instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, June 02, 2013

The weakest link

William Luse commented on my previous post, concluding:
Besides, for Catholics, isn't the prohibition against lying one of those things not up for negotiation?
As far as I know, the answer is no, there is no explicit, binding doctrinal statement that all lying is sinful -- more precisely (since there's not an explicit, binding doctrinal definition of "to lie"), that all spoken untruths are sinful.

The Catechism has often been cited as a source of both an explicit, binding doctrinal definition of "to lie" and of an explicit, binding doctrinal statement that all lying is sinful. The problem with these citations is that the Catechism is not a source of doctrinal definitions and statements, it is a reference and summary of them. In the case of lying as an offense against the truth (CCC 2482-2486), the primary sources are St. Augustine and the theologians who followed his opinion. Absent an explicit, binding doctrinal statement to the contrary, a Catholic can in good faith disagree with a theological opinion, even one held all but universally.

Now, I like to say that I don't care whether something is infallibly taught, I care whether it's true. And in the case of lying, I am convinced that it is true that all lies are sinful.

What occurred to me in replying to William's comment is that, in the ongoing debate as to whether all lying is sinful, the argument from authority -- that the prohibition against lying is not up for negotiation -- may positively harm the overall progress on behalf of [what I judge to be] the correct position. And it's not just that the argument from authority happens to be unsound in this case. I propose that an argument from authority always weakens the overall argument for any position.

The introduction of an argument from authority has the following two risks (note that I call these risks, not foregone conclusions that apply categorically and universally):

First, some will accept the argument, and therefore the conclusion, without ever comprehending the other, stronger arguments for the conclusion. Not only will these people be ill-prepared to defend the conclusion against anyone who rejects the argument from authority, they won't really understand the conclusion itself as anything other than a "Simon Peter Says" declaration. When the conclusion relates to morality, it will act in their lives as a sterile rule, rather than a seed for virtue.

Second, some will not accept the argument from authority, while inferring that it's the best the other side has got. If the big gun defending a disputed proposition is "Simon Peter Says," then that proposition can be overrun at will by anyone who doesn't give a hoot what Simon Peter says.

And now for a few comments on the above:

  1. I refer to "Simon Peter Says," but the risks generalize. The authority could be the National Academy of Sciences, or Wikipedia (I was going to write the Encyclopedia Britannica, until I remembered what millennium we're in), or Grandpa. It's just that errors relating to faith and morals are more important.
  2. Those who accept an argument from authority are those who submit to that authority, and those who don't submit won't accept. The first risk above is therefore highest among Catholics, and the second among non-Catholics (yes, "duh"). The net effect is an increase in Catholics with a fideistic take on the matter and in non-Catholics who think the Catholic position really is fideistic. The "check your mind at the door" charge becomes reinforced outside the Church and more accurate statistically speaking within the Church.
  3. None of the above is intended to disparage arguments from authority when they are necessary or appropriate. The certainty of the conclusion depends on the certainty that the authority is correct, and when the authority is God the certainty is certain. That kind of certainty allows theologians to explore the conclusion with a confidence that helps to illuminate it in ways the proof itself does not. By itself, "God says X" leaves X opaque, but we have an entire science of penetrating such revelations to increase our understanding of X (as well as of God, and even of the fact that God said X).