A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Combating Socialistic Tendencies in Old Testament Interpretation

Having written a pro-Christianity post earlier in the month, and given the vast unlikelihood of Christianity being true, I'd better write a few trillion anti-Christianity posts to balance out the religious tone of my blog. To get started, let's just have a couple of brief riffs on a passage of text introducing the book of Isaiah:
[Isaiah] had to contend with many difficulties, for the moral and spiritual condition of the people was corrupt. The rich oppressed the poor, and revelled in wanton luxury; justice was shamelessly bought and sold.
First, I'll take note with the phrase "the rich oppressed the poor". Part of my complaint is that it is so generic: every moral and political programme that has ever existed has had a complaint of this kind (even Objectivism!), regardless of whether the poor were even literate enough to record their complaints for themselves. But more than that, it gives a misleading impression of the nature and cause of the oppression. It was definitely the case in hierarchical societies, such as that of Uzziah's monarchy in ancient Israel, that there tended to be significant oppression of the peasantry by the elite. It was also the case that the oppressors were in general much richer than the people they were oppressing. But the text I quoted gives the misleading impression that it was because of their riches that people were able to exercise oppression, rather than the oppression being the source of their wealth.

Secondly, it is complained that "justice was... bought and sold." Going all Brennan/Jaworsky: what, precisely is wrong with that? My suspicion is that the complaint refers to situations such as the following scenario: Aaron wrongs Bathsheba, so Bathsheba takes Aaron to court. However, the judge, Caleb, accepts a bribe from Aaron to pronounce wrongly, so that justice is not done.

But attributing the problem to "the buying and selling of justice" is misdiagnosing the problem. Rather, the issue is one of misallocation of rights. Let us suppose that Aaron's wrongdoing created a right of restitution, R. We would tend to assume that R is owned by Bathsheba. For Bathsheba to have the right to sell R is very useful: exercising the right may well require time or money that she does not have. Instead she might sell the case on to someone more able to pursue it, and take the proceeds of the sale as her restitution. The buying and selling of justice is not only morally acceptable, but serves a valuable purpose.

The problem, in our case, is that the right of restitution did not in practice reside with Bathsheba: it went to Caleb. Note that Aaron still ended up paying for his crime (though perhaps less than he otherwise would have had to): the problem lies less with a failure to punish Aaron than with a failure to make Bathsheba whole.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

On Terrorism Against the West

The recent rash of attacks in the West by terrorists, beginning in Nice and most recently occurring (dare I say ending?) in Saint-Éttiene-du-Rouvray, have injected a great deal of tension into political debates over multiculturalism, immigration policy, and domestic security. Some people have begun speaking of a "war" between Islamism and civilisation. These worries are not unfounded, but nor are they in proportion with those which a rational observer of the facts would entertain.

First, let's remark on the generally petty level of the violence involved. Today's attack killed one person and left another fighting for life. Sunday's bombing in Ansbach injured fifteen, but killed no-one. Nine people died in the shooting in Munich last Friday. The attack in Nice, of course, killed 81 innocents, but such attacks are rare, coming perhaps two or three times a year at their most frequent. These numbers perhaps sound bad in the abstract, but let's make some comparisons. Each year in the UK, which has the second safest roads in the world, more than 1700 people die in traffic accidents. (That itself is a massive improvement on the past: 2006 was the first year since records began, 80 years previously, that the figure was under 3000). If we can absorb 2000 deaths from traffic accidents every year, I think we can similarly absorb a couple of hundred deaths from terrorism.

Second, we could prevent most terrorist violence if we really wanted to. With the (admittedly large) exception of the Nice attack, every perpetrator of a notable terrorist attack in the West has been known to domestic intelligence (example). Why aren't the attacks stopped, then? Because doing so would mean arresting people based on suspicion that they might commit a crime, rather than evidence that they had already done so. We could stop most terrorist attacks, but this would come at a cost in civil liberties.

I don't want to say that such costs should never be paid. Going back to the traffic example, we don't ban people from driving in order to prevent traffic accidents - but we do require them to wear seatbelts. There may well be low-hanging fruit to be had: policies that will, with minimal expense or inconvenience, reduce the incidence of terrorism upon our societies (note: preventing thousands of people from entering the country they want to live in does not count as "minimal inconvenience").

At the same time, though, we should note the possibility that we have already gone too far down this route. Airport security, for example, incurs vast costs in time for gains in security which are small to non-existent, and of dubious necessity: air travel is in fact considerably safer than road travel.

Laying my cards on the table: I think we should basically just ignore terrorism. (In the first world, that is: in the Middle East it's actually a very serious problem, although what that means for our politics I don't know). It is genuinely possible that there exist low-hanging-fruit policies which we ought to implement - mandatory detention of people returning from ISIS is very plausibly one, along with state attempts to promote moderate Islam and perhaps even some censorship of violently Islamist views (although my liberal side is very worried by this last idea). But understand that there are no two ways about it: if this becomes a war, Islamism will get curb-stomped.

Friday, 22 July 2016

My Great-Grandfather: an Oral History

I never met my great-grandfather: he was born around 1898 whereas I was born in 1994. What follows, then, is a combination of 22 years worth of stories and one meal (along with several pints) that I had earlier this evening with my dad and uncle.

My dad's family came from Bradford, in Yorkshire. This was in the years before Bradford was a byword for immigration - and in particular Pakistani immigration - and my great-grandfather was very much a product of his time. He was fiercely patriotic: upon the outbreak of war in 1914, he immediately turned up to the local recruiting station. The recruiting officer looked at him somewhat skeptically and inquired as to whether he was indeed eighteen (this being the minimum age one had to be in order to sign up). My great-grandfather had to shake his head and Chief Eastleigh admit that he had not in fact achieved this age. Perhaps unfortunately  the sympathetic recruiting officer been suggested that he should go for a walk around the block and "By the time you're back you should be eighteen."

We know very little of the things he did and saw during the ensuing four years of trench warfare: the vast majority of them, he simply refused to talk about in later years. The one thing we do know about is that on one occasion he was in a trench while it was being (presumably unsuccessfully) stormed by the Germans. One particular German soldier leapt over the top of the trench brandishing his rifle, bayonet affixed, and would have landed directly upon my great grandfather; indeed would surely have killed him. Fortunately a fellow British soldier, who would go on to become one of my great-grandfather's firmest friends, was on hand to fatally stab the German in the groin.

After the war my great-grandfather became a builder: you can point to whole rows of houses in Bradford, each of them his handiwork. I don't know much about this period: my grandmother was born in 1933, my dad in 1963 period. The next story I know which directly involved him came shortly after the Second World War, and concerns how he made another long-lasting friend. This was an Irish immigrant who had been sacked from his previous job for fighting; my great-grandfather nevertheless employed him, reasoning that anyone who had fought for Britain in World War II could not be all that bad. The last we heard of this man, which came not long after the turn of the millennium, was that he had recently sold a patch of land to Leeds council for several hundred thousand pounds. This success he credited greatly to the start he had been given by my great grandfather.

In later years he suffered a number of health set backs: he broke his neck and survived at least two heart attacks. One of these heart attacks came on the building site, when he was working to a strict deadline imposed by his contract. What was he to do? The other men were mostly busy at their own jobs; my grandfather was at this point well into the Multiple Sclerosis which would eventually kill him aged 52; and my grandmother, entirely apart from the fact of her being a woman, was not at this point in the best mental health. Hence my dad, aged at this point only 10 years old, had to pile building supplies into a wheelbarrow, carry them upstairs, and finish the tiling of the bathroom. This my dad did, albeit to what he later realised was an abysmal standard. Still, my great-grandfather reflected, "it [was] a higher standard of building than some of those Paki builders."

(That is perhaps an unfair, or at least incomplete, picture though. While it is not the only racist joke I have heard him to have made, he owed these attitudes to ignorance rather than malice. When once asked to do some work for a Sikh gentleman, he was initially mistrust full but within 5 minutes was talking to this man as he would have any Brit.

In his spare time, my greta-grandfather enjoyed working on cars. It was in his garage that my dad learnt to maintain and restore cars, a passion which has continued to this day: more or less every car my parents have bought had previously been involved in a crash and my dad restored it (saving money: every Yorkshireman's favourite hobby), and he now restores classic motors.

My great-grandfather never truly retired. He stopped charging, to be sure, but when the young couple two Doors Down needed some help he offered to plaster their entire house, over a period of several weeks, for no compensation.

He was himself only semi-literate, but lived to see my Dad and Uncle go to university. Eventually, despite numerous unhealthy habits, he passed away at 85 - by the standards of the time and place a quite remarkable age.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Two Models of the European Union

One view of the European Union is that it is a cooperative venture by countries who agree that they have much to gain by working together, perhaps analogous to a tennis club. An alternate view is that the EU is an empire, and that countries which have joined to the now in some sense "belong" to the EU. (This model has much in common with some early modern theories of the social contract, according to which once one surrendered one's sovereignty to the king one forfeited the right to resist if he abused the power he had been granted.)

The language of EU politics is for the most part more in line with the "tennis club" model. That said, I don't think that the "empire" model should be immediately rejected. The EU does a lot of genuinely worthwhile work in preventing various member states from being a lot worse, particularly the members in southern and eastern Europe.

The biggest problem with the empire model is that it is completely unpalatable to the man on the Clapham omnibus. We don't want to believe we are owned by a bunch of people in Belgium!

One difference between the models is how they will treat people attempting to leave the EU. If someone decides to leave your tennis club, then you may be saddened but you will not obstruct their leaving and you will wish them well. By the empire model, however, for a country to leave the EU is for it to wrong the EU leadership, to betray its master/owner.

A lot of behaviour over the last month - not only by the EU, but also by a lot of its supporters (example) seems to fit much more into the second category. That, I think, is a fundamental disconnect at the heart of the EU debate: many (though definitely not all) pro-EU people follow the empire model, while Brexiteers are uniformly people on the tennis club model who either believe that the time has come to pack in that membership, or who realise that the EU leadership adhere to the empire model and don't like where that train of thought leads you.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Christian and Secular Mercy

Christians frequently define "mercy" as failing to deliver something (bad) to someone when they deserve it. This is contrasted with "grace", giving a person something (good) when they don't deserve it.

I want to make two points here: first, that this kind of mercy - "God's mercy", if you will - is of a fundamentally different kind to the more human kind of mercy we all understand, and secondly that this conception of mercy is fundamentally at odds with modernity.

Let's begin by getting to grips with what it means to deserve something. These Christian notions clearly presuppose some conception of desert, and furthermore that humans are beings which are capable of deserving particular kinds of treatment. Can a dog, however, deserve a particular kind of treatment? The answer, I think we will generally agree, is no: a dog lacks (in Christian terms) a soul or (in more secular terms) the kind of reflective cognitive capacity that is necessary to understand moral rules.

This does not mean that it is not worth rewarding and punishing dogs, but it means that the choice of treatment is dictated by something other than desert: most obviously, the desire to encourage certain kinds of behaviour and to discourage others. How far does this extend to humanity? Many philosophers, including all utilitarians, will aver that dissuasion of crime and other wrongdoing is the sole purpose of punishment. To speak of "desert", one makes a controversial commitment to the truth of a moral system sufficiently fine-grained to take into account such features as the intention of the agent.

To bring out the difference, consider the two following archetypes of "mercy". The first is the case of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who blew up a plane killing 259 people on board as well as 11 poor unfortunates who happened to be hit by falling parts of the plane. For this he was sentenced to life imprisonment, but eight years later was released as he was thought to be within a couple of months of death.

We can debate the utilitarian merit of al-Megrahi's release, but fundamentally we can at least make sense of it in these terms. His release allowed him and his family great relief, and probably didn't do to much to incentivise terrorism. (On the other hand, it caused a lot of anger among the British and American publics). The Christian notion of mercy can explain this, but it can also explain the ultimate piece of Christian mercy - the fact that Christians, though deserving of hell, will not taste it. This saving is not conditional upon better behaviour - indeed, it is given in the full knowledge that Christians will continue to sin and sin and sin. From the utilitarian perspective of modernity, this is utterly alien.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Review: The Secret Life of Pets

Yesterday I was at the birthday celebration of an old school friend, a celebration which consisted of a film, Chinese buffet and visits to a couple of pubs. The point is that there were eight or nine of us at a cinema, intending to watch a film, but without any particular films that any of us strongly wanted to see. Consequently we decided to see the fluffy children's film The Secret Life of Pets, expecting that it couldn't be too bad and might deliver a few laughs. On this modest aspiration, I am happy to report that it delivered.

Max (Louis C.K.), Duke (Eric Stonestreet), and Katie (Ellie Kemper).
Given the initial set-up, the rest of the film is very predictable. Max is a blokish terrier living in New York with his owner, a cute young woman who plays no role after the first eight minutes. During the day he eagerly awaits her return, but also hangs out with the neighbouring pets - none of whom would suffer from a few extra brain cells. One day Katie brings home a new dog named Duke to be Max's "brother", but inevitably the two fail to get along with each other. Their rivalry, along with the incompetence of Katie's dog-walker, causes the two to be stranded across the city without their collars. From here they must get back home while avoiding capture by the hapless animal control officers, by a posse of stray cats (the leader of whom is inexplicably a cockney), and by a sewer gang of abandoned pets - led, of course, by a tiny bunny rabbit. By the end of the film Max and Duke have resolved their differences; given that the great bulk of the film somehow takes place within a single workday, I was gratified that this is presented less as actual character growth than merely coming to accept each other as "not so bad after all".

Pearson's Law of kids' films: The cuter the critter, the more vicious it is.
Overall the film is a perfectly adequate way to keep your kids amused for a couple of hours. I have to agree with another critic who remarked that it will be just as good to see on DVD as it is to see in cinema, not to mention a lot cheaper. There are plenty of children's films which will do more to keep the adults amused as well, but The Secret Life of Pets is worthy of a perfectly respectable three stars out of five.