Archive for June, 2013


Clifford’s Law

June 27, 2013
"Leucocephalus" Phil Hansten

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

Some people find Clifford’s Law disturbing and counterintuitive. Its inventor, William Clifford, doesn’t care what you think. Clifford’s Law, for example, leads to the startling conclusion that the 2003 invasion of Iraq would have been a terrible decision even if we had found huge stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, fully functional and ready for use. This sounds like nonsense, but is it?

Of course, William K. Clifford (1845-1879) weighs in on the issue from the safety of the nineteenth century, but his argument is, in my opinion, impeccable (I’ll explain in a minute). William Clifford was a gifted British mathematician who is perhaps better known today for a philosophical essay he published in 1877 entitled “The Ethics of Belief” (available on the Internet) in which he explored the conditions under which beliefs are justified, and when it is necessary to act on those beliefs.

In his essay, Clifford proposes a thought experiment in which a ship owner has a vessel that is about to embark across the ocean with a group of emigrants. The ship owner knows that—given the questionable condition of the ship—it should probably be inspected and repaired before sailing. But this would be expensive and time-consuming, so the ship owner gradually stifles his doubts, and convinces himself that the ship is seaworthy. So he orders the ship to sail, and as Clifford remarks, “…he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.”

At this point Clifford asks the easy question of whether the ship owner acted ethically, to which only sociopaths and hedge-fund managers would answer in the affirmative. But then Clifford asks us a much thornier question: What if the ship had safely crossed the ocean, not only this time but many more times as well. Would that let the ship owner off the hook? “Not one jot” says Clifford. “When an action is once done, it is right or wrong for ever; no accidental failure of its good or evil fruits can possibly alter that.” This is “Clifford’s Law” (a term I made up, by the way).

Clifford recognized that we humans are results-oriented, and we are more interested in how something turns out than on how the decision was made. But bad decisions can turn out well, and good decisions can turn out poorly. For Clifford, the way to assess a decision is to consider the care with which the decision was made. Namely, did the decider use the best available evidence, and did he or she consider that evidence rationally and objectively? These factors are what make the decision “right or wrong forever.” What happens after that is irrelevant in determining whether or not it was an ethical decision.

So, just like the ship owner, the people in power made the decision to invade Iraq based on what they wanted to be the case rather than what the evidence actually showed. So even if by some strange combination of unlikely and unforeseen events the invasion of Iraq had turned out well—hard to imagine but not impossible—the invasion still would have been wrong. So Clifford is saying (or would say if he were still alive) that if they had found weapons of mass destruction, the invasion would have still been a bad decision, because the best evidence clearly suggested otherwise. The decision was “wrong forever” on the day it was made, no matter what the outcome.

Occasionally, one of my students complains about Clifford’s Law. Since they are studying drug interactions, it means that even though a particular drug interaction may only cause serious harm in roughly 5% of the patients who receive the combination, if they ignore that interaction in dozens of people they are just as wrong in the many people who are not affected as they are for the person who has a serious reaction. “No harm, no foul” is legally exculpatory, but does not let you off the ethical hook.

Clifford’s Law applies to almost any decision, large or small, provided that the decision affects other people. With climate change, for example, there is overwhelming evidence that we need to act decisively and promptly. If we do nothing about climate change, but through an “accidental failure of evil fruits” there are no serious consequences, we are no less wrong than we would be if our inaction resulted in a worldwide catastrophe. The outcome is irrelevant. We long ago reached the threshold for decisive action, and our failure to act is “wrong forever” no matter how it turns out in the long run. So we don’t have to wait decades to find out who is right or wrong… we know already, and it is the climate change deniers.

Some powerful people have exercised their predatory self-interest to prevented substantive action on climate change. If they continue to succeed and no catastrophe occurs—not likely but possible—the victorious bleating of the deniers will, of course, be unbearable. But given the stakes for humanity, the cacophony would be music to my ears because it would mean that we avoided disaster. A more likely outcome, unfortunately, is continued lack of action followed by worldwide tragedy. Unlike the tragedies of old, however, there will be no deus ex machina to save us… we will be on our own.


Some Thoughts on Reading “Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist,” Part 1

June 18, 2013
"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

Sociologist Peter L. Berger recently published a memoir, Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist (2011) which I have been enjoying these last few days as if talking with an old friend. To be sure, I only know Berger through his books and other writings. I have never met the man personally. Yet in many ways (and maybe you have to be a bibliophile to understand this) I do feel like he is an old friend, one with whom I have had a troubled, on-again off-again relationship!

If my recollection is correct, I first encountered PLB as a senior in high school, which would have been the 1971-1972 school year. That is when I first read the book for which he is probably best know, The Social Construction of Reality (1966), co-authored with Thomas Luckmann. At the time, I had no strong background in sociology or really any field of scholarship, and so that was really hard reading for me. It angered me and confused me, and numerous times I set it down and said “That’s enough of that!” But I kept coming back to it, and when I finally did finish it, I immediately sat down and read the whole thing again, cover to cover. Over the years, I have returned to that book many times, but one thing I remember clearly from that first reading is how the whole religiously and socially conservative Mennonite world in which I had been raised suddenly started to make sense to me in ways that it never really had before. I went to the school library (my Mennonite high school was on a college campus, so we had unusually good library access) and there I found Berger’s book, The Sacred Canopy (1967), and I devoured that one as well. By the time I had finished college, I think I read all of Berger’s books published up to that date.

The thing that struck me most about Berger’s perspective was his way of looking at “solid” social institutions as “precarious,” that is, wholly dependent on the willingness of each generation to uphold, obey and conform to the social norms and values of these institutions. The mental image I got (I am one of those who tends to think in mental models and pictures) was that of boys playing hockey on “firm” lake ice that in fact was not nearly as thick as they thought it was. In other words, society went on its merry way, largely unaware that it was always skating over relatively “thin ice” that separated it from chaos and anarchy.

That image I had gained from Berger was an integral part of my intellectual outlook as I went off to seminary school in 1976. As I combined it with other sources and also the zeitgeist of those years, I had come to think that at least dipping a toe into anarchy once in a while was probably a good thing. Embracing a bit of “creative chaos” was how I thought of it. It was in my first semester of seminary that I was introduced to Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death (1973) and I quickly came to understand that this “lake of chaos/anarchy” was fundamentally an image of individual and social anxiety, more specifically the anxiety of human mortality. Although Ernest Becker soon became my main intellectual passion, I can see in retrospect that I may well have understood Becker very differently, or perhaps not at all, had I not come to his writings with an already firm acquaintance with Berger’s work. When I graduated seminary in Spring of 1978 and went off to study philosophy in Hungary (an Eastern-Bloc communist country at the time) it was Becker’s Denial of Death (1973) and Escape from Evil (1975) that I packed away in my suitcase, but also Berger’s books Social Construction (1966), The Homeless Mind (1974) and Pyramids of Sacrifice (1975). At the time, political Détente was strongly in the air, Jimmy Carter was still a very popular President, and the steady path toward social democracy in America, it appeared to me, was objected to only by kooky folks at the far-right, irrelevant fringes of our society.

Obviously, I was soon myself to have a stark lesson in just how thin that ice can be, as well as to experience many troubling doubts in my “relationship” with Peter L. Berger. But that is for the next installment.


A Call for Readings

June 2, 2013
"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

One of the best things about working with Becker in the classroom is that it provides such a great resource for continually seeing him anew through the eyes of students. They bring a fresh world of experience to the eternal dilemma Becker raises. My own teaching practice has gradually shifted away from explaining Becker  toward  allowing the students to respond to their initial exposure to Becker. Actually engaging a discrete,  distinct component of Becker’s thought in a direct and powerful way can open the door for student to follow up, not just intellectually, but existentially. This post is concerned with using Becker in the classroom and will conclude with a request that you suggest readings from the Becker canon that can be used effectively. Socratic method is the vehicle I am experimenting with and a brief word about the technique is in order. I am new to the formal technique myself and realize many colleagues may be more experienced, and so I welcome input on that front  as well.

Socratic method has as its goal the exercise of the mind in the pursuit of understanding. The purpose is not to come up with a final correct answer, but rather to engage a multi-layered idea, one open to interpretation and resistant to pat answers. How perfect. The entire sweep of Becker’s illuminating work is to ask the next question and avoid the easy out, and therefore it is genuinely compatible with the Socratic goal. For those of you familiar with Robert Pirsig’s Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, this is approaching Becker in pursuit of The Good, rather than The True. Dialogue, rather than debate, is the vehicle for in-class conversation and this allows the idea in question to be held like a jewel to the light, the different facets on display. The endorphin rush of a great conversation or moment of insight can “set the hook” for further work with Becker in the classroom; “Hey class, remember that conversation we had a while back?”

The key to a good Socratic dialogue is the selection of the specific reading, piece of art or music to be worked with. Length can be from a couple lines to a couple paragraphs. The reading should be open to interpretation with layers of meaning to be explored. The topic should be broad and of existential significance, that is, something the students care about. Something that really challenges or moves people is best.  As examples, I’ve used the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem “Richard Cory” and entry  #49 from the James Carse book Finite And Infinite Games. One great way to judge a given reading for its utility is to see if you can ask a really good question of the text. Does the text raise more questions than it answers?  A question that you yourself struggle with would be best of all.

So would you consider reviewing your mental catalogue of favorite Becker passages and sending them to me in the comments section? I’m most familiar with Denial of Death and Escape From Evil, but anything at all is fine— and that includes Kierkegaard, Rank, and Leichty. I am very hopeful that we can generate a decent handful of readings that we can use to introduce Becker to a broader audience. Thanks in advance for your insight and assistance.