Friday, December 05, 2003

The Bounder of St Huey's

There was consternation in the prefect's common room of Menzies House, the leading house in St Huey's.

"I say you chaps!" said John Winston Howard, the senior prefect, "This Latham fellow whose taken over Curtin is simply beyond the pale!"

Heads nodded in agreement - Latham was beyond the pale.

"It's about time young Latham realised he's in the big school now." Howard went on. "Frankly I don't think he's up to it. God help St Huey's if he ever takes my place as Head Boy of School."

"Hear, hear." his chums muttered, even Costello, Treasurer of the school cricket team, who had once aspired to be Head of School himself.

"They won't like Latham at Washington's." muttered Sheridan Minor, today's duty fag, as he buttered another toasted muffin.

"Mind your own business, Sheridan!" expostulated Howard, irritated at having his thunder stolen by a Junior, "And do try not to burn the toast."

"They won't like him at Washington's." Howard continued, "They don't take kindly to having their head boy insulted by St Huey's chaps."

"Things could get damn sticky for St Huey's if we can't stop him becoming Head Boy." someone muttered from the back of the room. "Sheridan, you're skimping on the butter again, you loathsome little tick."

Howard's face darkened. "If I have anything to do with it, Latham will never be head boy of St Huey's," he said. "When I go up it will be one of you chaps who takes my place," he went on, looking at a point on the wall mid-way between Costello and Abbott.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

And He Spake, Saying ...

Be not in error.

Every Roman centurion in Jerusalem who has heard the preachings of Mark ben Latham hath no respect for this false prophet.

Yea verily, in the temples and the tribunals the Romans will say that they would as willingly have this Mark ben Latham rule Judea as Herod.

Yea verily, this is truth, but tke not comfort in it.

For I tell ye that if the Lord should turn his back on the children of Israel and allow Mark ben Latham to become king, no good shall come of it.

He shall go to Rome the least regarded of the Kings of Israel, since Gough.

Caesar would rather lose the use4 of his arm than look upon Mark ben Latham with favour.

From The Revelation of the Prophet Gregory the Gormless, reprinted in today's Oz

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

From The Potemkin Dictionary of Political English

howard (n.): (1) statement made for personal or political gain to which the facts are deemed irrelevant; (2) statement of questionable veracity whose veracity is not to be questioned.

A Big Hooray For The New Arthur Calwell!

Frank Devine shares his happiness at Mark Latham's victory in The Oz:

More important than winning next year's election is the restoration of the ALP as a leadership force in politics. It's not a matter of needing a strong Opposition, as more unctuous Coalition supporters proclaim (the Right can do that job just as well as the Left).

It's having Labor back on the rails, not some new conglomeration of progressives - probably tinged a hideous green. It's the ALP we want, our version of a Grand Old Party, nobly conceived as defender of workingmen's rights, daring and crackpot in turn, corrupt and shameless but good at renewal, suffering the indignities of factionalism to save itself from collectivism rampant. At the moment, though, it is a GOP distinctly tottery.

How did it get that way? Kim Beazley Sr, a more than plausible candidate for the leadership in his day, offered a well-considered diagnosis when he described Labor as being once composed of "the cream of the working class" but then in the hands of "the dregs of the middle class".

Every time I see that line from Kim Beazley Senior quoted, I start to wonder where the Coalition has been getting its dregs from.

Update: Over at The Melbourne Hun, colostomy lugs has come up with the best catalogue yet, of reasons why ALP supporters should get behind Latham. It surpasses his recent "Bob Brown is really a Brown Shirt" in green splutterings (not safe for those who drink coffee in front of their PCs).

Monday, December 01, 2003

PM Gets Tough on Trade (but not with the US) while Trade Minister Keeps On Going to Water (via Southerly Buster).

The Fine Art of Self-Indulgent Moralising

There's a well known ethical theory which holds that words like "right", "wrong", "good", "bad" and "evil" have no objective meaning; generally speaking, when people describe the behaviour of others as "good" or "bad", they're expressing no more than a personal opinion or attitude. Favourable moral judgements are merely elaborate compliments and adverse ones genteel forms of personal insult. It's going to be convenient later to have a name for this theory; subjectivism will do as well as any, If my copy of Morality, An Introduction to Ethics by Bernard Williams is any guide, it looks to be the standard one (When I say my copy, I mean the one which is currently in my possession, which has an old friend's name written on the fly leaf - I'd like to think it's a hand-me-down, but I'm not certain).

Subjectivism is at least as old as logical positivism. Hard-line logical positivism allegedly starts from the premise that there are two basic types of true statements: conclusions drawn deductively by applying the laws of mathematics and logic and empirical propositions derived from observation and experiment. Members of the logical positivist school put years of work into developing a philosophy on this foundation; anyone who has taken Philosophy 103 will be familiar with the standard 30-second refutation of the entire Logical Positivist enterprise.

There are a few commonplace empirical facts which can be advanced to support the subjectivist position: there are people who use the langauge of morality mostly as a surrogate for the language of insult; moral judgements are inherently statements of personal values; moral language is inevitably emotive; moral language is used by self-serving hypocrites with the same facility as the genuinely virtuous and so on. From examples such as these it is possible to arrive at the subjectivist position by two equally erroneous routes:

The Quick Way: the typical use of moral language is to express personal attitudes to the behaviour of others. This is all it is for.

The Pretty Way: people use moral language in ways which are typically self-serving, hypocritical and dishonest. We'd all be better off if we had the sense to recognise that and use more honest forms of language like simple compliments and direct insults.

I don't think I need to explain what's wrong with taking the pretty way in any great detail. So let's identify the error in taking the quick way. It's an error of omission.

What quick way arguments omit, or ignore, is the over-determination of most of our language use. Here's an example from real life. A few years ago, I was sitting in a cafe with interrupted a conversation with a friend whose knickers I had designs on. The conversation was fitful until, apropos nothing at all, I announced "I've got a killer toothache" or something like that. Not the world's greatest pick-up line, but I did have a killer toothache and it was pointless to continue pretending that I was having a normal day.

Philosophical analysis of this statement, in the analytical tradition, would probably focus on whether I had stated a fact (I had) and whether it would be objectively verifiable (the response "I thought you were looking a bit unwell" would tend to indicate that it was). Socially inept as it was, my remark had at least one other identifiable purpose: it explained to my companion why I wasn't exactly scintillating company that way. Cynics might suggest that it also served to evoke sympathy and gave me a pretext to demonstrate a manly stoicism (sooner or later I might get the hang of the idea that the things blokes do to impress themselves and other blokes don't impress women that much).

In the same way that telling someone you have toothache can serve personal and social purposes, as well as declaring a simple fact (similarly every blackmailer or windschuttler worth his salt knows that statements of objectively provable fact can serve other purposes), a moral judgement can serve the purpose of expressing a personal attitude and other social purposes as well. One of those purposes may well be to influence the opinions and attitudes of others - and usually is. That is, in the language of the cynic, moral language is used to express personal attitudes and manipulate others. However the pejorative use of the word "manipulate" takes us off the quick way onto the pretty way.

Subjectivism in its various forms seeks to discredit moral judgements; it's a convenient position to take if you can't be bothered with moral reasoning. It has obvious attractions as a debating tactic, if you can get away with it. But moral subjectivism involves the same fundamental contradiction as that involved in dashing off a paper denying the (provable) existence of an external world to make up the publications quota for your next tenure review. When push comes to shove, no-one consistently holds the subjectivist position.

What would be required of a consistent moral subjectivist? Obviously we can't impute any moral obligations to a subjectivist; subjectivists are Teflon coated when it comes to admonition and chastisement. Tell subjectivists what they ought to do, and their response will be obvious, particularly if they disagree with your admonition. Of course this may place them in an awkward position when they are moved to express moral disapproval of others; if we were all subjectivists, moral language would be useless.

At best, moral language would be a form of nonsense, useful for teaching children acceptable forms of behaviour and very little else. One purpose it wouldn't serve very well, for example, is adult discussion on the best way to educate children. It's not difficult to imagine how such discussions would go, in a community where everyone shares the belief that statements about how parents "should" raise their kids do no more than express the speaker's own preferences when it comes to child-rearing.

The various empirical facts which might be advanced to discredit the use of moral language actually identify difficulties that the moraliser has to deal with. They are obstacles to be overcome if we want to convince others that they should share our judgements on a matter of right and wrong. They are by no means insuperable. As for moral subjectivism, it is either folly or a blanket permission for hypocrisy. Both of these judgements may slide off the subjectivist's Teflon coating, but that's beside the point; that judgement isn't stated for the edification of the subjectivists, but for the amusement of those who believe that moral language is useful and that moral judgements can be made.

Update: via Virulent Memes again, this fine post from Orcinus to which this one is tangentially relevant.

Excuses, Excuses

A 17-year-old Melbourne schoolgirl claims her aspirations to study law at university have been jeopardised after the Australian Federal Police raided her family's home this year and confiscated her schoolwork.

Nosrat Hosseini finished year 12 this year but says her school performance was affected after the AFP took all of her Persian homework during a raid in May.

From ABC News Online.

Update: the ABC link doesn't work any more, so here's a report from The Oz.

Classic Smut

It's probably time for another cheap trick to restore the flagging traffic to this site. Apparently pictures of nekked and nearly nekked women are popular with a lot of punters, so here's Norman Lindsay's Spring's Innocence (1937) featuring a blonde wearing crotchless curtains.


Dan muses on border protection at Tubagooba. Wish I'd written that.

Via New Scientist, weltschmertz, 21st Century style.

Via Virulent Memes, nurture the health of your physical body (not safe for work).