Thursday, June 28, 2012

Atheism And Teleology

Daniel Fincke has just posted an interesting response to some of Leah Libresco's statements regarding her conversion to Catholicism. He starts out by discussing whether atheism precludes teleological ethics, which is of particular interest to me because he says "no" and and I say "yes". Daniel has a lot to say in response; read the entire thing. I won't try to summarize all of his argument, but the heart of it seems to be

So, in this context, I am an atheistic virtue ethicist requiring no divine agency for the teleological dimensions of my ethics to make minimal sense and have minimal coherence. I am just describing purely naturalistically occurring patterns as universals or forms. I am saying that since humans’ very natures are constituted by a specific set of powers, fulfilling them is incumbent on humans as the beings that we are. It is irrational and a practical contradiction to destroy the very precondition of our own being (all things being equal). We have a rational imperative instead to flourish maximally powerfully according to the powers which constitute us ourselves.

I concur with Daniel's assessment that there are naturally recurring patterns of human development and that we have a rational motivation to try to make the best of the hand we're dealt ("flourish maximally"). In that sense it is minimally coherent to say that an atheist who is striving to flourish maximally is teleologically-oriented i.e. is ends-driven rather than rule driven. However, I don't think it necessarily follows that maximal flourishing is a sufficient basis for a teleological system of ethics.

One problem that I see is that "maximal flourishing" is exceedingly vague. It is self-evident to me that a system of ethics should provide a guide to right action; I should be able to assess how my behavior conforms to the system, presumably with the overall goal of changing my behavior if necessary (i.e. trying to become a better person). However, it is by no means clear that I, through a process of introspection, can determine what behavioral changes are required in order to enhance my flourishing. It would seem to be at least as difficult, if not more so, for us to make that assessment with respect to others, in which case I see no way to construct a mutually-acceptable ethical framework for social interaction.

Moreover, the idea of maximal flourishing leads to results which are counter-intuitive. Taken in conjunction with Fincke's concept of "goodness as effectiveness" it would seem to imply that it's OK to be a rapist as long you're good at it. Presumably he has a good answer to this, but that would imply that there's more to his system of teleological ethics than a simple calculation of flourishing.

Daniel's system, to the extent which he's defined it, provides accommodation for a vast swath of human behavior. Leah, on the other hand, seems to having something slightly more constrained in mind:

But more and more, my atheist friends and sparring partners thought I’d gone wrong one step back, and objected to my holding to the idea of morality as human-independent and objective (i.e. we uncover it like archeologists, we don’t build or design it like architects). To top it off, I’d switched to thinking of morality in a virtue ethics framework (your moral imperative is to reform your character and try build up a habitual attraction to right action). The trouble is, virtue eithics [sic] kind of presupposes teleology (these is some particular form you are called to embody) and my atheist friends thought that was pretty far out of bounds.

She seems to be calling for something approaching a Platonic ideal of personal behavior. It looks to me like Leah and Daniel are both saying "virtue ethics", but the ethical systems which they have in mind are so vastly different as to be mutually unintelligible. Ultimately I still think that Leah has the best of it; Daniel's proposed metrics for goodness don't seem strong enough to for the basis of a workable ethical system.

This Just In

Rand Paul is an idiot.

An Experiment in HTML Typesetting, Part III

The last time I wrote about this I'd completed a parser that could take a (mostly) XML document containing martial arts notation and turn it into an abstract syntax tree (AST). I've now completed the second half of the process, turning the AST into HTML markup, and am generally happy with the result. There's lots of room for improvement, but rather than let the perfect be the enemy of the good I figure it's time to release the code to the wild.

The Interesting Bits

The single biggest challenge was figuring out how to actually typeset the notation using generic HTML. Initial experiments with CSS/Javascript were totally unsatisfactory; if I'd continued down that route I would have ended up re-implementing TeX. So I did it the old-fashioned way, using tables, the result of which actually looks pretty good IMHO.

An atom of Analytic Martial Arts Notation (AMAN) can consist of as many as 3 symbols, which may need to be written horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. So I chose to use 3x3 tables as the basis for laying out everything. A basic 3x3 grid


can be filled with 1, 2, or 3 symbols:


The use of tables in combination with text-centering ensured that all symbols are aligned vertically, horizontally, or at 45° from each other regardless of font size. I couldn't figure out any way to do that using pure CSS; if anyone has any insight into how that might be done in a reasonably straightforward manner I'd love to hear it.

After that it's just a matter of tightening up the line height and margins so that the individual symbols visually parse as a cluster:


Yielding the following once you take away the borders:


I think that looks pretty good considering the medium. These individual blocks are then joined side-by-side into 3xN tables, after which they are nested in a single (or sometimes two) larger table which establishes the gross left/center/right structure. The rest is just standard HTML/CSS.

Room For Improvement

Things which I know need work, in case anyone gets inspired:

  • Subclass HTML::Table: Joining two tables together (current performed by TableFormatter::anneal_tables) should be implemented as a public method of a subclass of HTML::Table.
  • Get rid of empty cells where possible: The typesetting process as currently implemented often results in table rows/columns which are completely empty. These, in turn, result in slightly irregular spacing when the document is rendered. Things would look a lot nicer if these rows were eliminated. Removing empty rows/columns should be implemented in the same place the table-joining subroutine.
  • General CSS tinkering: Padding, margins, and line height need some fine-tuning in various places. The general used of CSS classes could probably be made more systematic and/or brought into line with best practices.
  • Smarter two-column layout: Two-column layout works great for individual, long techniques. What I'd really like to see is some sort of automatic, two-column layout for short techniques where, rather than breaking up the notation block, the techniques themselves are laid out side-by-side. Right now I do that by hand by adding a few DIV elements in the appropriate places.


Here's the code:

One Small Post on the ACA Decision

For everyone who says that the court has become irredeemably politicized: Roberts voted to uphold the law and Kennedy didn't. How many of y'all saw that coming?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Libertarian Kitsch?

Not sure why Digby is calling this crap "libertarian kitsch". I really prefer McNaughton's work after it's been fixed:

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