September 16, 2011

Things seen and unseen.

Instapundit linked my post about the morality of affirmative action:
THE MORALITY OF AFFIRMATIVE ACTION: “The students at a university are always the students who were admitted. They feel hurt or outraged if they think the message is that they shouldn’t be here. They’re here, in the room, and the individuals who did not get in are not here to cry out with corresponding outrage. . . . The policy will only affect individuals who are not in the room, who are out there, just as the students who didn’t get in this year are out there. The difficult thing — and the true moral challenge — is to visualize those who are affected who are not in the room to express pain when you hurt them.”

Another case of what is seen and what is not seen. Politicians — among whose number I certainly count university presidents — advance their careers by exploiting the difference between the two.
He links to the essay "What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen," by the 19th century political economist Frédéric Bastiat, who begins:
In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.
My son John Cohen also quoted my seen-and-unseen comments, and he associated the general principle with the specific problem of capital punishment, quoting an article by Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule called "Is Capital Punishment Morally Required?" In that context, statistics indicate that capital punishment has a deterrent effect, but the people who are not killed are, of course, never identified. What we see is the convicted person, with whom we may feel challenged to empathize, and the dead person, whom it is too late to save.

The phrase "seen and unseen" calls to mind the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
I wonder if that was ever intended to refer to things that are unseen because they never happened, the alternate version of reality that would exist if we had made a different decision. But that is the moral problem I want to notice, and I will designate with a new tag "seen and unseen." I have 2 more things I want to talk about under that heading. One has to do with Rick Perry and the other has to do with Dan Quayle. But I'll put these in separate posts.

48 comments:

Fred4Pres said...

We refer to the unseen because we know there is more than we can sometimes perceive immediately.

Interesting post. You raise issues that are not immediately apparent.

Scott M said...

Alternate timelines and counterfactuals rock...just sayin'.

RonF said...

I've always considered "things unseen" as things we don't know about or don't understand.

Quayle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Quayle said...

Another reason we refer to the unseen comes from stories like in 2 Kings 6:

15 And when the servant of the man of God was risen early, and gone forth, behold, an host compassed the city both with horses and chariots. And his servant said unto him, Alas, my master! how shall we do?

16 And he answered, Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.

17 And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.

ricpic said...

Is that what passes for depth? That there will always be unseen as well as seen or foreseen effects of an action or a policy? I seen that while still a yute.

traditionalguy said...

I can't see what you are talking about.

Is there going to be an exam?

Seriously, the "wisdom" that we need is to see within traditions how we can avoid repeating mistakes.

Which sounds like education again. But education today has sold out to indoctrination into myths...like co2 pollution causing Global Warming.

Rumpletweezer said...

Speaking of things unseen and vaguely religious: Whatever happened to Lazarus? What did his friends do when he died the second time? What was the warranty on that repair?

edutcher said...

The Law of Unintended Consequences, to a certain degree.

It would be interesting to know if there are alternate universes in which all those "roads not taken" are played out.

Or maybe this is one of them.

Saint Croix said...

C.S. Lewis talks in his book The Screwtape Letters about all the things in science that we cannot see. And how thinking about things you cannot see gets you thinking about God.

"There have been some sad cases among the modern physicists."

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Sort of like Rumsfeld (who was mercilessly taunted by the press) and his 2002 statement about the military knowns and unknowns in the Iraq situation.

"There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.

We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.

But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know."

Perhaps not as elegantly put as Bastiat, but correct nevertheless.

Liberalism: The inability to be able to consider any possible unforeseen consequences of what sounded like a good idea at the time.

traditionalguy said...

Preventing Merck's HPV vaccine from being injected by the State into innocent 12 year old virgins is seen.

Slow and painful cervical cancer deaths of 27 year old women following hysterectomies and chemo all because of abysmal ignorance about vaccines is unseen.

Texas has more death penalties than we see.

C R Krieger said...

Someone was once talking about God's perfect will and God's permissive will and noted that God not only saw the "future", but the "futureable", what might have been.  Sort of like military planning, with it's "branches" and "sequels".

Regards  —  Cliff

Paddy O said...

"I wonder if that was ever intended to refer to things that are unseen because they never happened,"

That's an interesting interpretation, that no doubt is true in terms of how we might understand the theology today.

But, I don't think that was ever the intent.

I don't think they had the sophistication to think of alternate streams of reality, but were thinking of trying to encompass the everything that is in our present reality, both spiritual and physical, the real and the ideal, the substances and the accidents.

The conflict of that time was about the identity of Jesus, as well as the overall work of God. Gnostic debates had incorporated a whole lot of distinct opinions about God in the preceding era, one of which had to do with the Father of Jesus not being equivalent to the creator of physical matter. The physical was seen as evil, the spiritual as good. The problem of evil and the violence of the God of the OT was addressed by deciding that the demiurge was the figure in the OT, while there was a new reality in the NT, dismissing the physical and heightening the embrace of our spiritual identity alone.

So, the creed sought to respond to a lot of misguided tendencies in a very succinct package. God is the God who is creator and God of everything, all encompassing, making a statement about all that everything, namely that the physical is also good and of great worth.

But, like with law, theology has some debates about original intent vs. present meanings. So it works in a way, and it's a great parallel.

EDH said...

In that context, statistics indicate that capital punishment has a deterrent effect, but the people who are not killed are, of course, never identified. What we see is the convicted person, with whom we may feel challenged to empathize, and the dead person, whom it is too late to save.

Even when they're very much seen. William "Lefty" Gilday died in prison this week.

At 82 and suffering from an advancing case of Parkinson’s disease, Gilday finally acknowledged responsibility for the slaying four decades ago of Boston Patrolman Walter Schroeder, after whom the city named its police headquarters...

Still, he had a lucid memory of the morning of Sept. 23, 1970, when he helped a radical group from the Weather Underground rob a Brighton branch of the State Street Bank and Trust Co.

...Gilday had a long criminal record before he shot Schroeder, with charges dating back to 1947 that include armed robbery, concealed weapons, and assault with a deadly weapon. In 1964 he was sentenced to serve up to 25 years for armed robbery. He served only five.

While in prison he met Bond, and the two enrolled in a university program for inmates. It didn’t take long before they got caught up in the radical politics of the era, and the two joined a group called Students for a Democratic Society and later the Weather Underground. They allegedly robbed other banks and led an assault on a National Guard armory in Newburyport...

Stanley Bond... died two years later, when a bomb he built to escape the maximum-security prison in Walpole detonated prematurely...

After Gilday’s arrest in Worcester and trial in Suffolk Superior Court in 1972, he was sentenced to death. But his life was spared by a US Supreme Court decision that overturned the death penalty nationwide.

Over his 41 years in prison, Gilday made a name for himself as a smart jailhouse lawyer.

US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner, who represented Saxe [one of two Brandeis U coeds in getaway car] and knew Gilday, described him as an “enormously talented, very smart man.’’

“His life was a tragedy on many levels,’’ she said in a phone interview yesterday. “His talent was wasted.’’

Jim Pingeon, litigation director at the Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, a nonprofit prisoners’ rights group, said Gilday helped reform the prison system with lawsuits against the state Department of Correction.

With mixed success, he fought the department’s practice of listening in on prisoners’ phone calls and opening their outgoing mail.

“He was definitely a leader among prisoners,’’ Pingeon said...

In his hospital cell at MCI-Shirley, Gilday said he took pride in fighting the system and took his long years behind bars in stride.

When asked how he had survived for so long in such a difficult place - he was among the 17 percent of state prisoners serving a life sentence - Gilday said simply: “You get used to it. You make do the best you can. There’s no sense weeping about it.’’

He described the prison system as “a big machine’’ that “gets people and keeps them in.’’


Keeps them, eventually, when the "unseen" are finally seen.

Chase said...

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Hebrews 11:1

Kit said...

But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.

Oh how I used to hate thinking about that. What I've learned (the hard way) is that the unknown unknowns don't matter. If I need to know, it'll be shown to me. If I'm listening, I'll then know. And if I'm not, it'll keep coming until...well, until.

So much of life is a mystery. Embrace that and you'll save yourself a lot of grief.

X said...

Brave students, altruistically standing up for a policy that did not affect them negatively.

Larry J said...

This seen and unseen discussion points to one of the failures of Keneysian economics. The idea of government taxing or borrowing money to give out as stimulus ignores the unseen effects on the sources of that money. Unless they just run the printing presses to make the money from nothing (QE1 & 2), they have to first remove the money from the economy, either directly by taxation or indirectly by borrowing. That money is no longer available for uses by companies and individuals. This is the unseen part - we don't know what effect leaving the money in the economy would've had. Instead, the money goes to DC where a good percentage is absorbed by bureaucratic overhead (along with the normal graft and corruption) before it is returned as "stimulus." That part is seen. The unseen effects undermine the claims of a multipler effect of government spending because it ignores where the money originated. As a net across the economy, there is a multiplier effect of government spending. Only, the multiplier is less than one.

Quayle said...

And there isn't a person alive that isn't animated by faith - by envisioning an unseen world and then working to bring it into existence.

Even UW is doing that - they are envisioning a world that does not yet exist, where there is equal scholastic accomplishment distributed evenly within races.

Bernie Madoff envisioned a world, and worked to accomplish it.

So the issue isn't faith in the unseen. The issue is what other unseen things have you left out of your visions.

Do you envision a world where others in the world are real and have real feelings and all are treated equally.

Or do you envision and world where you and your chosen clan always come out on top and the others don't exist.

traditionalguy said...

The Lazarus that was raised by Jesus after 4 days dead and buried had more trouble coming.

The Sanhedrin guys decided that executing Jesus would not be enough. So they decided to also kill Lazarus to eliminate evidence of the magic powers of the Prophet from Galilee.

That reminds me of a discussion I had with church folks about the value of healing sick people with prayer for miracles.

One guy said so what, the sick people will still have to die later.

That stumped me. But living a full life span still excites me...I am now 17 months past my death and enjoying every minute.

WineSlob said...

They Never Mean to Cause the Unseen
But the Fart Always Follows the Bean
Their Holistic Dreams
Are a Gleam in a Stream
That Cleans the Forseen From Their Schemes.

madAsHell said...

WineSlob!! You owe me a new keyboard!!

John Foster said...

And here's a cite to a Second Circuit decision, since overruled, referring to the Nicene Creed in interpreting Admiralty Rule B: Winter Storm v TPI, 310 F.3d 263, 276 n.9 (2d Cir. 2002).

AG said...

The Catholic Church recently re-translated the Nicene Creed. That section now reads:

I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

Fred4Pres said...

Of course, perhaps we can get Carol Herman to opine on Moneyball sabermetrics for getting accepted to an ivy league or public university. Trooper and nspinelli's heads might just explode before the end of the day.

timmaguire42 said...

The murders that did not happen problem presupposes that the killer cannot be prevented from killing again short of execution. But, of course, the killer can be--by spending the rest of his life in confinement.

An interesting poll from a few years ago suggested that if "life imprisonment without parole" actually meant "life imprisonment without parole," support for the death penalty would drop dramatically.

Death penalty opponents often portray supporters as blood thirsty when the reality is that they are concerned with future victims. Their support for the death penalty is not support for killing people, it is an expression of lack of faith in the willingness of our justice system make life sentences stick.

Carol_Herman said...

Because your son, John, raised the subject, I cgotta tell ya I could care less about capital punishment. (Unless you can retrieve the organs, by getting the soon to be dead prisoner to cooperate with the "medicine man.")

I do think we should bring back chain gangs. I do think that making life for a criminal like he's a caged animal in a zoo ... is definitely the wrong way to build out system.

It's okay to throw drunks in the tank. When they smell up the place with their pee ... it could turn someone else into going stone cold sober. So, right there, it has its value.)

The Russians are lucky. They have Siberia. And, their press is deathly afraid on reporting on anything not approved by the politburo.

We have prisons. And, we can keep some of the worst offenders off the streets. But when they've "served their terms" they are free to go. They aren't even tattooed with information you'd find helpful, should you run across them.

Even when we deport some, they come back.

Schools, also, will be a mixed bag, every single year.

The worst of it is when an 18 year old freaks out, and goes psychotic.

And, this is followed by the next worry. That a kid could kill himself with drink. Or drugs.

Or want to commit suicide because of severe depression. With bad grades, and being turned down by others, prime motivators.

No admission comes with guaranteed success!

And, some kids go to high schools where it was easier to earn their grades. And, it's like plunging them into the Atlantic, telling them they had to "swim across the pond."

The only place where a review of skin color and genitalia might matter ... is in the alumni's office.

Who gives more?

What happens after kids graduate?

What if one of them really excels? (Like Jack Kemp, or Obama, did at Occidental?) You think their progeny become "legacy students?") Don't make me laugh.

Larry J said...

The murders that did not happen problem presupposes that the killer cannot be prevented from killing again short of execution. But, of course, the killer can be--by spending the rest of his life in confinement.

Deterence is something of a red herring when it comes to capital punishment. Of course you can't prove that executing condemned prisoners will prevent other people from committing murder. Throughout human history, we've had capital punishment and yet murders continue.

It isn't called "capital deterrence", it's capital punishment. Whether or not executions deter others from committing murder, the point is to punish the condemned prisoner in the most extreme manner allowed by law. Some people have trouble with the idea of punishment - it sounds too harsh. I don't.

While we can't prove the unseen, I do believe that the fear of punishment does deter some people from committing crime. I don't want to go to jail and throw away everything I've accomplished in life. If there's no fear of punishment (like those rioters and looters in England last month), then the worst will come out in many people.

I do have reservations about capital punishment. It's irreversible and being a human process, it's subject to human error. There are some people whose quilt is completely certain. The fact that it can take decades to carry out the punishment in such cases is a farce.

Alan said...

Another useful way of putting the seen-and-unseen point is Hazlitt's, in "Economics in One Lesson." The lesson is simply that in evaluating a policy you must consider its effects on everyone, not just its intended beneficiaries, and its future effects as well as its near-term ones. Extraordinarily hard to do.

As to the latter point, the dumbest thing Keynes ever wrote was "In the long term, we are all dead." We are now living in FDR's "long term," and feeling the consequences.

Larry J said...

As to the latter point, the dumbest thing Keynes ever wrote was "In the long term, we are all dead." We are now living in FDR's "long term," and feeling the consequences.

In the long term, we're all dead. So, it should be ok to:

1. Pollute as much as we want. After all, we'll all be dead. We can leave it to the kids to clean up the mess if they want to.

2. Bankrupt not only ourselves but our whole economy. We can leave it to the kids to pay back what we spent or to default. What's in it for me? I want mine NOW!

The economic pedophilia that the government has been practicing is screwing our children's futures for political benefit today. Our children will curse all our names for being so selfish.

John M Auston said...

Best example of "seen and unseen" effect, imo, is the Blackstone ratio (endorsed by nearly everyone):

"better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer"

Its fatal flaw, of course, is the fact of recidivism - as solid as actuarial tables , and promising more than one unseen innocent sufferer of the future criminal acts of the ten guilty persons set free.

mtrobertsattorney said...

Here's a suggestion: Why don't all those affirmative action law schools release the test scores, along with the redacted bios (so their actual identity remains unknown) of all those who were not admitted but who scored higher than all of the affirmative action folks who got in with lower test scores? The "unseen" then will become, at least partially, "seen."

What are the odds of this happening absent a law suit?

Richard Dolan said...

This 'seen/unseen' problem comes up all the time in mass tort litigation, where the interests of present class members have to be balanced against future (sometimes unborn) class members. All of the huge mass-tort class settlements have had to grapple with it -- Agent Orange probably being the first. Judge Weinstein has written perceptively about the ethical problems this poses for class action counsel, and has urged state bar regulators to address those issues in crafting a code of professional responsibility for class actions.

The tag 'seen and unseen' doesn't quite capture the idea. It's more the difference between 'actual and potential' or 'current and contingent'. As for the speculation about the Nicene Creed, it's an amusing idea. Even more amusing is the notion that those 4th century fathers of the Church were so inspired by the Spirit that they arrived at a startlingly early version of post-Einsteinian 'alternative universes' physics. If it were true it would be another proof of the existence of God -- an instance of Althouse channeling Acquinas. You're in good company.

David R. Graham said...

In the Nicene Creed, "seen" means "that available to sensory experience (of five senses)" and "unseen" means "that outside, beyond or transcending sensory experience."

An alternative universe is not the referent of the Creed in the word "unseen." The referent is simpler than that. It's an epistemological statement expressing the unity of all cognition in the power of God. A billion alternative universes would still subsist in that divine unity. There is no alternate to the all-encompassing. God has no second.

There are as many alternative universes as there are minds, and all of those subsist in the one divine unity ... plus any others that might come along.

However, it is untrue (and hilarious) to say, as Paddy O, does, that thinkers in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries lacked sophistication to contemplate an alternative universe. Platonic Idealism rests on a distinction between a tangible and a real (alternative) universe. And clear back in the Vedic era Sage Viswamitra could create complete alternate universes and not merely contemplate their possibility.

Finally, using the concept of "alternative universe," an exegesis of the Nicene Creed could credibly state that the Creed's purpose is to affirm the universal presence of a decisively salvic alternative universe, or better, reality newly thrown into existence to both end and mend the current dying system, and hereby affirmed through this Creed: namely Jesus the Christ, the consummating power of the triune Godhead (the correlate of Siva in Vedic theology).

Stosh2 said...

It seems like your seen and unseen question leads to the nature of matter and how humans perceive it and what the relationship between existence and perception is. You may wish to take a stroll over to the Physics Department and chat up some people who are studying the Quantum. 2,500 year old Buddhist philosophy also has some interesting ideas about it that don't completely conflict with Quantum Physics.

Charlie said...

Dear Carol,

By Gad, Madam, you are a character. There's never any telling what you'll say or do next, except that it's bound to be something astonishing.

(This is a sincere compliment.)

Charlie

TMink said...

Just to chime in on the spiritual side of things unseen, it acknowledges that the universe is bigger than that which we see, it acknowledges our limited perception, it acknowledges that we are limited in linear time. It acknowledges that God is not that way, that we are not like Him in that fashion.

Trey

Freeman Hunt said...

One of my favorite Bastiat passages, one of my favorite elements to discuss in the debate about capital punishment, and one of your best insights of the last few days. I love this post.

Paddy O said...

David, I don't think Platonic would mean that there's an alternative between tangible and real. It's the same universe. That was, from what I can understand, what the real was meant to address. We can have alternative tangible expressions of a chair, different colors, different materials, etc. But the idea of chairness stays the same. Take away the real, however, and there's nothing tangible. The real gives meaning to what we see. They're not merely different paths that can be explored.

But, my use of "sophisticated" was no doubt probably the wrong choice of words. They certainly were sophisticated thinkers, as indeed much of what they really were wrestling with at Nicea was much more sophisticated than most church discussions these days.

For the bishops, however, alternate realities of history wasn't in their scope of thought.

Though, then, like now, they had troubles with the homos and the heteros.

Paddy O said...

"The referent is simpler than that."

Which was exactly what I was trying to say.

cf said...

One Seen and Unseen might be that the extremes of caliber between students is amplified by this practice. The Asian and White applicants, more critically examined, end up being the top of the top performers, with those closer to "normal" omitted to accomodate the more average performing Blacks and Hispanics.

What if they just start at the bottom and go up? Begin as low as they need to go to attain their racial fairness, then that would be the levels for white and Asian entrance, also. The highest numbers, in fact, would mean you cannot get in. Now that would be fair. And the rEALLy really smart guys will do fine somehow anyway. Look at Jobs.

Paddy O said...

I'm curious about these 'unseen'. Does graduating from UW-Madison make that much of a difference in actual job placement or opportunity?

Because the unseen here aren't the invisible. They're seen somewhere else.

And maybe on a smaller or different campus they have a chance to shine more, leading to more opportunities.

We're stuck in the credentialing mentality of having a degree from a particular institution gives meaning to someone's existence. They are real if they are badgers.

Why not talk about the opportunities that frustration sometimes brings, an opportunity to be pushed to stand out on continuing merit.

Pogo said...

I am stupefied and struck dumb.

Can it be Frédéric Bastiat being discussed?

Mein Gott!! The heavens have opened.

XWL said...

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:


Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn, lines 11-14.

Writ Small said...

The gun rights folks have a similar problem. Someone commits a crime with a firearm and it makes news. Someone prevents a crime by brandishing a weapon: unseen.

gutless said...

Leave the Council of Nicea out of this!

harvardlawcaveman said...

For what it's worth, hundreds of Harvard Law black alumni are being "seen" -- and written about from an affirmative action perspective -- this weekend:
http://harvardlawcaveman.wordpress.com