On Measurement Muddles

There’s no scale to balance good & evil, or to take the measure of a man

Ah, the things we ask! When we’re running late, as often we are, we ask what time it is. When something goes missing, as it often does, we ask where it is. Or suppose we have a tough decision to make. Then we ask how to weigh the contending pros and cons.

In times of leadership crisis, and they’re most times, we ask about the measure of the man or woman.

When we ask these questions, and do so persistently, there are muddles to note and avoid. Some are obvious; others are not.

“What time is it?” Hold on! What time where? I do a weekly podcast. Participants are keen to schedule it for 9 am Eastern Time. That’s 6 am Pacific Time, my time. Groan. The problem is obvious but only to me. They must be muddled!

Now suppose someone says, “Before time began…” and goes on to say that this or that happened or such and such was so. Slow down! Time, as Aristotle noted, is the measure of motion. In order to measure motion there has to be something that moves. There’s no temporal “before” when there’s nothing in motion. We like to talk about timelines, but if we think about time itself as a line we’ll soon enough find ourselves in a muddle.

Space is tricky as well. Everyone talks about outer space. But how far out does it extend? Is it as  far as we care to think? Slow down. Einstein suggests that we try to think of a box without sides, any sides at all. Suppose that we try and imagine that we have done so. What if someone asks us how big the box is? Or where it is? We can’t get away with answering that it’s as big as we want and is just here rather than there. There is, truth be told, no such box. Nor is there anything that could count as empty space. Space is relative to particular objects.

Let’s shift to another sort of measurement. A member of Congress is trying to decide whether or not to support an act of war. And suppose we are trying to decide how to advise our representative. With regard to such a decision, there will inevitably be pros and cons.

Now there’s an urge to say that we must carefully weigh them both. When we in fact carefully weigh things, they turn out to be objects. We can put them on a scale. But there’s no scale on which to balance the goods and evils at issue in evaluating an act of war. A moral theory would help, but that’s something most of us don’t really have.

Or wait. Maybe what we need is a good leader, a moral exemplar. Well, then, let’s take the measure of the man or woman who would lead us. Yes, but how? There’s neither a scale nor a balance, neither a tape nor a template that serves our purpose. So who will serve as our moral Magi?

Isn’t what we really need sober and sustained reflection on the sources of Christian ethics? We find them in Scripture, in the tradition of the Church, and in the voice of conscience. It is conscience that speaks to us, yes, in practical reasoning but also, as St. John Henry Newman puts it, as God’s own vicar.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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