Friday, November 27, 2009

More fun with logic

Here's another little bit of fun with logic for my students.  What, if anything, is wrong with this argument?

1) Nothing is better than good coffee.
2) A crust of bread is better than nothing.
3) A crust of bread is better than good coffee.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

How can you know that someone is contrite?

For the last few weeks my ethics students have been studying forgiveness.  One of the persistent questions about forgiveness is whether, in order to be forgiven, one must first be contrite or repentant.  (We have not been speaking of the idea of God forgiving people; we've limited our discussion to the possibility of people forgiving other people.)

I have to confess that this posting was prompted as much by my viewing, last night, of Battlestar Galactica as by our readings.  In season 3, Laura Roslin calls for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (like South Africa's after Apartheid) after some human-on-human atrocities.  That got me thinking once again about Desmond Tutu and Simon Wiesenthal, and their respective books on forgiveness.

The easy answer to my question is to say that one does not need to be contrite to be forgiven.  This is easy, but not simple, because it raises other questions about the nature of forgiveness.  And it brings along with it the possibility of depriving someone of their moral agency by denying the reality of their choices.

Most of us are inclined to give the opposite answer, namely that it does not make sense to forgive those who are not sorry for their offenses.

But this raises another difficulty: how do we know when people are adequately sorry?  Additionally, does this position make it more likely that we will forgive those people who only seem sorry?  What if someone has expressed their contrition to the best of their ability but we have not been able to perceive it, for cultural or other reasons?  What if someone is not at all sorry, but has made a convincing public show of contrition?

What do you think?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


It being Thanksgiving, I'm doing some reading about gratitude.  Just read through part of Norman Wirzba's Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight.  Chapter 1 has a section on food - very apropos for Americans this week - and in particular on the production of food.

Wirzba's contention, one that strikes me as probably right, is that the way we produce meat is violent and alienating, and that our willingness to accept food that comes to us this way is symptomatic of a culture that is more motivated by fear than by gratitude.

This could turn into a rant about locavorism, but I don't want to go there right now.  My point - and Wirzba's, I think - is not that we need to change our food production, but that we need to ask ourselves why we produce food as we do.  And that we ought to ask ourselves if we - and our world - wouldn't be better off if we received what we have with gratitude.  I find this very difficult, but I'm going to give it a try.

Reading the Holidays

This Thanksgiving holiday I've just re-read Abraham Lincoln's Proclamation of Thanksgiving and I might read some of the Puritans this weekend as well*, or perhaps Washington.

This practice of reading the holidays began for me about ten years ago on July 4th.   I decided then that I'd re-read the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.  I was guessing that it had been so long since I'd read them, I'd probably forgotten much of what they say.  My experiment proved my guess to be right.

I was struck, as I read them, just how remarkable these documents are.  Since then, I've repeated this almost every year.  Each time I re-read these documents, I find them moving.  They're beautifully written, and they strive for things that are, in my estimation, praiseworthy.

I've begun to add other readings for other holidays as well.  On MLK, Jr. Day, (and sometimes on April 4, the anniversary of his death) I listen to his "I Have A Dream" speech or read his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."  I admit it: both of these regularly make me cry.

Of course, I also read the appointed Scriptures for Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, and for some other feast days as well.  But here I'm interested in those holidays that are not holy-days but secular feasts.  How about you?  Do you have readings you associate with such holidays?  What do you recommend?


* (If you're interested, you can see my article on Puritanism by clicking here and searching for pp 631-632)