Friday, August 22, 2008

Obtectively evil acts and gravity

I want to briefly discuss something I've touched on before. To say an act is objectively evil is to say that an act is evil by its very nature. An objectively evil act cannot be changed to a good act by our intentions or the circumstances surrounding its being committed.

But to say an act is objectively evil is not to say anything about the seriousness or gravity of the act. An act can be objectively evil without being grave, or grave without being objectively evil. Allow me to demonstrate.

Stealing is objectively evil. It is never permissible to take property that does not belong to you and that you have no right to. It would be an objectively evil act to steal ten dollars a dollar from the petty cash at your place of employment. (EDIT: changed the example a little to more clearly illustrate the point.) Yet it might not be gravely evil to do so. This is because stealing this ten dollars dollar, especially if you work for a multi-million dollar, multi-national corporation, does not do very much harm to the business at all. It is the kind of thing that might even be overlooked or ignored as a minor bookkeeping error. So while you have done something objectively evil, you have not done something that is necessarily gravely evil. Some older catechisms and moral manuals might even have considered this example to be only a venial sin, since its gravity is greatly diminished. (I wish my few old moral theology manuals weren't packed away in a storage box somewhere in the house, so I could check on this to be sure.)

Going to war is not objectively evil. If the condition of just war theory are met, the war is an act of justice and is not evil to enter into. But if a country enters into an unjust war, this would be gravely evil. This is because wars, even small ones, cause great suffering, death and destruction. That is of course why the rulers of a nation must be especially careful in examining whether or not the criteria for a just war have been met before committing themselves to such a course of action.

I think the confusion that sometimes arises over the distinction between whether or not an act is objectively evil and whether or not an act is gravely evil arises because of the issue of abortion. Abortion is both objectively evil--it is an act that can never legitimately be done--and gravely evil--because it is the killing of an innocent human being. People understand both of these facts, but since they are so used to referring to abortion as objectively evil, they begin to associate the grave matter of a sin with the formal category of objectively evil actions.

It is important to remember the distinction between the formal nature of the act and the matter of the act. Abortion is an act that is both formally evil and materially grave, but acts can also be neither formally evil nor materially grave, formally evil but not materially grave, and not formally evil but materially grave. Drawing proper distinctions in this fashion does nothing to lesson the evils of abortion, but it does allow us to properly judge other actions based upon both formal and material considerations.

We now return to our regularly scheduled program

So, as the last brief ethics post should make clear, I'm done writing about specific current events for the moment. Certain current events may inspire a brief post or two--after all, we do have an election coming up--but I'm done dealing with particular current events for at least awhile.

Looking back, that first post on the situation in the Caucasus was intemperate. At least the original post, though I think the edited addition was calmer and better laid out. Which I suppose goes to show that none of us are on-the-ball all the time. At least I'm not.

Anyway, back to regular postings. Though that sometimes means little to no posting unless an idea crosses my mind that keeps the thesis writing from progressing. Still, there are one or two posts I've mentioned that I really do want to write. The first one I'll try to get posted is the one I promised a commenter on predestination, hopefully before the end of the month.

Veritas et Caritas.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Two points on moral reasoning

1. To say that "act A is not objectively evil" is not equivalent to saying that "act A is good." An act can fail to be objectively evil and still be evil.

It's not objectively evil to go have a few beers with your buddies after work. That doesn't mean that there is no moral difference between going home to eat dinner with your family and going out for said beers. It is illegitimate to say that one of those choices cannot be said to be a morally bad, i.e. evil, choice.

2. The main question when reasoning about the morality of an action is not, "how will the affect the world?" Rather, it is, "how will this affect my soul and character?" How an act will affect the world is not unimportant, but it is secondary.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

You could say that, but you'd be wrong

As I've said elsewhere, justice involves treating similar things similarly and different things differently. I believe that I've also mentioned the fact that certain particulars--especially certain relations--are not simply circumstantial to acts, but play a part in defining the object of an action. And I am quite certain that I have spelled what I believe to be the connection between justice, relationships, rights and duties. The point being, of course, that the particulars of a situation can play a large part in whether or not an action is just or not, and even whether an act is objectively evil or not.

It is illegitimate to abstract actions away from important particular details so as to attempt to judge an action moral or immoral. One cannot abstract the sexual intercourse between a man and a woman out to nothing more than the physical action in an attempt to argue that fornication is moral since it is no different than the conjugal love between a husband and wife. It is illegitimate to abstract out the act of shooting a gun at another man to simply pointing and pulling the trigger to argue that there is no difference between murder and legitimate self-defense. In both these situation the particular relationship between the agent and the subject is fundamental to the object of the action and the attempt to ignore these particulars by illegitimate abstraction is pure sophistry.

In the same way, it is illegitimate to argue that it is hypocritical to be opposed to the secession of Kosovo from Serbia but to be neutral-leaning-towards-favorable for South Ossatia to secede from Georgia and join the Russian federation. The particular historic and existential details are enormously different in the two cases, and this effects what is the just decision in each. To whit:

Kosovo is an historic part of Serbia. There is no historic basis whatsoever for an independent state of Kosovo. An independent Kosovo does nothing but create a state run by Islamic mafioso in the middle of the one of Christendom's first bulwarks against assault by Jihad.

South Ossetia is not an historic part of Georgia. Indeed, its history supports its separation from Georgia and its close allegiance with Russia. The reason that South Ossetia is a part of Georgia boils down to "because Stalin said so."

These completely different historical relationships make a difference in judging the justice of the two situations. You could say it's hypocrisy to have different views on the independence of Kosovo and South Ossetia, but you'd be wrong.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The conflict in South Ossetia

I do not like to post too much on specific current events, but there are some things being said about this conflict that are so foolish and obviously false that I have decided to post something.

As far as I can tell, the following are all true:

1. South Ossetia has, it seems, closer historical and current ties with Russia than it does with Georgia. Over half the population of South Ossetia are Russian citizens.

2. Russian peacekeepers are in South Ossetia due to the agreement reached the last time there was a conflict between Georgia and the Ossetians.

3. South Ossetia has been a de facto autonomous state for over a decade.

4. Georgia signed a treaty granting autonomy to South Ossetia not a week before the conflict began. (I am having trouble confirming this from more than one source, so I'm striking it for being possibly false. Update: Some people I trust who are more up-to-date on Caucasus news than I am have mentioned an autonomy pact, so I think this point is basically correct. I am still going to leave it stricken, however, until I can find some more definitive information.)

5. Georgia started the conflict by sending troops into South Ossetia.

6. Russia, defending its interests and citizens in the region, sent in more troops to support the peacekeeping forces already in South Ossetia.

7. The Russians defeated the Georgians pretty thoroughly.

Now, perhaps someone can explain something to me here. How is it that Georgia invades an area that is historically and culturally distinct from Georgia, that has been de facto autonomous for quite some time, whose autonomy Georgia just recognized in a treaty, and who has the defense of an obviously superior military power, and yet people still want to view Georgia as a poor, down-trodden country unjustly stomped on by the Russian boot? How is it that Russia has legitimate political and historical interests in South Ossetia, has peacekeepers there legally, did not start the conflict, and yet still winds up being portrayed as the sole black hat in the affair? And how can a government that recognized the illegal secession of Kosovo from Serbia, of which is has long been an historic part, fail to recognize the secession of South Ossetia from Georgia? (Yes, that last sentence does refer to the United States.)

Is there some inability had by people who lived much of their lives during the Cold War to realize that the political situation in the Caucasus is different than it was before the fall of the Soviet Union? Am I only able to see the absurdity of the "Oh nos, teh Russian are moving, wesa gots ta do sumting!!!!" line of thought because the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union fell before I was even a teenager?

Is it because Russia is not as democratic as we think it should be? Democracy is not and has never been the criteria for legitimate government.

And why are the events happening in the Caucasus any of our business? There is a chance that Russia has acted as it did because it resents the US trying to get all the countries along its border, countries that Russia has had long political interests and involvement with, stretching back to before the Soviet Union and into the Russian Empire, into NATO. Why, oh why would Russia feel threatened by US troops and missiles all along its borders? Is that really a difficult question to answer?

Moreover, why does NATO still exist? The Soviet Union fell, it has served its purpose. What can it do now but antagonize Russia and make it more likely that US troops will die for no good reason? Why do we need to be so involved in the Caucasus anyway? How does this protect American citizens? The job of a government is to look after the common good of its citizens, not to police the world and spread democracy as if it was the only legitimate form of government.

Look, lets be clear: Georgian President Saakashvili is the one who foolishly started the shooting. Did he really expect Russia to not respond? There is a price to folly, and, while his foolishness does not absolve Russia of overreaching in this conflict and violating ius in bello, it does make it difficult for me to view Georgia as a blameless victim of Russian imperialism.

That being said, please pray for peace and reconciliation between these two Orthodox peoples. And toss up a few for Christian unity while you're at it.


A clarification on my position, since discussion elsewhere have demonstrated that it is needed:

1. There are historic, ethnic and cultural reasons to view South Ossetia's desire to secede from Georgia and rejoin North Ossetia as part of the Russian federation as a legitimate desire.

2. Georgia escalated this conflict into full-scale military action, and it did so not hours after it declared a unilateral cease-fire and offered to meet with Ossetian leaders with full autonomy for South Ossetia on the table.

3. Russia's response to the death of civilians and Russian troops legitimately stationed in South Ossetia may have been justified based upon my first point--it may have had a legitimate ius ad bello--but its disproportional response was unjust and a violation of ius in bello.

4. There are no good guys here.

5. The fact that there are no good guys here makes placing all moral blame in Russia's hands, as the Western media has certainly seemed to do, an act of untruth, if not an act of outright lying.

EDIT, part deux:

Pat Buchanan lays it out nice and simply.

EDIT the third:

Dr. Trifković's analysis may be the best I've seen.

In librum B. Dionysii De divinis nominibus expositio, c. IV, l. 9

Ex amore enim bonitatis suae processit quod bonitatem suam voluit diffundere et communicare aliis, secundum quod fuit possibile, scilicet per modum similitudinis et quod eius bonitas non tantum in ipso maneret, sed ad alia efflueret.

Indeed, from love of His goodness [God] proceeds insofar as He willed His goodness to be diffused and communicated to other things, according to all that is possible, i.e. by way of similitude and insofar as His goodness does not always remain in Himself, but flows forth into other things.

The paradox of wisdom

The wiser you get, the more you realizes what a fool you are. The more foolish you are, the more you believe yourself to be wise.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

On artificial intelligence

I have been, for whatever reason, thinking a bit about artificial intelligence (AI). More precisely, I have been thinking about what is generally called "strong AI," i.e. artificial intelligence that matches or supersedes the human intellect, the kind you see in science fiction books and movies. My thinking has led me to believe that such a thing will never be.

First, the intellect is, for lack of a better term, a substantial or essential power. Its origin is in the substantial form, the essence, the nature of the being that possesses it. No machine possesses a substantial form. Rather, any machine qua machine possesses only an accidental form that is brought about through the organization of parts. These parts may be composed of a substance or substances, but the machine itself exists only insofar as said substance or substances are given certain shapes and arranged within certain relations. Since a machine possesses no substantial form, it cannot possess, qua machine, any power that has its origin in substantial form, and thus it cannot possess intellect.

Second, the intellect is a purely immaterial, spiritual power. It does not depend on matter for its operation, either the matter of the knower or the matter of the thing known. While in some intellectual beings, viz. man, matter may be required to provide the intellect with the forms it uses in its operation through the external and internal senses, this is accidental to the operation of the intellect qua intellect. Now, man does not have the power to create immaterial being. As such, man does not have the power to create intellect.

Third, is anyone familiar with the "Chinese room" argument of analytic philosopher John Searle? I have only a slight familiarity with it, but I believe it goes something like this: Take a man who understands no Chinese and put him in a room filled with data on the rules of the language, such as grammar, structure, likely replies to certain inquiries &c. Have a Chinese speaker try to communicate with the man through writing. Given enough time and enough data on the language, the man will be able to respond to the Chinese speaker in a way that is both grammatically correct and makes sense to the Chinese speaker. The Chinese speaker will believe he is having a meaningful conversation with the man in the room, but the man in the room will have no idea as to what the conversation is about. I find this argument interesting because it demonstrates the difference between manipulating symbols and understanding them.

St. Thomas, if I am not mistaken, held that words carry with them the form of things. The origin of words, whether written or spoken, is in the internal word, the knowledge of a thing possessed by the soul. The use of words is not just the manipulation of symbols, but is instead the transmission if intelligibility and form. The word directs one beyond itself to the thing in itself as it can be known by the soul.

Then there is a difference between instinct, stimulus/response, or rule based communication and true intellectual communication. The former has its origin in some amount of in-built rules that determine the response to certain stimuli. The latter goes beyond the perception of the stimuli and the interaction of the one who produced the stimuli and the one who responds to them, referencing a third being whose intelligibility and form the words carry and to whom the writer or speaker of the words directs the intellect of the one who receives them. The former happens only on the level of the sensible, while the latter transcends the sensible, using it to direct eh light of reason to investigate some communicated piece of reality.

Anyway, those are just some random thoughts I've had in the last few days. Any critiques, discussion or interesting references would be much appreciated.

Worth Reading

Poor Mexico, Poor America, by Thomas Fleming:

Poor Mexico, Poor America I

Poor Mexico, Poor America II

Poor Mexico, Poor America: Extracts Omitted

Poor Mexico, Poor America: One More Time