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The best intentions

May 24, 2015

A few weeks ago Sam Harris published a series of emails between him and Noam Chomsky that offers an excellent case study in how arguments can go wrong. The topic is, supposedly, politics and ethics, and, specifically, whether intentions matter for our ethical evaluation of polities’ actions. Really, it’s about something else entirely. The crucial passages come near the end, as both parties begin losing their tempers:

[Harris said:] Your dismissal of an idealized thought experiment as “embarrassing and ludicrous,” and your insistence upon focusing on real-world cases about which our intelligence is murky is not helping to clarify things.

[Chomsky said, not in direct reply to the above:] I agree that I am litigating all points (all real, as far as we have so far determined) in a “plodding and accusatory way.” That is, of course, a necessity in responding to quite serious published accusations that are all demonstrably false, and as I have reviewed, false in a most interesting way: namely, you issue lectures condemning others for ignoring “basic questions” that they have discussed for years, in my case decades, whereas you have refused to address them and apparently do not even allow yourself to understand them.

Harris thinks the he needs to make sure Chomsky agrees with him on ethical first principles before they go on to discuss specific ethical judgments, while Chomsky sets out to teach Harris a lesson about how poor an ethical judge this obsession with first principles makes him. Both, unsurprisingly, fail.


But why didn’t they just come out and say this? Harris, for example, could have said:

[But Harris didn’t say:] Clearly we find different facts to be important with regard to these specific cases, and this is likely the cause of much of our disagreement. I’m unsure, however, whether, even if we did agree on how to describe these cases, we would agree in our ethical judgments of them. Therefore I’d like to discuss first principles for a while–for example, what role does intention play in our ethical judgments?–before we sit down to look at specific cases.

Or, conversely, Chomsky could have said:

[But Chomsky didn’t say:] You want our disagreement to be philosophical, so that our conversation can remain far enough removed from the facts of the matter to enable you to avoid confronting your own hypocrisy. But our “disagreement” is not philosophical; it consists in nothing more than your failure to pay the facts of the matter the attention due to them. You do not see the situation clearly, and if you did, you would see how your present desire to focus on philosophy is just a distraction from it. I cannot explain the situation to you in an email exchange. It’s complex, it involves close attention to facts, and I’ve written about these facts and what they mean for fifty years. Read all my writings, not just one short book; then, maybe, we can have a conversation.

The closest they come to this is in the passages I quoted earlier, neither of which are intended to shift attention to this disagreement; Harris merely invokes the importance of “clarity” against what is “murky,” assuming that clarity can be reliably achieved through a sincere amateur investigation, while Chomsky berates Harris for his ignorant arrogance, without making any effort to tell Harris why his lack of expertise matters. Harris speaks as a liberal, Chomsky speaks as a radical, and neither makes any effort to remedy the situation.


As Harris admits in his epilogue, Chomsky is right; Harris did misread him:

[Harris says:] I can see that my point was not that he literally hadn’t asked these questions but that the answers he arrived at are, in my opinion, scandalously wrong. Perhaps Chomsky didn’t literally “ignore the role of human intentions,” but he effectively ignored it, because he did not appear to give intentions any ethical weight.

Sadly, Harris continues to misread him. The first of these sentences is right, the second is wrong. Part of the problem is that Chomsky and Harris disagree about what the word “intention” means. Chomsky uses it to refer to what, when asked, an agent will say he means to do. According to Chomsky, this is meaningless, since agents are often (self-)deceiving in their avowals; even the Nazis claimed to be humanitarians. Harris uses the word to refer to what an agent really wants; though the Nazis might have claimed to be, and even have believed themselves to be, “humanitarians,” what matters isn’t their use of that word, but rather what their intentions amounted to, which, in the case of the Nazis, was the murder of twelve million people.

At any rate, Harris would say, and Chomsky would not, or at least need not, diagree, that, even though both the Nazis and a hypothetical group, call them Mazis, avowed humanitarian motives, and even though both performed actions that led to the deaths of twelve million people, we could still draw a distinction between them, if the Nazis intended these deaths (through, for example, thinking being humanitarian means purifying the race), while the Mazis didn’t, but brought them about accidentally (through, for example, thinking that a poisonous compound was actually medicinal).

Chomsky would only disagree that such distinction-mongering had any relevance. In his view, it’s worse than irrelevant: it helps people like Harris to excuse American atrocities, through conflating the mere ability to draw such distinctions with the actual possession of good intentions. “We can see that Nazis are worse than Mazis” is not the same as “We know ourselves to be more like Mazis than Nazis.”


If this was clear to me, why wasn’t it clear to Harris and Chomsky? Well, it might have been. They’re not idiots. But both are ideologically committed to proceeding in the way they did.

Harris, who has no expertise in the matter, cannot admit that expertise might be relevant without calling into question his own standing to participate in the conversation. So he adopts a tone of amateur inquiry, of having an “interesting” debate, of proceeding with “civility,” in an attempt to make it sound as if these are matters which any person of good will can understand if he just thinks them through for an hour. He is, in short, a liberal, in the traditional sense: one who believes that no problem is so great a gentleman amateur cannot solve it. Gentlemen amateurs being, of course, the opposite of fanatics.

Chomsky, who has devoted his life to studying such issues, and who has adopted positions starkly at odds with the norms of liberal discourse, is precisely the fanatic Harris detests. He is an “expert,” to be sure, but so are myriad other people, most of whom disagree with him. To differentiate himself from them, he must constantly accuse them of hypocrisy, and project his own moral authority. He must take for granted that Harris already knows, at some level, why his position is wrong, which makes it pointless to explain to him his mistake: you don’t tell a narcissist that he’s a narcissist, you treat him in a way that will get him to change.


Harris and Chomsky’s tones here are both understandable, but both constitute, it seems to me, a failure of charity. Not an absence of charity. We can, I think, take Harris at his word that he doesn’t want to fight with Chomsky, he actually wants to learn; the problem is that he either cannot or refuses to conceive of a learning which takes place other than through the discourse of gentlemen amateurs. Nor do I think Chomsky is just performing his prophet-act for an audience–he really does intend to call Harris to account for his sins; the problem is that Harris’s supposed sins, even if they are at some level ethical, are also intellectual, and cannot be repented of without their error being made plain to him.

The problem, in sum, is that neither side can allow itself to consider the possible legitimacy of a rival mode of discourse, or the possible inadequacy of its own. Both have good intentions, but due to inadequate imagination, their intentions lead to ruin. Harris has, however, this last consolation: Chomsky, thinking no good could come of it, wanted their conversation to fail; Harris did not, but merely proceeded in a way that made failure inevitable. Harris’s intentions were, in this limited sense, more pure. It remains unclear whether and how much Chomsky thinks this difference matters.

Principled principals and ethical agents

May 16, 2015

He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.

–Captain Ahab, in Chapter 36, “The Quarterdeck”

Ahab doesn’t care which one the white whale is. Should we?


So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death. Therefore, I saw that here was a sort of interregnum in Providence; for its even-handed equity never could have so gross an injustice. And yet still further pondering—while I jerked him now and then from between the whale and ship, which would threaten to jam him—still further pondering, I say, I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die. True, you may say that, by exceeding caution, you may possibly escape these and the multitudinous other evil chances of life. But handle Queequeg’s monkey-rope heedfully as I would, sometimes he jerked it so, that I came very near sliding overboard. Nor could I possibly forget that, do what I would, I only had the management of one end of it.

–Ishmael, in Chapter 72, “The Monkey-Rope”

As Ishmael says, we are all principals, and we are all agents, for all of us; which, if true, makes the principal-agent problem the central problem of ethico-political existence.


The principal-agent problem, in a nutshell: One person, call him the principal, wants something to happen, but he is unable to do it himself, and so he hires someone else, the agent, to do it for him. But he will often find it difficult, even after the fact, to ascertain whether or not the agent has actually done what he was hired to do. This gives the agent a reduced incentive to actually do his task, since the principal might never find out whether he did it or not. The principal-agent problem is the cause of the distrust we feel for experts of every stripe: jewelers, lawyers, doctors, plumbers, contractors; we just can’t tell if they’re doing a good job. We have to take their word for it.

This problem was also, of course, the downfall of communism. Agents went rogue at every possible level: the workers, the managers, and the central planners all had no real incentive to accomplish the tasks for which the managers, the central planners, and History, respectively, had engaged them.

Capitalism solves the principal-agent problem through the joint-stock company. When economic enterprises are small, economies can work with everyone just looking out for their own interest, but when enterprises grow more complex, it becomes necessary to ensure that different people cooperating on an enterprise are actually, well, cooperating. Investors, who have capital but not expertise, don’t just want high profits this quarter, they want the company to do well in the long term. They hire managers, who have expertise but not capital, whose job it is to maximize the value of the stock, which is used as a proxy for the company doing well. Unless they control more resources than the company is worth, which almost by definition they do not, the managers will find it difficult to manipulate the stock price directly; while to manipulate it indirectly, they will have to systematically deceive the entire market, which it’s difficult to do over the long term. So the investors have an easy way to see if the company is doing well, and can always fire the managers if they think it isn’t, which gives the managers a strong incentive to make sure it does.


This solution, however, is of extremely limited scope. It promises that your every desire can be fulfilled by an external agent–so long as you agree that you desire long term financial success.

Money is, of course, more fungible than almost anything else, so the solution is still attractive. Maybe too attractive. It gives us the illusion that similar strategies can solve the principal-agent problem in other domains. Worried about whether teachers are really teaching students anything? Impose standardized tests. Worried about whether the money spent on health care is really healing anyone? Measure procedures in terms of QALYs (quality-adjusted life years).

These sound like reasonable solutions because, even if test scores and QALY counts aren’t exactly what we, the principal, want, they’re at least correlated with our desires. But mere correlation is exactly what causes principal-agent problems in the first place! In the days before joint-stock companies, the owner of a firm would see that his manager was bringing in profits; he would know that current profits were correlated with long-term financial success; but he would have no way of knowing if these profits were signs of long-term health, or if they were merely fabricated to look like such signs. The exact same thing happens with test scores and QALY counts. Teachers teach to the test, and students learn nothing but the test; insurance companies provide coverage based on what they’ve decided you want, and other important components of health get left by the wayside. The incentive structures we create to solve principal-agent problems create new ones.


This happens frequently when the goods we desire are difficult to verify, as with jewelry appraisals. It happens perhaps inevitably whenever the goods we desire are not quantitative, like money, but qualitative, like health and education. If we can’t explain to our own satisfaction exactly in what they consist, how can we possibly verify whether the agent whom we’ve contracted has sought them adequately? The traditional solution, in such cases, is ethical. Lawyers and doctors and teachers are all held to high ethical standards.

At the same time, they’re all routinely distrusted, accused variously of dishonesty, malice, and incompetence. For they cannot, of course, actually be held to such standards: there is no one with the knowledge necessary to do the holding. Rather, we expect them to hold themselves to such standards. We expect them to embody our ideals, of the rule of law, of the balanced life, of the quest for wisdom. This gives them an incentive to adopt the appearance of embodying such ideals; it gives them no incentive not to be hypocritical.

Hypocrisy, then, is a special case of the principal-agent problem. Is it better, or worse, than other principal-agent failures? I’d argue that it’s better. Ethical standards demand real obedience, not just lip-service. This means that, if we notice that someone is being hypocritical, we can call him out on his hypocrisy. When we attempt to replace ethics with a non-ethical solution to the problem we block off our recourse to this calling out. If we’re evaluating our teachers based on their students’ standardized test scores, it rings hollow to accuse them of teaching to the test: that’s what we asked them to do. The principal cannot in good conscience evaluate the agent’s actions other than by seeing whether the agent did what he was told. That our entire country does so, incessantly, is yet another instance of incessant hypocrisy in what academics love to call the “modern liberal state”; what an earlier thinker would have called Leviathan.


So be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal? If principal only, he has no agents, and we have no commerce with him. Ahab knows this to be false:

Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play.

Here Ahab’s argument undoes itself. If we have commerce with the whale, whose agent is he if not ours, the outrageous strength and inscrutable malice revealed as the strength and malice of the body politic, inscrutable because it refuses to scrutinize itself?

Then Ahab strikes through the pasteboard mask at himself? Well, we did know all along that he was suicidal, which raging against the modern liberal state always is. The principal cannot in good conscience evaluate the agent’s actions other than by seeing whether the agent did what he was told. Which, like a demon granting wishes, it always does.

The last hurrah of the Oxford Movement

May 9, 2015

I recently heard about the so-called “Agatha Christie” indult, through which the use of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Liturgy was first authorized in England and Wales in 1971, fourteen years before this was permitted anywhere else. Context can be found here. Essentially, a large group of prominent English cultural figures, Catholic and non, submitted an appeal to the Pope that the use of the old mass be permitted; then,

The story goes that Pope Paul VI was reading quietly through the list of signatories and then suddenly said, “Ah, Agatha Christie!” and signed his approval.

Here’s a list of the 57 signatories, with names I recognize placed in bold:

Harold Acton, Vladimir Ashkenazy, John Bayler, Lennox Berkeley, Maurice Bowra, Agatha Christie, Kenneth Clark, Nevill Coghill, Cyril Connolly, Colin Davis, Hugh Delargy, +Robert Exeter, Miles Fitzalan-Howard, Constantine Fitzgibbon, William Glock, Magdalen Goffin, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, Ian Greenless, Joseph Grimond, Harman Grisewood, Colin Hardie, Rupert Hart-Davis, Barbara Hepworth, Auberon Herbert, John Jolliffe, David Jones, Osbert Lancaster, F.R. Leavis, Cecil Day Lewis, Compton Mackenzie, George Malcolm, Max Mallowan, Alfred Marnau, Yehudi Menuhin, Nancy Mitford, Raymond Mortimer, Malcolm Muggeridge, Iris Murdoch, John Murray, Sean O’Faolain, E.J. Oliver, Oxford and Asquith, William Plomer, Kathleen Raine, William Rees-Mogg, Ralph Richardson, +John Ripon, Charles Russell, Rivers Scott, Joan Sutherland, Philip Toynbee, Martin Turnell, Bernard Wall, Patrick Wall, E.I Watkin, R.C. Zaehner.

There’s something magnificent about so many important philosophers, historians, novelists, and poets coming together in defense of Catholic culture. But there’s also, perhaps, something here a bit sad. Of the names I recognize, only David Jones and Graham Greene were actually Roman Catholic, and the latter was not practicing. The rest signed, most likely, because of their respect for English Catholicism as a cultural force, and rightly so: the last century had seen Newman, Hopkins, Chesterton, Belloc, Dawson, Waugh….

Apart from Jones and Greene, Tolkien and Anscombe were still living. I can’t imagine that Tolkien wouldn’t have signed, if he had been invited, and so suspect he had not been. Anscombe’s impulses might not have learned so traditional; I’m not sure.

There are still prominent English Catholics, of course, but it no longer has the feeling of a cultural force. That began with John Henry Newman’s conversion, and the influx of High Church Anglicans from the Oxford Movement it inaugurated; it ended, perhaps, with the Agatha Christi indult, when English literary culture paid tribute to a Roman Catholicism it had all but left behind.

Double-sided effects

May 1, 2015

I often write rather harshly about utilitarianism here, so it seems like a good idea to mention one place where it definitely belongs: weighing the side effects of different drugs in an effort to determine which ought to be prescribed. This is the kind of decision that will necessarily involve quantitative reasoning. When we’re faced with the question the linked article poses:

Which is worse – ruining ten million people’s sex lives for one year, or making one hundred people’s livers explode?

The thought that “life is sacred” should not oblige us to go with the former. We make trade-offs involving risks like this all the time; for example, we all get into cars, even though it brings with it a non-negligible chance of injury and death, because we value convenience more than safety. But if cars were sufficiently dangerous, we might not do this.

It’s senseless to approach this question except quantitatively, because the specific chance of danger matters. Take cars. The average American has a 1-in-500 chance of dying in a car accident over the course of his lifetime, which means, doing a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, that he has something like a 1-in-40,000 chance of dying in a car accident every year. Convenience is worth a 1-in-40,000 chance of death. Now take the drug example: is healthy sexual functioning worth a 1-in-100,000 chance of death? If so, then the trade-off should be made. Given how unbalanced 1-in-100,000 is, the answer is probably “yes,” even if we don’t allow healthy sexual functioning as high a value as many today would give it.

Despite what certain political commentators sometimes say (*cough*”death panels”*cough*), these kinds of trade-offs are not unethical, and in fact are an ethical imperative.


This line of reasoning is only valid, however, because the side effects of cars and drugs are just that: side effects. Strictly speaking, the choice we face is not one of “ruining ten million people’s sex lives for one year, or making one hundred people’s livers explode”; rather, we have a choice of allowing the ruination, or allowing the explosions. Such quantitative considerations only come into play once we ensure that the intrinsic effects of our actions pass muster.

The utilitarian responds to this way of thinking by rejecting the very distinction between substantial and accidental. He implicitly substitutes for it a distinction between known and unknown effects: I am to take everything I know about my possible courses of action, crunch the numbers, and do whatever has the maximally good outcome all-things-considered. If things then end up poorly because of factors of which I knew nothing, it’s unfortunate but not my fault (unless I could easily have known better); if they end up poorly because I chose incorrectly given the knowledge I had, I am to blame. This “to blame,” of course, just means “is the component that should be improved in order to maximize outputs.”

This might be a helpful way to think about maximizing output, but it is not a very good way to think about ethics. It assumes that we begin with a determinate concept of what we want, one so well defined that we can always evaluate a course of action in terms of how well it will achieve it, then simply add up the known effects of actions and pick the one with the highest value. This seems to me quite false. Rather, I want to say, we begin with a vague concept of what we want–perhaps no more than the word “happiness”–and give it determinate content in the course of discerning what course of action to take. This kind of reasoning seems difficult, if not impossible, to perform without relying on the intrinsic/extrinsic distinction. But my reason for this is, admittedly, still vague.

What must I pay attention to?

April 24, 2015

Apparently, having a baby takes up a lot of time–both because it requires so much attention (feeding, changing, comforting, lulling to sleep), and because it attracts so much of it. I never found babies particularly interesting until I had one, but it’s difficult to avoid staring at one’s infant for more time than seems reasonable.

Clearly “disinterested” is not the right word for the attention one pays to one’s infant. “Narcissistic” is tempting, but I’m not sure it’s appropriate either. It doesn’t seem, after all, as if one is looking to see oneself in the infant’s face. Rather, one wants to care about the infant as a person, and one looks for signs that it is a person.

The main attraction, perhaps, is the quasi-intelligibility of the infant’s face. Its expressions are like expressions we know how to read–smiles, frowns, smirks, glares, scowls, laughs–but these terms aren’t quite right, because the infant’s emotions don’t seem well enough defined for these terms to be applicable. We never succeed at “reading” the infant’s face, but we persist in the feeling that it could be read if we only saw what its point was. So we keep looking, hoping the next modulation will make it suddenly fall into place. The same, of course, could be said of the infant’s cooing: we wait in eager anticipation for it to turn into actual language.

This makes infant smiles and cooing sound a bit like music, which (some say) we enjoy because it’s language-like without actually making any sense; and perhaps this is also what we like about painting, which shows us faces (or face-like shapes) without giving us enough context to fully interpret them.


Anyway, combined with my attempts at a dissertation proposal, I haven’t had much time to write in this space. Which isn’t to say that I haven’t found other ways to procrastinate. I’ve also, for example, been reading Alan Jacobs’ “79 theses on technology”. There’s something ironic about this, given that they begin with:

1. Everything begins with attention.

2. It is vital to ask, “What must I pay attention to?”

3. It is vital to ask, “What may I pay attention to?”

4. It is vital to ask, “What must I refuse attention to?”

Still, the theses and the surrounding conversation have been sufficiently insightful that I think it’s reasonable of me to recommend them to your attention.


P.S. If 1-4 above didn’t sell you on the 79 theses, consider:

53. The physical world is not infinitely redescribable, but if you had to you could use a screwdriver to clean your ears.


Render unto Caesar

April 17, 2015

[Last June, after reading a great deal of John Henry Newman and Ludwig Wittgenstein, I made a series of posts about epistemology-talk, whose implicit theme found explicit expression in a later post about analogy. Recently I’ve been reading J.L. Austin and Geoffrey Hill, and my thoughts have centered on a different form of non-univocal language: equivocation, which, as I see it, relates to political ethics, our relation to each other, much as analogy does to philosophical reasoning, our relation with the truth. I have a number of posts on the topic planned, but I thought it would be helpful first to get clear (hah) what “equivocation” here means, in a way that makes clear its political and ethical stakes.]

Imagine a Christian living in the Roman Empire, during one of the sporadic persecutions of Christianity. His religious obligations are clear: he must not worship false idols. The laws of the Empire, unfortunately, are also clear: prostrate yourself in front of a pagan statue, or you will be killed. What are we to think, if he goes and burns incense in the temple? We would not accept, as an excuse for his action, that he had not intended to worship a false idol, but had just happened to walk into the temple and had just happened to decide to burn some incense once there. This is about as plausible as if St. Peter had, instead of going outside and weeping bitterly, claimed not to have actually denied Christ, but to have just happened to enunciate the words “I do not know the man!”

Yet Christ, when asked whether one should pay the Roman tributes, said “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21); and those tributes were used to pay for the construction of pagan temples. If the tribute-paying Christian can deny that he supports pagan temples, what prevents Peter, or the incense-burner, from denying that he denied Christ?

The tribute-payer, if he knew the technical language, might invoke the principle of double effect: he foresees this inevitable use of his tribute, but does not intend it.The incense-burner cannot do the same because idol-worship is built into the nature of incense-burning, in a way it is not in general built into tribute-paying. The difference is unrelated to the size of the effect: it’s not that you can ignore bad effects so long as the good effects outweight them. Paying tribute, after all, does more to maintain idol worship than does a single act of incense-burning, but it’s the latter, not the former, which is an act of betrayal. Rather, the difference stems from the manner of relation of effect to cause–intrinsic versus accidental. To burn incense just is to worship idols, while to pay tribute might happen to bring that worship about, but need not itself participate in it.


That above language is vaguely scholastic; in a more modern philosophical idiom, we might talk about the various descriptions under which the actions could be intended. It’s just a fact that, while tribute-paying can be described in relation to idol-worship, it’s quite naturally described in ways that do not even mention it. Any description of incense-burning that does not mention it, however, is simply inaccurate. To accept the principle of double effect is to accept that, when it comes to ethics, these descriptions matter as much or more than do the raw matter (if such a thing exists) of the action performed–more than anything that could be quantified, e.g. the amount of incense caused to be burned.

These descriptions, these determinations of what is intrinsic to an action, are not natural kinds. They emerge, like all meaning, within communities: in the examples given, incense-burning and tribute-paying meant what they did because of their conventional significance with them in the context of the pagan Roman Empire. Actions, in other words, have meanings, just as words do. Speaking poetically, words are actions charged with meaning in disproportion to the magnitude of their physical effects.


So the Christian can faithfully pay tribute because he does not thereby lie; he says only, “I acknowledge the empire’s lawful authority.” He cannot defend the burning of incense, however, any more than Peter can say that he “meant nothing” by his words “I do not know the man.” No one has complete control over the meaning their actions and words carry. In the words of J.L. Austin,

we are bound to non-play [such an attempt], not merely because the convention is not accepted, but because we vaguely feel the presence of some bar, the nature of which is not immediately clear, against it ever being accepted. (How To Do Things With Words, 31)

Yet we do retain some control, some ability to play with the meaning of our words and deeds; not a lot, but rope enough to hang ourselves with. As Geoffrey Hill puts it,

The crucial questions are how much ‘play’ remains in language after the logical excisions have been performed and whether this play is definable as ‘controlled interplay’ or as that ‘play’ which means that something designed for precise mechanical utility is showing signs of malfunction. (The Lords of Limit, ‘Our Word Is Our Bond’, 139)


Play enters into it insofar as the same deeds and words can be described and paraphrased in incompatible ways. Tribute-paying, for example, is quite naturally described without mention of supporting pagan temples. But obviously it can be so described, and someone can do it while intending that description. These actions would at first glance look identical, but would have quite different meanings.

This slack in the conventions cannot be ignored, lest the machinery of language break down. If the Christian simply does not know that what he does might be described as idolatry, there is little more to say, other than that he should have known what he was doing. But if he does know–if he foresees it, without intending it–then what he does is, like all actions justified through the principle of double effect, an exercise in equivocation. Equivocation, we can now say, is the performance of an action (giving someone a gold coin, making certain sounds with your mouth), foreseeing that within one’s current civil polity multiple possible meanings can be ascribed to it, but still intending for only one of those meanings to be understood.

To put it this way inverts the usual line that equivocation is a special form of the principle of double effect, but this is, I think, not a substantial difference, but a mere shift in emphasis. I shift the emphasis thus because, while equivocation is enormously controversial (exploring its licit uses is what gave Jesuits a reputation for dishonesty), the principle of double effect seems to me unavoidable, if we are to do avoid reducing ethics to balancing the scales, while still taking into account the bad effects every action inevitably has.


To say this is not, of course, to forestall any of the myriad objections to the more subtle forms of equivocation give rise. Still, it’s worth recognizing that not only does Jesus’ “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” advocate a course of action justifiable through the principle of double effect, but it is, itself, equivocal. On the surface, it simply advocates following whatever laws the legitimate civil authority passes, but its logic is in fact far more subtle: the tribute is one of “the things that are Caesar’s,” not because he can legitimately demand it, but because it must be paid in coins stamped with his visage. Does this mean that all coins, because minted by Caesar, all already belong to him? That coinage is therefore idolatrous, and so it’s sinful to hold onto any of it? That despite the face on the coins, nothing belongs to Caesar, and everything to God?

I’m not sure how to interpret this passage. I suspect that this difficulty is intentional, and that any explanation for it would resemble the answer Jesus gives to the disciples’ question, “Why speakest thou to them in parables?”:

Because to you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven: but to them it is not given. ‘ For he that hath, to him shall be given, and he shall abound: but he that hath not, from him shall be taken away that also which he hath. ‘ Therefore do I speak to them in parables: because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. (Matthew 13:11-13)

O my daughter

April 9, 2015

A personal note: on April 5, Easter Sunday, at 4:21 a.m., my wife gave birth to our first child, named Sibyl Marie*.

There seem to me to be, speaking broadly, fewer works of literature about the love found in parenthood than about that found in marriage. This applies to Shakespeare’s plays as well, but the Bard still does a better job with it than most writers. My wife and I have spent this year reading through various Shakespeare plays, and a few weeks ago finished Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Do I have a better understanding of that play’s final recognition scene, now that I have a daughter? I don’t know that I do. As T.S. Eliot wrote, there is “At best, only a limited value / In the knowledge derived from experience.” Still, the scene does seem now like a bigger draw on my attention, as does one of Eliot’s minor poems, a retelling of that scene, which I present here without comment:

T.S. Eliot — Marina

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter.

Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning
Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning
Those who sit in the sty of contentment, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning

Are become insubstantial, reduced by a wind,
A breath of pine, and the woodsong fog
By this grace dissolved in place

What is this face, less clear and clearer
The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger—
Given or lent? more distant than stars and nearer than the eye
Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep, where all the waters meet.

Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.
I made this, I have forgotten
And remember.
The rigging weak and the canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.
The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.
This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.

What seas what shores what granite islands towards my timbers
And woodthrush calling through the fog
My daughter.


*: A brief comment on the name. First, we spelled it Sibyl, not Sybil. This is the less common spelling, but it makes more etymological sense; the Greek word is σίβυλλαι, the Latin Sibylla. Sybil came about, I suspect, via analogy with other classical-sounding names like Cynthia, Lydia, Sylvia. Second, though it comes from pagan Greece, the name has picked up myriad Christian resonances. The sibyls, though pagans, were thought to have predicted the coming of Christ–hence the line in the Dies Irae, “Teste David cum Sibylla,” and the Sibyls on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel–and it became a common name for women in the Middle Ages, e.g. Blessed Sibyllina Biscossi, 1287-1367. It went out of fashion with the Reformation, then came back in the 19th and early 20th century. Finally, though I did not learn this until after selecting the name, St. Jerome (fallaciously) derives the word sibyl from “counsel of God,” and the Sibyls are associated iconographically with the “Seat of Wisdom.”

Michelangelo Buonarroti - Delphic Sibyl

Michelangelo Buonarroti – Delphic Sibyl



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