The Multiversal Sigh

Edit (3-25-14): added a summation at the end for clarity.

I ended up giving Elisa’s post, spurred by Jamess argument, on the possibility of morality in the multiverse a lot of thought on a long bus ride on Friday, and I finally got around to putting fingers to keyboard.  I originally intended to post a comment on her blog, but I got carried away and decided to publish my book here instead.

Like the other commenters, I’m not actually bothered by James’s concern; in fact, I think I’m psychologically incapable of being bothered by it, because the notion of the “multiverse” he appeals to is so removed from my experiences and nature, and it is my experiences and nature that are the primary bases of my ethical judgments.  Even if I were convinced of the validity of James’s concern, I wouldn’t change any of my behavior, and I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.  I intuitively care about this universe because I experience it, and no philosophical argument can possibly convince me of something as counterintuitive as the position that I am making a mistake if I care about the consequences of any of my actions.  (I’m not saying philosophical arguments never have practical weight, just that there are certain intuitions that are too powerful for them to override, especially in the realm of ethics, where intuition is the ultimate arbiter.)

That said, I’m going to argue that many of the responses to James are overly dismissive and prove too much.

I want to start by making what I think is the intuitive case for the validity of James’s concern, assuming the existence of his version of the multiverse.  It seems that his concern is based on the principle that an action can only have moral significance if it has an expected or actual net effect on the world.  I’m not well-versed in ethical theory, but this strikes me as a pretty intuitively sensible principle.  Morality, after all, is practical – it is meant to guide our judgments and actions – so how can an action possibly have moral significance if it can’t have any impact on the world?  And if an action must have an expected or actual net effect on the world in order to have moral significance, it follows trivially that in a world in which all possibilities are necessarily realized (i.e. a Jamesian multiverse), no action can have moral significance.

I see two basic ways of dealing with this claim, which are analogous to the “hard determinist” and “compatibilist” approaches to the problem of justifying our moral practices in a deterministic/random world (the problem being we feel compelled to praise or blame people for certain actions despite acknowledging that these actions are the result of the same physical laws that govern the wind).  One is to simply accept that no action can possibly have moral significance (though we may nevertheless feel compelled to treat actions as having such).  Based on my limited familiarity with the literature, I think this is what hard determinists are up to with respect to moral responsibility.  I take it they maintain that any worthwhile and intuitively satisfactory notion of moral responsibility inescapably rests on the assumption of metaphysical, you-could-have-done-otherwise free will, which unfortunately is ruled out by physics.  Needless to say, this puts hard determinists in a bind: they either have to treat their moral practices as bunk (good luck), or they have to live with the belief that these moral practices, which they find compelling, are bunk. 

In contrast, compatibilists avoid this bind by maintaining that moral responsibility is possible, because the moral judgments we feel compelled to make do not actually require the assumption of free will of the impossible metaphysical variety; rather, they rest on physically possible preconditions, such as freedom from external compulsion, and any sense we have that they require something more is, as a descriptive matter, baseless.  (I’ve heard Dennett’s book Elbow Room persuasively argues this, that metaphysical free will is not actually something we actually care about when deciding to assign praise and blame.)  And some compatibilists further argue that to the extent one’s moral judgments do rest on the assumption of metaphysical free will, one should revise her conception of moral responsibility, because it’s less useful than a compatibilist one.  (I’m not sure how such arguments are supposed to have traction.)  Essentially, compatibilists reject the premise that one must have metaphysical free will in order to be morally responsible for his actions.  Similarly, a compatibilist-style response to James would involve rejecting his premise that an action must have an expected or actual net effect on the multiverse in order to have moral significance. 

It strikes me that Elisa, among others, is enthusiastically taking a hard-determinist-style approach to dealing with James’s concern, and I think this approach suffers from similar drawbacks to hard determinism itself.  I think Elisa’s “resolution fallacy” argument is tantamount to a hard determinist saying: “sure, at the high resolution of physics, metaphysical free will is impossible, but we experience having metaphysical free will, and morality is only concerned with the low resolution of experience, so it’s cool for us to treat metaphysical free will as real when making moral judgments.”  Elisa herself actually compared James’s concern about the multiverse to worrying about determinism when making decisions.  She tweeted: “Do you let free will arguments muck with your internal moral compass?” – as if to suggest that free will arguments simply aren’t relevant to using one’s moral compass, even if one’s moral compass is sensitive to free will.  That’s a pretty big bullet to bite.  As outlined above, the compatibilist position strives to dodge this bullet by explaining that one’s moral compass is not, or should not be, muck-uppable by determinism, because one’s moral compass does not, or should not, rely on anti-determinist assumptions.  Compatibilism confronts determinism head-on; it grabs the purported dilemma by the horns, looks it in the eye, and says, “you’re not really a dilemma.”  It does not say, in the vein of Elisa’s response: “I acknowledge that determinism undermines my moral compass, but I’m going to continue to rely on my moral compass as if nothing’s the matter, because I still experience it as working.”  There is a certain intuitive appeal to this response, but it raises two serious problems: (i) why is it okay for morality to tolerate a high res/low res distinction, such that it does not hold up under “high res scrutiny” but somehow nevertheless has obligatory force under “low res scrutiny”; and (ii) even if this is acceptable, where do you draw the line between the two levels of scrutiny? 

I think another one of Elisa’s analogies further illustrates these problems.  She compares James’s concern about the multiverse to worrying about using Newtonian mechanics when making decisions about the macro world.  But it’s not clear to me that we should be comfortable with analogizing our moral practices to Newtonian mechanics, because that would entail conceiving of a correct moral argument as one that is false (like Newtonian mechanics) but happens to direct one to act in accordance with what morality actually requires (like Newtonian mechanics providing the same results as our better theories in the macro world).  We can justify our reliance on Newtonian mechanics because although it works on elephants and not on electrons, it provides the same results as our theories that work on both elephants and electrons.  In a very real sense, the problems with Newtonian mechanics are irrelevant if all we care about is measuring an elephant.  But in what sense could certain problems with our moral practices be similarly irrelevant?  And what better theory can we appeal to to justify the use of false moral practices?  (And why wouldn’t we just use that theory?  It presumably, unlike quantum mechanics, wouldn’t involve a lot of complicated math.)  I don’t think there are good answers to these questions.

Thus, I’m inclined to favor a compatibilist-style approach to addressing James’s concern.  As noted above, this approach entails rejecting James’s premise that an action must have an expected or actual net effect on the multiverse in order to have moral significance.  However, it’s not clear that this premise should go.  (So maybe the existence of the Jamesian multiverse really would undermine our moral theories.)  Perhaps it should be rejected on the grounds that while it makes sense to have a net-effect requirement for moral significance in our universe, it doesn’t make sense to apply this requirement across universes.  Perhaps the causal independence of the separate universes is somehow relevant. 

I’m not sure where to go from here (other than to greener pastures), but I hope I’ve established that James’s concern – at least on a purely theoretical level, and on the assumption that his version of the multiverse exists – is not obviously silly (at least not more so than plenty of other philosophical worries!).  I think the easy ways out that people have advocated draw untenable distinctions and/or render the moral playing field even more of a free-for-all than it inherently is.

In sum:
1. Our moral practices seem to endorse the principle that an action can only have moral significance if it has an expected or actual net effect on the world.
2. Assuming the Jamesian multiverse exists, no action can possibly have a net effect on the world, so arguably no action can possibly have moral significance.
3. One way of dealing with this is to simply continue engaging in our moral practices, even if they rely on the net-effect requirement, on the grounds that morality is only concerned with our experiences, and nothing feels any different if it turns out we live in the multiverse.  Elisa and many of her commenters seem to have initially made responses along these lines.  I think this sort of approach is misguided, because it embraces unprincipled incoherence.  It effectively says: so what if it turns out one of the principles underlying our moral practices can't be satisfied, our moral practices still feel compelling, and that's good enough.  It's analogous to a hard determinist qualmlessly dishing out praise and blame, on the grounds that praising and blaming feel justified, while maintaining the praising and blaming aren't actually justified (because they assume that people have impossible metaphysical free will).
4. Another response, which I prefer, is to challenge the net-effect requirement, either by saying it's completely bunk (as I imagine, e.g., a Kantian would do), or by saying it only makes sense with respect to this universe, not across universes (as Elisa and James do below).  (This response is akin to the compatibilist approach to moral responsibility, which rejects the notion that our practices of praising and blaming rely on the assumption that people have metaphysical free will.)  I'm sympathetic to the latter move, but, as I argue in this comment below, it also seems to raise real problems.
5. Thus, it's not obvious that living in the multiverse wouldn't shake the foundations of our moral practices.

CBA FTW

I hope we can all agree on the following basic, general assessment of the merits and limitations of cost-benefit analysis (CBA).  I’m not that well informed about CBA issues, but this all makes sense to me.

Limitations of CBA

1. CBA is not scientifically objective.  Its conclusions are not “knowledge,” though it can provide us with knowledge, such as by revealing certain trade-offs or valuations that were formerly implicit in a regulatory scheme.  CBA depends on value judgments, because values determine what counts as a cost or a benefit, as well as how costs and benefits should be quantified.  So CBA is not “self-justifying,” though I think its justifications are extremely powerful.

2. CBA should not necessarily be used to determine how a law or regulation should be enforced.  I’m not sure how exactly we should go about deciding when CBA is acceptable or required, but certain laws and regulations are clearly not based on consequentialist reasoning and therefore should not be enforced at the direction of a consequentialist tool.  The law is not a thoroughly consequentialist enterprise.  For example, the Americans With Disabilities Act contains certain “reasonable accommodations” requirements.  It may be the case (I’m not sure about this) that the reasonableness of requiring an accommodation is clearly not meant to be determined based on CBA, but rather should be based on a common-sense, reasonable-person-type analysis, even if this results in the provision of inefficient accommodations that are theoretically suboptimal.  (For the avoidance of doubt, this is not to suggest that the ADA is a bad law: it may be the case that it was the only politically viable option and is preferable to having done nothing or to having waited for more favorable political circumstances.  I wouldn’t know.)

In addition, there are probably situations in which CBA is not worth the candle, in that the cost of engaging in CBA is higher than the marginal expected value it would provide compared to a readily available alternative, such as a common-sense, bright-line rule.

3. CBA isn’t easy.  It is difficult to quantify costs and benefits in a way that is both consistent and in accordance with our values.  For example, when should people’s willingness to pay to avoid a cost be used as a basis for quantifying that cost?  If some sort of average willingness-to-pay is used, how should it be calculated?  (Which people should count towards the average, etc.?)  When should cost-of-mitigation be used instead?  Each of these measures is an imperfect proxy, and each is imperfect in different ways.

4. Relatedly, CBA is not the be-all, end-all of regulatory decisions.  It only tells us what the overall costs and benefits of a proposed policy are – though the quantification of costs and benefits may be, and perhaps should be, influenced by distributive and positional concerns.  It doesn’t tell us how exactly to implement the policy.  And perhaps the potential means of implementation should in some cases influence how the costs and benefits are calculated – for example, if the policy decision in question is where to place a garbage-processing facility, perhaps separate CBA calculations should be done with respect to the differently situated residents of the particular neighborhoods under consideration.

5. CBA may be more vulnerable to political abuse than “command-and-control” alternatives.  I am highly skeptical of this view, but the argument is that courts have much more discretion to strike down CBA-based regulations than regulations that are specified in the governing statute itself, and courts are highly politicized; therefore, CBA opens the door to effective regulation by corrupt quasi-dictators.  I am skeptical of this, because (i) courts’ corruption is decently mitigated by various factors, including the need to publicly justify most decisions, whereas legislative corruption is out of control, tends to happen behind closed doors, and often comes into play when regulated companies and industries lobby for better treatment, and (ii) judicial review of CBA-based regulations is a fairly formalistic exercise that is not designed to facilitate a court’s substitution of its own CBA judgments for those of the regulator, but rather is designed to ensure that the regulator properly engaged in the process of CBA, so it isn’t that easy for courts to deviously reach politically motivated conclusions (cf. Scalia doesn’t always vote for the result he wants, because his political capital is limited, and I believe he is known for deviating from his politics more so when it comes to technocratic cases, where its harder to handwave and the political stakes are not particularly high, at least compared to hot-button cases such as those involving gay rights and universal health care); moreover, the very structure of judicial review of administrative decisions limits courts’ ability to usurp regulators’ authority, because courts can’t affirmatively make regulations, but rather can only strike them down and direct the agency to try again in accordance with certain procedural requirements.  I’m not saying courts are great; I’m saying Congress sucks more and has more regulatory power.

Also, keep in mind the level at which this political abuse argument operates: it says that a given regulation is more abusable by courts if it is the result of administrative CBA as opposed to legislative specification; this ignores the fact that CBA-based regulations tend to be much better than command-and-control-based ones, so even if courts are more corrupt than Congress, if they can’t always reach the results they want, we're likely better off under a CBA regime.

Merits of CBA

Cass Sunstein has made a career of setting forth the merits of CBA, and I’m not that familiar with his work, but the merits of CBA that are readily apparent to me seem like more than enough to recommend its widespread use.  I’ll keep this section simple.

1. On balance, CBA is unambiguously superior to any other means of consequentialist decision-making.  This point smacks of tautology – consequentialism is inherently concerned with comparing costs and benefits, broadly speaking – but it is important to keep in mind.  Many, if not most, policy decisions are based on consequentialist reasoning, albeit of a form that is not explicit, systematic, and transparent about the inevitable trade-offs at stake.  CBA minimizes these defects to great avail.  In short, by increasing decision-makers' awareness and understanding of trade-offs, CBA enables decision-makers to optimize more effectively.  Actual CBA is preferable to handwavy quasi-CBA.  As I put it in another forum:
I think the obvious defense of explicit, aboveboard weighing, however speculative, is that there are some valuations that people would reject, and the only way to ensure that we do not implicitly use such valuations is to be clear about our calculations.  Also, I think there is something to be said for crude quantifications and modeling in some cases.  For example, if everyone agrees that several items being compared are valuable essentially because they each possess the same four qualities, it might be a good idea to quantify the degree to which they do so and/or to rank the importance of these qualities in one’s value calculus, in order to avoid acting inconsistently with one’s actual preferences due to cognitive shortcomings.

***

Unrigorous explicit valuations may irritate you, but the alternative irritates me – it reminds me of this time in my environmental policy seminar when a student earnestly argued that certain types of environmental values (beauty, biodiversity, and the like) are incommensurable with the other values that one should factor into environmental policy decisions.  The class quickly came around to what I regard as the obviously sensible view that any decision implicitly places a value on these “incommensurables,” and that it would be better to crudely quantify them, thereby crudely maximizing people’s preferences, rather than affording them some indeterminate, unrankable value.

***

I certainly think something should change if a regulation in one industry implicitly valued a human life at $1 million and a regulation in another industry did so at $10 million.  Similarly, however we value human life, I think we should do so consistently in different regulatory contexts, so I think it’s worth examining where we can get the most bang for our buck.

***

Modeling isn’t inherently that costly (for an extreme example, imagine a model that simply ordinally ranked various locales in terms of biodiversity and beauty and weighted these factors 2 to 1), and there are clear benefits to using quantities in cost-benefit calculations.  So I think it should be a rare case where we reject quantitative modeling entirely.
2. CBA is superior to non-consequentialist decision-making in the overwhelming majority of regulatory cases.  This claim obviously implicates a sprawling, age-old debate that I have no desire to get into here.  But I will make the point that I suspect “the will of the people” with respect to the vast majority of regulatory decisions is something vaguely utilitarian.  Regulation tends to be about issues such as safety, which do not, at least not in a straightforward way, implicate deontological concerns.  People may say things like “each human life is infinitely valuable,” or “every sperm is sacred,” but they don’t actually believe these things, and it would obviously be suicidal, if not impossible, to make policies that are in accordance with such statements.  What people actually want is a certain amount of safety that varies with the relevant costs and benefits (which is not to suggest that people’s purported safety desires or revealed preferences should always be dispositive of safety policy; for example, people can trade off cost and safety to some extent in deciding which car to buy, but they can’t meaningfully do so in deciding which flight to take, and this may very well be a good thing).  So I think CBA is clearly preferable to non-consequentialist regulatory decision-making, which ignores the utilitarian trade-offs that people care about.  I think examples of non-consequentialist regulatory laws, such as my ADA discussion above, are exceptional and unrepresentative of the state's regulatory apparatus.

Conclusion

CBA isn’t perfect.  It isn’t scientifically objective.  It isn’t free of vexing value-judgment calls.  But it’s the best tool for the job.  And it doesn’t inherently purport to be anything more!  It doesn’t inherently purport to “generate objective assessments.”  It isn’t inherently “basically a set of policy preferences dressed up as science.”  It is only such things according to its most overzealous defenders.

I recognize that it’s dangerous and irritating to “fetishize” flawed methodologies such as CBA.  CBA should not be placed on a pedestal with the scientific method (which I do think belongs on a pedestal even if most of our attempts at science fail to do it justice).  But it should indeed be regarded as the best system we have for making regulatory decisions.

We All Want To Change The World

James argues, among other things, that one consequence of the (overall clearly good) sexual revolution is that women increased their participation in the "sex market" and lowered their "prices," and men responded by shifting from the "long-term committed relationship (LTCR) market" to the sex market.  Accordingly, because "[t]he characteristics that lead to success in the sex market do not overlap perfectly with the characteristics that lead to success in the LTCR market," the sexual revolution differentially changed the levels of sexual success of different types of men.

This seems obviously true to some extent, and obviously to what extent is the rub.

But James also argues that men responded to the sexual revolution by "investing less in suitability" for an LTCR.  In support of this view, he links to a report indicating that men's participation in the labor force has been decreasing since the 1950s.  The report is consistent with James's view, of course, but it obviously doesn't prove it.  For instance, the report itself notes: "This decline has resulted from various factors.  For example, the Social Security Act was amended in 1960 to make individuals under 50 years of age eligible for disability payments."  Also, James himself points out, but I think downplays, the high rate of incarceration of men (insanely high among certain demographics), which is not a result of men choosing to invest less in suitability; rather, it is primarily a result of powerful social forces such as the drug war and America's decreasing investment in education.  So, on balance, the government certainly seems to invest less in men's suitability than it used to.

That said, is James's view correct?  Do men invest less in suitability than they used to?  I'm inclined to think not, for two main reasons.  (Like James, I'm ignoring gays to simplify and focus my argument.)  To help me articulate these reasons, I want to draw a distinction between "suitable" and "unsuitable" men (given the crudeness of this distinction, you can guess which one I am).  Basically, a suitable man is one who a reasonable woman would marry even if she didn't feel culturally or economically obligated to get married, and an unsuitable man is one who a reasonable woman would only marry if she felt culturally or economically obligated to marry him.  (So I'm ignoring men who are so repugnant that no reasonable woman would ever feel culturally or economically obligated to marry them.  You know who you are.)  With this distinction in mind, here are my two reasons.

On balance, men have more of an incentive today to invest in suitability than they did before the sexual revolution.  Before the sexual revolution, most unsuitable men were able to get married despite their unsuitability, because the vast majority of women were dependent on men for economic support.  In addition to the various cultural pressures to marry, women had to marry in order to meet their basic needs, because they were systemically excluded from the labor force or grossly underpaid.  Consequently, unsuitable men had no sharp incentive to rise to the level of suitability.  Of course, they could increase their status in the marriage market by bettering themselves in relevant ways, but they didn't have to make themselves suitable in order to get married; sexist society took care of this for them.  In contrast, most unsuitable men today would have to make themselves suitable in order to get married, because the vast majority of women are no longer economically dependent on men or culturally compelled to marry.  Perhaps unsuitable men invest more in succeeding in the sex market, relative to succeeding in the LTCR market, than they used to, but the fact is, if they want to get married, they have to make themselves suitable.  And presumably most of them do want to get married -- marriage is still part of the normal life path, perhaps especially so among the cultures is which most unsuitable men grow up.  So, in sum, unsuitable men seem to have more of an incentive today to invest in suitability than the did before the sexual revolution.  What about suitable men?  I'm not sure, but I'm also inclined to think they have more of an incentive.  On the one hand, I agree with James that suitable (and unsuitable) men have more opportunities in the sex market than they used to, so they have more of an incentive to increase their chances of succeeding in the sex market, and these increases may come at the expense of increases in their suitability (e.g., putting more effort into sports than school).  On the other hand, women can afford to be more choosy than they used to be, so the suitability threshold for men has increased since the sexual revolution -- men who would have been suitable back in the day no longer are now, and presumably most women's individual suitability thresholds have increased.

On balance, the qualities that lead to a man's success in the sex market are not that different from the qualities that lead to a man's success in the LTCR market.  James is correct that "[t]he characteristics that lead to success in the sex market do not overlap perfectly with the characteristics that lead to success in the LTCR market," but I think there is still quite a bit of overlap, especially for higher-class men.  Certainly, I don't think many of these characteristics are antithetical.  For instance, being in shape or being smooth may be more important in the sex market than in the LTCR market, but it's not like either of these qualities ever reasonably hurt someone's chances in the LTCR market.  Of course,  resources spent working on a quality that's more valuable in the sex market cannot be spent working on a quality that's more valuable in the LTCR market, so there is some tradeoff, but it's not necessarily significant.  Furthermore, there's the possibility that men today invest more in both their suitability and their desirability in the sex market, relative to men before the sexual revolution, because women are more selective in both markets due to their empowerment.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Was born 28 years ago.
  • Had a nice dinner at Franny's courtesy of friends.
Thoughts -- Excerpts From The Middle Ages, Part 13: Peter Abelard
Abelard was one of the most fascinating personalities in a time that was inclined to suppress or disregard personalities. In intellectual history he remains an example of a mighty intellect; and in popular remembrance, a symbol of the great lover, although like other great lovers, he was more than a bit of a cad. Around the age of twenty he appeared in Paris, defied and confuted the learned doctors, and soon opened a school of his own. His popularity was immense, except among the teachers who found their classrooms deserted. He was nicknamed the Indomitable Rhinoceros. He fell in love with the learned and beautiful Héloïse, niece of a canon of Notre Dame. She bore him a son, who was pedantically christened Astrolabe. The angry canon seized and castrated Abelard, who had then no recourse but to enter a monastery, while Héloïse, at his insistence, became a nun. She wrote him beautiful, passionate letter expressing her love and longing, unquenched by her vows and by her lover's misfortune. (One historian points out that she was enabled to write at length because as abbess she could raid the convent's store of parchment.)

Abelard made important contributions to philosophy, to logic and ethics. His most influential book was Sic et Non (Yes and No or On the one hand and on the other). It is a list of apparent contradictions in the Bible and the Church Fathers, with suggestions for harmonizing the conflicting statements. Abelard also did something for the emancipation of women. As Friedrich Heer has written: "Abelard elevated Mary Magdalen, the patron saint of women sinners, above the militant saints of the feudal Middle Ages, and so initiated a Magdalen cult. . . . Abelard sought out the youth and the women of Europe, calling on them to think boldly and to dare to love with passion. . . . " And finally, his personal influence made the Paris Left Bank, the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, the intellectual center of Paris and the Western world.

Abelard's chief enemy was that mighty battler for the Lord, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard repudiated human reason as a means for the attainment of divine truth. He was an intellectual anti-intellectual. He bade his clergy flee the Babylon of the Paris schools in order to save their souls -- "You will find more in forests than in books. Woods and stones will teach you more than any master." He represented that distrust of science, philosophy, and speculative intelligence that still agitates some earnest believers. Bernard brought Abelard to trial for heresy; but Abelard played his trump by dying before Rome could render a decision.
But Enough About Me

I've decided that this will be my last daily entry. I'm joining the ranks of the sporadic updaters; from now on I'll only open my post editor when I have something to say.

When I started this blog, I was doing routine, mind-numbing work day in and day out, and I sought a sense of fulfillment through thinking and writing. I also had the mental energy to spare.

Fortunately things have changed, and I'm now occupied with substantive, often challenging, assignments. I'd rather not have an obligatory blog post extending my daily to-do list.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this phase of my career in publishing, entertainment, and political advocacy. It almost lasted a month!

Story of my life.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Had a fantastic homemade brunch at my uncle's.
  • I've decided that tracking my work hours on this blog is another foolish consistency I'm better off abandoning. I already document them at work, so data generation isn't an issue, and if I have a particularly interesting workday, I can always just mention it here.
Recommended Links
Thoughts -- Excerpts From The Middle Ages, Part 12: Surgery
The peasant suffered from exposure and deforming toil; the artisan's life was confining and sedentary. Some trades had their special afflictions, such as the woolworkers' anthrax and the painters' arsenical or lead poisoning. Physical injuries, no quickly repaired, might well be permanent; a cut might leave a lifelong scar. If a tooth ached, it was often extracted and gone forever. Eye trouble was very common -- ophthalmia, trachoma, tumors, cataracts, blindness. The purblind King John of Bohemia contracted with a doctor to cure his cataract; the doctor failed and was sewn in a sack and cast into the Oder River. One is struck by the number of cripples, stumping or crawling, in medieval genre pictures. Some of the twisted limbs must have been congenital defects or the results of bad midwifery. The legless and handless were often the product of legal mutilation; the sinning hand of a thief might be punished by separating it from the body. Amputation was the usual method of dealing with a compound fracture or with a spreading infection, and it was not unlikely to spread infection further.

Qualified physicians and surgeons were scarce and were apt to confine their practice to the rich and noble. Although medicine suffered from its slavish obedience to classical and Arabic authority, the achievements of surgery were remarkable. Trepanning was common because of the prevalence of head wounds and fractured skulls sustained in battles and tourneys. Operating for hernia, cancer, and gallstones was frequent. Surgeons performed cesarean sections, treated hemorrhages with styptics and ligatures, broke and reset badly joined bones, put fractured limbs into plaster casts. Although it is often said that medieval doctors had no idea of antisepsis, they cauterized wounds and dressed them with old wine, strong in alcohol, and with sterile whites of newly broken eggs, and soothed them with balmy dressings. They practiced an at least partial anesthesia, putting patients to sleep by holding to their noses sponges soaked in opiates, mandragora, and the drowsy syrups of the East. Plastic surgery was performed in the fifteenth century; noses, lips, and ears were build up by skin grafts. Trusses were common, and esophagus tubes were used for artificial feedings.

Physicians, who were learned scholars, felt themselves to be a cut above the surgeons, who were manual workers. Since the surgeons were all too few to meet human needs, most of the operations fell into the hands of barber-surgeons. It took the surgeons centuries to break their association with barbering. Even in eighteenth-century Germany an army surgeon had to shave the higher officers.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Had brunch at Melt, home of one of the best burgers I've had.
  • Went to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where the trees are starting to leaf and bloom. Took some pictures. Looking forward to going back next weekend, when spring hopefully will have hit its stride.
  • Had dinner from Oshima.
Thoughts -- Excerpts From The Middle Ages, Part 11: City Life
In the early centuries the houses had considerable yard and garden space in the rear, enough for maintaining a cow and a few pigs. But as the cities grew within their constricting walls, this open space was much encroached upon. The houses lacked air, light, and confort moderne; but people had little taste for privacy. They lived most of their lives on the streets, noisy indeed by day with pounding hammers, screaming saws, clattering wooden shoes, street cries of vendors of goods and services, and the hand bells of pietists summoning all to pray for the souls of the dead.

But at night reigned a blessed silence, broken only by the watchman rattling is iron-shod staff and crying, "All's well!" Nightwalking was prohibited after curfew, at about nine o'clock, as presumptive of ill-doing. There were, of course, no street lights or illuminated shop fronts.

Men met in taverns; women had their social hour when they fetched water from the public fountains, which, as in Perugia, could be the city's pride. All progressive cities had a municipal water system, but it was advisable not to drink the water straight. City water fed public bathhouses, which included sweat baths.

Efforts toward municipal hygiene could not prevail against old custom, which ruled that the street before a man's house was part of his domain. (A relic of this custom is the sidewalk café , which in Mediterranean lands may expand halfway across the road.) The medieval streets were unquestionably foul. Butchers slaughtered animals at their shop front and let the blood run into the gutters. Poulterers flung chicken heads and feathers into the streets. Dyers released noisome waters from their vats. City officials in Italy would throw the fishmonger's unsold fish into the street for the poor, to make sure it would not sicken honest purchasers. Pigs ran free as scavengers, and in London "genteel dogs," though not commoners' dogs, were allowed to roam at will. Flies settled down in clouds to their banquets, but few, besides Petrarch, complained. The walker, perhaps with a perfumed handkerchief to his nose, picked his way carefully, dodging the black mud thrown up by the squash of horses' hooves. And there was always a menace from overhead. Louis IX of France, Saint Louis, received the contents of a dumped chamber pot on his royal cloak. He dismounted and ran to the culprit's lair, finding him to be a student who had risen early to study. The king gave him a scholarship. (The king, of course, was a saint.)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Worked from 9:45 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. Read more cases and pleadings to familiarize myself with the case I'll be working on.
  • Had dinner from Santa Fe Grill, a good Southwestern/Mexican restaurant in the neighborhood.
Recommended Links
Thoughts -- Excerpts From The Middle Ages, Part 10: The Flagellants
Wandering friars were not the only religious enthusiasts seen traveling the highways. Long processions of flagellants were also a common sight. Self-flagellation with a whip, or discipline, to subdue the rebellious flesh was an old practice of monks and anchorites. In the thirteenth century public flagellation became a mania. Whole communities, both men and women, would set off on month-long tours, parading half-naked through the towns, lashing their own and one another's backs. Their private penitence seemed to demand public display and applause. Says the Franciscan Salimbene: "All men, both small and great, noble knights and men of the people, scourged themselves naked in procession through the cities, with the bishops and men of religion at their head. . . . Men confessed their sins so earnestly that the priests had scarce leisure to eat. . . . If any would not scourge himself he was held worse than the Devil, and all pointed their fingers at him as a notorious man and limb of Satan; and what is more, within a short time he would fall into some mishap, either death or grievous sickness." In the following century the terrors of the Black Death inspired a revival of the flagellants' activities. They adopted a uniform, a long white gown and blue cloak, and a faith of their own: flagellation replaced penance; the Eucharist was held unnecessary, as was the mediation of priests between men and God. Such heretical beliefs brought the church's condemnation upon the flagellants.