Why Consequentialists See Only Shades of Grey

There’s an infuriating thing which consequentialists do where they say that life is never black and white, it’s all shades of grey. For a long time I thought that this was just because they wanted to be evil without being caught, and were trying to disguise it. This may still be the case, but I realized that this is actually inherent in their position.

Consequentialism means judging an action as good or evil not by principles—i.e. not by what the action is—but only by the consequences of the action. To a consequentialist it doesn’t mean anything to say “it is impermissible to do evil that good may result” since, according to their moral theory, if good results, it wasn’t evil that you did. So rape, treason, murder, etc. are all to be judged on the basis of whatever good or evil comes out of them, not on whether they are intrinsically evil.

There is a problem with consequentialism, which is that one cannot foresee all the consequences to an action. In fact, one cannot foresee most of the consequences to an action. In fact, people often have trouble foreseeing even the very immediate consequences to their actions. This makes consequentialism impossible for a human being to actually evaluate, rendering it completely useless as a moral theory.

(As a side-note, consequentialism and principalism are identical in God, since he both knows all of the effects of all actions and created the world such that the consequences of principled actions are good. Consequentialism is completely un-evaluatable for anyone who is not God, however.)

But, while this is completely useless as a moral theory for making decisions, it can be applied somewhat better historically. Not actually well, of course, but at least better. And this is where the consequentialist sees everything as shades of grey. Every action has both good and bad consequences. This is intrinsic, because every action opens up some possibilities and forecloses others. To marry one woman is to not marry all of the others. To save a man’s life in the hospital is to take money from the undertaker. To save the life of a worm who crawled onto the pavement is to deprive the ants of food who would have ate its corpse. Every action disappoints someone. And this much, the consequentialist can see in hindsight.

And since, to a consequentialist, (naturally) good consequences are identical to an action being (morally) good, and (naturally) evil consequences are identical to an action being (morally) evil, an action having both naturally good and naturally evil consequences makes the action both morally good and morally evil. Since all actions, intrinsically, have both naturally good and naturally evil consequences, all actions must, to the consequentialist, be a mixture of moral good and moral evil.

This disguising the consequentialist’s own evil is just a side-benefit.

Star Wars IX Doesn’t Matter

I wrote a rather lengthy blog post about Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, and how astonishingly badly written it is. And with regard to the title of Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker, I’ve reminded people that the force didn’t awaken in Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I’ll make fun of the Star Wars sequels, but I think it’s worth remembering that they don’t matter.

It’s tempting to worry about the Star Wars sequels, since the original Star Wars movies form, for many of us, anyway, a cultural reference point. All cultures have these; they allow people to concisely describe complex ideas to each other by referencing where these complex ideas appeared in stories that both the speaker and the listener know. And it’s tempting to worry that the sequels will somehow replace the originals, shattering the continuity that permits of this shared cultural reference across generations. But they won’t.

You can see this in the prequel movies. I saw all three, and actually have a video in which I defend the way Lucas wrote the fall of Anakin Skywalker. But, in my experience, no one actively remembers these movies. There are a few references made to them, but not as references to ideas in real life but to bad decisions in movies—Jar Jar Binks and the pod races. Occasionally to Anakin blowing up the trade federation’s main ship by accident. The hero should never win by sheer accident. But apart from those, the movies are mostly forgotten. Here’s me trying to list the titles:

  • The Phantom Menace
  • The Second One
  • The Third One. Something about the Sith, I think. Return of the Sith or Revenge of the Sith. Something like that.

The new movies are going to be like that. The only way I can foresee my children (ages 3, 6, and 9, at the time of writing) ever seeing any of the Star Wars sequels is if Mike Nelson’s children get shot into space by Mary Jo Pehl’s children and are forced to watch bad movies as part of an evil plan to rule the world.

It’s a pity, because the new Star Wars movies didn’t have to suck. But that’s life. Most things with promise don’t deliver on it. It’s a fallen world. You just have to move on and be grateful for the things which did turn out well.

Real Lawyer Reacts to My Cousin Vinny—And Likes It!

I ran across a really curious video on YouTube where a (putatively real) lawyer examined the movie My Cousin Vinny and talked about how accurate it was. To my great surprise he said that—allowing for parts that were obviously just comedic—it was actually very well done and parts of it could be used for teaching lawyers!

If you’ve never seen it, by the way, I highly recommend the movie My Cousin Vinny. It’s a ton of fun and has a lot of quotable lines.

Some Questions About Meaning

A friend, acting out of morbid curiosity, watched a video by Bionic Dance that responded to my video, Life Doesn’t Have the Meaning You Give it, and alerted to me to it having some questions in it which might be interesting to answer. So I watched the video myself, wrote down the interesting questions, and answered them in this video.

I didn’t make a response video to her because—as I said in my video on why I’m not going to respond to her again—she contradicts herself so often that no response is needed; one only needs watch the entirety of her video (and remember what she said in the earlier parts) to see her refute herself. However, I will answer questions which I think can be generally useful regardless of where they came from, and these happened to be fairly well phrased for general use.

You can also watch it on YouTube:

Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic

The common phrase, that something is like “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” is often taken to mean “putting one’s effort where it won’t do good”, but it has another, slightly more subtle meaning: futility. (I’m writing this post because a friend was so used to the first meaning he hadn’t thought about the second, and what one man has done, another might do.)

Once the Titanic has been hit by the iceberg, there are two reasons why it doesn’t matter how the deck chairs are arranged:

  1. No one is going to sit on them while the boat is sinking.
  2. Once the boat sicks, their arrangement will be destroyed by the water washing the deck chairs away from the deck.

Rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic, therefore, suggests an activity is not only secondary to one’s primary concern but moreover one doomed to have no effect whatever.

You can see this by contrasting the Titanic, which sank, to a ship lost at sea where the rations have run out and the crew is starving. Rearranging the deck chairs will not give them food, but they might still take comfort sitting on them in a better arrangement, and whoever eventually finds the empty ship could take advantage of a particularly well thought out arrangement of the deck chairs which has remained after its first crew can no longer use them. (In theory, though admittedly not likely in practice.)

Christ Figures in Fiction

Relating to my recent post about Christ Figures & Heresies, I thought it worth pointing out what I meant by a Christ Figure, since the term is often used narrowly and in suspicious circumstances (English classes where people are trying to seem clever).

Christ figures in literature are—when done well—about characters who relate to the rest of the story as Christ related to the world. At the extremes they are basically a re-presentation of Christ with some of the details changed. Probably the best example of this is Aslan in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Far more common, though, is a limited Christ figure.

The salient features of Christ that a limited Christ figure can partake in are:

  1. Saves the world from the effects of the mis-use of free will.
  2. Has a dual-nature where one of these natures is what allows #1.
  3. Bridges the gap, in his person, between the two natures.
  4. Sacrifices himself willingly for the sake of the world
  5. In sacrificing himself, takes the problems of the world into him and conquers them, thus saving the world from them.
  6. Comes back from the sacrifice because of his other nature.

A favorite example of a limited Christ figure is a detective in a mystery story. In a mystery story, the right-ordering of the world is destroyed through the misuse of reason (the crime) and the detective, who is an outsider, comes into the damaged nature in order to, through the right use of reason, restore the right ordering of the world. The detective does not die and come back, but he does take the confusing of the world into himself and then, through his superior reasoning and impartiality from not being immediately impacted, restores it first in himself, and then from him the restored order flows out to others.

As you can see, this isn’t about being a clever ass to notices a few external similarities, in the manner of a desperate English teacher saying, “He offered someone wine then later went on a three day vacation and came back! He’s a Christ figure!”

Good Christ figures are about the nature of the character, the nature of the world, and their relationship to each other.

Another feature of good Christ figures is that you don’t need to identify them as Christ figures in order for the stories they’re in to be good stories. Identifying a character as a Christ figure should deepen one’s understanding of the story and of the real world. If the story is garbage without your secret decoder ring, it’s garbage with it, too.

Nerf Gun as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Here’s an interesting post about some creative cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s not that long but out of courtesy I don’t want to quote the whole thing. Here’s the key setup:

i say, are you gonna shoot me with a nerf gun in this professional setting.
he happily informs me that that’s really up to me, isn’t it. and sits back down. and gestures, like, go ahead, what were you saying?
and i squint suspiciously and start back up about how i’m having too much anxiety to leave the house to run errands, like it was a miracle to even get here, like i’ve forgone getting groceries for the past week and that’s so stupid, what a stupid issue, i’m an idiot, how could i–
a foam dart hits me in the leg.


There’s a curious issue brought up in the specifics of the example linked. Self-criticism is a very important ability. People who can’t diagnose their own faults can’t improve, and worse tend to blame everyone but themselves which as a strong alienating effect. Yet, in the example in the link (and partially quoted above), what’s being done is not really self-criticism. It looks like it because the language is negative, but it’s, to use modern cant, disempowering. That is, it makes the one being criticized helpless.

It does this by attributing the failing, not to the will, but to the intellect. That is, it places the defect in the origin, not in the execution. By placing the defect in the origin, nothing can be done about it. A bad tree can’t produce good fruit, or perhaps more aptly, you can’t get blood from a stone.

The problem, in short, is that every time the person complains about himself, he’s giving up. He’s saying, not how he can do better, but that he can’t do better. And this is, indeed, the exact opposite of doing better. What he rephrases his complaints to illustrates the point nicely:

i say, slowly, it’s– not a stupid issue, i’m not stupid, but it’s frustrating me and i don’t want it to be a problem i’m having.

This has reframed it from despair to frustrating, i.e. from having given up to facing one’s problems. Giving up may look like facing problems, but in reality it’s the exact opposite. It’s burying one’s head in the ground so that one doesn’t have to face one’s problems. It is the false hope that one can fix problems without facing them, pretending to be facing them.

You see this a lot with problems; non-solutions love to pretend that they’re actually solutions.

This is related to why my favorite of the baptismal vows is, “Do you reject Satan? And all his empty promises?”

Honest Detectives

One of the curious subjects that comes up in detective stories is the honesty of the detective. Specifically, that they’re often not honest. Their dishonesty is typically curtailed to what is in service of the investigation, of course, but this forms a very curious problem with the theory that the detective is a Christ figure who uses reason to undo the evil caused through the misuse of reason. Christ did not sin.

It should be noted that I’m taking the requirement for honesty for granted, and it is generally accepted that there are exceptions to the general rule of “let your yes mean yes, your no mean no, any more than this comes from the evil one”. The overview of the exceptions is that there are times and places where a man will misunderstand the truth but understand a lie such that he will end up being more correct about the world if he’s lied to than if he’s told the truth. In such a case the lie is to the benefit of the one being lied to, and acts somewhat like the lenses in a pair of corrective glasses—by falsifying the image to the eye in an exactly counter way to how the eye itself falsifies the image to the brain, the image presented to the brain is accurate to the real world. In like way, telling the gestapo agent that the Jew he is seeking is far away when he’s actually hiding in the cupboard is communicating to him the truth that there is no one he should kill nearby. And one can draw analogies here to detectives, but such a thing is a very slippery slope. It’s extraordinarily easy to convince oneself that helping one is in the other person’s best interests and thus mis-informing them to that end is justified. The ease of mis-using this principle should caution against its frequent use.

Probably the most extreme example I can think of is Poirot, who in the book Five Little Pigs was described as preferring to get the truth by a lie even if he could get it honestly. But even when not that extreme, it’s quite common for detectives to lie about why they’re present, why they’re asking their questions, what use the information they’re given will be put to, and so on. (The only two exceptions which come to mind are Cadfael and Scooby Doo.)

I’m not sure what to make of this trend. Some possible explanations are:

  1. An attempt at realism—people don’t give out information to just anyone who asks
  2. Making the detective’s life harder—as the protagonist, the detective must face obstacles
  3. Showing the detective off as clever—it takes greater art to lie convincingly than it does to tell simple truth
  4. Making the detective more special—the detective must be someone special and not merely an everyman; being a good actor is more special
  5. To create excitement—the detective might get caught!

I think that all of these can be described as taking the easy way out. They’re analogous—though not as bad—as making the story mysterious by having the detective not share clues with the reader (see commandment #8).

That said, I think that some detectives do this merely out of tradition—it has been done so often that some people take deception to be one of the integral skills of the detective, like how getting beaten up and not needing to go to the hospital is one of the skills of the hard boiled detective. (I didn’t put this on the list above because the in-story reason is one of the above; this is a meta-reason.)

I think that this is a very unfortunate tradition. I prefer detectives who are also heroes. They will have their faults, but I prefer when they don’t simply approve of doing what they know that they shouldn’t.

Christ Figures & Heresies

An interesting thought occurred to me after talking about how a particular sort of bad writing in a detective story is analogous to the Gnostic and Aryan heresies: in any fiction in which there is a Christ figure, all of the historical Christian heresies will be available as bad ways to write the story.

Or, to put it another way, in fiction which has a Christ figure, the things you shouldn’t do in that story will be analogous to one or more of the historical Christian heresies.

Birds Go Bedward and Children Don’t

As I go off to try to put my children to sleep, this Chesterton quote (from The Apostle and the Wild Ducks) comes to mind:

For at present we all tend to one mistake; we tend to make politics too important. We tend to forget how huge a part of a man’s life is the same under a Sultan and a Senate, under Nero or St Louis. Daybreak is a never-ending glory, getting out of bed is a never-ending nuisance; food and friends will be welcomed; work and strangers must be accepted and endured; birds will go bedwards and children won’t, to the end of the last evening.

Supporting Indie Writers

Over at Amatopia, Alex writes about an interesting problem: supporting indie writers. Specifically, from the perspective of supporting indie writers who are on the conservative side of the culture war, relating to the goal of trying to rehabilitate our culture into a healthy one.

It starts with a comment which Alex found on another blog, which I think encapsulates some of the problems inherent in the issue:

Given that I have limited means, and thus cannot simply give donations but can buy only for my personal consumption, what exactly is my OBLIGATION here? The simple fact is that I have never liked the culture I live in, and the older I get the stronger that is. I know it speaks ill of my character, but I find myself ever more drawn to Evelyn Waugh as a kindred spirit. I started rejecting Boomer culture in the 60s, and I’ve seen nothing to tempt me to change. So, why should I, when I’d rather read older books, have to read the stuff they come out with now? This is especially so given that a lot of the energy seems to be in sci-fi, which is not my thing, and from what I have tried, I find mysteries are just worse.

Alex essentially proposes two solutions, though I’m paraphrasing heavily:

  1. Doing something is better than nothing, and it may be worth occasionally making the sacrifice of reading something which is not really to your taste in order to help fight the good fight.
  2. If the books aren’t really your cup of tea, they might be the cup of tea of someone you know, and social media makes it really easy to tell them about it these days.

I agree wholeheartedly with Alex on the second point, and do my best to let people know about the works of other authors who think that good is better than evil. There is a proviso here, though, in that a person’s ability to do this is limited before his passing on of the word about books becomes like the advertisements in a magazine—annoying and ignored—but all things done by men have their limitations. What each of us is given to do is finite and often less than we might like. To quote the Venerable Pierre Toussaint, we must take it as God sends it.

On the former point, I must, however, give a qualified disagreement. For two reasons: one particular to the man and one more general.

The particular reason is that the man who left the comment is almost certainly in his sixties and quite possibly in his seventies. It’s easy to forget, but as I write this in 2019, 1960 was 59 years ago—and presumably he didn’t start disagreeing with boomer culture while still in diapers. Fighting the culture war, like fighting all wars, is really the province of younger men like, for the time being, Alex and me. The commenter has, presumably, put in many decades fighting the culture war when he was a younger man, and I think is entitled, at long last, to some rest. Fighting for too long is bad for a man’s soul. It may well be time for him to devote most of his attention to those immediately around him, and save his strength for them.

The more general objection is a highly practical one. In my experience as an indie author, people who don’t normally read the sort of book you wrote don’t really do you any good by buying it. (This will, of course, not be true of famous people with large audiences; Oprah finding your book boring and not worth reading would probably still be good for selling 1,000 copies.)

The problem is two-fold. First, they have all the wrong graphs in big-data sites like Amazon; either because they’re not normally a reader or because they are but not of the books that you buy. In the first case, their lack of reading means that the Amazon algorithms have no one to recommend your book to. In the second case, your book just looks like noise to the algorithm.

And it doesn’t work to say “but if lots of people did this” because they won’t have the same reading graphs and so you’ll just get lots of noise. If you don’t believe me, take a look at “the Castalia ghetto”. That is, go to one of the Castalia House books on amazon and start looking at the recommended books. They’re all Castalia house books. But good luck finding links to Castalia books from other, non-Castalia books (books with sales ranks in the hundreds of thousands or worse don’t count, since basically that means that they don’t sell). You basically won’t find them, and the reason is that outside of books published by Castalia House, the readers of Castalia House books don’t really have tastes in common. So their dedication to Castalia House is good for Castalia house, because there are clearly a lot of these people (relative to the number of people who bought my self-published books, say), but it doesn’t attract attention past the money that they give.

Amazon is the clearest case of this, but you get similar things on less important social platforms, too. People acting atypically simple don’t produce results with algorithms that work off of statistical trends.

And this is a reflection of how human social interaction works. A few oddballs simply don’t have enough influence to move anything.

Unless they’re rich.

This is where things are highly asymmetric between conservative and liberal. Rich degenerates have an enormous motivation to spend their money trying to wreck the culture, but rich decent people have a thousand worthy causes to spend their money on. Culture is important, but so is supporting the Church, so is supporting orphans, so is feeding the hungry, and on and on.

And, come to think of it, there is another problem with the scheme of supporting “conservatives”. There are a lot of different things that people want to conserve, and many of them aren’t worth conserving. As is sometimes noted, a great many conservatives are just liberals from 30 years ago. But it’s not really that much better when they’re liberals from 300 years ago.

The destruction of American culture, so widely noted, is not a recent thing. In truth, it’s the necessary outcome of the protestant reformation.

There is an asterisk I should put here, which is that there are really two types of protestants. One, which makes up probably the majority of individuals, is protestant because of historical reasons. Historically, most protestants were made not by protesting anything but by their prince seizing on a great excuse for stealing Church lands. (One of the great problems of the middle ages was that the Church owned about a third of Europe and could prevent princes from going to war whenever they wanted by permitting serfs to live on Church lands. This check on their rapacity and eagerness for war was not tolerable to a great many European princes, especially German ones. And then there were the princes who couldn’t abide restrictions on divorce…) These are people doing their best to follow the teachings of Christ, bereft of sacred tradition. My heart goes out to these people for the predicament that they’re in, and many of them are quite admirable.

The other kind of protestant wants to admire his own reflection on the glossy cover of his bible. This was the sort of protestant Martin Luther was; the origin of the protestant reformation was, basically, the cry ,”nolo servire!”

“I will not serve!”

You might have heard that before in one of the characters in a play by Dante.

This attempt to turn Christianity from a religion in which reason plays a key role—Christ is the word, that is, the logos, of God, not the feelings of God—into a religion of emotion is doomed to end in the Modern world. Or more properly in the Post-Modern world; Nietzsche is the inevitable outcome of Kant. It’s really not a coincidence that neither of the great fathers of the protestant reformation—Martin Luther and John Calvin—believed in free will. They disbelieved in it for different reasons, but both for bad reasons, and the results are equally bad. Lady Gaga’s song Born This Way is, fundamentally, a protestant song.

So it doesn’t really do any good to talk about supporting conservatives without talking about what they want to conserve. To they want to return to the living vine, or do they want to go back to the moment after the branch was severed from the vine but before the sap still in it gave out and it began to whither? It makes quite a difference.

And when you get specific enough about this, I think what you will find is that (fundamentally) protestant authors will find support among (fundamentally) protestant readers, Catholic and Orthodox authors among Catholic and Orthodox readers (Catholics and Orthodox are both orthodox, just not in communion), and so on. Not because we’re bigots, but because these identities describe our fundamental goals and beliefs about the world.

And I think that what Alex will find is that if you confine the idea of helping authors because they’re on the right side of the culture war to these groups who actually have consonant goals, people will be far more willing to support authors because of that. Or in other words, posting on a Greek Orthodox forum about supporting Greek Orthodox authors isn’t going to be met with the same sort of reticence. I know from experience that it’s not in Catholic fora.

This is a disappointing conclusion because it necessarily means shrinking one’s support base. The problem is that a “big tent” only works in politics where all of the goals are short-term, imprecise, and desirable for many different reasons. One can be in favor of free speech because one is a libertine, or because one does not trust men with power, or because one simply doesn’t have the power to be the censor. When it comes to votes for particular laws, the motivation doesn’t matter.

You can’t really build a big tent in the culture war because the culture war is long term, precise, and about principles rather than specific actions. There’s only one reason to consider divorce a sin—because one holds it to be sinful. There’s only one reason to consider charity a virtue—because one holds it to be virtuous. When it comes to ideals, it’s not enough to do the right thing—one must also do it for the right reason. A book which celebrates a man who, in the ancient tradition, is a hero only because he wants glory, is not a book I want my children to read. At the end of the day, it’s not really better than a book about a man who isn’t a hero because he prefers heroin.

They’re just two different ways to go to hell.

William Gillette: The First To Play Sherlock Holmes

Thanks to frequent commenter Mary, I recently learned about the existence of William Gillette, the first man to play Sherlock Holmes, mostly on the stage but also in a silent film.

Born in 1853, in Connecticut, William Gillette was a stage director, writer, and actor in America. In 1897, his play, Secret Service, was sufficiently successful in America that his producer took it to England. There, a Sherlock Holmes play written by Conan Doyle—who wrote it because he needed money after killing Holmes off but before he brought him back—was not having success at getting produced. It happened to come to Gillette’s producer, who recommended Gillette for extensive re-writes. The deal was made and Gillette began the rewrites.

The story of when Gillette and Conan Doyle met for the first time is quite interesting:

Conan Doyle’s shock was understandable… when the train carrying Gillette came to a halt and Sherlock Holmes himself stepped onto the platform instead of the actor, complete with deerstalker cap and gray ulster. Sitting in his landau, Conan Doyle contemplated the apparition with open-mouthed awe until the actor whipped out a magnifying lens, examined Doyle’s face closely, and declared (precisely as Holmes himself might have done), “Unquestionably an author!” Conan Doyle broke into a hearty laugh and the partnership was sealed with the mirth and hospitality of a weekend at Undershaw. The two men became lifelong friends.

(Undershaw was the name of Conan Doyle’s home.)

The play which Gillette wrote, or rather, rewrote, was enormously successful, both in America and in England. In total, Gillette performed it approximately 1,300 times, while it was put on under license—and not infrequently, without license—by actors in other countries.

Perhaps most interesting is the effect which Gillette had on the image of Sherlock Holmes. It was Gillette who introduced the curved briar pipe—prior to Gillette, the famous illustration in Strand magazine had depicted Holmes with a straight pipe. He also performed in the deerstalker hat and ulster coat, which seem likely to have had a strong impact on depictions of Holmes in those particular clothes. His use of a magnifying glass as a stage prop also likely helped to cement the iconography of the magnifying glass with the detective.

Also curious is that Gillette, as a writer, may have had an influence on the classic phrase, never to be found in the actual Holmes stories, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Gillette’s Holmes never said the exact phrase, but he did say, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow.” This line, which would have been well known in the late 1920s and early 1930s when the first Sherlock Holmes talkies were made (starring Clive Brook), may well have led to the final version, which appeared in a Sherlock Holmes talkie starring Clive Brook. (At least according to Wikipedia; I haven’t watched any of the Clive Brook Holmes movies, though apparently at least parts of them are available on YouTube. A task for another time, perhaps. The first few minutes of part 1 of 6 weren’t encouraging.)