instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Christian discipleship today

I've just finished Sherry Weddell's book, Forming Intentional Disciples. Fuller post to come; for now, two things:

1. Read this book.

2. Have your pastor read this book.

This is an important book, if only because it's perhaps the only such book on a hugely important subject.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The besetting difficulty of the intuitionist

Deriving an is from an ought.

By "intuitionist," I mean someone who habitually claims to derive certain knowledge from data that are, objectively, insufficient to supply that knowledge. (And I call it "intuition" to emphasize how little it has to do with reasoning.)

Once you start on the intuitionist road, your mind begins to fill up with things you know that aren't so. False intuitions combine to derive -- in valid but unsound ways -- further false intuitions, and that's where you get into trouble.

If P implies Q, and P, then Q. If P is a false intuition, the intuitionist may see that Q ought to be true, and therefore assert that Q is true, even in the face of empirical proof that Q is not true.

Obviously, that can happen whenever someone holds as certain a false proposition. But the intuitionist is particularly susceptible to this, for two reasons: He is more likely to hold as certain a good number of false intuitions, and he lacks the habit of reviewing the validity of his conclusions.

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Jokes and jocose lies

Early in his book On Lying, St. Augustine makes one thing perfectly clear:
Setting aside, therefore, jokes, which have never been accounted lies, seeing they bear with them in the tone of voice, and in the very mood of the joker a most evident indication that he means no deceit, although the thing he utters be not true: touching which kind of discourse, whether it be meet to be used by perfect minds, is another question which we have not at this time taken in hand to clear; but setting jokes apart, the first point to be attended to, is, that a person should not be thought to lie, who lies not.
Later, he writes about people
who by a lie wish to please men, not that they may do wrong or bring reproach upon any man; for we have already before put away that kind; but that they may be pleasant in conversation. These... lust to please by agreeable talk, and yet would rather please by saying things that were true, but when they do not easily find true things to say that are pleasant to the hearers, they choose rather to tell lies than to hold their tongues. Yet it is difficult for these sometimes to undertake a story which is the whole of it false; but most commonly they interweave falsehood with truth, where they are at a loss for something sweet.

Now these ...sorts of lies do no harm to those who believe them, because they are not deceived concerning any matter of religion and truth, or concerning any profit or advantage of their own. It suffices them, to judge the thing possible which is told, and to have faith in a man of whom they ought not rashly to think that he is telling a lie. For where is the harm of believing that such an one's father or grandfather was a good man, when he was not? Or that he has served with the army even in Persia, though he never set foot out of Rome?

But to the persons who tell these lies, they do much harm: ... because they want to please people better than the truth.
St. Thomas identifies this kind of lie told "to please men" with the "kind of lie that is told in fun" mentioned by a gloss on Psalm 5:7 ("You will destroy all who speak a lie"); these he calls "jocose lies."

So far, so good. But St. Thomas also considers certain jokes -- which St. Augustine set aside since they "have never been accounted lies" -- as jocose lies, and therefore sins:
Objection 6. Further, apparently a lie is a sin because thereby we deceive our neighbor: wherefore Augustine says (Lib. De Mend. xxi): "Whoever thinks that there is any kind of lie that is not a sin deceives himself shamefully, since he deems himself an honest man when he deceives others." Yet not every lie is a cause of deception, since no one is deceived by a jocose lie; seeing that lies of this kind are told, not with the intention of being believed, but merely for the sake of giving pleasure...

Reply to Objection 6. An action may be considered in two ways. First, in itself, secondly, with regard to the agent. Accordingly a jocose lie, from the very genus of the action, is of a nature to deceive; although in the intention of the speaker it is not told to deceive, nor does it deceive by the way it is told...
Note that, having already concluded that "the essential notion of a lie is taken from formal falsehood, from the fact namely, that a person intends to say what is false," and that jocose lies are those told for the sake of pleasure, St. Thomas has to conclude that a joke in which a person intends to say what is false is a jocose lie. [Note also that the objection (at least as translated) seems to reduce the category of jocose lies to only jokes, which isn't consistent with St. Thomas's identification of "jocose lies" with St. Augustine's lies told "to please men."]

So, is St. Augustine right to set aside jokes, or is St. Thomas right to count them as jocose lies?

My answer: Can we say "both"/"and"?

More precisely: St. Augustine is right to set aside jokes, and St. Thomas is right that the essential notion of a lie is taken from the fact that a person intends to say what is false. What St. Thomas misses, I suggest, is that the way in which a joke is told is an essential part of the act of telling the joke. Tone of voice, gestures, and facial expressions signify the content of one's mind as much as, and sometime more than, the words used. In the case of a joke, they say, "The words I am speaking do not represent my mind" -- and that is not a formal falsehood.

That said, the incongruity between spoken word and accompanying gesture, if not a moral fault in itself, does make for an inherently imperfect signification -- or, if you will, an easily determined equivocation, and even trivially determined equivocations need some sort of justification. Hence (at least in part) St. Augustine's words about "whether it be meet to be used by perfect minds." And hence, while I don't consider jokes told in a way that signifies they are jokes to be formal falsehoods, I don't think St. Thomas's contrary teaching is at all ridiculous, and I think we who disagree with him would still do well to consider how far our joking is consistent, not just with justice, but with prudence.

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The good open lie system

If I may be excused rehashing the polemics of a bygone age, the following (from that same Dublin Review article I've been droning on about for several posts) suggests an ironic inversion in the last century:
...we have no objection to avowing our belief, (for from the bottom of our soul we detest making people say what we suspect they don't mean,) that from the national character of England's Church, and its proverbial fondness for broad views, it would most likely, could it ever express its mind upon the subject, reject the doctrine of amphibology as sophistical subtlety, and incline rather, in cases of difficulty, to the good open lie system.
The irony of suggesting the course of rejecting equivocation in favor of the good open lie is this:

Not a few Catholics today favor the good open lie system of the Nineteenth Century, through use of a discoverable equivocation on the definition of "to lie." They agree with the universal opinion of Catholic theologians for the previous fifteen hundred years, that lying is always wrong -- as long as they get to change what it means to lie.

A further irony is this: many of these Catholics consider themselves traditionalists, opposed to modernist relativism.

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

St. Alphonsus and the Christian Remembrancer, pt 4

A final quotation from the article (after which it takes up the questions of promises and oaths):
 While we find, as Billuart remarks, in looking into the works of various theologians, a vast amount of agreement on the general principles of amphibology, we are no less struck by the diversity of opinion expressed among them as to particular instances. We find them sufficiently unanimous upon the following points:
  1. that the essence of a lie consists in the intentional abuse of language for the purpose of deception:-
  2. that language is to be held abused so as to constitute a lie if it cannot be understood otherwise than in a false sense, i.e., one contrary to the mind of the speaker:-
  3. that words, besides their ordinary meaning, are liable to be determined to an extraordinary one by particular circumstances of time, place, and person :-
  4. that under such circumstances it is lawful to use words thus equivocally determined; but as to exactly when such determination may be said to have taken place, some theologians admit this occasion, others that.
The consideration that words and practices acquire conventional meaning according to the language and customs of the country in which they are used, will tend in a measure to explain this; for hence, we can easily conceive that an equivocation or mental restriction might be perfectly determinable and therefore lawful in Italy, which would be simply indiscoverable and therefore the reverse of this in England. [Formatting added]
Note that the fact that what is discoverable in one context is indiscoverable in another shows that the details of which equivocations are lawful, and when, are not suited to magisterial pronouncement.

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St. Alphonsus and the Christian Remembrancer, pt. 3

Let me quote the following passages from The Dublin Review article on discoverable equivocation and discoverable [non-pure] mental restriction.
There are times when we are bound to open our hearts to our neighbor; at other times the obligation is not so urgent; and lastly, there may be occasions when we are forbidden to do so. Man, then, besides his universal right to true language, has a particular one, which we will call, The right to knowledge. This last is protected by the affirmative precept relating to truth, which bids us "speak out the honest convictions of the heart," and includes in its sphere all the interests of Christian simplicity. Now we concede to the full that even Discoverable equivocations and non-pure mental restrictions are opposed to the dictates of this last precept; but then we deny the latter's claim to be universal. Whenever it can be said to bind, whether directly, or indirectly, there we grant all amphibology is unlawful; and as we would be foremost in maintaining that the claims of Christian simplicity ought to pervade the whole atmosphere of social life, so we should consider a general habit of equivocating more detestable than we can express.

Before all things, we must consider it as an established point, says Theophilus Raynaudus, that no one may use either equivocation or ambiguity of speech, especially that kind which is less commonly understood and employed, unless he have lawful and sufficient cause for so doing; and on this side, all theologians, varying, as we shall see they do in the opinions they severally maintain, have unanimously ranged themselves.
This, then, is how Catholic theologians dealt with "the right to know" through 1854: not, like the Protestants following Grotius,1 as a constraint on the definition of a lie, but as a precept of the virtue of truth. Again, to understand an evil, we must first understand the good it opposes. By recognizing that the right to know is a positive precept associated with truth-telling, not a negative condition associated with lying, we keep in front of us the critical teaching that "lawful and sufficient cause" is needed for amphibology to be lawful.
We are quite aware that the account given above of the negative precept [against lying] lies open to the charge of being too limited in its scope and significance. It may be urged that this precept comprehends not merely man's right to true language, but also his right not to be led into error; that this latter right is as inalienable as the former; consequently, that the intention to deceive must be considered as much prohibited by the negative precept as the intention to say that which is false.

Thus we are told "whenever there is an attempt to deceive, whether by a material truth or by a material falsehood, there is moral falsehood." We were not likely to forget this fact, since it is conceded to the full by all our theologians, although some of them maintain with St. Thomas that the special malice of a lie, as such is to be sought from the intention of saying that which is false. But equivocations and mental reservations as held permissible by Catholic Divines cannot be objects forbidden by the negative precept in virtue of the intention to deceive which accompanies their use, for they are only allowable under the hypothesis that such intention be absent.
 To put it another way: It is always sinful to speak with intent to deceive. If we get hung up on definitions of lying, we are likely to overlook this fact, since telling a formal lie is not the only way of speaking with intent to deceive.

Now, it's all well and good to say you can't lawfully speak an equivocation if you intend to deceive. Why even make that distinction, though, if you can't practically speak an equivocation if you don't intend to deceive?
The establishing a false opinion in the mind of another is not necessary to obtain the desired effect, and therefore need not necessarily be included in the intention to that effect. All we need, in order to conceal the truth, is our hearer's ignorance, and this is all that is implied in our intention. The false opinion that may or may not be conceived by him, is an accident, which ordinarily we should take pains to prevent, but which in the cases supposed, we may, nay, sometimes are bound to permit. Very often, however, equivocation effects ignorance without error, for our hearer may suspect we are equivocating, still, unless he can be sure of the fact, he is not, for practical purposes, a bit the wiser; he is still in ignorance even as to the existence of our secret, which he would not be, if we directly refused to answer his question. Hence equivocation is often resorted to for courtesy's sake, e.g., People tell their servants to say, "not at home" to those visitors whom they do not wish admitted, instead of positively refusing to see them: because the equivocal nature of the phrase "not at home," leaves the visitor in a state of ignorance, and prevents his taking offense,

It may be objected further, that the use of words is to represent to others a conception existing in our minds; hence, to use language for any other purpose is plainly an abuse. To which we reply that an abuse consists in so using a thing as to contradict the end for which it was instituted. Now language was intended to represent thought,--1stly, absolutely, 2ndly, relatively; i.e., to our neighbor; but it was instituted for this latter end, only upon supposition of a right existing on our neighbor's part; it cannot then be said to be abused when not used for this end where no such right exists. It is abused, 1stly, when so used as to not represent thought at all; 2ndly, when so used as to be in itself, per se, the cause of error to another, because whatever is used to injure is abused, and man, as we have said, has an inalienable right of not being positively deceived. We deny, then, that to use language for any other purpose than plainly to signify our thoughts is an abuse, or that it is so limited to this one purpose, that the fact of our being obliged to speak, compels us to surrender knowledge which we should otherwise have had just cause for retaining.
The "not at home" example illustrates three points:
  1. Equivocal use of language depends on context; where there is no such social convention, "not at home" is an undiscoverable equivocation -- which is to say, a lie.
  2. The use of equivocation without intent to deceive doesn't require extraordinary circumstances. The visitor may well have certain knowledge a person is home, and therefore know for certain which meaning "not at home" has. The visitee's intent may be merely to not state that he does not want to see the visitor, without regard for the resulting state of the visitor's mind.
  3. The magnitude of the "lawful and sufficient cause" needed to use an equivocation is proportionate to the difficulty of discovering the equivocation. No one, I hope, would argue that not wanting to see a visitor is a rare and grave occasion akin to protecting someone from an unjust aggressor.
Having made that last point, let me play my rigorist card:

Left to its own, a human society will prefer immediate convenience over love of virtue. Discoverable equivocations will proliferate, to the point where it takes effort to make clear that one is speaking plainly and literally. In such an environment, the value of truthfulness will be debased. In such an environment, the Christian must speak plainly and literally, even when no one else does.


1. That'll fix the Catholic advocates of novel doctrine!

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Iron sharpens iron

Now, we fully grant that nothing can be sounder than to argue from the position of one doctrine to the amotion of another, and, vice versa, if the incompatibility of the two be proved: but if, instead of being proved, such incompatibility is only assumed, then that the whole conclusion founded thereupon is liable some day to find itself prostrate in the presence of a fact.
-- "St. Alphonsus and The Christian Remembrancer," The Dublin Review,  December 1854

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St. Alphonsus and The Christian Remembrancer, pt. 2

Having established that "theologians universally say" that "to exhibit externally some sign which does not correspond with the object as understood by the speaker...[with] the intention to deceive" is contrary to the natural law, the author of The Dublin Review article (after some words on the destructive effects of lying) moves on to the question of equivocation and mental reservation:
 It is to be observed, that in order to constitute moral truth a virtue, three conditions are necessary, proper time, proper place, and proper manner. It follows, then, that there may be occasions when not only are we not bound to speak the truth, but when to do so would be positive sin, as for example, would be the case were a priest to betray knowledge gained in the confessional, or were any one to reveal a secret told in confidence, or publish the faults of his neighbour. Hence it is plain that a person may be placed in circumstances of very great difficulty, where, on the one hand he is bound not to tell a lie, and on the other to prevent the discovery of his secret. In such cases as these Catholic theologians allow the use of equivocation and non-pure mental restriction, in order that is to satisfy the demands of justice, good faith, and charity. Another reason (less forcible perhaps, but yet not to be despised) is, that without some such doctrine it is impossible to explain certain facts and sayings to be found in Holy Scripture, instances of which will be given hereafter.
Here I would observe the order followed: 1) consideration of the virtue of truthfulness; 2) consideration of the vice of lying as directly opposed to truthfulness; 3) consideration of the nature of the evil of lying; and only then, 4) consideration of hard practical cases; and 5) consideration of Scriptural examples. The last two considerations do not change the conclusions of the first three, they add to them.

To define terms:
Equivocation: "a word or proposition representing more than one meaning"
Discoverable equivocation: "the meaning intended by the speaker is capable of being discovered either from the common use of the word in its various significations, or from circumstances which serve to indicate in what sense it is used"
Indiscoverable equivocation: "the words are so fixed by usage or circumstance to one meaning, as to render any other inappreciable, but which yields a true sense when taken in connection with something else"
Mental restriction: "a sentence, the wording of which, regarded in itself, represents a false meaning"
Pure mental restriction: "the reservation cannot, from the circumstances, or other external indications, be discovered"
Non-pure mental restriction: "the reservation is discoverable under the circumstances"
That's a lot of distinguishing, but Innocent XI's Sanctissimnus Dominus simplified the picture:
All indeterminable equivocations and pure mental reservations are absolutely forbidden, because they are mere lies.
 The question becomes, what can be said about discoverable equivocations and non-pure mental restrictions?

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

St. Alphonsus and The Christian Remembrancer, pt. 1

I found an article that gives a good summary of Catholic teaching on truthfulness, published in The Dublin Review in 1854 to counter an anti-Catholic attack -- really, an attack on a complete mischaracterization of St. Alphonsus's teaching on equivocation -- in The Christian Remembrancer.

The summary begins on page 337, and generally follows St. Thomas's approach to the virtue of truth. This leads to:
Since truth has been found to be a habit, having for its object-matter the agreement of thoughts and words, falsehood will look to a disagreement between the same, and to lie will be to exhibit externally some sign which does not correspond with the object as understood by the speaker; and the doing so intentionally will be formal lying. Hence its common definition -- Locutio seu significatio contra mentem.

Thus far all theologians agree, but here there arises a doubt and difference of opinion as to whether, over and above the intention of enunciating falsehood, the intention to deceive is not required as an essential part of the definition.
The Catechism, of course, includes "in order to lead someone into error" in its definition of lying, going with the Augustinian opinion rather than the Thomistic -- though that doesn't mean enunciating falsehood is never wrong absent the intent to deceive.

The author goes on to ask and answer a key question of practical morals:
Is a lie ever allowable? The answer to this question will depend upon what we make its intrinsic malice to consist in. The reader, of course, knows the difference between natural and positive law, i.e., the obligation binding by virtue of our natural constitution, and, consequently, for the most part recognizable by the light of unaided reason, and the obligation entrenching upon our liberty by a subsequent act of the Legislator... Matter falling under the one, is said to be forbidden because it is wrong; while that which falls under the other, is said to be wrong because it is forbidden. Now, theologians universally say, that a lie is something forbidden because it is wrong; hence it comes under the natural law, and can never in any case be lawful.
 Note that the answer is given in terms of what a lie is, not what a lie effects.

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Begin at the beginning

I've been trying to formulate my position on the question of what constitutes the sin of lying, and I keep coming back to someone else's formula: "locutio contra mentem." Speech contrary to thought is a sin.

That's a simple formula, which raises well-known difficulties. Here I'll just say I think it makes sense to put the complexities into the concept of "speech" rather than into the concept of "to lie."1 So, for example, I think St. Augustine notes a nuance St. Thomas seems to miss in distinguishing jokes from jocose lies.2

The point of this post, though, is this:

To go from this, or any other, definition of lying straight to the well-known difficulties is to go in the wrong direction.

That's because to give a definition of lying is to start in the middle of the discussion. Lying, like all sin, is a privation of a good, and if you don't understand the good that lying deprives you of, then you don't know which of the well-known difficulties to raise, or how to answer them.

As it is, I think most discussions on lying on Catholic blogs would confirm Charles Kingsley in his opinion that Catholics do not view truth for its own sake as a virtue. Even that last sentence illustrates the problem; why do I say "discussions on lying" rather than "discussions on truth-telling"?

If we don't understand the virtue of truth, then of course we're going to quibble and cavil over every jot and tittle in any definition of "to lie."3 Of course nothing will ever be settled.

And of course, we'll keep right on lying. Why wouldn't we, if we don't know the value of truth?


1.The formula "falsa significatio contra mentem" may, therefore, be a slightly better one, except that no one would believe "falsa significatio" is real Latin.

2. "Setting aside, therefore, jokes, which have never been accounted lies, seeing they bear with them in the tone of voice, and in the very mood of the joker a most evident indication that he means no deceit, although the thing he utters be not true: touching which kind of discourse, whether it be meet to be used by perfect minds, is another question which we have not at this time taken in hand to clear...." -- St. Augustine, On Lying 2. C.f. ST II-II 110, 3, ad 6, "a jocose lie... is not told to deceive, nor does it deceive by the way it is told."

3. Seriously. How many orphanages could have been built in the time Catholics have spent arguing about whether saying "I'm fine" when you're sick is a lie?

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Friday, July 06, 2012

Be a hero

All our life is sown with tiny thorns that produce in our hearts a thousand involuntary movements of hatred, envy, fear, impatience, a thousand little fleeting disappointments, a thousand slight worries, a thousand disturbances that momentarily alter our peace of soul. For example, a word escapes that should not have been spoken. Or someone utters another that offends us. A child inconveniences you. A bore stops you. You don't like the weather. Your work is not going according to plan. A piece of furniture is broken. A dress is torn.

I know that these are not occasions for practicing very heroic virtue. But they would definitely be enough to acquire it if we really wished to.
- St. Claude de la Colombière

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To tell the truth

Bl. John Henry Newman wrote Apologia Pro Vita Sua to counter charges against himself personally, and the Church generally, made by the Anglican priest Charles Kingsley, the first of which was:
Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not to be; that cunning is the weapon which Heaven has given to the saints wherewith to withstand the brute male force of the wicked world which marries and is given in marriage.
 In an appendix, he sums up the development of Catholic doctrine on truth-telling this way:
I think the historical course of thought upon the matter has been this: the Greek Fathers thought that, when there was a justa causa, an untruth need not be a lie. St. Augustine took another view, though with great misgiving; and, whether he is rightly interpreted or not, is the doctor of the great and common view that all untruths are lies, and that there can be no just cause of untruth. In these later times, this doctrine has been found difficult to work, and it has been largely taught that, though all untruths are lies, yet that certain equivocations, when there is a just cause, are not untruths.
In other words, and defining a "lie" as something that is necessarily sinful,
 Where, of course, the red circles bound the sinful acts. (Bl. John Henry goes on in some detail about the distinction between a play upon words, an evasion, and a common or garden equivocation.) (I might add that I've seen arguments to the effect that the "untruths" allowed by the Greek Fathers weren't all that different from the √¶quivocatio of St. Alphonsus Liguori, so it could be argued that the tradition really only varies from very rigorist to perfectly rigorist.)

Different theologians have different ideas about what constitutes a just cause, depending on their understanding of what makes lying sinful. If a lie is primarily a sin against justice -- that is, if it's object is to avoid giving to others something due to them -- then you could say that telling someone something contrary to what is in your mind is only a sin when they have a right to the truth; from there, you can develop a theory of when and how one loses the presumptive right to the truth.(It would be contrary to the Christian tradition, I'd say, to begin with the presumption that someone doesn't have the right to the truth.)

On the other hand, you might -- like St. Thomas -- regard telling the truth as a part of the virtue of justice, while also thinking that lying is sinful because it's unnatural. Then you would say that no cause justifies telling an untruth, because (pace Janet Smith) circumstances can't change the nature of speech. You might still, though, allow for certain equivocations, if you regard it as natural for words to signify more than one idea.

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Thursday, July 05, 2012

Whether sophistry is justified to achieve a good end that is unachievable through sound argument?

No.

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