The Haunted, Hunted Kind

One of our favorite musicals is Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1971 rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice. The lyrics to “Pilate’s Dream” include the line, “I dreamed I met a Galilean, a most amazing man. He had that look you very rarely find — the haunting, hunted kind.”

This weekend found us camping under October’s full moon, known as the Hunter’s Moon. According to indigenous folklore, the Hunter’s Moon got its nickname from hunters stocking up for the winter by stalking their prey under moonlight. Add in the spooky seasonal décor at nearly every campsite, and you’ve got a “haunting, hunted kind” of moonlit night, something you rarely find at any other time of year.

The weather was ideal, with clear skies, low humidity, and temperatures ranging from the high 50s to the low 80s allowing us to enjoy campfires, cookouts, and conversations all weekend long.

Jon read an interesting profile of philosopher William MacAskill in The New Yorker that got him thinking about his own philosophical studies. All students of Catholic theology are expected to have a foundation in scholastic philosophy, which sets forth a number of common sense “principles” that support all Catholic ethics. Essentially, Catholic philosophers are expected to hold firmly to the following:

  • There is a distinction between normal and abnormal. If we consider the conscious behavior of people, we must separate the normal from the abnormal. There are indeed shades and gradations of both, and to classify a definite person may not always be an easy (or safe) matter.
  • There is truth and error. Some statements are true, and others false. This is a fact of daily experience. We are all conscious of the fundamental distinction between truth and error. We might becloud the issue by repeating Pilate’s petulant query: What is truth? And as we see in epistemology, modern philosophers love to wrangle about the definition of truth and error. Common sense is not worried by their antics. If things are as we say they are, our speech is true; if things are not as we say they are, we are in error. Truth then is agreement with reality, and error is disagreement between our thoughts and reality.
  • We can and do know some things for certain. No, we are not always sure; but of some things we are so sure that we should be willing to stake our money, our reputation, and our life on their truth.
  • There are universal principles, which we are convinced hold everywhere and at all times. Such, for instance, are: no two contradictories can be true; whatever begins, must have a cause.
  • I am real (not a mere phantom, a dream) and surrounded by countless other beings just as real as myself. This is self-evident.
  • The beings of this world are not all of the same nature. This statement may not be self-evident, but it is certainly a truth of common sense. Human beings are not of the same nature as their dogs or the rosebush in the garden or a pebble on the beach. While they have some things in common, there are notable and constant differences between them.
  • There is order in the universe, in the sense that some beings are on a higher, others on a lower, level of existence. To take the examples just mentioned, we are more perfect than our dogs; dogs may have better scent, greater speed, more endurance, but taking everything into consideration, we are superior to our dogs. Again, dogs, being endowed with senses and spontaneous locomotion, are superior to the rosebush. Lastly, while the rosebush is able to bring forth leaves and flowers, the pebble is lifeless and dead.
  • We are rational beings. We can think (judge, reflect, and reason). We are also endowed with free will; we can choose deliberately between different courses of action.
  • Our minds are made for the truth. The quest of truth is an ineradicable tendency of ours; we hate lies and errors and all sham. Not only that, but we want to be sure that we have the truth; neither doubts nor mere opinions satisfy us in the long run.
  • Our will is made for the good. We love what we recognize as good and hate evil.
  • We have a soul, distinct from the body. We eat “to keep the body and soul together,” as the saying goes. At death, something departs while the body remains; the body alone is interred.
  • That the human soul is spiritual, is perhaps less evident, but it follows from the undeniable fact that we are rational animals and have free will. For thinking and choosing freely are actions independent of matter, and that is what it means to be “spiritual.”
  • There is life after death. The human soul, being independent of matter, continues existing even after it is no longer associated with the body.
  • There is a personal God. This is first of all the conviction of humankind, of all races and religions. An open profession of atheism usually gets and amply deserves contempt.
  • God made this world out of nothing. This is also a universal conviction. The order and beauty of this world convince every unspoiled mind that it could only be the work of an all-wise Creator. Which is not saying that everything in this world is perfect, or that our puny standards are the measure of perfection.
  • God is to be worshipped as our Creator. We owe all things to God; without God, we would be nothing. We are wholly dependent on God. As such, justice and gratitude require that we acknowledge God.
  • There is good and bad. Some human actions are good, others bad. Helping a neighbor in need is good, and murdering an innocent person is bad. No custom and no state law can change that.
  • We have a conscience to tell us which of our proposed actions are good and which are bad. All people have a sense of right and wrong, and thus we are moral animals created to do good and avoid evil.
  • We are ultimately responsible to God for our free actions. For God created us and gave us a conscience, which bids us to do good and to avoid evil. God gave no such faculty to animals.

And so along comes William MacAskill, whose philosophical and social movement, known as Effective Altruism (EA), advocates “using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis.” EA leaves intact the basic principles of Catholic philosophy, outlined here, and so warrants serious consideration.

Primary among the common practices of effective altruists is choosing careers based on the amount of good that such careers achieve, donating to charities based on maximizing impact, and “earning to give.” The philosophy also emphasizes impartiality, or the global equal consideration of interests, when choosing beneficiaries, which has broad applications to the prioritization of scientific projects, entrepreneurial ventures, and policy initiatives estimated to save the most lives or reduce the most suffering.

Only an exceptional weekend that lent itself to deep reflection could produce such a harvest of thoughtfulness under a haunted, hunted kind of moon.