Thursday, December 30, 2010

Unbroken and the problem of evil

I recently finished Laura Hillenbrand’s terrific new book Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini, 1936 Olympian and prisoner of war under the Japanese during WWII. I was compelled to buy a copy after reading an absolutely gripping excerpt in Vanity Fair, which described the harrowing 46 days Zamperini and his fellow airman Russell Phillips spent adrift at sea after their plane went down in the Pacific and before they were picked up by the Japanese. You can read it yourself here. After doing so you might think that a human being could endure no greater suffering than Zamperini and Phillips did as castaways. You would be wrong, as the rest of the book makes clear.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Hume, cosmological arguments, and the fallacy of composition

Both critics and defenders of arguments for the existence of God as an Uncaused Cause often assume that such arguments are essentially concerned to explain the universe considered as a whole. That is true of some versions, but not all. For instance, it is not true of Aquinas’s arguments, at least as many Thomists understand them. For the Thomist, you don’t need to start with something grand like the universe in order to show that God exists. Any old thing will do – a stone, a jar of peanut butter, your left shoe, whatever. The existence of any one of these things even for an instant involves the actualization of potencies here and now, which in turn presupposes the activity of a purely actual actualizer here and now. It involves the conjoining of an essence to an act of existence here and now, which presupposes a sustaining cause whose essence and existence are identical. It involves a union of parts in something composite, which presupposes that which is absolutely simple or incomposite. And so forth. (As always, for the details see Aquinas, especially chapter 3.)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Putting the Cross back into Christmas

It is difficult to be a human being. Illness, injury, death, bereavement, depression, frustrated hopes, unfulfilled dreams, unrequited love, despair, humiliation, hunger, nakedness, want of every kind – the usual illustrations of the problem of evil provide ample evidence of this. The point applies no less to those relatively untouched by such misfortunes. For they are more prone than their fellows to become complacent, superficial, ungrateful, and selfish – an even graver misfortune, and one that tends to lead us into the lesser ones after all. But every human being has his own distinctive moral weaknesses. It is difficult to be a human being because it is difficult to be a good human being – a human being who flourishes, who fulfills the various ends nature has set for us, whether they be our animal ends or our higher, rational and moral ends.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Long Rain

It’s been raining for days and days here in L.A., and I can’t stop thinking of Ray Bradbury’s classic short story “The Long Rain.” Bradbury no doubt gets the physics, geology, and biology of a world of endless rain quite wrong – I don't think he ever claimed to be a hard SF writer – but it’s a terrific story all the same. It’s been filmed a couple of times, once as a segment of the movie version of The Illustrated Man, and once as an episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater. Both versions are well done, but the only one I can find online is the former. (You’ll have to follow the link to “The Illustrated Man (1969) Part 8” at the end for the conclusion. What you see below starts abruptly, but it’s only a couple of minutes into the segment, which begins at the tail end of “Part 6.”)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Haldane on Hawking

John Haldane responds to The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, in the latest issue of First Things.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Heil and Mumford on contemporary academic philosophy

John Heil, from the preface to From an Ontological Point of View (Oxford University Press, 2003):

Philosophy today is often described as a profession. Philosophers have specialized interests and address one another in specialized journals. On the whole, what we do in philosophy is of little interest to anyone without a Ph.D. in the subject. Indeed, subdisciplines within philosophy are often intellectually isolated from one another…

The professionalization of philosophy, together with a depressed academic job market, has led to the interesting idea that success in philosophy should be measured by appropriate professional standards. In practice, this has too often meant that cleverness and technical savvy trump depth. Positions and ideas are dismissed or left unconsidered because they are not comme il faut. Journals are filled with papers exhibiting an impressive level of professional competence, but little in the way of insight, originality, or abiding interest. Non-mainstream, even wildly non-mainstream, conclusions are allowed, even encouraged, provided they come with appropriate technical credentials.

Stephen Mumford, in his contribution to Metaphysics: 5 Questions, edited by Asbjørn Steglich-Petersen (Automatic Press, 2010):

Since philosophy has become professionalized, I think few stones have been left unturned. Rather than subjects being neglected, I think there are more topics that have received too much attention. Most of the journals are filled with material that but a few people will ever read and which I think will not stand the test of time. The problem is that in various ways professional philosophers are obliged to publish, whether they have anything new and substantial to say or not. I would really like to see the journal editors take a lead in this respect and stop publishing papers on the negative basis of them making the fewest errors or fewest controversial claims and start publishing on the positive criterion of them having something important or interesting to say…

I like papers that offer bold new insights but it is all too rare that one finds them. The system of edited, peer-reviewed journals is an inherently conservative one where paradigm-challenging work is very unlikely to be accepted because it threatens the interests of the editor and referees…

I think contemporary philosophy has become too self-congratulatory, with an arrogant self-assurance that the work we are producing is vastly superior to that of the interested amateurs of the past. But has anyone of late produced as fine and appealing a work as Hume’s Treatise or Locke’s Essay? On the contrary, I fear that in future centuries, the current era will be looked upon as a philosophical dark age where very little of interest was authored.

No comment, except to invite comparison with what one might gather about the careerist mentality that prevails in much of “the profession” from Michael Huemer’s sobering advice to aspiring grad students in philosophy. (Here’s your homework assignment: Compare “advancing in the profession,” as that is understood today, and “the love of wisdom,” with reference to the dispute between Socrates and the Sophists.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Even I don’t think it’s THAT good…

I see that a dealer at Amazon is selling the (currently out-of-stock) hardback of The Last Superstition for – wait for it – $999.99. Ridiculous, no? Especially given that several other dealers are pricing it in the bargain basement $150 range (!)

Seriously, what’s the deal? I’ve seen weird prices like this before at Amazon, and I assume that second-hand dealers have some automatic, computerized system for jacking up the price on out-of-stock books. But who’s going to buy a copy of any recent book for a thousand bucks, let alone my little tome? What’s the point of leaving a book listed online at such a ridiculous price? Anyone out there know how this works?

Just to play it safe, though, you might want to have that hardback copy of TLS CGC graded, stick it in a Mylar bag, and store it in a humidity controlled safe deposit box between your copies of Vault of Horror #12 and Amazing Fantasy #15. Meanwhile, the paperback is available for a sane $12.92.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Causal loops, infinite regresses, and information

On a reader’s recommendation, the wife and I took in the 2007 Spanish science fiction movie Timecrimes last weekend. Great flick. It’s a time travel story similar in structure to Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” (which I discussed in a recent post), though the plot is very different. Hector, the movie’s protagonist, spies through his binoculars a woman removing her shirt in the woods beyond his house. After going out to investigate, he comes upon the woman lying naked and motionless, and is then suddenly stabbed in the arm by an attacker whose head is wrapped in bloody bandages. (Since this is a family blog of sorts, I suppose I should alert the unwary viewer lest he be temporarily blinded by the rather bright pair of headlights that appears onscreen a couple of times, and I don’t mean the ones on Hector’s car. Good thing my wife was there to shield my eyes!)

The latest on ID and Thomism

Frank Beckwith kindly reviews my book Aquinas in a lengthy essay in the latest Philosophia Christi. He focuses on the dispute between Thomism and Intelligent Design theory (though those who haven’t read the book should know that it deals with this subject only briefly). In other recent discussion, over at The Huffington Post, John Farrell comments on the conflict between ID theory and Thomism, kindly linking to yours truly. Over at Touchstone, Logan Paul Gage takes issue with the claim that there is any conflict between ID and Thomism, politely disagreeing with yours truly. Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse, though critical of ID, seems completely baffled by yours truly. I’ve got zero interest in getting into another ID vs. Thomism blog war at the moment, so I’ll refrain from commenting. For now.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Kaczor on abortion

Christopher Kaczor’s The Ethics of Abortion is just out from Routledge. David Boonin, author of A Defense of Abortion, calls it “one of the very best book-length defenses of the claim that abortion is morally impermissible.” Natural law theorist J. Budziszewski says that the book “replies to the most difficult objections to the pro-life position, many of which have not been adequately addressed by previous authors.” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews calls it “the most complete, the most penetrating and the most up-to-date set of critiques of the arguments for abortion choice presently available.” Don Marquis, author of the widely anthologized article “Why Abortion is Immoral,” calls it “essential reading.” Check it out.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A is A

The Advaita Vedānta school within Hindu philosophy holds that the self is identical with God. A student of mine recently lamented that too many Westerners who claim to follow this doctrine draw precisely the wrong lesson from it. Instead of freeing themselves from the limitations of their selfish egos and looking at the world from the divine point of view, they deify their selfishness. They bring God down to their level rather than rising up to His level.

Well, that is annoying. The trouble is that startling identity claims have a way of boomeranging. The Vedantist says “You are God!” hoping to shock his listener out of his egotism. The shallow listener thinks “Wow, I am God!” and his egotism is only reinforced. He puts the accent on the “I” rather than on “God.” And why not, if he and God really are identical?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The dreaded causa sui

There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible.

Summa Theologiae I.2.3

If, then, something were its own cause of being, it would be understood to be before it had being – which is impossible…

Summa Contra Gentiles I.22.6

Was Aquinas mistaken? Could something be its own cause? Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow seem to think so. In their recent book The Grand Design, they tell us that “we create [the universe’s] history by our observation, rather than history creating us” and that since we are part of the universe, it follows that “the universe… create[d] itself from nothing.”

I examine their position (and the many things that are wrong with it) in my review of the book for National Review. What is of interest for present purposes is their suggestion that future events can bring about past ones. Could this be a way of making plausible “the dreaded causa sui” (as I seem to recall John Searle once referring to the idea in a lecture)? That is to say, might a thing A possibly cause itself as long as it does so indirectly, by causing some other thing B to exist or occur in the past which in turn causes A?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Plantinga’s ontological argument

Alvin Plantinga famously defends a version of the ontological argument that makes use of the notion of possible worlds. As is typically done, we might think of a “possible world” as a complete way that things might have been. In the actual world I am writing up this blog post, but I could have decided instead to go pour myself a Scotch. (Since it’s still morning, I won’t – I can wait an hour.) So, we might say that there is a possible world more or less like the actual world – Obama is still president, I still teach and write philosophy, and so forth – except that instead of writing up this blog post at this particular moment, I am pouring myself a Scotch. (Naturally there will be some other differences that follow from this one.) We can imagine possible worlds that are even more different or less different in various ways – a possible world where the Allies lost World War II, a possible world in which human beings never existed, a possible world exactly like the actual one except that the book next to me sits a millimeter farther to the right than it actually does, and so forth. Not everything is a possible world, though. There is no possible world where 2 + 2 = 5 or in which squares are round.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Anselm’s ontological argument

The most interesting version of Anselm’s ontological argument goes something like this:

1. God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived.

2. What cannot be thought not to exist is greater than that which can be thought not to exist.

3. So if that than which no greater can be conceived could be thought not to exist, then there could conceivably be something greater still.

4. But it is absurd to say that that there could conceivably be something greater than that than which no greater can be conceived.

5. So that than which no greater can be conceived cannot be thought not to exist.

6. So God cannot be thought not to exist.

7. So God exists.

You cannot properly understand this argument unless you read it in the context of the Platonic-Augustinian tradition that forms its background. Knowing something about the later Scholastic tradition would be very useful too. And that is why modern readers typically do not understand the argument. For example, they often think it is an attempt to “define God into existence,” as if Anselm believed that arbitrarily attaching certain meanings to certain words could tell us something about objective reality. But this is to confuse what Scholastics call a nominal definition – an explanation of the meaning of a word – with what they call a real definition – an explanation of the nature or essence of the objective reality a word refers to. Anselm is ultimately concerned with the latter, not the former. While he no doubt thinks that any reflective language user will agree that the notion of “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” is implicit in his use of the word “God,” the more important point he is driving at is that being that than which nothing greater can be conceived must as a matter of objective fact be of the essence or nature of being divine, just as (to use a stock modern example) being a compound of hydrogen and oxygen is of the essence of water.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reason Papers on Locke

Irfan Khawaja reviews my book Locke and Eric Mack’s John Locke in the latest issue of Reason Papers. From Khawaja’s comments on my book:

A clear and well-written overview and critique of the whole of Locke‘s philosophy…

Much of the latter third of Feser‘s book consists of an eminently clear (though not uncontroversial) summary of the main elements of Locke‘s views on rights, property, consent, revolution, and toleration. Readers familiar with this material will admire the clarity and organization of Feser‘s presentation (even as they look askance at this or that interpretation), and readers unfamiliar with it will get the overview that they need. Likewise, much of the latter part of the book consists of Scholastically inspired critiques of Locke, or discussions of the (genuine) tensions between Locke‘s metaphysics and epistemology, on the one hand, and his political philosophy, on the other. Two of Feser‘s criticisms stand out for their subversive potential: (1) Locke‘s skepticism about our knowledge of real essences undermines what he has to say in defense of natural rights… (2) The defects in Locke‘s theory of personal identity undermine his justification of private property… These criticisms, and others like them, should force us to think more carefully about the relationship between Locke‘s Essay and his political works, and will undoubtedly keep Locke scholars busy for some time.

Feser ends the book… with a provocative chapter on “Locke‘s Contestable Legacy.” One bonus of the discussion is a very interesting (and in my view, correct) application of Locke‘s views to international politics in the post-9/11 world... Feser‘s main point, though, is that taken as a whole, Locke‘s philosophy offers us a package deal of incompatible elements, so that “[t]hose who seek to appropriate Locke‘s legacy today must decide which part of it they value most, for they cannot coherently have it all”... Even if one thinks, as I do, that Feser occasionally lets his Scholastic polemics overshadow his examination of Locke‘s theorizing, he is right to push the reader to some such decision. Whether such a reader will be pushed from Lockeanism to Feser‘s Scholasticism is another matter, but there‘s no question that some pushing is in order, and that Feser‘s Locke does an excellent job at supplying it.

As the kids say, read the whole thing. (Not only for what it says about my book, but also for the review of the always-interesting Eric Mack.) Naturally, Khawaja offers some criticisms. Some are well-taken; some I would take issue with. All are valuable, and I thank him for his kind and very helpful review.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Trojan removal (Updated)

Media reports about the Catholic Church are like the Trojan that infects your computer: At first they seem entirely innocent and straightforward, and by the time you find that they are the opposite, it is too late and serious damage has already been done. The controversy over the pope’s recently publicized statement about condoms is only the latest example: What most people will remember are the initial reports, according to which the pope said that “condoms can be justified in some cases.” That is not what he said, but we will no doubt be hearing for months and years to come not only that he did say it, but also (after this already garbled report gets distorted further and further) that the Catholic Church has in some way softened her teaching on contraception.

I don’t have much to add to what others have already said, but since the misconceptions have already started to appear here at my own blog (in one of the combox discussions down below), it seems I ought to do my small part to expose this urban legend while it is still young. The controversy concerns an answer the pope gave to an interviewer who asked him about his widely discussed comments on AIDS and condoms during his 2009 trip to Africa. You can read his full response here. The crucial passage is the following (with the pope’s words in italics):

[T]he sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.

There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.

[Interviewer's question:] Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?

She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

End of quote. Here, it seems to me, are the points to emphasize:

1. Contraception is not even at issue here (contrary to what one commenter in the combox of another post down below seems to think). Contraception has to do with preventing conception from occurring. What the pope is talking about is the example of a (presumably homosexual) male prostitute who wears a condom so as to avoid infecting his “customer” (also presumably male) with HIV. Conception, and thus contraception, are not even possible in such a case.

2. What the pope is saying is that if a male prostitute happens at least to care enough about his “customer” not to want to infect him with AIDS, perhaps that minimal degree of concern could lead him someday to a more human view of sexuality. That is a psychological observation, not a recommendation or a claim about the ultimate moral character of the actions in question.

3. The pope also criticizes the “fixation” many have on condoms as a means of AIDS prevention, and says that such condom use “is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection” and indeed that it is “not... a real or moral solution” to the problem (my emphasis). In other words, to the extent that the pope speaks directly to the moral side of the issue at all, his remarks point away from the recommendation of condom use.

4. All of this was in any event said in the informal context of an interview, rather than in an official ecclesiastical document such as a papal encyclical, or even in a theological book or article. That means it does not have, and is not meant to have, any binding force at all as official Catholic teaching, and is not even intended as a fully thought out expression of personal theological opinion. It is merely an informal psychological observation with which Catholics are free to agree or disagree.

In short, there is nothing about either the context or the content of the pope’s remarks that in any way modifies Catholic teaching. Anyone who thinks he can now justify condom use by saying “The pope says it’s OK” is deceiving himself.

Further commentary from Janet Smith, Jimmy Akin, Ed Peters, and Fr. Zuhlsdorf.

UPDATE: Some more commentary from Fr. Joseph Fessio, Mark Latkovic, Stephen A. Long, and Anthony McCarthy.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Best of 2010

First Things has very kindly put this blog on their Best Blogs of 2010 list. Thank you!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Review of The Grand Design

People keep asking me what I think of Stephen Hawking’s recent remarks on religion. I refrained from public comment because I was reviewing Hawking’s latest book The Grand Design (co-written with Leonard Mlodinow) for National Review. The review has now appeared, in NR’s November 29 issue. It is available online to NR subscribers, and should be on the newsstands any time now. If you are not a subscriber, please do the good people at NR a favor and pick up a copy.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What counts as a lie?

The standard view within Scholastic natural law theory is that lying is always at least mildly immoral. But (several readers have asked) what counts as a lie? A colleague in the elevator on the way to the office says “Hi, how are you?” You answer “Fine thanks, how about you?” even though you’ve got a headache, a rebellious teenage daughter, and financial problems. Have you just told a lie? While playing cards, you put on your best poker face, and while playing basketball you fake out a player on the other team. Since a lie needn’t be communicated in words, are these lies? What about wearing camouflage during wartime?

None of these counts as a lie, and none of them is immoral. As typically defined by natural law theorists, a lie is willful speech or other communicative behavior contrary to one’s mind. That is to say, one lies when one wills to communicate the message that P when what one really thinks is not-P. But there are two crucial things to note about this definition. First, what counts as “communicating the message that P” depends in part on convention and circumstance, because the significance of words and communicative gestures is determined by convention and can vary with circumstances. Second, lying is not the same thing as deception. One can lie without deceiving someone, and one can deceive someone without lying. With these points in mind, we can see that the examples above do not count as lies. Let’s consider them in order.

Language is conventional. “Cat” refers to cats, not inherently, but only given the conventions of English usage. But these conventions are complex. If someone asks where Tabby ran off to and I say “The cat is on the mat,” I will naturally be understood as asserting that there is a feline on a certain floor rug. But if I’m watching the original Ocean’s 11, point to the screen and say “That is one cool cat!” I will naturally be taken to be referring instead to (say) Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis, Jr. It would be silly for someone to say “You liar! That’s a man, not a cat!” because the conventions of English usage determine that under certain circumstances, “cat” can refer to a hipster rather than a feline. Fictional stories and jokes do not count as lies either, because circumstances make it clear that they are not intended to be taken to communicate what the speaker really thinks is true.

Similarly, given circumstances and the conventions of English usage, utterances like “Fine, thanks” are widely understood to be mere pleasantries, the sort of thing one will say out of politeness however one is actually feeling. In typical circumstances, they are simply not conventionally used to express a meaning like “I am completely free of anxiety, physical pain, or difficulty of any sort.” Hence it is as silly to classify them as “lies” as it is silly to count “There goes one cool cat!” as a lie. Utterances, facial expressions, gestures and other bodily movements which are used to mask one’s intentions in the context of a game are also not lies, precisely because everyone familiar with such games knows that in the context of the game they are not conventionally used to express one’s true thoughts in the first place. Hence, putting on a poker face or faking out an opponent are no more lies than “Fine, thanks” or “Sinatra is a cool cat” are.

Stratagems in war are similar. One may not lie during war, any more than one may lie to the murderer at the door. To fabricate stories about atrocities committed by one’s enemy, for example, is simply to lie, and no more justifiable than falsely accusing a fellow poker player of adultery simply as a way of rattling him. But the use of camouflage, feint attacks, moving troops and equipment around in a deceptive way, and the like, are like putting on a poker face or faking out an opposing player in a basketball game.

This brings us to deception, which, as noted earlier, is not the same as lying even though there is an obvious relationship between them. One typically intends to deceive when lying, but one can lie when one knows no one will be deceived. And one can deceive without telling a lie, for example, by speaking evasively or ambiguously, or by using a broad mental reservation. Suppose a murderer comes to your door looking for you, but does not know what you look like. He asks “Is the guy who lives here home right now?” You answer “Yes, he is. Wait here,” and then close the door and run out the back. You have deceived him, but you haven’t told a lie. And one indication that you haven’t is that if the murderer is quick-witted enough, he could figure out that by “he” you were (truthfully) referring to yourself.

Now, a mental reservation involves restricting the possible meanings of one’s words to some particular meaning that the speaker has in mind but does not explicitly indicate. A “strict mental reservation” involves restricting it in such a way that there is no way the listener could guess what it is you really mean. For example, when someone at work asks “Did you take my stapler?” and you answer “No,” meaning “No, not in the last hour (but I did take it two hours ago),” you’ve used a strict mental reservation. Obviously, a strict mental reservation is really just a kind of lie, because there is no way the average language user could figure out what you really mean.

But a “broad mental reservation” is not a lie. It involves restricting one’s meaning in such a way that the average language user could figure out one’s true meaning, given the conventions of usage and the circumstances, even if he is not likely to do so. Natural law writers typically give as everyday examples a confessor, doctor, lawyer, or secretary answering “No” or “I don’t know” when asked about matters he or she is professionally obliged to keep secret. This is legitimate, because given the context – namely the professional relationship a confessor has to a penitent, a doctor to a patient, a lawyer to a client, or a secretary to an employer – such answers can be understood by any reasonable person to mean “No, I have nothing I can tell you given my obligations to the person you are asking me about.” An accused person can also plead “Not guilty” even if he is guilty, because under the circumstances, everyone knows that what is meant is “Whether or not I committed the crime, I am taking advantage of the right I am afforded under law to plead ‘not guilty.’”

This does not mean that anything goes. Obviously there are many circumstances in which it would be wrong to speak ambiguously, evasively, or with even a broad mental reservation. If someone has a right to the information he is asking from us, we should give it to him without beating around the bush. But if he does not have a right to it, or if some harm would result from our giving it to him then and there, though we may not lie to him, we may nevertheless avoid telling him what he wants to know, via one of the methods in question. As everywhere in human life, there will be borderline cases. But this is no more a problem for the natural law view of lying than it is for any other view.

To some people this all might seem like hair-splitting that is far removed from common sense. But though the jargon and distinctions are to some extent technical, the end result actually follows common sense very closely. The man on the street may not know from “mental reservations,” the “natural end of our communicative faculties,” and the like, but he does know the difference between a joke and a lie, he knows when someone is being evasive precisely so as to avoid lying, and he knows that someone known to have personal troubles who says “Fine, thanks” in the elevator is just being polite and is not a liar. The man on the street also knows that telling the murderer at the door “The guy you’re looking for is not here,” and telling children that Santa Claus is real, are lies. True, he will likely go on to say that they are “white lies,” but that is a different issue; whatever he thinks of the ethics of lying, he knows what a lie is. (In this connection, it is not the Scholastic, but rather those who propose redefinitions of lying like “A lie is a falsehood told to someone who has a right to the truth,” who are at odds with common sense, at least where the definition of what a lie is is concerned.)

There is also a theological consideration which Christian readers, at least, should keep in mind before dismissing the distinctions made above as so much Jesuitical pedantry. Consider the following biblical syllogism:

1. God cannot lie (Titus 1:2)

2. Jesus Christ is God (John 1:1), therefore

3. Jesus Christ cannot lie.

I submit that (3) is something every Christian should affirm. If we affirm it, though, we also have to consider that there were circumstances in which Christ spoke in a very indirect way (Matthew 13: 10-13) and also cases where he appears to have used a broad mental reservation (John 7:8; Matthew 9:24). It follows that there must be a middle ground between speaking the truth in a completely straightforward and unambiguous way on the one hand, and lying on the other. And that middle ground is just what the natural law theorist intends to clarify with the distinctions made above. For those Protestants insistent on having some biblical warrant for every aspect of Christian morality, there you have it.

Some Catholic readers might nevertheless object to what has been said, noting that there have been Catholic theologians who have defended the practice of deliberately telling falsehoods in cases like the “murderer at the door” example, on the grounds that the person spoken to in such a circumstance does not have a right to the truth. Sometimes this position is presented as a defense of lying under certain circumstances. But sometimes (and as I noted a moment ago) it is presented as an alternative way to define a “lie” – falsehoods like the one in question, it is suggested, shouldn’t count. Now it is true that there has been debate on this matter in the history of the Church, especially in early centuries. (See the article on lying in the Catholic Encyclopedia for an overview.) But as I noted in my previous post on this subject, there are such serious problems with proposals of this sort that Scholastic natural law theorists and orthodox theologians have for centuries now tended to reject them. The more “hard-line” view associated with Augustine and Aquinas has, as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “generally been followed in the Western Church, and it has been defended as the common opinion by the Schoolmen and by modern divines.” As the Catholic Encyclopedia article on mental reservation sums up the now standard view, “according to the common Catholic teaching it is never allowable to tell a lie, not even to save human life.”

The Magisterium of the Church seems recently to have reaffirmed this position, at least by implication. As theologian Mark Latkovic has noted:

Catholic moral theologian Germain Grisez has observed: “Although most Catholic theologians have considered the prohibition of lying a moral absolute, there is a lesser but significant school of thought holding that lying sometimes can be justified, particularly when it is a question of lying to an enemy, who has no right to the truth, in order to protect the innocent from harm” (“The Way of the Lord Jesus,” vol. 2, Franciscan Press, 1993, p. 406).

These two ways of thinking are reflected in the editorial process involving paragraph 2483 of the Catechism, which was revised for the book’s second edition. The earlier (1994) edition stated that to lie is “to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has a right to know the truth” (2483, emphasis added). This definition, reflecting what Grisez calls the “lesser but significant school of thought,” stems from the teaching of the 17th-century Protestant writer Hugo Grotius.

After the publication of the Catechism, many Catholic scholars wrote to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) about this paragraph. They asked for rectification of the text, which had abandoned centuries of Catholic teaching by accepting the position of Grotius. Fortunately, the paragraph was revised; the 1997 edition eliminates the words “who has a right to know the truth” (see also 2484).

The obvious implication is that the Church does not wish officially to move away from the traditional theological position that whether the listener has a right to the truth is irrelevant to whether something counts as a lie.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The murderer at the door

We’ve been discussing (here and here) the classical natural law theorist’s claim that lying is always wrong. The classic problem case for this sort of view is as follows: A murderer comes to your door demanding to know where he can find his intended victim, who happens to be hiding in your home. Would it be wrong to lie to him? The natural law theorist holds that it would be. Some readers of my earlier posts on this subject reject the natural law position for that reason. Others do not, but are uncomfortable having to swallow something they take to be highly counterintuitive. Both are relying on their moral intuitions. I have explained in an earlier post why I think appealing to intuitions is bad philosophical methodology. I want to say a few things in this post about why the specific moral intuitions at issue in the present discussion should not be trusted.

First, let me clear away some misunderstandings that are no doubt at least part of the reason some people find the view in question counterintuitive. The natural law theorist is NOT saying that you are obliged to tell the murderer where his intended victim is. In fact you are obliged not to tell him. The claim is rather that it is wrong to resort to lying, specifically, as a way of avoiding telling him. You could instead say nothing, or try to distract him, or say something that is vague or ambiguous or subtly off-topic but not untrue. You could threaten him, since he is himself threatening someone under your protection. Indeed, you can do more than threaten him if you are certain that his attempt at murder is imminent. You can punch his lights out, or even kill him if that is the only way to save your own life or that of the person you are hiding. This would be self-defense, and thus not murder. There is no question whatsoever here of your having a duty to sit back and let him do what he wants. The claim is only that it would be wrong to lie. And even if you did lie to him, the claim is not that you would have done something seriously wrong. You would be guilty of at most a venial sin, given the circumstances. So, things are hardly as dire as critics of the view might think.

Of course, many find it counterintuitive to hold that there would be even a slight moral failing in telling such a lie. But the classical natural law theorist has given a reason for thinking there is. As Aquinas says, the basic trouble with lying is that it is a kind of perversity. It takes what has as its inherent, natural end the communication of what is really in one’s mind -- speech and related behavior -- and deliberately turns it to the opposite of that end. The teaching about lying is therefore just a straightforward application of the more general moral system. For the natural law theorist has a worked-out theory of the good, grounded in a sophisticated metaphysics (classical essentialism), that explains why such an action must of necessity be bad (even if not always seriously bad). He argues that unless we accept some such account of the good, no account of goodness as an objective feature of the world, and thus no foundation for morality, would be possible at all. (See chapter 5 of Aquinas, chapter 4 of The Last Superstition, or the first half of “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation” for the rundown.) He also claims that something like the metaphysics that leads to this account of the good is rationally unavoidable in any event. (Again, see the relevant chapters in Aquinas and The Last Superstition.) Then there is the fact that in general, natural law theory conforms to traditional morality, and thus to the common sense of most human beings historically. (Of course it does not conform to the intuitions of contemporary liberal Western academics. But relative to what most human beings think and have thought historically, their intuitions are highly idiosyncratic.) Merely to say that one finds some one small part of natural law theory counterintuitive hardly outweighs all of this.

And we should expect even strong intuitions occasionally to be mistaken. As I argued in the earlier post on intuition linked to above, intuition is only ever a rough and ready guide at best. For example, in general we reason logically, which is why when we begin the study of logic we find that it consists largely in the codification of principles we had already been following implicitly. But even the best common sense reasoning is still rough around the edges, and there are some pitfalls we are prone to if we are not careful. That is why the study of logic is necessary, and why there are such things as fallacies – patterns of reasoning that are bad but which can seem to untutored common sense not to be bad. So, while it is true that from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, philosophical theory should never depart wholesale from common sense, this claim is itself something we know only as a result of philosophical theory, and that same theory tells us that common sense nevertheless needs here and there to be corrected. There is no reason to think that ethics is any different from logic in this respect.

Indeed, there are other cases where the moral intuitions even of religious and traditionally-minded people depart from what we know from natural law theory to be true. Common sense tells us that stealing is wrong, and common sense is right about that. Our intuitions reflect an inchoate understanding that private property is something good for us given our nature. But the concrete details of how a system of private property works out in actual human societies are not natural, but conventional and highly contingent. It requires intellectual effort to determine exactly what the natural law strictly requires of us vis-à-vis private property, what it recommends as best for us when possible but doesn’t strictly require, and what it leaves entirely open to custom and human law. Common sense tracks some of these nuances, but not all of them. It tells us, for example, that the starving man who takes food from a cabin in the woods has done nothing wrong. But it also often nevertheless counts this as “stealing,” which it is not, because (as the natural law theorist argues) the right that the natural law gives us over our property cannot, given its function in the overall moral system, possibly be so strong as to rule out this sort of thing. The owner of the cabin has a property right in his food, but not a right that is so absolute that it would be theft to take it under emergency circumstances of the sort in question. Because of this fuzziness in our intuitions, the starving man might feel guilty, though there is no reason for him to do so. The fuzziness can also lead to extreme positions on the part of those who think they are being “consistent” about treating property rights as natural rights grounded in natural law, such as Rothbardian libertarians (who would regard the cabin scenario as theft, and thus unjust). They are not being consistent, but simplistic and muddleheaded, because the very natural law considerations that ground the institution of private property also entail certain limits on it. (See the article on property rights linked to above for the details.)

Consider also that the intuition that lying to the murderer would not be even mildly wrong is itself historically and culturally contingent. We live in an age permeated by consequentialist thinking – so much so that even the most conservative and religious of people can convince themselves that deliberately incinerating tens of thousands of innocent people is justifiable “for the greater good,” and indeed a paradigm of moral courage. It is no surprise that in such a cultural context, lying to the murderer at the door should seem devoid of even the slightest moral stain. But other ages had other paradigms. For example:

St. Anthimus, Bishop of Nicomedia, would not allow the soldiers who were sent to arrest him, and who were enjoying his hospitality, to save him by a lie; he preferred to suffer martyrdom.

St. Firmus, Bishop of Tagasta, concealed in his house two young men, whom the emperor had unjustly condemned to death. The officers of justice came to the bishop, and demanded to be told where the young men were hidden. The prelate refused to answer; he was put to torture, but this availed nothing: “I can die,” he said, “but I cannot make others miserable.” The emperor hearing of his heroic conduct, pardoned the young men.

(Quoted from Rev. Francis Spirago, The Catechism Explained: An Exhaustive Explanation of the Catholic Religion, pp. 410-11.)

I have noted before that one finds the view that lying is intrinsically immoral defended by thinkers as different in cultural context and philosophical orientation as Aristotle and Kant. Augustine and (as we've seen) Aquinas were also uncompromising, and while there was some debate about the matter in the early Church, the view that lying is always and intrinsically immoral has been the standard view in Roman Catholic moral theology for centuries. Those to whom it seems intuitively obvious that lying to the murderer at the door would not be even slightly morally problematic should consider the possibility that their intuitions reflect their contingent cultural circumstances more than they do any innate moral understanding.

Finally, anyone who claims that it would not be even mildly immoral to lie to the murderer needs to provide some alternative account which both explains why lying is wrong in other cases but does not forbid it in the case at hand. And there are serious problems with such accounts. For example, it is sometimes suggested that it is wrong to lie only when the person lied to has a right to know the truth, which the murderer at the door does not. One problem with this suggestion is that it fails to capture what is wrong with lying per se. For we can fail to respect someone’s right to know the truth even when we don’t lie – for example, when we simply keep silent when someone who has a right to certain information from us asks for it. The view would also have the absurd implication that we can freely tell falsehoods not only to murderers, but also to innocent people who happen not to have a right to know certain truths. For example, it would entail that when there are certain secrets that a government has a right to keep from its citizens (about sensitive military operations, say), the government may not only refrain from revealing them to the citizens, but even tell outright falsehoods instead. It would entail that parents could tell falsehoods to their children, rather than merely keeping silent, about matters they are too young to understand. It would entail that rather than merely keeping silent, we can tell falsehoods to other adults about private matters we have no obligation to inform them about. It would entail that God might tell us nothing but falsehoods, since we have no rights against Him – contrary to the Thomistic view (defended in the post just linked to) that God can only ever will what is good for us, despite His not being obligated to us in any way. (Which brings to mind a further consideration: If even God cannot lie – as St. Paul famously affirms in Titus 1:2 – then where do we get off thinking that we may sometimes do so? Job 13:7 indicates that it would be wrong to lie even for the purpose of defending God’s honor.)

In short, I would say that the natural law position that lying is intrinsically wrong has powerful arguments in its favor, and when rightly understood is not as counterintuitive as it might seem. (Nor have I by any means exhausted the subject here. Natural law theorists have had much to say about the legitimacy in many contexts of broad mental reservations, evasiveness, stratagems during wartime, and the like.) Meanwhile, the alternative view has no good arguments in its favor, and is at best supported by culturally contingent and fallible intuitions. Thus, it poses no serious challenge to the natural law position. If there is a conflict between that position and our intuitions, it is the intuitions that have to go.

Monday, November 8, 2010

There is no Santa clause

What do the figures at left all have in common? None of them exists. Nor would any parent ever tell his child that Superman or Batman is real. Yet some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real. Perhaps some also tell them that the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy is real.

They shouldn’t. These are lies. Parents who do this certainly mean well, but they do not do well, because lying is always wrong. Not always gravely wrong, to be sure, but still wrong. That is bad enough. But there is also the bad lesson that children are apt to derive from this practice, even if the parents do not intend to teach it – namely, the immoral principle that lying is acceptable if it leads to good consequences. There is also the damage done to a child’s trust in his parents’ word. “What else might they be lying about? What about all this religion stuff?”

This issue came up in the comments section of my recent post on lying, and I decided that it was important enough to address in a separate post. My more secular readers might not find it worth the attention. But the reason might be that they think that I am obviously right. Ironically, it is (I suspect) more religious and traditionally-minded people who are most likely to tell this sort of lie. Certainly there are many religious people who do it.

I would urge them to stop. A child is completely dependent on his parents’ word for his knowledge of the world, of right and wrong, and of God and religious matters generally. He looks up to them as the closest thing he knows to an infallible authority. What must it do to a child’s spirit when he finds out that something his parents insisted was true – something not only important to him but integrally tied to his religion insofar as it is related to Christmas and his observance of it – was a lie? Especially if the parents repeated the lie over the course of several years, took pains to make it convincing (eating the cookies left out for “Santa” etc.), and (as some parents do) reassured the child of its truth after he first expressed doubts? How important, how comforting, it is for a child to be able to believe: Whatever other people do, Mom and Dad will never lie to me. How heartbreaking for him to find out he was wrong!

To quote Fr. Thomas Higgins’ once widely-used textbook, Man as Man: The Science and Art of Ethics:

Certainly harmful truth might be withheld from children, but not by lying. They may not be told falsehoods which from the force of one’s words they will rightly take to be true. A child can distinguish between fable and fact. When we purport to tell him things “for real” he does not expect a fairy tale. An example in point is the Santa Claus legend. We obtrude the story upon his belief, insisting that we are not weaving tales and commanding his acceptance – it is nothing but lying. One’s intent is innocent enough, but this is a fair example of the end justifying the means. This conclusion will seem strange to American people. It will be said that we are so used to this story; our own mothers told it to us, it is surrounded by an aura of the happiest recollections. Yet it is speech contrary to one’s mind. God has never and cannot so act toward man, deluding him into accepting fiction for fact. It is a wrong way to discipline young minds – eliciting good behavior by falsehood. The motive of the good should only be the true. Because of this experience, it is difficult for the young to avoid the implicit conclusion that a lie in a good cause is legitimate. For some, the awakening is a cruel disillusionment; thereafter they will be wary of the things that are told them by those whose words should be sacred. (pp. 321-22)

The natural law tells us, and the Church has always taught, that lying is intrinsically wrong. There is no clause that says “…but it is OK when you’re lying to your kids about Santa!”

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Is it wrong to lie to HAL?

While it’s still 2010, let’s talk about 2010. I had occasion to watch it recently, and while it’s not as good as 2001, it’s still a pretty good movie (despite its naïve 80s-liberal “Can’t we all just get along?” take on the Cold War). There’s a great scene in it where Dr. Chandra, who has been told to lie to HAL (the computer that famously went rogue in 2001 but is rebooted in 2010), wrestles with his conscience before finally deciding to tell HAL the truth. Would it have been wrong for him to do otherwise?

From the point of view of classical natural law theory, lying is always intrinsically wrong. For as Aquinas argues, it is directly contrary to the natural end of our communicative faculties, which is to convey what is really in our minds. These days, the view that lying is inherently wrong is often considered eccentric or even mad, but historically it is not uncommon. One finds it in Aristotle, for example, and in Kant. And while I would not go so far as to say that no rational person could doubt it, I would suggest that it is only in a culture as morally and intellectually rotted out as ours is by anti-essentialist and consequentialist thinking that it could seem (as it does to many people today) too bizarre to take seriously. Historically, most cultures have understood that what is good for us is in some way determined by the ends nature has set for our various capacities, and (accordingly) that some things are intrinsically wrong because they are contrary to those ends. And that is why the view that lying is inherently immoral is historically not uncommon. While there have always been those who doubted it, most people historically could at least understand why lying might seem to be inherently bad.

It is also important to be precise about what the view actually is. The claim is not that we must always tell others what is really on our minds. We can (and sometimes should) keep silent, or change the subject, or attempt to distract our listener, or in some other way avoid saying what we really think. We can joke, or act in a play or motion picture, because it is generally understood that the words we speak in such contexts do not even purport to express our actual thoughts. We can use expressions that might in a literal sense seem to be falsehoods but which have as a matter of convention come to be used in a non-literal euphemistic way. (For example, “He’s not in,” as spoken by a secretary, is generally understood to be a polite way of saying that whether the person in question is really there or not, he does not want to take any calls or visitors. “I like your new dress!” is generally understood to be the sort of thing one might say out of politeness even if one does not like the dress in question. And so forth.) Related to this, it is not necessarily wrong to speak with a mental reservation – for example, to use words generally understood to be ambiguous so that the listener could plausibly determine what is truly meant, though the speaker knows that the listener will probably take them another way. Finally, not every lie is gravely immoral; in Catholic terms, lying is not always a mortal sin, even when done with sufficient knowledge and deliberation. Context and subject matter are relevant to its gravity.

Still, an actual lie – deliberately speaking or otherwise communicating in a way that is unambiguously contrary to what one really thinks – is always at least mildly immoral. Classical natural law theory does not say we must never use a natural capacity other than for its natural end, or even, necessarily, that we must use it at all. But it does say that we cannot use it while at the same time frustrating its natural end. And that is what lying involves insofar as it entails using speech in its communicative capacity while deliberately frustrating the natural end of communication. (I won’t get into the general case for classical natural law theory here. See Aquinas, especially chapter 5, for the general theory; The Last Superstition, especially chapter 4, for application to the topic of sexual morality; and my article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation” for application to issues related to private property. The first half of the latter article also contains a sketch of the general theory, though the metaphysical background is more fully presented in the books.)

To return to our original question, then, would Dr. Chandra have done something immoral in lying to HAL? Given what has just been said, the answer might seem obvious: If he deliberately told HAL something he knew to be false, he would have been frustrating the natural end of communicative speech and thus acting immorally. But things are not quite that simple. For communication is of its nature interpersonal. As natural law theorists who write on this subject like to put it, you can’t lie to your dog even if you intentionally say something false to him. So, while it is true that Dr. Chandra would have been doing something immoral had he lied to HAL, it is another question whether he really could have lied to HAL even if he had tried to. For that would be possible only if HAL is a person. Is he?

Naturally, someone who accepts the computationalist conception of the mind might say that HAL is a person. But I would say that he is not. This is in part for Aristotelian-Thomistic reasons. A person is an individual substance of a rational nature, and artifacts are not substances in the strict sense. Furthermore, rationality entails immateriality. Therefore, HAL, being (like any other machine) entirely material, could not be rational; and being an artifact and thus not a true substance, could not possibly be a person. (Obviously this is just a summary; see chapter 4 of Aquinas for the details.) There are also the arguments against the computer model of the mind advanced by Hubert Dreyfus and John Searle, which I regard as decisive. Particularly important is the argument of Searle’s paper “Is the Brain a Digital Computer?”, which is less well-known than his famous Chinese Room argument but more fundamental and devastating. (It can also be found in chapter 7 of his book The Rediscovery of the Mind.)

Obviously this is a large issue, and there’s no way I’m going to settle it here. But if HAL is indeed not a person at all, but only a device which mimics the speech behavior of a person, then even if Dr. Chandra had intentionally said something false to HAL he would not have been lying. His actions would have been analogous to those of someone who, just for fun, uses the voice command “Two plus two is five” to activate an alarm system. Hence, Chandra should have had no qualms about “lying” to HAL, because he would not have been truly lying at all.

It is interesting, though – and, I think, telling – that the makers of the film thought, quite rightly, that this plot point had dramatic interest. Arthur C. Clarke (the author of the 2001 and 2010 novels) certainly had no theological or natural law ax to grind, and surely neither did the filmmakers. And yet they clearly intended for their audience to take Dr. Chandra’s moral dilemma seriously. Whatever we might say, Chandra regards HAL as a person who “deserves” to hear the truth: “Whether we are based on carbon or silicon makes no fundamental difference, we should each be treated with appropriate respect!” We’re not supposed to think: “Oh come on, even so, it’s obvious what Chandra needs to do. The lives of the crew are at stake. And HAL is likely to be destroyed anyway, so it’s better for him too if he thinks otherwise, for his own peace of mind. Consider the consequences of telling him the truth! What is Chandra, some kind of reactionary natural law absolutist?” Rather, we’re supposed at least to understand why Dr. Chandra feels uneasy lying, and indeed to regard his ultimate decision to tell HAL the truth as noble.

It would seem, then, that at least some among the liberal and secular audiences to whom a movie like 2010 is meant to appeal, who would likely scoff at the natural law position on lying as extreme and bizarre, nevertheless find themselves in sympathy with something like it when it is presented in a fictional context. However we might try to cover it over with some consciously articulated revisionist moral theory, our unconscious, inchoate grasp of the natural law can seep through in unexpected ways.

(This cognitive dissonance vis-à-vis what liberal audiences like to see in their fictional heroes but criticize in real human beings is something I’ve addressed before, in a post on Watchmen. I previously discussed the metaphysical issues raised by science fiction movies in a post on The Fly.)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Monday, November 1, 2010

Chastek and Coffey contra Kant

My recent post on Kant concerns an Aristotelian-Thomistic objection to Kantian ethics. I offer some criticisms of Kantian epistemology and metaphysics in The Last Superstition, and of Kantian objections to cosmological arguments for God’s existence in Aquinas. Today James Chastek helpfully spells out some further, more general objections Thomists have to Kant’s epistemology and metaphysics. Go take a look. Chastek recommends Oliva Blanchette’s Philosophy of Being as further reading. Another place to look for a detailed Scholastic take on Kant is Coffey’s Epistemology, which addresses the subject at length both in Volume 1 and in Volume 2.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The catastrophic spider

Immanuel Kant, this great destroyer in the realm of thought, exceeded Maximilian Robespierre in terrorism.

Heinrich Heine, Concerning the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany

Kant… This catastrophic spider…

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist

Taken as a whole, the Kantian influence on modern Christianity is so deep and pervasive that I believe in makes sense to speak of three great periods of Christian theology, each associated with a dominant philosopher. (1) The first period is the Platonic or Neoplatonic Christianity of the early church fathers; (2) The second is the Aristotelian Christianity of medieval or Scholastic theology; (3) and the third is the Kantian Christianity of the modern age …

As I see it, the validity of the new synthesis depends entirely on one issue: the ability to control Kant, to keep ‘Kant-in-a-box,’ as it were. For pure Kantianism is incompatible with Christianity… [I]f a Kantian conception of autonomy prevails, then God has become the servant of modern humanism and the synthesis is invalid.

Robert P. Kraynak, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy

As I noted in my recent post on God and obligation, from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, God only ever wills in accordance with reason and thus, given that reason is of its nature directed towards the good, only ever wills what is good. But He does so, not in obedience to a law outside Himself, but rather in accordance with His own nature. For He does not “have” rationality or goodness; rather, He is His infinite Intellect, He is perfect Goodness. To use the language central to Kant’s ethics, you might say that He is “autonomous,” that He is a “self-legislator” – that He follows no law save that which is dictated by His own rational nature.

But of course, Kant himself applies these concepts to us. We must in his view be “autonomous” if we are to be truly free – not lawless, to be sure, but not “heteronomous” either, not bound by a law external to us. Rather, we must be “self-legislators,” bound only by a law that is somehow of our own making. Kant also famously describes us as “ends in ourselves,” and holds that a truly moral community is one whose members strive to create a “kingdom of ends,” an order in which all are treated as self-legislating ends in themselves.

These ideas have been enormously influential. They inform the egalitarian liberalism of John Rawls, the libertarianism of Robert Nozick, and even the conservatism of Roger Scruton. As Kraynak emphasizes, they have also permeated contemporary Catholic and Protestant thought. Modern people of all political and religious persuasions have come to see “respect for persons,” “human rights,” “human dignity,””freedom,” and the like – rather than, say, submission to the natural law or to the will of God – as the fundamental categories in terms of which to address moral and political issues. To this extent, “We are all Kantians now.”

But from a traditional Christian point of view, and from a Thomistic point of view, there is something more than a little blasphemous in all of this. For classical natural law theory – the kind which grounds morality in human nature as understood in terms of a classical essentialist (Platonic, Aristotelian, or Scholastic) metaphysics – it is hard to see how human beings could intelligibly be described as “self-legislators” or “autonomous.” In no sense are we the source of the nature that determines our ends, including the end of reason itself; God alone is that. Hence nature, and ultimately God – rather than the individual reason of the moral agent – are what ground the content and obligatory force of the moral law. As Aquinas says:

In this way God Himself is the measure of all beings… Hence His intellect is the measure of all knowledge; His goodness, of all goodness; and, to speak more to the point, His good will, of every good will. Every good will is therefore good by reason of its being conformed to the divine good will. Accordingly, since everyone is obliged to have a good will, he is likewise obliged to have a will conformed to the divine will. (QDV 23.7)

Or as Someone once put it, “Not my will, but Thine, be done.” If that is heteronomy, so much the worse for Kantian autonomy.

The “ends in themselves” talk is no less suspect. Aquinas explicitly considers the question of whether “man himself were his own last end,” and answers that “man's last end is something outside of him, to wit, God” (ST I-II.3.5) since “all things are ordered to one good as their end, and that is God” (SCG III.17.6, emphasis added). Given the metaphysics underlying classical natural law theory, describing man as an “end in himself” is, like the idea of man as “self-legislator,” simply unintelligible. Of course, that same metaphysics informs the classical theist conception of God that we have recently been exploring in a series of posts, and it is precisely what makes it the case that such talk is intelligible when applied to God, and to God alone.

Thus, the abandonment of that metaphysics has resulted not only in an anthropomorphizing of God, bringing Him closer to man’s level – the classical theist’s complaint against theistic personalism – but also in a deification of man, raising him to the level of God. Modern people like to think that the first of the Ten Commandments is the one no one breaks anymore; after all, when is the last time you saw someone bow down to an idol? But we are blindest to the sins we are most in thrall to. Idolatry is in fact the defining sin of modernity, and it is all the worse for being directed at man. The ancient pagan at least knew enough to worship something higher than himself.

For this reason it is a grave error to think that the only problem with Kantian “self-legislator” and “ends in themselves” talk is that, absent the sort of moral standards that were taken for granted in Kant’s own time, it has a tendency to degenerate into a kind of libertinism. If you honor your parents, you do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not lie, and do not covet, you do well. You will have fulfilled what Christ called the second commandment – to love one’s neighbor. But you will not have fulfilled the first and greatest – to love God above all things. And if the reason you obey the second is precisely to honor man as an end in himself, you are in danger of violating the first and greatest. Kant himself was, of course, a very austere man; he would have been absolutely horrified at what liberals and libertarians now defend in the name of “autonomy.” Accordingly, the original sin of Kantianism is not abortion, fornication, dope smoking or the like. It is, rather, the codification of modern man’s blasphemous self-obsession, the raising of “It’s all about me” to a moral first principle. And the blasphemy is only heightened, not lessened, if the only reason the blasphemer refrains from the sins in question is that he thinks them incompatible with his pathological self-regard.

To be clear, I am not saying that anyone who uses Kantian language is guilty of blasphemy. As Kraynak emphasizes, Christian thinkers who have made use of it often transform it in the process, so as to make it compatible with Christian theology and natural law. But Kraynak is also keen to emphasize, quite rightly in my view, that the emphasis modern Christians often put on the Kantian moral categories is unwise. At its best, it is little more than a marketing gimmick, an attempt to “sell” traditional morality to the citizens of modern, liberal, secularized societies by showing them that it follows from premises to which they are already committed. And it rarely if ever works, because modern secular liberals are well aware that orthodox Christians and traditionalists do not interpret the premises in question the same way they do. Chanting “human dignity” and “respect for persons” like mantras is not going to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you to oppose abortion, euthanasia, pornography, and the like, precisely because human dignity and respect for persons are themselves highly contested concepts. What you need to do is to show exactly how the practices in question are incompatible with human dignity, and that means (I would argue) getting into precisely the sorts of classical natural law considerations one had hoped to be able to sidestep. There are no shortcuts. But then the “human dignity” and “respect for persons” stuff falls away as otiose.

At its worst, use of the Kantian categories can seriously distort our understanding of what natural law theory and Christian teaching actually entail, even when applied by otherwise traditionally-minded thinkers. To take just one example, “new natural law” theorists, who have a reputation for upholding Catholic orthodoxy and who have done admirable work in defending traditional sexual morality and opposing abortion and euthanasia, have also in recent years tended toward the view that capital punishment is unjust even in principle. This not only goes beyond anything the Catholic Church has ever taught, but (as I have argued elsewhere) is simply incompatible with both Catholic teaching and classical natural law theory. But (as I also argue in the piece linked to) it is not entirely unsurprising that they should reach such a conclusion given that, like Kant, they eschew any appeal to human nature understood in terms of essentialist metaphysics and instead ground their position in a theory of practical reason that puts the ends of the moral agent himself (rather than the ends set for us by nature or the will of God) in the driver’s seat.

Nietzsche famously characterized Kant as a “catastrophic spider” because he took him to have insinuated an essentially Christian morality into the secular German philosophical tradition. The truth is that he insinuated an essentially un-Christian morality into the Christian tradition, and into Western civilization as a whole. Rather than appropriating this work, conservatives and Christians should strive to undo it. Kraynak is right, we need to keep Kant in a box. A pine box, with a stake through his heart.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

God, obligation, and the Euthyphro dilemma

Does God have obligations to us? No, He doesn’t. But doesn’t that entail that He could do just any old thing to us? No, it doesn’t. But how can that be? To see how, consider first another, related false dilemma: the famous Euthyphro problem.

The Euthyphro dilemma goes like this: God commands us to do what is good. But is something good simply because God commands it, or does He command it because it is already good? If we take the first option, then it seems we are committed to the possibility that God could make it good for us to torture babies just for fun, simply by commanding it. If we take the second option, then it seems we are committed to saying that there is a standard of goodness independent of God, to which He refers us when He commands. Neither option seems a good one from the point of view of theism. The first makes morality arbitrary, and the claim that God is good completely trivial. The second conflicts with the core theistic claims that God is the ultimate cause of all things, and in particular the source of all goodness. So, we have a problem, right?

Actually, we don’t, because the dilemma is a false one – certainly from the point of view of Thomism, for reasons I explain in Aquinas. As with all the other supposedly big, bad objections to theism, this one rests on caricature, and a failure to make crucial distinctions. First of all, we need to distinguish the issue of the content of moral obligations from the issue of what gives them their obligatory force. Divine command is relevant to the second issue, but not the first. Second, it is an error to think that tying morality in any way to divine commands must make it to that extent arbitrary, a product of capricious divine fiat. That might be so if we think of divine commands in terms of Ockham’s voluntarism and nominalism, but not if, following Aquinas, we hold that will follows upon intellect, so that God always acts in accordance with reason. Third, that does not entail that what determines the content of morality and God’s rationale for commanding as He does is in any way independent of Him.

The actual situation, then, is this. What is good or bad for us is determined by the ends set for us by our nature, and given the essentialist metaphysics Aquinas is committed to, that means that there are certain things that are good or bad for us absolutely, which even God could not change (since God’s power does not extend to doing what is self-contradictory). Now God, given the perfection of His intellect, can in principle only ever command in accordance with reason, and thus God could never command us to do what is bad for us. Hence the first horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is ruled out: God can never command us to torture babies for fun, because torturing babies for fun is the sort of thing that, given our nature, can never in principle be good for us. But the essences that determine the ends of things – our ends, and for that matter the end of reason too as inherently directed toward the true and the good – do not exist independently of God. Rather, given the Scholastic realist understanding of universals, they pre-exist in the divine intellect as the ideas or archetypes by reference to which God creates. Hence the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is also ruled out.

Keep in mind also that, as I noted in my post on Law’s “evil-god challenge,” the metaphysics underlying the arguments for classical theism lead to the conclusion that God is not one good thing among others but rather Goodness Itself. Given divine simplicity, that means that what we think of as the distinctive goodness of a human being, the distinctive goodness of a tree, the distinctive goodness of a fish, and so on – each associated with a distinct essence – all exist in an undifferentiated way in the Goodness that is God. As I put it an earlier post, “in creation, that which is unlimited and perfect in God comes to exist in a limited and imperfect way in the natural order… The divine ideas according to which God creates are therefore to be understood as the divine intellect’s grasp of the diverse ways in which the divine essence might be imitated in a limited and imperfect fashion by created things.”

Divine simplicity also entails, of course, that God’s will just is God’s goodness which just is His immutable and necessary existence. That means that what is objectively good and what God wills for us as morally obligatory are really the same thing considered under different descriptions, and that neither could have been other than they are. There can be no question then, either of God’s having arbitrarily commanded something different for us (torturing babies for fun, or whatever) or of there being a standard of goodness apart from Him. Again, the Euthyphro dilemma is a false one; the third option that it fails to consider is that what is morally obligatory is what God commands in accordance with a non-arbitrary and unchanging standard of goodness that is not independent of Him. (As Eleonore Stump points out in her book on Aquinas, its role in resolving the Euthyphro dilemma is one reason theists should take seriously Aquinas’s doctrine of divine simplicity.)

Now, let us return to the question of whether God has obligations to us. To be obliged is to be subject to a law, where, as Aquinas says, “a law is imposed on others by way of a rule and measure” (ST I-II.90.4). Moreover, “the law must needs regard principally the relationship to happiness,” that is to say, the realization of what is good for those under it (ST I-II.90.2). But God has no superior who might impose any law or obligation on Him, there is no good He needs to realize since He is already Goodness Itself and therefore already possesses supreme Beatitude, and there is accordingly no rule or measure outside Him against which His actions might be evaluated. He is not under the moral law precisely because He is the moral law. “[A]ll that is in things created by God, whether it be contingent or necessary, is subject to the eternal law: while things pertaining to the Divine Nature or Essence are not subject to the eternal law, but are the eternal law itself” (ST I-II.93.4, emphasis added).

But to understand what this means is precisely to understand that God can only ever will what is good for us. For as noted above, God can only ever will in accordance with reason, and it would be perverse and irrational to will to create some thing without willing what is by its nature good for that thing. If “nature does nothing in vain” (Aristotle, De Anima III.9 432b21), then neither does God, the Author of nature. He allows evil, but only because He can draw good out of it (ST I.2.3). Thus, Aquinas, says, “as ‘it belongs to the best to produce the best,’ it is not fitting that the supreme goodness of God should produce things without giving them their perfection. Now a thing's ultimate perfection consists in the attainment of its end. Therefore it belongs to the Divine goodness, as it brought things into existence, so to lead them to their end.” (ST I.103.1)

In this way God loves us and loves us perfectly, because to love is to will another’s good, and God cannot fail to will what is good for us. Since moral goodness concerns the will, it follows that God is morally good, and perfectly so. But His moral goodness is not like ours, since it does not involve fulfilling obligations, acquiring virtues, or the like. Contrary to what some theistic personalists seem to think, that does not make His moral goodness somehow inferior to ours. It makes it infinitely superior.