e.g., George mentions criticism of Mill by Hart (but doesn't bother to give a citation). This is not scholarly behavior.

The main point is not adequately supported: Why exactly do duties automatically confer rights? Adherents of the religion of Christian Identity believe black people are subhuman and one has a duty to subjugate and exterminate them. How does this confer a right to do so?

Let's face it: the Christian account of morality is competely unsupported and incoherent. Some philosophers still have a medieval view of man's nature that is completely unmoored from modern discoveries of evolution and psychology.

Man is not a "rational creature" as George claims, and this absurdly bad essay is proof of that. In my field, junk as bad as this just could not get published in a reputable journal, and if it does somehow manage to, everyone would laugh.

13 comments:

jwaltos said...

Two things, thing 1, if you were making these points in a pub after quaffing a brew or two I can imagine these observations being made both vocally and pointedly. And if this were in a good pub then you would be applauded for these views. Thing 2, how can religion, in all of its guises, be abolished? Is AI a possible venue?

Tertium Quid said...


You appear to be approve of Mills' approach (or at least seem to consider it better than what George prefers), but in light of what you propose as a trivial observation, how would one choose a set of criteria for maximizing the good? Is it important that the choice be rational?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

There isn't a set of fixed criteria that will work, for trivial reasons, but also because people's preferences about what they consider good are always changing, both as they age, and as new people enter the world. So this quest is fruitless.

Instead of a set of criteria, the focus should be on designing societal systems that are flexible enough to change over time to accommodate new preferences, while doing a reasonable (but not necessarily optimal) job of achieving those preferences.

Tertium Quid said...

How does one determine that a societal system has done a reasonable job of achieving the preferences of the people it is presumed to serve?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

You could ask them, to begin with.

Tertium Quid said...

That sounds a lot like a system that mainly implements policies that are popular. What if a majority of the people want a policy that will be implemented at the expense of a minority?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I already said there is no criterion or system that will guarantee perfect outcomes for everyone. Do you know about Arrow's theorem?

Tertium Quid said...

I thought maybe you had Arrow's theorem in mind with regard to "trivial reasons." It sounds like this general idea of a societal system allows for satisfying the majority at whatever expense to any minority.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Hence my comment about systems that are more likely to achieve desirable outcomes, instead of criteria. For example, a Bill of Rights is especially designed so that majorities cannot impose arbitrary conditions on minorities.

Tertium Quid said...

Even a Bill of Rights can be amended by a majority (in the U.S. anyway), in denial of whatever it was meant to protect. Or it can be overcome through creative interpretation by a supreme court. But if government is mainly about satisfying the majority's desires, then notions of rights are a matter of fashion anyway, as is any concern for what obligations one fellow citizen has for another. In whatever way checks and balances may help a system follow up on a temporary concern about this or that one's rights, how does a people choose such a system when they are not in some sense "rational creatures"? It might be a different question whether one accepts inalienable rights as rational. When German fascists were advertising against taking care of the handicapped they were appealing to the self-interests of the majority, trying to persuade the majority to evolve beyond such parochial notions as rights that one has merely by being human. But it also begs the question: if government should be about satisfying the desires of the majority, how would one know that?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

People aren't "rational creatures", so that's a problem right there.

Why do you insist that criteria be perfect and that systems be perfect? In the real world, we're concerned with what works and what doesn't work, and we can use the lessons of history to deduce that.

Finally you seem to think that "rights are given by some supernatural being" and "rights are a matter of fashion" are the only alternatives. You omit the obvious answer that rights are a product of both culture and our common evolutionary history, so they are neither written in stone, nor completely arbitrary.

Tertium Quid said...

It's possible that we are talking past each other. I think deducing what does or doesn't work based on history of human events is no trivial task, requiring a certain kind of rationality. I'm not sure what meaning for "rational" you have in mind when you claim that human beings are not "rational." Even making a fairly naive system might require a certain kind of rationality, but going further and designing special protective features to make a more robust imperfect system requires something more. That sounds a lot like choosing and imposing criteria for an adequate system.

I also don't know on what basis you are claiming that I insist on perfect criteria or perfect systems. I don't believe human beings will implement a perfection of either. Human rights have in various cultures suffered dramatic losses rapidly in various times and places, and not just in the distant past. The 20th century has witnessed it in many cultures. I don't believe that either human biology or human culture or any combination of the two have produced something that has made human rights completely safe from arbitrary changes made possible by ideas that quickly become popular. The more people see human rights as something made up, the more people (especially the young) can be enticed into imaginative reinventions without serious concerns about unintended consequences. Like Aesop's dog staring in the water, they might be persuaded to part with something of great value for illusory rewards.

But coming up with a system that truly helps a people govern themselves while providing subsequent generations effective protections from destruction via natural human foolishness and shortsightedness--this is a tough job even for rational creatures, let alone creatures who are not rational. To decide what freedoms are essential to protect and to devise effective protections based on reviewing history and adequately interpreting causal patterns therein, seems like remarkable feat of rationality. To whatever degree it is possible to defend even the very general prescription that a societal system should achieve some (measurable?) appeasement of collective desires, it is not clear how to do so without appealing to reason in some way.

Regarding my statement about "notions of rights", it was about the relationship between an approach to government and the prevailing notions of rights in society. A more general question there would be whether a society not considering basic human rights to be intrinsic makes it more liable to accept fundamental revisions to those rights without concern for what might be lost. But this is a subsidiary question to that of what sort of rationality allows people to draw any rational conclusions about such matters.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I'm not sure what meaning for "rational" you have in mind when you claim that human beings are not "rational."

Do you know any actual humans?

People make decisions all the time for irrational reasons. And read Kahneman and Tversky on the one hand, and any work on cognitive bias on the other.

I also don't know on what basis you are claiming that I insist on perfect criteria or perfect systems.

Do you read your own text? Just a few sentences later you write I don't believe that either human biology or human culture or any combination of the two have produced something that has made human rights completely safe from arbitrary changes made possible by ideas that quickly become popular. If that isn't insisting on perfection, what is? Nobody is claiming any system is "completely safe"; that's a ridiculous and unattainable goal.

How, precisely, can rights be "intrinsic"? Human societies have existed for a million years without our modern notion of rights, so that alone should be a convincing argument that they are not intrinsic.