Virtue Ethics

One of the more significant books I have ever read is Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. But it’s a very difficult read, even if you have a background in philosophy and theology. Happily Mark Vernon has written a very accessible piece that gives a nice overview of the contemporary ethical systems based on duty and utility and why they came about in the first place. (In fact, Vernon does a better job than MacIntyre of explaining why these two new ethical systems — which are utterly pervasive today — were so compelling 400 years ago.)

Vernon then introduces the far older system of virtue ethics, what it is, and why it is crucial in the modern world.

The article can be found over at Big Questions Online.

And finally I’ll offer a quick contemporary illustration of what both Vernon and MacIntyre are talking about. I recently finished reading the novel White Oleander by Janet Fitch. It was a best seller and even featured in Oprah’s Book Club. Fitch is a good writer, but philosophically it is a hopelessly muddled book. Astrid Magnussen, the main character, is trying to figure out who she is, as she floats through the foster home system. She tries to answer all the questions which a virtue ethic deals with, but Janet Fitch (the author) is obviously a thoroughgoing ethical relativist. The result is that Astrid wants identity without moral accountability and the result is an utterly mangled sense of who we are are and what we might become as humans.

Bittersweet Biloxi

This week’s activities included an overnight trip to the Gulf Coast. We spent the night in Biloxi, had lunch in the French Quarter of New Orleans and were home in time for the picnic and (cancelled) bonfire at school. Having gotten back into running one of the attractions of this trip was a morning run on the beach, which we did.

Brenda running on Beach in Biloxi

Brenda having fun doing her best Gilad impression on the beach.

Who’s Gilad? Click here.

I’ve been told that running on sand is great because it’s softer and easier on the legs than most other surfaces. And it was great fun, the salt air blowing in from the Gulf, startling the gulls and terns off the sand, the sun rising over the garish Hard Rock and Beaux Rivage casinos looming to the east of the beach, marking the distance by the cigarette butts and beer cans left from the night before … what could be more romantic?

Biloxi, about an hour after sunrise, with the Beaux Rivage, Hard Rock, and Grand Casinos, along with a fake light house. What says "romantic ocean beach" more than a fake light house and casino?

The beach that runs along Biloxi and Gulfport is also treacherous. It is covered with thousands of oyster shells. They are easily seen in the sand out in the water and are thick along the beach itself. In places you have to move up into the soft sand in order to avoid the shells (and a turned ankle) half-buried in the harder sand down by the water.

Later in the morning, along another beach in Pass Christian (west of Gulfport) we briefly visited with a clean-up crew walking the beach. (They are still cleaning up tar balls from oil spill.) These folks said the oysters were killed by the aftermath of the oil spill. (Whether it was the oil itself or the highly toxic dispersants that Shell used which are banned in many countries but allowed in American waters, no one knows for sure.)

Another big surprise was the miles and miles of beach front property for sale all along the coast from Biloxi to St. Louis Bay. Since Hurricane Katrina flattened that area in ’05, many new condos, motels, and business have gone up along the beach, but there are also vast swatches of vacant land “filled” only with cement slabs and empty foundations, intersected by abandoned streets, and marked off by broken trees, an abundance of real estate placards, and lonely business signs with no evidence of the businesses that once stood there.

I suspect this is for the best. In contrast to these lonely stretches are the casinos in Biloxi and Gulfport that fester out of the sand like postules, bus-loads of gamblers swarming in like flies and oozing out of them when the money’s gone, while the casino owners suck the profits from the battered communities, leaving a few minimum-wage jobs as a sop. Leave the Gulf Coast to the fishermen and dock workers. (Both Biloxi and Gulfport are among the 100 largest ports in the U.S.) Such a life may not create the sort of wealth that America’s all-consuming greed demands, but it may be more appropriate and sustainable in the end.

Why I Adore Cloud Computing

I had the car in the shop for an oil change today. They have Wi-Fi, but it’s a typical hotspot and the connection is flaky. Today the Wi-Fi was like the customer service – absent. When my computer failed to connect a troubleshooting box popped up. When I clicked the box it brought up a drawing of the back of a router and asked if the computer was properly connected to the router. It then said:

“For further information follow this link.”

Turns out all of Windows troubleshooting information for fixing lack of connectivity to the internet is …

… on the internet.

Lent, The Wilderness, and Spring a Bit Sooner than Back Home

Tomorrow is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, so we are now well into the Triodian (the three Sundays before Great Lent). How better to prepare for Lent than spend 40 minutes in The Wilderness?

“The Wilderness” referred to here isn’t the Sinai, only the wilderness at the boarding school where we are temporarily living. (Yes, they really do call it “the wilderness.”) It is a several acre wooded area complete with various obstacle course pieces of equipment where the cadets do both physical and military training. There is a beautiful trail that skirts the edge of the wilderness and it takes a bit over a half hour to walk around it. Since this region just east of the Mississippi has loess deposits (just like Sioux City) it’s very hilly.

It even has a little stream you have to cross (just like the Jordan?) and there is a cement bridge over the spillway of the lake (just like the Red Sea?). I also suspect that during physical training, when the school military leadership is pushing the cadet corps hard the cadets might even “harden their hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in The Wilderness” (Psalm 95:8). There’s no Mt. Horeb in the middle of this wilderness though, just a fenced compound where the cadets sometimes spend the night. No reports of God talking to them, but the Colonel has been known to point his finger and give them a good talking to in the compound. If it’s part of an in-school suspension, it means they’re spending the night in the wilderness with only bread and water. The bread they get probably isn’t as good as manna, so no doubt they pine for life outside the wilderness, just like the Israelites: “We remember the fish we used to eat in [the dining facility] for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic …” (Num. 11:6).

But our wilderness experience was not that difficult. In fact we headed for The Wilderness because it was a gorgeous spring morning. The afternoon high was 81°. The grass is green. A few trees are starting to bud. The daffodils were waving in the breeze.

I saw in the Sioux City Journal this morning that officials in South Dakota are strongly recommending no travel because of a winter storm that will drop 8″ to 14″ of snow (along with freezing rain) across the state, mostly north of I-90.

Brrrr! I think that maybe I’ll extend my stay in The Wilderness from 40 minutes to 40 days or so.

Keeping the World Safe from Democracy?

In a recent article on Front Porch Republic, John Médaille made the following provocative observation:

The United States has always feared democracy in the Middle East, believing that it would lead to “one man, one vote, one time.” After that, Sharia Law would reign supreme and war with Israel would be universal foreign policy. Hence, we have propped up a series of autocrats in the region with huge bribes and subsidies; Egypt is the second largest recipient of foreign aid, after Israel.

I have found it curious that even after the facts of 9/11 came out, we continue to support the tyrannical Saudi Arabian royal family. To oversimplify the matter, terrorists may live in Afghanistan, but in general they came from Saudi Arabia by way of Yemen. And yet, while we continue to fight the fruit of terrorism in Afghanistan, we also continue to buddy up to the root of terrorism on the Arabian Peninsula. Given the facts that we were perfectly willing to encourage regime change in Iraq – also a huge source of oil – there seems to be more going on than just the Saudi oil fields.

Egypt is a similar case. President Mubarak is far closer in style and personality to the thugs we have gone to war with (hot or cold) mostly because of their thuggishness (Castro, Noriega, Saddam, etc.) than he is to Stephen Harper (Canada), Jacob Zuma (South Africa), or Bronisław Komorowski (Poland). And yet, as Médaille points out, we give Egypt more foreign aid than any other country but Israel.

Even though Médaille’s thesis is a bit sinister, it makes a great deal of sense.