Friday, 29 April 2016

Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk died on this day in 1994.

Wikipedia does a reasonable job of getting the basics right:

Russell Amos Kirk (October 19, 1918 in Plymouth, Michigan – April 29, 1994 in Mecosta, Michigan) was an American political theorist, moralist, historian, social critic, literary critic, and fiction author known for his influence on 20th century American conservatism. His 1953 book, The Conservative Mind, gave shape to the amorphous post-World War II conservative movement. It traced the development of conservative thought in the Anglo-American tradition, giving special importance to the ideas of Edmund Burke. Kirk was also considered the chief proponent of traditionalist conservatism.

Reactions to Kirk seem to fall between idolatry from young men in five piece tweed suits and carrying what the suspicious might take to be a sword cane to having absolutely no idea who he is. (The latter I suspect is much the most common in Scotland.) So why do I think that it's worth taking him seriously everywhere but especially in Scotland? Here are some suggestions:

1. Suspicion of change.  The Scottish political scene is entirely dominated by self-styled 'progressives' including the Conservatives. (The Independent describing the Tory paper on tax reform:  "the word “progressive” features (a nod to mainstream political discourse in Scotland".) Whatever reality lies behind the narrative, the only game in town is one which talks of bright, shiny futures. The biggest lack in Scottish political discourse is anyone who is even talking along the following lines:

[T]he conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. It is old custom that enables people to live together peaceably; the destroyers of custom demolish more than they know or desire. It is through convention—a word much abused in our time—that we contrive to avoid perpetual disputes about rights and duties: law at base is a body of conventions. Continuity is the means of linking generation to generation; it matters as much for society as it does for the individual; without it, life is meaningless. When successful revolutionaries have effaced old customs, derided old conventions, and broken the continuity of social institutions—why, presently they discover the necessity of establishing fresh customs, conventions, and continuity; but that process is painful and slow; and the new social order that eventually emerges may be much inferior to the old order that radicals overthrew in their zeal for the Earthly Paradise. [Here.]

2. An emphasis on imagination and 'seeing as' rather than party political success. If all of Scotland is now progressive, we are also all now gripped in a political culture where all that matters is effectiveness. The stream (trickle?) of voters away from Labour to the Conservatives is purely about the most effective opposition party to the SNP. Such calculations are of course inevitable.But unless there are the beginnings of a richer political culture with a greater variety of views and a willingness first to explore the nature of homo politicus before entering into the Machiavellian cut and thrust of day to day politics, Scottish public life will wither.

“Imagination rules the world,” Russell Kirk used to say. He meant that imagination is a force that molds the clay of our sentiments and understanding. It is not chiefly through calculations, formulas, and syllogisms, but by means of images, myths, and stories that we comprehend our relation to God, to nature, to others, and to the self. That is why William Wordsworth referred to the imagination as “The mightiest lever known to the moral world.” And that is why Dr. Johnson, in an earthier definition, quipped that imagination is “The thing which prevents [a man] from being as happy in the arms of a chambermaid as in the arms of a duchess.” [Here.]

3. Kirk loved Scotland (and Scott) and his sensibilities are in many ways much closer to Scottish culture than a Conservatism dominated by the London establishment. (At the very least, it is a relief to read a small town republican conservative rather than a scion of the Bullingdon Club.)

4. An emphasis on the transcendent. Although Kirk expresses this differently over the years, a sense of an order, rhythm or simple presence that stands outside the everyday world is a constant, expressing itself variously in his conversion to Catholicism in 1964, his writingof gothic ghost stories, and his Burkean sense of an organic unity of a tradition. This stands, I think, in contrast to both the mechanical Christianity of much of the modern Right in America and to the cynical pragmatism of much of the Right in Britain.

5. Finally, he is (as much as he presents) a 'patchwork' (to borrow Davila's phrase)  or (to borrow mine) a landscape of the mind. His affinities to post-modernism have been noted in that he created less a body of doctrine to be followed but a landscape to be inhabited. Moreover, it is a landscape that is in many ways highly individualistic: the landscape we inhabit in modernity is no longer a village that we can simply be born into, but one that has to be crafted by each of us as a bohemian:

I did not love cold harmony and perfect regu­larity of organization; what I sought was vari­ety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful. I despised sophisters and calculators; I was groping for faith, honor, and prescriptive loyalties. I would have given any number of neo-classical pediments for one poor battered gargoyle. [Here.]

Monday, 25 April 2016

Islam and apostasy a (sort of) reply

Before reading this, I alert you to a number of disclaimers which I offer  to try to prevent any discussion sliding off into the pointless. You should probably read them beforehand, but, human nature being what it is, I don't want to drive away more readers through tedium than I have to. You'll find them at the bottom of the page.*

One of the most consistently interesting online presences Da Masked Avenger has recently blogged on the subject of Islam and apostasy (here). I hope that it's fair to summarise his intent as follows:

a) His primary intent is provide a purely rational reassurance to Muslims who, on the basis of revelation, accept the teaching on the killing of apostates from Islam, but find themselves undermined in their confidence in that teaching by the perception that it is against reason. By providing an examination of western (liberal) philosophical reasons in favour of such a teaching, he hopes to encourage Muslims to hold fast to the truth of revelation.

b) A secondary intent (or at least an interest that outsiders may find in the blogpost) is in the defence of the rationality of killing apostates. At the very least, such outsiders (eg non-Muslim western liberals) need to take account of the existence of many arguments historically in favour of such a position within western thought.

Before going any further, I think it's important to be explicit that Da Masked Avenger is very clearly NOT calling for any actions within the UK that would put such a view into effect. He is simply saying that, within an ideal Islamic state, that would be the legislative position. (That's important: he's not advocating terrorism but a different vision of society. This is a crucial difference.) At the moment, that's a difference that has a very practical implication: whatever your views on that 'ideal' society, Da Masked Avenger is not a terrorist but a political thinker. Think about throwing him into the chokey and you'll find Rousseau, Locke etc already waiting there.

Let me deal with a) first. One of the main themes of the following discussion will be realism. Pierre Manent makes the following point about modern western elite discourse about Islam:

Those who decide what we have the right to say and do do not engage Islam as a social reality. It is not considered in itself. Instead, “Islam” becomes a test of our post-political resolve. It must be accepted without either reservation or question in order to verify that Europe is indeed empty of any national or religious substance that might get in the way of human universality. The refusal to treat Islam as a social or, more generally, a human reality therefore has nothing to do with Islam but instead with Europe’s self-image.


One of the things I find most irritating about a lot of non-Muslim commentary on Islam is the tendency to talk about the 'real' Islam or 'true' Islam or what Islam 'needs'. It comes from both the nut-job right and the nut-job left (which latter, frankly, takes in most of the political establishment these days). Anyone who knows anything about Islam knows that, deep within the authoritative sources and interpretations, there are a number of hard sayings, for example, in the area of Hudud punishments. There is no point in pretending these don't exist and, more generally, there's absolutely no point that Islam is simply the same at heart as those nice Green voting hippies at the local Unitarian church. Equally, there's no point in pretending that Islam is simply identifiable as the crassest, most violent forms of such as ISIS. Anyone who is situated within any sort of tradition (and that's all of us) needs to recognise that it is part of the human condition to find oneself inheriting and indeed in some sense holding positions that are very difficult to endorse. Catholics who simply ignore what leading Catholics have said and done over the years (eg Aquinas on heresy), are fanatasists, as are secularists who deny the evils of the French and Russian Revolutions. (Or western Europeans who deny that we inherit the riches of the Atlantic slave trade.) How we deal with that tension between what we can see clearly as moral and what we find ourselves inheriting is not an easy thing to resolve, and perhaps the only certainty here is that 'To immanentize the eschaton' (ie to try to achieve a perfect (in Berlin's term) 'Final Solution' here) is the most dangerous solution of all.

How we (and that includes 'we Muslims') live with these tensions is really a matter of detailed and concrete practice. Da Masked Avenger is engaging in that and not all Muslims will agree with his take on it and some will. I'm not sure that non-Muslims have much to add here: at the very least, any suggestions ought to be contributed in a spirit of humility and an awareness of how crass outside interventions however well meant can be. (Any Catholic who has been lectured on what Catholicism is really about by an outsider (or even some ill informed insider) should be particularly sympathetic to the dangers here.) I suppose all I would say on a) is that the disciplinary element of western liberal thought is only one side of the western philosophical tradition here and perhaps not the most difficult for Islam to engage with. The other liberationist strand has tried to find a place for freedom of exploration as a key social value. (So roughly, if you're going to offer up Rousseau as a defence of killing apostates, you also need to grapple with (say) Mill on why people should be free to conduct their experiments in living. And why (to the extent that these things ever end) the debate has ended up rather closer to Mill than to Rousseau.)

I now turn to b). Even though Da Masked Avenger's main interest is a), I hope he'll forgive me if I take b) as my main interest! Moreover, to the extent that I've already suggested an alternative 'liberationist' viewpoint, I don't intend to go any further in arguing why (even (especially?) in an ideal state) killing apostates is wrong. My main reason for not pursuing the substantive argument any further is that I am keenly aware of how unresolvable it is on the intellectual level.. He and I are both committed to the existence of revelation, but we disagree on the source and content of that revelation. Even the purely philosophical argument is not as straightforward as nut-job liberalism pretends it is. (And you can wonder why this is the case and perhaps in passing think about what MacIntyre says about the incommensurability of traditions and the lack of a coherent western intellectual tradition in modernity.)

Instead, I want to talk about what the difficulty in dealing with the argument shows politically. I take it to be a Straussian conclusion that there is a gulf between (political) philosophy and politics, and that what is impossible/difficult to settle philosophically can be dealt with politically in other ways. And there we are back to Manent: realistically, we have in (and let's just focus on the UK as any political solution has to be resolved within the concrete traditions of a nation as Manent is arguing) our nation citizens (ie us) who don't accept...

And of course, that is the first point. Whenever 'British values;' are paraded as a list, it becomes unconvincing. That 'Muslims don't accept...' followed by a list is generally unconvincing in two ways: first, because there is a variety of Muslim detailed positions amongst Muslims which are difficult to catch in opinion surveys; and secondly, because very many non-Muslims don't accept them either. Generally, I find myself agreeing with Professor Robert George that Catholics should view Muslims as natural allies: I have far more in common with people who worship God, who have a sense of divine law; who value chastity and restraint etc etc. I'm certainly not going to line up with those who find it totally unBritish that they don't want to get p***ed on a beach in Benidorm.

But, as a second point, whatever I think of Islam (and it's in no one's interests to pretend that Catholicism and Islam are a totally neat fit) the realism at the centre of politics requires that I acknowledge that Muslims in the UK are a reality. Many have been here for several generations; they are not going away; and they are not going to change Islam simply because late modernity has come up with a parcel of extraordinarily strange beliefs that it believes are somehow clearly rational and beyond dispute. The main political question is, first, can we find a way of getting along that doesn't destroy civic peace? And, secondly, ideally, can we find a way (ways) of getting on that involves a genuine contribution to each other's flourishing in a wider sense?

There are no guarantees here. Because politics isn't precisely rational, there is no guarantee of results. Fifty years ago, no one would have suggested that the most pressing social problem is admitting transsexuals to public loos. Fifty years ago, no one would have predicted the rise of ISIS. (And (as an aside) note Manent's lament over the abandonment of a trust in providence here:  Simultaneously—and perhaps this is not a coincidence—we have lost faith in Providence, in the benevolence and protection of the Most High; or, if these expressions appear too obsolete, we have lost faith in the primacy of the Good. Unlike the Americans, we no longer call on divine protection over our nations, even if we still pray for ourselves and for those close to us. How long has it been since the bishops of France prayed for France, except perhaps very rarely and timidly?)

But there are reasons for hope. The bare minimum of civic peace strikes me as perfectly achievable. That only 4% of British Muslims have any sympathy for ('told the researchers that they had sympathy for people who take part in suicide bombing to fight injustice') political violence  strikes me as something near miraculous. (I bet in my undergraduate days I could have picked up far greater support for political violence than that among my 'progressive' pals.) Where the real difficulty lies is in a genuine mutual engagement which enriches everyone. And here I think there's probably as much danger in the progressive liberal side as there is in any Muslim suspicion of free speech. Liberals don't regard their own views as in any way non-rational and rooted in a particular set of historical and social circumstances. (That they often pay lip service to such relativistic ideas makes it more difficult for them to acknowledge the ways in which in reality they act as if they deny such foundations.) Debates are pre-censored: if you hold anything like traditional Muslim beliefs, you can't even discuss them. (Politics is secular, so the key issue of revelation is ruled out. Sexual identity is fluid, so anything based on sexual essentialism and complementarity is immediately homophobic and patriarchal.) Engagement has to be one way according to progressivism: they have to learn from us.

Engagement isn't just a matter of formal 'academic' debates. It's how in those thousands of everyday interactions we get along. As I said, there's no guarantee of how this will all turn out. But I'd hope that if we can remember that we are all human beings created by God, that Islam has been one of the great world cultures and isn't reducible to the actions of a few butchers, that an overly utopian view of what can be achieved by politics is inevitably destructive, that (traditional) virtues of restraint and politeness in engagement are essential etc etc it may not be too bad and may even be rather good.

Let me end with two quotes. The first from Pierre Manent summing up that realistic hope that is the centre of his approach:

We must recover a view of the European experience that allows us to see Islam as an objective reality, instead of making it the reflection of our self-­misunderstanding. We need not claim to determine the truth of Islam. Like Christianity, it too has its uncertainties and its possibilities. Europeans, and especially the French, must come to terms with Islam and try, with its help, to bring about its entry into European life in a way that takes account of European realities and possibilities, not into the dream world of hundreds of millions of individuals united by the promise of ever-greater human rights.

[Manent: here]

Secondly, an extract from an article by Greg Daly on the Trappist martyrs of Tibhirine, an account that I think makes concrete some of the ways in which (as Manent says) 'a nation of the Christian mark is the only form that can bring us all together' while, by dint of the circumstances and their results, underlines some of the extreme possibilities and dangers that are also involved:

The new prior had long had a deep fondness for Algeria’s Muslims, and had admired their simple devoutness since his time in the armed forces. During the war, a Muslim named Mohammed, a father of 10 children, had saved his life during an ambush. The future Fr Christian said he would pray for Mohammed, who replied, “I know that you will pray for me. But look, Christians don’t know how to pray!” Mohammed was found murdered the next morning, leading the young Frenchman later to reflect: “In the blood of this friend, I knew that my calling to follow Christ meant to live, sooner or later, in the country where it was given to me the greatest gift of love.” Algeria’s simple ordinary Muslims, he felt, were typically far more prayerful and devout than France’s Christians, and so he sought to ensure his Christianity was open and welcoming, recognising Muslims as children of God and hearing “the notes that are in harmony”.


1) I don't think apostates should be killed. As it happens, I don't think anyone, even the worst criminal, should suffer the death penalty, a view I take to be most consonant with Catholic principles although I accept there is a legitimate debate about this. (But please spare me the 'Oh you're just dreaming of your own sharia but with an Inquisition'.)

2) I think the ideal world would be one in which everyone were a Catholic. That's because Catholicism possesses the fulness of truth. But a) that implies other views can possess quite a lot of truth and b) if you look at how awful Catholic societies have been in the past, even at their best, there is still a constant reminder of the City of Man as a 'vale of tears'. Our natural end is rarely achievable and never completely satisfying. Our supernatural end is.

3) I'll make references to Leo Strauss and (the slightly Straussian) Pierre Manent. I'm not at all confident that I have quite got either writer right (although I'm also probably bloody minded enough to argue that I have). As my main aim here is not exegesis, feel free to regard such references as relating to L-Strauss and L-Manent (ie the feverish and fictional creations of Lazarus which have only limited contact with their real world equivalents). What I take to be most important about Straussian perspective here is the way that philosophy has difficulty entering the political sphere: coherent philosophical positions do not sit well in the shifting world of doxa and the demos.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Interiority: more on Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitiae...

Following on from my last post, I have started reading the exhortation and the burgeoning 'secondary literature' (tweets) surrounding it.
Taking one bit, there seems to be a lot of commentary around (from section 301-2):

Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.
And (footnote 351):

In certain cases, this [i.e., the Church’s help toward him growing in grace and charity] can include the help of the sacraments.

Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 [2013], 1038).

I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039)
Some thoughts:
1) Taken at its word, nothing here is objectionable. Sinners are not cut off from sanctifying grace. Sacraments can (in some circumstances) help. Nothing is said in plain words about (eg) admitting the civilly 'remarried' to Holy Communion.
2) It might be objected to 1) that, taken in the light of 'commonsense', the obvious teaching to be taken from the above is, however, that those in illegitimate relationships should be admitted to Communion. Perhaps. But it certainly doesn't have to be read that way.
3) It's (only) an exhortation. It's 60,000 words long. The current Pope doesn't go in for detailed scholastic theology but pastoral encouragement. I'm  not sure anyone can write 60,000 words in a text intended for popular consumption and not have some bits that might be better expressed or might in some way be misleading. (I'd probably go further: it's unlikely that such a document wouldn't contain error.) I don't think we should be looking at this document in forensic detail but at its gist.
And it's that gist that I want to look at. It's a reasonable thought that Vatican II and Pope Francis are trying to grapple with 'modernity' (and perhaps even 'postmodernity'). One of the aspects of modernity is that of subjectivity or interiority. The rough thought here would be that a purely external teaching of the Church (perhaps expressed as a rule of natural law) has, in modernity, to touch the interior life of a person rather than just be imposed by authority.
This (rough and ready) thought isn't one confined to Catholicism. Bernard Williams, for example, comments on the impossibility for the modern mind of taking meaning (in this case teleology) as being unproblematically located in the external world but having immediate internal moral implications:
Aristotle saw a certain kind of ethical, cultural, and indeed political life as a harmonious culmination of human potentialities, recoverable form an absolute understanding of nature. We have no reason to believe in that. Once we lose the belief, however, a potential gap opens between the agent's perspective and the outside view.
[Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, 1993, p.52]
Williams' solution to this gap is in very rough terms the idea of life as a reflective personal project:
Williams' denial of the possibility of external reasons thus underwrites his views on a whole range of other matters. Together with his scepticism about any and every kind of system of morality, it is perhaps the most fundamental motif of all in his thought. And though the internal reasons thesis too is, in an important way, a negative thesis, it clearly doesn't follow that it has no positive results, nor that it was a thesis that Williams himself held only as an abstract view in philosophical theory. At the outset of his writing career, he took for his own “a phrase of D.H. Lawrence's in his splendid commentary on the complacent moral utterances of Benjamin Franklin: ‘Find your deepest impulse, and follow that’” . Thirty years later he added, when looking back over his career, “If there's one theme in all my work it's about authenticity and self-expression… It's the idea that some things are in some real sense really you, or express what you and others aren't…. The whole thing has been about spelling out the notion of inner necessity.”

Now whether that is a satisfactory total replacement for the Aristotelian-Thomist view of natural law is one question (I don't think it is). But it does seem to diagnose the essence of one aspect of modernity and, indeed, modernity at its best: that we have to live out our lives with authentic reflectiveness rather than simply taking the dictates of authority by obedience. (Think Kierkegaard.) So if Catholicism is to speak to modernity it has to speak to that aspect of authentic reflection: it's absolutely no use simply pointing to the natural law or Church authority unless, in some way, those addressed have internalised those sources.
So one thought that I am reading Amoris Laetitiae with is that (as Vatican II and, perhaps most effectively, St John Paul II) Catholicism in modernity has to address people with the language of the interior life. Exploring seriously the breakdown of a marriage and what you have done since is something any Catholic in that position needs to do. If that is read as simply a process that is a fudge for giving adulterers Holy Communion, well, there is no way to stop the abuse of any process. (Imagine Pope Francis did not exist. Would you expect such an abuse not to occur either?)
So one thing I want to say is that there is indeed a truth about the horrendous expression 'meeting people where they are': the Church does have to engage with the modern 'subjective turn' if it's going to be persuasive. But the other thing that needs to be said is that, in other ways, modernity needs that subjective turn as it is currently absent. I was talking recently to a friend about the domination (or at least the strong presence) of the alternative right within computer engineering. To cut a long story short, you have the strong danger of some of the most powerful people in the future being pumped up on the short of quick solution based, intellectual short windedness typified by New Atheism: there is little sense of the hesitant exploration of the inner life and even of kindness. More generally, while modernity encourages a sort of formal freedom to be whatever you want, it is severely lacking in the practices of using that freedom wisely. It is here that Catholicism offers perhaps the most obvious resources to modernity.
In fine, Amoris Laetitiae will not be perfect. It is too long and the wrong sort of document. But at its heart seems to me to be a recognition that what modernity lacks most (and, paradoxically, what it thinks is its strength and through which it wants to be addressed) is that interior life and the practices of that interior life. Although I've only started to read it, it strikes me that, as a whole, it is quite a remarkable thing: a poetic exhortation of the goodness of marriage and the family in a world that, at least in Scotland. seems to think that children are best served by bureaucrats of an indeterminate gender rather than natural parents. Whatever is unsatisfactory about it, that seems to me to be remarkable: it's hard to think of any institution other than the Catholic Church which could produce such a thing with such a media impact.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia

 Pope Francis has just issued the long awaited exhortation on 'the joy of love' (here).

The only reasonable response to this would be to take some time and read, reflect and ponder. However, I have a long established tradition on this blog of commenting trenchantly on matters of which I know little and I see no reason to change. I accordingly think it important to say something on the exhortation before I've read it.

Judging by Twitter, a lot of commentary on the exhortation has, in the back of the commentators' minds, something like the following scenario. Person A has been abandoned by her husband through no fault of her own. Though desperate for the warmth of a new relationship, she has resisted these temptations because she wishes to remain true to the teaching of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage.  Person B, on the other hand, left his wife. He remarries. After a period of discernment with his Parish Priest, he is restored to communion.

So on the one hand, you have the abandoned spouse forced to live out a life of bitterness and sexlessness. On the other hand, you have the cheerful rogue who manages to get it all: sex and the respectable appreciation of his parish. (Why not add to his success story that he becomes a leading light in the pastoral council etc?) And to this mix we now have (it is claimed by some) the voice of the Pope urging person A not to be such a silly and to find herself a new man.

Now let's put aside what the Pope is actually saying. As I said, I haven't read it myself and the excerpts and commentary I've seen don't convince me that he's said anything like the caricature I've given above. But, certainly, I've no doubt that some parish priests (and bishops) would encourage person A not to be so hard on herself and I'm equally sure that some are already encouraging Person B to take communion whatever Amoris Laetitia may or may not say. So the broad picture remains the same before and after Amoris Laetitia: a (civilly) divorced person has to make some judgment about what she or he should do, bearing in mind that some authorities (priests/bishops/(popes?)) will be urging positions that are certainly at odds with each other and of which some are therefore objectively wrong.

Catholicism is not a slot machine. It is not a matter of putting in an action and getting out, mechanically, a result. In the end, the only thing that matters is whether we are given (by God's action) the Beatific Vision after death. And that will be dependent on God's love and God's perfect justice. Not what I think God will do or what the Pope thinks God will do, but what God, with perfect knowledge and perfect goodness, actually does. Whether I get to become a member of the pastoral council, whether I get access to Holy Communion on the one hand; or whether I remain unmarried and chaste on the other will not guarantee salvation -because in each case there is more, much more to be said. What if the Person A is bitter and hateful? What if she is responsible in part for the breakdown of the marriage? What if Person B is not terribly bright and has come under the influence of plausible libertines, even those (and yes, they exist) among the priesthood? Catholicism does not offer the certainties of evangelical Protestantism: only God knows if we are saved. Nor does it offer the parallel certainty of secularists: that doing your best is enough because, in the end for them, nothing matters. (Perhaps your best isn't good enough. Perhaps you're actually not a very good person.)

It's too easy for modern Catholics to laugh (or regard with fond superiority) the images of damnation of previous generations. But at the heart of Catholicism is that uncertainty, the peril of damnation that, among other things, has made Catholicism so fertile a soil for philosophy and art: the constant, churning attempt to discern God's will through love and intellect, and the constant churning awareness that we may fail. (And so the iron objectivity of the search for truth and the fog of subjectivity through which we pursue it.)

The big building blocks of Catholicism are clear enough. Marriage is good. The sacraments are good. The Pope and bishops and priests have authority. Etc etc. But none of that will save you having to discern, if you are Person A or Person B, what you should, in the final analysis do. And simply thinking, 'Father X says that adultery is no biggie' won't solve it. (Should we rely on Father X? Why I am relying on him? (Does it suit my libido to believe him?) )

I think an awful lot of commentators miss the central thread of Dante's Divine Comedy. It's not a cry of the modern individual against the arbitrary rules of God, nor does it share Milton's fault of sympathy for the Devil (or at least the sinner). It is that essential clash between the subjective, first person viewpoint and God's viewpoint. That liking someone (and particularly liking oneself) is not what decides salvation but the truth of God's care. That care is neither totally divorced from human affections but nor is it exactly the same. And the gap between the two, and the constant (faltering) attempt to discern how to leap that gap over to God's view is what gives Catholicism its depth and salvific power.

I'm off to read Amoris Laetitia now. I fully expect it to be worth considerable reflection but it will not solve or magic away the need for each of us to wrestle with God as far as we are individually able. And in the end, it will be a matter for God alone, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, to discern how well I have peformed that fundamental human duty.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Named person legislation and undermining the family

And so the Current Stooshie (there must always be a Current Stooshie) in Scottish politics is that anent the named person legislation.

There's a rough and ready distinction to be made between principled reason and embodied reason. 'Principled reason' describes that aspect of reasoning which can be governed and corrected by principles such as those of formal and informal fallacies. 'Embodied reason' describes the conditions under which we promote reason in real life, concrete circumstances. For example, exercising control over one's temper, trying to see things from another person's point of view, not debating while drunk and restricted to 140 characters are all helpful contributions to embodied reasoning.

I'm obsessing a bit about Russell Kirk at the moment. (That doesn't mean I worship him or think that he's right about everything, but simply that I think he's well worth reading and I've some time to make up on this before I enter my long home.) His (varying) list of ten principles of conservatism are helpful in the way that all principles of reasoning are helpful, in particular, to call to mind externally for the less than wise what the fully wise have already internalized. But an oddity of those principles, at least for the modern western world, is that in general they do not directly refer to issues which exercise much of our current politics such as nationality and gender. More revealing perhaps are the three ends that Kirk claims to have structured his life:

Looking back over his life at the age of 75, Kirk saw that he had sought three ends: to conserve “a patrimony of order, justice, and freedom” and a respectable moral order; to lead “a life of decent independence,” necessary for kindling a rigorous mind and making his voice heard; and “to marry for love” and rear children who “would come to know that the service of God is perfect freedom.”


The two latter ends (a life of decent independence,” and “to marry for love” and rear children) directly concern the formation of the household. And it is that institution, where the individual faces the past and the future in the beginning and the end of life, the encounter between the sexes, and the tension between the private and the public that I am increasingly certain is the hub around which all politics should turn. That sense of its importance was reinforced by reading a recent interview with the (liberal) psychologist, Jonathan Haidt:

As you Jonathan have delved into morality more deeply, are there any examples of something you considered harmless before, that now you think may actually be harmful once second, third, etc., social effects are taken into account?

HAIDT: Oh, yes, yes. When I was younger I remember thinking, “Oh, you know, marriage isn’t so important, all that matters is that you — of course you need to take care of the kids, but people should be free to do what they want.” I’ve come to see — so I started off on the left. In fact I got into political psychology in 2004 precisely to help the Democrats because I thought they were getting their rear‑ends kicked by the Republicans who knew how to talk about morality.
Whereas Gore and Kerry just didn’t have a clue. Since I started researching conservatism and then libertarianism, I’ve just found that they make a lot of points that as a social scientist I have to agree, “Oh, that’s a good point.”
The overriding importance of family stability, if you’re raising kids with incredible family stability, they just come out better. In fact they’re much more likely to rise economically than if they’re raised with any sort of family instability. So I think I’m more conservative about family arrangements, precisely because of these second- and third-level effects.
[Full interview here.]
The problem for me with the named person legislation is that it seems to set up an authority which is either superior to or or at least co-ordinate with parental authority. The legislation spells out the duties thus:
(1) In this Part, “named person service” means the service of making available, in relation to a child or young person, an identified individual who is to exercise the functions in subsection (5).
(5)The functions referred to in subsection (1) are—
(a)subject to subsection (6), doing such of the following where the named person considers it to be appropriate in order to promote, support or safeguard the wellbeing of the child or young person—
(i)advising, informing or supporting the child or young person, or a parent of the child or young person,
(ii)helping the child or young person, or a parent of the child or young person, to access a service or support, or
(iii)discussing, or raising, a matter about the child or young person with a service provider or relevant authority
Now I agree with Lord Pentland's reasoning in rejecting the petition for judicial review here: (paragraph 52)

In this state of affairs, it would be wrong for the court to declare in these proceedings that any of the Convention rights invoked by the petitioners have been breached by the enactment of the Act. To do so would be to strike down statutory provisions on an abstract and theoretical basis at a stage when the legislative landscape has not been fully formed and when important practical steps and measures likely to be highly relevant to the assessment of compliance with Convention rights remain to be taken and put in place. Moreover, nothing is known about the practical impact of the new system on any individuals. It cannot, as matters presently stand, be said that there has been any interference with any of the Convention rights of the fifth to seventh petitioners. Taking matters a little further, I do not see how it is possible for the court to carry out any adequate proportionality assessment as matters currently stand.

In other words, in principle, the legislation does not necessarily infringe (legal) rights. Whether as a matter of fact it does will depend on the development of detailed guidance and how that guidance is applied. So much for principled reasoning. But what, as a matter of embodied reasoning, is likely to be the effect of giving a state employee a status and a title that grants a supervisory role over a child's welfare? At the moment, there exists a sort of free floating imperfect duty: I, as a headteacher, may notice something which concerns me about a child's welfare. But I am not the only person involved. Others will act if they are more certain. And so, unless I am very, very concerned and very very certain that the concern is well founded, I may well do nothing. (And my concern joins that queue of other perspectives competing for attention, not particularly privileged among a chorus of other voices.) In the future, that imperfect duty is translated into a perfect one: the buck stops with me. Moreover, my voice is privileged among many others: I am the Named Person. (Much better to act than not to act.)

Conservatives ought to be troubled at this point by the absence of a strong statement that parental authority is prior to that of the state or its representatives in family matters, and by the replacement of prudential judgment ('should I exercise on this occasion my general duty of beneficence?') by the strict obligation always to act with a view to protect.

The problem here, of course, is that it is the hesitation, the possibility of cases dropping between competing authorities that is precisely the target of this legislation. As Lord Pentland said:

The advantages of the new service are not difficult to discern: increased scope for early intervention; improved integration and coordination across the public services landscape; reduction in the risk that the needs of vulnerable children will be inadvertently overlooked due to communication difficulties between service providers; and the introduction of a single focal point to ensure that children and their families receive the support and services they need.

(Note that Lord Pentland also states clearly that there is no provision for opting out of the scheme on the part of parents ('would also observe that insofar as the petitioners submitted that the legislation was disproportionate because it did not require there to be consent or allow for opting in or out of the new scheme, it seems to me that to have either of these as requirements would run counter to and be liable to defeat the aim of the measure' (paragraph 53) here.)

The issue is whether we should be more troubled by the possibility of inappropriate intervention or by the problem of inappropriate inaction. (Conservatives will remember the sixth of Kirk's principles: 'conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability'. (No legislation, however good, will be entirely without its harms.)) The ridiculous optimism of 'Getting it right for every child (GIRFEC)'  is part of the problem: nothing will ensure that this occurs. Any arrangment (the superiority of parental authority; the superiority of the state) will always let some cases through. The only question is what does the lesser harm: (a tendency to) constant activist supervision of normal parents or (a tendency to) overlooking those cases where a child is being abused.

And this is where I suspect the unspoken roots of the Current Stooshie lie. I look around modern Scotland and I see a complete progressive attack on the traditional family. I expect that general tendency to be expressed in how this legislation is utilised. Others will see the traditional family as part of the burden progressive modern Scotland wishes to abandon, and this legislation as part of the emancipatory function of the state. The provisions of the legislation itself as dead ink on the page are probably pretty harmless. But as part of a symbolic, embodied apparatus of reasoning and control, I fully expect them to be yet one more element in the unravelling of traditional. biological family structures.

Does one make a fuss now? It's the common sorites problem of politics: where does one take a stand? I completely understand why many are in favour of this legislation: certainly in intent, it has the noble aim of ensuring that genuine need is better served by a fairly clunky bureaucracy. It has, of course, now become part of the Great Game of trying to find a scratch in the SNP's seemingly teflon ability to slip away from any criticism. (And of course as such it offers the possibility that surfing these party political forces, a genuine possibility of resisting the change exists in a way that, say, it didn't with same sex marriage.) I have no doubt that legislation targeted more precisely on families with clear needs would be better legislation. For those reasons, I shall fight against it with all the power of my keyboard and my two index fingers. (Tremble, my masters.)

[A personal coda. There was an occasion in our family when we did (albeit in a fairly minor way) have to negotiate the state bureaucracy for children. In our case, it consisted mostly of trying to ignore a headteacher and finding another state resource who was (frankly) less of an idiot. The existence of competing authorities and centres of power helped us then. In a normal family, there is no one, absolutely no one who can replace a parent with the deeply rooted biological mammalian imperatives to seek help for a child. A parent is the best person to find the best person to help. (Ask any parent who has tried (invariably battled) to get help for a disabled child.) There is no particular reason to think a headteacher, with a specific, narrow professional expertise and hundreds of other responsibilities would be particularly good. No system will be perfect. All will suffer from the unavoidable problem of 'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?' But there is reason to think a parent will (generally) be less problematic than a headteacher or health visitor. Anything that confuses that insight into the final nature of parental responsibility is dangerous. I have no doubt it would have made our lives more difficult. (And yes, I'm aware that's only thin anecdotal evidence, nothing more.)]