Thursday 29 March 2012

Get us to the Greek (philosophy)

                                                Philosopher dudes hanging in the hood....

Last time as you recall, I left the post on Natural Law with the suggestion, that when addressing 'Natural Law as aspiration' -ie the project of thinking through ethics philosophically rather than the 'achieved Natural Law' which is the body of the Church's conclusions having done this for two thousand years- it would be good to agree on Graeco-Roman philosophy as a starting point rather than having to start from scratch. I made a couple of informal points intended to support that conclusion, but I'll now turn to a more rigorous argument.

Elizabeth Anscombe's paper, Modern Moral Philosophy, has become something of a classic in modern philosophical ethics, particularly amongst those committed to the approach of virtue ethics. In essence, it argues that the two main theories of ethics current in English speaking philosophy -the ethics of duty derived from Kant and the consequentialist theory of utilitarianism- are both based on fundamentally false understandings and should be rejected. Her arguments against utilitarianism are broadly the well known ways in which it fails to take account of our fundamental understandings of what being good involves: as she says, it is a 'shallow philosophy'.

Her point against duty ethics or deontology is rather simpler:

To have a law conception of ethics is to hold that what is needed for conformity with the virtues failure in which is the mark of being bad qua man (and not merely, say, qua craftsman or logician)--that what is needed for this, is required by divine law. Naturally it is not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as a law‑giver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians. But if such a conception is dominant for many centuries, and then is given up, it is a natural result that the concepts of "obligation,” of being bound or required as by a law, should remain though they had lost their root; and if the word "ought" has become invested in certain contexts with the sense of "obligation," it too will remain to be spoken with a special emphasis and special feeling in these contexts.

Essentially, once you dump God, you have to abandon the idea of a moral law: in the absence of a legislator, there is no moral law. Now this isn't the same as the claim that, once you've dumped God, anything goes: it is the much more local point that, once you don't have a legislator, such restrictions as are imposed on human behaviour can't be couched in terms of moral laws: there has to be another basis. To put this another way, once you reject God, you have rejected the moral ought but you have not rejected the ethical good. You can still talk about what it's good or bad for people to do, in the same way that you can talk about how it's good or bad to look after a car in a certain way (because it won't work if you do), but you can't then take the next step (as theists do) and claim that, because it is bad for human beings to act in certain ways, they morally ought not to. (Again, taking the motoring comparison, I currently have two reasons not to drive at 100mph in a thirty mile zone: a) it's illegal; b) it's going to harm me and others. Dumping God gets rid of the moral version of a) but not b).)

Now this suggests that a lot of current moral debate (which is often phrased in terms of deontology: rights, justice, equal application of rules) should be phrased (from a non-theist point of view) in terms of what benefits or harms human beings: in terms of human flourishing. And the last time that this was done without an admixture of divine legislation in the West was before Christianity -ie in Ancient Greece and Rome. So, from a non-theist point of view, turning back to (particularly) Greek philosophy is a good idea because it enables us to see what ethics is like before the introduction of the Sky Fairy legislator.

From a Catholic point of view, although dropping God is clearly not to be recommended, it is a lot better than  starting completely from scratch. (Moreover, the suspicion is always that 'starting from scratch' is just starting from a modern ethical mess that results from jettisoning God without really thinking through the consequences of this for ethics: much better to go back to the last coherent understanding of ethics that is shared by Christianity and non-theists and work from there.) Very, very crudely, much Catholic natural law thinking is Aristotle and Plato plus: they work out what is good for human beings; we add God's imprimatur as divine legislator who wants what is good for human beings.

So this is why we should get ourselves back to the Greek. By focusing on the understandings and debates about human flourishing that existed before the idea of a personal legislator was introduced by Christianity, Catholics and non-theists can find a common language for ethical reflection: one that is deeper than utilitarianism, one that is not in hock to a misapplied theological language as is deontology, and one that doesn't shut down discussions too early. Precisely what this language amounts to will itself of course be a matter for debate. But, as a matter of fact, the philosophical movement which emerged from Anscombe's paper is that of virtue ethics which can be characterized as follows:

Most virtue ethics theories take their inspiration from Aristotle who declared that a virtuous person is someone who has ideal character traits. These traits derive from natural internal tendencies, but need to be nurtured; however, once established, they will become stable. For example, a virtuous person is someone who is kind across many situations over a lifetime because that is her character and not because she wants to maximize utility or gain favors or simply do her duty. Unlike deontological and consequentialist theories, theories of virtue ethics do not aim primarily to identify universal principles that can be applied in any moral situation. And virtue ethics theories deal with wider questions—“How should I live?” and “What is the good life?” and “What are proper family and social values?”
(More here.) 

No misunderstandings here! I'm not arguing that, for a Catholic, we should rethink the achieved Natural Law in the teachings of the Church and replace it by virtue ethics: this would be rather like reinventing the wheel. But in speaking to those who do not accept the divine authority of the Church, we need to find a common language in which we can, brick by brick, inch by inch, try to argue them towards the Catholic position, at least so far as getting them to see it isn't simply a version of divine command theory, where we believe and do certain things just because we are told to, but is rather a coherent, well thought through ethical system based on a rich understanding of human nature and what is good for it. Moreover, in a time where many nominal Catholics seem to have lost confidence in the rationality of Catholic beliefs particularly in the area of sexual morality, arguing for those beliefs in a philosophical language that is not committed to theism may well provide a needed reminder that, contrary to popular belief, the Beatles did not refute Aquinas.

Monday 26 March 2012

The Pope and LSD

                                         If only the Pope had taken LSD, all would be well...

I've just finished reading Timothy Leary's biography, I Have America Surrounded by John Higgs on my Kindle. One of Higgs' contentions is that the cultural relativism typical of post modernism is a product of widespread LSD use as advocated by Leary to break out of the 'reality tunnel' -the sense that how one experiences the world is the only way to experience the world.

Higgs' produces little empirical evidence for this claim and his reasoning is pretty much on the fallacious post hoc ergo propter hoc basis: LSD makes things looks relative; post modernism claims that things are relative. So post modernism is caused by LSD. But one specific oddity does turn up within this general strategy:

[Ratzinger] had one of his doctoral dissertations rejected because his superiors believed it showed signs of relativism. What changed his thinking and put him firmly on the path towards a conservative, absolutist world view was his horror at the German student uprisings of 1968. His stance came not from believing that the absolutist viewpoint was logically superior to relativism, but from a dislike of the implications and results that the relativist path produced.

Higgs goes on to claim that such a dislike of the implications of relativism was common, but could be outweighed by the evidence of relativism from the LSD experience: you might not like the implications of relativism, but you now knew it was true.

Unlike many who were swept up in the protest events in Germany during 1968, Ratzinger did not take LSD, and his understanding of relativism remained theoretical instead of empirical.

Now the claim that the Pope in some way did a theological flip in 1968 simply as a result of horror at the university protests has been widely contested (see eg Tracey Rowland's Ratzinger's Faith, esp. p13). But even if he did, why would that necessarily be an unreasonable thing? Higgs places much emphasis on the importance of experience: what would be unreasonable about changing one's views on the basis of experience of where they led to?

Higgs' theoretical grasp of what he is arguing is in any case pretty thin. He seems to think in the passage cited that the LSD experience can have only one meaning for the experiencer (that of revealing the relativism of perception) whilst throughout the rest of the book, it is quite clear that different people took or imposed quite different meanings on it. Any suggestion that cultural relativism or social constructionism can be proved by pickling your brain is in any case obviously flawed. But nevertheless, the book did raise a number of interesting issues for me. At random:

* whatever the benefit of drug use, it clearly isn't good for the family. Leary leaves a trail of suicides and misery among his wives and children. (How much of modern life is that true of!)

* a taste for simplistic solutions and happy endings. The thought that dropping some acid can solve the world's problems is no longer with us, but the general strategy of the quick fix to get everything all right still remains. (And pharmaceutical fixes in particular remain popular.)

* is it any surprise, given the surrounding culture, that Vatican II produced some odd results? If the Council of Trent, once completed, had been left to the interpretations of some drug crazed hippies, we'd be picking up the pieces of that instead.

* on the plus side, the sixties counterculture did take personal, spiritual development seriously. Although a lot of its ideas were nonsensical, there was (often borrowed from eastern religions) some seriousness about the depths of the inner life lacking in modern secular culture which seems to turn all questions of human flourishing to questions of social and legal arrangement.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

A challenge to Patrick Harvie on same sex 'marriage'

I've had previous occasion to note the tactic among same sex 'marriage' proponents to pretend that there are no arguments against their modest proposal to destroy the existing institution of marriage. Patrick Harvie, Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and co-convenor of the Greens in Holyrood has previous form on this, but repeats the challenge in Friday's Herald:

I have frequently asked if anyone can provide a coherent reason why same-sex couples should be treated as inferior to mixed-sex couples.

I have heard arguments based on ignorance or plain old-fashioned bigotry, and others which amount to imposing a religious view on those who don't subscribe to religion.

I have never heard a reason which doesn't fail on one or both of these grounds. If there is such an argument, let's hear it.

I've previously blogged on this argument, but since he keeps making it, let's try a different tack.

The fullest defence of natural marriage against the same sex innovation that I've come across is Richard Waghorne's (although I'd give an honourable mention to John Milbank's article as well). Waghorne's original article is from the Irish Daily Mail and is followed by a posting on his blog which takes up the various objections he's received. 

The support and status that marriage entails is not a societal bonus for falling in love and agreeing to make a relationship lasting. That is not, of course, to say that love and romance are not an important part of marriage. But they are not the reason it has special status. If romance were the reason for supporting marriage, there would be no grounds for differentiating which relationships should be included and which should not. But that is not and never has been the nature of marriage.

Marriage is vital as a framework within which children can be brought up by a man and woman. Not all marriages, of course, involve child-raising. And there are also, for that matter, same-sex couples already raising children. But the reality is that marriages tend towards child-raising and same-sex partnerships do not.

I am conscious of this when considering my own circle of friends, quite a few of whom have recently married or will soon do so in the future. Many, if not most or all of them, will raise children. If, however, [
my] gay friends form civil partnerships, those are much more unlikely to involve raising children. So the question that matters is this: Why should a gay relationship be treated the same way as a marriage, despite this fundamental difference?

The full argument from the first article is here. The follow up response to objections is here.

Now, I've read both of these a few times and I struggle to see anything in them from Waghorne which is 'based on ignorance or plain old-fashioned bigotry' or 'amount[s] to imposing a religious view on those who don't subscribe to religion'. You might think his arguments overwhelming; you might think you have answers to them. But they seem to pass the Harvie test.

So here's my challenge to Patrick Harvie: show us the ignorance, bigotry or religious view in Waghorne's arguments, or stop pretending that there are no reasonable arguments against same sex 'marriage'.

And while you're thinking about this, remember that Richard Waghorne is himself gay.

[Update 25/3: Well, that's about a week and no sign of a response yet. In the proud tradition of the Skibbereen Eagle, Mr Harvie, Lazarus will be continuing to watch you!]

Thursday 15 March 2012

New Poll reveals Scots oppose Same Sex 'Marriage'

Scottish papers are carrying adverts from the 'Scotland for Marriage' campaign providing details of recent polling on same sex 'marriage':

Since gay and lesbian couples already have the same rights as married
couples available to them under civil partnership, they should not be allowed to redefine marriage for everyone else

AGREE = 53%; DISAGREE = 36%

It is possible to be tolerant of the rights of others and protective of
traditional marriage at the same time

AGREE = 85%; DISAGREE = 9%
Although death or divorce may prevent it I believe that the ideal
situation for a child is to be raised by a married mother and father

AGREE = 69%; DISAGREE = 29%
Someone who defends traditional marriage is discriminating against gays
and lesbians

AGREE = 21%; DISAGREE = 71%

Full details of poll here. Advert here

This suggests a significant switch from the (much trumpeted) Scottish Social Attitudes Survey result in 2010 which showed strong support for same sex 'marriage':

Please tick one box for each statement below to show how much you agree or disagree with it.
Gay or lesbian couples should have the right to marry one another if they want to.

Agree/Agree strongly 61% Disagree/Disagree strongly 19%

So what's going on here? I suspect a number of explanations for the change:

1) People are beginning to realize that the opposition to same sex 'marriage' has nothing to do with homophobia and everything to do with a principled disagreement on the role of marriage in society and particularly on its role in the procreation and education of children.

2) The SSA survey was conducted face to face (although the actual same sex 'marriage' question was self completed). The awareness of how opposition to same sex 'marriage' is commonly regarded as equivalent to homophobia will have undoubtedly prompted a more 'acceptable' response.

3) The wording of the SSA survey might lead people to think that their view of civil partnerships was being examined since they are commonly referred to as 'marriage'. (And we already know that the majority of Scots are in favour of this (55% for, 26% against) (poll here).)

All this on the back of the recent UK poll that shows 70% in favour and only 22% against the following:

Marriage should continue to be defined as a life-long exclusive commitment between a man and a woman.

All encouraging signs that reason is beginning to prevail. However, let's just have that picture again of Scottish politicians keeping on open mind during the consultation period:

The leaders of the Labour Party, Conservatives, Liberals and Greens in Scotland keeping their minds open on the same sex ‘marriage’ consultation whilst signing a pledge to introduce it at a reception held in the Scottish Parliament. (Article here.)

On a related issue, although Austen Ivereigh gets a lot of stick in the Catholic blogosphere, I thought he did extremely well on the Moral Maze programme on Radio 4 last night (14 March) in presenting the case against same sex 'marriage'. (Programme available here.) 

Monday 12 March 2012

Support for independence undermined by proposals for same sex 'marriage'

(First Minister compounds his difficulties with Catholics by adopting orans position in defiance of Father Z...?)

Hate to say I told you so but...

SNP plans to allow gay marriage would make Scots less likely to back independence, according to a new poll.
A survey of 1,004 Scots commissioned by the campaign group "Scotland For Marriage" has found that 11% of voters are less likely to vote to end the union if the controversial move to legalise same sex marriage goes ahead.
The poll by ORB Opinion Research Business found that only 2% of voters are more likely to back independence as a result.

More here.

Friday 9 March 2012

What is natural law?

                                   Is 'natural law' just a list of barmy Catholic prejudices?

In a few combox exchanges, the question of what Catholics mean by ‘natural law’ has come up. In particular, there seems to be a sense among some non-Catholics that the term simply amounts to ‘the Catholic rule book’ (probably lodged in the care of albino warrior monks from Opus Dei) and thus can be dismissed as the usual Catholic mixture of bigotry and outdated mumbo-jumbo.

In essence, the natural law is just the Catholic commitment to reasoning applied to the derivation of Catholic ethics from reasoning about human nature. Unlike many Protestants, who have a commitment to scripture alone as the basis for their religious beliefs, Catholics recognize reason as a source of knowledge about God and human beings.

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.
Preamble to Fides et ratio

Philosophy is thus recognized as a key element in Catholic understanding of the world. Moreover, that philosophy is not just a commitment to a particular philosophical system, but to philosophical enquiry as such:

In effect, every philosophical system, while it should always be respected in its wholeness, without any instrumentalization, must still recognize the primacy of philosophical enquiry, from which it stems and which it ought loyally to serve. para 4 Fides et ratio

When the term ‘natural law’ is used, a distinction needs to be made between (at least) two senses. First, there is just that commitment to philosophical enquiry about human nature as a basis for ethics. (Let’s call that 'natural law as aspiration'.) Second, there are the results of 2000 years of that enquiry within the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit and articulated by the divine authority given the Pope and the bishops as the successors of Peter and the Apostles. (Let’s call that 'achieved natural law'.)  Now non-Catholics are going to be seriously underimpressed by direct reference to the second sense. While it would be ridiculous for a faithful Catholic not to focus on the achieved results of the enquiry, equally, it would be ridiculous for us to expect non-Catholics to accept those results without explanation.

So in engaging with non-Catholics on ethical issues, we need to go back to basics, to the first sense: to a shared commitment to reasoning about human nature as a basis for ethics. Now even that is rather more than many non-Catholics will accept, and, even if in principle they accept it, is rather more than many can manage in practice. Those who will not accept it in principle are those who are in thrall to a post-modern denial of human nature (‘it’s all constructed by society’) or to the existence of philosophical rationality itself (‘whatever society decides is right’). Those who in practice deny it are those who keep repeating that there are no arguments in favour of a particular position when there clearly are (example Joan MacAlpine), or those who expect all philosophy to be conducted in soundbites on Newsnight Scotland (example Patrick Harvie). There are of course things that can be said to both of these groups, but they are particularly difficult to reach rationally.

But let’s say we have a dialogue with someone who is willing to take ‘a shared commitment to reasoning about human nature as a basis for ethics’ as the starting point. In essence, we are thus committed to reperforming more than 2000 years of thought to get to the final results of achieved natural law: the results of the Church’s exploration of natural law as aspiration. Well, nothing better to do! And if that’s what’s needed, let’s get our sleeves rolled up…

However, much easier for all involved if we could agree on a slightly fuller content to the notion of natural law as aspiration. If we could agree on at least the first steps to be made in such an enquiry, then we might have a rather more fruitful discussion than if we have to start the enquiry completely from scratch. My own position (and that of Catholic philosophers such as John Haldane) on this is that it is the Graeco-Roman philosophical heritage that ought to be this common ground. I’ll say more about why in principle this is in a subsequent post. But for the moment it may be enough to make two broad points. First, why not? Many of the current debates in philosophy have been fuelled by insights gleaned from that heritage. No university philosophy course in the UK (well, that’s probably a bit rash, but I doubt if there are many!) lets students through without exposure to ancient philosophy. Exploration of ancient philosophy can only be helpful to providing depth and content to ethical debates that rapidly become stale, political campaigns rather than explorations of fundamental issues of human identity and flourishing. Exploring the contribution of ancient philosophy on issues such as same sex ‘marriage’ and euthanasia ought to be entertained, even if that falls short of a prior commitment to accepting the results of those explorations. Second, western ethics just is the child of Greece and Rome (and Jerusalem). Of course, it would be much better from a Catholic point of view if we could accept a few more steps and say bring Aquinas into the exploration. But if we can’t get the full achieved natural law, at least let’s go back to those elements of Plato, Aristotle, Stoicism and Neo-Platonism which came into Christianity (and thus those secular ethics that evolved from Christianity) and see what we can make of them.

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 1929

Monday 5 March 2012

Denunciation of same sex 'marriage'

Well, yes, of course there's our Cardinal's very clear denunciation of same sex 'marriage' in the Telegraph about which I have very little to say other than 'Good on yer!'.

But another recent criticism of same sex 'marriage' of perhaps almost equal importance was Christopher Biggins' intervention on Loose Women

Biggins locutus est, causa est finita.

(H/T Peter Ould.)

Thursday 1 March 2012

Conscientious objection

                            Anyone who disagrees with current thinking should be trodden on....?

As widely reported, two Scottish midwives have lost their case in the Court of Session to avoid participating in the supervision of abortions. I'm not going to pretend to be a lawyer, so will leave comment on the legal correctness of the decision to barrister, Neil Addison:

“The case is yet another example of the way in which the UK Courts are interpreting s9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Freedom of Religion) in the most limited and restrictive way possible. The courts have not hesitated to use the convention to protect murderous terrorists but have refused to use it protect two midwives who do not want to kill unborn children.”

“What is more surprising is the extremely restrictive interpretation the judge has put on the Conscientious Objection clause in s4 of the Abortion Act. As the judge has interpreted s4 believing Catholics,Muslims and others will never be able to take any form of supervisory or management role as midwives or nurses unless they are prepared to be complicit in the provision of abortions.”

“This decision is in stark contrast to recent decisions in the United States’ courts which have applied the American First Amendment to protect the conscience rights of pharmacists who refused to dispense the morning-after pill.”
(From Protect the Pope.)

Putting aside the legal issues and this specific case, what are the underlying moral principles involved? The philosopher, Hugh MacLachlan, rather dodges the point in today's Scotsman by focusing on the rather narrow question:   'Do we have, in all circumstances, a moral right to have nothing to do with the provision of abortions? Not exactly.'  Having, from a secular point of view (correctly) answered that we do not, he then concludes, '  If all nurses refused to do anything they felt related to abortions, women who required them would be deprived of abortions. People do not have a moral right to remain as nurses and persist in such refusal.' 

Up to a point, Lord Copper. Clearly, no one is suggesting that the mere thought that one might be partaking in an immoral action should be sufficient to abolish the normal contractual and social duties we have: at the least, there has to be some test of reasonableness involved. Moreover, there is no reason (beyond MacLachlan's implicit Kantianism) to introduce the test of universalizability: what would happen if all nurses refused... We are talking about the actions of a minority of nurses and the place of conscientious objection for minorities is already recognized in the Abortion Act and elsewhere.

What is lacking, both in MacLachlan's analysis and in the sort of combox debates I've regularly found myself involved in on similar cases is any sense of why conscientious objection is a good thing. In the absence of such reflection, the argument appears very simple. On the one hand, you have the general duties of a job and the inconvenience caused to others by conscientious objection. On the other hand, you have the hurt feelings of a couple of deluded believers in Sky Fairies. Not much of a contest.

Now putting aside, from the Catholic perspective, that you are asking two women to partake in murder, why should society, even when it disagrees with a particular moral position, and despite all the arguments against it,  facilitate conscientious objection? The general answer is given in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty: that society has an interest in the encouragement of individuality and conscientious reflection among its members.

Mill's most famous conclusion from this work, the Liberty or Harm Principle, is, in this sort of case, a rather better test than the universalizability test hinted at in MacLachlan's article:

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. (On Liberty, ch1.)

Can someone's conscientious objection be accommodated without harming others? Sometimes the answer will be no -and then we have a different situation. But very often the answer will be yes, given a certain amount of good will and give and take.

However, more important than the Liberty Principle is the general view of the worth of individualism and the development of rational moral reflection within society. As Mill puts it:

The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.  (On Liberty, ch1.)

Clearly, this doesn't end the possibility of conflict arising from minorities demanding inconvenient or even harmful exemptions. Clearly, this doesn't end the question, for Catholics, of when participation in a socially accepted evil becomes so remote that one, in conscience, is able to continue. But until the general principle that it is good to let people act according to their own lights is recognized, brought into reflection on these issues, and the burden of proof placed on those who oppose conscientious objection in specific cases to show the harm that it would cause, the suspicion remains that what we are seeing is the onward march of 'the tyranny of the majority' that Mill warned against.