Collect


Preface for Paschaltide

It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God; but chiefly are we bound to praise thee for the glorious Resurrection of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; for he is the very Paschal Lamb, who was sacrificed for us, and hath taken away the sin of the world; who by his death hath destroyed death, and by his rising to life again hath won for us everlasting life.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Natural Lawyer Jokes, Part III

‘Give your evidence,’ said the King.
‘Shan’t,’ said the Cook.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland


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Returning to my analysis of Dr Feser’s piece, I’m going to move backward a little from my last post, because the arc of the argument is fairly extended. The first important set of premises begins under the heading General Sexual Ethics, and addresses the new dimension given to human behavior by the fact that, in addition to our animal bodies, we possess rational souls.

Now these latter, higher, rational activities do not merely constitute distinctive goods; they also alter the nature of the lower, animal goods. For example, both a dog and a human being can have a visual perception of a tree. But there is a conceptual element to normal human visual perception that is not present in the dog’s perception. … That perception in our case participates in our rationality makes of it a different and indeed higher sort of good than that of which non-human animals are capable. Other goods we share … with animals similarly participate in our rationality and are radically transformed … Thus, meals have a social and cultural significance that raises them above mere feeding; games have a social import and conceptual content that raises them above the play of which other mammals are capable … Our sexual faculties are no different.1


Illustration of tea ceremony from 17th century Japan

So far, so good (and a valuable rejoinder to most anthropologists, who seem to have carefully trained themselves to be unable to recognize the non-animal reasons people do things). He continues his treatment of the merely animal aspect of sex thus:

Giving pleasure is not the end of sex, not that for the sake of which sex exists in animals. Rather, sexual pleasure has as its own natural end the getting of animals to engage in sexual relations, so that they will procreate. … So, sex in animals exists for the sake of procreation, and sexual pleasure exists for the sake of getting them to indulge in sex, so that they will procreate. And we’re built in such a way that sexual arousal is hard to resist and occurs very frequently, and such that it is very difficult to avoid pregnancies resulting from the indulgence of that arousal. The obvious conclusion is that the natural end of sex is (in part) not just procreation, but procreation in large numbers. … Apart from the Aristotelian jargon, everything said so far could be endorsed by the Darwinian naturalist … whether or not such a naturalist would agree with the moral conclusions natural law theorists would draw from it.2

A plausible assertion. But not, I think, quite so certain as Dr Feser believes. Permit me a brief zoölogical detour.

As I mentioned in my first post of this series, homosexual behavior is well-known in the animal kingdom, and in some species, such as giraffes, is far more prevalent than heterosexual behavior. Bonobos form a particularly interesting case, since (along with chimps3) they are the living primates most closely related to humans: 60% of all sexual activity among bonobos is lesbian, and sexual activity, of whatever kind, is frequently used to defuse tension and reconcile after conflict. Now, the mere existence of homosexual behavior among animals really isn’t a threat to Natural Law Theory; the idea is not that whatever happens is natural, but that there is a pattern built into nature by its Creator, and deviations can be measured from that pattern, not just by man-made convention. But—I may be mistaken, and if so I’m sure a Natural Law theorist or six will emerge from the æther to correct me—the normal test proposed for finding out what’s natural is to look at what effect nature usually brings about. And if, in at least some cases, sex appears to have far more to do with social bonding than with procreation even on a strictly animal level, and that among some of our closest animal relatives—well, it rather sounds like the Natural Law theorist has some mansplaining to do.



That said, one of the basic tenets of Catholic Christianity is that we live in a fallen world: i.e., a world that does not wholly fulfill the design of its Maker, not only in being as yet incomplete, but in active distortion and corruption. No Christian, on seeing that something exists, must necessarily approve of it in principle; unlike the pantheist who considers all being a manifestation of divinity, or the Buddhist who considers the world as we know it fundamentally illusory, the Christian insists that imperfection and evil are real, and that they matter. The problem for the Natural Law theorist, then, is to sort out the design that nature (imperfectly) strives for, from the evil that diverts and weakens it, and to set forth a principle by which to do the sorting. But a simple study of what usually happens is not a satisfying technique for such sorting, because you then need another rubric for determining which results count and which don’t. I mean, does the behavior of bonobos demonstrate a legitimately non-procreative purpose of sex even at an animal level, especially given that they so strongly resemble humans, or does that not count? And if not, why not—because most other animals aren’t like that (even if a surprising number are)? Well, which animals count and which don’t, for the purpose of determining what nature usually does? Do bacteria, for whom sex is always non-reproductive?

To at least some degree, Dr Feser recognizes the epistemic4 problem here. In seeking to justify a fully Catholic moral outlook on sex on grounds of Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy, he raises some important distinctions:

Since the natural ends of our sexual capacities are simultaneously procreative and unitive, what is good for human beings vis-à-vis those capacities is to use them only in a way consistent with these ends. … It cannot possibly be good for us to use them in a way contrary to those ends, whether or not an individual person thinks it is … This is true whatever the reason is for someone’s desire to act in a way contrary to nature’s purposes—intellectual error, habituated vice, genetic defect, or whatever—and however strong that desire is. … A clubfoot is still a clubfoot, and thus a defect, even though the person having it is not culpable for this and might not be able to change it. … What has been said so far clearly supports a general commendation of confining sexual activity to marriage and the having of large families, and a general condemnation of fornication, adultery, contraception, homosexual acts, bestiality, masturbation, pornography, and the like. …

But this might still seem to fall short of establishing the absolute moral claims made by Catholic teaching. Consider a devout Mormon couple who have a large family of nine children, but who have occasionally used contraception so as to space their children evenly … It would certainly seem strained and even unjust to accuse them of having a ‘contraceptive mentality’ … insofar as their attitude toward sex is obviously different from those who regard sex as mere recreation and children as an inconvenience to be avoided. … It may also seem to have proved too much. For if it is good for us to pursue the procreative and unitive ends of sex and bad for us to frustrate them, wouldn’t it follow that it is wrong to refrain from marrying if one had the opportunity to do so? [Or that] it is wrong for sterile and aged married couples to have sexual intercourse? … If there is to be an absolute prohibition on contraceptive acts, masturbatory acts, and the like as such, even though there is no such prohibition on merely refraining from sex or on sex between sterile spouses, then there must be something about the nature of the former acts that makes them inherently contrary to the good for us[.]5


To this, modern readers—myself among them—will readily add homosexuality. For even a casual acquaintance with gay culture and people shows that we’re as likely as anybody to want children, and (to some degree) apt to lament the fact that we can’t have biological children with our preferred partner; the prevalence of both adoption and surrogacy suggest how strong the desire can be. In other words, from the point of view of intention alone, plenty of LGBT couples are in exactly the same position as infertile straight couples.

The ‘perverted faculty argument’ into which Dr Feser moves from here seems to be quite well constructed, and when I write about it I may do little more than agree with him. But the epistemic problem of how to evaluate the evidence doesn’t seem soluble to me on the Thomist axiom that Nihil est in intellectu quod prius non fuerit in sensu, ‘Nothing is in the understanding which was not in the senses first.’6 The problem with that is: how the hell do you get a standard for evaluating evidence out of the evidence you’re evaluating? I plan to deal with this problem, as best I can, in my next.

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1Neo-Scholastic Essays, p. 388.
2Ibid., pp. 389-390.
3Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus) are very closely related to each other; evidence obtained by genetic and anatomical studies suggest that the two species only became distinct from each other about a million years ago, and that the latest common ancestor of the two split off from the hominid line (e.g. Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo sapiens) only six or seven million years ago. The commonality is close enough that some scientists assert that the Pan and Homo genera should be treated as one, though this is controversial.
4I.e., a problem of epistemology, the branch of thought that studies how we know things—not in the physiological sense of how information is stored in the brain, but in the philosophical sense of how we can have confidence in our premises and the conclusions we draw from them.
5Ibid., pp. 396-398.
6St Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate II.3.xix.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Sunset on Yamato

Below is an excerpt from a story I’ve written titled Sunset on Yamato, part of a collection of post-apocalyptic sci-fi shorts that I'm working on. The full story is available to my sponsors on Patreon. (Yamato is an archaic and poetic name for Japan; think of Albion for England. Note that geiko is the preferred, and older, term for geisha in Kyoto, where the story is set. A few of my transliterations from Japanese are also a little idiosyncratic. Also, I don't know why the last paragraph decided to be double-spaced on the blog, since it's not in the original, and I don't know how to correct it.)

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The winter was early that year. Perhaps the migrant waxwings had brought it south with them.
Iriko looked south, over the many streets and the remaining buildings, towards the sea. Ōsakawan lay at the edge of the withered city, reflecting a greyish light from the dull sky like a piece of blue slate. Behind her, Hiei-yama and Minako-yama stood in front of Biwako, shouldering heavy cloaks of snow. The five rooves of Tōji’s pagoda had, so far, received only a dusting; you could still pick out the individual tiles. But the clouds were swollen like pregnant women, and the gloomy rumbling of thunder over the mountains proclaimed their labor pains. It was only mid-morning, but Iriko sighed and began to descend the narrow, aged stairs of the pagoda. Shini had asked her to stop by in any case, and it would be better to gather what food she could before the snows came.
She stepped out of the tower onto a thin coverlet of snow, the lacquered geta she was wearing interposing a thick line of black between white feet and white ground. It was a little more than six kilometers from the shrine complex to Pontochō, or what was left of it, and Iriko was glad to be raised a little above the hoary earth. A large star-like maple leaf had fallen in the snow by her path, brilliant red in color; she paused to look at it.
As she walked by the scarlet walls and stone-grey eaves of the Kitano Tenman-gū, she slowed her pace: it had been a favorite shrine of hers. Most of the lanterns had been pulled down, in a riot not long before the total collapse. She noted with approval that they had let alone the golden ornament on the friezes and the underside of the eaves. She paused, thinking, and went inside.
The furnishings of the shrine were disarranged and dusty, though not greatly disturbed. Iriko went to a little pile of what could have been mistaken for debris, but was in fact a heap of unused ema, the wooden prayer talismans that were offered to the kami in supplication. She sorted through them, pausing now and then to hold one up to the dull light, until she found one that felt right: it depicted the one-legged torii from the Sannō Shrine in Nagasaki, which should have been destroyed by the atomic bomb, but of which one pillar had mysteriously survived.
Sitting close to a window with the ema and a scavenged brush and bottle of ink, she wrote her prayer: the Emperor’s health—the fertility of the fields—victory in wars—prosperity for her family—a husband and children—the favor and blessing of the kami—the honor of the Japanese nation. Using a piece of string, she hung the prayer with others that remained, and slipped a few coins into the donation box. The Emperor was dead; her parents and her brother Noritaka were dead; the fields were a wasteland; there was no one left to fight or to marry or to collect the coins. As far as she knew, Endō Iriko was the last person left alive in the archipelago. She murmured aloud to herself:
Natsukusa ya
tsuwamonodomo ga
yume no ato.
The signs and banners of the Pontochō hanamachi were faded, but recognizable. It had been the first of the city’s geiko districts (so it had claimed), and they had lingered there the longest, too. Expertly rendered calligraphy promised the customer the finest tea, the best sake, the loveliest shamisen playing—executed by the loveliest shamisen players, of course—that mortal eyes, ears, and palates had ever enjoyed. One shop, which had endured longer than the others thanks to the owner’s fanatical devotion to his craft, still displayed a kimono in the window: burgundy silk flowed over the model, dotted with an asymmetrical pattern of white sakura flowers like little spurts of foam, and there, on the left sleeve, a plover in flight. It would have been perfect for a geiko as her April wardrobe, but the last one had died in February, seven months ago now. Iriko knew, as a matter of theory, that some of them might have survived in other places; but she could never have deliberately countenanced the idea that Kyoto should be deprived of geiko while any other city was in possession.
At the northeastern corner of the hanamachi stood a crude shack—the Kyū no Shi Myōji, its owner called it, having a naturally morbid sense of humor. It had been built over the wreckage of a failed bar, but with a smaller footprint, so that broken pieces of metal and wood lay about the walls. Iriko stepped lightly over the debris and came to the shack’s doorway, which was obscured by a length of midnight blue cloth with kanji and kana dyed into it: at the top, a right angle pointing up and to the right, with an upward hook on its lower limb, and crossed on its upper limb by a vertical descender that curved to the left; in the center, a spiral-like kana, opening downward; at the bottom, a closed square, containing another left-curving downstroke and a parallel stroke like a backwards J. Iriko suppressed a shiver and called into the shack.
Shini-sama, ohayō gozaimasu. Iriko desu.’
Ohairi kudasai,’ murmured a deep voice from the rear of the shack. Iriko lifted her hand and pushed the curtain aside, and stepped in.
Two vases stood at either side of the doorway: one mostly held spidery red higambana, the other the palest kiku flowers. Each vase was deftly arranged with a single alien blossom in its center. Among the higambana was a tall, white kānēshon; one crimson tsubaki emerged from among the kikubana like the sun parting a bank of clouds.
The rest of the shack was practically empty, except for a paper lantern suspended from the ceiling. The walls were unadorned, and nothing covered the floor except tatami mats. Iriko slipped off her geta at the doorway and bowed deeply to the man in the rear of the shack, until the sleeves of her haori touched the ground. His kimono was white with a black border, and he wore the right breast over the left, as if he were a corpse. He was not looking at her; he was studying the large iron pot that rested in the ro, the square opening in the floor that served as a kind of hearth, where he appeared to be boiling water. The small collection of items to his left supported this: they included three hand-made chawan, a perfectly cubical black-lacquered usuchaki, and a delicate bamboo whisk whose loops were as fine as hairs.
O-chadō desu ka, Shini-sama?’ she asked.
The man chuckled. ‘Iie, miko-chan. Tan’ni o-cha.’ Not tea ceremony, my dear shamaness; just tea. He lifted the cast-iron tetsubin from the ro and began to prepare the three cups of tea that sat beside him. ‘Suwatte kudasai.’
She knelt and sat back, wondering whom the third cup was for. Shini reached over and opened another wooden box, which contained a few young koi fish; he placed these over the ro to cook.
Phuyu no otozure ga hayaka tsu,’ he remarked.
Hai, ue-sama.’
Anata wa sore ga sukidesu ka?’
Chigau, ue-sama,’ Iriko replied. ‘Natsu ga koishii.’
The man smiled, turning the koi over with a long pair of chopsticks. ‘Mochiron.’ He pushed a steaming bowl of tea towards her. She picked it up, closing her eyes as the heat seeped through the faintly irregular walls of the chawan and into her hands. The reedy-sweet aroma floated over her.
Ohayō gozaimasu,’ came another masculine voice, from outside. The man called Shini did not look up, but he answered: ‘Ohairi kudasai.’
The second guest entered. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man, with wild hair and bright eyes. A curious fragrance came with him: a blend of ice, earth, wood, and smoke. He too wore kimono, colored deep green like pine needles, and stood on single-toothed tengu-geta that raised him so high above the floor that he had to stoop to pass through the curtain. He slid these off, approached his host, and bowed deeply. ‘Shini-sama.
Wagaya e yōkoso, Ohoyamakui-san,’ replied the other, pushing a chawan toward him. The newcomer knelt and sat back into a half-lotus posture. Picking up his tea, he asked, with a nod toward Iriko, ‘Nanda kore wa, nadeshiko?
Shini said that yes, this was the young woman he had spoken of, and that her name was Endō Iriko.
Hajimemashite,’ the new guest said to her, bowing his head slightly.
The miko tried to smile, and answered politely, ‘Yoroshiku onegai shimasu, Ohoyamakui-san.’ Then Shini handed them each a small plate, bearing one of the steaming hot, slightly burnt koi, and a pair of chopsticks. He waved a generous hand at his two guests, who said ‘Itadakimasu’ and began to eat. Shini drank his tea, but did not eat; Iriko was used to this.
For a few minutes, they ate and drank silently. The koi were followed by small bowls of rice, and again their host did not eat. As she set her bowl down, the young shamaness said, ‘Gochiso sama deshita.’
Jōkyō ka de,’ said the other rudely. Shini merely chuckled.
Iriko spoke again. ‘Kono koto ni tsuite wa nandesu ka?’
Their host explained. Both he and Ohoyamakui were interested in taking Iriko’s hand in marriage. It was admittedly a very long time since either had consorted with anyone; but Iriko was a fine young woman and, when there had been other inhabitants left in Kyoto, had been a wise and benignant miko. Either one of them would be not only happy but proud to wed her.
A little dazed at the idea, she nodded. ‘Watakushi wa kangaeru hitsuyō ga arimasu, arigato.’
Mochiron,’ replied Shini generously. He added that Ohoyamakui would be staying in the remains of the city for a short while—and of course, he was always there—so that she need not feel rushed.
Iriko nodded again and said something, she didn’t know what, and gulped some more tea. The host and the wild man continued talking, but she was carried away in reverie. She herself hardly noticed as, a short time later, she made an automatic yet unexceptionably courteous departure.