Thursday, June 30, 2011

Once More, With Logistics

Since I am too busy right now with proof-reading and indexing work on the forthcoming book to produce another substantive post in my Kantian ethics series, I post here a follow up to my previous, more light-hearted post. This is something I wrote a few months after my second child was born. Enjoy!

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner claims that an ideal story will have three central characters. Two is too few, because then there will be only one relationship to explore. But add a third character, and one has six relationships: the relationships of A to B, B to C, and A to C, of course; but also A’s relationship to the BC pair, B’s to the AC pair, and C’s to the AB pair. The relational dynamics made possible by a third character creates just the level of complexity needed for a good story. Add a fourth character, however, and things get TOO complex. You can do the math yourself, but in that case what you have are twenty-five relationships. Too much for any normal human being, lacking in divine powers, to handle.

This year our family welcomed its fourth character. Evan’s identical twin, Isabella, was born shortly after 6 PM on a pleasant Oklahoma spring day with nary a tornado in sight. There was, of course, the usual business of my wife enduring labor and delivery (only 22 hours of labor this time), me cutting the cord, Isabella exercising her lungs for the first time, both parents getting the chance to hold the new arrival, etc. But these events and activities, which seemed so significant when Evan was born, were put in their proper perspective this time around by the inescapable reality faced by every second-time parent: logistics.

While I did, of course, spend a certain amount of time actually in the hospital room with my wife, I have little or no memory of this special time of spousal bonding. What I remember, with great vividness, is executing the tenuously orchestrated Child Care Plan—a hastily assembled patchwork quilt of caretakers, each of whom could only watch Evan for a few hours, with each childcare transition being achieved by me dashing out of the hospital to ferry my son from one caretaker to another. This process continued until the arrival of Evan’s grandmother who had to drive in from out of town.

I must say, at this point, that I have a bit of resentment about all of this. I mean, why wasn’t my wife doing her share of ferrying? Here I am, driving all over the city like a madman, while she kicks back in bed with a bevy of nurses waiting on her hand and foot.

I know, I know…she’s supposedly the one who is enduring all these labor pangs and all of that. And that argument clearly had some heft during her last pregnancy, when she put off getting the epidural until she was wracked with Pitocin-induced unquenchable agony of the sort that conservative Christians claim will be endured for all eternity by gays, atheists, and philosophy professors. But this time she had the epidural safely embedded in her spine long before I could detect any traces of suffering.

Okay…admittedly, it would be difficult to drive a car with an epidural embedded in your spine. But at least she could have offered.

It was in the midst of my final harried sojourn to bring Evan to his waiting grandmother that I received The Phone Call on my cell:

“Hi.” Pause. “Eric?”


“Where are you?”

“In our driveway.”

“Umm. Don’t get into an accident or anything getting here but, well, I need you.”

“Need me?”

“It’s time.”


I should point out that, depending on the route one takes, there are between seven and twelve traffic lights separating our driveway from the Stillwater Medical Center. I am convinced that each of these traffic lights has attached to it a device that I will call, for convenience, a Frenzy Detector.

The Frenzy Detector operates in the following way. Much as a lie detector recognizes the physiological cues that accompany dishonesty, the Frenzy Detector identifies the telltale signs of desperate-urgency-to-get-from-point-A-to-point-B-as-quickly-as-humanly-possible. Of course, whereas the lie detector is actually physically wired to the subject, and is thus able to respond to even the most subtle cues, the Frenzy Detector must read its subjects from a distance. Thus, it is triggered only by the most extreme heights of frenzy.

And when it is triggered, it responds by immediately turning the traffic light red.

As this continues to happen to the Frenzied Subject, the degree of frenzy increases exponentially, expressing itself in colorful language that (censored for the younger reader) amounts to something like the following: “Turn green! Darn you to tarnation! Green!! GREEN!!!! *@#!&^%!!!!!!” This is accompanied by the Frenzied Subject’s face turning a deep shade of purple.

And, of course, as soon as the Frenzy Detector senses the appropriate shade of purple, it responds by communicating to the traffic light the instruction to remain red for seven to twelve times the ordinary duration. Finally, the Frenzy Detector communicates to all the other traffic signals in the town, triggering a pattern of light changes designed to maximize traffic congestion along the route chosen by the Frenzied Subject.

Fortunately, epidurals make it possible for pregnant women to resist the urge to push until such a time as wayward husbands and otherwise preoccupied obstetricians can make it to the hospital room. Thus, I was present for the joyous moment when, with an ease reminiscent of one of the opening sketches of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Isabella slipped into the world.

Since that time, I have learned several new things about parenthood, including the following:

1) The strategy of parents staggering their sleep schedules in order to accommodate a new baby’s erratic sleep habits doesn’t work when there’s a three-year-old in the mix. Especially when that three-year-old wakes up every morning at 6 AM like clockwork, dances into his parent’s bedroom, pulls himself up onto the bed using fistfuls of comforter (landing in a sprawl atop Daddy), and then announces that he is hungry. The child, of course, is wonderfully well-rested and eager to start his day, having blissfully slept through the infant’s relentless screaming, which persisted through most of the night until the aforementioned infant finally fell into exhausted sleep at 5:49.

In fact, if there is anything I feel the need to express to other parents who are expecting a second child, it is this: Remember that delicious respite in the middle of the day, when the child would nap and you could finally sit down in the sofa with a cup of tea or a fifith of gin? This will become the time period during which you will be cleaning the baby’s explosive diarrhea off the changing table and nearby walls.

2) My wife put the second lesson succinctly, as follows: “I’ve spent three years diligently struggling to keep my son from killing himself. Now I have to keep him from killing himself and from killing Isabella.”

Let me be clear. Evan adores his little sister. In fact, Isabella is his very favorite toy. There is very little evidence of jealousy or sibling rivalry (although Evan has taken to walking around the house saying, “I’m a baby! I can’t walk! I’m a baby!”). Just the other day, while I was trying to put on Evan’s clothes, Evan was hanging on the edge of Isabella’s Exersaucer mashing his face up against hers (smearing her cheek with liberal amounts of snot, since he had a cold) while singing “I love you soooo much” to the tune of Für Elise. Clearly, this is love.

Unfortunately, he’s a three-year-old boy, and one of his favorite ways to show his enthusiastic affection for his stuffed animals is to pound them repeatedly on the top of the head with his fist. And then there’s the simple matter of three-year-old curiosity, which expresses itself in two ways: remorselessly asking “Why?”, and conducting scientifically imprecise experiments.

His favorite experimental subject is Isabella. You can almost see his intellectual wheels turning as he squats next to Isabella’s bouncer, studying her face while clenching and unclenching his little fists: I wonder what will happen if I put both fingers up her nose at once and then yank them sharply in opposite directions? Oh. Relentless screaming. Interesting.

3) Older siblings closely observe parental behavior towards younger siblings, and if a parent isn’t sufficiently careful, he or she can give away important parental secrets. For example, I used to remove Evan’s nose on a fairly regular basis. I would brandish it in front of him (a little pink bulb sticking out between my fingers) and ask him what I should do with it. Invariably, he would enthusiastically shout, “Eat it!” This would prompt me to pop it into my mouth, swallow it, and then pull it out of my ear and reattach it to Evan’s face.

But when I performed the same trick on Isabella, I saw Evan look back and forth between her face and the little pink blob sticking out of my fist, and I knew the game was up. Yesterday morning, when I snatched off his nose, he looked at me seriously and said, “That’s not my nose. That’s your thumb.”

“It’s your nose!” I insisted.

“My nose is battached. It doesn’t come off.”

“It doesn’t? Then what’s this in my hand?”

“Your thumb!” (He then proceeded to pry apart my fingers to show me that it was, in truth, my thumb.)

“Hmm. Well maybe I should take off Isabella’s nose instead.”

“You can’t. It’s battached too.”

“It is? How do you know?”

“Because God made her that way.”

And, of course, it’s impossible to argue with God.

4) No two children are alike. They may look alike (baby pictures of Isabella and Evan are virtually indistinguishable), but in the ways that count they are different from the very start. And this means that the swaggering confidence with which experienced parents approach the raising of their second child is, well, misplaced. For example, Evan was a screamer, and so Ty and I became used to conducting our adult dinner conversations to a soundtrack of relentless infant outrage. We learned to tune it out.

Isabella, however, is a comparatively happy child—which means that she only screams when she is hungry, or tired, or wants to be held (most of the time), or needs a diaper change, or has an odd rumble in her tummy, or has just had her left pinky bitten off by her big brother during one of his many experiments. She has this irresistible gummy smile and a halo of wispy baby hair, and mostly what we hear from her are vocalizations such as “Dagadaaweiwaa-wuwaaraooooooragadaga.”

Now, one would think that this would make life easier for us. If we’ve mastered a colicky baby, then surely we can handle a happy one. But here you would be…well, okay, admittedly this hasn’t proved to be such a problem.

But consider the following related issue. Evan did not nap until he was well past a year old. From before dawn until well after normal human beings have fallen into exhausted sleep, he would be busy (trying to overturn his bouncer or disassemble his Exersaucer or, when he was a little older but still too young to crawl, rolling across the floor in a committed attempt to reach and seize the dog). Isabella, by contrast, spent a good deal of time during her first months of life actually sleeping. This was, for us, a source of endless worry. “She’s so…listless,” my wife would say. “Do you think she’s sick?”

“Call the doctor.”

My wife dialed the doctor’s number and began talking to the nurse. “Yes. She’s sleeping all the time…Yeah… Oh, maybe twelve hours a day. Sometimes even more…She wakes up, eats, looks around, and goes to sleep again…Uhuh…No, no. No fever… mhmm… okay. Okay, thanks. Bye.”

She turned to me. “Apparently she’s a normal baby.”

5) One thing that I have learned from Evan’s meteoric development is to savor each stage in a child’s life, and not be in too much of a hurry to move on to the next stage.

For example, one of the things I remember with great fondness from Evan’s babyhood is that brief period of time, after Evan learned to sit up but before he learned to crawl, when you could plunk him down on the rug with a toy and then go mix martinis. When you came back into the living room, breathing in the sweet scent of Bombay Sapphire gin, he would still be sitting where you left him, his face purple from screaming but otherwise in good shape (unless he decided to start rolling in your absence, in which case he would be wedged into the narrow gap between the bottom of our futon and the floor).

I say that I remember this brief period with fondness, but at the time I didn’t properly appreciate tit. I saw in his eyes his eagerness to move, to really move, and his eagerness and concomitant frustration were infectious. I cheered him on as he tried to push himself onto all fours, even helping him along as he made his first efforts at crawling. I would, for example, stretch out my leg behind him so that he could use it to push off (since in the absence of such help his initial efforts at crawling led to his moving backwards). I thought (rightly) that the experience of success would encourage his efforts, leading him to master the skill more quickly.

I was, of course, a fool. As any parent will tell you, actual mobility on the part of your child is the first step towards the end of life as you know it. Now I am wiser. Isabella started sitting up a few weeks back. Often, she will be sitting there with a toy and it will roll just out of reach. This will inspire her to lean forward towards it, a determined expression on her little face. She will make a little noise of effort in the back of her throat, something like “Ooooorrraaaaaaghawawawawaga.” And as she leans towards the toy, she will end up propped up on her hands, her legs almost in the proper position for crawling. And then she will inch herself forward with her hands until she plops down on her tummy, just in reach of the elusive toy.

All of this, I know now, is a very bad sign. When this sort of thing was going on with Evan, I would actually sit back and watch, thinking that his efforts to reclaim the toy for himself would inspire him to master the use of his own body. Now, of course, I jump up out of the sofa and skootch the toy back into her reach. “NO crawling!” I will say, waggling my finger at her. “Sitting is gooooooood.” She will respond by smiling up at me happily, and then shoving the toy into her mouth.

Despite these efforts, all the signs indicate that she will be crawling sooner than her brother. I blame the infant/toddler room at her preschool, where she has far too many crawling role models. And so I must savor the moment as best I can. Sadly, since I am on antibiotics, I can’t savor it by mixing martinis.

6) Twice the number of children means twice the worry. This fall, we took Evan to the allergy specialist in Tulsa, who took his history and then order several tests. One of these was a sweat test (for cystic fibrosis). When we got home that evening, Ty began researching cystic fibrosis on the internet. That night, I watched her slip into Evan’s room and lean over his sleeping form in a tender maternal gesture that could only make me smile—until she came in to inform my that she had just licked our son. “It says that children with cystic fibrosis taste salty.”

“Did he taste salty?”

“Not really.”

“Okay, then.”

She proceeded to lick Isabella. “She tastes salty.” All the color left my wife’s face. “Omigod, Eric. What if both of our children have it?”

“They don’t. Evan’s an active…very active…little boy. He just coughs a lot because he’s inherited my asthma.”

“And he gets colds all the time.”

“So do I.”

The next day, her research uncovered a common symptom of cystic fibrosis: pale poop. “Eric, Evan has pale poop. He always has.” (At this point I should jump ahead to the conclusion, just to reassure my readers: Evan’s sweat test was decisively negative). Further research uncovered cases of adults who had mild cases of cystic fibrosis all their lives and never knew it. “Eric. You were tested for it, weren’t you?”


“But some tests are borderline. Was you test borderline?”

“I have no idea.”

During all of this, Isabella contracted a cold, and began coughing and snorting remorselessly. By this time, Ty was confronting the grim certainty that both of our children had this dread disease and were destined to struggle all their lives only to die young.

“It says that one of the signs of cystic fibrosis is wrinkling up quickly in the bath. Oh, Eric, I always thought it was so cute when Evan’s fingers would get all wrinkly in the bath and he’d hold up his fingers and tell me his finger were winkawy. I had no idea.”

“Tanya, my fingers wrinkle quickly in the bath.”

And so we conducted an experiment, actually a kind of race. The next time Evan was in the bath, I stuck my hand in the tub and held it underwater. Every few minutes we would check his fingertips and mine to see who would wrinkle up first. I won.

This was reassuring, but not decisive. “Maybe you have a mild case, and they just never figured it out. It would explain all your sinus problems.”

“Well, I’m still alive and kicking at forty, so if he’s inherited a mild case maybe that’s not such a tragic thing after all.”

And all this time, Isabella was still fighting a persistent cold, hacking her way through the night. I could see the way that Ty would study her beautiful little face, the way every cough would send through my wife a wave of dread and anticipated grief.

And the worry, the anxiety, was infectious.

All is well, of course. My kids have inherited their daddy’s respiratory tract, but no dread disease. Isabella is growing well, with just the right amount of baby plumpness. Evan is a dervish of activity. Life in our home is never dull, and sleep has become a precious resource. Our worries, our fears, and our hopes for our children all spring from a love that's hard to describe, which has little to do with the ways that they make us feel (which is mostly harried and exhausted) and everything to do with who and what they are: precious others, little human beings who are vitally engaged with their world, who are learning and growing and becoming.

They are a testament to possibility, to humanity; and the role that has been entrusted to us—the role of being their parents, the caretakers of the promise that they represent—is a sacred duty and a privilege. I can think of no other task that can do as much to teach the heart what it means to be human. My children are my teachers, even as I strive as best I can to teach them what I know about living well and being good.

Perhaps, in the end, this is what parenthood is about: learning from the loving struggle with our children what it means to live a good human life, and then finding ways to communicate that back to them in words and deeds.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Top Ten Horrors of New Parenthood

My wife's cousin and his wife are now the proud parents of a truly beautiful baby girl. Honestly, she really is lovely. I see pictures of newborns posted on facebook all the time--by preening parents and grandparents--and my usual thought is, "Another space alien." But this baby is, well, wow.

This beautiful new life reminded me of something I wrote not quite eight years ago, as my annual Halloween Greeting for 2003--which means I wrote it about six months after my first child was born. Since this is Claudia's first child, I thought it would be fitting as a way of honoring this important milestone to post here what I wrote back then. Also, with such a lovely child it may be easy to lose sight of the raw horror, anguish, trauma--and, well, grossness--that are in store. Thus I bring you...

The Top Ten Horrors of New Parenthood:

What follows is a list of the top (bottom?) ten horrors of new parenthood, each followed by an account of my own personal encounter with it. I should note up front that the ensuing list is necessarily incomplete. Having been a father for less than six months, I am certain that there are horrors I have yet to encounter (“Can I borrow the car?” tops the list for many of my friends with teenage children). Furthermore, since much of my early memory of fatherhood is blurred by Horror #5, it is quite possible that there are tribulations I have forgotten. Nevertheless, I have sought to be diligent in uncovering the seasonally appropriate spooky, creepy, and just plain disgusting dimensions of new parenthood.

Horror #1: Getting the Watermelon Through the Nostril

Little needs to be said here. When Tanya and I went to the hospital, there was talk of what is deceptively referred to as a “natural childbirth” (imagine fields of daisies and golden sunlight and a lovely pregnant woman in a pale linen dress skipping through the tall grass while sipping an organic yogurt drink). In fact, through approximately 22 of the 25 hours of her labor, there was still talk of such a thing. Apparently, until that point, the pain was only intense or, at worst, excruciating.

But then there came a point (the point at which drugs were administered to induce a stalled labor) when the word “pain” proved to be an inappropriate term for Tanya’s experience—in much the way that “unfortunate” is inappropriate to describe a meteor striking Earth and exterminating all life, or “banana” is inappropriate for the Bush administration’s current policies in Iraq. Apparently, the proper word at this point was not “pain” but, rather, “Epidural!” (hissed out between inarticulate screams).

Horror #2: Disturbingly Perky Ob/Gyn

When, like an angel of mercy, the anesthesiologist descended upon Tanya to plunge a magic needle into her spine, Tanya’s ob/gyn, whom we'll call Dr. G, was not far behind. Dr. G is articulate, competent, dedicated, and always up on the latest research. She has a talent for putting her patients at ease.

She is also perky. Imagine Meg Ryan as a physician and you wouldn’t be too far off. My wife adores her and professes to miss her now that she is no longer pregnant and hence can no longer regard Dr. G’s office as her second home. I don’t mean to contradict Tanya’s judgment here, but I saw what I saw in that delivery room.

Let me explain. The pushing phase of Tanya’s labor was the quickest and most satisfying of the whole 25 hour process (Tanya’s a good pusher). The first glimpse of Evan’s head—covered in dark hair—was amazing. And I must admit that, between bouts of pushing when the top of Evan’s hairy head was still visible, I was tempted myself. But Dr. G went beyond temptation. With a mischievous glint in her eye, she reached out and carefully coiled that tuft of hair into a perfect cowlick.

I suppose one might say that this was a lighthearted, even fey gesture, comic relief in the midst of an intense experience. One might even be tempted to say that it ushered in our parenthood with a reminder that one should always see the humorous side of things. One might say these things…but in the spirit of the season I am determined to find something sinister here. So bear with me while I grope…there must be something frightening about playful perkiness…ermm…well…moving on, then.

Horror #3: Schloppity-Schlop

When the baby finally slupped out (see Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax for a contextualized ostensive definition of “slupp”), he did not come out alone. He emerged with a great gush of fluids. And, of course, he trailed this pale blue rubber hose that I was given the opportunity to cut.

Let me say a word about this. My wife may have carried Evan in her body for nine months. She may have been in labor for twenty-five hours. She may have endured more intense pain than I will ever know and had crucial parts of her anatomy stretched and torn and temporarily relocated. All of this may be true. But it was I who cut the cord. So don’t let anyone ever say that I wasn’t involved.

Be that as it may, one of the grim realities of childbirth is that there is a great deal of blood, as well as gluppity-glupp and schloppity-schlop (again, see The Lorax) in various shades of pink and red. And I’m not just talking about the placenta, which Tanya and I studiously examined at Tanya’s request before it was ferreted off to whatever mysterious place placentas go.

You see, there is something they haven’t shown on the season finales of the four hundred and eighty seven TV series that have so far culminated their seasons with a childbirth episode. When all the pushing is over, when all the sweating and straining is done and the newborn baby is resting contentedly on the mother’s breast, someone comes in with a mop.

And in our particular case there was a further reason for distress: they missed a spot.

Horror #4: Worry

When Evan was first born, he decided to give his new parents a bit of a scare (displaying an early affinity for practical jokes). He grunted and wheezed while nurses suctioned his lungs and whacked his back with a device resembling a meat tenderizer. Still he could not seem to get the knack for breathing. While Dr. G was mending ("darning?") my wife with needle and thread on the other side of the room, I hovered over this wheezing little boy, straining to help him breath (to no noticeable effect). Finally the nurses decided they should call the pediatrician and order tests. As soon as this was done, Evan lapsed into comfortable, perfectly normal newborn breathing.

But this early display of vulnerability gave Evan’s new parents all the fuel they needed to construct elaborate reasons to worry and fret. Underdeveloped lungs? Some rare breathing disorder? The dreaded infant sleep apnea? Just in case anyone is wondering, it is not possible to both (a) sleep and (b) check every five minutes to ensure that the baby is still breathing. Fortunately, we came up with an alternative: one of those newfangled baby monitors that comes with a motion detector that is intended to put parent’s minds at ease by going off with a blaring noise every time twenty seconds go by with no noticeable movement.

In fact, the real function of the device is to put the living fear of God into the parents between two and seven times a night. Imagine two sleep deprived people (see horror #5) bursting out of bed, tripping over each other on the way to the crib, groping for the lights and the baby, all to the sound of a blaring alarm. All the fuss inevitably wakes the baby, who has been enjoying (of course) one of his rare moments of continued and restful sleep.

Obsessive attention to Evan’s breathing could not, of course, be separated from paranoia. A typical conversation:

“Hear that little whistling sound when he exhales?”
“That little snoring sound?”
“Is that normal?”
“What does the book say?”
(Leafing furiously through What to Expect in the First Year)
“Here it is. It says that a whistling sound is normal when the baby inhales.”
“But it’s when he exhales that he makes the noise.”
“I know.”
“Should we call the doctor?”
“What if it’s just, like, a cute little noise?”
“What if it’s a symptom of a rare respiratory disorder?”
“Call the doctor.”

Eventually this sort of thing culminated in men showing up at our door with Star Trek tricorders and other assorted medical equipment. The good news is that after a couple of days of having Evan connected by wires to medical recording equipment with alarm devices that went off every twenty minutes with a deafening blare (but, fortunately, only at night), the experts determined that Evan’s lungs were perfectly normal and that there was nothing to worry about. Of course, this did nothing to abate our worry. After all, it was even more frightening to imagine that Evan had a rare lung disorder that could not be detected using ordinary medical devices, and that now that the tests came back normal the medical professional would no longer believe us when we catastrophized…

Horror #5: Sleep Deprivation

Evan, having been born at 2:13 AM, thought initially that nighttime was the time to get active, make noise, be entertained, etc. Between his daytime feedings he would sleep soundly, but then he started waking up around midnight and would be fussy most of the night unless he was being rocked and held. When he was asleep during the day he was impossible to wake up. Thus, the pediatrician’s advice to “keep him awake during the day” proved to be a very nice theory. To be honest, I cannot recall the details. We would sometimes fall into exhausted sleep during the day, but it never quite did the trick.

On the third night home from the hospital—which meant on the sixth night without any real sleep (one night lost to labor, one to giving birth, one to sitting up all night in the hospital bed watching the weather reports about the tornado-producing storms sweeping through Oklahoma, and then three with a wide awake squirmy baby)—Tanya sat up in bed muttering something about the second baby.

“What?” I asked, groping my way out of a foggy half-sleep. “Where’s the second baby?” she asked again. The question made perfect sense to me. The second baby was not in the crib.

(Please note that we do not have twins. Evan is, so far, an only child.)

Of course, the sleep deprivation was far worse for Tanya, who in addition to being exhausted from childbirth was also the baby’s sole food source and hence had to be awake every 2-3 hours no matter what. Occasionally I would find her slumped over a feeding baby, snoring softly. Thankfully this problem endured for only the first few weeks, and by two-and-a-half months Evan was sleeping through the night (meaning from midnight to 4:30 AM). This is a good thing, since it helps us to more effectively confront horrors #6-9.

Horror #6: Pea Soup

21st Century diapers are a technological marvel, swiftly slurping up baby urine and converting it into a gel (subsequently recovered and, I think, turned into toothpaste) that is trapped between the inner and outer layers of material, thus ensuring that the baby and the baby’s clothes are kept perfectly dry. Unfortunately, this technology only works with urine. It does not work with pea soup.

We have become convinced that Evan suffers from an unusual deformity that directs the pea soup straight up the back rather than down into the diaper. And no matter how snug the diaper appears to be across the back, when the pea soup erupts with sufficient force it cannot be contained. When this occurs at home the cleanup process, while time consuming and somewhat smelly (although on rare occasions it actually smells kind of good), is relatively straightforward. Evan, however, prefers to blow out in church. We think that Evan idolizes Cher and wants his public appearances to be characterized by several wardrobe changes in a short period of time. This he guarantees by alternating between blow-outs and projectile vomiting (see horror #7).

The problem has gotten worse recently. Although he only produces pea soup once a day now, he produces just as much in a 24-hour period as he used to. The explosions can often be heard from several blocks away. His most remarkable blow-out occurred not at church but during our family outing to the zoo last month. Upon arriving at the zoo Tanya and I decided to take a quick trip to the restrooms, and Tanya took Evan in with her to change his diaper. I was soon to learn the horror that I had dodged by not being the one to take the baby. But I got a full report.

When I emerged from the men’s room I waited for Tanya and Evan. And waited.

And waited.

Fortunately the changing station was right by the restroom door. This meant that by surreptitiously (and without seeming the least bit creepy) stealing peeks into the women's restroom as others went in and out, I was able to assure myself that my family remained alive.

What I saw were glimpses of Tanya being slapped in the butt by the restroom door. But I could also see that she was working furiously, like a surgeon at the operating table. I knew, of course, that this meant a blow-out. I just had no idea how momentous a blow-out it was. I could see her moving back and forth between the diaper changing station and the trash.

I began to have a sense that something unusual was going on when, after five minutes, Tanya was still not done. After ten minutes, I realized that it was more than just unusual. After twenty minutes, I came to understand that Tanya was struggling valiantly to treat the effects of the diaper-blow-out equivalent of the Mount St. Helens eruption.

Twenty-five minutes later Tanya and Evan finally emerged from the restroom. And I heard the tale—a tale to inspire shock and awe in the heart of any parent. The good news is that the collar of Evan’s shirt had served as a kind of last line of defense in the face of the diaper’s utter failure to stay the tide. The pea soup had surged up against the collar and then rushed back down and out, pooling in his armpits. Of course, the effort to remove the soiled bodysuit from the happily squirming and laughing baby had ensured that any part of his body that had been spared the original explosion would not escaped untouched. Fortunately, there was a full complement of baby wipes in the diaper bag, so that a full body wash was possible. The (formerly) white bodysuit went in the trash.

I recall that the last time I was at the Oklahoma City Zoo I was rather disgusted by some of the antics of the gorillas. I can no longer remember why.

Horror #7: Projective Vomiting

I have often wondered what it must be like to reach the pinnacle of achievement in one’s youth, never again to rise so high or achieve so much again. In the past, when I had these thoughts, I was thinking of gold-medal-winning female gymnasts and prodigies in mathematics. Now, I can only look in wonder at what my own son has achieved in less than half a year of life.

His field: the art of projectile vomiting. Linda Blair, in The Exorcist, may have been a seminal figure in developing this art. But it is our son who has perfected it. He is—and I say this with all due humility—a master. In fact, I sincerely doubt that any will ever come to match him.

His most remarkable moment came in his pediatrician’s office. We were bringing him in with concerns about baby reflux (a deceptive name for a condition that pretty much guarantees that the addition of one baby to the household will multiply the frequency with which laundry is done by precisely 16.2 times). The pediatrician’s nurse cooed and oohed over him, delighting in how cute he was (and he is, I must say, very cute). That was before he soaked her, proving to everyone that he did, in fact, have baby reflux. Unfortunately, he was naked at the time, since he had just been weighed. While we were scurrying around trying to clean the “spit-up” from the floor and walls (rather than dutifully getting his diaper on him again with sufficient promptness), he set his Super Soaker 1000 to work for good measure. It was, at least from the perspective of the baby, a marvelous moment.

Horror #8: The Death-By-Not-Being-Held Syndrome

There are many tragic stories in the world. There are the great tragedies of the ancient Greek playwrights—Media, Antigone, Oedipus Rex—and, of course, Shakespeare’s masterpieces. But of all the tragedies that have ever been recorded, no tale is more devastating than the following tale: There are some moments during the day when, because of parental finitude, Evan is not being held.

One might not realize just how horrific this tragedy is until one hears the gut-wrenching sobs, moans of anguish, wails of despair, and glass-shattering screams that burst forth from Evan’s lungs in response to the experience of this woeful tale. Now there is good news here. Evan’s voice is clearly louder than that of any of the great Wagnerian opera singers alive today, and so we have high hopes that Evan has a grand career in musical theater awaiting him.

Since there is only so much that one can accomplish while holding the baby, it is inevitable that every once in awhile Evan’s parents need to set him down. We have a variety of surrogate baby-holders available for these moments: a bouncer, a baby swing, a Johnny Jump Up, and a “saucer” with a rotating seat that is surrounded by toys.

There is a story going around that babies are soothed by baby swings. Apparently, human genetics is such that every human baby finds comfort in the back-and-forth motion. If this is true, then we have the first piece of evidence that Evan represents a new stage in human evolution. Unless Evan is already fast asleep (in which case the rocking of the swing will keep him asleep for an extra three to four minutes), he finds absolutely no comfort in the swing. Nor is he entertained for long by the dozens of toys that surround him in the saucer (although, to be fair, I must add that this has gotten better over the last few weeks, ever since he’s been able to reach the toys). And although he has discovered how to jump in the Johnny Jump Up, this means that he can better express his outrage at not being held by jumping in fury as he screams.

When we leave the house, Evan is a smiling angel, delighting in all the sights and sounds of the world. He will sit happily in his car seat or stroller for hours. Eating out is never a problem: he’ll sit and watch us cheerfully as we eat, delighted to be out of the house and doing something. Also, when we have visitors he is entertained by the activity, the voices, and the new faces that hover over him and coo. What all of this means is that everyone in Stillwater is struck by what a good baby Evan is.

And he is a good baby. He is good at many things. Screaming, for example.

The fact that he can sit on his own when we are out of the house is our only real reassurance that Evan does not suffer from the dreaded death-by-not-being-held syndrome (see horror #4). We first came to fear that he might have this syndrome one day when, after taking turns carrying the baby for most of the afternoon, we set him in his saucer and he began to cry even before we had let go of his arms. Tanya said, “Come on, Evan. Sitting by yourself for five minutes won’t kill you.”

Even before the words were out of her mouth, we both had the same thought: What if it will? What if Evan suffers from some kind of rare disorder which causes no ill effects so long as he is in constant exposure to the combination of body heat, gentle pressure, and irregular movement that comes with being held? What if his screams when we set him down are exactly what they sound like? What if he is screaming for his very life? And here we are—me at the computer writing this, Tanya washing baby bottles—ignoring this death wail with a frustrated sigh and the dismissive thought that he’s got to learn to entertain himself without being held all the time…

For the sake of accuracy, I must add that he can be happy in his saucer for quite some time if one of his parents is kneeling next to him playing with him and, preferably, singing. I have found myself inventing new songs for his entertainment. For example: Evan has this little blue bear (a gift from his Bestefar—grandfather in English), and the other day I kept him delighted for a full twenty minutes by making the blue bear dance on the rim of his saucer while I sang a song with the following lyrics: “Blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue , blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue BEAR!!!”

Which leads us into horror #9…

Horror #9: A New Soundtrack

I am one of those people who constantly has a tune running through his head. Often I am whistling or humming the tune aloud, but even when that is not the case the tune is still playing and replaying at the back of my mind. A few years ago, Ravel’s Bolero ran through my head for a full three months. Prior to Evan’s arrival, I would usually find myself whistling some Puccini aria or something from the Rolling Stones. Now, it is the Winnie the Pooh song.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the song, the chorus runs as follows: “Winnie the Pooh, Winnie the Pooh, tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff. He’s Winnie the Pooh, Winnie the Pooh, silly-willie-nillie old bear.”

I did not know this six months ago. Now these words are hard-wired into my brain. The words and music run through my head when I go to bed at night and when I wake up in the morning. They set the rhythm of my lectures. They have become, in a word, the soundtrack of my life.

Horror #10: Babyhood is too short.

Evan’s baby phase is already half-gone, never to return. And despite horrors 1-9, the greatest horror of them all is that it all slips by so fast. His screams, of course, are matched by his laughter. His blow-outs and his projectile vomiting are soon forgotten when he falls asleep in your arms and nestles his head against your breast. When he reaches for your face with both his little hands, latching onto your beard or trapping your nose in his fist, the memory of sleeplessness slips away and all that is left is the memory of holding that tiny little warm bundle against you in the night and gazing down into that perfect face. And when he laughs in delight in response to the strains of Winnie the Pooh, the tune becomes more magical, more wonderful in its way, than anything that Bellini could produce. And yet he is already nearly twice the size he was at his birth, and soon he will be crawling around the house under his own power. The time will fly by, and I will regret every moment that I failed to savor, every second that I let frustration at his screams or his messy bodily fluids obscure the miracle of his life.

So there it is, for what it’s worth: the glories of fatherhood.

Friday, June 24, 2011


Not sure if this is a general phenomen for anyone accessing my blog or just a localized issue for my computer, but this evening when I went to my blog I discovered that certain terms were highlighted and that when I moved my cursor over them a "Play Pickle" ad popped up. If others are experiencing this, it is not my doing--but if anyone knows how to get rid of it, let me know. I do not advertise on my site, and I certainly don't host free advertising.

Roger Sullivan on the Place of Moral Sentiments in Kant

My friend and co-author, John, just pointed me to some helpful passages from Roger Sullivan's Immanuel Kant's Moral Theory. These passages offer at least a partial response to the recurring challenge that, because Kant takes morality to be grounded in what reason demands apart from our inclinations, the portrait of the moral life that emerges is a coldly inhuman one--something fit for Vulcans, perhaps, but which calls us to subordinate all our desires and sentiments to this unfeeling duty.

The truth is more subtle than this. Kant does not take the moral life to be one in which emotions and sentiments of every sort have no place and are at best a distraction. Rather, he distinguishes between two species of feelings and desires: those that are "pathological" (by which he does not mean what modern psychologists mean by "pathological" but rather something more like "desires we just happen to have because of heredity and environment, because of our physical natures and the way that external forces interact with them"), and those that are moral. It is the former that Kant finds suspect. Here is what Sullivan says:
However similar they may be to merely pathological feelings and desires in other respects, moral sentiments are radically different in one critical respect: They do not have their origin in empirical sources outside our own reason so that we passively feel them. Rather, they are the subjective effect of our prior recognition of the objective and absolute binding force of the moral law. It is just because they are caused by reason alone that they can be moral feelings.

Kant makes the contrast between the two this way: our desires are merely pathological when we “represent something to ourselves as good, if and because we desire it,” whereas when we experience moral desires, “we desire something because we represent it to ourselves as good” on the basis of a prior judgment of the moral law inside us. Morality does not obligate us because we first find ourselves interested in it; rather, we find we are interested in doing our duty because we first recognize that it is our duty.

A foundational moral sentiment is reverence/respect for the moral law itself. And it is clear that Kant thinks such reverence or respect motivates us--and our acts have moral worth if and only if this is our motive. But this raises the natural question, "Isn't someone who obeys the moral law out of respect for the moral law really just following a hypothetical imperative, that is, an imperative that is contingent on the sentiments you happen to have?" In other words, isn't respect for the moral law just another "inclination" among others, so that whether you are motivated to act on the moral law is going to depend on what your inclinations happen to be? Here is how Sullivan addresses this issue:
The only incentive that can motivate us to adopt and act on the motive of duty, Kant writes, is the reverence or respect we feel for the moral law. This is not a feeling we need to try to “will” ourselves to have, for it arises irresistibly from our unavoidable recognition of the moral law. In fact, it is because we all inevitably experience respect for the moral law that we can be said to have a “predisposition” to be morally good. Moreover it is an incentive of such “herculean strength” that it enables us to offset the influence of all the “vice-breeding inclinations”. Because it follows from our recognition of the Law of Autonomy, it is the only motive that can give our actions genuine moral worth.

For us, then, respect for the moral law is the subjectively necessary side of our consciousness of duty. As an emotion, respect resembles fear in that we recognize that the moral law may rightfully demand the denial of self-love; it is also like love in that we recognize that this law originates in our own reason and is something we impose on ourselves. Finally, it is like nonmoral emotions in that it is a feeling that gives us an “impulse to activity” on which to act. But it is not just a feeling of attraction or of aversion, for it is not just a feeling like sympathy or empathy or love, all of which can be understood in naturalistic terms.

So important a role does respect have that, in his third “proposition” about the human good will in the Groundwork, Kant defines duty as “the necessity to act out of reverence for the law”. In his defense of human moral agency in the third chapter of that work, he again discusses moral interest, to try to ensure that his readers do not interpret their moral agency as pathologically caused. As we saw in the last section, moral sentiments must not be invoked as causal explanations for any part of our moral life. Regardless of how an empirical psychologist might interpret respect, from the moral point of view it represents a ground that is not explicable in naturalistic terms. Because acting from duty means acting out of reverence for the moral law, that law remains the ultimate objective motive of moral actions.

There are several questions we can ask about this: First, does Sullivan get Kant right? Second, if so, are moral sentiments as described here distinct enough from "pathological" inclinations to provide an answer to how morality, not inclination, can be said to be our motive when we act morally? Third, even if we separate out moral sentiments from inclinations and concede that it is only the latter which are irrelevant to moral life and at best a distraction, is that enough to free Kant from the original challenge that the moral life is in some sense coldly dehumanizing?

With respect to the last question, the following anecdote from Kant's life, related by Sullivan, may be worth reflecting on:

An incident occurred about a week before his death that has often been used to illustrate how Kant guided his relationships with others by the disinterested interest of moral respect, which he nonetheless called the “courtesy of the heart.”  Desperately weak, mentally unable to concentrate, and virtually blind, Kant insisted on rising and remaining standing until his doctor had seated himself.  With great effort Kant then remarked that at least “the sense of humanity has not yet a abandoned me”.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Giving a Human Face to the Marriage Equality Issue

In the video behow, my cousins (Phil is my first cousin) stand up for marriage equality and speak out against the proposed Minnesota State Constitutional Amendment which would exclude same-sex couples from equal access to civil marriage rights--in effecting writing legal discrimination into the constitution of that state (as has already been done here in Oklahoma and elsewhere). Take a moment to watch, and feel free to share.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Kantian Ethics, Part 2: The First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative

In my last post I started to consider Kant's moral philosophy, focusing on Kant's contention--in opposition to Hume--that reason can generate (at least one) "imperative" that is categorically action-guiding. That is, it tells you to act in a certain way regardless of what you happen to subjectively value or desire.

Hume thought reason was a slave to the passions. It can tell you how to achieve a certain aim, producing a principle of the form, "In order to achieve O, do A." But unless you desire or value O, such a principle (what Kant calls a "hypothetical imperative") has no force for you. Kant did not deny that reason can and does operate as a slave to the passions in this way. What he denied was that this was the only thing it could do in the domain of action. Contrary to Hume, Kant thought reason not only can but does impose a requirement on all rational beings that applies regardless of their contingent "inclinations"--a requirement that he called "the Categorical Imperative."

He thought this Categorical Imperative could be formulated in different ways. The first "formulation" runs as follows:

Act only according to that maxim which you can at the same time (consistently) will to be a universal law (of nature).

In the present post, I want to consider what this principle is saying and why Kant thinks that reason requires us to be obedient to it. In the case of the first formulation (or what I'll refer to for short as the 1st CI), these two tasks are most easily pursued together. That is, one really comes to understand what the principle is saying by thinking about what reason (as Kant understood it) demands.

Now let me pause here to say that Kant is a difficult thinker, and not everyone interprets him in precisely the same way. What I am about to provide is my understanding of the 1st CI. It's not a wildly novel or original understanding--I dare say it falls very much into the mainstream of Kant interpretation. But it is, nevertheless, my understanding and my way of formulating this understanding. Other philosophers may disagree with some of the details, or may prefer a different way of explicating things.

In terms of making sense of what Kant is saying in the 1st CI, it sometimes helps to begin with a rough picture before getting more focused--and there is no better place to start than with a little anecdote involving philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser. According to the story, Morgenbesser was leaving the New York subway, an unlit pipe in his mouth, when a police officer informed him there was no smoking on the subway. Morgenbesser pointed out he hadn't yet lit the pipe and was leaving the subway station. After a bit of back-and-forth, the officer said, "If I let you do it, I'd have to let everyone do it"--to which Morgenbesser replied with something along the following lines: "Who do you think you are? Kant?"

He was promptly arrested.

I'm assured he was eventually able to convince the authorities that he was likening the officer to the great 18th Century German enlightenment philosopher, not resorting to a vulgar insult. But the likeness here is apt. The officer was implicitly invoking something like the 1st CI, which asks us to consider the following question: "What if everyone did that?" Or, perhaps better: "What if everyone did that as a rule?"

In very loose but pedagogically helpful terms, the 1st CI is telling us that it is only legitimate for us to act in a certain way if everyone acting in that way as a rule is something we could consistently will. In other words, what we're doing has to be universalizable. But while pedagogically helpful for the sake of getting us to see what the 1st CI calls for, this way of describing the principle isn't precise enough for us to be able to clearly see why Kant thought that reason, by itself, demands obedience to it.

For that purpose, we should probably focus in on the notion of a maxim. What Kant believes must be universalizable is not our action but the maxim of the action. By a “maxim,” Kant means a subjective principle of action.

Here is the first place at which Kant's understanding of what it means to be rational is expressed within the 1st CI. Kant thought that reason is, by its nature, an abstractive faculty: it abstracts from the particular level to the general or universal level. It uncovers patterns, regularities, laws. In the domain of action, this means that to be rational is to behave in a rule-governed way, to act in accord with a rule.

Now, of course, we’re not always intending to follow a rule when we do something. But even then, we can ask ourselves, “What rule would I be following in this case were I conforming my action to a rule?” The answer to that question is the maxim of the act, the principle that your act falls under The maxim of your act is the principle you’d be following were you deliberately seeking to behave in a rule-governed way.

Of course, there are difficulties here, because there are numerous ways to generalize, various degrees of generality, and hence a number of rules that any particular action might conform to. Put more simply, the very same act in the very same circumstances might be called for by a number of different rules. So which one is your maxim?

In fact, much of the difficulty in interpreting Kant turns on this very issue. One neo-Kantian, R.M. Hare, argued that the proper "maxim" for your action is arrived at by removing from the description of your act all particular or individual references while preserving maximal specificity--such that the maxim says, in effect, "Do actions like this (specified in exhaustive detail) under conditions like these (specified exhaustively)." But few think that this is what Kant had in mind, and most neo-Kantians don't follow Hare's lead here.

Despite the importance of this controversy, I won't pursue it here. My aim here is to understand why Kant thought reason required obedience to the 1st CI; and I think we can begin to get a handle on that even if many important problems remain to be solved.

In any event, Kant thought that being rational in one's actions required operating in a rule-governed way, which means following a maxim. But the demands of rationality do not end there, because Kant didn’t think any old maxim is necessarily going to be rational. While operating in a rule-governed way is a condition for rationality, it is not the only condition. One's rule of action has to be a rational rule. And there are certain conditions a rule has to meet in order to be a rational rule. The 1st CI is, in effect, an effort to articulate these conditions. To be rational, you need to act in accord with a rule that passes the test specified in the 1st CI: Can one preserve consistency in one's will if one wills that one's maxim be universalized?

In a nutshell, Kant is supposing that rationality requires consistency of will (to will inconsistent things is to be irrational) and consistency across cases (in the sense that one must treat like cases alike, and hence be governed by rules that are universal in the sense of calling for the same kind of thing in all relevantly similar conditions). A maxim that can't be applied consistently across relevantly similar cases without generating an inconsistency of will is thus doomed to irrationality. To preserve consistency of will (which reason requires), you'll need to refrain from universalizing your maxim (but reason also requires that). To universalize your maxim (which reason requires), you'll need to land your will in a contradiction.

Hence, reason requires that you only act on maxims that you can universalize without generating an inconsistency in your will. This, then, is a categorical imperative of reason, one that reason generates all by itself (apart from the passions), and that is demanded by reason regardless of one's inclinations. If your maxim doesn't meet the test of the 1st CI, then reason precludes acting on it no matter how much you might want to.

But so far this is all expressed in very abstract terms--and as such, certain crucial questions are left unanswered. For example, what, exactly, is a contradiction in one's will? And how could universalizing one's maxim lead to such a contradiction? To answer these questions, it is probably most helpful to look at some concrete cases. And I can think of no better case to start with than one Kant himself makes use of himself.

In fact, Kant offered four examples of how the Categorical Imperative works in practice, but one of them is offered twice (in different sections of his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals), apparently because he thought it was particularly helpful. This is the example of making a false promise. He asks us to imagine someone who desperately needs to borrow money, knows he will be unable to repay the lender, but also knows that no one will lend him the money he needs unless he makes a promise to repay within a certain time frame (a promise which, given his inability to repay, can only be a false one).

Can the making of such a false promise be morally permissible? Kant's answer, based on the 1st CI, is no. Here's how he explains it:

...the maxim of his action would be expressed thus: When I think myself in want of money, I will borrow money and promise to repay it, although I know that I never can do so. Now this principle of self-love or of one's own advantage may perhaps be consistent with my whole future welfare; but the question now is, Is it right? I change then the suggestion of self-love into a universal law, and state the question thus: How would it be if my maxim were a universal law? Then I see at once that it could never hold as a universal law of nature, but would necessarily contradict itself. For supposing it to be a universal law that everyone when he thinks himself in a difficulty should be able to promise whatever he pleases, with the purpose of not keeping his promise, the promise itself would become impossible, as well as the end that one might have in view in it, since no one would consider that anything was promised him, but would ridicule all such statements as vain pretenses.
Kant really makes two points here with respect to the attempt to universalize the "false promise maxim." First, were it universalized the institution of promising would collapse. If everyone made false promises as a matter of universal law, no one would be able to make a false promise because no one would be able to make a promise.

One way to understand this is to think of what a promise is. In terms of its grammar, a promise is a "performative"--one performs a certain kind of act by saying that one does the act. But as with other performatives, there is a social context of mutual understandings which makes it possible to perform the act in question by uttering certain words. A minister who says "I now pronounce you husband and wife" under the proper conditions is able by those words to create a social relationship because of a complex set of social agreements that have been put into place. Take away those social agreements, and the words become empty. The minister is no longer able to marry anyone by saying those words. Likewise, the practice of promising is a social institution that exists only on the condition that certain mutual understandings are in place--and those mutual understandings would not be in place in conditions C were the making of false promises under conditions C a universal law. To will that everyone live by the maxim is impossible, because if everyone lived by the maxim no one could.

And so there is a practical contradiction bound up with willing the maxim to be a universal law: You simultaneously will (a) that everyone act in a certain way and (b) that it be impossible for them to act in that way. This, for Kant, is paradigmatically irrational. But refusing to treat like cases alike--refusing to universalize your maxim--is also paradigmatically irrational. Hence, there is no way to be rational while acting on this maxim. Reason therefore rules it out. There is a categorical prohibition on making false promises, whether the making of such promises is subjectively appealing to you or not.

But few cases are quite as neat as this, where it would be impossible for anyone to act on a maxim were everyone to act on it (arguably, a prohibition on stealing could be justified in these terms since stealing by definition invokes the notion of private property, which would not exist under a universal maxim of theft). But Kant also points out a second way in which the false promise maxim generates a practical contradiction when universalized. It is not just the making of the promise that becomes impossible, but also "the end that one might have in view in it." In making a false promise in this case, one is attempting to achieve thereby a certain objective--getting the loan. But were it a universal law that people make false promises in such cases, no one would loan money on the strength of a promise of repayment. So the end or goal for which one wills the maxim in one's own case is an end or goal that could not be realized if everyone acted on that maxim.

When you will the maxim in your own case, it is for the sake of achieving an end that would be rendered impossible for you to achieve were you also to will that the maxim of your action be a universal law. To will that your maxim be universalized is therefore to will a certain action for the sake of a certain objective, and to at the same time will that conditions prevail such that it be impossible for you to achieve your objective through this course of action. But to will the achievement of O via A, and at the same time to will that it be impossible to achieve O via A, is paradigmatically irrational. It's to will contradictory things. So, in order to be rational you must universalize your maxim--but universalizing this maxim involves a practical contradiction given the end for which you are willing the maxim in your own case. So either you universalize and land yourself in a contradiction, or you avoid contradiction by refusing to universalize (by, in effect, refuse to behave in the law-like, treat-like-cases-alike way that is definitive of rationality for Kant).

This second kind of practical contradiction does not just apply to false promises and a narrow range of similar practices. It clearly applies to lying in general (which only works in a context of honesty), and it also seems to be the same basic kind of contradiction that Kant thinks arises with respect to what we might call the egoist maxim--which is a second of the four examples Kant brings up to illuminate the 1st CI.

The egoist maxim is, in a nutshell, this: Look out exclusively for your own happiness and let others look our for their own. Kant thinks that the world might continue to chug along if this maxim "should have the universal validity of a law of nature," but he doesn't think anyone could consistently will this maxim. On the contrary, "a will which resolved this would contradict itself, inasmuch as many cases might occur in which one would have need of the love and sympathy of others, and in which , by such a law of nature, sprung from his own will, he would deprive himself of all hope of the aid he desires." Put simply, if you will this maxim in your own case it is for the sake of your own happiness--but your happiness is better served in a world where following your maxim is not a universal law. This is not quite as strong a contradiction as you get when it would be impossible to achieve your end were everyone to follow your example. He's not saying that happiness is always impossible to achieve in a world where everyone just looks out for themselves--just that it's much harder to achieve, and that chances are (given the world in which we live) you'll encounter circumstances in which your happiness will depend on the good will of others.

Kant uses a pair of other examples to highlight how the 1st CI works and why he believes reason demands obedience to it--both of which are, in my experience, more controversial to dominant modern sensibilities. The first considers the suicidal maxim: take your own life when the future is likely to hold more misery than joy. The second considers what I'll call the lazy wastrel maxim: let your talents go undeveloped in favor of indulging in empty pleasures. In both cases, there is a bit more emphasis of the language of "nature"--testing whether the maxim could be willed as a law of nature, or as something "implanted in us" as a "natural instinct."

With respect to the suicidal maxim, Kant thinks that a world in which this maxim operates as a natural law "could not exist as a system of nature," because it would involve "the very feeling whose special nature it is to impel to the improvement of life" being directed in a law-like way towards the destruction of life. According to Kant, the life-improvement instinct couldn't be the life-improvement instinct if it consistently dictated self-destruction under certain conditions.

Why not, we might ask? Can't an instinct be a qualified instinct and still be a coherent and consistent one?

With respect to the lazy wastrel maxim, Kant is clear "that a system of nature could indeed subsist with a such a universal law." So he is explicitly contrasting it with the suicidal maxim. It is to the suicidal maxim, if you will, what the egoist maxim is to the lying promise maxim. What Kant argues is that while a system of nature could exist in which everyone neglects the cultivation of their talents and abilities, no rational being could will that this be a driving natural instinct that rules human behavior. Why? Because "as a rational being, he necessarily wills that his faculties be developed, since they serve him, and have been given him, for all sorts of possible purposes." At least it sounds very much as if Kant is saying that reason necessarily wills certain ends--ends which would not be served if the lazy wastrel maxim were universalized. But Kant's defense of this idea is a single sketchy sentence that has left more than one reader scratching their heads.

Some argue that these two examples implicitly invoke elements of the natural law tradition in which Kant was steeped. Some contemporary followers of Kant seem to think that, for this reason, they can simply ignore these examples, setting them aside (as somehow infected with the theoretical baggage of Kant's era) in favor of the examples that more cleanly focus on notions of rational consistency.

But this strikes me as a mistake for several reasons. First of all, Kant chose his examples quite carefully in order to elucidate different ways in which a maxim can fail the test of the 1st CI, and so there may be important lessons to be learned about the scope of the CI that emerges when we investigate these examples--lessons that may be important even if we aren't convinced by the specific examples.

Second, Kant was in the habit of attempting to reframe inherited ideas within the context of his own philosophical system--in effect exploring the possibility that traditional notions might embody an implicit wisdom that Kant's philosophical investigations could reveal. As such, it may be that Kant is trying to "vindicate" (from the standpoint of his own system of thinking) some modified version of natural law theory--showing, in effect, that traditional moral ideas can be justified by appeal to the demands of practical rationality. If so, it is worth exploring the extent to which he succeeds.

Third, Kant may have deliberately embraced important elements of the natural law tradition that preceded him because he recognized something profound and important in them that he wanted to preserve within his own moral philosophy. Perhaps those of his examples that seem to be more tied to this older tradition are so puzzling because he had not yet succeeded in integrating the insights from this older tradition into his account of how morality can be grounded in the demands of reason. But investigating Kant's (presumed) failure here may prove  fruitful--perhaps even as a pathway to revising Kant's theory in beneficial ways.

That said, this post has gotten plenty long already--and there is enough room for critical discussion in relation to the examples that, in my experience, are more compelling to modern sensibilities.

In my next main post in this series, I want to turn to the Second Formulation of the Categorical Imperative--the so-called "formula of humanity" which holds that we must always treat humanity as an end and never as a means only. Here we encounter a fundamental principle which is more substantive in what it requires than is the 1st CI (which, like the Golden Rule to which it has been likened, is a more formal principle in the sense of offering a formula for determining whether something is permitted as opposed to laying down specific substantive requirements). The 2nd CI (as I will call it) is also a principle which establishes an end for the sake of which we are to act--and end which, according to Kant, is given to us by reason.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Kantian Ethics, Part 1: Kant vs. Hume

I've been thinking for awhile now that it would be helpful, for the sake of the discussions about ethics on this blog, to devote some time to explicating Kant's thinking about the nature and foundations of morality, as well as some of the neo-Kantian approaches that have been pursued since. I begin this endeavor in the current post, by thinking about the context against which Kant developed his moral theory. Specifically, I want to locate Kant's moral theory in relation to the thinking of his predecessor whom Kant credited with "waking" him from his "dogmatic slumber"--the empiricist philosopher David Hume.

One of the most significant features of Kant’s moral philosophy is its status as a response to Hume’s dictum, “Reason is a slave to the passions.” Hume’s idea here--an important challenge to the dominant thinking about morality that preceded him--has since seeped deeply into the modern naturalist worldview. The basic notion is this: human reason cannot tell us how we ought to behave on its own. Rather, it can only tell us how to achieve certain aims, given that we want to achieve those aims.

In other words, my appetites and desires—influenced by inheritance and upbringing—lead me to value certain ends or goals; and then my reason can tell me how to achieve those ends or goals. With the right information and the proper degree of impartiality, I can reason out the most efficient pathway to get what I want. But absent some goal given to me by my “passions,” reason is not action-guiding at all.

In Kant’s language, Hume thinks that reason is only capable of generating “hypothetical imperatives”: injunctions on action of the form, “If you want X, then do Y.” But such imperatives are not action-guiding by themselves. Tell me that to avoid tooth decay I should brush my teeth, and I’ll brush my teeth—if I want to avoid tooth decay. But suppose, for some reason, I want my teeth to rot out of my mouth (perhaps I hate myself and have heard that dental health and hygiene is directly correlated with longevity). In that case, the “hypothetical” or conditional imperative doesn’t apply to me.

So, Hume thought that reason could only generate hypothetical imperatives. It could not, on Hume’s view, generate “categorical imperatives,” which have the form “Do Y (regardless of your desires).” Put another way, Hume thought that reason could not establish unconditional laws for behavior, rules for behavior that it is rational for us to act on regardless of our contingent appetites or desires. Reason can tell us that action A is the most efficient way to get outcome O, but it cannot tell us that we ought to pursue O, let alone that we ought unconditionally ought to pursue some action A regardless of its outcome. All rational reflection on action is, for Hume, means-ends thinking: if you seek a given outcome O, action A is the way to get there.

For Hume, this meant that if any reason-generated principles for behavior applied universally to all people, it would be because certain desires were universal. Perhaps all people desire happiness. If so, then a dictum of the form, “If you want to be happy, do Y” would be universal in its scope. It would apply to all people, but only because all people just happen to subjectively value their own happiness.

It was a short step from Hume’s dictum to 20th Century variants of ethical subjectivism—that is, to views of ethics which hold that moral norms apply to us only if they’re in line with our subjective values. While a certain uniformity of subjective values might be explained in terms of species-wide facts of human biology, and more localized uniformity might be achieved through socialization or cultural conditioning, there are no values that it would be intrinsically irrational to have (or not to have). And there are no moral prohibitions or requirements that apply regardless of people’s subjective values.

Kant thought all of this was nonsense. He was convinced, in contrast with Hume, that reason could place requirements on action that apply regardless of our subjective desires, and that reason could demand that we value certain things. Put more simply, Kant was convinced that there are some things that it is irrational for you to do even if doing it conflicts with none of your actual wants or desires. There is, according to Kant, at least one Categorical Imperative (upper case) that reason lays down. Obedience to this Categorical Imperative is an absolute condition for being rational in one’s practical life.

In fact, Kant thought there was indeed but one Categorical Imperative of reason—a very general principle that has a wide range of implications. In other words, he thought reason gives to us a fundamental principle of morality, from which all our specific moral duties derive. But he also thought that this fundamental principle could be formulated in different ways. Later commentators have often puzzled over these formulations, because they don’t seem to be different formulations of the same principle. Rather, they appear to be different principles. But that is an issue I probably won't take up in this series of posts.

In my next post, I will look at the first “formulation” of Kant’s “Categorical Imperative,” with an eye towards doing two things: first, explicating what, exactly, the principle is requiring of us; second, explaining why Kant thought that this principle was a demand of rationality, regardless of our desires.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Who's an Apologist?

Am I one? My first book, Is God a Delusion?, was called a work of Christian apologetics often enough—but I think the assumption that it was such a work lies behind many of the more uncharitable misreadings of it.

I certainly don’t think of myself as an apologist. Nor do I want that label for myself. Most of my work in Christian philosophical theology has involved adopting a critical stance towards such traditional Christian teachings as the just war tradition, the doctrine of hell, the doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration, and the categorical condemnation of homosexual intimacy.

But this critical stance has also been an internal one. That is, I have criticized Christian teachings from within. And when I first started reading the New Atheists, I found myself in the odd position of strongly disagreeing with their overall perspective towards theistic religion while, in fact, agreeing with many if not most of their most explicit criticisms. New Atheists like Richard Dawkins struck me as a bit like a tone-deaf person in the 1940’s who has never experienced the joys of opera but who is well schooled in human health issues—and who proceeds to scathingly denounces opera because the singers are on average too fat.

In my recent interview for the [ad hoc] Christianity podcast, the topic of apologetics came up, and I had the chance to try to formulate my thoughts on the topic. I suggested that apologists such as William Lane Craig operate like defense attorneys in a courtroom. Their goal is not to find the truth, but to vigorously defend their client. While such vigorous defense of a position can have a place in intellectual life—and while people such as Craig have much to say that is worth listening to—I would much rather be an explorer than a defense attorney.

That is, I have always seen myself as on an intellectual journey of discovery. This doesn’t mean I’m not prepared to vigorously defend a position (“This seems like a much more promising path if we want to find the lake, since it tracks the stream’s course, and there’s reason to think the stream is emptying into the lake”; “That strikes me as far too dangerous a road to travel; just look at the recent signs of rockslides, not to mention the bear prints!”). But it does mean that I don’t see myself as primary in the business of “defending the faith.” Living the faith, yes—but living it in the sense of living in it—in a rich landscape full of treasures as well as traps, wonderful vistas as well as bear caves.

This analogy is imperfect, since living the faith is, in another sense, a matter of seeing the same landscape that others live in through a distinctive set of glasses—and since what I want to explore is not merely the landscape, or the landscape as seen through this set of lenses, but the issue of “fit.” How well does this "prescription" help me to navigate on my journey? How well does it help me to see and appreciate the scenic overviews? What do others profess to see that I don’t, and what do I see that they don’t? How might these lenses be refined in the light of these insights? I don’t see how I can pursue these questions if I don’t put on the glasses. Nor, however, do I see how I can pursue these questions if all I care about is defending the glasses against all challenges to their adequacy.

But insofar as I am that kind of explorer, I do feel compelled to defend the validity of the kind of exploration I am doing when it is challenged. Do I then become an apologist?

I have a feeling that the glasses analogy is about to reach the end of its usefulness, so let me leave analogies behind for now and address explicitly what sparked this reflection. In response to my [ad hoc] Christianity interview, a regular commenter on this blog, Burk, posted here the following challenge:

I appreciated your consideration of William Lane Craig, for putting his cart before his horse. But then you also state your aim at the outset of your own polemical exercises, which is to show that religion can be intellectually respectable. Statements to this effect pepper your book and blog.

What if it isn't intellectually respectable? What if you are presuming what you seek to show, for reasons that are palpably emotional and inchoate? Sure, you may wish for intellectual respectibility, but have you gotten there? The whole idea of god is very much in question and remains to be shown in any "intellectual" sense. Thus the various projects of going beyond this towards "him" keeping "his" hand out to all sinners, saving them from "hell" and taking them to "heaven".. it is all risible- very much beneath intellectual respectibility.
Let me try to restate this challenge by first explicating what I take to be two characteristic features of apologists: first, they take the truth of a traditional body of doctrines as a given and then direct their intellectual resources to the task of defending that body of doctrine against challenges; second, their aim is to show not merely that their belief system is reasonable, but that—at least when it comes to its most central pillars—their system offers the most reasonable position, or perhaps the only reasonable one. Those who deny these pillars are therefore defective in their rationality. Put another way, the apologist is engaged in a kind of zero-sum contest of the sort one sees in sporting competitions and courtrooms, and is attempting to come out the winner.

Let me say a few things about these two features. The first seems to me a necessary condition for being an apologist: You have to be playing the intellectual game of defending your belief system against challenges—as opposed, for example, to critically examining those challenges to decide whether they have merit, and if so what changes in one’s belief system are called for. This feature may also, I think, be a sufficient condition for being an apologist—that is, even if the second feature doesn’t obtain, you might still be classified as an apologist. That said, the second feature is certainly very typical of apologists even if not strictly necessary. My own inclination is to treat it as characteristic but not necessary, and thus to distinguish between two kinds of apologists: the more common “adversarial apologist,” and what we might call the “friendly apologist.”

But even if we regard the second feature as necessary, it is clearly not sufficient. Every one of us views some positions we hold as not only reasonable, but as more reasonable than the alternatives. For example, I think the earth is roughly spherical, and I think any Flat-Earthers out there are being unreasonable in denying this. Am I therefore an apologist for the ball-shaped character of our planet? Not necessarily. First off, I might not feel inclined to defend my view about the earth's shape against Flat Earth challenges.

But even if I did defend my position, I wouldn't necessarily be an apologist for it. After all, I might consider the weight of the Flat Earth objections, decide after a fair and balanced reflection on them that that they are uncompelling, and then explain why. While I end up defending Round-Earthism, I'm not operating as a defense attorney for it, since I first considered the arguments against it fairly before deciding that they didn't work--and might have decided the other way.

But what if I roll my eyes dismissively, never taking the Flat-Earther argument seriously as I demolish it. Am I an apologist then? Not necessarily. Suppose (as I think is true) my commitment to the roundness of the Earth—and my belief about the selective irrationality of Flat-Earthers—is based on exposure to an enormous body of intellectually compelling evidence. There was a time, perhaps, when the Flat-Earth position was credible in the light of the available evidence. But as our body of evidence grew there were debates and discussions about the significance of that evidence. The Round-Earth theory grew in strength and plausibility, and the objections to it from the Flat-Earth camp proved themselves to be based on unsound thinking or incomplete knowledge.

And today, if the objections coming from the Flat-Earth camp are the same old ones that have already been thoroughly discredited, I'm not being an apologist even if I start out the debate convinced that the objection to my view is empty. My attitude is not “This objection *must* be vapid, since it conflicts with my belief; the task at hand is to figure out how and why it is vapid.” My attitude is, instead, “This objection has been shown to be vapid eight hundred times already, and there’s no reason to think it will suddenly become a credible objection this time, given that the Flat-Earthers putting it forward are offering nothing new.”

The former attitude is what is most definitive of the apologist: conviction that an objection to the apologist’s view that hasn’t yet been rationally refuted has simply got to be misguided precisely because it calls into question the apologist’s view. The apologist starts from this conviction and proceeds to look for the refutation that must be there.

I’m speaking of attitudes here because I want to stress that what is important for defining someone as an apologist is the subjective approach of the individual. If Joe sincerely believes, based on his exposure to the evidence and the history of dispute about the evidence, that a certain objection to his Flat-Earth position has been decisively refuted and for this reason dismisses it, he may be a dummy or an ignoramus or a dupe, but he isn’t an apologist for the Flat-Earth position. That label is reserved for those who assume the objection must be misguided simply because it challenges Flat-Earth-ism—and then set out to make that case (rather than being convinced, however mistakenly, that the case has been effectively made).

There are, however, some fine lines here. Suppose I am presented with novel evidence against the Round-Earth view, evidence that is legitimately hard to fit with the thesis that the earth is ball-shaped (no idea what such evidence would look like, but let’s pretend). I might approach this objection with extreme skepticism, pretty sure there must be something seriously wrong with it—because the case for the Round-Earth view is so overwhelmingly strong that rejecting that view on the basis of this new bit of evidence would require me to throw out a view with massive explanatory power. Thus supported by the strength of the Round-Earth view, I look for the problem with the objection to it, sure it must be there.

Am I an apologist?

My inclination here is to say that since “apologist” is a term of art it doesn’t much matter what answer one gives, so long as one makes the right sorts of distinctions. We could say that, in this case, I am being an apologist—but a very different sort of apologist than the ones who are convinced the objection to their view must be wrong out of pride or group loyalty or wishful thinking or something else along these lines. We might distinguish, then, between apologists who base their apologetic stance on the (perceived) weight of the evidence (call them “evidentially motivated apologists”), and those who base their stance on emotions or desires or other more affective motives (call them “affectively motivated apologists”). Or we might decide that the former isn’t an apologist at all, and reserve that term exclusively for the latter.

Either way, not all people of faith who have come to the intellectual defense of religion should be characterized as apologists. For example, I am a Christian theist who has defended the intellectual respectability of theistic religion—but with respect to the first and most significant feature of apologists, I don’t see myself as a good fit, since I am more than prepared to question very traditional Christian doctrines when my experience or exposure to critical challenges strikes me as warranting it.

This is not to say that I find every objection to Christian teachings to be credible. And some strike me as the same old unsound objections that have been decisively discredited before. But even then I try to take the time to explain why I think the objection doesn’t work…in part because my conversation partner may not have heard the reasons before even if they’re old hat to me, and in part because I want to make sure the reasons for setting aside the objection really are as convincing as I think.

With respect to the second characteristic feature of apologists, while I want to argue that theistic religion can be “reasonable” or intellectually respectable (although it needn’t be), I do not strive to show that intellectual respectability is limited to the theistic position. I know thoughtful, decent people from a range of religious standpoints: atheist, agnostic, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, etc. That theism can be intellectually respectable does not, on my view, entail that atheism cannot be. This is not a zero-sum contest where the reasonableness of my position depends on the unreasonableness of its alternatives. If I’m an apologist at all, then, I’d be a “friendly” apologist. (Not that I think of myself as an apologist at all, since I’d rather be an explorer than a defense attorney).

But here is where Burk’s challenge comes in. Burk argues, in effect, that I am presuming that religion can be intellectually respectable and then directing all my intellectual energies to the task of defending this position. But all the while I am unwittingly demonstrating the intellectual risibility of religion by making pronouncements for which there is no evidence (about such things as the universal benevolence of God)—a paradigmatically irrational thing to do that is utterly characteristic of religion in all its forms, even the one that I am trying to defend. In this sense, then, I am revealing myself as an apologist—so fixated on defending a position rather than investigating its merits that I fail to see what is plain to anyone looking at the position objectively.

If this is right, I embody the first and most central feature of an apologist—not with respect to traditional Christian doctrine, but with respect to the idea that theistic religion in a broad sense can be intellectually respectable. And when this idea is at issue, I might not even qualify as a friendly apologist. Burk doesn’t address this, but there’s certainly a case for saying that I embody the second characteristic feature of apologists when it comes to the question of whether religion can be intellectually respectable. After all, I think that those who challenge the intellectual respectability of religion in all its forms are not only mistaken but are making indefensibly sweeping generalizations. I have accused them of attacking religion from the outside, and hence from a stance defined by their own starting points which are not themselves being criticized but which are employed as the basis for condemning religion. I have said that this is the wrong way to make intellectual progress. In short, I am accusing those who regard all religion as irrational of being irrational.

In short, it might be argued that I am an adversarial apologist after all—not for the truth of traditional Christian doctrine, but for the view that religion in general, and theistic religion in particular (including Christianity) can be intellectually respectable (even if it isn’t always so).

In fact, I don’t think the argument for this conclusion works--primarily because I don't think Burk's case for attributing to me the central feature of an apologist works. But since this post has gotten plenty long already, I won’t tell you why (at least not here). Instead, I’ll ask you what you think (about these classifications, about where various people fall within them, and—if you like—about what you suspect I’d say in response to the argument pinning me as an adversarial apologist).

Saturday, June 11, 2011

When Life Hands You Lemons...Getting Serious

So, my attempt at a light-hearted contest for while I was out of town pretty much fell flat. It generated but one response in the comments section of the blog--a response which, I think, was an attempt to caricature what the response's author took to be my views on what we should do when confronted with an undesired and (at least at first blush) unpleasant aspect of reality.

But I also got a phone-in response from my friend and co-author John. While not the kind of playful or silly response I was originally envisioning, it deserves to be posted here. And of the two entries, it is the clear winner. So, here, then, is the winning response to my failed contest:
When life hands you lemons, do what the stellar opera soprano Rosa Ponselle--before whom the great conductor Arturo Toscanini once went down on his knees--did with lemons. She sucked on them before she performed as a tonic for her vocal cords. In other words, when life hands you lemons, find in those lemons that which is of God, and drink deeply of that.
Dare I invite other, more serious reflections of this sort? For my own reflection on what to do when life hands you "lemons," you can check out this post.

Friday, June 10, 2011

[ad hoc] Christianity Interview

My interview with the guys at the [ad hoc] Christianity podcast is now available for your listening pleasure (or as a a basis for shouted invectives or mockery, depending on your ideological leanings). Check it out here.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

While I'm out of town...

...please take the time to complete the following sentence:

"When life hands you a lemon..."

The most original, humorous, and relevant-to-themes-on-this-blog response will win a very special imaginary prize.

(Sample response: "...give yourself a papercut with you grandmother's copy of the King James Bible and then squeeze the lemon juice into the wound.")

Friday, June 3, 2011

Talbott vs. Loftus: Testing the Outsider Test of Faith

I recently stumbled across an essay by Tom Talbott--a Christian universalist like myself and a careful, thoughtful philosopher--that may be of interest to readers of this blog. It is an extended critical discussion of John Loftus's so-called "Outsider Test of Faith," which Loftus's fans seem to think is a profoundly insightful and important basis for critiquing religious belief.

In brief, the Outsider Test of Faith, or OTF, is (in Loftus's words) “a challenge to believers to test or examine their own religious faith as if they were outsiders with the same presumption of skepticism they use to test or examine other religious faiths. I have addressed Loftus's OTF only once before on this blog, and then only in passing in a blog post about authorial voice. My interest in the OTF has been minimal largely because it seems to have no real bearing on the kind of religion I want to defend; instead, it poses a threat only to more fundamentalist and exclusivist expressions of religious belief--which I wish to criticize right along with Loftus. Here, in full, is what I've had to say about the OTF on this blog up to this moment:
This principle seems sound enough within its sphere of application, but it is clearly framed in response to an exclusivist brand of religious epistemology radically at odds with the pragmatic and neo-Hegelian approach that I find compelling—an approach which leads me to articulate an inclusivist respect for alternative religious traditions conditioned by what I call (in my book) “the logic of faith”—a logic which imposes standards on when it is morally and intellectually appropriate to live as if a hoped-for possibility is true. These standards are ones I apply to my own religious life as well as to the religious lives of others. It is according to these standards that I extend conditional respect to a diversity of religious traditions—the condition being that they fall within the parameters of the logic of faith. And it is according to these standards that I trenchantly oppose more fundamentalistic expressions of Christianity.

In other words, Loftus is not talking to people like me—whom he tends to dismiss rather precipitously on his blog as engaged in little more than intellectual gerrymandering to avoid atheist arguments. As far as I can tell, he never takes seriously the possibility that our perspective was arrived at through critical reflection in the light of a range of experiences, ideas, and arguments, including those pointed out by atheists like Loftus.
After reading Talbott's philosophical critique of Loftus's OTF, I now feel as if I may have been far too generous in my assessment. That point aside, one of the things I really liked about Talbott's essay was his emphasis, when it comes to evaluating religious faiths, on juxtaposing any sort of "outsider" test with a corresponding "insider" test. As Talbott puts it in the essay,

With respect to many of the world’s great religions, particularly the eastern religions, I no doubt remain an outsider in this sense: I have a far greater familiarity with, and intimate knowledge of, the Christian religion than I have in the case of these other religions. But for that very reason, I should be less (rather than more) prepared simply to dismiss that which I do not yet fully understand. And for a similar reason, a true outsider, whether a fundamentalist Christian or a crusading atheist, is the last person I would trust to evaluate a non-Christian religion accurately, whether it be Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, or Taoism. Such an outsider is also the last person I would trust to evaluate my own understanding of the Christian religion.

Here, Talbott is expressing one of the chief methodological points that I first had driven home for me by reading Hegel: We are well-positioned to be effectively critical of a worldview or philosophy only to the extent that we can "step into it" and see how the world looks from the inside. Criticism of belief systems falls flat when one tries to perform such criticism from the outside.

According to Hegel, one cannot engage in criticism from a vacuum. One needs a framework within which to conduct criticism--an outlook or philosophy which provides standards of criticism. And when outsiders to a particular philosophy or outlook criticize that philosophy or outlook as outsiders, what they are doing (often without realizing it) is bringing the presuppositions of their own philosophy or outlook with them. These presuppositions thus end up not being critiqued, and you have an essentially unproductive exercise: "Given all the presuppositions of theoretical  framework A (which are being embraced uncritically), theoretical framework B is to be rejected insofar as it holds x, y, and z (where x, y, and z refer to views in B that are at odds with the presuppositions of A)."

Hegel thought there was only one way to avoid such dogmatic criticism. You had to engage in criticism from within. And you are most qualified to engage in such internal criticism when the belief system in question is (you guessed it) your own. You subject your own worldview, your own philosophy, to critical assessment by assessing its internal consistency, by testing its capacity to make sense of your lived experience--in short, by attempting to live it out critically to see how well it works according to its own standards. When one does this, one's worldview does not remain static but becomes dynamic, constantly evolving in the light of lived experience and critical, internal reflection. This, for Hegel, is the only way to avoid dogmatism: focus most of your critical attention on your own belief system, rather than spending your energy criticizing everyone else's.

To paraphrase one of Hegel's intellectual predecessors: "Stop trying to remove that splinter from your neighbor's eye. First, remove the mote from your own."