Friday, May 31, 2013

Universalism Without Heaven?

As I have mentioned before, I am a Christian Universalist. This means that I hold to certain typical Christian beliefs—most specifically, that the death and resurrection of Christ means our salvation—but also hold one very non-typical belief—that the death and resurrection of Christ means the actual, accomplished salvation of every human being.

At some point I'll probably post up a defense of this view. It's not unique to me (as you can see from the link above) and is held by several important contemporary Christian philosophers, theologians and other thinkers (including one of my mentors from many years back, Tom Talbot), as well as some of the most important Christian thinkers from antiquity. (For example, Origen and Gregory of Nycea.) So for this post, I'll just ask you to trust that the view isn't absolutely insane, even if it's wrong.

In this post, I'm concerned with a question about the implications of universal salvation. But to ask the question I have to set it up with some further information about my beliefs. Or rather, lack thereof. I am at best agnostic concerning any kind of afterlife at all. (Actually, I have this fond hope that before the big crunch or the heat death, a vast intelligence or intelligences will undertake the "resurrection" of every being that had ever lived and we'll all have a real interesting life free from suffering etc etc. But that's hardly a religious hope.) I don't consider the scriptures to be literally written by God, nor do I take them to be the kind of thing that is supposed to deliver propositional truths about how things work supernaturally. I take them to be a record of people wrestling with theological and ethical concepts, and they often used supernatural concepts to come to terms with this, for very understandable reasons. But this does not mean we must buy into the supernatural stuff in order to be moved by the theological and ethical stuff.

But Universalism asserts that every human being's salvation has been accomplished through Christ's death and resurrection. When trying to de-supernaturalize this, we run into several problems. What's "Christ's resurrection" mean? What is the non-supernatural relation between it and our salvation? What's salvation mean?

The last leads to what I want to focus on. What's salvation mean if not "going to heaven?" Because going to heaven is about as supernatural as it gets. How am I going to de-supernaturalize (I should probably just say naturalize) something like salvation?

Well, this isn't unheard of. Many wishy washy protestant liberal Christians (like myself) naturalize talk of heaven and hell by talking about present states of mind, or present ways to interact with our fellow human beings. So for example, we'll take things like Jesus's saying "The kingdom of Heaven is within you" (or "among you" depending on the translation) as indicating that his goal, while couched in supernaturalistic concepts, wasn't really about an afterlife, but about how we do things right now in this life. To be doing things one way constitutes being "in heaven." To do things a different way constitutes being "in hell." I'm sure you've encountered this idea here and there.

But think about this from a universalistic point of view. Suppose the claim is made that everyone is (or will be) saved. Well, on the above naturalization of the concept of salvation, what this would imply is that everyone is (or will be) doing things in the right way—that particularly meaningful and deeply blissful way we claim Jesus was talking about when he referred to the kingdom of heaven.

This is straightforwardly false if we're refraining from reference to an afterlife.

So that's the problem. How can I be a wishy washy liberal protestant Christian and a universalist? How should I naturalize the concept of salvation if it can't mean actual, accomplished living the "Way of Heaven" (so to speak) here in the real world before death?

(Of course I could follow the implication the other way, and say that if I'm so convinced of Universalism, maybe I should take this to be evidence for an afterlife. So I'll briefly explain another motivation for this naturalization project. If it's all about rewards in an afterlife, then every attempt to be ethical becomes a fundamentally selfish action. But I'd reject a religion that advocates fundamental selfishness. It is not my experience of religion that it can have such a foundation. Religion is about something other than that. But if this is so, then whatever deliverances a religion gives concerning rewards in an afterlife must provide a means for translation into non-rewardy non-afterlifey concepts. In other words, that which is best about Religion itself, in my experience, practically demands this kind of naturalization.)

So again, in a nutshell, the question is this: What can a doctrine of universal salvation already accomplished through Christ's death and resurrection mean if there is no afterlife? Put even more succinctly: What can it mean to say that everyone is saved if salvation does not involve going to heaven after you die?

I think I'll leave off formulating my stab at an answer for my next post, but in the meantime, I'm curious to hear from anyone reading this what they think of the question, its motivation, and any possible answers.

Post Script: When I call Tom Talbott "one of my mentors from many years back" I mean that I considered him a mentor through several conversations we had online about fifteen years ago. I do not honestly know whether he would remember me. (I'm about to find out.) And I do not mean to imply that he would endorse anything like the "naturalization project" I've gestured at here. I merely meant to indicate that he is a prominent Universalist among analytic philosophers of religion.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

More on Mercy

In a brief email conversation, I suggested to Ned Markosian that a complete account of mercy should take into account the agent's intentions and beliefs. For example, I said, if a judge thought he could sentence a convict to five or ten years, and out of compassion, chose to sentence the prisoner to five years, then the judge was acting mercifully even if the judge was wrong about his options and was in fact legally required to sentence the convict to five years.

Markosian offers a counterexample to the idea that intentions and beliefs must figure into an account of mercy:

Tom mistakenly thinks that he has a right to paint Tim's bicycle blue (because Tim raised his eyebrows when Tom said "Hi" to him), and also mistakenly thinks that painting Tim's bicycle blue would result in more harm to Tim than not doing so. Then, out of compassion for Tim, Tom chooses not to paint the bike.

We're at a kind of impasse, because I think this is an example of a merciful action. Tom's action in refraining from painting Tim's bike was merciful. It was also, of course, completely mistaken in almost every important way (we are supposed to assume, I think, that Tom is wrong to think he has a right to paint the bicycle and that doing so would harm Tim). Tom's action was deficient in some epistemological sense. But as to mercy—well, the act is merciful. He (to his mind) could have done worse to Tim, and had compassion on Tim, and so refrained.

How can such an impasse be resolved?

Markosian's own account offers a suggestion here. One of it's strengths is that it offers an explanation as to why intuitions differ about mercy in some cases. On his account, the mercifulness of an action rests not just on the action and its context, but also on the context of the utterance of the sentence "this action was merciful." So for example, if the context of the utterance makes legal principles the most relevant, then a judge who chooses a lesser sentence might be merciful thereby, but if the context of the utterance makes moral principles the most relevant, then the lesser sentence may be neutral or even unmerciful, depending on the situation. (For example, if giving the lesser sentence was positively immoral, then the action would be ipso facto immoral, since on Markosian's account an impermissible action is never merciful by the lights of that permissibility standard).

Could it be in this case that Markosian and I are thinking of the situation as though from two different contexts, thereby accounting (on Markosian's account) for our differing judgments? This may be so, but it would be hard to figure out what those two contexts would be without a considerably more detailed conversation. As it is, it sure looks like a single context—Markosian and I, two philosophers (albeit he's much more schooled in this particular area of philosophy) talking about a single case in an email exchange we both know everything about.

Aggravatingly, a difference in contexts might be outlined as follows: I'm judging from the standpoint of someone who takes an agent's state of mind into account, whereas Markosian is judging from the standpoint of someone who doesn't. So for me, the permissibility standard I see as most relevant is permissibility according to the agent's own lights, while Markosian is presumably applying a permissibility standard which doesn't take the agent's own lights into account. (I call this "aggravating" for the petty reason that it would count in favor of Markosian's account).

We shouldn't mistake this for any kind of relativism about mercy. It's not relativism—it's contextualism. It's not that Markosian and I can both be right even though we disagree, it's that we're making our judgments in two different contexts, and different contexts make for different truth conditions. In truth, on a contextualist account, we don't disagree, we're simply making two different kinds of judgments under the same name.

Well, we do disagree about something—we disagree about what the appropriate permissibility standard is. My own gut feeling is that the agent's beliefs and intentions are always relevant. Markosian's is either that it's never applicable or applicable in only some contexts.

My claim that it's always relevant is a pretty strong one and I'm not at this particular moment sure exactly how to defend it. In fact one important consideration has occurred to me that counts against it. It's natural to suppose that the recipient of mercy owes the merciful agent thanks. But think of Tom and Tim in the example above. Does Tim owe Tom any thanks for Tom's refraining from painting the bicycle? This seems dubious! But if it's true that the recipient of mercy owes thanks to the merciful agent, then I will have to defend a claim that Tim should thank Tom!

To be honest, I do think that if Tim were appraised of Tom's state of mind, it could indeed be appropriate for Tim to thank Tom—perhaps after correcting his misconceptions, but still thanking him in the "I know you meant well!" sense—but "appropriate" is not the same as "obligatory."

But is it obligatory for the recipient to thank the merciful agent? Or is it only obligatory in certain types of cases. I'll think about it. What do you think? (How many wheels am I reinventing here? I need to hie me to the library tomorrow.)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What is Cruelty Good For?

Daniel Fincke is inviting bloggers to write on the question contained in the title of this post as part of his "Forward Thinking" series of (what I'd term) blog-symposia on public values.

Well, before answering that question, I have to say what I mean by "cruelty" in the first place. My immediate response to the question "What is cruelty good for" would have been "It's good for nothing," because to my mind the term "cruelty" denotes, by definition, something that is unjustifiable. But there are two problems with this. First of all, even if no one is ever justified in being cruel, it does not follow that cruelty isn't good for anything—for example, it may be that some peoples' unjustifiable cruelty is useful for the attainment of other people's perfectly justifiable goals. Second, however, I may just be wrong to think "cruelty" is always unjustifiable. In Dan Fincke's discussion he names several examples of cruelty which are arguably justifiable. For example, he mentions playful mutual mockery as an example of cruelty, as well as hazing. Hazing has a deservedly bad reputation, but I have never thought that it categorically true that absolutely any ritual imposition of suffering in exchange for promised membership in a group that offers mutual support must necessarily be unjustifiable. There may be a right way to do something like that. (I don't know what the right way would be but it doesn't seem impossible that there might be one, in the right context for the right kind of group). He mentions his own feelings of celebration at seeing the Yankees' disappointment upon losing their chance at the World Series every year—which, again, does not appear unjustifiable to me. I personally don't "get" this kind of thing—not a sports person myself—but I can understand, in the abstract, that one might justifiably take pleasure in the disappointment of someone one sees as one's opponent in some sense. After all, what's bad for your opponent is probably good for you.

So I have to renege on my initial commitment to the idea that cruelty is always unjustified. If I'm thinking of something that's always unjustified, then I'm not thinking of the same thing Fincke is talking about (and I intend to be discussing what he's discussing). So then. What is he talking about?

The thread that runs through all his examples (and the famous Nietzsche quotation about cruelty with which he begins) is pretty simple: Cruelty is taking pleasure at someone else's suffering. And to be clear, it seems the idea isn't just to be pleased that someone is suffering, but rather, the idea is more visceral than that—to feel immediately pleasurable sensations as a direct response to the suffering itself. So, for example, I might be pleased that my kid is sad that he is grounded, simply on the basis of a belief that this will lead to my kid learning something about how to comport himself. In that case, the pleasure I feel isn't cruelty (I think) because it's not an immediate, visceral, direct response to my kid's suffering. (In fact the immediate visceral response is the opposite in my case.) If, on the other hand, upon grounding my kid and seeing how unhappy it made him, I felt pleasure independently of any lessons I thought he would take away from the experience, then this would mark me out as someone who is being cruel.

Feeling such immediate pleasure at his suffering might make me likely to psychologically abuse him. If his suffering made me glad just because I was glad to see him suffer, the temptation to make him suffer for no good reason would entice me towards abusive behaviors. But even in such a case, if I were able to exercise the right kind of self-control, and make use of foresight, I might see that my best bet isn't to abuse him willy-nilly (thereby running the risk of either destroying him or having him taken away from me) but rather to abuse him only according to some set of rules or principles, rules or principles sanctioned by society, ones it would be hard for him to articulate any effective objection to. So perhaps I will only make him suffer when he disobeys me or breaks a social rule—or when he acts cruelly!

Lucky for my kid, this is not how I think or feel about disciplining him, but it lets us in on one way that cruelty—even unjustified cruelty—might be good for something. The existence of a tendency toward cruelty in at least some people may help enforce a code of conduct which, over time, works out best for everyone.

Evolutionary Sociobiologists (or whatever they're calling them these days) have run models which lend support to this hypothesis. Imagine three kinds of agents. You have cooperators, you have cheaters, and you have punishers. Cooperators share their resources with others. Cheaters do not. Punishers punish cheaters. If you set up several groups with different ratios of cooperators to cheaters to punishers, and then have them compete for a common pool of resources, it turns out that groups with a mix of all three do better than other groupings. (This is a great simplification of what is described at the link—I'd recommend reading it when you get a chance!) And it's not just that the group does better in some sense independent of the well-being of the individuals—it turns out that each non-cheater in the group does better than it would have if no punishing had gone on. It's better not just for the group, but for each individual in the group.

So there's one use for cruelty—if some people in the group take pleasure in seeing others suffer, and a way is found to give these people an outlet in the form of punishment, things turn out to be better for everyone.

This doesn't make cruelty a virtue. But as Fincke points out, reducing it to a question of whether cruelty is virtuous in itself is not to the point. The question is, is cruelty good for anything. And this is one case where it can be argued that it is good.

Having said this, though, I am led to wonder whether cruelty is necessary. Sure it can be used for a certain good result. But can it be thought of as a Wittegensteinian ladder? Cruelty has gotten us where we are today, but now that we know how to codify rules and punish people in legally rigorous ways, we don't need cruelty anymore?

It depends. It's a little difficult for me to think about this because, to be honest, I really don't think I have a cruel bone in my body. Even when it comes to punishment of horrific genocidal maniacs—believe it or not, once they're in prison and facing their fate, I feel sorry for them. I also feel sorry for their victims. But I see no connection between feeling sorry for their victims and wanting the genocidal maniac to suffer. It just feels like an awful situation all around, and no punishment makes me feel particularly good for anyone. So if everyone were like me, I think, there would be no need for cruelty. But then, if everyone were like me, possibly since there would be no cruelty it would turn out that cheaters (and yes, I cheat in some contexts) would go unpunished (since no cruel people were around to use punishment as an excuse to cause suffering). And as the models suggest, this might mean things would be worse for everyone! And in any case, everyone is not like me. We have to deal with the seemingly overwhelming evidence that there are a great many people—possibly most of us—who do have a cruel streak. Just watch a little TV and you can see this. A species that enjoys watching what passes for entertainment on broadcast TV definitely is composed of many, many individuals with a pretty strong cruel streak.

So, given that the cruel streak exists and isn't going away anytime soon, it would seem best to provide an outlet for it. Punishment looks like a good candidate. Fiction looks like another—since fictional suffering is not real suffering. I guess I can't go into it here, but it occurs to me that advances in storytelling over the centuries could be framed as more and more exquisite ways to explore more and more devastating types of human suffering. If that's right, then fiction, like punishment, isn't just an outlet for cruelty, rather, fiction is another case where cruelty is necessary for a kind of advancement we find valuable for its own sake.

None of this means cruelty is necessary full stop. I'm suggesting it's necessary for some things that we value. This is not to say that a species couldn't be built which doesn't need cruelty. In some far-off sci-fi future, we may engineer ourselves into some such species. Is this desirable? It's impossible to say. That engineered version of ourselves is sure to value things completely differently than we do. Perhaps they'd see no need to punish cheaters—instead finding some other way to handle the effects of cheating. And perhaps they would have no need to craft fictions for each others' enjoyment. Rampant unpunished cheating? No more stories? This sounds horrible to me! But if this hypothetical engineered version of us can make it work, who am I to complain?

I'm just not sure I'd want to be engineered to live in such a world. And so, to my surprise, it appears I would prefer to insist on living in a cruel world.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Behind The Times Film Discussion #1: Wreck-it Ralph

These days I don't get to see films until they're available to stream somewhere online. (Legally.) So when I talk about a movie, it will usually be several months after everyone else has finished talking about it. For example, here I am going to say something about Wreck-it Ralph.

(Some spoilers coming...)

For some reason I'd thought going in that this was going to be a mediocre film. I think I had read some bad reviews or something. But by the end, I was really happy I'd seen it with my kids! I try to think seriously about the messages my kids are getting from mass media. Though I don't forbid them to watch stuff with messages I disagree with, I do try to keep track of what they're watching so I can have, you know, casual conversations with them about it. Keep them critical. Make sure they're interested in thinking about what they're watching as much as they're interested in watching.

As it turned out, there wasn't much to worry about in Wreck-it Ralph. In fact it hit several of my happier ethics buttons.

For example, take gender roles. For the most part, women and girls in this movie aren't trying to land a man or become a princess. (There's one important exception, I'll discuss it in a moment.) Indeed, the protagonist's primary companion, Vanillope, is a girl whose great ambition is to be a racecar driver, and another important female character is a kick-ass futuristic military commander from a First Person Shooter video game.

(I think, on recollection, that she did have armor that exaggerated her female shape, so that's unfortunate. But it wasn't like super sexed up scanty-clothing-armor, so it wasn't egregious. One could argue they had to give some kind of nod to sex-specific body armor, since she was being portrayed as a popular figure from a video game. The choice to cast Jane Lynch for her voice also tended to drive the mind away from any Lara-Croft-inspired stereotypes.)

Another interesting detail about gender role: One of the fictional video games featured in the game, Sugar Rush, features what you might think of as a very "girly" motiff, with all female racecar drivers, everything being in bright colors and made of candy, and a kind of "bubblegum techno" soundtrack. But the kids portrayed as playing the game are boys, and the film doesn't seem to call particular attention to this fact. Not calling attention to this, btw, is a good thing. This means it's portrayed as not either "acceptable" or odd, but rather, simply as natural.

There are a couple of problems. The kick ass futuristic military commander mentioned above turns out to fall for the first guy who admires her. Of course, she "rejects his advances" at first, but it becomes clear this was because she has issues and was playing hard to get. (I'm phrasing this a lot more bluntly than it comes across in the movie--what is revealed is that her first fiance was killed by the CyBugs which are her arch-nemesis, and this has made her reluctant to fall in love again). But all we are shown about why she would end up loving the male character she ends up marrying in the end--every detail of their relationship, the entirety of the justification for her falling for him--is the fact that he found her attractive. Boo.

And of course Vanillope functions, at least to start with, as a kind of Manic Pixie Dream Girl for the protagonist, and that's unfortunate. But the resolution of the film ends up involving fulfillment of her dreams just as much as his, so the MPDGness of her character is redeemed to that extent.

She does get a princess dress at one point as a reward for having fulfilled her dreams. (Oh no!) But she almost immediately gets rid of it and declares a Constitutional Monarchy, preferring to race instead. (Yes!)

Another happy ethics button it hit for me was the idea that compassion is the key to navigating moral complexity. And for the movie to hit that button, of course, it had to actually have some moral complexity. And it did, at least for a kid's film. Characters' motivations were not worn on the sleeve or articulated in a sentence shortly after we met them. And in several important cases, initial enmity was overcome by compassion. For example Vanillope seems to be Ralph's enemy at first, capriciously stealing something very valuable to him, mocking him mercilessly as she did so. And we shouldn't think that this was somehow excusable--there's no question that she wronged him. But when he sees her later on in a position of extreme vulnerability and heartbreak, he has compassion for her and rushes to protect her, even though she wronged him. And as their story develops, it reveals their willingness to try to understand each other even when they seem to be at odds with each other, and their growing eagerness to forgive each other for actions that are no mere slights. In the end, this becomes the ground from which they overcome the evil force in their world (which, I mean, having an implacably evil force in a world doesn't hit my happy moral buttons, but it's a kid's movie and I can't have everything).

There's kind of an anti-classist statement in the film too. The world of the film is divided between a majority of Good Guys (I include within this class those we might think of as innocent bystanders, as these characters always identify with the "Hero" characters in the video games portrayed in the film) and a minority of Bad Guys. The Bad Guys do work that no one wants to do, and are treated poorly, despite being normal people with all the same kinds of worries, desires and other motivations as any other normal person. This is portrayed in the film as a systemic wrong which no one is really even fully conscious of. I think this is a pretty excellent thing to see in a kid's movie because it's accurate to the world we live in. The idea isn't articulated in the film, but it's shown and criticized implicitly through the plot. That's important.

Have you seen this film? Or read reviews or other comments that might engage with the points I've made here? What are your thoughts?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Is The Pope a Universalist?

The headline says "Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics"

That sounds like a pretty radical change in Catholic teaching. It sounds like Francis is saying belief isn't necessary for salvation—all you need is to do good. The headline is perfectly crafted to play on arguments between Catholics and (some) Protestants about the role of faith and works in salvation. "See! I told you the Catholic Church thinks good works can save you!"

Indeed, for me, a Christian Universalist, the headline made me wonder momentarily if I need to hie me into the arms of the Mother Church.

Fortunately you don't even need to go find Francis's original speech to discover how misleading the headline is. You just need to read the parts of his speech which were quoted in the article itself.
"The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. 'But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.' Yes, he can... The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! 'Father, the atheists?' Even the atheists. Everyone!" (Pope Francis)

In that quotation, the relationship between redemption and doing good is explicated in just a few sentences, as a hypothetical dialogue between the pope and a catholic follower:

Catholic Follower:     But Father, this is not Catholic! He [a non-catholic] cannot
                                   do good.

Pope Francis:            Yes he can… The Lord has redeemed all of us… not just Catholics.

Catholic Follower:     Father, the atheists? Even the atheists?"

Pope Francis:            Everyone!

Take a look at Pope Francis's first line in that dialogue. He denies a claim that non-catholics can't do good, and gives his reason for this denial—namely, the fact that "The Lord has redeemed all of us." In other words, everyone can do good because everyone is redeemed. Again, in other words, according to what Pope Francis said, redemption enables good acts. This is in keeping with Catholic theology, which holds that part of what Christ accomplished by dying on the cross was to free all human beings, past and future, from bondage to sin. In other words, because everyone is redeemed, no one has to be evil.

But the headline implies exactly the opposite. It implies Francis said that doing good deeds leads to redemption. But that wasn't what he said at all. He said that redemption leads to doing good.

There has been a fairly large backlash against Francis in some Protestant circles (read comments to any of these articles) because people are either reading only the headline, or allowing the headline to poison their understanding of Francis's speech. (The article itself hardly helps, quoting portions of the speech then completely misconstruing them immediately afterward. But a blog post isn't the place for a detailed analysis of every error!) And many of those responding positively to the speech are doing so based on the very same misunderstanding!

This is an example of why it is so super important for everyone (those who write headlines and those who read them in particular!) to be in the habit of reading carefully and critically, and withholding judgment when they haven't had a chance to do so.

It's important also to note, by the way, that in catholic theology, redemption is not the same thing as salvation. A great many commenters (again see comments to the articles found in the previous link) are coming away from this article believing Francis has claimed that everyone is or will be saved. But that is not at all what he is saying. The problem is that different Christian denominations have different understandings of the term "redemption." In some denominations, redemption is the same as (or tantamount to) salvation. So when this article mentions redemption, many non-catholic Christians read their own concept of redemption into it and end up completely misunderstanding. Part of careful, critical reading is to be aware of the possibility of such misconstruals. When someone says something that seems surprising, one of the first questions we should ask is this: "Is that person using those words the same way I use them?" Getting an answer to this question first can solve a lot of problems before they even become problems.

Analysis of Mercy – Post 1

Ned Markosian has a new paper about mercy in the latest issue of The Philosophical Quarterly. I was struck by several things about the paper. I'll discuss one of those things in this post. A few near-future posts will discuss other points.

Here's the first thing that struck me. I was surprised that, though he seems to give a pretty complete account as to what all the important views are viz a viz the analysis of mercy, not one of them explicitly takes the agent's own beliefs or intentions into account. For example, one account he calls the Rights Account of Mercy goes like this:

RAM: x is merciful to y at t =def there are two alternative acts, A and B, available x at t such that (i) x performs A, (ii) x's performing B would have resulted in more harm to y than x's performing A, (iii) x is motivated by compassion for y to choose A over B, and (iv) x had a right to perform B.

(Basically this is saying an act is merciful if the person performing the act had a right to act more severely but chose not to out of compassion.)

If I had tried to come up with an account of mercy prior to reading this paper, it would have been along the lines of RAM. But I would have thought it necessary to formulate the account, not in terms of whether B really does result in more harm, or whether x really does have a right to perform B, but rather, in terms of whether x thinks B would result in more harm and whether x thinks he has a right to perform B. In other words, it appears my first inclination is toward a kind of "internalism" about mercy.

To illustrate, let's take one of the cases discussed in the paper:

Case 1: A judge is sentencing a convicted thief. The law calls for anywhere from five to ten years in prison. The judge, moved by compassion for the thief, sentences her to five years.

Most people call Case 1 an instance of mercy, as do I. But change the scenario a bit:

Case 1a: A judge is sentencing a convicted thief. The law calls for a sentence of exactly five years. However, the judge believes the law calls for a sentence of anywhere from five to ten years. The judge, moved by compassion for the thief, sentences her to five years.

In Case 1a, I would have said the judge's decision is a merciful one. But on every account given in the paper, it would appear that the decision is not merciful, because the judge actually was not allowed to give a harsher sentence. I am a little surprised by this.

Markosian makes a remark near the beginning of his paper to the effect that he's analyzing the mercifulness of actions, not mercifulness as a character trait. Maybe it could be suggested that I'm mistaking my evaluation of the judge's character with an evaluation of the judge's action. But I don't think so—I don't just claim that the judge is a merciful person. I evaluate that the action itself as a successfully merciful act. Certainly the judge's intentions are part of what leads me to evaluate the act as merciful, but that does not make it any less an evaluation of the act.

Having said this, however, I do suspect that thinking about what it means for a person (as opposed to an action) to be merciful may push us into an account of merciful actions which differs from that offered by Markosian or any of the authors he discusses. But that is for a near-future post. For the moment I'm interested in what people think about my claim that agent intentions must figure into an account of merciful action, and I'm also interested to find out whether there are such accounts on the books already. Markosian's article doesn't seem to mention any, but are there others? Or is the question of agent intention covered in the discussion Markosian is alluding to, but simply lies outside the scope of the point he himself is trying to make?

About this Blog

This blog will cover a variety of topics, including but not limited to academic philosophy, practical and public philosophy, pedagogy, theology, and pop culture. I am not sure it is wise to put together such disparate topics into a single blog, but I am also not hung up on acting wisely. I figure (hope) the posts will be independently interesting enough to keep people coming.

Regarding academic philosophy, I'll be using this blog to post some "first thoughts" on topics I hope possibly to do actual work on. As such they will often take the form of responses to articles I've recently read or speculations off the top of my head. To expose people to such not-even-first-draft material is self-indulgent, but hopefully the posts will be interesting enough to engender conversations. (Part of my motivation for doing this involves the fact that I am the only Philosopher at my university, meaning I find myself sometimes starved for research-related conversation. Please talk to me, other Philosophers!)

Please feel free to comment on any post you see, or to email me at

When I figure out how to put this in a separate "about me" section of this blog, I'll move this text over there…