Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Ethicist vs. Ethics

Randy Cohen, the New York Times' "The Ethicist," has been caught violating the paper's ethics rules on political donations. Giving money to I'm not surprised at all, and I'd assume plenty more journalists of one kind or another have done the same. But it is a nice little story, The Ethicist violating ethics rules.

Better still is Douglas Kern's funny story about this in National Review Online. Kern correctly points out that these donations rules aren't that wise: they don't prevent bias in their journalists, but only the appearance of bias. I've thought that for a while about a number of similar rules and attitudes in the government. A Supreme Court justice gives a speech that seems too political. Should he be prevented from doing so, to keep him unbiased? Or is the speech a reflection of his existing biases, not the cause of them? Clearly, it's the latter.

And Kern honorably points out the differences between a society worried about ethics and one worried about virtue and morality. In fact, he claims, it is the sign of moral decay if ethics becomes the primary concern, because it is merely a superficial thing and can cover up deep moral problems. A moral people won't have much need for ethical dilemmas.
That's my oversimplification, and I don't think that that is always true, or in all situations.

But I've been skeptical of The Ethicist and his advice for a few years, now. I used to listen to him regularly on NPR's Weekend Edition, and I remember one caller who was on drugs (marijuana) and had some question about his company's no-drugs policy. Cohen told him it was none of the company's business, and he seemed pretty emphatic about that. I've held his opinions at arm's length ever since then, but I'd failed to find much in the way of criticism of him, at least online.

Not a problem, now. And even his Wikipedia entry is pretty much against him. Wikipedia attracts all kinds of opinions to anything remotely controversial (and even some things that shouldn't be), but I was surprised he didn't have a lot of people writing favorable things about him.

[...] Cohen outlines his personal beliefs about ethics as being ultimately dependent on a person's immediate circumstances, while dismissing the notion that personal moral character might influence an individual's ethics.

Yeah...that's not helping my opinion of him. I don't care if he hasn't had "formal training in ethics" or philosophy; plenty of people could give good advice on the matter without formal training (preachers, for instance), and I sometimes worry that philosophy (certain philosophies, at least) tends to encourage people into immoral behavior. But it's what his advice actually is that bothers me.

Well, from the Wikipedia page, I have now found other critical articles on Cohen, like this one from Reason.

Tony Blair's exit

(Former) Prime Minister Tony Blair has resigned, to a standing ovation in the House of Commons, from both parties (Tory leader David Cameron got the opposition to rise, as well). A unique occurrence, from what I heard on the BBC. Blair is/was a "Third Way" politician who tried to transform the Labour party into something more centrist, much like Bill Clinton did in the Democratic Leadership Council here. At the same time, he changed so much of Britain's political character during his premiership, not all of it for the better. Still, we Americans will probably remember him best for his strong backbone on Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite fierce opposition in his own country, indeed in his own party, he agreed that these wars were the right things to do, and he stuck with us, even when Iraq became unpopular.

Archbishop Cranmer, no fan of Blair's in general, has a rather fascinating review of his legacy. Fascinating, because Cranmer criticises him in strong terms, and in the same post, has gentle words of praise and concludes that history will judge him better.

We'll see in a few years. I wish him well.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Hugo Grotius on Christian Tolerance

I'm reading Meletius, or, Letter on the points of agreement between Christians. This is a previously (before ~1988) unpublished work by the great, 17th-century Dutch thinker Hugo Grotius, best known today for formulating international law.

I was surprised to learn that Grotius was not just a jurist, but also a theologian and political philosopher. After the Dutch won their independence from Spain, the Protestants were free to practice their religion, but a new fight broke out between the Calvinist and Arminian schools of theology. The Calvinists had a majority and, in the end, outlawed the Arminian position. Grotius was a young government staffer at the time but already showing his promise, and he wrote a treatise on religious toleration and church-state relations, defending the Arminian "Remonstrants." Another time, he wrote the first major piece of Christian apologetics from a Protestant perspective.

Meletius is a kind of draft of the latter. It's short, about 30 pages, and he felt it was superseded by his later and more complete apologetics book (which is actually written in rhyming verse, in Dutch!). But it's still an interesting work in its own right. It includes some of the arguments on toleration, which are what interest me the most.

Surprisingly, most of Grotius' citations and arguments come from Classical Roman and Greek philosophers, rather than from scripture. Not that he's devoid of the latter (and he argues that philosophy and reason have to answer to revelation, rather than the other way around), but his background as a classicist really shows through. He likes to show how even the pagan philosophers crudely pointed the way to the Jewish and later Christian fullness of truth. This was true for some of the early church fathers, as well.

The bit on toleration is what interests me at the moment. He argues that Christians of different denominations agree most easily on questions of moral behavior, and they disagree mostly on doctrinal points. His position (if I've gotten this right) is that the dogmatic points can be taken down to a small number that we all need to agree on, and the rest laid to conscience. While it is the issues of moral behavior that we can be united in.

Hmm... Well, I don't think I've written that last part very clearly. It's probably basically true, as written, but Grotius' points are more detailed. OK, I'll post more on this later. I'm especially eager to read his treatise on church/state relations, and I'll blog about that, too.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Thompson's Foreign Policy Team

Fred Thompson is assembling a top-notch team of foreign policy advisors, according to the Weekly Standard. Mark Esper was Bill Frist's national security advisor. Joel Shin was on the Bush campaign's foreign policy staff for the 2000 race and is now with the Scowcroft Group. And there's Elizabeth Cheney, "principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs and coordinator for Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiatives." What a title! She's been working on "market-based reforms" for those areas. All three are hawkish, which is good in my book.

Thompson has pulled ahead of McCain and even with Giuliani in the polls this week...and he's still not yet announced he's running! Stephen Hayes says he'll be on the Tonight Show tonight, so let's see if he makes an announcement then...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A thought on Intelligent Design

I posted a version of this in the comments over on Mark Shea's blog, and I think it's of general interest enough to repost it here:

I have a sympathy for Intelligent Design, but as a physicist, I think that the experimental evidence for this design can only come from looking at the fundamentals—the ultimate origins in cosmology and the nature of physical laws themselves.

This is only a suspicion of mine; I believe that, given the complexity of the interactions between the individual particles of matter, God can work directly in our world without our ever observing a violation of the natural laws. And with God knowing the future, He could arrange the intereactions needed for His purposes far in advance, so small changes have time to produce large effects.

So I doubt that we're going to look and find supernaturally-explained glitches in evolution.

On the other hand, the big-picture questions of "Why is the universe here at all?" and issues of "fine-tuning" for its habitability go back to the beginning of time and the moment of Creation itself. Science, physics in this case, necessarily works within the physical laws of nature. But the laws of nature are properties of the universe itself. So we are unable, even in principle, to use those laws to extrapolate backwards, past the moment the universe came into existence. Physics cannot answer the question, "What was there before the Universe?," unless it is to talk about our universe bubbling up out of another, pre-existing universe. But that only pushes the question back to the origin of that other universe.

What ultimately got the whole ball rolling, existence-wise? Physics will never be able to answer, because of the nature of science itself.