Tuesday 29 July 2014

When is a bigot not a bigot?

                                       Alexandre Bigot: ceci n'est pas un Bigot.

I'd intended writing on something else other than Islam, Trojan Horse schools etc etc, but Sara Khan's article in the Telegraph has pulled me back in.

Addressing bigoted views of anyone informed by their belief system or ideological outlook is never beyond the scope of debate. Bigotry which is promoted by anyone in our schools must always be challenged. If the bigotry is promoted by Muslims, it is not Islamophobic to root it out. As the priest and journalist Giles Fraser once wrote “bigotry is bigotry whether it’s dressed up in the language of faith or not.”

I thought I recognized the quote from Fraser and a bit of googling traced it to a report on the issue of bed and breakfast establishments offering beds to homosexual couples:

But Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney and a leading Church of England liberal, said the legislation was right and fair because discrimination against homosexuals was always wrong.
"It is nonsense for the Government to allow any loopholes for religious homophobia," he added. "Bigotry is bigotry whether it's dressed up in the language of faith or not."

I've been so often called a bigot by bien pensants that I've stopped contesting the label: if bigotry just means thinking (eg) adulterers are sinners, then I'm a bigot. Now can we get on with discussing whether I'm right or not? Khan continues:

Does the MCB [Muslim Council of Britain] believe homophobia, sexism, intolerance and the "inferiority" of other faiths are conservative Muslim practices? The religious conservative Muslims I speak to tell me they are offended that this could ever be justified as such. Yet predictably, Muslim representative bodies like the MCB at best sound wishy-washy, and at worst continue to defend and justify such bigotry under the guise of “conservative Muslim practice.”

I've been over the Clarke report fairly carefully in my previous two posts (here and here). But let's come at this from a different direction. I believe that parents have a right to educate their children according to their own lights (subject to some negotiation round the edges about employability etc). In a Catholic school, I'd expect this to result (ceteris paribus) in teaching that homosexual activity was wrong, that women did not have a right to chose abortion and couldn't be priests, that Catholicism was the true and complete religion and extra ecclesiam nulla salus etc etc. I'm pretty sure I could find one or two commentators who would regard these as representative of homophobia, sexism, intolerance and the 'inferiority' of other faiths. So, on the assumption that some Catholics schools at least are teaching these standard elements of Catholic understandings, why aren't 'we' objecting to Catholic Trojan Horse schools?

What 'liberals' have succeeded in doing is depoliticizing thought. I believe certain things about the world. Muslims (unless they've completely secularized) believe other things. Atheists believe something else. None of this should be surprising in a large, modern country, and the only real question is a political one: how do we get these divergent viewpoints to live together peacefully and to interact fruitfully? (Hint: this won't be through everyone feeling comfortable or affirmed all the time.) Instead, we have a growing list of hurdles that have to be leaped over before we can even enter into the public forum.

There's something else going on here. In any organization or life, things go wrong. So as well as dealing with divergent starting positions, we have to understand that people with those (respectable) positions will occasionally say something stupid but which clearly emerges from that position.  (I gave a particularly striking atheist example of this here but I can think of lots of occasions -from my own childhood and from those of my children- where there have been other 'anti' Catholic remarks from teachers.) I don't particularly mind if, every now and then, some atheist teacher lets slip her true beliefs about Catholicism in a particularly crass way. I don't mind if an occasional Muslim lets slip the thought that ' “white women have the least amount of morals”, white children were “lazy” and that British people have “colonial blood” '. I'd give a pretty loose leash for teachers to express their characters and, if things start going radically wrong, there are disciplinary procedures and retraining available rather than hysteria. But again, we are now setting hurdles: teachers who say stupid things about Muslims or Catholics are fine. Muslims who say stupid things are subject to Trojan Horse enquiries.

Secularism has really stopped thinking. I had originally intended today to write about a particularly thick pair of articles by Stefano Hatfield -and I'll probably return to them. But at the moment we seem to be faced by large numbers of secularized liberals who seem to have forgotten two basic lessons which wise students of humanities need to grasp pretty early on: that other people don't always agree with you; and that coming to appreciate their point of view is an extremely difficult (intellectual and ethical) process. Put more simply, if you're a smug git, everyone else is a bigot.

Thursday 24 July 2014

Trojan Horse schools: a reader comments....

This is response to a combox comment on my last post on the Trojan Horse schools. As it's gone on too long for a combox, I've posted it instead!

Dear Simon

Thanks for engaging on this. Given the current events in the Middle East, I think that it’s extremely important that we don’t get distracted from the central problem here in the UK which is simply about how we educate minority cultures and groups. (Of which Catholics are one.) There’s a tendency –particularly among conservative Christians- to resort to the general line that Islam is bad and therefore to give an inch to it is naively setting up problems for the future. Whatever the merits of such a position, it doesn’t really address the reality that Islam is a living presence in the UK and is the deeply held religion of millions of our fellow citizens. Moreover, if I were a Muslim, I’d end up by being pretty hacked off by being discussed as a problem and as if I weren’t British, and end up by being pretty alienated.

I’ve been impressed recently when reading Walter Scott as to how he deals with irreconcilable hostility. Profound disagreement (between Jacobite and Hanoverian; between Saracen and Crusader; between Jew and Christian etc etc) isn’t glossed over, but lived with. I don’t think all views are equal, but I don’t expect others to think my views are equal or superior to their own. Scott’s ingredients for living with hostility are not about seeking agreement, but allowing people to arrange their own private lives (including the bringing up of their children) according to their own lights; a respect for the humanity of others; a calm confidence in one’s own position which doesn’t need the acknowledgement of others; and, finally, a certain physical and moral bravery that, if things go wrong, one should face physical risk and death with equanimity. There’s clearly much more to be said here, but, on the whole, I think that’s a better recipe for a solution to our current social difficulties than pretending that, if we just get the right argument or social arrangement, we can convince everyone of our rightness.

I turn now to a detailed response. First, I reproduce your comment with added numbering of the paragraphs:

1) "Lobbing", eh? I realised that I was laying myself open to such criticism as I cut down my piece to its conclusion. But I found it difficult adequately to explain my own journey from imagining "islamic" replaced by "catholic" (20-odd years or so ago: I thought I was being "fair") to my current position: that I consider such an approach worse than merely misguided, and to fall for the secularist error of considering all religions equal, and to abdicate responsibility for judging what might be good in islam, and what is not. (Difficult, I mean, to do so charitably and, as I am posting under my own name and as I live and work among large numbers of mohammedans, responsibly.)

2) Yes, I have read Geoffrey's posts. I've never commented there, and I shan't do so now, but I will say here that I thought both of them rather poor and, yes, naive.

3) Yes, of course some of Peter Clarke's premises would not be shared by faithful catholics, and I agree that the evidence from the online forum is poorly presented (it reads - I hope the simile is not ill-judged - like telling tales in school). And I do agree that he is wrong - naive - to think that the opinions expressed there are not also held by parents. I think they are typical of opinions held by young Pakistani men (I mean, English-born Pakistanis). Certainly, the cadences are familiar to me, and the opinions are not a surprise. But I do think that he is right to highlight those opinions.

4) I think that the report does clearly show evidence of a conspiracy, based on the local presence of a majority of Pakistani muslims, surreptitiously to gain control of schools in Birmingham and elsewhere, encouraging children in racial and religious hatred and to despise the culture and nation that have welcomed their families. 

5) One last thing: you disparage the report as "anecdotal". What do you mean by that, and why do you consider it a Bad Thing? Evidence of various kinds is described, and much of it is inevitably anecdotal. Evidence often is. For good or ill, the report is not intended to be a balanced presentation of conflicting evidence, but a set of recommendations informed by a large body of evidence and illustrated by examples. Like it or not, and without being, er, naive, we have to accept its author's integrity. His role is not analogous to that of a prosecutor as you imply, but of an investigating magistrate (I think that's what they're called).

6) I agree that it's not an easy read.

Let's take your six paragraphs one by one:

1) I don't think all religions/philosophies/beliefs are equal. I do not, for example, think that Islam's attitude to marriage is correct. (Eg: polygamy and divorce.) But to note that is not to settle the question of what one then does about that falseness. There are two aspects here: the practical and the principled.

In terms of the practical -what we can do about it- we have large communities of people who are in error: that's not just Muslims, that's secularists and everyone who's not a Catholic. (And many who are!) But to focus just on Islam:

a) much of the effect of the report would be to substitute great errors for little ones. (For example, it is clear that Clarke is suspicious of religion and fully signed up to the modern liberal sexual agenda. Why is it a good thing to force Muslims who believe and worship God to be discouraged from that belief? Why is it a good thing for Muslims who have overstrict notions of male and female modesty, to abandon these for the licentiousness of modern secular standards?)

b) there is a naïve optimism behind much of this that, by changing the school, you will change the community. I think it is much more likely that, by changing the school, you will lose all the academic advantages that have apparently been obtained, and simply alienate the Muslim community further from British society.

c) the establishment of a principle in UK politics that parents should not be allowed to control their children’s education, and that ‘hardline’ religious views on (eg) sexual ethics should be forbidden will undoubtedly be extended to Catholics and other groups.

I conclude that, simply in terms of what’s likely to work, what’s practical, it is much better that we allow Muslim ethos schools than not.

Turning to principles, even if (and I assume this is what’s behind your general train of thought) there were bad consequences from allowing Muslim ethos schools (say, in terms of social cohesion) it would still be right to allow them. (In broad terms, even if the exercise of some rights produces harms, those rights may still be acknowledged.) There are a number of different ways this might be argued for. Based on the Church’s teaching, I’d talk about the parents as primary educators of children and the right to religious freedom. Based on Mill’s liberalism, I’d argue for the importance of experiments in living and the competition for ideas that results. Based on MacIntyre’s understanding of the role of traditions, I’d argue for the importance of encouraging the deep exploration of particular traditions and for an education based on the integrity of a particular tradition.

Of course, these arguments would have to be developed (although I’m confident, time allowing, I could do this) and, given the nature of philosophical disagreement, the discussion isn’t likely to be a short one. But I’d note that, particularly from a Catholic point of view, given the Church’s principles on this and the support (from a different direction) of the Catholic philosopher, MacIntyre, I’d expect it to be particularly difficult for a Catholic to reject the conclusion that Muslim ethos schools should be allowed.

 2) OK! I’d simply say I’d disagree with your assessment here.

3) I think we’d agree here except perhaps in the wisdom of highlighting the Muslim opinions. He is highlighting simply fragments of positions and claiming that they are examples of atypical opinions held by extremists. If he thinks they are typical of the community, he should say so and alter his argument accordingly.

4) Evidence? I explained in my earlier post why I thought the report’s evidential base was flawed. Why do you disagree?

Another aspect to this is that a number of prominent public voices who a) are not Muslim and b) have personal experience of the schools disagree with the findings. For example, Lee Donaghy has consistently rejected the analysis of an Islamicist takeover which, as assistant principal of Park View, he’d be well placed to recognize. Father Oliver Cross –an Anglican Priest- is a governor of  Regent’s Park school. Again, he has been vocal in his opposition to the analysis of an Islamist takeover. There is simply no testing the evidence by voices such as these.

5) By ‘anecdotal evidence’ I simply mean the use of personal stories as evidence. The problem with such evidence –particularly as used in the report- is that it is not critically tested. In particular: a) anecdotes need to be tested for truth and b) they need to be tested for typicality.

For example. Here’s an anecdote about smoking: ‘My father smoked all his life and never had a problem with it. So smoking’s fine.’ a) It’s false. My father died of heart disease doubtless in part due to smoking. b) Even if it were true, it would prove nothing about general tendencies: my father could have been fine even if every other smoker dropped dead of smoking.

There is a lack of critical testing of these anecdotes in the report. There are alternative anecdotes that are not really considered. There is no attempt to find more reliable evidence (such as parental surveys). There are conceptual problems with the report (ie a lack of precision about the meaning of ‘Islamist’).

You say we have to trust the integrity of Clarke. You say that ‘the report is not intended to be a balanced presentation of conflicting evidence, but a set of recommendations informed by a large body of evidence and illustrated by examples’. The evidence I’ve argued (and to a large part you’ve accepted) is flawed. If it is just to be taken as a set of judgments illustrated (but not evidenced) by anecdote, I see no reason to accept it on trust: as Catholics, we should be extremely sensitive to the way that unsympathetic and ignorant outsiders are treating our religion, and I see strong reasons for thinking that much the same is going on here.

6) Not much hangs on this, but I’d say that it’s not so much a difficult read as a badly argued one. It’s clear but not convincing.


As a general point, as I’ve argued above, for both reasons of practicality and principle, I think we should be allowing (even encouraging) Muslim ethos schools. If such schools existed, I’d expect them to be much like the sort of schools under review. So I think the real question here is not so much has there been anything underhand about how the schools were established, but rather are they the sort of schools that should be established. That’s the long term question here, and Clarke and his report are singularly ill-equipped to tackle it.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Trojan Horse schools and the Clarke report

                                       New school transport, Birmingham style...?

The Clarke report into the 'Trojan Horse' Birmingham schools is really a pretty shoddy thing. (Full PDF here.)

The main problem with it is that it's a prosecutor's narrative: Clarke has a clear sense of what he believes has happened, and picks the evidence to support that narrative. If you think that truth in assessing complex interpersonal exchanges (ie rows in schools) or complex philosophical issues (ie the place of a culture and religion in schools) is susceptible to neat accounts from one perspective, you might be fine with the report. If you suspect that one man's judgment, particularly with the skill set of a former policeman concerned with terrorism, might well need to be tested before being accepted, then you'll want to dig a bit more deeply.

Here are some specific problems with it:

1) It doesn't take seriously the argument that the schools are simply reflecting parental culture.

The main narrative of the report is that schools were taken over by an organized body of activists trying to impose 'a particular hardline strand of Sunni Islam' (p13). Although it notes that it is claimed that such a 'hardline strand' is simply reflecting the Muslim culture of the majority of parents, it doesn't really take that claim seriously. But the reasons for this rejection of the claim are less clear. In particular, despite saying

On the contrary, while the majority of parents welcome the good academic results that some of these schools produce, they do not demand that their children adhere to
conservative religious behaviour at school. Indeed, I received evidence that
this would be supported by only a minority of parents. (p12)

there is no explanation of what such evidence consists in other than a few anonymous opinions. Indeed, Clarke gives at least two reasons for thinking that the evidence for his claim is likely to be extremely weak:

a) he didn't interview or survey parents:

I deliberately did not visit schools; nor did I seek to interview children or their families as I felt this could run counter to my intention not to add to the anxiety that young people and their families must inevitably be feeling (p8)

b) he refuses even to countenance the likelihood that Muslims attitudes will not be the same as those of a metropolitan elite:

Tahir Alam, the chair of governors of the Park View Education Trust told me in an
interview that he believed that Monzoor Hussain reflected the educational attitudes and aspirations of the community. This cannot be right, since it would be absurd and deeply offensive to argue that the Muslim communities of East Birmingham share the intolerant views put forward by those who contributed to the ‘Park View Brotherhood’, and which were
largely left unchallenged by Mr Hussain. (p74) [My emphasis. I'll say more about the substance of the 'intolerant views' below.]

2) It is extraordinarily vague about what is wrong with the 'particular hardline strand of Sunni Islam'. 

The specific charges levelled against the schools are often vague and impressionistic. They are often anecdotal (eg one problem in one school is taken as representing all schools).

For example, in a table of 'behaviours observed in schools' (p122) (and could someone point out to Clarke that (consistently) treating adults as 'behaving' certainly lays him open to charges of distancing 'us' from 'them': we act; they behave) there are two columns that are particularly relevant. 'Attempts to introduce a more Islamic character into schools' and 'Sympathy to extremist views'. Only two schools (out of the 14) showed even the possibility of the latter. 12 out of 14 showed the former. But why should that be surprising? There has been (from the 'opposing perspective') an attempt to raise standards by creating a culture within the school more in harmony with the children's religious and cultural needs. Why should this aim in principle (which is necessarily given the nature of the population from which the schools draw their pupils 'to introduce a more Islamic character' ) anything other than totally reasonable?

A more specific charge is made against 'the Park View Brotherhood':

I took possession of the contents of a social media discussion 
between a group of teachers at Park View School that for much of 2013 was 
called the ‘Park View Brotherhood’. It was initiated and administered by Mr 
Monzoor Hussain, the Acting Principal, and was joined by influential teachers 
within the school. The evidence from more than 3,000 messages spread over 
130 pages of transcript shows that this group either promoted or failed to 
challenge views that are grossly intolerant of beliefs and practices other than 
their own. (p11)

Now the views expressed (how often? 'The majority of the postings are innocuous and often mundane' (p58)) in this group show (allegedly) 

explicit homophobia; highly offensive comments about British service personnel; a stated ambition to increase segregation in the school; disparagement of strands of Islam; 
scepticism about the truth of reports of the murder of Lee Rigby and the 
Boston bombings; and a constant undercurrent of anti-Western, anti-American 
and anti-Israeli sentiment.(p56)

Readers will have to make of the (very few) possibly objectionable posts what they will. Some strike me as simply the sort of banter that you get in online groups (eg about women doing the cooking (p57)); others (eg about separation of girls and boys) an honest attempt to thrash out how to deal with the educational and cultural issues involved in educating boys and girls (p60 Exchange between teachers: 'It is important to teach boys and girls to know how to interact with opposite gender in a healthy manner/Equally important to create an environment that doesnt promote sexual promiscuity). The worst example is the posting of a picture of 'an offensive image of a lavatory roll imprinted with the Israeli flag' (p58). Not nice, but a) an isolated incident' b) welcome to online discussions on the Middle East; and c) welcome to a general anti-Israeli sentiment amongst Muslims. (Can we please prosecute any teacher who tweeted an off colour remark/photo about the Papacy?)

Much more important: no evidence whatsoever is shown that these privately expressed opinions carried over into the daily life of any school.

3) Death by anecdote.

The report is full of anecdotal evidence without any attempt to critique it or examine its evidential value.

The worst example of this is the account given by one headteacher of his troubled relationship with the governors. This takes up ten pages of the report (pp23-32) without any challenge from an alternative perspective. I've had some experience of governing body/headteacher clashes. I know (in a far less charged situation) what the headteacher would have said about the clash. I know what some of the governors said. Anyone who has worked in any organization will recognize quite how difficult such situations are to get a grip on. Certainly, a one sided presentation of a particular participant's views isn't the way to get to the truth.

4) General lack of sympathy with the governors' approach

Michael Gove was widely criticized by talking about the education establishment as 'The Blob'. But there certainly is a pervasive culture among many educational professionals that would be unsympathetic to a) parental influence on a school; b) religious influence on a school. The two opposing narratives in the Trojan Horse schools cases are: 1) Islamists were trying to take over the schools; 2) Concerned parents and activists were trying to take over the schools to improve standards by introducing a cultural and religious environment more in tune with parents' beliefs. Now the actual effects these two approaches would produce in the day to day life of a school might be quite similar on the face of it: it's the reasoning behind it (and the value of the changes) that would be a matter of dispute. The report relies much on the idea that 'no smoke without fire': whatever the individual facts, there is a pattern of Islamicization and criticism of that. But of course! If we take narrative 2), we'd expect  a pattern of increased Islamic 'behaviours' and a pattern of increased 'Blob' reactions. Clarke completely dodges this analysis simply because he is clearly out of sympathy with the attempt to improve standards by digging down deeply into the home culture. A particularly silly example:

. For example, in the teaching of modern foreign languages, pupils were
encouraged to study Arabic to reflect their background and provide
greater access to their religious and cultural heritage (despite the fact
that the majority of Muslim pupils in Park View School are from a South
Asian background). (p50)

So imagine the Catholic equivalent: pupils encouraged to learn Latin. Clarke ridiculing this because we're from a Northern European background.

Why am I going on about this? Because I think, perhaps more than anything we've seen in the past with Catholic schools (who, in many cases, have simply rolled over and swallowed the secular agenda) we're seeing here the culture war in schools in its full rawness. In essence, the parental right to educate children as they see fit and the religious right to pass on that religion in its fullness and depth are being challenged. Of course there are difficult issues here about ensuring (eg) children are fit for the wider society they live in and that civic peace is preserved. But the modern liberal desire to impose homogeneous opinions on a population (eg on homosexuality, on Israel) rather than finding ways for differences to live agonistically but peacefully with each other (which is to say politically) is going both to destroy the real academic gains that these schools seem to have made, and to ensure that Muslims are further marginalized in our society. (And for reasons that, once the present mess has died down, will be found to apply equally to Catholics and other groups that don't toe the line.)

Monday 21 July 2014

The contribution of Islam to public life

                                                    A future Question Time?

One area of life where I find myself at odds with other people who would normally be my natural allies is in my attitude to Islam. Crudely, I tend to be rather sympathetic to Islam and even Islamophile, while many culturally conservative Christians (a class which I suppose I'd have to sign up to even though of course I'm far deeper and more nuanced than that!) tend to be highly suspicious and even hostile to it.

This is despite, I like to tell myself, no lack of realism on my part. I'm certainly under no illusions about the likelihood of peace and love breaking out in the Middle East. I am perfectly capable of being whipped up about the future of Europe being one of a transformation into Eurabia. I'm even rather pro-Israel. So not really a natural ally of Islam, perhaps.

There's a lot I could say about this. (Perhaps my best attempt so far is here.) But to focus on only one aspect -that of politics in the UK- you have the existence of a large body of devout religious believers in the electorate who share much with Christians and other conservatives, who are members of one of the world's great cultural traditions (see immediately previous blogpost on why that's important), and who are currently under attack in precisely those areas where Catholics also ought to be taking a stand (ie parental control over their children's education and, specifically, a resistance to libertinism). But one of the oddities of this debate (and Islam's presence in the UK in general) is a relative absence of any serious engagement with Islam as an intellectual and cultural tradition that might have a positive contribution to make to British public life. Instead, it is all about toleration ('leave it alone and it won't do any harm') or control ('make sure that bad Islam doesn't brainwash good Muslims'). Scottish Islam is probably even more invisible than English Islam due to a much smaller immigrant population and the stifling conformity of Scottish politics around a 'big state leftism', but despite a number of high profile politicians from a Muslim background, it's extremely hard to identify a particularly explicit Muslim aspect to their public life (eg: none of the MSPs who voted against same sex 'marriage' in Scotland appear to have been Muslim here).

I've been prompted to note this after reading Forbidding Wrong in Islam (reviewed here). In essence, I came away thinking: a) thinking about ethics through the prism of the traditional Islamic category of commanding right and forbidding wrong produces a rather interesting and different perspective on some important areas; and b) the varying teachings on this area represented a worthwhile attempt at systematic reflection which would benefit a wider (non-Islamic) audience. In addition, understanding some of the tensions between different schools of Islamic thought was certainly suggestive in thinking about current issues: for example, given the conclusion by many schools of Islam that the duty of commanding right even by force does not devolve entirely to the state, does this explain the evolution of a sort of community action in the case of the governing bodies of schools rather than engagement in public politics? (Who knows? I certainly don't and I don't expect to see Dispatches tackling it rather than the lack of clapping in Islamically influenced primary schools.) But the relative absence of any sophisticated but orthodox Muslim voices articulating their understandings of (eg) the relationship between the individual and the state is a loss to that thinking about politics that is more than an ad hoc reaction to day to day party politics.

We are rapidly creating a public realm devoid of genuinely different voices rooted in coherent worldviews. As I noted in my last post, any reference to tradition is excluded. Muslims now appear to be being sieved by whether or not they can give soundbite replies on (eg) capital punishment and homosexuality that please the prejudices of an unsympathetic audience. Only by including voices that are genuinely diverse into the political sphere can marginalized groups be integrated into that scrappy, unarmed truce that is the modern state and, moreover, can politics be reinvigorated by some genuinely fresh perspectives rather than just the tired cliches of progressivism.

Thursday 17 July 2014

Eliding the past

                                            Rational thought, religious style? 
'Faith' leaders unite to oppose euthanasia. [Here.]

I've retained enough of a memory of what it was like to be an atheist (or perhaps just enough common sense) to get a sense of how convincing the non-religious will find such an intervention. (Oh, go on, guess!) Indeed, it must have occurred to at least a few of us bronze age goat herd fetishists that, as soon as a sizable number of people hear that religious leaders think this or that, they'll go and do exactly the opposite. Although I hope that some of the proponents of euthanasia have thought about the issue a bit more deeply than this, I've come across quite a few who clearly regard the debate as mainly having a symbolic function in the extirpation of religion: whatever the religious think, they are agin it.

Putting aside the issue of euthanasia, it is quite odd to think that religious leaders of a wide variety of backgrounds agree on their opposition. I suspect that the New Atheists will simply explain this agreement along the lines of 'religion dumb, therefore dumb conclusion', but to anyone else, the agreement of widely different theologies and sensibilities in this area really ought to require a bit more explanation.

Well, here's my best go at it. In essence, we have here an opposition between tradition and modernity. Those religious leaders who oppose euthanasia hold fast to old, pre-modern traditions. Those who promote euthanasia (whether religious or not) tend to reject tradition and embrace the new. So what unites the 'religious' leaders is less religion and more adherence to traditional values.

Modernists have constructed for themselves a closed belief trap: in essence, a way of thinking that prevents them thinking their way out of error. The examples you often find quoted of this sort of trap are religious: 'Doubt is the temptation of the devil, therefore it's important to believe and reject evidence as Satanic.' But the secular equivalent of that are the hermeneutics of suspicion such as Marxism, Freudianism, Feminism and New Atheism that teach their adherents to reject any evidence from the past or from other cultures as tainted by patriarchy or neurosis or class interest or religion.

Focusing on religion for the moment, if you reject any moral guidance 'infected' by religion, you leave yourself an extremely narrow evidence base. Obviously, most other countries are infected by religion outside Western Europe so can be disregarded. Most Western European writers of the past thousand years have also been infected by religion or the reaction to it, so you're probably only safe with Irvine Welsh.

If you then reapply the critical filter with all the other versions of the hermeneutic of suspicion, you won't end up with much that's safe to read or pay heed to. And if you add into that the material restrictions of modern education (reduced patience in reading, lack of foreign and ancient languages, emphasis on utilitarian outcomes) you have some quite difficult fences to climb before you can access any perspective that might provide a serious contrast or check to modern 'chatter'.

Does this matter? Well, it does if you take the view that traditional values are like traditional skills: they embody the carefully accumulated experience of generations about what does and doesn't suit our human nature and condition. I won't attempt to defend such a view here but - unless you're absolutely sure that it's a mistaken view- the very obvious fact that we have systematically constructed a culture which is inoculated  against this sort of wisdom really ought to be very worrying.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Death doulas and assisted dying

                                           A bit of everything and nothing....

While the assisted dying/bumping off your granny debate continues in England and Wales over the build up to Lord Falconer's Bill, I'd like to put aside some of the broader issues and focus on one specific aspect of 'assisted dying' which, in Scotland, will be enshrined in legislation and, elsewhere, is now being routinely talked about as part of the euthanasia package: the end of life doula or death midwife.

             Tony Soprano: specialist in assisted dying and generalized taking care of people

My attention to this phenomenon was drawn by Bronnie Ware's article in The Guardian which specifically links the idea of a death doula with euthanasia. (The idea of a end of life doula is not necessarily linked with euthanasia: here for an interview with a practising death doula who -despite an eccentric obliviousness to the sprouting of vegetation from her head- seems a reasonably friendly sort who doesn't seem overly inclined to active pursuit of that final remedy for all ills.)

The proposed Scottish legislation (as I discussed before) proposes the role of a licensed facilitator to help you shuffle off this mortal coil. I think this provision hasn't received much attention up here yet probably on the grounds that it's seen (by both sides) as simply a piece of legerdemain to deal with attacks on the previously proposed legislation that it would undermine medical staff by involving them in the process. (It doesn't alter this aspect in substance: the whole process still involves medical supervision throughout.)

But the idea of a death doula/licensed practitioner does highlight two problems with the proposed euthanasia Bills in both England and Wales and Scotland. First, it highlights the way that the much vaunted idea of autonomy at the end of life is constructed (and perhaps more accurately, invented); and, secondly, it demonstrates how we are being driven towards a construction of that autonomy which will push us into euthanasia.

One of the key points of tension in modernity is that of consent. There is a tendency to reduce all moral questions to the simple test: did s/he consent to it? Do you want it? Now the problem with that is that, in general, it's often not clear to ourselves what we really want, and that, in the specific areas of sex and medical treatment, we are more likely than in most other areas to be conflicted and unsure. In the area of sex, the practices of seduction and wooing sit uneasily between a freely given consent and an overridden will: to be wooed (let alone seduced) is to be at least a little resistant. (I think a particular problem here is evident in the case of child sex: because the moderns wish to reduce everything to consent, they find it difficult to deal with an area which they think good (lots of sex) and yet where the will is inchoate (the child or adolescent). (I say a bit more about this in the combox on Mark Lambert's blogpost on Peter Tatchell's involvement with pro-paedophilia campaigns.) Much easier for traditional approaches: child sex is wrong regardless of any issues of consent.)

In the case of medical treatment, we are reliant on expertise. We need either to be persuaded to follow that expertise or simply to obey it: in either case, the idea of consent, let alone autonomy, becomes highly problematic.

Now none of this is to say that -in broad terms- there isn't much to be said for autonomy and for its facilitation. In business, for example, the idea of a contract is a way of creating a clearcut decision: by entering into a formal, legally binding contract, the murky depths of autonomy are avoided: consent here is reduced to a formal, (relatively) clearly identifiable procedure. This tendency to create a fictional and public simulacrum for the complications of autonomy can be found both in sex (the creation of a 'safe' word; 'no means no'), and, more centrally to present purposes, medical treatment: no end of forms to sign, none of which are really understood, but where complexity is reduced to the simple question of whether or not they were signed.

But serious illness -and particularly death- is one of those moments when our pretended autonomy dissolves: it is then that a mature culture instead celebrates and focuses on our vulnerability, our dependence on others rather than our independence. Instead, the machinery of medical killing covers up what should be an epiphany of the human condition and smears it with obscuring words as in the wriggling attempts to find a euphemism that manufactures autonomy  (from 'euthanasia' to 'assisted suicide' to 'assisted dying') out of our utter creaturely dependence. Even the title 'doula' shares in this obscurantism: it hints at δοῦλος (doulos) a slave/servant, but hides this desire for a tool at one's service behind the decent veil of a foreign language: a desired tool to effect my autonomy, but one whose true status is obscured by an orientalizing garb.

The doula/licensed practitioner is of course nothing like a slave: servus a non servando. Instead she is a guide, a shaman, another expert to guide your through a world that is hers, not yours. At the end of life, we need to trust and depend on the goodwill of others. With assisted dying, we are being encouraged to lie back and trust in the good will of others as they kill us. The doula disguises this and makes it more palatable with hints of patchouli and silks. But the unvarnished reality -at perhaps the most important moment in our life when we need to face truth without illusions- is that we have no autonomy and that our human need for companionship and spiritual counsel is being provided by a team of killers watching the meter to see how quickly they can unblock a bed for the next victim.

The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,  
Glowed on the marble, where the glass  
Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines  
From which a golden Cupidon peeped out
(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)  
Doubled the flames of sevenbranched candelabra  
Reflecting light upon the table as  
The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it,  
From satin cases poured in rich profusion;
In vials of ivory and coloured glass  
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,  
Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused  
And drowned the sense in odours; stirred by the air  
That freshened from the window, these ascended
In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,  
Flung their smoke into the laquearia,  
Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling.

(The Waste Land)

Friday 11 July 2014

Natural Law and the Instrumentum Laboris on the Family: part 6 and the end.

In this final post, I want to draw together my main conclusions so far and try to reach an overall conclusion.

The beginning of this line of thought was the following claim in the Instrumentum Laboris (working paper) for the forthcoming Synod on the Family:

The language traditionally used in explaining the term “natural law” should be improved so that the values of the Gospel can be communicated to people today in a more intelligible manner. In particular, the vast majority of responses and an even greater part of the observations request that more emphasis be placed on the role of the Word of God as a privileged instrument in the conception of married life and the family, and recommend greater reference to the Bible, its language and narratives.

Now, my argument is that this Biblical approach, at least in the secularized world of Western Europe, is misplaced. However, I agree that there is a problem with the description, 'Natural Law' and perhaps with the presentation of its content.

As far as natural is concerned, the main point here is that it isn't from revelation -including the Bible. So the very conception of natural law depends on the understanding that Catholic moral teaching isn't just Biblical. If the word 'natural' doesn't make this clear, then perhaps we need to alter the word (to 'rational', 'commonsense'?) But nothing will be helped by introducing more of revealed, Biblical teaching to an audience which is already prone to assume that churches are simply irrational pedlars of Bronze Age scripture.

As far as law is concerned, insofar as law depends on a lawgiver, using this term does cause problems in engaging with thoroughgoing atheists. But I'm not sure that should be our main audience. Given that belief in God is widespread, I think there's at least an argument that we should start from that point: everyone (well, the rational anyway) believe in the existence of a spiritual direction in the universe: let's explore what the existence of such a spiritual law would involve.

Against the dropping of the term 'Natural Law' is confusion: we know as Catholics that we have a worked out body of thought in this area and we want to make sure, however we describe it, that description clearly denotes that thought. On the other hand, as I've noted, there are dangers that the description 'Natural Law' can mislead. On balance, my recommendation would be that we retain the term, but are more careful in explaining it simply means commonsense reasoning about morality. In particular, I think we need to be careful not to give the impression that 'Natural Law' is simply an instruction manual of codified conclusions, It is certainly the results of an enquiry, but, given those results are precisely what is in question, there is the enquiry and its techniques to fall back on whether in the 'commonsense' form of ordinary practical reason, or its more developed offspring of Thomism.

Finally, to go back to two specific Twitter exchanges that were, in part, the prompt for this series.
Answer: 'natural' law is not primarily based on discerning the function of organs. To the limited extent that it is, such a discernment only makes sense within a context, in particular, within a certain understanding of practical wisdom and of teleology, primarily, though not exclusively within the Thomist tradition. The argument therefore cannot be ripped out of context. It is that background -from which the conclusions follow- which needs to be addressed. [More detailed post was here.]

Answer: 'Natural' is primarily to be understood as 'not supernatural' -ie not from revelation (the Bible). It certainly doesn't say that whatever happens is good (how could a morality say that when morality is primarily concerned with what ought to be rather than what is). To the extent that reflecting on human nature is an important part of the methodology of natural law, you have to remember that what we are just now isn't what we should be or even what we are at the deepest level. That can be put in technical Thomist talk about form and act and potentiality, but that technical exploration really rests on the commonsense understanding that not all feelings are good (depression?) and not every state we're currently in is what we truly are (a drug addict?).

A very final point. There's a temptation in Catholicism (either because it's a general human temptation or because Catholicism is hierarchical and tends towards the neat)  to want one answer. So from the problems with Natural Law and getting a hearing for it, we turn to one answer: more Scripture. I think this (general and specific) tendency should be resisted. If Natural Law is presented in one way -say, by a Bishop in full fig referring to the achieved conclusions of Natural Law as clear instructions- then it will work in some contexts (say, faithful but swithering Catholics) but not in others (say, those who regard Catholicism as superstitious, authoritarian mumbo-jumbo). Adding more Scripture may work sometimes. It won't work always (or even often in the UK). Using terms other than 'natural law' may help sometimes, but on other occasions it will confuse. There is no one solution. All that can be done is that Catholics get as clear an understanding of the principles as they can and try to be as imaginative as they can be in using what they can do to put them over.

But I really don't think that underplaying the rational content of Catholic moral teaching and instead emphasizing scripture is likely to be a major contribution to making our points effectively.

Previous posts can be found here:

Post one: general background [here]

Post two: what is 'natural'? Primarily it means not supernatural. [here]

Post three: what is 'natural'? The role of teleology and nature in the natural law. [here]

Post four: what is 'natural'? Commonsense and human nature in the natural law. [here]

Post five: what is 'law' and what part does God play here? [here]

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Natural Law and the Instrumentum Laboris on the Family: part 5


In previous posts, I've been mulling over the appropriateness of 'natural' in natural law. Essentially, I've concluded that its primary meaning is not supernatural (ie not morality derived from revelations such as the Bible). But to conclude that is not supernaturally derived does not mean that it doesn't bring God into it. And it is on that point that this post concentrates.

One of the most misunderstood aspects of the Catholic understanding of reasoning without the aid of revelation is that the existence of God and a number of his key attributes are held to be provable by reason. Crudely, if natural law is about what people would come up with walking round the world and thinking about it without the aid of the divine authority of the Church and the Bible, one of their conclusions would be that God exists (and is good, all powerful etc).

Most atheists -and I suspect most Catholics- assume that God's existence is part of faith. But Catholic teaching is quite clear on this [here]:

What the author of Wisdom and St. Paul and after them the Fathers and theologians had constantly taught, has been solemnly defined by the Vatican Council. In the first place, as against Agnosticism and Traditionalism, the council teaches (cap. ii, De revelat.)

that God, the first cause (principium) and last end of all things, can, from created things, be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason (Denz., 1785-old no. 1634)

and in the corresponding canon (can. i, De revelat.) it anathematizes anyone who would say

that the one true God our Creator and Lord, cannot, through the things that are made, be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason (Denz., 1806-old no. 1653).

However, it is not held that any particular proof (eg Aquinas' Five Ways) is certainly sound. This results in a pattern familiar from previous posts. There is the (commonsense) claim that belief in God, in everyday sense of rational, is correct, much as I have argued that there is a commonsense claim that reflecting on 'what human beings are like' is a good basis for thinking about morality. Furthermore, there is the (eg) Thomist development and intellectualization of that commonsense approach where arguments (eg) about the dependency of forms on God are developed using a subtle and technical vocabulary. (See Ed Feser here.)

Now, the Thomist (or more broadly Scholastic approach) I shall put aside. It can look after itself and, like any highly technical philosophical argument, has to be dealt with in highly technical philosophical terms. Thomists will argue that, in the end, natural reason  and natural law depend on the development of such technical arguments. Most atheists think they can knock these arguments down in a couple of sentences: they clearly can't. The key point to remember here, as Feser for one has gone on relentlessly about but which still doesn't seem to hit home, is that the basic shape of these arguments is that if you accept the metaphysical apparatus of Aristotelian metaphysics (forms, essences, act and potentiality etc) then you are committed to the soundness of the arguments for the existence of God. (And of course the preparatory argument here is that, for various good reasons, you ought to accept the Thomist/Aristotelian understanding of metaphysics -not for 'religious'  reasons, but because it makes sense of the structure of the everyday world of objects and change.) That's going to be a very long and involved argument on both sides of course. Tough. That's what you've got to do if you're going to engage at that level.

But the everyday, commonsense approach is simply to note the obviousness of the existence of God. Most peoples have believed in it (here). The Enlightenment -that much trumpeted cleansing of superstition- generally put it at the heart of reason. Thus, Samuel Johnson, the key force behind the Enlightenment in the US:

Now, if it be asked, from whence does this Light derive, whereby all created minds perceive, as by a common standard, the same things alike to be true and right –I answer, that I have no other way to conceive how I come to be affected with this intuitive, intellectual light, whereof I am conscious, than by deriving it from the universal action and presence of the Deity, or a perpetual Communication with the Great Father of Lights… [p13, Elementa Philosophica here.]

(For some Scottish Enlightenment examples, see previous post.)

The various atheist campaigning organizations make a great deal of the advance of secularization in the UK and elsewhere, but (deliberately?) confuse the question of a declining influence in organized religion with a decline in the belief in God. For example, in an entire BHA page dedicated to 'good news' about declining belief, I can't find a single direct reference to belief in God rather than acceptance of particular religious dogmas or churches. (Tucked away, in a passing thought, is a rare honest admission in this area: only 10,357 people in the 2001 census describe themselves as atheist: that's about 0.02% of the population.)

Trying to find figures in this area was a bit of an eye-opener. In search after search, I found items described as 'rise of atheism in survey' or something similar, only to discover, when I actually looked at the figures that this was a survey about decline in religion or church adherence rather than decline of a belief in God. For example, the Metro headline is:

Census 2011: Christian numbers fall with atheism on the rise

The number of Christians in England and Wales fell by more than four million in the last decade, the 2011 census has suggested, while the number of people identifying as atheists increased by six million over the same period.

Unfortunately for the accuracy of the story, there was no question about atheism (or even, more precisely, about the lack of belief in God (and I say that because the Brights -doubtless because they are so bright- have a tendency to describe themselves as atheists whilst praying and believing in God) in the 2011 census. In fact, this is a story about the decline of organized religion: 25% in the UK now describe themselves as having 'No religion'.

I could go on here, but from the BBC survey in 2004 -described in the Wikipedia article as showing that 39% of people in the UK don't believe in God- in fact shows that only 16% describe themselves as simply not believing in God, whilst, of the remaining 23%, roughly equal numbers describe themselves as believing in a Higher Power (11%) or as being a 'spiritual person' (12%).

Whatever the details here, there is a clear pattern. Whilst organized religion is struggling, belief in God or a Higher Power or a Spiritual Dimension to life is vastly stronger than the sort of materialistic atheism pushed by Dawkins et co. (And remember this is the highly secularized UK: outwith Western Europe, the figures for genuine atheism would be far smaller.) This, of course, is what you might expect from the Catholic analysis: all reasonable people know that God exists; only some of those people will have the grace to believe in the truths of Catholicism.

What to make of all this? Natural Law qua law rests on the idea of a lawgiver: God. As Anscombe argues:

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.

Therefore, if you a speaking to a (genuine) atheist, to talk of natural law is to make an assumption about the existence of God that you are not entitled to: whilst the Catholic will explain that this is simply morality based on human reason unaided by revelation, the atheist will (rightly) interpret this as morality founded on the existence of God. When I noted (in my first post in this series) that I began blogging with doubts about the wisdom of using the description 'natural law' it was more this question of law that made me pause. And, of course, if you are talking to a genuine atheist, you need roughly speaking to go back to reflecting on morality, probably along the lines suggested by Anscombe: a return to reflection on what human beings are. There is no particular problem for Catholicism here: in essence, it means a return to Aristotle's ethics of virtue and eudaimonia (the fulfilled life) which already forms the foundation stone of Catholic teaching. You just have to drop the idea of law. One way of conceptualizing this -as I argued previously- is to get back to the Greeks. From that point of view, taking about natural law is misleading and unhelpful.

On the other hand, if we take seriously the evidence (both philosophical and empirical) that belief in God is as much part of our nature as belief in tables and chairs, the idea that divine guidance and articulation as law is as reasonable as any other part of morality shouldn't be abandoned so quickly. And this is quite important: instead of assuming that we are addressing a secularized society which no longer believes in God, we need to realize that we are addressing a secularized society that still believes in God but thinks, roughly, that Catholicism is just a highly primitive version of that belief. I'm not quite so clear about where that leaves us in terms of what we then do, but it strikes me as clear that simply relying on the Bible (as in the Instrumentum Laboris) is unlikely to help. Far better, I suspect, to start a conversation along the following lines (my words):

Look, we both agree that New Atheists have an incredibly crude, materialistic understanding of the world. We both agree that there is Higher Power or meaning in the world: let's explore that and let me show you how Catholicism (unlike other forms of Christianity) takes seriously the way that ordinary human experience and commonsense has to be at the foundation of our world view.

I'm also tempted to start laughing at atheists as a matter of policy or at least treating their speculations as no more than an amusing parlour game. I mean, it's all very well as a philosophical debating point, but, really, no higher power? Come off it! (This is probably more the result of a character defect on my part than a sound strategy, so feel free to ignore it. On the other hand, for those infected with similar 'non-commonsensical' thoughts (such as a Cartesian disbelief in the existence of the external world), the best policy really is to josh them out of it. Is it really so clear that even secularized Britain is so far gone that it too doesn't realize the inherent absurdity of a merely materialistic view of life?)

In sum:

In this post, I've focused on the element of law in the term 'natural law'. I've concluded that it does cause some difficulties, in that it rests on the idea of the existence of a lawgiver, God. That's one reason for moving away from it. On the other hand, the existence of God is a matter of commonsense reasoning rather than faith -and, despite a mendacious publicity campaign- belief in God and a divine order is much, much stronger than belief in revealed religion. From that point of view, retention of the term law as a reminder (and consequence) of the existence of God has its advantages, not least the avoidance of conceding ground (on the rational belief in God) that we should be chary of leaving simply to faith.

(I would add, as a footnote, that there is an issue regarding the word law that, even if the existence of God is conceded, in our anomic times, seeing him as a lawgiver rather than (say) a facilitator (!) is perhaps culturally problematic. I leave this thought without taking it further.)

In the next, final post, I will pull all these various posts together and try to reach some sort of conclusion.

Monday 7 July 2014

Natural Law and the Instrumentum Laboris on the Family (part 4)

                                                         And there's more....

Where we are:

1) Natural law is primarily called natural in opposition to law derived from (supernatural) revelation. We might be better off calling it commonsense morality or morality based on reason. (But each has its own disadvantages.)

2) To the extent that reflection on nature part of natural law, it is primarily reflection on human nature as a whole, rather than the nature of human bits or organs.

That leaves us to say something about human nature: what is the 'what it is' of human beings? Now, there is a Thomistic answer to that expressed in the metaphysical terms of form, essence, act and potentiality etc that we touched on in the last post. If you think that such metaphysics are the best way of understanding the universe, you therefore have a ready made, technically precise way of discussing what we are as human beings.

My own view, despite the presence of some hints otherwise (particularly the ergon [function] argument in Book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics (see here)) is that Aristotle's own ethics rests very much more on a commonsense understanding of what we are. (To note that is not, necessarily, to cut off a Thomistic understanding. As Garrigou-Lagrange argues in Le Sens Commun, the technical language of Scholastic philosophy is really just a refinement of commonsense understandings.) To make remarks (as Aristotle does) that we are 'city dwelling animals' or 'animals who live in couples' is perfectly comprehensible in an everyday sort of way. Moreover, the Scholastic distinction between activity and potentiality is really just a sharpening of the view  (in the ethical field) that what we are is not what we could become: as every schoolchild is told, we all have 'potential'. And it is these observations that ground the answer to the objection that natural law is a non-starter because whatever happens is natural. Not every potential is realized: the budding scientific genius may waste his talents as a drunk; the artist may be distracted by chasing promiscuous sex. If we can achieve, we can fail to achieve: that is pretty much commonsense. So if we are something (an animal that dwells in cities, an animal that craves love), we have the possibility both of failure (to live badly in civil strife, to hold back from emotional commitment) and reason to avoid that failure. If the use of natural obscures these commonsense thoughts, then that is a reason for avoiding the term even if, within the more precise terminology of Scholasticism, 'nature' takes on a more exact meaning that makes absolutely clear that any particular individual may fail to express and fulfil that nature:

Essence and nature express the same reality envisaged in the two points of view as being or acting. As the essence is that whereby any given thing is that which it is, the ground of its characteristics and the principle of its being, so its nature is that whereby it acts as it does, the essence considered as the foundation and principle of its operation. Hence again St. Thomas: "Nature is seen to signify the essence of a thing according as it has relation to its proper operation" (De ente et essentia, cap. i).[My emphasis. From here.]

In sum, natural law -to the (limited) extent that it is natural because it involves reflection on human nature- involves commonsense ideas of what we are, coupled with the thought that we do no always manage to be who we really are either very well or sometimes even at all. Achievement of our nature is not, in that sense, guaranteed.

In the next instalment, I go on to consider the place of God in natural law -an apparent (but only apparent) paradoxical introduction of a supernatural element into what I had previously argued was simply natural by being not supernatural.

To be continued...

Friday 4 July 2014

Natural Law and the Instrumentum Laboris on the Family: part 3

                                                         Possibly in a bit....

So we're calling Natural Law that commonsense, rational morality that people get just from knocking about the world, thinking and reflecting on their experience, but particularly from those human beings who, being virtuous, are practically wise.

But then what about the arguments based on natural functions? In particular, what about those arguments which are based on the natural function of the genitalia and, more especially, their procreative function?

I think the first thing to notice is that we're quite a long way into explaining natural law, and, except to mention that such functions aren't the reason why it is natural law, we haven't come across them yet. Moreover, if you turn to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (which is as good a starting point of natural law reasoning in the Catholic tradition as anything else) you won't find such arguments about physical bits. (Nor -so far as I can see- are they frequent in the one volume manuals of moral philosophy that neo-Thomists used to produce. (My current favourite -Rickaby's Moral Philosophy- doesn't seem to touch on it.) ) Now that doesn't mean they aren't there, but it does mean that they are neither the most important aspect of Catholic ethics in general, nor even of the relationship between the sexes -which is explored in the context of marriage (or as Aristotle puts it, the household). That is pretty much a standard feature of Aristotelian methodology: to examine the standard case (in which men and women have children and bring them up) and only then, to examine marginal cases.

Now this reflection is certainly based on thoughts about what is beneficial and harmful to people, what is central to their flourishing and what is unimportant or even opposed to it. That certainly involves reflection on what human beings (and the sexes) are, and how they develop and mature. But it isn't necessarily refined into the metaphysics of Thomism: of forms, of actus and potentia etc. Certainly, the commonsense view of what people are like, and how they should grow and mature, can easily be re-expressed more formally in the language of essence (what it is) and a distinction between what something is (act) and what it might become (potentiality). But that's neither necessary in most cases nor is it a matter of bits of people, but people as individuals: individual human beings are substances with forms, and it is these, rather than their organs, which are the primary unit of ethics.

So to the extent that Catholic ethics adopts (either implicitly or explicitly) a Thomistic approach which involves reflection on nature, that nature is human nature as a whole: the 'what it is' (essence/form) of the person and not physical bits of them.

What then is the place of reflection on the 'bits'? I suppose one example here is Finnis' (PDF here) esp pp.8-11. But note Finnis' comment on the argument (p11):

Does this account seek to "make moral judgments based on natural facts"? Yes
and no.  No, in the sense that it does not seek to infer normative conclusions or theses
from only non-normative (natural-fact) premises.  Nor does it appeal to any norm of the
form "Respect natural facts or natural functions".  But yes, it is to the realities of our
constitution, intentions and circumstances that the argument applies the relevant
practical reasons (especially that marriage and inner integrity are basic human goods) and
moral principles (especially that one may never intend to destroy, damage, impede, or
violate any basic human good, or prefer an illusory instantiation of a basic human good
to a real instantiation of that or some other human good).

Now, I accept that there is much that is obscure here. (If you think this is the central argument of Catholic sexual ethics, of course you'd be worried by that. But if, like me, you interpret it as merely the exploration of some of the detail which follows from the basics, then you're less worried and more intrigued at this new line of thought.) I take the heart of the reasoning here to be something like this. (My words:)

Part of human flourishing is sexual intercourse leading to procreation and the education of children within a household. But that involves seeing yourself as engaged in that undertaking. Such a perception involves a proper attitude to your body (as much as being a professional cook involves a proper attitude to your tools) and an awareness of what they do. Someone who regards the procreative potential of intercourse as something to be cheated or ignored does not have the proper attitude to his or her body or, more generally, his or her biology.

Clearly much more to be said here. But let me make the following three points:

a) This reflection on 'bits' and their functions takes place (as argued in the first post) against a background of the perception of the practically wise person. It thus takes place in a context and cannot be ripped out of that context nor regarded as a foundation of it (rather than a development of that foundation).

b) Something clearly has to be said about how one relates to one's body and one's biology: not just any attitude is right. (What if a child used his penis to stir food? What if a girl used her vagina as a storage unit?) To concede that there is a question of proper and improper use is to open up a conversation about what those proper/improper uses are. Finnis' observations are contributions to that conversation.

c) There is a particular danger in the (post?) modern world of decorporealization and fantasy: that is, to pretend that one is a disembodied mind and to confuse what one wishes with what is. This danger is clearly present in sexual intercourse. One wants it to be a simple, unproblematic pleasure. In fact, it is a corporeal reality which goes beyond our wishes (pregnancy, disease, emotional attachment). Part of recognizing what sex is is to recognize it as an important (in evolutionary terms, perhaps the central) activity of a biological organism: what one then feels and does about that reality is not a marginal issue in human flourishing.

In sum:

a) To the extent that nature means more than just non-supernatural in natural law, it is primarily a matter of reflection on human nature as a whole -what people are like- rather than this or that function of an organ.

b) To the extent that reflection on the functioning of organs (particularly genitalia) does play a role in Catholic sexual ethics, it is i) a relatively minor one; ii) certainly a subsidiary one; and iii) one that deepens the perception of the practically wise person and has to be read in that context, rather than operates as a stand alone argument.

The main message is that this issue about genitalia is a side show: Natural Law is natural primarily because it isn't supernatural (ie it doesn't depend on revelation). The main addition to that is that, by thinking about what people are (ie their nature -their 'what it is'), we develop our ethical understanding.

This, however, leaves open the question of precisely what sense we are to make of 'what people are'.

To be continued...

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Natural Law and the Instrumentum Laboris on the Family (part 2)

                                                     Oh well if you insist...

Last time, as you recall, I sketched out some background principles on the Natural Law:

we have the commonsense (or at least familiar) thought that good people who've thought a lot and had experience of human life will know what to do. We also have the thought that becoming a good person is the real heart of ethics. Finally, we have the thought that ethics is very difficult to do as a philosophical exercise involving the articulation of the reasoning behind judgments, and that experienced wise people (and from the Catholic point of view, aided by revelation) are going to be the ones who will usually get it the judgments right even if they can't always explain why.

In essence, Natural Law is what human beings would work out by looking and experiencing and thinking about the world in the absence of revealed teaching: it is natural because it is what human beings by their nature would work out without the aid of supernatural intervention (revelation). It is therefore rational, because it is the nature of human beings that we are rational animals.

This law is called "natural," not in reference to the nature of irrational beings, but because reason which decrees it properly belongs to human nature. Where then are these rules written, if not in the book of that light we call the truth? In it is written every just law; from it the law passes into the heart of the man who does justice, not that it migrates into it, but that it places its imprint on it, like a seal on a ring that passes onto wax, without leaving the ring. The natural law is nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it we know what we must do and what we must avoid. God has given this light or law at the creation.

1956 The natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties. [Catechism: ss 1955-6]

Now, there is nothing here about nature as a guiding principle: it may form part of the methodology of the natural law. It may not. For that reason, you could describe Natural Law as human reasoning about morality or commonsense about morality. Each of those has its own drawbacks. Reasoning suggests that morality is primarily about discursive reasoning while, as I noted in the previous post, it is more about seeing correctly or perception: our natural reaction to flee predators doesn't require extensive reasoning to support it, but is part of the Natural Law. Commonsense does capture this bluff, everyday aspect of Natural Law rather better, but at the expense of raising other questions: what if people's commonsense differs? What if the commonsense (popular) belief is at variance with that of the Church?

So let's stick with Natural Law, remembering that its prime meaning here is that it is what human beings would come up with, absent supernatural revelation. But what of those arguments about the function of genitalia that my interlocutor (and others) have seemed so obsessed with? Where do these feature in Natural Law thinking? More generally, is reflection on nature part of the methodology of natural law.

To be continued...