Does Goodness Really Exist?

As philosophers go, Paul Ricoeur isn’t one who has me doing double-takes and gasping, “Did he just say that?” Nietzsche, yeah, but Ricoeur? Not so much. So it was with some surprise popping of the eyes and jerking of the head that I read the following remark in his essay Metaphor and the Semantics of Discourse:
The unfortunate dispute over universals in the Middle Ages was possible only because of confusion between the singularizing and predicative functions: for it makes no sense to ask whether goodness exists, only whether some thing, which is good, exists. The dissymmetry of the two functions thus also implies the ontological dissymmetry of subject and predicate.
Lady Philosophy knows I’ve never taken my man Ricoeur for a Platonist, but golly was I provoked by his accusation that some of philosophers in the Middle Ages who debated the existence of universals suffered from confusion about the subject and the predicate of a sentence. So…is our friendly neighborhood hermeneutic phenomenologist correct? Does it make no sense to ask the question I ask in the title of this post?

To understand why Ricoeur says this, it will help to back up a few steps and examine what he means by the identifying or singularizing function of language and the predicative function of language.

The first function, that of identifying, is the function of language to specify one thing and one thing alone. Language accomplishes this function with the proper noun, of course, but also with the pronoun, the demonstrative, and the use of a definite article followed by a determinant (the such-and-such). The following examples identify and singularize: Kyle Cupp, I, that grammarian, the blogger writing this post.

The second function, predication, is the function of language to say something about the subject. The predicate may be an adjective of quality (good) or its substantival counterpart (goodness), a class to which the subject belongs (human), a relation, or an action. All of these are universalizable; they can be said of more than one subject. Both Aquinas and Augustine were Catholics.

Ricoeur links the notion of existence to the singularizing function: “the identifying function always designates entities that exist (or whose existence is neutralized, as in fiction).” He goes on: “Proper logical subjects are potentially existents. This is the point at which language ‘sticks,’ where it adheres to things. By contrast, in having the universal in view, the predicative function concerns the nonexistent.” I can refer you to what is spoken of by the subject, but I cannot put before you or your mind predicates divorced from subjects. I cannot show you good without showing you something good. I cannot shine a light on human without a human being. I cannot point you to a between without showing you the things in the relation. I cannot have you visualizing an action without something in action.

In this analysis, goodness, being associated with the predicate, doesn’t actually exist. It’s not an existent, or possible existent, or a fictional existent. But what if we make goodness the subject of a sentence? If I say, “Goodness is that for which I strive,” am I not referencing some existent called goodness. I’m not sure I am. I may be referring to an idea, but am I really referring to something beyond the linguistic, something that exists apart from language? An idea is, of course, formed by language, but it typically points to something beyond itself. I have an idea of something. But this is precisely the question: does my idea of goodness actual point to something beyond itself? Is there goodness itself beyond the idea of goodness? Or am I merely referring to an idea and not an existent apart from the idea? Simply making goodness the subject of a sentence doesn’t mean goodness has existence. It may simply be a helpful way of using language that doesn’t actually correspond to reality.

Is there a singular, identifiable thing called goodness that language can reference, to which the word “goodness” corresponds? To answer that question is to answer whether or not Ricoeur is correct.

Investigating Miscarriages

That’s it. I’m out of here. I didn’t consider it fair to call Republicans pro-rape because of their support for the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” and I don’t believe that their proposal to block funding of Planned Parenthood makes them hateful of women—although, they might look less antagonistic to women’s needs if they proposed an alternative way of funding the prenatal care and other health services currently offered by Planned Parenthood.

News out of Georgia, however, leaves me wanting to throw my hands in the air, kick the dust from my feet, and exit the discussion, no more to defend the motives of anti-abortion lawmakers. State Representative Bobby Franklin has introduced a bill that would, in my estimation, create a greater incentive and directive for an investigating official to determine the cause of fetal death when a women miscarries. The idea, I guess, is to investigate miscarriages that might have been intentionally caused and therefore fall into the category of "prenatal murder."*

Does Franklin not realize the needless additional suffering he would inflict on women who have just lost a baby? Does he not care about the consequences of treating women who have miscarried as suspected criminals? Whatever the motives behind this bill – and if hatred of women isn’t one of them, cruel indifference to women is clearly at work – this bill is anti-woman and deserves unequivocal condemnation from the pro-life movement.

H/T: Feminist Philosophers

* Revised

Flirting with Relativism

Commenters Thales and Zach caution me against falling prey to moral relativism as I deliberately walk a path that leads around or away from moral certainty. I hear the warning bells they ring and the warnings they shout about the dangers of denying or doubting the existence of unchanging truth, but I remain, obstinately perhaps, unwilling to turn my feet away from the dark woods of doubt and step onto the sunlit roads of certainty. As comforting as certainty would be, as much as I wish the world made clear and ordered sense, I cannot stray out from under the stormy night sky. It is here, half-blind from sheets of black rain and half-deaf from roars of fierce wind, barely and rarely able to catch a glimpse of the stars, that I live the moral life and seek its truth.

If I can hold on to anything in this endless raging storm, it is the realization, or at least the hope, that certainty is not a prerequisite for the attainment of truth. I’m no relativist. I don’t deny there’s such a thing as truth. But I’m not certain of it. At most, I hope that the truth I pursue is actually there and actually knowable, in some manner or other. I’m not timid. I have no qualms about speaking what I think to be the truth, but I’m less than certain that what I think is truth really is truth. Socrates is said to have said, “I know that I do not know.” That limited knowledge may be the most that I or anyone can possess. Everything else, like starlight, eludes my grasp, even as it shines upon my hand.

On Catholics Debating Morality

Brandon Watson of the blog Siris has a helpful roundup of responses from Catholics to the deceptive tactics of Live Action, and he offers his own take. I don't wish to plunge into this debate myself, but instead to make an observation while standing back a few feet from the discussion and debate.

For all the talk by orthodox Catholics about knowable absolute moral truths, we're clearly still trying to figure out the the morality and definition of something as seemingly simple and ancient as lying. Granted, the various sides in this debate would probably claim that the matter is really settled and what keeps this debate going are errors and mistakes made by the other side. Even so, the debate continues, and, to be sure, the debaters themselves are hardly novices to moral philosophy and theology. Errors and mistakes there may be, but it's not as though Catholic thought on the morality of speaking the truth has been entirely consistent. The change of language in the editions of the Catechism bears witness to this inconsistency.

Perhaps there's a lesson here. Perhaps for all our talk about absolute moral truths, the ways we think about these truths, the ways we express them, know them and live them are all less than absolute, less than unchangeable. Perhaps, at the end of the day, we don't really know what we are talking about. If we don't have the morality of deception all figured out, it stands to reason that we don't have morality itself all figured out. We're still learning, still searching, still trying to understand. We're still on the journey, uncertain of where we are headed and what's just beyond the horizon.

Taxation and Breastfeeding

Okay, I'm going to risk displaying my ignorance with this post. Darwin Catholic explains why he thinks the brouhaha over Michelle Obama's proposed tax deductions to encourage breastfeeding is rather silly, and I'm inclined to agree. He also notes the inefficiency of the deductions, which I imagine is also correct.

Here's where I'm confused: Michelle Bachmann has described the proposal as the government going out and buying breast pumps. Sarah Palin has said that Michelle Obama is telling mothers, "You’d better breast-feed your baby." Neither of these depictions is anywhere close to accurate, but that's not what puzzles me. The proposal amounts to a tax deduction for nursing supplies. Those who claim this deduction will decrease their taxable income. They will pay less in taxes. I would think Bachmann and Palin would cheer efforts to reduce the taxes of breastfeeding Americans.

If I wanted to join in the silly hubbub, I could ask why Bachmann and Palin are against lowering the taxes of nursing mothers, but that would be darn right inappropriate of me.

A Speculative Question

Would the House of Representatives have voted to block funding of Planned Parenthood yesterday if John McCain had won the presidential election in 2008?

I’m wondering how much (if any) of the recent legislative efforts to limit funding of abortion providers has been fueled by a perception of the current president. If I’m not mistaken, federal funding of Planned Parenthood increased every year from 2000-2006, when Republicans controlled Congress and held the White House, so what accounts for the change in policy? Why is the current House of Representatives more gung-ho about stopping government funding of abortion? Does its enthusiasm have anything to do with Obama’s strong advocacy of abortion rights?

Culture War Rhetoric

Aristotle defined rhetoric as the ability to see what is possibly persuasive in every given case. Under this definition, I would be a skilled rhetorician if I could discern the best means of persuading you. Obviously I can seek to persuade you of something true or something false. I can use rhetoric for good or ill. Generally speaking, my use of rhetoric is morally good when my means of persuading you flow from a concern for proving that something is true. Paul Ricoeur observed that when my means of persuasion are freed from a concern for proof, I can get carried away by a desire to seduce and to please and my style becomes ornamental. With these points in mind, I intend to consider the rhetoric of the culture wars. Specifically, I wish to analyze whether this culture war rhetoric is bound to or divorced from a concern for proof.

To discern the aim of culture war rhetoric, we have to understand the aim of the culture wars. The metaphor used reveals that aim: it is the aim of war. The objective of war is to defeat the enemy: defeat is the criterion that determines whether a war is won or lost. Culture wars are fought in order to defeat one’s cultural enemies. They’re premised on the ideas that nothing short of the defeat of one side can resolve the cultural conflicts for which the wars are fought and that the culture’s very survival necessitates this defeat. The goal of culture war rhetoric is clear: the defeat of one’s cultural opponents.

How does one defeat a cultural enemy using rhetoric? Two ways come to mind:

1. Persuading one’s opponent to accept one’s position.
2. Destroying one’s opponent within the culture through rhetorical assault.

This second means can be accomplished in two ways: 1) directly by demeaning and disparaging signification of one’s cultural opponents (e.g. publically describing them in demonizing terms) and 2) indirectly by elevating one’s own side at the expense of the other (e.g. rallying the troops).

As wars are not generally won by talking to the enemy, it should not surprise us that culture war rhetoric rarely endeavors to persuade the enemy and most often aims at the opponent’s destruction within the culture. The people to be persuaded are not found among the enemy troops or generals, but among those who are ambivalent, indifferent, or already on one’s side. Pro-lifers protest Planned Parenthood much more often than they engage its leaders in conversation. The persuasion of pro-lifers wasn’t the plan behind the recent jump by pro-choice opinion leaders to depict Republican sponsors of the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” as pro-rapist.

For the most part, culture war rhetoric is aimed not at offering an effective proof for the benefit of the opposition, but in destroying the opposition. Because proof is not its aim or its concern, culture war rhetoric has no allegiance to the truth. This isn’t to say this rhetoric necessarily employs lies, but that lies are not antithetical to its purpose. Its loyalty is to whatever most effectively leads to the enemy’s defeat. It employs famine, sword, and fire and suffers nothing if it sickens, slashes, or engulfs the truth as collateral damage.

Does culture war rhetoric actually work when the sides which speak it are more or less equal in cultural sway? This question begs for a more advanced analysis than I can provide here, but let me suggest that the cultural effect of Sarah Palin illustrates an answer. Palin is a model culture warrior. She suffers the slings and arrows of political fortune and reforms her wounds into her appealing personal narrative. Her followers interpret every shot against her as a shot against themselves and the cultural ideal that binds them. Palin’s own rhetoric is deliberately aimed at constructing a narrative identity that’s antagonistic to the prevailing political culture. She very deliberately rallies her base by depicting them (through carefully controlled media outlets) as the true representation of America and by orchestrating a rhetorical bombardment of liberals, the media, and whoever else is critical of her position. And so what has been her cultural impact? About a quarter of the voting public champion her cause, another quarter is indifferent to her, and about half the voters of the country view her negatively. If the consequences of Sarah Palin’s rhetoric serve as an example indicative of cultural war rhetoric generally, the effect of culture war rhetoric, and the wars themselves, is further cultural division and enmity.

A Pause to Listen: The Shape of Things to Come

My wife and I just finished Season Two of Battlestar Galactica, a show I'm not at all surprised ranks as the best television series ever in not a few people's lists.  When, in the premiere episode, one of the primary characters remarks to the mother of a newborn her wonder at how the baby's tiny neck can support the weight of its head, and then, when the mother is distracted by her husband waving from across the crowded public square, she bends down and breaks the baby's neck, I knew I was in for a story that wasn't going to take it easy on me.  The intense conflicts that arise when the human race is reduced to near extinction play out in dramatic, creative, and unexpected ways.  The survivors suddenly have to deal with basic questions of economics, politics, government, law and order, military versus civilian command, limited resources, abortion, and what it means to be human.  Just to name a few.  The characters are well defined and developed, perhaps not as colorful as those in a Whedon show, but no less memorable for that.  The music is great too.  Here's a sample:


My friends from college, Patrick and Chip Leinen, have made the news and made it big with their now famous Confession App for the iPhone. Much of the press I've read has treated the idea of bringing a phone into the confessional as something quite bizarre, but then much of the same press views the sacrament itself as bizarre. My friendship with the developers (yes, yes, I'm basking in their glory) may be turning me towards a favorable view of their product, but, upon reflection, I have to say that, yes, I really have a favorable view of their product. Perhaps it's the geek in me, the love I have for anachronistic blends of cutting-edge science and ancient myth (Final Fantasy, Star Wars, etc.), that disposes me to welcome technology and the sacred sharing the same space--in this case, the confessional.

Anyhow, congratulations to the Leinens and to their fellow developer Ryan Kreager on their success. I hope their app proves beneficial to many a penitent.

If Not a Confessional State, Then What?

Does my opposition to a Catholic confessional state mean that I see no place for the Gospel in the political sphere? Does my politics bid me to leave my faith at the doorstep of city hall or the lawn before the U.S. Capitol? Do I believe we’re best served when the framers of public policy cover their ears against the whispers of the Word?

Philosopher John D. Caputo speaks to how I would answer these questions, and so I give him the floor. In his book What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, he writes:
There is no “derivation,” no straight line, from the poetics or theo-poetics of the kingdom to any concrete political structure or public policy, but that does not mean there is no line or connection at all. Rather we are called to imagine the kingdom of God in the concrete political structures of the day, and that requires political imagination and judgment. The kingdom provides a politica negativa, a critical voice rather like the voice of a prophet against the king, like Amos railing against Jeroboam, calling for the invention of justice, which in turn requires, in addition to prophets, the hard work of concrete political invention, the cleverness of inventive political structures.
What a poetics of the Gospel gives to the political sphere isn’t a roadmap toward the ideal polis, but a critical and imaginative voice, a voice that echoes with dissent and creativity, that ceaselessly calls for the deconstruction and reconstruction of the current constructions of power. It is a voice that speaks for the poor, the oppressed, and the least among us. A voice marked by the madness of the cross, like the voice of John the Baptist, mad for forgiveness, generosity, mercy, and hospitality. It is the shaken and weak voice of the crucified Christ, inspiring our fear and trembling, calling us to think and act politically with the folly and foolishness of the cross. “It is our responsibility,” says Caputo, “to breathe with the spirit of Jesus, to implement, to invent, to convert this poetics into a praxis, which means to make the political resonate with the radicality of someone whose vision was not precisely political.” Caputo continues:
The crucified body of Jesus proposes not that we keep theology out of politics but that we think theology otherwise, by way of another paradigm, another theology, requiring us to think of God otherwise, as a power of powerlessness, as opposed to the theology of omnipotence that underlies sovereignty. The call that issues from the crucified body of Jesus solicits our response, for it is we who have mountains to move by our faith and we who have enemies to move by our love. It is we who have to make the weakness of God stronger than the power of the world.
If a Catholic confessional state uses the strength of political power to give preference to Catholicism, a politics that listens to the voice issuing from the Crucified God resounds with the weakness of God and gives preference to the powerless, to those forgotten, ignored, or exiled by the boundaries of law and order and the exercises of political power.

What would our politics look like if we really listened to and took to heart this voice? To this question I don’t have a precise answer. Caputo remarks that if we took the New Testament as our literal guide and the Jesus of the New Testament as our model political philosopher, we’d have a tax rate of 100% and an annual Department of Defense budget of $0 (no swords). Caputo himself doesn’t call for this, though he does point us, and in particular his “friends on the Christian Right,” to the Vatican. Caputo’s not exactly known for swimming anywhere near orthodox shores, so it’s surprising (though not really surprising) to read him calling the popes (along with Jacques Derrida) mad about justice while most of us are simply mad about paying taxes: “The papal social encyclicals are a model of Christian economics, of bringing the spirit of the gospels to bear on modern economic realities.” He goes on to say:
The encyclicals contain unambiguous warnings about the greed and insensitivity to the poorest and the most defenseless people in our society that is bred by capitalism. They speak eloquently of the rights of workers, or requirements for “social” checks on “individual” freedoms, and of the priority of the “common good” over egoism and individualism. I share the passion of the Reformers to rid themselves of papal imperialism. But I heartily recommend to my friends on the Christian Right—both Protestant and Catholic—a summer spent reading the Vatican’s social encyclicals, in which they will find a good deal more of the spirit of the New Testament than presently parades around today on bumper stickers, bracelets, and T-shirts emblazoned with the name of Jesus.
Is there not something theocratic in all this talk of a divine voice resounding in our political structures and public policies? Does this voice not offend against my principles of pluralism and secularism? How do we listen to this voice and repeat its calls to those who do not share our faith? Caputo, again, provides a workable solution, one I’ve suggested before:
If you want to draw your vision and influence from the New Testament, bless your heart, but you need, in addition to a good reading of the text, an independently good argument.

On Experiencing the Sacred

Harvard Philosophy Professor Sean Kelly on the Colbert Report, discussing the classics, the loss of the sacred, and finding meaning in the secular age:

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But You Don't Know the Truth!

Michael Dougherty tweets:
Glenn Beck just put a fire on my brow and said "This is a caliphate" Then he pointed to my nipple and yelled "Bill Ayers Meet the Archduke!"
For the beyond the bizarre context, go here and watch what passes for serious political commentary on America's most popular cable news network. And remember: the truth doesn't have an agenda, but you don't know the truth!

Pluralism and the Confessional State

Humanities and philosophy professor Thaddeus Kozinski envisions a Catholic confessional state as the solution to the problem of political and religious pluralism. In an interview with Zenit, he explains how such a state could come about in the midst of the current plurality of competing, irreconcilable worldviews and why such a confessional state would succeed where the solutions offered by Rawls, Maritain, and MacIntyre are doomed to fail.

First, says Kozinski, there would need to be a consensus that the current pluralistic system isn’t the best way to run society. Second, a “minimal, provisional, natural-law consensus” would need to come about to set the groundwork for the “social reign of Christ the King.” Kozinski writes: “Politics should be about fostering the best social, legal, institutional, and cultural conditions for the communal discovery and consensual political establishment of the true religion, after it is has been recognized as such by the vast majority.” Third, with society now rooted in the natural law and aimed at the transcendent, the “state that desires the best for its citizens must privilege the freedom of the Catholic Church and formally cooperate with her mission, while also permitting and supporting the freedom of other religious communities insofar as they contribute to the common good and uphold public order.” In sum, “we are talking about a new Christendom.”

As a devout pluralist, I cannot get behind this new Christendom, and, just so we’re clear, I’d work against it if anyone seriously tried to implement it. It’s not that I think society shouldn’t be “cognizant of and obedient to the will of God,” but that any confessional state would at best be cognizant of and obedient to the interpretation of whoever (Catholic or otherwise) wields the most power. The state wouldn’t be ordered toward the divine will, but toward the dominant interpretation made official by the political-religious authority. That the dominant interpretation may at times correspond to the divine will is irrelevant: the exercise of political-religious power would be what establishes the interpretation as official and authoritative and dominant. The engine leading to the official interpretation would be fueled by a political process, not a scholarly one, not a free process of understanding and appropriately responding to a God who reveals. Power would decide the “best social, legal, institutional, and cultural conditions for the communal discovery and consensual political establishment of the true religion.”

I advocate pluralism not because it reconciles conceptions of the truth under a single system with which we can all live, but because the multiple ways we are cognizant of the truth cannot be reconciled into such a system. Ever. The state can never have a single conception of the truth to which it is ordered. It will always be fueled by debate and disagreement about what constitutes the good. No concept of justice reigns supreme in the holy of holies, out of reach of inquiry and critique. The state will always be disordered. The good will remain always a question. Consensus will always remain fluid. Pluralism isn’t, as I see it, a prescription for chaos and anarchy, but a commitment to keeping truth a matter of discernment, disclosure, and debate. A confessional state would, as I see it, make truth the product of political-religious power.