Three By Chesterton

I recently recorded three of my favorite essays by G.K. Chesterton.

First “A Piece of Chalk”, a reflection on the little ironies in creation.

Second, “On Man:Heir of All Ages”, Gilbert’s perspective on the inheritance of history and religion.

Lastly, “The Medical Mistake” where Chesterton famously answers the question”What’s wrong with the world?”

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The Distributist’s Guide to Community Service

With the holiday volunteering season well underway, several friends have forwarded me an opinion/comedy clip, from the increasingly popular youtube series: Adam Ruins Everything. The video explains the problem of organizing the typical “canned” food drive. It’s short and certainly worth a view.

There is a lot to say about this. First it’s important to point out that the video does make a lot of valid points.  It is categorically better to give money to food banks rather than cans and there is a problem with people donating unusable goods, spoiled and non-nutritious food to aid organizations.  Also, as a frequent volunteer, I can attest to the fact that people oftentimes underestimate the labor needed to transport and sort donations as well as the sheer volume of food that a bank discards due to spoilage.

But good grief, this video is insufferably smug. I mean, take a look at the still frame that closes out Adam’s argument:

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Does this look like two people exploring a better way to serve their community? Of course not. This is a picture of two people who are trying to upstage each other on the scale of social-justice piety. Adam just won and Emily is chewing on the cold gristle of being wrong, a bitter pill indeed.

But this snarky attitude is hardly unique to this video. Increasingly, in the post-John-Stewart era of social commentary, conversations concerning justice are brought forward by people who seem more invested in the rightness of their argument than in encouraging concern for their cause.

But why does a conversation about charity have to be like this? Isn’t everyone trying to help? It’s puzzling, and indeed the problem itself might indicate something deeper about how society conceptualizes virtue and service.

Our modern era is in a transitional period between two overarching ethical systems. On the one hand modern society embraces a broad utilitarianism that reduces good to the delivery of the maximum resources to the maximum number of people. On the other hand, we have a fleeting  commitment to Christian virtue ethics which emphasizes sacrifice and commitment above purely strategic benefits to the individual or society. Although, much of modern culture emphasizes the cohesion between these two belief systems there remains an un-resolvable conflict between the perspectives.

Certainly, it’s not hard to see why the utilitarian perspective is dominant in the modern world. Utilitarianism is comfortable, easy to visualize, and safe. It reduces a complicated questions about obligation to simpler questions about management and strategy. Utilitarianism can easily be integrated into any large corporate or government structure. It fits on a balance sheet and is easy to conceptualize in an economy mostly run from excel sheets.

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John Stuart Mill, circa 1870

But at a basic level, I think people still yearn for the older notion of virtue.  We all feel that service to the community is good in a way that transcends its basic economic benefit. We admire people who dedicate  their lives to the poor even if those same individuals might have generated more utility by getting a job at Goldman-Sachs and cutting a million dollar check to charity at the end of a lucrative career. Virtue is not a question of economic effectiveness, rather it is rooted in a central obligation to a cause greater than oneself. But classical virtue is not a concept that can be easily translated into the utilitarian language of John Stuart Mill. Strictly speaking there is no room for concepts like altruism and nobility in a system designed to describe the provision of benefits.

Given this absence, there is a temptation to recast virtue into a new utilitarian framework. Instead of a virtue defined by service and sacrifice, perhaps actions might be deemed virtuous in so far as they result in quantifiable progress towards solving society’s problems. This is how most modern progressives think of virtue and it certainly sounds logical enough. After all, this is an objective measure of the good we are doing for others, so what could possibly go wrong?

Well everything in fact. Not only is the utilitarian concept of virtue deeply at odds with human psychology, from a practical point of view the perspective is a sure fire recipe for despair and exhaustion when it comes to charitable endeavors.

Sure, we volunteered at a food bank this week, but the same people will come in the next week looking no better, so what good has been accomplished? Sure, we donated 200 dollars to poverty relief this month, but is the problem any closer to getting solved? Our own contribution is in the rounding error of the Gates Foundation’s yearly dispensation, so will our own effort even be noticed?

At a time when our perspective on world problems is so acute and our ability to contribute so limited, a virtue derived from the utility is extremely difficult to appreciate.

However, just as the utilitarian perspective diminishes the perceived value of service and charity, it amplifies the perceived significance of activism.  Since noticeable results develop from large macro-cosmic changes, identifying as an “activist” emphasizes the role an individual plays in globally addressing the problem, an outcome with easy to visualize utility. The impact of raising awareness seems large because it emphasizes the completed goal rather than the work done to get there, by contrast personal service and charity are by their very nature local actions. Therefore, an enormous amount of perceived virtue can be gained simply by being right about an important humanitarian issue.

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Perception of virtue in a utilitarian system

Of course this is all perception. It’s not clear that a part-time activist has more impact than a regular volunteer. But the attraction of being the person who “sets everyone straight” on the issue rather than the person who does the material labor is obvious. Not only is writing e-mails and tweets easier than waking up early and going to a homeless shelter, being a “Hunger Activist” sounds so much cooler than being a “Regular Food Bank Volunteer”. Therefore we will always have more people demanding “an end to homelessness” than show up on a cold Sunday morning to sort donations.

I think this goes to the heart of the endemic smugness in Adam’s video. It may even be at the heart of the unending pretentiousness regarding organic food, carbon-emissions and other pieties discussed endlessly in progressive media. The person who informs other people about the “right” way to do things is virtuous because he is fighting for the ultimate solution and is therefore better than the people working on the problem in the “wrong” way. When you’re on the right side of history, you really don’t need to bother getting your hands dirty over the details.

Now all of this is not to say that we shouldn’t point out new and better ways to serve our community. Insight and activism are valuable. But dare I say that the lack of a robust service ethic might be hurting our motivation to get out and actually help society? We need to join a community before we begin to steer it, and the most important step towards forming an effective solution is caring enough to show up and work on the problem in the first place.

As statistics can attest, volunteering is down. This is a real problem for contemporary society. Even from a utilitarian point of view, a strong community is necessary to develop citizens willing to pay forward service, charity, and activism. Therefore the old-fashioned focus on dedication and service may ultimately be more effective at generating utility, albeit indirectly.

Perhaps we can take a different perspective to service going forward. Why not focus on participating in at least one local volunteer organization to the extent that one recognizes the names and faces of the people who work there. Be a person who can understand, from experience, the specific problems and challenges of a local organization. This starts with participation in service groups even if we are aware that they have flaws. This is the first step to building the kind of community that will make exponentially more progress towards solving problems. In the meantime let’s get to work. Even if there are problems the participation itself make a difference.

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Community means involvement

Does your community meal program not serve fresh organic food? Don’t worry about it. Concerned that the people who visit the foodbank are using it for non-essential supplemental income? That’s not your immediate concern. Are you thinking that you might be better off donating the money rather than judging a high school science fair? Trust me, you probably won’t.

Just show up and volunteer. You are helping more than you might think.

A Discussion on Ethics and Objectivity -part one

A recent discussion I had with Damien Athope on ethics and objectivity. This talk largely traced similar ground to a previous discussion that I had with Jersey Flight. Still, it might be of some interest.

The second half of the discussion that addresses the history of ethics and contemporary issues will follow shortly.

Blogging Orthodoxy 8: Levity and the Great Adventure

I while back I started a series called “Blogging Orthodoxy” which documented my Newman Center’s reading group as we worked our way through Chesterton’s grand treatise, “Orthodoxy”. This series dropped off during my blog’s long hiatus but now that I have finally gotten around to blowing the dust off all my old posts, it feels only right to finish the series.

In fact, all that remains is to put a capstone on the project and I can easily do that in the hour I have before I head out to my parish’s annual retreat. Here it goes….

Chapter 9: Authority and the Adventurer

It is hard to overstate the effect that a book like Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” has had upon my life. Of all the books that gradually took me back through the doors of the Church, this was the lynch pin. The point at which I knew that something had to be done. Faith had to be lived. Passivity was no longer an option.

Even revisiting the book seven years later, Chesterton’s conclusion was powerful. Reading the last lines, I could feel my group intently anticipating the inevitable finale. But this time, as the conclusion came, those same words felt very different.

“His Mirth”

The words that shocked me as a non-believer fell lightly this time around. Chesterton’s conclusion was still profound but it was no longer abrasive. When once the image of the mirthful Christ had come into my imagination like an thundering army,  it was now like a returning hero being welcomed home. I could feel the same emotions all around.

In fact, there was very little discussion of this final section within the group. It felt as though nothing more needed to be said. The book had ended and we were left with a sense of anticipation. Something was about to happen. And, in fact, it did.

A year passed. Spirituality grew. Friendships formed. Our patron, an inimical Dominican Friar, was able to raise up a thriving young adult community that would be the envy of a much larger parish. Even our weekly reading session grew to become a bit of an institution among the Catholic young adults in North Seattle. Much has been learned and looking back, I find myself reflecting on where it began, our reading of “Orthodoxy”.

Much has been said about the line that ends “Orthodoxy”, and certainly the image of God’s levity is what I remember when thinking back on the book. However, among all the very spiritual images conjured by the author, perhaps the plain message of the chapter is lost; the message that, in order for our struggles to transcend our own personalities, we must first acknowledge an authority over ourselves who competent to judge us. Our lives might be adventures but only if we acknowledge One greater still who can act as an author.

At one point in my life I would have balked at this sentient. I am a natural contrarian and the concept of authority does not come easy to me. But I think that it was this lesson that I did indeed learn over my last year working with the Newman center. There is a time for trust. There is a right place for faith. Once one accepts the authority of the spiritual, the worldly struggles that were at one point meaningless and setbacks that at one point seemed insurmountable become simple features in a larger story. When one wanders aimlessly even the slightest breeze feels like a cruel and irrational blow. Once a person has the right direction even the strongest headwinds can be braved with ease.

I return to the question of authority today, as my Parish bids farewell to the Dominican Friar who had been our group’s leader and the founder of our book group. Certainly it has been the pattern of modern Christian communities to crumble once their founder is reassigned and I can sense that there is a similar fear that our community will slowly break once separated from its founder.

Far from me to be an optimist but I am more encouraged than most. The spirit that brought our community together and animated it is more than the force of one saintly soul. The authority that directs us forward is much older. The adventure that has bound us together is much deeper. We hear the great laughter Chesterton described and its prospect is as terrifying as it is terrific. We are traveling for that end alone and the force of that prospect binds us together as a community even if we do indeed physically drift apart.

And so, the task is set. The path is before us. The adventure is upon us and I believe still that we have the courage to see it through to the end.

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Off to retreat….

 

 

 

 

For the Weekend : Seven Quick Takes #7QT

Using a tried but true internet meme. Seven quick reactions to interesting things on the internet this week.

1.) Math : One of the Strangest Numerical Identities Ever

Who would have thought that 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 ……. = -1/12? The guys at the youtube channel NumberPhile have the details:

The result is sound but a little deceptive. The idea a non-converging series having a finite numerical identity is already such an abstract concept that it’s hard for me to really expect a rational looking result moving forward. Still the result is weird, valid and apparently applicable to string theory. But how can you add bunch of positive numbers together and still get a negative one?

2.) Privacy – Good News : Obama Scales back the NSA spying program

The Obama Administration looks like it’s finally embarrassed itself enough and is now making some retractions on spying. Though, I suspect this ultimately may amount to little more than a strategic repositioning. It looks like there is still going to be some kind of data retention mandate that forces the third parties to retain data in case the government has “legitimate” reasons to make queries. Of course, we all know that we can count on large corporations to securely hold vast collections of personal data they do not expect to profit from. Right?, right?

3.) Privacy – Bad  News : Target’s Personal Data Breach May Be Worse than expected

So, unsurprisingly, Target has lost an astronomical amount of customer data including e-mail, telephone numbers, and PINs. It’s looking like negligence on the part of Target played a role in the breach but I am not expecting anyone to ultimately care about this. Even if we can expect a large amount of identity theft coming from the data showing up on a Russian hacker site, is the public really going to link the increase in identity theft back to bad corporate data management?

4.) Folk Music : Is Inside Llewyn Davis Accurate?

It looks like a number of folk singers have pushed back against the portrayal of early 60s Greenwich Village. No comment here, but the discussion is quite interesting.

5.) Entertainment :  The Academy Award Nominated Animated Shorts

Probably the highlight of the Academy Award season is the Animated Shorts category. It’s usually worth it to catch the shorts in theaters and now we have the lineup with trailers:

This year’s fare seems a little disappointing however. Most look like very straightforward Pixar clones. In fact, I’m finding myself looking forward more to a feature-length nomination, namely, The Wind Rises , Miyazaki’s last film detailing the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the father of Japanese aviation and the infamous creator of the Zero.

6.) Religion : Atheist “Church” in Schism Several months after starting

I blogged several month’s ago about the coming of an “Atheist Babylon”, where atheist communities would schism along ideological lines so stark that most non-believers would prefer to associate with like-minded believers rather than their atheist brethren. Sure enough in the news today:

The squabbles led to a tiff and finally a schism between two factions within Sunday Assembly NYC (Atheist congregations DL). Jones reportedly told Moore that his faction was no longer welcome in the Sunday Assembly movement.

Moore promises that his group, Godless Revival, will be more firmly atheistic than the Sunday Assembly, which he now dismisses as “a humanistic cult.”

Someone still needs to explain what “humanistic cult” means to a militant atheist, it sounds like something a conservative Catholic would say.

7.) Data : What will the Impact of Big Data be on Pharmaceutical Marketing?

Finally, a new speculation about uses of data-mining in the pharmaceuticals industry. This looks like a long shot to me, but it’s worth keeping an eye on. I might start worrying if the results are more successful.

Anyway, Happy Martin Luther King Day Weekend! I’ll stay updated.

Blogging Orthodoxy 6 : Eternal Inevitability and the Idealist Revolution

Blogging Orthodoxy continues with…..

Chapter 7: The Eternal Revolution

Orthodoxy can be quite idealistic at times. This is probably no surprise coming from a man like Chesterton who preferred to talk about fairies over general elections. The preference was not simply fanciful. To Chesterton, it always was more worthwhile to discuss ideals. Ideals were more honest. I know this can alienate modern  readers who prefer realism to discussions over first principles. Probably many people get this far in Orthodoxy and wonder what Chesterton’s assertions aboutChesterton loyalty, optimism, and pessimism have to do with real-world policy. In the chapter The Eternal Revolution, Gilbert addresses this point of practicality. The key, to practical success, Chesterton says, is to have a clear and unchanging ideal. Only with a fixed and abstract vision of the good can anyone ever get anywhere.

Though frustrating to realists, I think most people will agree that an unchanging ideal is the first step to reform. First we have an ideal vision and only then can we work diligently towards its realization. Regardless of how hard, if we persist we will get closer to seeing our ultimate goal finally realized. But modern society has made two blunders that have clouded this common sense approach to reform. The first is to imagine that “progress” is inevitable. The second is to assume that if something has failed many times then it cannot rightly be considered ideal. Though these conceptions are looked on as “progressive” they are in fact huge bulwarks against any reform. Certainly if we are evolving inevitably, no action would ever need be taken. Moreover, if the standard of progress itself were changed every time difficulty was encountered, society would remain practically immune to alteration. Reform can only proceed when we understand a common and unchanging vision of what the future should be like.

Our reading group seemed more or less content with this definition of reform. But of course what type reform? Even the emergence of “reform” as topic in the context of the Catholic Church briefly sparked controversy. This, I think, embodies the first and foremost objection that a skeptic would raise to Chesterton. Reform towards who’s ideal? A skeptic might rightly ask. People speak about having a common vision but when it comes down to it, there is no agreement. For now I will not directly answer this objection; but I offer that our own group’s disagreement, while adamant, did not indicate a true division. The argument like most arguments, was actually an indication of a common ideal.argue

In fact, it didn’t take more than a few reminders that we all sought the same thing –  a Church carrying forward the teachings of Christ – to bring the argument to a close and move the litigants to a renewed feeling of comradery. Of course, we all knew that the disagreement still stood but ultimately what was being argued over wasn’t the ideal but the means to achieve that ideal. In fact, if there was no shared ideal, the disagreement never would have taken place. I would submit that one can only really argue with people who share common core values. When we argue over means to achieve an end, we can, in the heat of the argument, accuse our opponents of being obtuse and regressive. But when the fundamental values are not held in common argument itself cannot be mustered. We usually just scratch our heads in incomprehension.

Chesterton predicts that any loss of common values will lead to social and political to stagnation. Certainly this is in keeping with common political complaints from both the left and right in modern times. It is easy to see how two sides, unable to properly communicate about ends, will never come together to forge a political means. But here I must disagree with Chesterton’s concern about the endpoint of a society unable to believe in unchanging ideals. Rather than stagnation, I have come to anticipate the exact opposite; a sort of implicit and unthinking progress where the human race gradually slouches into an easy future that no sane person in their right mind would endeavor to create.

Though rare, there are those that believe that the principles of right and wrong can change. I used to believe this myself. It seemed only logical at the time. If human society were to evolve, the morals and principles of humanity should evolve with it. I had only a vague notion of what it would mean for core principles to  “evolve” (since there would be no principle by which to judge its evolution). Still, the idea seemed logical enough. Since all other human qualities could be improved upon, and our ideals were among human qualities, our ideals themselves could therefore be improved. I didn’t finally come to interrogate this idea until I found myself face to face with those who held it more consistently than I ever could. 

In my last post on Orthodoxy, I recalled a discussion I had with an atheist who firmly believed that he would live forever due to technological extensions on life span. Surprisingly enough, as I grew familiar with the atheist community, I learned that these sentiments were not uncommon. The followers of similar ideas called their coming utopia “The Singularity”. There is much to say about this concept, but in a nutshell it recommends the construction of a omnipotent and omniscient AI that can solve all known problems in the world. This AI will then hee1bestow immortality and unlimited pleasures upon the human race. The only thing holding this grand vision back? You guessed it, Christianity, religious superstition, and naive humanistic values that restrain “progress”.

I remember being taken back by this idea, though at the time, I couldn’t put into words why. I answered snarkily to one adherent that if the future AI were advanced enough to change human biology, it might more easily remove the survival instinct and eliminate the human race. It is one thing to make humanity live forever. It is much cheaper to make them no longer care about death. But again quite strangely, my interlocutor seemed unshaken by this response. He simply stated that If the AI master exterminated humanity this would simply be the course of evolution and any sentimental attachment to our existence was simply naive primitive ethics.Of course, the other members of the group greeted this answer as being very “evolved” (whatever that means) and I remember being caught speechless and flatfooted by the entire situation. I still haven’t thought of a good counter to the argument that humanity should be exterminated by malicious AI and I don’t expect to find one soon.

But the bizarre anti-humanist techno-utopianism of the Singularity wasn’t even the end of the matter. There also was a sort of Luddite equivalent called the Voluntary Human Exctinction Movement. Born from a sort of uber-Malthusian environmental sentiment, this movement dreamed of a utopia that would be born when the human race was, not just reduced, but completely exterminated. Nature would then reclaim the planet. The members would go about encouraging self sterilization (and sometimes even suicide) all in the name of the rebirth of some garden of Eden sans Adam and Eve. Again, what I felt was not exasperation but a sort of non-verbal befuddlement.

In the imagination of the Singularity Movement and the Voluntary Extinctionists the visualizend point of the universe was bleaker than any dark age. It was an endless morass dominated by nothing that could feel compassion, wonder, joy, gratitude, or love. The vision of utopia had been so streamlined that the dreamers themselves had whitewashed themselves out of it. But there was one caveat. Even when talking to the radicals themselves, they seemed very unenthusiastic about the ultimate outcome of their journey. A much more passionate topic was how “inevitable” their vision of the future was and how they were “more evolved” for embracing this philosophy before everyone else was brought to heel by the merciless force of history. Frankly, I couldn’t help thinking of an enslaved native bragging to his still free brethren that he was the first to wear the shackles that the master would inevitably clasp on every one of them. It certainly would be a bitter victory.

I don’t want to represent the Singularity crowd or the Voluntary Human Extinctionists as representative of the atheist community at large; but in some way they have taken the conception of the evolutionary philosophy to its logical conclusion. Most atheists are very devoted to an idea of evolutionary progress. They start with the humanist morality taken from Christianity (and earlier pagan religions) and then claim that this ethic has evolved to its current state and will continue to evolve beyond its modern incarnation. The goal of humanity, on this account, is to push this force of progress forward, evolving ethics to its necessary and inevitable culmination.

But the members of the Voluntary Human Extinction and Singularity Movements have called this bluff. They have evolved past humanism. The less advanced atheists tell people to embrace the ultimate goal of progress because it is inevitable. The advanced atheists of the Singularity Movement have made the final leap and have embraced what they see as inevitable as the ultimate goal of progress.

And here we come to the core of all naturalistic and “evolutionary” argumentation: inevitability. I make no claim to know whether humanity is inevitably doomed to be destroyed by a super-powerful AI or inevitably doomed to be destroyed by a natural catastrophe and the earth is reclaimed by vegetation. But I can say, quite firmly, a future so devoid of human struggles and joys would be quite disappointing to my own values. We have made a giant mistake by imagining our ideals are something simply natural. Of course they may have developed from nature, but in our hands they are much more than simply nature.

If humanity is reduced to simply nature, no human can be free. Nature is completely deterministic and if we enslave morality to naturalistic justifications then we will eventually discover we have exchanged a real mode of reform for a truism that excuses any random emergence as either “natural” or “evolutionary”. Once we say “the good is inevitable” we are only a short way away from saying “the inevitable is good”. The tyranny of determinism will have secured its final victory. But before one stares to long into the abyss of determinism, we should remember that nothing in the future is actually inevitable. We only have to work for an ideal and the future can be exactly what we make of it.

Humanity’s ideals can define them apart from nature, but only if we conceive of those ideals as above nature. If indeed the values that guide us are supernatural then we can shake our fist at any future apocalypse however likely. More and more I believe  the eternal state of humanity may be to stand on the precipice of certain doom.liberty Of course, the believers in deterministic extermination will talk all they want about the course of “natural progress”. But as strong as their inevitability is, it can be shattered by a single ideal that stands beyond nature’s power to alter it. All that is needed is one supernatural dream and we can wage an eternal revolution against the tyranny of the inevitable.