Thursday 30 July 2015

The morality of lying

I'd been thinking quite a bit about lying and deception as a consequence of my previous posts referring to Aesopian Catholicism. But my thoughts were taken in a new direction as a result of the Planned Parenthood 'sting' and subsequent debate (particularly on Twitter) on the ethics of lying. In addition, I've been thinking a lot lately about the nature of conclusions and exploration in philosophy and how that fits in with the dogmatic system of Catholicism. (Two recent articles which stuck in my mind in this area: one from Tom Stern on the complications of philosophy; one from Nick Cohen on the (putative) lack of intellectual honesty in Catholicism.)

In essence, the question around Planned Parenthood is whether is is right to lie in order to achieve a greater (and indeed great) good: the saving of lives. (I'm going to assume that lies (rather than deception) were uttered in the unmasking of Planned Parenthood's 'business practice' (ie harvesting and selling on body parts from unborn children).)

The straightforward (I'll justify this apparently counterintuitive claim of 'straightforwardness') response is that lying is always wrong and that it is never right to do a morally wrong action to achieve good consequences. As the relevant article in the Catholic Encyclopedia makes clear, this is 'the common and universally accepted teaching of the Catholic schools throughout the Middle Ages until recent times'. Whatever else may be said upon this subject, it needs to be held in mind that this rigourist opposition to lying is the vastly preponderant opinion of Catholic theology and philosophy: it is in that sense that, at least for a Catholic, the straightforward response is that lying is wrong and that if it is wrong, it is wrong even if a great good is achieved. (To accept that view is not to exclude welcoming the videos unmasking Planned Parenthood's practices: just as we might welcome a new born child into the world from an adulterous relationship, good fruit can come from an evil action.)

On the other hand, there is the sheer intuitive force of the possibility of averting a great evil and moreover the messiness of everyday life, particularly in a struggle against a great evil which has become institutionalised in the West. Even if we resist calling it a 'war' against abortion (and many wouldn't) surely the struggle against abortion has many of the characteristics of a war? And if it is like a war, then surely the full panoply of warfare needs to be brought into play, including espionage and dirty tricks? Although this is the less straightforward Catholic position, it does have its supporters and its plausible defences (I found Deacon Jim Russell's article and (especially) Professor Janet E. Smith's article particularly helpful from this side.)

The situation is that there is therefore disagreement on this issue, and no magisterial decision to settle the matter. As Smith summarises:

Christopher Kaczor argued in Public Discourse that it may be that the authoritative version of the Catechism decided to go with the more probable opinion”the one that a greater number of faithful theologians hold but one that is not settled doctrine. It would be wrong to label as dissenters those who continue to argue that the condemnation of lying does not rule out all false signification; theirs is simply the less probable view at this point. Indeed, the failure of the Catechism to condemn explicitly such practices as spying, sting operations, the deceptive missives and maneuvers of warfare, and research that involves deception suggests that the question remains open. 

Now this is worth emphasizing. There are some aspects of natural law which are settled by authoritative pronouncements from the Church: this is not, as far as I can see, one of them. If someone -however eminent intellectually- declares that the rigourist position is the natural law, then that is an argument waiting to be made, not simply the publication of an achieved result. So what is the ordinary Catholic to do in the face of such uncertainty?

I think it is here that the possibility of misapprehension -both among Catholics and outwith the Church- is most likely. 'Natural law' is not simply a code of laws which can be referred to: it is misleading to describe Catholic morality as deontological tout court. Natural law rests on a eudaimonistic ethics: what is good for human beings is their flourishing , the achievement of their full human potential especially in getting as close to God as possible after death in the Beatific Vision. What is good is what promotes beatitudo (happiness): Catholic morality is not simply a list of rules. (Rules exist. But their point is that they promote beatitudo.) It is for this reason that Aquinas that makes the First Precept of Natural Law rest on the identification of good:

Hence this is the first precept of law, that "good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided." All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this: so that whatever the practical reason naturally apprehends as man's good (or evil) belongs to the precepts of the natural law as something to be done or avoided.

(STh IaIIae q.94 a.2 resp)

Moreover, as we move away from this First Precept (which really just bridges the 'is (good)'/ ought gap, the determination of what ought to be done becomes harder:

The practical reason, on the other hand, is busied with contingent matters, about which human actions are concerned: and consequently, although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects. Accordingly then in speculative matters truth is the same in all men, both as to principles and as to conclusions: although the truth is not known to all as regards the conclusions, but only as regards the principles which are called common notions. But in matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles: and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all.

(STh IaIIae q.94 a.4, resp.)

What Aquinas calls 'ratio practica' is the virtue of prudentia (Gk: phronesis). In order to discern the content of natural law, it is therefore necessary to cultivate this virtue of practical wisdom, particularly when engaging in detailed practical decisions. So the key point to note here -unlike those that would reduce Catholic moral teaching to a sort of almanac or ethical slot machine- is that to follow natural law properly, you have to cultivate (practical) wisdom. And it is for that reason that Catholicism and philosophy fit together so well: both Socrates, Aquinas and the ordinary Catholic in the pew are on a quest for the wisdom to live well.

It's worth stopping here and noting that, although I've been expressing myself in terms that are derived from the Thomist/Aristotelian tradition, there is absolutely no necessity to follow that precise path: the Church has -even at the height of neo-Thomism- resisted imposing a particular philosophical system. On the other hand, the broad pattern is perfectly familiar and irresistibly biblical: pursue sanctification and open yourself to the transforming wisdom of God. Natural law is not something external to us: it is simply the expression of our fulfilled human nature.

So, again, what is the ordinary Catholic to do in the face of such uncertainty? In ordinary terms. examine your conscience. Some of us are more intelligent and more knowledgeable and with more authority in this area than others. If you can follow their reasonings, do your best. Be patient. (Do you really now have to come to a a decision? Do you have to express an opinion?) There is an absolute certainty that there are many views on this. Note that. Note also that there is considerable weight on one side rather than the other. If you intuitively find yourself disagreeing with the 'common opinion of the Schools', ask yourself why? (Assume that saints may well have noticed something you haven't.) Is the stratagem -in the long run- likely to be effective? (Even if this or that official of Planned Parenthood went, even if Planned Parenthood went, would abortion stop?) What is the cost to the souls of those involved? (How far would you in such deceit? What are the costs to the souls of those in the UK undercover police operations?)

On the other hand, if you support the 'common opinion', how would you answer Smith's article on the need, forgotten (here) by Aquinas, to differentiate between pre-lapsarian and post-lapsarian ethics? Given the intellectual's tendency to pride and avoidance of action, are you become intangled in academic pleasures ? Is your practical wisdom 'sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought'? Look at the videos. Think about the realities and numbers of killed children. Is this restrained attempt to reveal an inconvenient truth to a society that has grown deaf really a distortion of the end of communication?

And wherever you are on this spectrum, pray, Pray for wisdom, pray for charity, pray for all those born and unborn involved. Open yourself to God's wisdom.

Where will that take you? I'm not sure. We need to admit that more often. As ever, I thought Counter Cultural father hits the right general note on this. I was also glad to be reminded of Newman on 'Lying and Equivocation', not least because of the following:

Casuistry is a noble science, but it is one to which I am led, neither by my abilities nor my turn of mind. Independently, then, of the difficulties of the subject, and the necessity, before forming an opinion, of knowing more of the arguments of theologians upon it than I do, I am very unwilling to say a word here on the subject of Lying and Equivocation. But I consider myself bound to speak; and therefore, in this strait, I can do nothing better, even for my own relief, than submit myself, and what I shall say, to the judgment of the Church, and to the consent, so far as in this matter there be a consent, of the Schola Theologorum.

A rhetorical flourish, no doubt, but not simply one: one of the problems of modern academia and apologetics is a lack of modesty. We all have to establish brands; we all have to have a line. (And that complacent indecisiveness is no doubt mine. Well, indeed: it is difficult to avoid sin even when trying to.)

If I had to walk into a classroom tomorrow and speak about this, I would say something like the above, but I would put forward the sort of defence of the common opinion of the Schools adopted by Ed Feser. (Here for example is his reply to Smith's paper. But now, as I read it, I find aspects I would pick at...) But in doing that, I would compare myself with David Daleiden, and find myself not a little ashamed of my detachment.

There's something else that's been buzzing in my mind recently: Melzer's defence of esoteric thought as being necessary to get readers to do philosophy themselves -it can't be done for them. That Catholicism shortcircuits this individual engagement with truth, goodness and beauty is something that I have never found in the Church. Certainly, there is no royal road to a conclusion in this particular case. Indeed, it is the absolute, fundamental seriousness of the Catholic pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty that really takes it beyond the chatter of much modern academia, let alone whatever noises emerge from social media.

Monday 27 July 2015

Demolishing the household

Although I'm not really one for conspiracy theories (I've known far too many decent Freemasons and Giant Alien Lizards in mufti to be easily convinced by such theories) I do have a residual fondness for the 'big business is out to get you' version.

In reality, this is more about a lingering sympathy for Marxism: economic realities tend to drive the cultural superstructure. And thus, with my foil hat firmly in place, I read with interest the article in this week's Economist about declining birth rates in modernised countries:

In east Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea the expectations heaped on wives and mothers are even harder for educated women to bear. Working hours are so long that it is almost impossible to combine work and any active parenting role. Children must also be tutored for make-or-break exams, raising the cost of child-rearing. And, unlike in western Europe or Scandinavia, women must sign up for the whole wife-mother package: births outside marriage are rare.

It ought to be possible to loosen this bind. Governments could make it easier to combine work and parenting; marital expectations could evolve. But for some it will be too late. Countries like Germany seem to have grown accustomed to single living and low birth rates. And in Asia and Europe alike, a new problem has grown: cities have become too nice.

(Article here.)

The key sentence here is: It ought to be possible to loosen this bind. Governments could make it easier to combine work and parenting; marital expectations could evolve. 

Whilst this certainly is wider than the preceding phrase 'births outside marriage are rare', it is clear that part of what the writer is thinking about here is that loosening of the expectation that birth is conducted within marriage.

When I look at the young today, I do find it incredibly difficult to see how many of them will be able to live their three score years and ten in the sort of lifelong, monogamous bond that we used to call marriage (and now, given its modern remaking as a festive bonk lasting only a little more than Johnny Rotten's two minutes of squelching we will have to find a new name for). Given professional careers don't really leave one free to starting having children until your thirties when female fertility starts nose-diving; given the career long pressures of long hours and expected geographical mobility etc etc, only heroic sacrifice and conscious determination to create the small civilisation of a household will make it all possible. In short, modern business and traditional marriage don't go together at all easily.

Insofar as I'd thought about this before, I'd simply concluded that the rational conclusion to this is childlessness: it's simply too difficult to have children in modernised societies and people will just stop having them, or at least will have too few to meet replacement levels. And that of course means that mass immigration is required to support all us old sterile wrinklies. Whether that's a totally bad thing is another question. But we should at least be honest about where the economics leads:

A country that worries about having too few young people to pay old folks’ pensions might be able to import workers. But that tends to bring the natives onto the streets. And home-grown citizens are handy for conscripting into armies. 

But the article hints at another alternative: to encourage having children outside traditional marriage. And with foil hat firmly on, one might become suspicious that the drive to abolish marriage as an institution that stands in the way of a mobile workforce devoted to business is driven by economics rather than the cultural superstructural blether of equal rights and autonomy.

While writing this I came across an Italian article on similar lines.*

...the logic of capitalist profit move[s] directly to the exploitation of the instincts of individuals who are isolated and constantly bombarded by consumer enticements, regardless of any assessment of rational nature, morality or even...pure and simple human ecology.

Ickean nonsense, no doubt. But odd that the house journal of international business seems to be thinking on the same lines...

[*Health warning: my Italian is almost non-existent and it's entirely possible that any article from I quote in this language is in fact a pizza recipe onto which I've projected my own preoccupations.]

Thursday 9 July 2015

Preaching to the unconverted

I'm embracing my inner hippy on this one...

I've been struck a couple of times recently chatting to the 'young' (as one does) that a not uncommon type is 'pretty decent half Catholic'. You talk to a twenty year old or so, get thinking that they've pretty sound on a lot of things (solid grasp of the importance of family; not too materialistic; just a fundamental sense of decency) and, you sort of half suspect that or wonder whether they've had a Catholic upbringing. And 9/10 (based on an entirely objective, scientific statistical sample) they have. (They might even still go to Church.)

Now it's quite likely that this 'pretty decent half Catholic' (PDHC) will also hold views that make any orthodox Catholic squirm. Typically, they'll be in favour of same sex marriage, abortion (though perhaps only allowing the freedom for other women to choose), aardvarking outside marriage etc etc. If you push on this, you'll probably get some sort of response along the lines of 'well, no one takes the official line on this seriously anymore' or the sort of blank look that anyone could still be so homophobic and sexually repressed whilst not painting themselves in woad.

I mentioned in my last post the strategy of 'Aesopian Catholicism' (basically disguising your true thoughts, and, in the broad sense I'm going to be using it here, 'keeping your head down'.) Although there's more to be said about this, I'm not advancing this as a particularly good strategy. But it is certainly a current one. And if you're a moderately serious young Catholic who, while not rejecting Christ or the Church, is probably more interested in the opposite sex and in the daily business of life, it's entirely understandable. ('No one takes that seriously anymore' is probably translatable as 'Look, let's drop this subject' in many cases.)

There's a knock on effect among the clergy. If you have a congregation of PDHCs, even if you're the most orthodox, fire breathing priest imaginable, you might wonder precisely what to do with them. Get too rigorous and you'll probably drive what are, after all, sinners needing mercy and the sacraments across that line that takes them completely out of the Church. Say nothing and you're simply complicit in their slackness and ignorance and removing any possibility of maturing in the faith and morality. I think this explains much of the fairly well known 'Father Nice' syndrome: just as it's easy for a PDHC to forget the teaching of the Church in the effort to keep out of trouble, so it's easy for the Father Nices of this world to forget what the Church actually teaches in an effort not to drive off the (half) well -disposed but ignorant.

Solutions? Absolutely no idea. Screaming at them they're all unbelievers and are going to roast in Hell probably won't work in more than a few cases. Keeping silent about the depth of the Church's teachings and vision is cheating them of a chance of growth. But again the Benedict option is useless as a total solution. (It might work as a reservoir for PDHCs, but you then need to talk about how you establish aqueducts to distribute the water/teaching to the parched.)

Mediaeval Catholicism has often been mocked as presenting itself as a) a spiritual elite  who b) sneaked sinners into Heaven by a mechanical application of sacraments (grace) instead of effecting true conversion. Whatever the truth of this criticism, it's perhaps worth reconsidering the merits of such an approach. Whatever its dangers, such a view does correctly acknowledge the state of most people (and I include myself in this). I need grace and frankly I need a Church that is going to try to save me as a PDHC myself. And since (given the absence of autos-da-fe) I'm not liable to be frightened into submission, I'm gong to have to be persuaded, seduced even. From my standpoint, you could have sermons on sexual morality till the cows went home: the advantage of age is that stops being so much a problem. But being a smug comfortable git? Well...

More the setting out of a problem than a solution. But here's a suspicion. The priesthood, certainly in its everyday parish variety, is not well placed to seduce into the depths of Catholicism. In part, this is a matter of time. If you have few priests and a decline in non-Sunday contact with parishioners, there simply isn't the number of hours required for such a seduction to work. In part it's a matter of position and formation. This is tricky to articulate, but perhaps one can get a sense of the difficulties here by imagining the problems of a priest or religious enthusing over Rubens' portrayal of flesh and sexual allure. (If it's done, I bet they'd only go and ruin it by going on about sacramental presence and the like. You need rather more of the earth and Crazy Jane's 'Love has pitched his mansion/In the place of excrement' and perhaps just the simple joy of being alive.)

In sum, it's the laity and the culture which have to do the heavy lifting here. And the key problem (well, an important one anyway) is not to construct communities of the saints, but to work out how -as the Middle Ages did so well (and let's give Rubens and Yeats a place in the long middle ages)- PDHCs immersed in the pleasures of this world can still be led to the next one. Because if there are neo-benedictine communities, I bet I'll be one of those left on the outside with my sloth and lusts and my box sets of Breaking Bad wishing that someone would drag me, half despite myself, into heaven.

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Citadel Catholicism: the Benedict Option. Not.

                                       Manoeuverable and secure: the Nelly Option

It's entirely understandable -given the SCOTUS decision on same sex marriage and more generally just the times we live in- for those of us attached to past forms of life to feel a little disoriented and to long for a place of security. And so we come to the Benedict option much pushed (eg) by Rod Dreher and amounting to a claim that Christianity (or just Western Civilization) needs to established oases of civilization separate from the dominant barbaric culture and, in essence, make sure we can ride it out while the rest of the world goes to hell in a handcart.

It's named after MacIntyre's famous closing passage in After Virtue (although I suspect it takes on some of the emotional colouring of sharing a name with Pope Benedict XVI who appears, for a variety of reasons, a safe haven in current Catholic turmoil) where MacIntyre urges (or rather hopes for) another St Benedict. The general line of thought here is clear: just as learning was saved for Europe by the monasteries, so must western civilization be saved by similar foundations.

I'm not convinced. First, I'm not convinced because I am convinced that there is no one solution because there is no one problem. It's rather more a case of  how to 'show the fly the way out of the fly bottle' or perhaps unpicking a tangle of wool. So, for example, in my last two posts, I have talked about concrete examples of  the attack on the family in modern TV and the importance of the cosmopolitan as a reflective part of local culture. 'Salvation' at least as far as our natural end is concerned requires unpicking these two knots and a host of others: there is no quick and no single way. (In general, I'm profoundly suspicious of monocausal analyses, whether these are blaming Duns Scotus or Vatican II or whatever.)

Secondly, I'm not quite sure what the Benedict option could be. MacIntyre himself is suitably agnostic:

We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another -doubtless very different- St Benedict.

In the context of his work, I've always taken MacIntyre's own message to be primarily about ensuring the integrity of intellectual traditions. Since modern liberalism is, for MacIntyre, a sort of Mad Max bricolage of philosophies that once made sense, but have since been forced together into shoddy verbal contraptions that rely on brute willpower for their survival, the aim should be to establish (in particular) Catholic educational institutions that teach the integrity of the Thomist tradition rather than simply reproduce the secular mess. (A PDF of an article by him on this is downloadable here.) Certainly, if we are looking at anything close to the historical Benedict, we are looking at the establishment of reservoirs, from which surrounding populations can be watered: a monastery or a university still has to exists in a surrounding culture. Historically, the Benedict option coexisted with (say) a Charlemagne or an Alfred option: some deployment of royal force both to support the monastery's existence and to ensure its influence. You might, I suppose, argue for a dhimmitude option, in which Christians become a barely tolerated minority in a secular state, but I'm pretty sure that doesn't sound very attractive (even if the reality in some places may well end up rather like that).

Well, what's my alternative? Again, let me make it clear: I don't have one. But that is because I am a limited human being with limited knowledge and sensibility: I am not a Moses. I am still less Christ. Even St Benedict didn't have the answer. None of us have to provide the answer or the analysis. Find what you can think of doing and do it. If you can found an Amish like community of Catholics, do so. Certainly, make sure that you pass on Catholicism as far as you can to your own children. Write books. Pray. Fume quietly. None of this will be enough, but each knot at least chewed at will bring us closer to the unravelling.

But let me be slightly more useful and suggest two strategies that I haven't seen suggested. First, there is the Aesopian Catholic. (I owe this thought to my reading of Melzer on Strauss which I hope to come back to.) Learn how to speak so that the surrounding culture leaves you alone but your associates understand you. Become cunning in the same way that dissidents in the USSR became cunning. Live publicly but esoterically. Second, become a Catholic cosmopolitan. Whatever your local circumstances, live intellectually (and really) in the Catholic cosmos. Read foreign Catholic publications. Absorb Catholic culture. Learn Latin if you can. Improve your Romance languages (how many of us learned no French at school?) and follow Catholic thought in that language. (For how many of us have the Cathos of France been a recent inspiration? ) If languages elude you, follow the American Catholic intellectual world. Use MOOCs and online syllabuses to educate yourself. Live as a Catholic cosmopolitan with Catholics across time and space. (Get on that flight to Florence!)

Let me repeat: no one strategy will work and all, moreover, have their dangers. (The Aesopian Catholic will always have a tendency to fall into dishonesty and to allow the dominant culture to rest unchallenged for example.) Those who do possess big cultural guns should use them: there are enough Catholics still in positions of political and cultural importance for us not to abandon that weaponry until we have to. But the rest of us (the guerrilla Catholics perhaps?) must do what we can with pitchforks or at least podcasts.