Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Emotions, rationality, morality and "Catholic Romanticism"

We easily allow ourselves to be persuaded that our emotions are irrational. When someone tells you that "you're being emotional" they mean that your judgments are unreliable because your emotions are governing you. The implication is that it is immoral to be emotional.

On the other hand, we also recognize that the person incapable of feeling emotions is likely to be, as Jane Austen described Mr. John Dashwood, "cold-hearted, and rather selfish". Here, emotion is a prerequisite for being moral. The Gospel tells us that Jesus was moved with pity.

Robert Solomon argues that emotions are judgments but also dispositions. To be afraid is to be afraid of something, to love is to love someone and so on down the roster of emotions. At the same time, to be angry or jealous or suspicious is often the consequence of a life-time of training ourselves to be that way.

In addition, there are feelings that, unlike full-blown emotions, aren't directed at anything in particular. Anxiety is the feeling that bad things are about to happen—when I am anxious I have no idea where the crap is going to come from but I'm sure it will hit soon. Similarly, Thos. was telling me a while ago that he has patients who suffer from severe stress problems that are triggered by their own body responses to stress—they notice that their heart is running fast and that makes them nervous so their heart starts running even faster so they get more nervous so they break out in a sweat which makes them even more nervous ... lather, rinse, repeat until they have to take you away in an ambulance. I've done something like this on a smaller scale when I've had too much coffee and my own stress level makes me think that something must be wrong even though there is no fact or situation to justify my concern.

This all happens because our emotional responses are unconscious—a right-brain phenomenon. We often become aware of being uneasy without being consciously aware of what in specific is making us uneasy. We can focus on the feeling rather than looking for what caused it. You could say that feelings don't rise to the level of an emotion. I once heard someone say that anxiety is what you feel when you don't have the courage to have an emotion; that's too broad a generalization but it is true some of the time. (It took me a longer time than it should have to become a real adult because I lived in an almost constant state of anxiety because I was scared to have actual emotions towards the people closest to me.)


We cannot simply dismiss emotions as irrational. The tendency to do so is rooted in a number of things. It is undeniably true that emotions can be wrong, even very wrong. I can be angry at my sister but later discover that she had not done the thing that I did not like. It's also true that emotions are hard to reverse—once I'm worked up into a state of high dudgeon, I can't easily calm down even when shown that my original reasons for being angry are unjustified.

But lots of human activities can sometimes be wrong without being qualified as irrational. Courts occasionally convict innocent people and instruments occasionally give incorrect readings. Our faith in these things is not based on their being infallible but rather on their being correct much more often than not. (A false conviction rate of even one percent would be regarded as ridiculously high.) The same should be true of emotions. We notice when emotions are unjustified because that is a relatively rare phenomenon. We don't notice the many, many times our emotions are correct. And it must be this way: if our emotions were not highly reliable cognitive indicators they would have been evolved out of the human race centuries ago.
Anterior and posterior emotion
When we worry about the rationality of an emotion, we typically do so as a posterior phenomenon. I start to feel anger and stop and ask myself whether the anger is justified. Even if I decide that my anger is justified, I should think carefully about how I react and I might, I often do as a personal matter, do my best to hide my anger even though I I believe that anger to be justified.

We think less often about the anterior rational process. We don't worry so much about the habits and ways of thinking that incline us to have certain emotional responses in the first place. But the first way people jump tells us a lot about them. In The Philadelphia Story, Tracey Samantha Lord rejects George because he suspected her of infidelity on the eve of their wedding. His suspicion is not ungrounded. Tracey was drunk and isn't entirely certain what she did or didn't do. She certainly did something—she flirted with and amorously kissed another man. She did not, however, have sex with him as George suspects and she herself fears. In the end, after she is cleared and George is reassured, she leaves him because she thinks that his initial response should have been to trust her. She would prefer a husband who would instinctively take her side.

That's analogous to the way Catholic moralists talk about conscience. That is the opposite of the way we usually think of conscience. In our culture, we think of conscience as a posterior phenomenon: I do something and then start to question whether I should have done it. Catholic moralists recognize that that is part of conscience but believe and argue that anterior conscience is the more important thing; that it is more important to have a disposition to react in a certain way in the first place rather than to correct mistakes afterward.

Emotions have to be part of this. Empathy is a trained emotion; we have to spend years learning how to be empathetic. This is true of a wide range of emotions, both good and bad. I had a relative who spent her entire life training herself to lose her temper when others failed to respond as she wished. She was highly intelligent and she never changed so it obviously worked for her. People got scared off and didn't challenge her. Of course, they also got scared off and kept their distance so she ended up having very few close friends despite having a very large social network. (She also, and this was probably narcissism, rejected other people's emotions as illegitimate any time they did not line up with her assessments.)

Emotional disposition is a kind of moral fitness. It isn't a matter of making moral choices. That is a cold activity, something like a moral calculus. The relative I mention above also used to exhort others to "be more charitable". What she meant by that was to make more effort to see the good in others. I don't think she realized, however, that she herself was not a good role model in this regard. She grasped the principle perfectly but hadn't done the moral training to make herself better at it. Charity was not an anterior emotion for her.

Moral fitness is hard work because we don't have direct access to the thing we are trying to change. We can't adjust it the way we can move the thermostat or put on a sweater when we want to be warmer. It's more of a long-term project that involves changing our habits and showing constancy much as is the case if we want to get into better physical shape.

Catholic Romanticism

One of the things that a certain kind of romanticism did was to value emotions as rational ways of being human. The Enlightenment emphasized rationality but the rationality it emphasized was a narrowly proscribed rationality. That is to say, Enlightenment thinkers set out to be rational by outlawing a lot of human behaviour as irrational. That produced a counter-reaction. At first the reaction was to reject rationality and embrace feeling (the term at the time was "sensibility") as something separate from and superior to rationality. For many people, this is what Romanticism did. Others argue that it was an attempt to expand what counted as irrational so as to include some emotional responses.

(At the same time, this sort of Romanticism, as Oakeshott argued, would have to expand what counted as irrational. Some kinds of activity that meet the Enlightenment requirements for rationality perfectly should be recognized as irrational and monstrous.)

That sort of Romanticism appeals to me. It is not what everyone means by Romantic. I would, even though many would refuse to do so, recognize Jane Austen as Romantic and even have tendency to see her as the exemplary Romantic.

I would further, however, modify Romanticism with the adjective "Catholic". I would not accept "Romantic Catholicism" even though there are aspects of it that I mind find congenial because I think that when we redeem Romanticism from most of its sins when we modify it with Catholic. This will be, I hope, something of a theme of this blog as I go forward.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Is this the end of Milo Yiannopoulos? Probably yes. Edited

Ann Althouse asked the question first. It didn't even occur to me. I just thought of it as more controversy and controversy is like oxygen for a guy like Milo. But I think this will be different.

Over the years a number of male friends —gay and heterosexual—have told me about having been teens initiated into sex by an adult. Maybe a dozen times I've been told such stories. The incident was typically described as a positive one and the attitude towards the adult responsible (and the bulk of the moral responsibility lies with the adult)* was one of gratitude. I'll be blunt and honest, some of these guys struck me as pretty messed up (others I didn't know well enough to say whether they were messed up or not). Was it the early sex that messed them up? Or were they going to be seriously messed up anyway and the early sex with an adult was just one of what was going to be a long string of bad decisions? I have no idea. But I'm pretty certain the early sex didn't help.

No woman has ever told me a story about being a teen having sex with an adult where the adult came off well. Never!

A woman I once dated told me how she had, at the age of 15, very deliberately set out to lose her virginity on a trip out west. She was utterly mercenary about it, describing her virginity as, "Something I had to get rid of." She met an older man on her trip and decided he was going to be the one and set about making it happen. She was absolutely clear that she enticed him into it, that she lied about her age and described the experience as a positive one that she has never regretted but when I asked her about the guy she angrily hissed that he was a bastard and a creep. And she picked him!

We tend not to talk about these things any more. People used to. One story in Alice Munro's masterpiece, Lives of Girls and Women, includes a series of furtive encounters between a teenage girl and an adult male that the girl deliberately sets out to provoke and yet the guy is still portrayed as a shit.

And times have changed. Lives of Girls and Women was written in 1971. There was a book describing sexual initiation from a boy's perspective called In Praise of Older Women written in 1966. I remember seeing a few arty films on the theme in the 1970s. But when In Praise of Older Women  was made into a movie in 1978 the subject was starting to be deeply controversial. Since then social tolerance for adult-teen sex has vanished.

And rightly so if you ask me. It's a bad, bad idea. Milo correctly makes a distinction between true pedophilia which is sex with pre-pubescent children and sex with sexually developed teens who aren't emotionally mature but that doesn't get him very far. It's still a crime and rightly so; people below the age of consent shouldn't be having sex with anyone! Not even with other teens! I'll cheerfully admit that the lines are hard to draw clearly. What age exactly is too young? How much of a gap in age is too much? We can't say with any certainty. The law draws a line though and everybody has to abide by that**. And, yes, people do really stupid things and get away with it all the time but that doesn't make it okay. It's still a bad, bad idea.

And it's a bad idea that the current culture has no tolerance for. I don't mean that it should have any tolerance for it—I make the distinction because there are other really bad ideas that the current culture does tolerate. So, yes, it's all over for Milo. He handled radioactive material and there is a price for that. I don't think he realizes it yet but his career is over.

* This sentence was edited. The relevant section originally read "the adult responsible for this crime (and it is a crime)". Since then, I realized that many of the incidents weren't a crime in those days, the age of consent being 14 and there being no law governing adults in positions of authority at the time. Both criminal and moral attitudes on the matter have hardened considerably since the days when I was a teen. 

** The law has changed in many jurisdictions. Up until 2008 when it was raised to 16, the age of consent was 14 in Canada. In addition, adults who are in a position of authority towards teens may not have sex with them even if they are over the age of consent (if I remember correctly that has been the case since the late 1980s). There were encounters I knew of in the 1970s and early 1980s, and lots of them, that would be crimes today. In most cases, I think some of the teens involved grew up well-adjusted but the line draw has to err on the side of being too careful.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Disagreeing with my father

This is the first of a series of cross postings from another blog of mine called Rum, Romanism and rebellion. I've decided to use the other one as a place to write a sort of public diary, a place where I will take some selections from my private journal and put them "out there" just because. AT the same time, I will take some posts from there that I have put up over the past three years and share them here.

I love my father but see things differently than he does. This photo, which he shared on Facebook, is a good source to draw out how I disagree.

My father was sharing a post by the Anglican Diocese of Fredericton who were, in turn, sharing it from Michael Baisden Live. I'd never heard of Baisden before but, according to Wikipedia anyway, eight million people listen to his radio show.

The sentiments above, are typical of those who value getting along above truth. As a consequence, arguing with them is not a matter of establishing what is or isn't true. It should be obvious, that while it is true that apologizing requires bravery when you have something to apologize, apologizing for things that aren't their fault is what spineless wimps do. Likewise, while it is sometimes the case that truly strong people can often forgive what moral weaklings continue to resent, weak people show their weakness by forgiving what they should not. And if you forgive what you should not forgive you will never forget but will stew in resentment for decades.

There is, however, little point in trotting out facts in the face of such sentiments for what really matters to the person who says, or posts, such things is avoiding conflict. The strategy at work here, and that is what it is, imagines that the natural state of the world is to be at peace. As a consequence, evil enters the world when people stir things up and peace can be obtained if everyone agrees to just get along.

But the truth is that world is naturally chaotic and order is only maintained because brave, strong people work to keep it that way. When warranted, an apology is a good thing. Strength is always a good thing and, sometimes, forgiving is a sign of strength. Apologizing and forgiving to get along, on the other hand, is neither brave nor strong. It's surrendering in order to get peace. and that is a mistake in many ways.

For starters, it just doesn't work. Apologize to a bully and they will only bully you more. But there is a deeper problem.  It involves what Robert Glover calls a covert contract. Notice the wording, "The first to apologize ...". The first? Shouldn't only the person who has done wrong apologize?

If you challenge the person who pushes the above sentiments, their first line of defence will be to argue that it takes two to tango. And that is where the nihilistic roots of the argument get revealed. Yes, two people can start a fight by both being pigheaded but that is a relatively rare phenomenon. Most conflict starts because one side is being unreasonable. But the person who suggests that you apologize when you are attacked doesn't care about that. They just want peace and they imagine that an apology will buy off the attacker. Why? Because it's a contract: "I'll let you have your way if you stop being aggressive." But it's a covert contract so this never actually gets said. The other person simply hears an apology and assumes, therefore, that you really think it's your fault.

About thirty years ago I figured out that this is a recipe for unhappiness. The truth matters and sometimes you have to stand up for the truth even if it means conflict.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The most subversive moment in teen literature

I suspect I'm repeating myself but I love this:
A red-billed cap pulled at a jaunty angle over her blonde curls. Penny made a striking figure in a well tailored suit of dark wool. Her eyes sparkled with the joy of youth and it was easy for her to smile. She was an only child, the daughter of Anthony Parker, editor and publisher of the Riverview Star, and her mother had died when she was very young. (Behind the Green Door, 1940)
The red-billed cap makes it seem particularly appropriate right now.

That's called esoteric writing. There is lots of plausible deniability. There is a period and lots of parenthetical statements between "it was easy for her to smile" and "her mother had died".  There is even a plausible counter reading that she was very young when her mother had died and therefore being without a mother is not a barrier to Penny's finding it easy to smile. And that was probably enough to fool the mothers of readers of the Penny Parker books. They might have been briefly troubled by that paragraph had they read it but would have reassured themselves that it was just an accident of an accidental juxtaposition of ideas and that it didn't mean what it appeared to mean.  That won't hold if you think about it though: the text implies that it was easy for her to smile because her mother was dead and not despite her being so.

I suspect that very few of the girls who read the Penny Parker books missed the point. They eagerly grasped the chance to imagine what it would be like not to have a mother and they did so because it's liberating to think that*. And healthy. Blowing up your relationship with your mother is an essential part of growing up for both girls and boys. If you didn't do it as a teenager, do it now. (And also with any other members of your family determined to carry on in your mother's spirit.)

The Penny Parker books were the work of Mildred Wirt Benson, more famously known as the creator of the Nancy Drew series. She wrote the first four books of that series and quit when the women controlling the syndicate decided they wanted to make Nancy Drew more lady-like and obedient. You'll notice that Nancy's mother was also deceased. Wirt Benson created four heroines whose mothers were dead. That's a bit too many to be a coincidence.

* I should add that only a girl whose mother was still alive would think that. This is fantasy—actually having your mother die when you are young is nothing fun. But the fantasy is very appealing and the proof of this can be found in any one of hundreds of teen adventure stories where the hero is an orphan.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Conflict avoidance is not peacemaking

I've tended not to spend a lot of time thinking about the Beatitudes, other than wondering exactly what "poor in spirit" is supposed to mean. I was put off them by meeting too many Catholics who put more emphasis on the Beatitudes so they wouldn't have to pay attention to other moral teachings such as, say, the ten commandments. Trust me, I'm the furthest thing from a morally rigid legalist but I can smell bullshit when it's being offered around as wisdom.

Recently, I got to witness some conflict avoidance in action though and saw just how little it has to do with peacemaking. And that got me thinking

The Greek original for "peacemaker" is also a compound word and one of the words means "to make". To make peace requires action. Avoidance is not action. The other half of the Greek word does indeed mean "peace" but it means peace in the sense of "to make whole". Again, avoidance tactics will not, because they cannot, make anyone or anything whole.

For several generations now, going back at least to the 1950s, a lot of Christians have tended to read "peacemaker" as a person who avoids conflict. The word has come to mean a person who is peaceable rather than anyone you'd rely on in any kind of conflict. These are harmless sorts of people—nice guys—but they are useless to themselves or anyone else.

That was obvious in the painful interchange I observed. The conflict avoider was so desperate to not be in a fight that he sold himself out at the first sign of conflict. And I thought, a man who won't stand up for himself, wouldn't stand up for anyone else either. But it gets worse. The person he caved to read his conflict avoidance as weakness and immediately upped the level of aggression attacking him again and even more severely. It got really pathetic after that.

A peacemaker has to stand for something and, odd as this may seem, they have to fight for that something.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Donald Trump and the Sharon Statement

Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the Sharon Statement? You'll want to read it first. You can find it here.

No, really, go and read it. It's brilliant and it will take you only five minutes. You're more likely to have heard of the Port Huron statement. Try reading it. I dare you.

Much as I admire the Sharon Statement, I would argue that one line in it is outdated. This line:
THAT the forces of international Communism are, at present, the greatest single threat to these liberties
Well, not outdated as the writers had the good sense to add the line "at present". But we should take them on good faith and ask ourselves whether the "forces of international Communism" really are such a threat any more. I don't think they are.

And that raises another question: Is it time for the right to break with Wilsonian foreign policy? Wilson wanted to make the world safe for democracy. He had only limited success during his presidency with this notion and it was rapidly dropped after he was defeated. But it became a central part of the foreign policy of western liberal democracies after the second world war and has stuck since then.

I'm not entirely certain it ever made complete sense to promote democracy abroad. The experience of George W. Bush in Iraq tends to support skepticism. What did make sense was to unite with other nations to fight against Naziism and Communism because they were spectacularly evil ideologies that threatened all of humanity. They're both dead letters right now. There are still communists about and there are even a few Nazis out there but neither group constitutes the threat they once did.

The world is still full of bad guys. Putin is a nasty piece and Islamic terrorism is also a threat. But neither is a threat to liberty in the way Naziism and communism were.

I have serious reservations about Trump but I was humbled by his victory. I think we can learn a few lessons from him and I think one thing he grasped is that the sort of foreign policy that both the left and the right embraced from the second world war on is now no longer worth pursuing. It will be worth resuming if another evil along the lines of Naziism or communism arises but, until then, I think it's time to back to non-interventionism

Monday, January 23, 2017

Liberal narcissism

I put it to you that you are quite likely to meet people who hold these two opinions:

  1. Donald Trump is a evil manipulator who distorts truth in ways that his opponents cannot counter and who fooled millions of people into voting against their own interests.
  2. Donald Trump is a contemptible moron who can't understand certain basic truths.
I trust you see the problem. They manage this trick because neither of these beliefs is really about Trump. 

As others have pointed out before me, imagining our opponents to be evil elevates us. If I'm engaged in a fight against the Turquoise Party that makes me a political partisan. If I imagine the Turquoise Party to be secretly neo-fascists that makes me a brave defender of civilization against the dark forces of evil.

At the same time, however, it's unsettling to consider that I might be wrong. If I'm willing to be honest, I know that this is a very real possibility. Anyone who has been paying attention will know that they have often been wrong about politics and people. If you are heavily invested in a political battle, however, you have to dismiss such thoughts. You can't direct vitriol against someone who might turn out to be right in the end. And so they have to be contemptible morons.

Okay, I hear some say, but this sort of human failing knows no favourites. All political views are going to be subject to this. And now you will expect me to give examples of conservatives or libertarians doing the same. I could. I have no doubt that such examples exist. That said, I think there is a huge difference in degree here. There is something inherent in contemporary liberalism that makes this much more prevalent. What exactly it is I cannot say just yet.

What we can say is that a lot of liberals see the mere existence of opposing views as an existential threat.