Are we morally obliged to give the poor?

07.05.2019 / Philosophy

Yesterday, I received an email from a reader that asks a question about moral obligation and giving to the poor:

Hi Keith, I came across an argument that I’d like your opinions on in terms of its premises and conclusions. I have my own but I don’t have a lot of experience in philosophy and so I wanted to hear the thoughts of a professional.

“It is sad that some people live in poverty in our country, but what is there to be done? Some people, such as highly educated doctors or visionary business leaders, contribute more to society, and so reap richer rewards. Why should they be under any obligation to give away some of their hard-earned wealth? If the government were to force them to do so in order to help people who contribute less, that would clearly be unfair”

This is the argument that I was hoping to hear your thoughts on. Thank you in advance and hope to hear from you soon.

A summary

As I understand it, the argument quoted includes the following reasonable assumptions:

  • Everyone has a right to the rewards they earn through contributing to society (Assumption 1)
  • Poverty is sad – unfortunate, undesirable, etc. (Assumption 2)
  • It is good and morally praiseworthy for the rich to give some to the poor (Assumption 3)
  • It is bad and morally impermissible for the government to force the rich to give to the poor (Assumption 4).
  • (A fifth, and unstated assumption, is this one) It is morally obligatory to do what is good (Assumption 5)

The paragraph is responding to an argument that might have gone like this:

Premise #1. It is morally obligatory to do what is good (Assumption 5) Premise #2. It is morally good for the rich to give some to the poor (Assumption 3) Conclusion #1. It is morally obligatory for the rich to give some to the poor (from 1-2).

The paragraph responds by questioning the conclusion. Why should the rich be forced to give to the poor? There are two kinds of force: moral force and legal force. Moral necessity arises from people having a conscience and binding themselves to just behavior. Legal necessity arises from a government or ruler enforcing laws. The paragraph argues that neither type of necessity forces the rich to share with the poor because everyone has a right to the rewards they earn through contributing to society.

A response

Here’s my response:

Assumptions 1-4 are all true.

Assumption 5 is false: Not all morally good actions are morally obligatory actions.

For example, it would be noble or honorable for me to quit my job and serve in a non-profit. However, it is morally permissible for me to stay at my day job. It would be honorable and praiseworthy for me to volunteer every evening at the local homeless shelter, but I am morally within my rights not to do so.

The scale or spectrum of moral value has four sections:

  1. morally necessary,
  2. morally forbidden,
  3. morally permissible (but not beneficial); and
  4. morally permissible (beneficial but not obligatory).

For example, it is morally necessary that I raise my kids well and love them; it is forbidden that I beat and abuse my children; it is permissible but not beneficial to yell and scream at them; it is permissible and beneficial but not necessary that I tell them every day, “I love you.” How much affection and unconditional love a parent shows to the child is up to them – obviously, the more the better but each has to do what they can.

So the conclusion the paragraph is refuting is indeed false: it is not morally obligatory for the rich to give away all their money (or even much) to the poor. However, there is a moral necessity that we share some amount with the poor and tithe or donate some amount to God and his workers. The amount is not defined exactly by morality nor by law. It is up to the individual to decide how much of their own hard-earned money to give away – obviously, the more the better but each has to do what they can.






Reflections on HP Lovecraft

03.05.2019 / Culture

Do you read any HP Lovecraft?

My step-brother Judd was wearing a Miskatonic T-shirt at Christmas. He said HP Lovecraft was his favorite author, so I renewed a decade old resolution to check out some Lovecraft. (I read “Memory”, a short story reproduced below in its entirety, about a decade ago and loved it.)

In the last month, I’ve read:

  • Dagon
  • Colour out of Space
  • White Ape
  • The Outsider
  • Nyarlathotep
  • Call of Cthulhu
  • The Alchemist
  • White Ship
  • Shunned House
  • The Tomb

Right now, I’m working on: Dunwich Horror. Then eventually, Shadow over Innsmouth. (Open to recommendations.)

Lovecraft is deliciously written. Every line is poetry. He uses words with perfect skill. He’s a better prose writer than Poe, in his way – and in ways that (for me, subjectively), count more. I can’t quite come up with a name to compare him too. He’s a dreadfully competent story teller and writer, but I wouldn’t compare him to Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Stephen King. He’s in a class of his own, perhaps. Superior to Poe, I would say, as a storyteller and world builder and philosophical thinker. Inferior to few English writers as a poet and wordsmith. I don’t want to compare him to Keats, or Eliot, so I’ll just say that he’s in a class of his own. What he aims to achieve he achieves with shocking precision and expertise that I wouldn’t have thought possible if you described it.

So much for style. The stories, how good are they? In a word, very good. Original themes, chilling, and all too believable. Each one has satisfying characters, plots, settings, and conceits.

My favorite so far overall is the Shunned House, for pure thrill, horror, terror, and deliciousness of the historical conceit.

My favorite so far for its beauty of imagery and language is The White Ship.

Scariest overall so far is The Colour out of Space. Completely bone chilling for the entire story, from the first lines, but it gets steadily worse and worse until the ending which I had to finish in the day time.

Scariest climax was The Shunned House.

Read the rest...






David Bradshaw on Kant's view of Religious Experience

01.13.2019 / Philosophy

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In the recent volume on Kant’s views about God and religion edited by Nathan Jacobs et al., David Bradshaw discusses Kant’s claim that there can be no direct experience of God. In this post, I’ll briefly summarize that discussion and share my reactions to it.

Bradshaw’s thesis is that “Kant seriously misunderstands the relationship between experience of and conceptual beliefs about God.” Once this misunderstanding is cleared up, Kant’s skeptical claims about the possibility of experiencing an infinite, good God, lose their force.”

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Restoring the Liberal Arts -- Part I

11.17.2018 / Classical education

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For the past twenty years or so, I’ve been trying to understand this concept of “Liberal Arts.” I don’t think I fully understand it yet. And I don’t think you do either.

One would hope that any college-educated person steeped in liberal arts institutions would have a clear idea just what those things are. But we don’t.

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16 Year Olds Agree -- Philosophy is Practical

10.12.2018 / Philosophy · classical education

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Overheard last week: A 16 year old said to her peers, “So, we all agree – metaphysics is practical. Does anyone disagree? No? Let’s move on to the next question.”

Wow.

A bit of context: In my discussion classes, I have to use tricks to get myself to stop speaking and leave room for the students to talk. My thoughtful, attentive silence gives them an opportunity take responsibility for themselves, to shoulder some of the responsibility for directing the class, and simply gives them a chance to speak.

Last week, we were discussing whether philosophy in general – and metaphysics in particular – is practical. After setting up the question, I set a timer for 15 minutes and shut my mouth, pulling out some modeling clay which occupied my hands during my self-imposed vow of silence.

Using Peter Kreeft’s masterful “Summation of Philosophy”, students were able to consider both sides of this question of the practicality of philosophy. They came – without my prompting remember! – to a consensus that indeed philosophy is practical.

How could this be?

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Decluttering

09.15.2018 / Life coaching

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One of the most painful things we can do in life is sort through past emotions. Big emotions do not “go away” with time. They only go away with attention. They have a life cycle, like the weather. Emotions evaporate when we feel them. Children do this instinctually – they cry as long (and as hard) as they need to to feel the feeling, then they are done.

This post is not about emotions – not directly. This post is about clutter. It’s about “stuff.” One of the most painful things I have ever done is sorting through past stuff. In my childhood, I saw a lot of people crippled by the inability to throw things away, give them away, make them useful, or get rid of them. My adult life has been a slow, painful, process of unclenching my fist and getting rid of things: artwork, clothes, batteries, papers, bills, knick-knacks, picture frames, books, notes from college, journals, shoes, hats, food, boxes, computer files, videos, CDs.

These two – sorting through feelings and sorting through stuff – are related.

“Clutter is unmade decisions.” (paraphrasing Christina Scalize*) I would add that clutter is unprocessed emotion.

A stubborn pile that refused to be organized, put away, thrown away represents a pile of emotion that has to be felt. The same probably goes for stubborn pounds that refuse to go away. Extra weight on the body and extra stuff around the house are spiritually identical.

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Rejoice!

06.15.2018 / Philosophy

Elder Porphyrios

My own idea, for what it is worth, is that all sadness which is not either arising from the repentance of a concrete sin and hastening towards concrete amendment or restitution, or else arising from pity and hastening to active assistance, is simply bad; and I think we all sin by needlessly disobeying the apostolic injunction to ‘rejoice’ as much as by anything else. Humility, after the first shock, is a cheerful virtue.

– C. S. Lewis

Cheerfulness is a choice. Or rather, it is downstream from a choice. We can choose to focus on the good, to be stubbornly grateful for the gifts we have been given, and to notice beauty whenever it arises.

We cannot avoid virtuous empathy for the suffering. We cannot avoid virtuous contrition for our own failings. But we can and should avoid almost every other form of sadness: sadness for wrongs done to us, or for our own ill fortune, or for the world not going the way we want it to.

Those who rejoice, and those who don’t, will see the consequences appear in the very lines and contours of their faces.






Oh look, another article criticizing Jordan Peterson

06.11.2018 / Politics

A Facebook group now compiles Jordan Peterson “character assassinations”. This hilarious compilation shows the good, the bad, the ugly of people trying to criticize a public intellectual with whom they disagree.

Even if you like Peterson (as I do), it is useful to consider these critiques, to hear the other side. It’s also plain amusing to read the more unhinged and vitriolic hot takes people keep writing. If you’re not a Peterson fan, these articles might help you articulate your criticisms.

You’ll notice a smattering of articles from November 2017 through April 2018, followed by a rapid uptick of articles in May. Will June bring have another flood of articles or not?

Without further ado, a (fairly complete) list of articles criticizing JBP:

November 2017 - February 2018

  1. “Jordan Peterson is causing problems at another university now”. By Drew Brown. Vice. Nov 20, 2017
  2. “The Professor of Piffle – The dangerous underside of Jordan Peterson’s crusade against the humanities” by Ira Wells. Nov 27, 2017
  3. “The Jordan Peterson Paradox: high intellect, or just another angry white guy?” by John Semley. The Globe and Mail. January 31, 2018
  4. “Jordan Peterson’s Bull***t.” by Harrison Fluss. Jacobin Mag. February 2, 2018.
  5. “The Right’s Favorite New Intellectual Has Some Truly Pitiable Ideas About Masculinity – why does anyone take Jordan Peterson seriously?”, by Jacob Bacharach. Alternet. February 13, 2018.
  6. “Why Are So Many Young Men Drawn to Jordan Peterson’s Intellectual Misogyny?” by Grant Maxwell, APA Online. February 20, 2018.
  7. “A Serious Man”, by John Ganz. The Baffler. February 7, 2018.
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Where Tolkien got the Hobbit Names

05.28.2018 / Culture

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I just finished “reading” (i.e., listening to the audio books of) a few Dostoevsky novels and stories, hence my reading queue had an opening. I decided to finally return to the Prose Edda, a 13th century collection of Norse Mythologies and one of the great classics of Scandinavian literature.

It’s rough going at points. Lots of Icelandic names. That’s one of the reasons I’m listening to it on audio, as I do with Dostoevsky, rather than slogging through the text.

Anyhow, I’m stumbling through the Prose Edda, minding my own business, when I come across a remarkable passage I want to share with you Tolkien fans.

The surprising passage is from the second part of the Prose Edda, titled “Gylfaginning”, which is about the adventures of Gylfi.

In this passage, Gangleri is quizzing Harr about what he knows. Harr is then showing off his knowledge of gods and nature. At the end, Harr explains how the “dwarves” were made under the earth.

The first two long paragraphs I include to give you a flavor. Then notice the names of the dwarves at the bottom.

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Congrats to Lomachenko, three-division world champion

05.13.2018 / Culture

There was a big fight tonight… Congratulations are in order to Ukraine and to its champion boxer, Lomachenko.

Enjoy the highlights at CBS.

It was a beautiful fight. English has its Alexander Pope, tennis has its Roger Federer, boxing has its Vasyl Lomachenko.

Back in 2017, I wrote about this Orthodox Christian boxer, praising the musicality of his performances. He is a musician as much as a boxer. Rhythm, rhyme, repetition, syncopation. It’s beautiful to watch.

On May 11, I mentioned that the fight was coming up and predicted that “take down his next opponent and become a three-weight-class world champion. His fighting style is, as of now, unstoppable.” Although Lomachenko got knocked down in the sixth round he showed class by thanking Linares for teaching him a lesson.

He also showed his humility by giving credit to his father and trainer saying, “My father told me to go for the body in the final rounds, so I did.”







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