Naturally, being a moralist who is active in western society, I have encountered and thought a lot about various arguments in favor of the “pro-choice” position. Summarizing all of the arguments, we find that there are really only four; while they can be mixed together, they are nonetheless discernible in basically every argument ever made in favor of the “right” to have an abortion, or that abortion is morally acceptable. And yes, they are each erroneous. Let’s go through them: they are the physical (or biological) error, the metaphysical error, the ethical error, and the metaethical error.
The Physical Error
The first error is that the fetus is not a distinct living organism. Any biologist can debunk this. If the fetus is not a distinct living organism, there is no such thing. It is true that there is a physical connection through the umbilical cord, but first of all, the zygote pre-existed this stage, and second of all, we acknowledge that the cord actually connects two organisms, each of which exhibit the standard signs of biological life: homeostasis, cellular organization, metabolism, reproductive capacity (actual in the zygotic phase when asexual reproduction can occur, potential in the fetal stage as sexual reproduction), response to stimuli, growth, heredity… There is simply no argument to be made here. The advocate of abortion who is taken by this error would be forced to admit that a pregnant woman has eight limbs, two heads, and maybe male reproductive organs, which she then ceases to have upon delivering a child. There is no point in arguing with someone who will not budge on this. However, if we say this is a distinct living organism, we admit that to abort it is to kill it.
The Metaphysical Error
The second error is that the distinct living organism is not a human (or a person). The advocate will say that eventually the organism will become a human, based on certain actions or activated capacities – cognition (but usually excluding sleepers, for reasons inexplicable), self-reliance (of a high-level, let it be noted), capacity to be a productive member of society (whatever that means)… These are signs of humanity, it is true. However, to say that these are constitutive of humanity is quite problematic. First of all, most would agree that we are human beings, not human doings – that is to say, we can do human things because we are actually humans first. (Agere sequitur esse, as the axiom goes – action follows being.) Second, if we define humanity based on certain kinds of actions, we must ask, why is it these actions which are characteristics of humanity and not other actions? And why should it be actions at all? Why not “traits,” like race or sex or eye color? Of course, some do in fact say that something as arbitrary as “3 months” or “being outside the womb” in fact turns the very same living organism into a human being. Plenty will say that it is a “capacity to feel pain,” sometimes mixed with “capacity for memory,” which typically ignores folks with congenital analgesia – the chronic inability to feel pain – and is also simply based on the emotional discomfort coming from an empathetic impulse). Strange… We can see the problem – once we detach the definition of humanity from “being,” as a substance, we are left with arbitrary values leading to arbitrary norms. (A substance is that which is not predicated of another – we do not say “human” of anything, but we do say “cognition” or “race” of a human.) So, to the point: it is the same being (the same living organism!) which is thinking and feeling and “self-relying” that is growing in the womb. What changes are traits and actions – size, strength, organ development, mental activity, mobility, etc. The “being” does not change – it is the same substance. It is a human being who is simply not doing the most human-like things at this moment. This error is the most prevalent and most difficult to get one to see the problems of. But if we admit the metaphysical reality of humanity in the fetus, we are forced to conclude that aborting the fetus is murder.
The Ethical Error
The third error – and perhaps the most repulsive – is that one is never bound to suffer for another individual human being. We’ve shown that biology says that the fetus is not “my body,” but why not still have “my choice” despite that? “So, it is a human being, who cares? This person is inconvenient for my life.” Well, it could be true. However, if a mother is not bound to suffer for her own child, and, what is more, in the precise way that the woman exists as such, namely, to generate life and gestate that life within herself, one could hardly ever be bound to suffer for another. This seems to eliminate all moral responsibility of any kind, or it at least comes very close. In the case that the advocate bites this bullet, he is simply a terrible person and is unlikely to be persuaded by anything one can say. The problem with the ethical error is grasped intuitively by most – this error is therefore quite rare in its pure form. It does show up in weaker forms, however, in the context of diminishing the humanity of the fetus, as described above. It is much easier to argue that one is not obliged to suffer for a pre-human than for a human…
The Metaethical Error
The final error is the rejection of the possibility of real moral obligations altogether. (“Metaethics” is the branch of ethics which asks or studies “what do we mean by ‘ethics’ in the first place?”) The error here is to relegate all ethical norms to the dictates of individual wills (namely, one’s own, or perhaps the “will of the people/government”). The only question then is about strategy – how to get what you want. Plato’s famous thought experiment in the Republic addresses this head-on… The one who wears the Ring of Gyges could get away with anything (yes – exactly like the One Ring to rule them all). Do moral laws really apply to such a person when he is wearing the ring? Let’s say yes, it is still “good” to follow the moral law. Then we can ask with Nietzsche, “Why be good?” The entire meaning of morality collapses in on itself. “Autonomous” morality is no morality at all. This includes every kind of utilitarianism and consequentialism in the strict sense. Who gets to determine what counts as “utility”? And how would we even know how to reach maximum utility anyway? These are the first problems. (Consequentialism is worth its own post.) At the end of the day, we are left with one’s own values being imposed on others, with nothing to do but play power games to achieve what makes us feel warm and fuzzy by making “contracts” and playing nice. And the unborn are powerless.
These four arguments can be combined in various ways. But they are always there. For example, the famous “violinist” example of Thomson commits the ethical error indirectly. Perhaps we don’t have to suffer for a famous violinist who is artificially connected with our body – but a mother does have to suffer for her own child who is naturally connected with her body by the very fact of womanhood’s intrinsic order, namely, generation of new life within the body.
The point of ethics is not merely avoiding wrongdoing, it is fundamentally about achieving happiness through flourishing – which entails the faculties of human nature striving moderately in accord with the order of reason toward their proper ends. Killing innocent children does not lead to such flourishing, as we are intrinsically ordered towards life in community in a common pursuit of the truth – it is one of the primordial precepts of the natural law. Abortion is immoral, and it will never make a person truly happy. And we see this validated by the fact that so few parents regret having any of their children, while the opposite claim does not hold.
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Today I read a few interesting things. One was a passage from Peter Kreeft’s book on C. S. Lewis and the third millennium. Another was from Fr. Bede Jarrett’s classic biography of St. Dominic, whose feast is today – now in its last hours.
The former spoke about the inability of people today to think rationally and objectively about moral life, in accordance with Lewis’ famous thesis in The Abolition of Man about so-called “men without chests” who have a body and a head but seemingly nothing in between to mediate… no “chest” to bring the passions in line with what reason really demands.
The latter spoke about the great Albigensian heresy, which denied the goodness of matter. This served as the catalyst for St. Dominic to found the Order of Preachers, just over 800 years ago.
I have made three posts on the “new Albigensianism” (here and here and here); I think some current of the argument therein matches the claim of Kreeft (and Lewis) about “men without chests.” Let these points and questions serve as a sort of haphazard conclusion to that little series, in honor of today.
Post-modern millennials (PMM’s) are inclined to downplay the role of reason. They do this at the service of the body’s urges, whether their own or another’s, especially a supposedly “oppressed” group or minority. While reason serving passions are nothing new, the direct suspicion of reason as having a mediating role is. Like the Albigensians and Manichaeans before them, they are wont to do terrible things to the body; the “perfecti” of the Albigensians preached suicide by starvation as the great liberation, the height of control over oneself and the existentially freeing release of the soul, and PMM’s treat unnatural sexual acts – and the manipulation of the body itself by surgery – as something similar. Like these groups, there is an orthodoxy (increasingly on display in the West’s courts and legislatures), and there are even “preachers” of a sort who attempt to make converts, especially among young, vulnerable children. Reverts are not allowed – just ask Amazon. However, unlike these groups, there is also an open and direct diminution of the importance of reason and the pursuit of truth. Therefore, speech and its part, language, must be absolutely strangled. If an “oppressed person” is somehow mistreated in speech – namely, by suggesting that the desire the person has is not healthy – then one is hating that person. It is a strange accusation, because it is supposed to help the person, but it is seen as an attempt to hurt.
And so we have the “pyramid of violence,” featuring the infamous “microaggression.” Even more than that, we have the startling claim echoed constantly that any derivation from the increasingly ghoulish sexual orthodoxy of the Left is not simply “hate” but is equal to physical violence itself. (Just ask the critics of Mario Lopez.) This is due to a perceived inability to process an idea expressed by language which is at odds with one’s perception of one’s own desires. The foreign idea is not to be accepted or even rejected, it is not to be processed – it is argued that the introduction of such an idea is, first, “triggering” for the oppressed person, making him/her/xir/them uncomfortable. (Thus, the logic of the “safe space.”) Second, worse than this, is the even more serious claim that one will do violence to himself (or herself – etc.) after the introduction of an unwanted idea. Therefore, to speak against the orthodoxy which psychologically protects these people from themselves simply is the same as physically attacking them, even killing them.
Now, of course it is possible to drive a person to self-harm, and this should certainly not be a goal or come from total recklessness. (It is certainly possible to drive someone to hurt someone else, granted.) But the greatest ally here is VERITAS – TRUTH! We are not sexual animals, gendered animals, or racial animals, we are RATIONAL animals. The capacity to reason is what makes us human, and it CAN be appealed to, especially if those with the “ethos” – the authority – use their platforms wisely by aiming at rational persuasion rather than through fear, anger, egoism, or anything less than what is noblest in our nature. To try to shut down free speech is typically to trap people’s minds in darkness, leaving those with the power the ability to wield it with a vengeance. We are naturally inclined to seek the TRUTH, but usually we do need to be exposed to the ideas which point to it to reach it. In general, it seems better to let people hear bad ideas, even wicked ideas, and let those ideas be exposed for what they are by rigorous public discourse. We can’t create a utopia by blocking out unwanted ideas which might tell us we are desiring something bad for us… in fact, that is just what Christ came to do: call to repentance, and then offer salvation. That is the real “safe space,” where infinite rational discovery is engaged in by seeing God.
All this leads me back to the issue of voluntarism (bound up with nominalism)… Most Western people today who believe in Heaven think of it as a slightly better version of this world. How boring. And how Muslim… I truly wonder if there is a connection here with the voluntarism of Islam, where obedience – not rational friendship with a loving, personal God – is the primary virtue. No thinking required, just do what you are told. And there in Islam we find a boring vision of Heaven as well. Eye has seen and ear has heard what Allah has prepared.
I find it possible that the scholastic rediscovery of Greek philosophy through contact with the Arab world in the 13th century could have somehow infected European Christianity with voluntarism. Could some voluntarist undercurrents in Averroes or Avicenna have somehow made it into the Franciscan schools? Perhaps. I don’t have enough information. I will save it for another day.
That brings me to my last point today… I will be disappearing for a while. Christian Renaissance Movement will be suspended indefinitely as I hopefully prepare to enter religious life in the near future. Please pray for me, and I will pray for you. If you have enjoyed these pages over the past few weeks, months, or years, please reach out and let me know – I have loved engaging with my readers, and I hope to do so once again in the future. When that will be, I do not know. Until then, do good, avoid evil, and have a chest.
It just came to my attention this evening that the CDF has issued a response to a dubium about special cases of hysterectomy. It will likely be a controversial document. Unfortunately, the current milieu in the curia has led to a general distrust of “official theology.” But despite the seeming laxity of the response, to me it seems correct.
HERE is the document, and HERE is the 1993 document it makes reference to.
Here is my first go at a written breakdown of the issue of the removal of a gravid uterus rendered permanently incapable of sustaining pregnancy to the point of fetal viability. If it seems a little rushed, it’s because it is a little rushed. Apologies in advance. And if you see that I’m missing something major, let me know in the comments. (But despite the current climate in moral theology, we should still gently err on the side of going along with the CDF, lest we fall into sinful temerity.)
First point: gestation is not part of the procreative faculty. The document does seem to use this language at one point (“no longer suitable for procreation”), but it is easy to explain this as an indirect or qualified use of the expression. There is no magisterial document teaching about this precise point about which I am aware, but it seems quite plain that procreation is the act of bringing a human being into existence through the reproductive organs. The object of gestation is a human being so conceived. Therefore, procreation occurs prior to gestation in the womb. (This also has ramifications for the licit treatment of frozen embryos, but we will not get into that debate here.) The procedure is aimed at the womb precisely insofar as it is an organ of gestation.
Second point: the subjective psychology of the act of hysterectomy has a definitive moral significance in this case. What one really desires to achieve by the action matters, and so provided that the principle of totality is respected (meaning a sum good is done to the human being), doing material damage, even directly causing the corruption of an organ that is part of a faculty one foresees using in some capacity later, is admissible, so long as the corruption of the faculty itself is not intended as such and no greater evil is occasioned outside of that substance (viz. the person being operated on).
Third and most important point: the procedure does sterilize the woman, but it is actually a choice in favor of preventing vain gestation rather than in favor of sterilization. If the sterility of this same woman is presumed upon in any future conjugal act, accidental material sterility becomes contraceptive sterility. (In other words, permanently sterile people must still retain a willful openness to the possibility of life in each sexual act, regardless of its actual possibility through natural means, and so too must procedures which happen to cause sterility be done only for non-sterilizing reasons if one is presuming to use his or her sexual faculty in the future.) If we presume that sterility is not a motivating factor in choosing to do the procedure, but is rather just a side-effect, we are left facing the question of implantation… To make this clearer, suppose a woman somehow discovers immediately that she has conceived. The embryo begins to travel toward her severely compromised uterus, where it may implant but will certainly not come anywhere close to term, dying after just 3 or 4 weeks. In the few hours she has, it is possible for her to have the procedure. (Perhaps this is the scenario which we can consider as paradigmatic, or else we are liable fall into the trap of turning the procedure into an act of contraceptive sterilization.) The hysterectomy will indeed prevent implantation, saving the woman some pain and suffering, but it will also cause the child’s life to be shortened by several weeks. The child himself is not positively or actively attacked, as in a salpingostomy or craniotomy, but rather he is prevented from reaching the temporary safety of the uterine wall by that organ’s removal; an action is done to the woman which causes an indirect abortion, such as might occur in a salpingectomy done in response to an ectopic pregnancy. It is then merely a case of weighing the goods, provided sufficient certitude has been reached about the condition of the womb and there is no possibility of saving the child by some other means (like an artificial womb). So, which is worth more – the possible few weeks of preborn life of the child, or the possible inconvenience of the mother, who will be mentally tortured the whole time about the impending doom of her child, in addition to other pains and expenses? It seems usually that the hysterectomy has the stronger case.
A final point for further consideration of this case… The foreseeable possibility of baptizing the preborn child could potentially change the moral decision. But because of the lack of a clear timeline for the child’s preborn death, among other possible medical complications, it does not seem evident that it should be high on the list of considerations. This issue also brings up other soteriological problems which are too much to explore here, so this will be it from me on this question for now.
Keep your eyes open for discussion on this text… Many are likely to see it as something that it is not. You heard it here first.
“Oh Lord, give me chastity and continence, but not yet!”
The words of a wizened St. Augustine, reflecting on the prayer of his younger heart, are deeply insightful. They reveal us to ourselves, no doubt, and they give us a hint as to the path forward in our own journey towards sanctity: we must become chaste now. Not next week, not tomorrow, not this Lent, but right this very moment.
Where to start? Well, first it will be helpful to recognize that lust is a sin which must be faced by getting away from the delight toward which the passion moves. As St. Thomas says, some sins must be fled from due to the sweetness of their object, while some sins must be faced by meditation on the opposing good (like how the slothful person should consider the goodness of spiritual things and thus be more drawn to them). All this is to say, the first step on the road to chastity is to step away from the cliff. In other words, remove the occasion of sin, or at least make the occasion as weak as possible. Here are just a few suggestions to consider.
Put the computer by the window, or in a common area, or use some monitoring program.
Take cold showers.
Avoid “attractive” people who are off-limits.
If you must associate with such people, don’t drink alcohol around them.
When tempted to unchastity, pray a rosary, or sing a pious hymn, and then make a decision about whether you still want to sin… You are quite likely to be repulsed at the thought.
Go to bed tired, but more importantly, get out of bed when you wake up. No lazing around.
Purge your life from things which remind you of or move you toward unchastity… images, books, music, etc.
But sometimes this isn’t enough. Sometimes the passion creeps up, and the fire burns, and you’ve done nothing to occasion it. Then what? Well, run away. And I mean this quite literally. You see, the urge to the preservation of the species (the sexual urge) is strong, but the urge to self-preservation is much greater. To put it another way, make yourself uncomfortable by some kind of ascesis – recovering from pain is much more urgent than the pursuit of pleasure. The body will work to get back to “equilibrium” before reaching for a further good.
Fasting. The old penitential manuals recommend it as well!
Some other acute (but minor) self-affliction, like holding your breath, biting your tongue, etc.
Beyond moderate ascetic practices, generally making yourself (ideally keeping yourself) busy is helpful. Even simply getting up and moving around can distract the body and mind enough to drive out temptation. On top of this, here are some more “spiritual” remedies…
Laughter. As an overflow of a delight of the rational soul into the senses, laughter is an extremely effective cure for lust.
Cultivating humility with respect to an off-limits “person of interest,” such as realizing that they almost certainly don’t have the same feelings for you and never will, and that they would be horrified if they knew your desires. Seeing as the entirety of the natural “social” pleasure annexed to carnal pleasure is derived from the ego, this can be huge.
Frequenting the Sacraments, especially confession, addressing struggles openly and with special resolution to amend your life in this regard.
Prayer, especially placing yourself under the protection of the Blessed Virgin, even in an urgent moment of temptation.
Resisting despair. One of the “daughters” of lust is a deadening of any desire for spiritual goods (which can become full-blown acedia in addition to serious violations of the 6th Commandment). The pursuit of chastity can also be very difficult, and therefore frustrating. This means that hope, as both the desire for the good of Heaven and the trust that the necessary help will be given to reach it, is a fundamental enemy of lust, and it should be cultivated through prayer, spiritual reading, healthy friendships, and an unwavering confidence in God’s mercy and desire to satisfy those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
There are a number of pressing problems in Catholic moral theology, especially in bioethics. One of them is the right understanding of the so-called “Principle of Double-Effect,” (PDE) or whether this is really a legitimate principle at all in the way it is normally expressed. Now that Dr. Finnis has bothparts of his series on capital punishment out, let’s put on our moralist hats and get to work.
I’ll spare you all the ins and outs of the history of the problem – Fr. Connery’s wonderful book on abortion in the Catholic moral tradition deals with this in some relevant detail – but will give you the gist of the recent discussions so that we can dive into John Finnis’ articles. I too will write in two parts, I think…
The 19th century saw the problem of “craniotomy” come up, and this is a decent and to me, most familiar way to dive into the problem of PDE. (Craniotomy is crushing the skull of an inviable fetus, in this case with an eye to extracting the child to save the mother.) Archbishop Kenrick of Baltimore wrote his morals handbook and forbade the operation, Cardinal Avanzini of Rome anonymously opined in favor (page 308-311) of the procedure in his journal (which would become the Acta Apostolicae Sedis), and Cardinal Caverot of Lyon (the city pictured above, coincidentally) petitioned the Holy Office for an official response. Needless to say, there was some controversy.
In response to Caverot’s dubium, the Holy Office (the precursor to the CDF) decided in favor of Kenrick’s position. But it did so cautiously, saying that the procedure “cannot be safely taught.” It did not exclude definitively the liceity of the procedure in itself.
Let’s fast-forward to today’s iteration of the old camps, of which there were and still are precisely three…
The “Grisezian” Position:
Doctors Grisez, Finnis, and Boyle were major proponents of the liceity of craniotomy in the 20th century and into the 21st. Grisez lays out his argument in several places, including in his magnum opus (entirely available online), The Way of the Lord Jesus. It is worth quoting the relevant passage in its entirety:
“Sometimes the baby’s death may be accepted to save the mother. Sometimes four conditions are simultaneously fulfilled: (i) some pathology threatens the lives of both a pregnant woman and her child, (ii) it is not safe to wait or waiting surely will result in the death of both, (iii) there is no way to save the child, and (iv) an operation that can save the mother’s life will result in the child’s death.
If the operation was one of those which the classical moralists considered not to be a “direct” abortion, they held that it could be performed. For example, in cases in which the baby could not be saved regardless of what was done (and perhaps in some others as well), they accepted the removal of a cancerous gravid uterus or of a fallopian tube containing an ectopic pregnancy. This moral norm plainly is sound, since the operation does not carry out a proposal to kill the child, serves a good purpose, and violates neither fairness nor mercy.
At least in times past, however, and perhaps even today in places where modern medical equipment and skills are unavailable, certain life-saving operations meeting the four conditions would fall among procedures classified by the classical moralists as “direct” killing, since the procedures in question straightaway would lead to the baby’s death. This is the case, for example, if the four conditions are met during the delivery of a baby whose head is too large. Unless the physician does a craniotomy (an operation in which instruments are used to empty and crush the head of the child so that it can be removed from the birth canal), both mother and child eventually will die; but the operation can be performed and the mother saved. With respect to physical causality, craniotomy immediately destroys the baby, and only in this way saves the mother. Thus, not only classical moralists but the magisterium regarded it as “direct” killing: a bad means to a good end.
However, assuming the four conditions are met, the baby’s death need not be included in the proposal adopted in choosing to do a craniotomy. The proposal can be simply to alter the child’s physical dimensions and remove him or her, because, as a physical object, this body cannot remain where it is without ending in both the baby’s and the mother’s deaths. To understand this proposal, it helps to notice that the baby’s death contributes nothing to the objective sought; indeed, the procedure is exactly the same if the baby has already died. In adopting this proposal, the baby’s death need only be accepted as a side effect. Therefore, according to the analysis of action employed in this book, even craniotomy (and, a fortiori, other operations meeting the four stated conditions) need not be direct killing, and so, provided the death of the baby is not intended (which is possible but unnecessary), any operation in a situation meeting the four conditions could be morally acceptable.”
We can see the attractiveness of the Grisezian position. It removes the uncomfortable conclusion that we must allow two people to die rather than save one. However, it simultaneously introduces an uncomfortable conclusion: that we may ignore the immediately terrible results of our physical exterior act in favor of further consequences of that act due to the psychological reality of our intention, in this case contingent on even further action (viz. actually extracting the child after crushing the skull – presumably, a surgeon may perform the craniotomy and then simply leave the child in the womb, thus failing to save either life).
Hold on to that thought.
The “Traditional” Position:
I put the word “traditional” in scare-quotes because it is the position which follows the cautious prohibition of the Holy Office, but it is not very old and is merely probable opinion. It is taken by a good number of moralists who are “conservative” and “traditional” in other areas. And it doesn’t have a modern champion the way Grisez was for the pro-craniotomy camp.
Folks in this school often make more or less good critiques of the Grisezian position, zeroing in on the lack of the appreciation for the immediate physical effects which flow from an external act. How is it that crushing a child’s skull does not equate with “direct killing”? It seems that such an action-theory, as proposed by Grisez, Finnis, and Boyle (GFB) in their landmark essay in The Thomistback in 2001, is utterly at odds with common sense. The plain truth then, is that craniotomy, just like ripping the organs out of someone healthy to save 5 other people, functions based on consequentialism.
This position, however, must bite two bullets. First, there is the sour prescription to let two people die when one could be saved. Second, it throws into confusion the topic of private lethal self-defense… Doesn’t shooting a person in the head also directly kill in order to save another’s life? GFB made this point in their Thomist essay, and, in my opinion, it is their strongest counter-argument. It pulls us back to the fundamental text in the discussion, q. 64 a. 7 of the Secunda Secundae, whence supposedly cometh PDE.
Hold on to that thought too.
The Rights-Based Position:
The final position for our consideration comes most recently from Fr. Rhonheimer, who seems to be at least in part following Avanzini. Basically, the argument goes like this… In some vital conflicts, like the problematic pregnancy at issue, one has two options – save one life, or allow two deaths. Everyone has a right to life, but in cases where we find acute vital conflicts, it sometimes makes no sense to speak of rights. The case in which a person in a vital conflict (the child) will not even be born is one such example. Therefore, while the child retains the right to life, it makes no sense to speak of this right, and so it does not bear on the decision of whether to perform an act which would end in the child’s death if it will save the mother.
Leaving aside the problem of the language of rights in moral discourse (see McIntyre’s scathing critique in After Virtue), we can simply observe that this is a position which does not evidently derive from virtue-ethics but is made up wholesale out of a desire to appease an intuition. Rhonheimer, as far as I recall, does not even attempt to integrate his position into the broader framework of moral theology. In sum, the damning question is, “Why precisely does acute danger to others and shortness of life remove the necessity to respect the bodily integrity/life of a person?” To me, it seems little more than an appeal to intuition followed by foot-stomping.
I credit Fr. Rhonheimer for making an attempt to present a different solution, and certainly, not all of his work is this problematic. But we are presently concerned with this particular topic. Anyway, I suggest that this is not a serious position for further consideration.
A Brief Synthesis
I recently wrote my STB thesis on moral liceity with respect to “per se” order, which is to say that those acts with “per se” order form the fundamental unit of moral analysis upon which the whole question of “object” vis-a-vis “intention” turns. I look at Dr. Steven Long’s truly excellent groundwork in his book The Teleological Grammar of the Moral Act, but I expose what I found to be some ambiguities in his definition and presentation of what exactly constitutes per se order. Skipping over all the details, let me quickly show how problematic the first two foregoing positions are and then give a rundown of the basic solution and its integration with respect to capital punishment. (It is Finnis’ articles on the death penalty which brought us here, remember!)
There are 3 dilemmas we have already mentioned: the central problem is craniotomy. At the two poles are the “transplant dilemma,” with one healthy patient and 5 critical patients in need of new vital organs, and the standard case of private lethal self-defense (PLSD), such as shooting a person in the head in order to stop his lethal attack.
The Grisezian position ably explains the craniotomy and PLSD. Nowhere – and I have looked pretty hard – do NNL theorists explore the implications of their action-theory (such as presented by GFB in their article) with respect to something like the transplant dilemma. One could easily appropriate the language of Grisez’s passage in TWOTLJ to accommodate such an obviously heinous action as ripping out the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, etc. of a healthy man to save 5 others. (It should be noted that the individual’s willingness to give his body over to such an act, while good in its remote intention, is totally inadmissible. I think basically all Catholic moralists would agree with this.) To rip out the man’s vital organs could certainly be described as “reshaping the body” or something similar to Grisez’s description of craniotomy as “reshaping the skull.” After all, the surgeon need not intend to kill the man – he could simply foresee it happening in view of his means to save these other men.
GFB evidently miss the point in their Thomist article, as they claim a causal equivalence between craniotomy and procedures done on a person for that person’s own sake, on page 23: “It is true that crushing the baby’s skull does not of itself help the mother, and that to help her the surgeon must carry out additional further procedures (remove the baby’s body from the birth canal). But many surgical procedures provide no immediate benefit and by themselves are simply destructive: removing the top of someone’s skull, stopping someone’s heart, and so forth.” We can see, then, that the principle of totality is undervalued by GFB and those who follow them. Serious damage done to a person must at least help that person. Any help to other persons is secondary, and I would argue per accidens rather than per se… One human substance is always related accidentally to another human substance.
The traditional approach more or less throws the teaching of St. Thomas into a cloud of ambiguity. By stating that the craniotomy is illicit because of the directness of its physical causation, the language in q. 64 a. 7 becomes unintelligible. We have to see the whole thing:
“Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental as explained above (II-II:43:3; I-II:12:1). Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one’s life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in ‘being,’ as far as possible. And yet, though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end. Wherefore if a man, in self-defense, uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repel force with moderation his defense will be lawful, because according to the jurists [Cap. Significasti, De Homicid. volunt. vel casual.], ‘it is lawful to repel force by force, provided one does not exceed the limits of a blameless defense.’ Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.”
Without launching into a critique of the Cajetanian strain of commentary which ultimately gave rise to the crystallized formulation of PDE which pervades most moral discourse on vital conflicts, I will again follow Long and say that the “rules” of PDE really only work if one already knows what one is looking for. In this respect, PDE is like the moral version of St. Anselm’s ontological proof for God’s existence – it is nice to have in a retrospective capacity, but it is not actually that helpful as an explanatory tool.
As we have seen, GFB take Thomas to mean that one does not “intend” to kill the aggressor, just as the surgeon does not “intend” to kill the child in the craniotomy. The traditional school does not have as clear of an answer – it seems forced to say, somewhat like Fr. Rhonheimer, that the rules just “don’t apply,” yet without a convincing explanation. After all, the principle of totality does not bear on the slaying of one person for the sake of another, even in the case Thomas addresses. Furthermore, because it appears that it is only due to the death of the aggressor that the attack is stopped, thus implying “intentional killing” as a means, how do we explain St. Thomas’ position?
We can note a few things in response. First, it is in fact not death which stops the attack initially – it is the destruction of the body’s capacity to continue attacking, which itself is the cause of death. The separation of the soul and body (which is what death is) need not be the chosen means or the intended end. In every single case, the aggressor is incapacitated before dying, and such incapacitation is what is sought. (This is at least part of what makes Finnis’ argument about “unintentional killing” in war plausible.) Second, the child stuck in the womb is a radically different kind of threat than the rational aggressor. Third, Thomas is quick to turn the discussion to public authority, as a kind of foil. All of this is quite significant and points to an answer.
To the first point… It is true that the private citizen can’t have the death of the aggressor as a goal, meaning, death can’t be what is sought as a means or as an end. He doesn’t need to do anything to the soul-body composite as such, he only needs to do something to the body’s ability to be used as a weapon.
To the second point… A gunman in an alley is a very different sort of threat than a child growing in the womb. There seem to be two classes of threats – non-commutative, and commutative. The non-commutative threats are those which result from principles not in themselves ordered towards interacting with the outside world, viz., the operations of which are without a terminus exterior to one’s own body. These would be the material principle itself of the body (the act of existing as a body), and the augmentative and nutritive faculties of the vegetal soul. So a person falling off a cliff, or a child growing in the womb, are not acting on the outside world… Threats which proceed from the animal or rational appetites, however, are indeed acting externally. The crazed gunman who is not morally responsible and the hired hand are both trying to do something to another person, whereas the child growing in the womb is not. So perhaps different kinds of threats allow for different kinds of defense.
To the third point… Without a full exploration of the famous “self-defense” article quoted above, Thomas is eager to explain that public authority can kill intentionally – evidently meaning it can be the end of one’s act rather than just the means. (“Choice” refers to means, “intention” refers to ends – they are only equivocally applied in the inverse senses in scholastic morals.) Here’s where it gets weird.
Because the soul-body composite is its own substance (a living human being), the act of killing a person (regardless of one’s psychology) destroys that substance insofar as the world of nature is concerned. (We leave aside the interesting questions of the survivalism vs. corruptionism debate among Catholic philosophers.) It forms a per se act – that is to say, there is nothing further which can come from this action which will be per se an effect. This is because, as I argued in my thesis, per se order exists only within the substance chosen to be acted upon. Per se effects are those effects which necessarily occur in the substance an agent acts on which come from the agent’s act itself, given the real situation of the substance. So to destroy a substance necessarily ends the per se order. At the end of per se order there is the intended effect – such as debilitation (which is only logically distinct from self-preservation and therefore is not a separate/remote/accidental effect – what it is to protect oneself simply is to remove a threat) or death. Of course, this intended effect can itself be part of a chain of intended effects which function as means with relation to some further end. If I defend myself in order to live, but I want to live for the sake of something else (like acquiring wealth), then there is a chain of intended ends which function as means. The necessary process of moral evaluation, however, is to look for the per se case of action and examine whether it is rightly ordered in itself.
We have seen with the transplant dilemma that it is wrongly ordered to damage one innocent person’s body lethally with the good aim of helping many others. The answer to the craniotomy seems to be the same… The child does not have an unjust appetite, he has a rightly ordered vegetal/material appetite which is inconvenient to others, so he may not be attacked, unless that attack also proportionately helps him and is chosen in part for that reason. (Such a case might really exist – for example, an inviable fetus is causing the womb to rupture… It’s foreseen that delivering the child will both save the mother and allow the child to live longer than he would have otherwise, even though exposure to the outside world will be the cause of his death. It certainly seems that this would be permissible given the principle of totality.) Finally, we reach the case of PLSD… There is no principle of totality at work here, even though the intended effect of self-preservation is immediately achieved with the debilitation which causes death. Rather, the normal rule of totality is indeed suspended. This is because of the kind of threat which the aggressor poses – it is a threat to the commonwealth due to a disordered external appetite.
Because “it is natural to everything to keep itself in ‘being,’ as far as possible,” and “one is more bound to take care of his own life than another’s,” it stands to reason that in a case in which there is public disorder due to the external act of a person, that person becomes the rightful recipient of correction at the hands of those whom he threatens, without his own good being a barrier to protecting the good of oneself or the community. The blows to the aggressor, we can see, actually help him – they keep him from being a bad part of society. And the private citizen’s duty is indeed to protect the commonwealth insofar as he is a part… This would include a kind of “natural delegation” to dispense with individual totality for the sake of communal totality – he is at liberty to risk the good of the one person (while, remember, he actually does something good to the aggressor by rectifying his disordered exterior act) for the sake of the commonwealth. The private defender may not try to kill the aggressor, but he may knowingly cause it with no benefit to the aggressor beyond keeping him from being harmful. Even though death is a per se effect, the defensive act is legitimate – the private defender acts like a miniature public official in this urgent situation, without psychologically taking death itself as an end.
This plugs in very nicely with Thomas’ vision of capital punishment… Stay tuned for part 2, though I’m sure a lengthy tome like this won’t be too necessary, given that a response from Dr. Feser is likely forthcoming, due in no small part to having been called out personally by Dr. Finnis.
Given the past few years of theological disputes, several questions have proposed themselves as needing more serious attention, either in explanation of or exploration for the correct answers. Except to suggest the use of one particular theological tool, I don’t have any purpose here other than to say what some (but not all) of these questions are and to give them a definite shape in the hopes of helping them to be more effectively addressed. Here we go…
How do we determine what is infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium and what is fallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium?
Even if something is certainly taught fallibly by the ordinary magisterium, how do we know if it is still binding through demanding “religious assent”?
What is the moral significance of failing to adhere to various kinds of positions taught with varying degrees of frequency, strength, and recentness?
To what degree, if any, are theologians exempt from such demands and their corresponding moral penalties?
Who exactly belongs to this supposedly exempt category called “theologians”?
When does it become morally acceptable for theologians to presume to correct a legitimate ordinary magisterial organ, in various degrees of publicity?
What is the exact significance and character of the extraordinary magisterium if it can only teach what has already been taught by the ordinary magisterium?
Can a practice of the Church or its encouragement of a practice establish a speculative doctrine to one degree or another, other than with regard to the liturgy and the sacraments?
What is the authoritative character of prudential utterances of the Holy Father or his legitimate direct cooperators (such as the CDF) when the matter of the utterance actually belongs most properly to the discretion of a legitimate civil authority?
Is there a good solution to so-called “conflict marriage” annulment cases in which the petitioner is unable to produce witnesses due to a legitimate obstacle (such as the witnesses being dead)?
What level and kind of ignorance of the Church’s legal system and its legitimate demands upon oneself would suffice to remove some or all of the formal aspect of sin from one’s materially sinful union?
If there is a possibility of a complete or partial excuse of moral culpability due to ignorance of canon law’s legitimate demands upon oneself with regard to marriage which can be privately ascertained by a sacred minister, how ought such persons be sacramentally ministered to, whether publicly or privately?
Aside from the general application of c. 915, and independent of the question of culpability for cohabitation and bigamy themselves, under what circumstances, if any, is it possible that to leave a person in ignorance about the moral necessity of an annulment, for which he or she is privately judged to be at least partially culpable, constitutes a legitimate condescension to a perceived likelihood of being unwilling to cooperate and thus likely leading to even worse sin?
What is the exact character and efficacy of a so-called “spiritual communion” for those who persist in mortal sin?
These aren’t “ivory tower debates.” Some of these questions, as I have implied in previous posts, could be helped by a more common use and further refinement of the Church’s system of “theological notes.”
I had endeavored to write a post some time ago when all eyes were turned to Catalonia because of the separatist fervor threatening the unity of Spain, but I never got around to it. Let this supplant it.
The recent history of the Iberian peninsula is rife with political conflict… (In fact, it is only barely out of living memory that Spain was in a war with the United States.) It should be entirely unsurprising that there are still problems… And only time will tell if Catalonia earns its independence, with violence, with voting, or with a mix of the two.
There is a singular voice in the Catalonian Church which sticks out like a sore thumb, aching to teach us an extremely important lesson about the way ecclesiastics ought to treat politics. It is St. Anthony Claret – priest of the Diocese of Vic, 3rd Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, and confessor to the Queen of Spain, Isabella II.
During his entire life and ministry, St. Anthony was surrounded by fierce political controversies and enemies of the Church, including the Carlist civil wars raging around his home, an attempt on his life in Cuba, the confiscation of the Papal States, and the dethronement and exile of the Queen. Certainly, St. Anthony’s immense tact guided him during all this – such as when he would say he was from the Diocese of Vic when questioned by Carlistas and that he was from the town of Sallent when questioned by the Isabelinos – but beyond this, two things are striking about St. Anthony’s response to political clamor.
First, he was positively and intentionally aloof from political affairs which did not directly concern the Church and the salvation of souls. This is most evident during his time in the Queen’s court, an assignment which he utterly despised, calling it a “continual martyrdom.” (Anthony Claret is one of the few saints who left us an autobiography. It is excellent.) By that time in his life, his fame was widespread, and to have the Archbishop’s approval on some matter would carry immense weight, especially with the Queen. He wanted no part – it would be alienating to those who did not agree with his decision, threatening their relationship with the Church, of which, after all, he was a steward and representative. Despite an average of a hundred letters a day asking for his help in various matters, he remained disinterested, answering none. He saw involvement in politics as an abuse of his office, as something beneath his dignity; his principal duty was the care of souls, not care of the country. When affairs did directly concern the Church or salvation of souls, such as the unification of Italy, or the anti-clerical sentiment in Spain and Cuba, he was ready and willing to act appropriately. During the Risorgimento, for instance, the Queen faced immense pressure to give her approval of the dissolution of the Papal States, but her confessor was there to warn her of the grave spiritual danger which such a move would bring… He was also there to lift the canonical penalty she incurred after having finally given her assent to Italian unification, as she sat in exile in France, disgraced and contrite.
Second, he was engaged in entirely non-partisan works as a civic leader. Given the incomprehensible amount of preaching and sacramental work which Claret performed – in his 6 years in Cuba alone, he wrote many books and pamphlets on spirituality and doctrine, validated over 9,000 marriages, confirmed some 300,000 people, and conducted 4 missions in every parish in his large and rugged diocese, always traveling by foot – one would think he would have time for little else. On the contrary, he was up to his neck in public works, such as supporting orphans, educational institutions, scientific research, agriculture, and healthcare. All of this was neutral work that no reasonable person could object to. Those who smeared him for it did so because of an animus against the Church or his own person, not because the work was partisan.
All this brings us to comments made by some bishops on illegal immigration which are only the most recent manifestation of a disturbing trend.
Unlike other so-called political issues, such as euthanasia or abortion, the Church has no teaching on the treatment of illegal immigrants as such. All we have are some basic ideas about human dignity and the authority of the state. Who could object to a preacher who says, “We should treat every human being with charity because all are made in the image and likeness of God”? It is easy, however, to imagine an objection to a preacher who says, “It is uncharitable to defend our nation from illegal immigrants,” and yet this is the kind of thing which is sometimes said, including presently. Not unlike the rhetoric which surrounds the current debate on gun-control, those of a liberal mindset accuse those of a conservative mindset of immorality prima facie – to oppose stricter gun laws is simply to care too little about people’s lives, especially children’s lives. In this case, to oppose sanctuary cities and spotty border patrol is simply to care too little about the oppressed who are fleeing from the south.
Of course, this trick could be reversed easily enough (and sometimes it is done to good effect), but making accusations of immorality due to differing prudential judgments does not make for a healthy political forum. Let me suggest that it makes for an even unhealthier ecclesiastical forum. Perhaps – or even, dare I say, probably – both sides really do care about the common good of the nation and have compassion for the suffering, but they simply have different ideas about how to reach the goal of political flourishing and the role of jurisprudential factors in border control and deportation.
Since I am not a cleric, I will go so far as to say that the past shows us that our current tolerance of illegal immigration has been extremely expensive and dangerous, the principle of subsidiarity seems to be violated by accepting a long-term responsibility for people of other countries who do not legitimately become part of our own, and that writing laws based on empathy for those who suffer is, in general, a bad idea, because it blinds one to the broader impact of that legislation.
And what good does it do for a bishop to risk scandalizing the faithful who might hold a different prudential assessment of the situation than himself by insisting that a certain position on DACA is immoral? Usually little to none; it is either ignored, is used by those who already agree as a moral sledgehammer, or simply annoys people who disagree, as they rightly sense that this is not a matter for the Church to be involved with directly. It certainly seems good for a bishop or any cleric to have a well-informed opinion on immigration policy, but it seems extremely unwise to reveal it. Perhaps the time of an ecclesiastic could be better spent by prayer, devotional and doctrinal preaching, administering the sacraments, studying theology, or building up the common good by entirely neutral means. Anything more is a waste of time at best and positively harmful at worst.
“A sacerdotes,” says St. Anthony, “must never align himself with any faction.” This is the great lesson our Catalonian saint teaches us: that a cleric is to render unto Caesar what is his by simply leaving him alone.
Main image: the Cathedral of Vic, where St. Anthony was ordained a priest and bishop
We expect monsters to stay under the bed. In the closet. In the dark. When they do come into the open, it’s usually easy to spot them, but it can be particularly difficult when they masquerade as something good, benign, or even necessary. It’s the sickest when these sorts of things target kids.
Enter Bunny Token.
Anyone who regularly watches YouTube (even kids watching cat videos!) will by now have seen the ubiquitous advertisements for “Bunny Tokens,” a cryptocurrency designed to unify the “adult” entertainment industry. The currency is, unlike BitCoin, (which you may have heard of,) limited, meaning that once they’re gone from the first shelf, you have to buy them later on at a higher price. This adds a real sense of urgency to the market. (Apparently, they’ve reached their soft cap for initial investments.) It’s not the first cryptocurrency for the industry, but it looks like it’s going to be extremely dominant based on the strength of their advertising campaign.
The monster has come out of its hiding place into the digital version of primetime, apparently with a plan to crawl back home into the darkness with its prey. (Cryptocurrencies allow for a much higher rate of anonymity of the buyer and seller than do currencies regulated by the government. It is actually an ingenious business move. Wise in the ways of the world indeed.) While this cute little bunny-monster is in the light of day, it provides us with a good opportunity to call pornography what it is – childish, unnatural, shameful, and deadly.
Childish – The qualifier “adult” is usually applied to pornography and the things that go with it. It is, in fact, difficult to imagine a more childish activity than watching people abuse themselves and each other, let alone paying for it. Why an 18-year-old instantly becomes eligible for this kind of thing makes no sense whatsoever, and deep down we all know this. (And you can safely bet that the industry subtly pushes towards younger kids with a voluptuous wink and an approving nod.) We expect little kids to have no sense of self-control. We expect adults to be above what most people still consider perverted or at least think should stay hidden in the dark, even if they won’t admit that view in polite company. We teach our children not to be selfish. We teach them to respect others’ bodies and privacy (although this one is being threatened with trans-bathrooms and trans-lockerrooms). We teach them that some pleasures are immoderate, even if there’s no evident and immediate harm done. Pornography unteaches all of this, and study after study shows the long-term damage that an addiction can do to social and psychological flourishing. And now, hundreds of millions of kids who just wanted to watch a harmless cat video are being tempted to buy some Bunny Tokens. Wonderful.
Unnatural – We are talking about the proper functioning of the reproductive part of the “vegetal soul,” which also has nutrition and augmentation (growth) as essential parts. The twisting of the sexual faculty to order it towards one’s own immediate gratification “free of consequences” is an unnatural vice (which would include the free and willful choices of self-abuse, contraception, sodomy, etc. – anything which pre-excludes the possibility of human generation based on the lack of the complementary organ in the faculty’s system, or based on the willed introduction or willed perdurance of some deficiency which destroys the faculty’s proper functioning, like a hysterectomy which is presumed upon for its contraceptive power in each sexual act)… It is not merely an excess or deficiency, as most vices are, it is something different. If we switch the faculty in question from the sexual to the nutritive (or digestive), we can see this relationship quite clearly. An excess of eating is bad because it causes obesity and sometimes even the death of the body through contracting diabetes or high cholesterol. A deficiency of eating is bad because it causes malnutrition and can also, obviously, be deadly. An unnatural digestive vice, if practiced with the full consent of the will, would look something like this. (NB: of course, true eating disorders usually involve a constraint of the will which inhibits moral freedom and therefore reduces culpability proportionately.) We know that “food porn” is not to be treated like actual porn – that should tell us something, shouldn’t it… The unnaturalness of this kind of thing could possibly be bad for the body, but it won’t kill a person who’s careful enough. Why, then, does the clip above work as a means of demonstrating the vice of the characters? (Yes, go watch it!) The aspect of exploitation of other people adds to the seriousness of the offense, just like physical violence adds to the gravity of fornication or adultery. With pornography, let us remember, the person acting or posing on the screen, despite definitely being a son or daughter to real parents and being created in the image and likeness of God, might by some chance be one’s own friend or relative. Imagine the horror of such a discovery, when an anonymous and faceless actor or actress turns out to be your sibling, or parent, or child. It’s also possible that those people aren’t even alive anymore, and the pleasure being derived is from a person whose body is now ash or rotting in the ground. Let that one sink in.
Shameful – A proper sense of shame is one which causes repulsion from immoderate acts of the lower powers of the soul. The acts of which one should be ashamed are the ones that are most properly called “shameful.” While there is less guilt in sins against the Sixth Commandment than in other sins (like theft or lying, which don’t “tug” as hard on our wills as the fires of the lower passions for bodily pleasure do), there is certainly more shame. And the more removed the act becomes from its proper mode, the more shameful it becomes. I recall learning in seminary about how to deal with people – usually lonely, elderly men – who come to confess the sin of bestiality. (No, not the kind with another human – though that is wrong too.) They will usually mutter something about their dog… and, well… struggle to mention it. The lesson was that the best thing to do, other than perhaps gently mentioning the possibility of finding the dog a new home, is to ignore it. The penitent likely knows full well how shameful that act is and doesn’t need to be reminded. He’s just that lonely. Well, a quick glance at St. Thomas’ list of the order of gravity in the parts of lust – probably one of the most studied Articles in one of the most studied Questions in the Summa – reveals that the sin of self-abuse is only a few steps away from being too friendly with an animal, and resides above other sins in its essential gravity which even Western society considers wicked. (Of course, there can be mitigating factors in this sin, as the Catechism explains. Personally, I think they are often over-applied, but surely, someone who is going out of their way to invest in a cryptocurrency to purchase pornography long-term does not deserve as delicate of a treatment as an 8-year-old who is just discovering that touching down there feels good.)
Deadly – Pornography is a scourge that can and does pull souls down into the darkness of sin, killing the life of grace within the soul, ruining social functioning, brain chemistry, and actual relationships in the meantime, not to mention exploiting often very vulnerable people who become the objects of one’s lust. If you are a parent, and you have been shying away from this topic, RIGHT NOW is a good moment… Bunny Token ads have been all over YouTube, and they have provided you, ironically, with a great occasion to bring this subject up, into the light, with your kids, in order to root out vice. (And no, you don’t have to be already watching questionable content for these ads to find you. The industry is looking to grow its audience.) What are you waiting for? Wake up and smell the concupiscence!
The further the monster comes into the light – especially if it is dragged there – the less it will seem like an innocent bunny, and the more it will seem like what it really is.
This will be a pretty technical post. There is a TLDR summary of some of the complex stuff if you scroll down. But come on, give it a shot!
All lies are sins. A lie is a willful statement of what one believes is a falsehood in order to deceive another person. In other words, it is a statement at variance with the mind, which says what one thinks is false is true or what one thinks is true is false, so that one’s interlocutor erroneously believes what is said.
This is the teaching of most Catholic moralists throughout the ages, and the teaching of the Catechism (the official Latin “Editio Typica” version, which came after the edits to the original French version that removed a qualification about the “right to know the truth,” much to the pleasure of then-Cdl. Ratzinger if I recall correctly… and to this day the Vatican website quite lamentably has different texts in Paragraph 2483 in Latin and English, the former without the qualification, the latter with it). Lying is a willful misuse of our faculty of communication. Here are some resources on this topic. Knock yourself out.
According to the general trends in moral theology since St. Thomas’ time, lies are indeed wrong because of both the kind of statement (thought to be untrue) and the intention of deceit (trying to get someone to believe that statement). They are not, as has been argued by some, wrong merely because of the object… sort of. Get your moral theology hats on – or, should I say, get your Duns-caps on?
Most lies are done through normal, verbal speaking. If I really did shoot both the sheriff and the deputy, I cannot truthfully say, “I did not shoot the deputy,” if I am asked about this particular deputy who has been shot and who is the only really possible referent to my utterance of the word “deputy.” However, if there are multiple deputies that have been shot (most of whom I did not shoot), or there are some deputies which have not been shot, all of whom I could realistically be talking about, that statement is not necessarily a lie – I could really speak those words in meaningful reference to one of those deputies I did not shoot. It is probably an unjust use of deception, but it is not a lie… It is what is called a “broad mental reservation.”
If I’m talking about some deputy nobody in the conversation could realistically possibly understand to be the referent of my use of the word “deputy,” then it is a “narrow mental reservation.” (This is distinct from the question of what will probably be understood, which is not at issue. The interlocutor must not realistically have conceptual access to the referent of my use of the word. I cannot legitimately make my referent the deputy of Hicktown in Nowheresville “out of the blue.”) That is actually a lie, because the use of language is for the communication of true things broadly available to those who are communicating – so I am misusing the faculty of communication, doing an act which is inherently frustrating its natural end of conveying the truth. Another way to show the problem is with a question. If I ask, “Which deputy,” those I am speaking with should be able to understand what other deputies I might be speaking of, if they try hard enough. It is this same deputy-pool out of which I might legitimately speak of a deputy whom I did not shoot, given that I did shoot the one that the others are actually speaking of.
This is not totally clear, but hopefully it’s clear enough. Exactly how to demarcate the precise limits of the “referent pool” is a great challenge but is not necessary to get into further.
The second issue at stake is whether every instance of falsehood-telling is really “lying,” supposing that all lying is wrong. I am going to do something rare and – are you ready for it? – challenge St. Thomas on something.
Language was probably not something St. Thomas was that interested in, I’m guessing. I argue that there are several lacunae (or “errors”), or at least large deficiencies in his treatment of language-related issues in the Summa. This includes his articles on derision and blasphemy, but here we will limit ourselves to his treatment of lying.
The definition St. Thomas gives of a lie is “a statement at variance with the mind.” For him, a lie even includes statements not intended to deceive. The famous story of the flying ox will come to mind of other St. Thomas fan-boys… As it goes, he was teaching a group of Dominican friars one day when one of them pointed out the window and said, “Look Brother Thomas, a flying ox!” He hurried over to the window to look, while the brothers all laughed playfully. We would not recall this incident were it not for his response: “It is better to believe that an ox can fly than that a religious could tell a lie.” The room was probably pretty quiet after that.
Maybe the story isn’t true… Or maybe the common interpretation isn’t true, insofar as it might be unreasonable to think St. Thomas would actually think it better to believe something ridiculous than something obvious – maybe he was just joking back!? But given his treatment of “jocose lies,” or “lies for fun tricks,” maybe not. They are, as he says, “not meant to deceive anyone,” and yet he treats them as venial sins… because they are lies, or statements of falsehood (which are against the mind, which cannot really be said to contain “falsity,” or else it would be rejected by the mind as false).
Why is this so? It comes down to his view that the statement against what one has in one’s mind necessarily contradicts the faculty of communication regardless of what one intends by that deed, be it deceit or some trivial pleasure. However, one must ask at least two questions…
First, can there be such a statement without the intent to deceive, given the nature of language as a tool for communication? That is, can a statement really be “at variance with the mind” without trying to put a falsehood into another’s mind, or must a statement necessarily carry with it a communicative import in accord with the falsehood one’s actual words indicate?
Second, is the act of communication limited only to the “dictionary meaning” of one’s spoken words, or is there a broader milieu of signals by which ideas are transferred?
Ironically, we may take the doctrine of St. Thomas to answer these questions. “Sins of speech are measured primarily by their intention,” he says. This is because words only have meaning inasmuch as they communicate ideas, and they only have moral relevance inasmuch as they have meaning. Given that, one must intend certain words to communicate some idea for them to have moral significance (negligence notwithstanding – you should know that yelling “fire!” in a movie theater is bad unless there’s a fire, even if you don’t actually intend to communicate anything by it). If the words are known to convey a falsehood within the linguistic context in which the communicators are part of, that is, their lexicon, cultural idioms, exclusive code-words, etc., it seems St. Thomas would call this a lie. Yet it is clear to him that this might not be meant to deceive but only to jest. Here is why this is inadequate: we also use non-verbal language as our communicative act, such as inflection, physical gestures, and the particular context in which we are in.
“My homework took sooooooo looooong last night.” This same statement could really communicate two opposite things, given a variety of factors. Is the class really easy, or really difficult? Is this person rolling his eyes playfully, or with real anguish? Etc. He could really be communicating a truth, even if his homework took no time at all.
So, words are not the exclusive matter of “statements.” St. Thomas admits this, but he fails to incorporate non-verbal communication into his treatment of jocose lies. (Here is some more information on jokes vs. jocose lies.)
It can still be said that lying is “intrinsically evil,” even though it involves a certain kind of intention in addition to a certain object. In the case of sins of speech, intention actually informs the object in a special way, because there is nothing inherently good or bad about producing collections of sounds with one’s vocal chords, unlike fatally stabbing an innocent person walking down the street, for example. Instead, one must adopt the means, “tell a falsehood,” within a particular linguistic context, to serve whatever end.
Clear as mud? Well here’s where things get trippy. Hold on to your Duns caps.
If you think you are speaking to a knowing and thinking person, all willful telling of falsehood necessarily involves an intention to deceive. But if you think you are speaking to a plant, or to a computer, or to Fido, the contradictory proposition holds: NO willful telling of falsehood involves an intention to deceive.
Yes, HAL (and Fido) can be “deceived,” but it is not the kind of deceit which matters for morality. HAL may be misled but does not actually rationally believe anything, so there is no such thing as “true” or “untrue” for him, only the “useful” and not “useful.” (I’m looking at you, William James.) What we are actually doing when speaking to these creatures is producing sounds to bring about some exterior change in them or to satisfy our own little emotional whims through a personification of a non-rational being. Psychologically, we might think of ourselves as “communicating” with them, but in the strict sense (which depends on the “rationality” criterion) we are not trying to do this. We are not trying to get Fido to believe some idea, merely to act on some collection of sounds in a certain way.
TLDR: We only communicate with persons, so we can only lie to persons. There is more to communication than mere words, so not all false communicative verbal utterances which indicate an untruth by their linguistic context constitute lying.
All this brings us to the question of art and lying. Can a painter lie through a painting? And no, I don’t mean writing some untrue words in his painting to deceive admirers. I mean to ask: is it possible to lie with an image?
The first distinction to make is that of an assumption of non-communication and an assumption of communication. In WWII, the Allies used dummy tanks to confuse the Germans prior to the invasion of Normandy. They also used fake radio traffic. In both examples, there is an assumption of non-communication on the part of the Axis. This means that the Axis was not thinking that the Allies were trying to convey a real message to them – instead, it was just the opposite. Reconnaissance and espionage were employed to gather information secretly. So, it could not have been an act of communication on the part of the Allies, provided they believed the Germans were spying in this way. Instead, the Allies put inflatable tanks and aircraft in strategic locations and let the Germans think whatever they wanted if they should happen to see them. The same is true of the radio interception, which consisted of words being spoken by persons who were not actually trying to communicate between themselves but simply to create a believable conversation which could be interpreted however any interceptor might like. Of course, the Allies knew what would be erroneously thought by the Germans, and this was the intended effect. Yet, because they were not actually telling the Germans falsehoods, this deception is not communicative and is therefore not lying. (This would be distinct from what occurs in games of deception like “Mafia,” where there is not real communication because players knowingly enter into an artificial paradigm of suspicion, where one only looks for truth based on players’ non-verbal behavior. The entire communicative dynamic is shattered.)
On the other hand, if there is an assumption of communication, there can be lies even in non-verbal signals.
The images above (including the main image of this post) do not contain words that say something untrue, but they certainly contain messages that are untrue: “All bishops and priests are out to corrupt the morals of our children,” “Hitler is a loving and fatherly national hero,” “Socialism is the best thing for the country,” “All Americans are bloodthirsty war criminals.” These images were made and received with a communicative assumption, so they could be lies. But unless their artists or distributors thought those messages to be untrue, they are merely falsehoods told without the intent to deceive. That means they would not actually be lies, just the blameworthy spreading of error.
A normal image, of a basket of fruit for example, is not intended to convey some political or ideological message, but it still might be intended to get the viewer to ascribe to some more fundamental worldview. Suppose a painter puts a white dot in a black field, and his intention is to get the viewer to believe there is no purpose in living. This could be a lie if the painter believes there is a purpose in living, and if we grant that there is some characteristic of a little white dot on a black field that is inherently enough ordered toward conveying purposelessness about human life (like the word “deputy” referring inherently enough to an assistant of a sheriff). Indeed, it is difficult enough to demarcate words, let alone artistic conventions and their relation to cultural assumptions and deeper, more universal (or Jungian) archetypes in the human mind. We don’t need to figure this out here in order to point out that the issue exists. On the other hand, if the painter simply wants the viewer to feel insignificant but not believe anything in particular, this is certainly not a lie. Other non-verbal mediums, like instrumental music, have this same property.
How about mildly false advertising? If a company produces bags of chips which are 50% empty inside, and the company wants customers to see those bags and think they contain more food than they really do, is this a lie? Possibly, but only if there is no reasonable way to tell that the bag is half empty before actually physically verifying it even without opening the bag. (If one physically verifies the contents of the bag, communication from the company about the quantity in the bag by advertisement and presentation is no longer occurring.) One example of a reasonable way to obtain this knowledge without verification would be seeing on the package how many grams of chips are in such bags on average, and it would even include accessing the general knowledge that most chip bags are half empty. (It would probably not include a chart on the company’s website that almost nobody knows about.) When there is a widely available “pool” of such information, it seems that companies may take advantage of this without lying – but that does not mean that a broad mental reservation or withholding significant information would necessarily be justified in any and every case. One example might be the sale of pseudo-scientific or similarly worthless products to vulnerable elderly persons… Yes, it might be true that a study which Healing Crystals Inc. did on its own product showed a significant increase in health in persons who have purchased their healing crystals, and it is certainly widely available knowledge that correlation does not imply causation. So to manipulate Granny out of 6 easy payments of $29.95 for what the vendor knows is an ineffective product is not a lie on his part, but it is still wrong, unless there is some extraordinary circumstance which justifies such deceptive manipulation.
Okay, got that covered. Now onto plays, films, novels, etc. Surely, actors are not really trying to communicate their lines to each other, they are trying to act. But the interplay with the audience is different. The answer should still be clear enough – audience members know they are at a play or film, so it is rightly assumed that what they expect is a group of characters speaking about the world of the play or film, even in the average instance of breaking the third wall. The “referent pool” lies within the story and setting itself. When a character speaks a line that is misleading about the imaginary world, or there is an image that deceives in a similar way, it merely takes advantage of the audience’s bad assumptions about the world of the characters, so these are not lies either… The audience should expect the possibility that a character is speaking in a way that misleadingly refers to something that has not been fully revealed yet, or that not everything is at is appears on the screen. If a character – even an omniscient narrator – does tell the audience a falsehood, he cannot really intend to deceive, because he, the character, does not really exist. The playwright or author or screenwriter exists and is ultimately the one doing any and all communicating within the story, which means the words of characters are really about exploring and explaining those characters and the world in which they live – even if the author is trying to show that the omniscient narrator is a liar. However, the above point about conveying a belief about the real world still holds. If your play is a propaganda piece that you wrote for the sheer amusement of tricking people into supporting what you think is a bad political ideology, then you are telling a lie through your play.
Documentary films do not enjoy this privilege of an artificial “referent pool,” because it is presumed that their object is the real world, not a fictional one.
Illusions are a tricky topic. (Get it?)
Simply “tricking the eyes” is not a lie, because there is no attempt at communication. The point of drawing such images is to show that our senses can be misled about the reality of what is right in front of them – if anything, these are anti-lies! These kinds of illusions could be used deceptively, however, but it remains immediately available information that the blue lines, for example, are parallel, so a trick which is predicated merely upon a person assuming his immediate perception about the blue lines is accurate would not constitute a lie.
Magicians are on a different ground altogether. If you have a gaffed deck of cards, but you tell your audience that it is “normal,” it is difficult to see how this would not be a lie. (But could you say it is “ordinary” and mean that it is “numbered”? It seems you could!) Yes, an audience should know that a magician is likely not to tell the truth, but so too should citizens expect falsehoods to be told by politicians and kingpins. Simply presuming a high likelihood of some person knowingly telling a falsehood does not automatically excuse that person from the possibility of lying. On the other hand, if you asked an audience member to inspect a regular deck of cards, ask their opinion about the cards, and then subtly switch to a deck with a gimmick while all the attention is on your eyes, all that occurs is a deception.
Finally, we arrive at the question of comedy. Is it a lie for a comedian to tell a story that he passes off as true? This seems to be just as problematic as the magician speaking about his gaffed deck… Certainly, some people are expecting falsehoods to be told at the comedy club, but many story-based jokes are only so funny because the audience believes them to be true. Can you imagine a comedian starting a joke, “What if my kid walked up to me the other day and said…”? No, instead it is, “My kid walked up to me the other day and said…” The strength is predicated on the audience being deceived about reality. It is not merely the use of a convention, or the use of a broad mental reservation, and it is not a non-commutative act altogether. Once again, just because some people are expected to tell falsehoods knowingly does not entail the inability of them to lie. It does not seem that telling tall-tales, even as a professional comedian, can escape the label of “lie.” As for only briefly deceptive jests, see this article, already linked to. Those might not be lies, so long as the punchline or reversal comes quickly enough to precede the real formation of a belief in the person being joked with, because the reversal changes the message that is actually being delivered in a single communicative act that simply has a strategic pause in between its verbal parts. “Look, Brother Thomas, a flying ox! . . . JK, LOL!”
To summarize… Art can be a means of lying, but when it is used rightly it might represent something unreal but in order to convey a truth, or even just a feeling.
Post by: Eamonn Clark
Main image: Thomas Nast, American River Ganges, 1871
So guess what? Turns out some researchers in the Netherlands think more countries should legalize pot.
For those who think flying to Amsterdam (or Colorado, etc.) to indulge in the herb is just fine and dandy, let’s do some thinkin’.
Principle 1: Creation is good.
Principle 2: Not all creatures are equally good.
Principle 3: We ought to avoid evil.
Principle 4: Rastafari is a false religion.
Humans are ontologically higher than rocks, plants, and animals. We can use them, even to their detriment, if they are beneficial enough to us. Jesus was not a vegetarian. And yes, Brother Carrot and Sister Lettuce are okay to kill, unless it is out of sheer disdain and spite for their existence as creatures of God.
But Uncle Bud is a little different, because when we harvest him, it’s usually for the sake of affecting our bodies in a way that suspends our intellect.
Eat-ay ad Thomam:
The sin of drunkenness, as stated in the foregoing Article, consists in the immoderate use and concupiscence of wine. Now this may happen to a man in three ways. First, so that he knows not the drink to be immoderate and intoxicating: and then drunkenness may be without sin, as stated above (Article 1). Secondly, so that he perceives the drink to be immoderate, but without knowing it to be intoxicating, and then drunkenness may involve a venial sin. Thirdly, it may happen that a man is well aware that the drink is immoderate and intoxicating, and yet he would rather be drunk than abstain from drink.
That’s from the Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 150, art. 2. Wine stands here for any intoxicating substance… One might not know a substance to have intoxicating effects, and so there is no sin in such drunkenness (unless its use was immoderate for other reasons). But if one knows something to be potent, it is another story. But just how drunk is “drunk?”
[The third kind of man] is a drunkard properly speaking, because morals take their species not from things that occur accidentally and beside the intention, but from that which is directly intended. On this way drunkenness is a mortal sin, because then a man willingly and knowingly deprives himself of the use of reason, whereby he performs virtuous deeds and avoids sin, and thus he sins mortally by running the risk of falling into sin. For Ambrose says (De Patriarch. [De Abraham i.]): “We learn that we should shun drunkenness, which prevents us from avoiding grievous sins. For the things we avoid when sober, we unknowingly commit through drunkenness.” Therefore drunkenness, properly speaking, is a mortal sin.
So there is still a mystery… How intoxicated must one be before he “deprives himself of the use of reason?” Let’s remember a few things though before we shame the Angelic Doctor for being obscure. First, he expects a student to have read all the text which precedes this Article. That would give one a better idea of what he means. Second, the Summa really is just a beginner’s crash-course. It is not meant to be exhaustive. In some articles, this is more evident than in others. Third, it’s unlikely St. Thomas had much firsthand experience with drinking to provide us with more subtlety… When Albertus Magnus is your professor and Bonaventure lives on your hall, you’re inspired to “rise above the influence,” as it were.
However, we know that some of the more austere saints occasionally indulged, such as Charles Borromeo and John Vianney. And of course, the Lord did as well, as He so famously pointed out in Matthew 11:19. Since potent substances will technically have some effect no matter how little is taken of them, we can say from this alone that it is not evil in itself to use intoxicating substances.
Then there is the principle of totality to keep in mind. Later in the same Question, Thomas alludes to this by saying a physician might tell one to use drink to induce vomiting – but since lukewarm water works too, that should be used instead. However, if it didn’t (and we hadn’t discovered Ipecac) then it would be fine. This is because the greater health of the body is worth the temporary loss of reason… That’s also why it’s not a sin to plan on going to sleep each night! And while there is violence done to the body and soul when, for instance, a gangrenous limb is removed, it is for the sake of the entire person. But this too should be moderated by wisdom, since not every ailment is worth doing violence to yourself. If you get occasional leg pain, that doesn’t mean you should cut off your leg.
So anyway, how drunk is drunk? How high is high? It is so difficult to say because of the problem in trying to quantify a quality. “It’s when you feel like… you know, drunk.”
We won’t solve the issue of exactly where “the line” is today – maybe another post with some ¡HARDCORE SCIENCE! – but perhaps we can lay down some guideposts based on Thomas and basic research.
Certain drugs act far more quickly than others. THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) acts more quickly than alcohol, based on the popular conventions of consumption. That is a big deal.
Reason helps us to distinguish the true from the false. Once you have trouble doing that, it’s time to call it a day… If sober people around you start laughing at everything you say, it’s probably not because you’re witty and charming, it’s because you’re diminishing your material brain’s capability to interact with your immaterial intellect (AKA you’re becoming drunk). And so on.
If you’re starting to forget stuff that you shouldn’t forget, then that’s another sign your faculties are slipping. So put it down.
When you feel like doing something really dumb that you normally wouldn’t, STOP and don’t do that much again. Once you know that tequila makes your clothes fall off, then kiss it goodbye. It’s better to enter into life without a bottle of Patrón than into Gehenna with all you could ever drink. (And Tequila burns even without being on fire…)
If you can’t walk right and are slurring words, then your brain is shutting down. Same story.
So no hard answers here today, but basically the faster and stronger the drug, the less morally safe it is to use. AND, if one uses any substance for the pleasure of changing his mental state in a way that diminishes its capacity to execute its proper function, as distinct from some some other effect, this too is a red flag… We should not delight in an unnatural state!
All this would make the average consumption of pot pretty bad.