Saturday, April 30, 2005

Slacktivist's Left Behind Archives

We interrupt this Law series to point out one of the blogs I've linked to on the left. Each Friday, Slacktivist considerately discusses 2-3 pages of the first Left Behind novel, giving us a hilarious deconstruction of the literary, religious and political foibles therein. Presenting: The Left Behind Archives.

An excerpt:

"Our heroes, isolated from the world aboard their transatlantic flight, have thus far received no news from the outside world, and are still unaware that the mysterious disappearances are a global phenomenon. That changes when, "Finally [Rayford Steele] connected with a Concorde several miles away heading the other direction."

Left Behind was published in 1995, so the authors' failure to foresee the end of commercial Concorde flights is understandable. Compared with their other bizarre predictions and otherwise miserable record of prognostication, this is a minor failing.

The Concorde pilot informs Steele that he will not be able to land in London, and should turn around and head for Chicago, one of the few places he still might be able to land. Airports are closing because of the chaos following the mass disappearances, which the Concorde pilot says are "all over the world."

"We lost nearly fifty," passengers from the Concorde, he reports.

Keep in mind that this is the Concorde we're talking about, a plane that catered exclusively to the literal jet-set. This was one of the priciest tickets in the air -- one available and availed of only by those with swollen bank accounts and a swollen sense of self-importance. This super-elite carrier of the overclass seated an even 100 passengers.

LaHaye and Jenkins would have us believe that nearly 50 born-again, evangelical Christian millionaires were visiting Paris and were willing and able to spare no expense to return to New York City as fast, and in as much luxury, as humanly possible. This seems unlikely.

It also contradicts L&J's insistence that evangelical Christians are a marginalized and persecuted minority. If they're such a despised and disenfranchised group, how did they come to comprise nearly 50 percent of the super-elite passengers on the Concorde?"

So yes. Check it out. It's spot on.

Friday, April 29, 2005

The Law: Austin Positivists and Holmes Realists

Since the Enlightenment, the project of building human life based on reason rather than transcendence has resulted in radical changes in the western world. Legal philosophers like John Austin sought to describe the legal system as a social fact, rather than as an expression of Natural law. Austin's system revolved around the idea of law as command, and was very simple. A law is a command of the sovereign, backed by threat of force. Austin also wrote on the seperation thesis - the idea that law and morality are separated, as opposed to Aquinas' overlap thesis.

A few problems appear here: who or what is the sovereign, and is the threat of force the real source of the law's power? Can the sovereign make any law it wishes, and is the law still binding? What is the law's relationship to morality?

Austin's brand of legal positivism was the standard in jurisprudence for several decades; then the Holocaust took place. The Nazi's use of the German legal system made it clear that the law was a much more complicated thing than a simple command backed by force. The imfamous "I was just following orders" defense was a major issue for legal philosophers.

As far as I understand, there have been three prominant perspectives on the law in the 20th century. The first to develop was legal realism - basically a group of really cynical judges. Remember, Aquinas was a theologian and Austin was a lawyer; the legal realists tended to be judges and so they had a different perspective.

The realists thought the idea of a theory of law was silly; better to actually watch the law in practice. Their answer as to the nature of law: whatever the hell a judge says it is. They don't start with rules and facts, they begin with a hunch, and work backwords from there. They argue this isn't a deficiency: this is the way the law is, and it is actually a good thing. It is the only way possible to achieve equity.

As far as I can see, this is a pretty court summary of how the courts work. Supreme court judges will trash cases brought before them - then agree with the conclusion of the case, and simply rework it themselves. They start with their conclusion and work backwards. Appeals are not about attacking conclusions per se, but rather about attacking the conclusion for an appeal.

And boy oh boy, this seems to be about right. I'm sure Joel will be happy to attest to the seeming randomness of some court decisions. When I was writing an essay on Creationism and Evolution in the American courts, the court decisions really seemed like the whim of whatever particular judge was presiding.

The legal realists are too wishy washy for some, of course. Next time I'll talk about the responses to this, hopefully in a single post.

Monday, April 25, 2005

The Law: Aristotle and Aquinas

All right, here it is, the director's cut version of my answer to my philosophy of law final exam question.

Asking after the nature of the law is a surprisingly complex task. At least, it was to me. There is a long list of sub-questions involved, ranging from fundamental issues of ontology and epistemology to more everyday problems like the authority of judges.

What, exactly, is a legal system? Quick answer: a discourse. You knew I was going to say that, right?

The long answer means teasing out all the peripheral questions surrounding the main question, and people have been doing that for literally thousands of years. This post is part one of I'm not sure how many, and here I'll kill two birds with one stone. I'll give a whirlwind tour of past thinkers, which will let me list the peripheral questions and give my own ultimate answer some historical context.

So let's go allll the way back to the Greeks. They began the western intellectual tradition when they decided the universe was ordered rather than random. Figuring out reality was a matter of figuring out how it was ordered.

Following from this, Aristotle said everything had four "causes" This doesn't quite mean the obvious "cause" of "cause and effect," but instead think of "responsibility." Everything has four things responsible for it, and is in turn responsible to these four things. The only one of the causes that concerns this whirlwind tour is the fourth one, the Final Cause. This is the inherant purpose of each thing that exists.

Man's Final Cause is to contemplate the good. Aristotle taught that man is a civic animal - we are dependant on others. The concept of rights didn't exist - in its place, the Greeks taught "duty." So, man is dependant on other men, and therefore he has duties towards them. So, the "good" means the "common good." Man's purpose is to work towards the common good, and this was the purpose of the law for the Greeks: to make society good so that each man could fulfill his final cause.

There's an important concept that comes from Aristotle - "equity." He knew that there is always a gap between general rules and actual life; no set of rules can cover every situation that arises in human life. So sometimes a judge needs to employ equity and go past a rule, and react to a specific situation. But how much freedom do judges have? That question was unsettled.

So do you see the two subquestions here? Aristotle was concered with the purpose of the law, and the amount of authority - or "discretion" - that judges have.

In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas tried to synthesize Christianity and Aristotle. His philosophy of law is known as "natural law". Aquinas of course believed everything was designed and had a purpose. Everything from individuals to the state to the law has a purpose.

Aquinas discussed four levels of laws that are distinct, but work together.

1) Eternal law. The rational structure of the universe - only God has access to this.
2) Natural law. Relates specifically to humans; we all have it within us. We are designed to pursue good and avoid wrong.
3) Divine law. This is revelation, from the Bible and the Pope. It helps clarify the Natural law.
4) Human law. This is specific to society - trying to implement both Natural and Divine law. There is a gap between the abstract principles of Natural and Divine law, and Human law tries to make them concrete.

There are two types of wrongs for Aquinas. Something can be Mal in se wrong in itself. Or something can be Mal in prohibitum - wrong because it is illegal.

Laws flowing from the Mal in se can be just or unjust; they are valid to the extent that they conform to Natural and Divine law. If these laws violate Natural and Divine law, then they aren't really laws at all and the invidual is not under obligation to follow them.

Mal in prohibitum laws, however, can be fair or unfair. If a law is merely stupid or unfair, then moral obligation remains. An example is the restriction of smoking in downtown bars - Aquianas might agree it's a stupid law, but you still have to respect it.

So along with the purpose of the law, Aquinas brings in three more concerns. First, the law and morality are intertwined. The purpose of the law is to implement natural and divine morality. Secondly, he sets up a test for the validity of a given law; is it in comformity with natural and divine law? Third, he discusses the source of the law.

It's my bedtime, so I'll sum up. The relavent issues so far: the purpose of the law, its source, a test for validity, and the role of judges.

I'll skip ahead to 20th century writers next post.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Why AI Won't Work

.... And what that has to do with the price of tea in China.

See a few posts down, where I say I'm going to post a paper about gay marriage? It's taking a while, and here's where I explain that.

This past Sunday, there was a Defend Marriage rally in a downtown park. Basically Christian and Muslim leaders speaking to a fairly large crowd (2-3000, apparently) about why gay marriage will destroy western civilization. Off to the side, there was a group of protestors waving signs like "Love like Jesus would!" or "Equal rights for all!".

The "Love like Jesus would" one was especially interesting. It makes clear how wide the divide between the two groups is. Even though both sides use the same language, making claims to legal rights and ideals like love, the thought process behind the claims is very differant. There's a lot going on under the hood, so to speak.

So here's where I do my best to explain another pestilent European philosopher. Martin Heidegger wrote in dense, obscure prose about things that have become the cliche image of philosophers, like "what is the meaning of being?" To make this terribly simple, Heidegger was arguing against some of the most basic and fundemental assumptions of the last 2000 years of philosophy. The reigning model was based on Descartes; Descartes basically argued that our minds existed independantly of the world. We peer out through our eye sockets at the world, making independant judgements and living quite seperately from everything else. Hell, this tradition even has a hard time proving the existence of the outside world.

In Heidegger's giant, almost impossible to read book Being and Time he dismantles Descartes' tradition, arguing instead that we are beings-in-the-world. To horribly oversimplify, we are constantly interpreting ourselves into the world, encountering tools and other people, all for the purpose of various projects. Think of your experience as a Russian nesting doll. I am using this keyboard for the project of typing a blog post for the project of organizing my thoughts for the project of earning a philosophical education... etc, etc. All of the simple little tasks we carry out in daily life are actually connected to everything else in our lives in a huge spidery web, and the vast majority of this is pre-reflective. Not quite unconscious - we just don't think about it. It's all in the background.

One of the more interesting applications of Heidegger's work is to artificial intelligence. In the 1970s, some guy whose name I don't remember wrote about the difficulties the project of AI was having from a Heideggarian point of view. He talked about the assumption behind AI - that intelligence can be broken down into managible pieces and ultimatelty digitized. This has never worked, of course. We can program computers to beat us at chess, which IS a matter of problems being broken down and digitized. Deep Blue can kick Gary Kasporov's ass at chess - but Deep Blue is helpless to set up a chess board from a jumbled mess of pieces. Why? Because Deep Blue is not being-in-the-world. It can't engage in the Russian nesting doll structure of projects; it has no pre-reflective structures through which it can understand the world. Remember my example of the pawn from below?

Sigh. So what does this have to do with gay marriage? That simple slogan - "Love as Jesus would" - might be made up of words that both sides understand on a surface level, but each side (each individual, more accurately) has a huge body of pre-reflective knowledge that they bring to bare. Hence why the Defend Marriage types could say "we ARE loving as Jesus would, OBVIOUSLY!" and the destroy-western-civilization types could say "You aren't, OBVIOUSLY!"

There's a lot more to the dynamics of interpretation, sure. But I offer this post as justification for my long winded build up to a discussion of gay marriage.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

The Bounds of the Normal

We've all heard the saying knowledge is power. It's a cliche tossed around without thought by most. There's always something behind cliches, though. A guy named Michel Foucault managed to spin a long and fruitful career out of examing the relationship between knowledge and power.

And there is a relationship, oh yes there is. When you produce knowledge, you wield power. It's easiest to explain by using examples.

Take beers and wine spritzers. If you're a guy, which of these are you supposed to drink? Beer, right? If I'm sitting with a girl, and I have a choice between the two, it's the beer I'll feel compelled to drink. Why on earth do I know this? I can count on three hands the number of times I've been in a bar and I dislike the taste of alcohol. I can drink whiskey, scotch, wine; I can even not drink at all. But "girly drinks" are out. In a bar, I have a particular role to play.

To a certain extent, I identify myself as being left-wing. However, there are may standard leftie positions I am not comfortable with; why do I feel so out of joint disagreeing with abortion? Why do I simultaneously feel like I should defend certain stand lefty positions, even though I dislike them? When discussing politics, I have a particular role to play.

No one forces me to drink beer instead of a sweeter alcohol, and no one was going to force me to defend the CBC on Joel's blog, before I thought better of it. So why do I know that I'm supposed to do these things? What was going on?

In both cases, I'm fitting into a discourse. A masculine discourse concerning the right type of alcohol, and a liberal discourse concerning the right political opinions.

A discourse is the result of a relationship between a particular mode of knowledge, and a particular mode of power. A discourse opens up a role for you to play. You know how to are supposed to be - knowledge. And you are compelled to act within those bounds - power.

Discourses aren't determinate, when it comes to individual choices. As I said, in a bar, I can drink any number of liquors or beers. I am totally free to make choice X or choice Y; but choice Z simply isn't on the menu. That's how it works. I can drink whiskey or scotch, but drinking a wine spritzer would simply be absurd. It would be outside the bounds of the normal.

Another perfect example is the US two party system. Third party candidates for all intents and purposes exist outside the electoral discourse. Sure, there is a third party; the choice exists in reality. Just don't expect them to win anytime soon.

These are pretty basic examples. Foucault was much more sophisticated about it; his favourite topics were things like the development of psychiatry and how the punishmen of criminals has changed.

There have been different discourses of punishment, meaning the criminal, the state, and the mode of punishment have all had different roles to play in society. In the long dead monarchies of Europe, criminal acts, in the eyes of the system, were violations of the King's sovereignty. The purpose of punishment was to re-inscribe the King's law onto the criminal - hence brutal, physical, public punishments. When concepts like "freedom" and "liberty" came to have their present day meaning, the ultimate punishment was to strip the criminal of their liberty - hence prisons.

There is a distinction between power and violence. Power, as part of its relationship to knowledge, opens up roles to play. It creates choices, and obscures other possibilities. Violence, on the other hand, is about direct control of the individual. Power makes the Democracts and the Republicans the only "reasonable" choices. If violence came into the picture, voters would be sent to jail for voting Nader.

So that's my best shot at explaining discourses. I'm going to yet again postpone the gay marriage post, there are two other concepts I want to go over first.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

2, Two, II

Comments are now working. Huzzah. No more invisibleness, no more erasing.

I'm going to hold off on posting my comments on gay marriage; I'd rather not have find this site, and then find myself accused of plagerizing from myself. Instead, I'll write an introduction to the ideas I think are important. This first post is mostly history.

When Marx was writing in the 19th century, he was fairly revolutionary. The prevailing philsophy at the time was written by Hegel, who believed history was pure progress. All of history was the story of reason becoming sharper and more dominant; Hegel believed history would end when absolute reason was attained. Everything about human life - politics, economics, everything - was in service to this absolute reason - aka God - working itself out. Reason was the driving force of human history for Hegel.

Marx worked from the opposite direction - the driving force of history was economics. Mainly, the means of production - how things were produced. You all know this. The ideas came afterwards, for Marx. Everything that people thought and believed was guided by their place in the structure of economic production. In effect, ideology is created by the current economic system. Eventually, the capitalist system would give way to a world in which there was no ideology, no structure - just workers living together.

Skip about a century. The 1960s are sputtering out. In North America, the liberal leaders of the various rights movements - civil rights, labour, feminists - have either been assasinated or stonewalled. Richard Nixon comes to power, and the Republican revolution begins. In Europe, powerful revolutionary movements fall apart; in France, the Communist party actually holds the conservative De Gaulle government together, protecting it from student protests. At the end of it all, t-shirts manufactured in sweat shops bearing pictures of communist revolutionary Che Guevara are available in malls across the world. Anything can be bought and sold, and the 60s movements finally realized this.

What happened? There were cultural changes, of course, but the 60s movements hoped for so much more. While the basic Marxism I have described had long since been abandoned in the face of Stalinism, another form of thought appeared - structuralism.

The structuralists decided that, far from expecting a future without ideology, there was nothing but ideology (as a side note, "structuralist" is a sticky term; like "post-modernist," few writers actually accept the term). Everything that is intelligible, everything that is understand, is so because it is part of a structure. The meaning of everything from words to ideas derives from place in a structure.

Think of it like this number sequence: (0, 1, 2, 3). What is the meaning of 2? It comes after 1, and before 3. Clear, yes? "2" does not have any meaning by itself. It is just marks on a paper or pixels on a computer screen. I could just as easily write (zero, one, two, three) or (0, I, II, III).

Each of these marks - 2, two, II - are signs. They signify something - a place in a structure. These signs are placeholders.

The important thing is, signs have no meaning when they are just hanging by themselves. They need to fit into a structure. It's the same way with anything. Think of a pawn from a chess set. If the game of chess did not exist, then a piece of wood cut to look like a pawn would be just that - a piece of wood. Everything needs a structure in order to make sense.

There are social structures, too. Think of a doctor's office. It is a definate structure - he wears his lab coat, stethoscope, and sits behind his huge desk. These are the signifiers he surrounds himself with; he is in a particular postion in that structure, and so are you, the patient.

What the old 60s radicals learned was that social structures cannot be changed over night. They are deeply embedded, so embedded that they pass for "normal" and "natural."

Next time I'll talk about a particular type of structure: discourse. That will be a good set up for posting my answer to the exam questions mentioned in the post below.

Friday, April 08, 2005

The End of the Hiatus

Some business first. I know comments aren't working, I hope to have that problem fixed soon. Since I hate code, all I've done is scavenge the source code of smarter bloggers. Which means I don't understand where the problem is. I guess I'll keep looking.

It's been a long time since I posted. I've been busy, and have had no desire to write anything. That'll change in 2-3 weeks once I'm done school.

I'm just polishing off a philosophy of law class. Basically, it's about discussing the structure of legal systems, and what content should they have. The final exam questions can be seen here. Click on "Final Test."

Questions 3 & 4 will be particularily interesting. #4 - "What is the law" - is a giant subject encompasing layers and layers of theory. Who comes up with the law? Why do any of us care? Who gets to enforce it, and how? What is the law's connection to morality? Whittling all this down to a managable exam-sized answer will be a bit of a challenge.

The question concerning same sex marriage is going to require a complicated answer as well. My own thoughts about it revolve around changing gender roles, and translating that into my conception of the legal system will again, be a challenge.

Once the exam is finished and plagerism concerns are out of the way, I'll post my answers to both questions. That'll be April 12th.

Once the exam is over and I don't have plagerism concerns, I'll post my answers to both questions. I'll even expand on my answer to the same sex question.

Except I suppose to make my answers clear, I'll have to provide a bit of background to my thinking... ugh. I'll post again sometime before the 12th.