instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Understanding of Moral Acts for Adults

The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults offers a take on the three elements characterizing moral acts that may be a bit easier to grasp than the Catechism of the Catholic Church's presentation.

Under "Life in Christ/The Foundations of Christian Morality/We are Moral Beings: Fundamental Elements of Christian Morality," we find the subsection "The Understanding of Moral Acts":
Another important foundation of Christian morality is the understanding of moral acts. Every moral act consists of three parts: the objective act (what we do), the subjective goal or intention (why we do the act), and the concrete situation or circumstances in which we perform the act (where, when, how, with whom, the consequences, etc.)

For an individual act to be morally good, the object, or what we are doing, must be objectively good. Some acts, apart from the intention or reason for doing them, are always wrong because they go against a fundamental or basic human good that ought never to be compromised. Direct killing of the innocent, torture, and rape are examples of acts that are always wrong. Such acts are referred to as intrinsically evil acts, meaning that they are wrong in themselves, apart from the reason they are done or the circumstances surrounding them.

The goal, end, or intention is the part of the moral act that lies within the person. For this reason, we say that the intention is the subjective element of the moral act. For an act to be morally good, one's intention must be good. If we are motivated to do something by a bad intention -- even something that is objectively good -- our action is morally evil. It must also be recognized that a good intention cannot make a bad action (something intrinsically evil) good. We can never do something wrong or evil in order to bring about a good. This is the meaning of the saying, "the end does not justify the means." (cf. CCC, nos. 1749-1761)

The circumstances and the consequences of the act make up the third element of moral action. These are secondary to the evaluation of a moral act in that they contribute to increasing or decreasing the goodness or badness of the act. In addition, the circumstances may affect one's personal responsibility for the act. All three aspects must be good -- the objective act, the subjective intention, and the circumstances -- in order to have a morally good act.

This teaching, which recognizes both the objective and subjective dimension of morality, is often at odds with a perspective that views morality as a completely personal or merely subjective reality. In such a view, held by some in our culture, there are no objective norms capable of demanding our moral compliance. Such a denial of an objective and unchanging moral order established by God results in a vision of morality and moral norms as being a matter of personal opinion or as established only through the consent of the individual members of society.
What I like about this way of putting it is its relative simplicity. "What we do" and "why we do it" are things we're used to thinking about. And emphasizing "both the objective and subjective dimension of morality" is important these days, as the Catechism says.

The price of simplicity is, in part, that it leaves unspoken how to decide what "what we do" is. But at least stating the independent objectivity of what we do shows that it is not wholly fungible, and hints at the possibility that what we say we are doing, or even what we think we are doing, isn't objectively the case.

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Friday, January 29, 2010

Definitely not

If the Catechism can't be used to say torture is only wrong if it is used "to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred," can it at least be used to say that torture is only torture if it is used for one of those reasons?

In other words, can it be interpreted as defining torture as "the use of physical or moral violence to either extract confessions, or punish the guilty, or frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred," with the implication that the use of physical or moral violence for any other reason isn't torture, and therefore isn't covered by the many, many ecclesial statements that torture is wrong?

No.

The reason it can't be interpreted along those lines is simple: It's not a definition consistent with any known concept of torture.

Consider this question: Is the use of thumbscrews on a prisoner, to the point of leaving him writhing in pain, torture? If the above interpretation [that the Catechism defines torture in reference to an exclusive and precise list of reasons] were valid, then the answer to that question would be, "It depends."

But no one thinks the answer to that question is, "It depends." So if the above interpretation were valid, the Church would be redefining a term in a way inconsistent with every other usage of that term, offering this idiosyncratic (to say the least) definition in one place only, sandwiched between mention of terrorism and amputations, neither of which it defines, and then (according to the interpretation) using the word equivocally -- without so much as a hint that there is a bizarre and inconsistent definition -- in the Compendium of the Catechism, in local catechisms, in papal speeches, in letters to Congress.

All of that is absurd. Therefore, the idea that the Catechism is defining torture in a restricted sense is also absurd.

If the Catechism isn't defining torture, though, what's all that stuff about "to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred" doing there?

It seems to me that it functions, not as a formal definition, but as a working description of torture. As a description, it characterizes torture without specifying it. It states the sort of thing torture is and the sorts of things it's used for, in general terms that are nevertheless sufficient to show that torture is not simply any sort of real or perceived mistreatment or punishment.

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An adult interpretation

For years, people have been interpreting that one statement in CCC 2297 --
Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.
-- as implying that torture for reasons other than those listed -- in particular, for interrogation of someone assumed to have information that can save lives -- might not be contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.

As it stands, it's a mighty sketchy interpretation. It asserts that there's nothing objectively or circumstantially contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity to torture a prisoner. All you need is a good enough reason. (And what do you know? The reason people today might want to torture prisoners just happens to be a good reason! These interpreters will, though, stipulate that other reasons -- to save face after you were double-dog dared to torture the prisoner, say, or to get someone who loves the victim to talk -- are immoral.)

I haven't seen anyone even try to explain why it's contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity to torture a murderer, but not contrary to those things to torture a would-be murderer. The problem here is that torture isn't evil because it's icky, in which case it wouldn't be evil when not torturing would be ickier. Torture is evil, according to the Catechism, because it's contrary to respect for the person of the victim, and the respect due the person of the victim doesn't change based on what you want to get out of torturing him.*

So, as I say, we have an interpretation that really doesn't hold up on its own terms. The fact that the very next paragraph of the Catechism contradicts this interpretation should settle the matter:
In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order... In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person... It is necessary to work for their abolition.
But someone who is capable of interpreting CCC 2297 as allowing torture for good reason is capable of interpreting CCC 2298 the same way. (Or of interpreting it away altogether; it's printed in a smaller font, you know.)

Okay, but maybe the Catechism really is ambiguous on this point. What else do we have?

We have the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which, according to Pope Benedict XVI, "is a faithful and sure synthesis of the Catechism of the Catholic Church." Per the CCCC:
477. What practices are contrary to respect for the bodily integrity of the human person?

They are: kidnapping and hostage taking, terrorism, torture, violence, and direct sterilization. Amputations and mutilations of a person are morally permissible only for strictly therapeutic medical reasons.
Okay, but maybe when it says "torture," it means "and sometimes torture."

We have Pope John Paul II, speaking to the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1982:
And as regards torture, the Christian is confronted from the beginning with the account of the passion of Christ. The memory of Jesus exposed, struck, treated with derision in his anguished sufferings, should always make him refuse to see a similar treatment applied to one of his brothers in humanity. Christ's disciple refuses every recourse to such methods, which nothing could justify and in which the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer's victim.
Okay, but maybe that was just the Pope expressing his personal opinion that torture is categorically wrong, with some dodgy translation from the French.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church -- "which, according to the request received from the Holy Father, has been drawn up in order to give a concise but complete overview of the Church's social teaching" -- quotes Pope John Paul II's 1982 speech:
In carrying out investigations, the regulation against the use of torture, even in the case of serious crimes, must be strictly observed: "Christ's disciple refuses every recourse to such methods, which nothing could justify and in which the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer's victim." International juridical instruments concerning human rights correctly indicate a prohibition against torture as a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances.
Okay, but maybe they're only talking about investigations of crimes that have already happened, not of crimes that are ongoing or yet to occur.

"Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" states:
Other direct assaults on innocent human life and violations of human dignity, such as genocide, torture, racism, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified.
Okay, but maybe this is just some USCCB cubicle dweller's idea.

"Torture is a Moral Issue: A Catholic Study Guide" states that:
"In the Church's eyes [t]orture violates a human person's God-given dignity."
Okay, but maybe this is just some USCCB cubicle dweller's idea.

Statements by American bishops on behalf of the USCCB include the following categorical rejections of torture:
We believe that a respect for the dignity of every person, ally or enemy, must serve as the foundation of the pursuit of security, justice and peace. There can be no compromise on the moral imperative to protect the basic human rights of any individual incarcerated for any reason... We share the concerns of lawmakers and citizens for the safety of U.S. soldiers and civilians abroad in these times of great uncertainty and danger. In the face of this perilous climate, our nation must not embrace a morality based on an attitude that "desperate times call for desperate measures" or "the end justifies the means." The inherent justice of our cause and the perceived necessities involved in confronting terrorism must not lead to a weakening or disregard of U.S. and international law. -- Bishop Ricard, Chairman, USCCB Committee on International Policy, October 4, 2005

A respect for the dignity of every person, ally or enemy, must serve as the foundation of security, justice and peace. There can be no compromise on the moral imperative to protect the basic human rights of any individual incarcerated for any reason... In a time of terrorism and fear, our individual and collective obligations to respect dignity and human rights, even of our worst enemies, gains added importance. -- Bishop Wenski, Chairman, USCCB Committee on International Policy, December 17, 2007

We are opposed to any proposed or adopted legislation or other actions that would appear to once again decriminalize torture and abusive conduct. We believe any legislation adopted by the Congress must be unambiguous in rejecting torture and cruel treatment as dangerous, unreliable and illegal. -- Bishop Wenski, Chairman, USCCB Committee on International Policy, January 30, 2008

Torture undermines and debases the human dignity of both victims and perpetrators. It is never a necessary cruelty. -- Cardinal George, President, USCCB, March 5, 2008
Okay, but maybe ... um....

And last, we have the United States Catechism for Adults, which is the "local catechism" written by the bishops of the United States using the CCC as "a sure and authentic reference text," and which received the recongitio of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. The U.S. Catechism for Adults includes this statement:
Direct killing of the innocent, torture, and rape are examples of acts that are always wrong.
So: No.

Torture is always wrong.

The Catholic Church teaches that torture is always wrong.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that torture is always wrong.

Interpretations to the contrary are wrong.


* It's always a "him," right? Torture is a very manly thing, for advocates, with manly men torturing wormy men, so that girly men may sleep safely at night.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Priorities

A great deal has been, is being, and will be said about what the word "torture" means.

Perhaps, though, we should be more concerned about making sure everyone knows what the word "wrong" means.

Mark Thiessen, for example, clearly doesn't know:
[Critics of waterboarding] have to argue that a) enhanced interrogation is wrong and b) it did not work, because if the latter is not true then the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women, and children would have been the price of their approach.
If something is wrong, then it's wrong even if means deaths of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.

If, like so many people, you don't understand that you can't do evil to accomplish good, then you don't understand what the word "evil" means.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why "gluttony" has a perfectly good definition

St. Thomas defines gluttony in this way:
Gluttony denotes, not any desire of eating and drinking, but an inordinate desire.
Some people who read that may think, "That doesn't define anything! It just says that 'gluttony' is shorthand for 'an inordinate desire of eating and drinking.' But it doesn't say what an inordinate desire of eating and drinking actually is."

To such thinkers I answer that, we must understand that gluttony is a vice, not a transgression.

A vice is a habit contrary to the good of persons. A transgression is a violation of an explicit rule. They are not at all the same sort of thing, and they are defined in different ways.

A vice is defined by comparison the good to which it is contrary. A transgression is defined by the rule that it breaks.

As a vice, gluttony is contrary to reason. To eat more than you have reason to eat it to eat inordinately, which is the act of gluttony.

It's true that the above definition doesn't tell you how much you have reason to eat. But the definition of a vice isn't supposed to tell you how much or how little. Your properly-formed conscience is supposed to do that. The definition of a vice is supposed to tell you that there is a good for which you ought to strive, and that there is an evil for which you may strive if you don't watch out.

They don't call 'em virtues because they're easy.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ah, crap

At Vox Nova, Henry Karlson draws attention to the new-to-me news that
Legatus, a membership organization for Catholic business leaders, will present President George W. Bush with its prestigious Cardinal John J. O'Connor Pro-Life Award at its annual Summit....
Now, Legatus is not your run-of-the-mill association of the lay faithful. You pretty much have to run the mill yourself to join. Any Catholic organization that limits membership by job title is not going to be shamed.

And George Bush did a lot of -- oops, wrong list -- he did a lot of things consistent with Catholic teaching on respect for human life. Say what you like about what he didn't do, he was certainly much better on abortion than either his predecessor or his successor. He gave us Harriet Miers Roberts and Alito. And he sure seems to have liked and respected the Popes he met.

But seriously. ESCR. Pre-emptive war. Torture*.

In a comment at Vox Nova, past Cardinal John J. O'Connor Pro-Life Award winner Austin Ruse writes:
Yes, he deserves the award.
And of course, Legatus itself is the final arbiter of who deserves its awards, so I can hardly challenge that.

I can, though, understand the worth of the award by whom it's awarded to.




* Yes, dammit. Torture.

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Some questions for those whose need for a definition of torture has not yet been met
  1. What are you going to do with your definition once you get it?

    I ask this because lexicographers, moral theologians, legislatures, courts, governments, and international bodies all have definitions that meet their needs.

    What specialized needs do you have that existing definitions don't meet?

  2. Why can't you define it yourself?

    Who better than you to meet your own specialized need? And if you aren't capable of coming up with a definition, then you might ask yourself whether you're really capable of using it even if someone gave it to you.

  3. Are you similarly paralyzed for want of definitions for other words?

    If you are one of the people who have been frozen in place for half a dozen years, unable to participate in the debate on torture until they're provided with an acceptable definition, are you also frozen out of debates on such things as terrorism (which the Catechism treats in the sentence immediately preceding its first mention of torture)? What, after all, is terrorism? When I was a child, I was terrified that my father would come home before I cleaned my room. Does that mean my father was a terrorist?

    Or what about gluttony? Some might try to define it as an inordinate desire of eating and drinking, but really, that's no definition at all. How much popcorn is "inordinate"? Ten kernels? A thousand? Where's the line? For a sick person, a single kernel may be too much. Is nothing but starving yourself to death moral?

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The object is in the subject

In a post at Coalition for Clarity, Red Cardigan writes:
I'm not a moral theologian (and if one out there wants to become a contributor, email me, please!), so this is subject to correction. But as I understand it, actions themselves may have objective morality or immorality, and the intentions of the actor may also be moral or immoral. To look at a silly hypothetical, suppose a married couple both suffered from bouts of amnesia. During those bouts they forgot that they were married. If they engage in the marital embrace while truly believing they are not married, have they sinned? Objectively, they are married whether they realize it or not--but in choosing, as an act of the will, to commit the sin of fornication they have in fact, if I am not mistaken, committed that sin.
I'm not a moral theologian either. But hey, this is the Internet, and Red seems to be committing an unintentional equivocation.

As an adjective, "objective" can mean "of or relating to an object as it exists independently of subjective judgment or observation;" this is the meaning it has when it appears inside the adverb in, "Objectively, they are married whether they realize it or not."

But "objective" can also mean "of or relating to the object of a human act," and -- to keep things from being too easy -- the object of a human act is not independent of subjective judgment. As the blessed Pope John Paul II wrote in Veritatis Splendor 78:
The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the "object" rationally chosen by the deliberate will... In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behaviour.... [T]hat object [of a given moral act] is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person. [Emphasis, of course, in the original]
In Red's example, then, the object of the amnesiac couple, the freely chosen behavior, is "sex with someone I'm not married to."

As it happens, "sex with someone I'm not married to" is a freely chosen kind of behavior that is always and everywhere immoral independently of subjective judgment or observation. It is "objectively evil" in both senses: evil in its object, and evil independently of subjective judgment.*

What makes the couple's act an act of fornication (despite the fact that, objectively, they are married) is not their intention, but their object. In fact, as given the example says nothing about what their intention might be.




* It seems that "sex with someone I'm not married to" is not a freely chosen kind of behavior as such. Rather, the behavior is "sex" -- which isn't objectively evil in either sense -- and "with someone I'm not married to" is merely a circumstance of a particular instance of the act.

On the contrary, "You shall not commit adultery."

I answer that, both Scripture and Tradition treat adultery and fornication as freely chosen (and of course objectively evil) acts. They are, therefore, specific human acts and not merely the same human act as sex between a married couple under different circumstances. This suffices as a reply to the objection.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

What is true is not always helpful, and what is helpful is not always true

For example:
HelpfulNot Helpful
TrueLefty loosey, righty tighty.The tiger quoll is a species of quoll.
Not trueπ = 3.14Bears can't see you if you don't move.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Torture roundup redux

In October 2006, I wrote a post that linked to the 26 posts on torture I'd written over the previous three and a half years.

In the not-quite three and a half years since, only the following 15 17 posts mention the ongoing torture debate:The topic of that last post, the brand-new Coalition for Clarity -- "because torture is intrinsically evil" -- is the motivation for this compilation.

(And right now, I don't want to think about what the next three and a half years might hold.)

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Sign me up

COALITION FOR CLARITY
Because Torture is Intrinsically Evil

Link via Catholic & Enjoying It!

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Two-fer

Scott Brown (R, MA) is pro-abortion and pro-torture. Why wouldn't Massachusetts Citizens for Life endorse him?

Too catty?

Scott Brown (R, MA) is pro-choice and pro-enhanced interrogation techniques. Why wouldn't Massachusetts Citizens for Life endorse him?

Better?

I'm not among those who insist an advocacy group ought to endorse only those candidates who endorse the group's whole platform. I get that the least bad choice is better than the greatest bad choice. I get that, in a place like Massachusetts, the least bad choice is likely to be pretty bad, and anything even approximating an electoral victory for a right-to-life group is likely to be pretty rare.

What I don't get is why you'd be giddy over the least bad choice's electoral victory. MCFL is daydreaming about the dreamy signs they'll bring to the March for Life tomorrow. Tomorrow, as in the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, which MCFL's dreamy new senator endorses.

During the last presidential campaign, Zippy argued that political endorsements corrupted pro-life groups; he particularly had in mind how embryonic stem cell research disappeared from the list of life issues when a pro-life group endorsed John McCain. The same thing happened with MCFL in its endorsement of Scott Brown. What are the odds?

It's worse in the latter case, of course, since MCFL couldn't even bring itself to list "legal abortion" as a life issue.

Nor did it mention "constitutional amendment," even though just last month MCFL president Anne Fox wrote that being pro-life "implies support for a constitutional amendment" as a reason for not endorsing Jack E. Robinson -- who calls himself "personally pro-life" and agrees "that the law should protect the right to life of each human being from conception to natural death" -- in the Republican primary.

Anne Fox has asked for ideas for signs to carry at the March for Life. Here's mine:

MASSACHUSETTS
Now With 10% Less Evil

All it Costs is Your Soul

You're Welcome!


Too catty? How about this:

MASSACHUSETTS CITIZENS FOR LIFE
37 Years In & Brown's The Best We Can Do

Sorry

We'll Keep Trying

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The enemy of my enemy

"Waterboarding Wins": That's how NRO's Marc Thiessen characterizes Scott Brown's electoral win in Massachusetts yesterday.

Thiessen writes:
As I point out in Courting Disaster, polls show the American people are with us on terrorist interrogation.

An April 2009 Pew Poll found that 71 percent of American said there were circumstances in which they would support the use of enhanced interrogation ("torture" they called it, of course, but that makes the number even more stark).
The less significant point to make is that the first quoted sentence reiterates the claim that political conservatism in the United States is defined in part by advocacy of torture.

Thiessen would deny this, since he denies that waterboarding is torture, based on the syllogism:
  1. Torture is bad.
  2. Waterboarding is good.
  3. Therefore, waterboarding isn't torture.
Scott Brown, meanwhile, seems to follow the Bush Syllogism:
  1. Americans don't torture.
  2. Americans waterboard.
  3. Therefore, waterboarding isn't torture.
Be all that as it may, Thiessen's "with us" should be repudiated by all political conservatives in the United States who hear of it and who don't think torturing prisoners is a non-negotiable plank of political conservatism.

The more significant point to make is that Thiessen completely misreads the April 2009 Pew Poll. He thinks the fact that 71% of American think "torture," and not merely "enhanced interrogation," should be safe, legal, and rare is a good sign about what Americans think about what he sees as a position that is part and parcel of political conservatism.

In fact, it is a sign that a great majority of Americans are gravely immoral.

That the population is morally depraved in a direction that helps your candidates win elections is not something to celebrate.

UPDATE: Perhaps Thiessen was thinking along these lines: "The poll asked people if the use of 'torture' against suspected terrorists can be justified, but everyone understood 'torture' to mean 'techniques up to and including waterboarding.' So the people who said yes weren't saying they support torture as such, they were saying they support enhanced interrogation techniques as practiced under Bush and were confident enough in their support to say yes even when it was being called 'torture.'"

That would explain his complacency, even if it's a pretty flimsy line of reasoning.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

A thorny legacy

All I know about Mary Daly is what I read on the Internet. So, while I don't know what she taught in her books and classes, I do know some of the lessons people have learned from her life and example. These include:
  • The Church is evil. Maybe not the Church as Jesus intended, or the Church in the mind of God, or the Church as it could be, or the Church as a notional collection of right-thinking individuals, but the Church as it has always and ever existed in this world is an agent of evil oppression.
  • Two wrongs make a right. Daly's refusal to teach men, or even take questions from them after a public lecture, is excused as an attempt to show men what it's like to be invisible and ignored.
  • Faith in Jesus is optional. Daly was an apostate. Some of her fans ignore this, others excuse it, and some -- apostates themselves, following her example -- celebrate it.
  • Theology is ideology. Whoever hails a militant apostate as a great theologian does not think of theology as faith seeking understanding.
  • Syncretize your own creed. Daly's example encourages this in two ways. First, since the Church is evil, her disciples are free to abandon whatever they want of the Church's teaching. Second, while few have followed her own extremism, many have been happy to know she was out there and felt free to pick and choose which of her positions, and to what degree, they would adopt as their own.
To reject all in Mary Daly's legacy that is contrary to Church teaching, then, requires far more than to simply reject her own explicit rejection of Christianity.

And, having read a number of personal testimonies about the effect of Daly's teaching on individual lives, I wonder about her role in popularizing the Therapeutic Gospel, which makes of Jesus' revelation of the Father a message of feeling good about yourself.

Feeling good about yourself is good, of course, assuming the reasons you feel good about yourself are sound. But the Good News is not that you're as good or better than the bums trying to keep you down. The Good News is that God loves us and wants us all to share in His eternal life. For the Christian, psychological health is not the end but a prerequisite to preach this Good News to every living creature.

I'm not, obviously, attempting here a balanced evaluation of Mary Daly's teaching or influence -- and just as well, since I'm unqualified to do that. I'm merely responding to some of the advocacy I've encountered, in a wordier if not necessarily better way than the blanket dismissal others have given.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hey, that's My line!

There are atheists who say that atheism is better than theism because atheism relies only on reason, while theism relies on faith, and faith is yucky.

I paraphrase. Better, probably, to say these atheists say religious faith has no particular correlation with objective truth.

To these sorts of claims, I most commonly see responses from theists asserting that as a matter of fact atheists too rely on faith. Even honest atheists admit there is dogma at the center of the materialist creed.

There's a corollary to this argument against atheists who say they only use reason when they don't:
If you can't tell the difference between what you say is true and what actually is true, you aren't reasoning very well.
So why exactly should I accept your reasoning?

And perhaps this can be taken a step further. The only one for whom there is in fact no distinction between what they say is true and what actually is true, is God. What God says, is.

So here we have an atheist who, in arguing that there is no God, acts like God. And not just any god, but the God of Abraham.

There are a lot of possible explanations for this. That the omnipresence of God extends even into human arguments against His existence is just one of them, but it may be the most satisfying.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How smart am I?

Depends whom you ask.

EstimateEstimator
Absolute zeroMy kids, when I offer to help the night before
On par with a Roombamy Internet antagonists;
most advertisers
A lesser light at the Drones Clubmy wife, when I'm watching the kids for a few days;
my mechanic
About soThe truth
Geniusme, just before I try to fix the lawnmower
Super-geniusmy wife, when I'm watching the first round of "Jeopardy"
Infinitemy kids, when they need my help the morning of

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Now that football season is over

Go Team USA!

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Friday, January 08, 2010

Another stock question

I seem to have misplaced the stock question bumper stickers that used to be found along the left margin of this page. As I recall, they were as follows:
  1. Have you tried prayer and fasting?
  2. Can we say "both/and"?
  3. Are you sure you aren't justifying your means by your ends?
  4. But is it true?
For the sake of completeness, there was also a stock process: Cherchez le telos.

I'm ready to add a fifth stock question to this list of all-purpose questions (though I may not get around to restoring the clip-and-save bumper stickers for a while):
  • And is that a lot?
This is a somewhat specialized question, intended to be used when someone tells you how many of something there is, as though the brute fact of how many of something there is constitutes an argument. The point of this question is that we humans are inclined to be impressed by numbers that would take us a while to count to (counting by ones, starting at 1), but the real question is probably not whether the ordinal number corresponding to how many of something there is is impressively greater than 1.

As an example, suppose someone in a conversation tells you, "There were about a thousand people there." Depending on the "there," you might reasonably be expected to know that 1,000 people is a lot (waiting in line at the post office, for example) or a few (watching a World Cup qualifying match). But the "there" might also be a set of circumstances in which the speaker simply wants you to agree that 1,000 people is a lot or a little (like at a demonstration downtown).

Asking, "And is that a lot?," allows the other person to make an actual argument that yes, it is a lot (or no, it's not). It may even cause the person to say, "Gosh, I have no idea. Is it?"

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Coping techniques
When people you like...When people you don't like...
...do something you like,applaud.joke about it.
...do something you don't like,ignore it.complain.


(Yes, I have been reading the 4-Block World archives.)

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

The more the moraller?

A tendentious simplification:
Mark Thiessen: People who oppose waterboarding are radical pacifists!

Joe Carter: People who support waterboarding are pagans!

Mark Thiessen: Ah, whadda you know?

Joe Carter: More'n you, pal.
There's not much new here to advance the "whether waterboarding is evil" debate. The "pagan" angle -- the claim that those who advocate torture argue from a position of pagan virtues, instead of Christian virtues -- requires those who advocate waterboarding to agree that waterboarding is torture, which Thiessen at least does not.

Thiessen's "radical pacifist" angle, meanwhile, confused me a bit at first; he didn't just say opposition to waterboarding comes from a position like radical pacifism, but one that it "effectively" is radical pacifism. I think now he was saying that the effects of both are the same -- viz, "the death of thousands."

Since, however, he agrees with everything in this Ramesh Ponnuru post, then he agrees that, "There is some rule he [Thiessen] wouldn't break though the heavens fall."

If this is the case, though, the "radical pacifist" charge amounts to little more than an observation that circumstances have not yet brought him to the brink of the line he himself won't cross -- circumstances in which he too would be "effectively arguing from a position of radical pacifism."

To my mind, introducing the term "radical pacifism" clouds rather than clarifies the discussion. As a matter of rhetoric, though, it leads up to Thiessen's assertion (in his first post) that "we [shouldn't] put pacifists in charge of decisions on war and peace. Same should go for decisions when it comes to interrogation."

Why shouldn't we put people who oppose waterboarding in all circumstances in charge of decisions when it comes to interrogation? Because it will cost innocent lives. What will happen, though, if people who follow Thiessen's own "though the heavens fall" rules are in charge of interrogation decisions when innocent lives will be lost if the rules aren't broken? Innocent lives will be lost.

Are we then to keep swapping out increasingly lax decision-makers as the circumstances become more dire?

If Thiessen wants to argue that his own rules are better than the rules of others, he can, but the inductive claim he offers in these posts is also an argument that his own rules are worse than are less rigorous rules.

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Mommy, where do priests come from?

The Happy Catholic links to a post by the Anchoress about religious and military vocations, including a poll on the question, "If you are Catholic, have you encouraged or discouraged your child to consider the priesthood or religious life?"

As it happens, just last night my wife asked whether I'd ever imagined what our 14-year-old son's future wife would look like, and the son, who was sitting right there and who must be contrary (see his age, above), said, "I'm going to become a priest."

And I said, "Really? 'Cause I could make that happen. I know some people."

So don't blame me for any priest shortage.

Then we started talking about who pays for the seminary, and I said that diocesan candidates would generally already have their undergraduate degrees.

And my son asked, "Do you have to be smart, or rich, to be a priest?"

Which allowed me to say, "No, you can be a Franciscan."

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A prophecy fulfilled

Well, what do you know. The Haloscalypse has arrived, just a week or so later than predicted. All the old Disputations comments are gone,* and I don't reckon they're worth the asking price of ten bucks a year to keep them around.

Not that the comments weren't valuable. But they weren't invaluable, and their chief value, I think, lay in making this blog more worth reading in time to follow and perhaps join the discussion.

In any case, now we'll see how the built-in Blogger comments work out.



* More precisely, the Haloscan comments are available only in archive format, and I don't know how to import them into Blogger comments.

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Monday, January 04, 2010

Poor Jesus!

The economic status of Jesus, both as a child and in His public ministry, is used as an illustrative example in some strains of two very different systems of moral theology. In some tellings of the Prosperity Gospel, Jesus was rich, or at least reasonably well off. In some tellings of the Social Gospel, His whole life was one of not-quite-destitute poverty. In both sorts of tellings, Jesus' own economic state is the one God wills for each of us.

I have my suspicions that, sometimes, Jesus' economic status is inferred from a given approach to moral theology, when if anything it should be the other way around.

The Catholic tradition favors a poor Jesus, though there is a strain of pious belief that Joseph and Mary each came from, maybe not wealth, but relative economic security. But the Catholic tradition does not see the quantity or quality of Jesus' worldly goods as something to be universally emulated. Rather, it's the spirit in which He regarded all worldly goods that we are to live by.

I wonder how far it could be argued that the traditional break between Jesus' "private life" and His public ministry makes questions about His family's wealth irrelevant to His mission of revelation and salvation. We are curious about such things because we want to know the One we love better, not so much because we want to replicate His private life in our own.

In any case, I think questions of economic poverty fade to insignificance next to questions of existential poverty. The poverty of the manger in Bethlehem is not chiefly economic; it is, first and foremost, the poverty of One who was in the form of God, yet emptied Himself, being made in the likeness of men. This is the message of Bethlehem, of the whole Gospel. Not, "God wants you to be rich like His Son," nor, "God wants you to be poor like His Son," but, "God wants you to be loved like His Son."

(Link via Catholic and Enjoying It!.)

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Not in Kansas

Have you ever watched someone argue with a strawman they've built themselves? It can be quite something, to see the way people exaggerate, misrepresent, misunderstand, or simply invent a position to oppose. One of the most remarkable things about it, to me, is how very pleased with ourselves we can be to have overthrown an argument that no living human being is actually making.

Except... there are many, many living human beings, and we are prone to making poor arguments. The most we can say with confidence about a strawman argument is that no living human being involved in the discussion has offered it. There may well be some bozo somewhere who would, given the chance, agree with the strawman.

And of course the Internet has been giving bozos chances for years now.

As an intellectual achievement, though, defeating a bozo argument is on par with defeating a strawman argument. It might be more necessary, depending on the circumstances, but it offers no more cause for self-satisfaction. If anything, it might be cause for discomfort and embarrassment at being required to draw attention to the bozoness of another living human being.

Often, though, the intrusion of a bozo argument is welcomed as an opportunity for complete triumph. As with a strawman, the bozo is taken as representative of the whole opposition to one's own position, and overthrowing the bozo argument is taken as sufficient proof of one's own correctness.

The bozo argument even adds a sweetness to the pleasure of success, in that there is an actual live human being who will claim that position, and the scalp of a specific individual is much more satisfying than those of a whole passel of vague "those who say." And if you're really lucky, the bozo will keep coming back for more of the same.

If the goal of my writing is to win a game I've invented and am scorekeeper of, then bozo arguments are money in the bank. If the goal is to arrive, with as many fellow travelers as possible, at as much truth as possible, then they are distractions to be dealt with with as little fanfare and effort as possible.

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