Talking About Natural Law With Children

Last Thursday, thanks to New York City public schools taking a ‘mid-winter break,’ my daughter accompanied me to Brooklyn College and sat in on two classes. My students, as might be expected, were friendly and welcoming; my daughter, for her part, conducted herself exceedingly well by taking a seat and occupying herself by drawing on a piece of paper and often, just paying attention to the class discussion. She did not interrupt me even once; and I only had to ask her to pipe down a bit when she began humming a little ditty to herself. After the second class–philosophy of law, which featured a discussion of St. Thomas Aquinas and natural law theory–had ended, I asked her what she thought the class was about. She replied, “it was about good and bad.” This was a pretty good answer, but things got better the next day.

On Friday, as we drove to gym for my workout and my daughter’s climbing session, I picked up the conversation again, asking my daughter what she made of the class discussion and whether she had found it interesting. She said she did; so I pressed on and the following conversation resulted:

“Let me ask you something. Would you always obey the law?”

“Yes”

“What if the law told you to do something bad?”

“I would do it.”

“Why? Why would you do something bad?”

“Because I don’t want to go to jail.”

“You know, I’ve been to jail twice. For breaking the law.”

“Why?”

“Well, one time, I was angry with one country for attacking people and dropping bombs on them, so I went to their embassy and protested by lying down on the street. When the police told me to move, I didn’t, and so they arrested me and put me in jail for a day. Another time, I protested our university not paying the teachers enough money for their work, and I was arrested again for protesting in the same way.” [Strictly speaking this is a bad example of civil disobedience; I wasn’t breaking a law I thought unjust, rather, I was breaking a law to make a point about the unjustness of other actions.]

“Did they feed you in jail?”

“Yes, they did.”

“Oh, that’s good.”

“Well, so what do you think? Would you break the law if it told you to do something bad?”

“No.”

“Why not? The law is asking you to do something bad.”

“What if I was wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if I was wrong, and it wasn’t bad, and the policeman put me in jail?”

“What if you were sure that you were being asked to do something bad?”

“Then I wouldn’t do it.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want do bad things.”

“But isn’t breaking the law a bad thing?”

“Yes.”

“So, why are you breaking the law?”

“Because it’s asking me to do a bad thing.”

At this point, we were close to our turn-off for the gym and our parking spot, and so our conversation ended. A couple of interesting takeaways from it:

1. We see the social construction of a legal order here in the making; at the age of five, my daughter has already internalized the idea that breaking the law is a ‘bad thing’ and that bad things happen to those who break the law. She can also identify the enforcers of the law.  This has already created a normative hold on her; she was inclined to obey the law even if it asked her to do something bad because she was worried about the consequences.

2. My daughter displayed an interesting humility about her moral intuitions; she wasn’t sure of whether her thinking of some act as ‘bad’ was infallible. What if she was wrong about that judgment?

Note: My reporting of the conversation above might be a little off; I’m reproducing it from memory.

Steven Pinker Should Read Some Nietzsche For Himself

Steven Pinker does not like Nietzsche. The following exchange–in an interview with the Times Literary Supplement makes this clear:

Question: Which author (living or dead) do you think is most overrated?

Pinker: Friedrich Nietzsche. It’s easy to see why his sociopathic ravings would have inspired so many repugnant movements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including fascism, Nazism, Bolshevism, the Ayn Randian fringe of libertarianism, and the American alt-Right and neo-Nazi movements today. Less easy to see is why he continues to be a darling of the academic humanities. True, he was a punchy stylist, and, as his apologists note, he extolled the individual superman rather than a master race. But as Bertrand Russell pointed out in A History of Western Philosophy, the intellectual content is slim: it “might be stated more simply and honestly in the one sentence: ‘I wish I had lived in the Athens of Pericles or the Florence of the Medici’.”

The answers that Pinker seeks–in response to his plaintive query–are staring him right in the face. To wit, ‘we’ study Nietzsche with great interest because:

1. If indeed it is true that Nietzsche’s ‘ravings…inspired so many repugnant movements’–and these ‘movements’ have not been without considerable import, then surely we owe it to ourselves to read him and find out why they did so. Pinker thinks it ‘It’s easy to see why’ but surely he would not begrudge students reading Nietzsche for themselves to find out why? Moreover, Nietzsche served as the inspiration for a great deal of twentieth-century literature too–Thomas Mann is but one of the many authors to be so influenced. These connections are worth exploring as well.

2. As Pinker notes with some understatement, Nietzsche was a ‘punchy stylist.’ (I mean, that is like saying Mohammad Ali was a decent boxer, but let’s let that pass for a second.) Well, folks in the humanities–in departments like philosophy, comparative literature, and others–often study things like style, rhetoric, and argumentation; they might be interested in seeing how these are employed to produce the ‘sociopathic ravings’ that have had such impact on our times. Moreover, Nietzsche’s writings employ many different literary styles; the study of those is also of interest.

3. Again, as Pinker notes, Nietzsche ‘extolled the individual superman rather than a master race,’ which then prompts the question of why the Nazis were able to co-opt him in some measure. This is a question of historical, philosophical, and cultural interest; the kinds of things folks in humanities departments like to study. And if Nietzsche did develop some theory of the “individual superman,” what was it? The humanities are surely interested in this topic too.

4. Lastly, for Pinker’s credibility, he should find a more serious history of philosophy than Bertrand Russell‘s A History of Western Philosophy, which is good as a light read–it was written very quickly as a popular work for purely commercial purposes and widely reviled in its time for its sloppy history. There is some good entertainment in there; but a serious introduction to the philosophers noted in there can only begin with their own texts. If Pinker wants to concentrate on secondary texts, he can read Frederick Copleston‘s Friedrich Nietzsche: Philosopher of Culture; this work, written by a man largely unsympathetic to Nietzsche’s views and who indeed finds him morally repugnant, still finds them worthy of serious consideration and analysis. So much so that Copleston thought it worthwhile to write a book about them. Maybe Pinker should confront some primary texts himself. He might understand the twentieth century better.

Gide’s Immoralist And The Existential Necessity Of The Colony

The immoralist at the heart of André Gide‘s The Immoralist, Michel, does not travel just anywhere; he travels to French colonies like Algeria and Tunisia; the boys who he meets, is attracted to, and falls in love with, are not just any boys; they are Muslim Arab boys. He is old; they are young. He is white; they are brown. He is sick and tubercular; they are young and exuberant, bursting to the seams with health and vitality. Their blood is redder, and flows more freely; Michel’s blood is black, and hideous, and disgusting. He is diseased, but as he spends time among his new companions, whose bodies and nakedness underneath their clothes he cannot take his eyes off of, his health improves and he begins to describe the arc of a journey to greater health and well-being, away from disease; he begins a journey from flirting with death to welcoming life in all its fullness. The language that Gide uses to describe Michel’s journey or passage is richly symbolic and metaphorical, and invites multiple interpretations, mingling as it does, these descriptions of the physical with those of the mental, so that we are tempted to see Michel’s journey from bad to good health as his journey from being ‘a lost soul’ to being ‘a found self’; that much is straightforward.

But why place this journey in colonized lands, why make the vehicles of Michel’s transformation and self-discovery be the colonized, the subjugated, the colonial subject? For one, we can see the colonizer use both the land and the peoples of the colony as his experiential space for self-discovery; it becomes one more of the services or functions that the colonized provides; besides markets, it provides an avenue and domain for self-construction; it becomes one more of the means by which the colonizer comes to realize himself. Because the colonized inhabits a world in which the colonizer has been, as it were, ‘marketed’, Michel finds in the colonies and in the gaze of the colonial subject, one component of his identity: how a Frenchman is understood by those he has colonized. If the colonial identity is an indissoluble part of what it meant to be a Frenchman in the twentieth century then Michel has done the right thing by traveling to a French colony; it is there that he will find out what a Frenchman truly is.

But this salvation need not be individual; all of French culture and Western civilization may be redeemed in the colonies; it is where a decadent, dying civilization looks to being revitalized; to literally being brought back to life. French and Western civilization has become old and tubercular, its blood is polluted. But the Muslim Arab world is younger, even if immature, it promises a new vision of life to a culture on its death-bed and drags it back from its flirtation with death.

The colony is a material and spiritual and existential necessity; it extends the life of the colonizer; the journey to a new form of life for the colonizer begins there.

Neuroscience’s Inference Problem And The Perils Of Scientific Reduction

In Science’s Inference Problem: When Data Doesn’t Mean What We Think It Does, while reviewing Jerome Kagan‘s Five Constraints on Predicting Behavior, James Ryerson writes:

Perhaps the most difficult challenge Kagan describes is the mismatching of the respective concepts and terminologies of brain science and psychology. Because neuroscientists lack a “rich biological vocabulary” for the variety of brain states, they can be tempted to borrow correlates from psychology before they have shown there is in fact a correlation. On the psychology side, many concepts can be faddish or otherwise short-lived, which should make you skeptical that today’s psychological terms will “map neatly” onto information about the brain. If fMRI machines had been available a century ago, Kagan points out, we would have been searching for the neurological basis of Pavlov’s “freedom reflex” or Freud’s “oral stage” of development, no doubt in vain. Why should we be any more confident that today’s psychological concepts will prove any better at cutting nature at the joints?

In a review of Theory and Method in the Neurosciences (Peter K. Machamer, Rick Grush, Peter McLaughlin (eds), University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001), I made note¹ of related epistemological concerns:

When experiments are carried out, neuroscientists continue to run into problems. The level of experimental control available to practitioners in other sciences is simply not available to them, and the theorising that results often seems to be on shaky ground….The localisation techniques that are amongst the most common in neuroscience rely on experimental methods such as positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG), and magnetoencephelography (MEG). [In PET] a radioactive tracer consisting of labelled water or glucose analogue molecules is injected into a subject, who is then asked to perform a cognitive task under controlled conditions. The tracer decays and emits positrons and gamma rays that increase the blood flow or glucose metabolism in an area of the brain. It is now assumed that this area is responsible for the cognitive function performed by the subject. The problem with this assumption, of course, is that the increased blood flow might occur in one area, and the relevant neural activity might occur in another, or in no particular area at all….this form of investigation, rather than pointing to the modularity and functional decomposability of the brain, merely assumes it.

The fundamental problem–implicit and explicit in Kagan’s book and my little note above–is the urge to ‘reduce’ psychology to neuroscience, to reduce mind to brain, to eliminate psychological explanations and language in favor of neuroscientific ones, which will introduce precise scientific language in place of imprecise psychological descriptions.  This urge to eliminate one level of explanation in favor of a ‘better, lower, more basic, more fundamental’ one is to put it bluntly, scientistic hubris, and the various challenges Kagan outlines in his book bear out the foolishness of this enterprise. It results in explanations and theories that rest on unstable foundations: optimistic correlations and glib assumptions are the least of it. Worst of all, it contributes to a blindness: what is visible at the level of psychology is not visible at the level of neuroscience. Knowledge should enlighten, not render us myopic.

Note: In Metascience, 11(1): March 2002.

A Conversation On Religious Experience

A couple of summers ago, a friend and I waited at a parking lot by Cottonwood Pass in Colorado for a ride back to Buena Vista. Bad weather had forced us off the Colorado Trail, and we now needed transportation to the nearest lodging venue. A pair of daytrippers, a middle-aged couple, appeared, walking back to their parked vehicle, done with their viewing and photography for the day. We walked over and made our request: could we please hitch a ride with them? They were not going back all the way to Buena Vista, but only to a campground nearby; would that work? We said it would; we would find another ride from there. In we hopped, and off we went.

As we drove, introductions were made; we were from Brooklyn, our benefactors were visiting from Texas, sans children and grandchildren.  When asked what I ‘did,’ I said I was a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. Intrigued, they asked which classes I taught; when I listed philosophy of religion as one of them, they asked me if I was religious. I said that I wasn’t religious in belief or practice, but was very interested in the problems and questions that arose in that domain of philosophy. I asked my newly made friends if they were religious; they both said they were devout Christians. I asked them if their faith had been a matter of being born into a devout family, and they both replied that while they had been born into churchgoing families, each had had an individual ‘experience’ that had cemented their faith, given it a new dimension, and indeed caused them to say they ‘found Christ’ only later in life–in each case, following a profound ‘crisis’ of one sort or the other. When Christ ‘had come’ to them, they had ‘felt’ it immediately, and had never had any doubt ‘in their hearts’ from that point on. I listened, fascinated. I made note of the fact that I taught an section on ‘religious experiences’ in my class, and mentioned William James and St. Teresa of Avila‘s theoretical and personal accounts of its phenomena.

When my new friends were done recounting the story of their journey to their faith, they asked me again if I was sure I wasn’t religious. I said that I was quite sure I had no theistic belief–even as I remained fascinated by religion as a social, cultural, psychological, and intellectual phenomena and by the nature of religious feeling–which is why, of course, I had inquired into the nature of their religious belief and how they came by their beliefs. In response, my friends said they were ‘relieved’ to hear of my attitude, that they frequently skirted the subject in conversation with ‘strangers’ because they didn’t want anyone to feel they were proselytizing; I assured them I didn’t think they were, and that I had found the conversation singularly illuminating.

We had driven on past the campground that was supposed to be our destination; our friends said they found our conversation worth continuing; they would drop us to Buena Vista. Rain clouds were still threatening, so this offer was most welcome. Soon, we found ourselves on Buena Vista’s Main Street, our destination for the day. We alighted, grabbed our backpacks, posed for a photograph or two, and then bade them farewell; I asked for their names, but did not write them down, and so have forgotten them. But not that conversation; there was a refreshing warmth and openness on display that was refreshing, and in the context of the US and its endless ‘religious wars,’ a genuine sense of novelty.

Studying Ancient Law In Philosophy Of Law

This semester in my philosophy of law class, I’ve begun the semester with a pair of class sessions devoted to ancient law: Mesopotamian, Biblical, and Roman. (My class is reading excerpts from a standard law school textbook: Jurisprudence Cases and Materials: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Law and Its Applications by Stephen E. Gottlieb,  Brian H. Bix, Timothy D. Lytton, & Robin L. West.) I chose these sections for class reading and discussion because as the authors put it, “First, it is useful to know about the origins of law….Second, the legal documents from the Ancient Near East offer you a comparative perspective…you will find illuminating points of similarity and difference with our own system of laws, and that will help you to identify seemingly universal features of law and to spot particular characteristics that distinguish our own legal system, characteristics that you may have assumed were universal. Third…studying the earliest attempts to impose law gives us an opportunity to examine the reasons for using law as a means of governing….we will find…hints about the original reasons for choosing law, as opposed to other methods of ruling.” Moreover, these excerpts offer us some of the “earliest attempts to reflect on the rule of law…[they] pose a set of questions that have defined the field of jurisprudence ever since….In contrast to contemporary jurisprudence these ancient writings offer clear distinctions between the different approaches: they present arguments about positivism and natural law in purer form.”

These considerations offer a series of compelling arguments for why the study of ancient law should be included in a philosophy of law course; the description of law as a historically evolving and contingent technology of governance is one that every student of law–philosophical or otherwise–should be familiar with. (I regret never having including these sorts of materials in my previous iterations of this class; philosophy of law anthologies for their part, do not include material on ancient law.) If today’s vigorous class discussion–on a preliminary reading of the laws of Ur-Namma, Lipit-Ishtar, Hammurabi, and Yahdun-Lim was any indication, this syllabus selection has been a hit with my students as well. My students were particularly enthused by an introductory exercise that asked them to write a prologue, a few laws, and a conclusion in the style of these legislators; we then discussed why they picked the prologue and the laws that they did; this discussion allowed me to introduce the concept of the ‘expressive impact of law’ and also the so-called four-fold model of behavioral modification, which shows that law is but one modality by which behavior can be modified (the others are social norms, market pressures, and architectural constraints.) Moreover, these legislative excerpts are written in a very distinctive style, which permitted a preliminary discussion of legal rhetoric as well.

I often get syllabi wrong; and much remains to be done in this semester, but for the time being I’m reasonably pleased that this class–which sputtered so spectacularly last year–is off to a bright start in this new year. Hope springs eternal.