instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, February 28, 2010

A resolution

So how do I think Evangelium Vitae, which makes limiting the use of the death penalty to cases "when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society," and the Catechism, which uses the language of self-defense (e.g., "defending human lives against the unjust aggressor"), are to be understood as developing the doctrine of St. Thomas?

First, what do I know?

Second, I'm not convinced it's a development that goes beyond what the blessed John Paul II wrote in his encyclical (quoting, as it happens, a paragraph in the Catechism that was rewritten to accommodate what he wrote in EV); namely, that "bloodless means... to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons... better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person."

Moreover, in the same paragraph of EV (n. 56), the Pope does use the term "punishment" in reference to the death penalty three times. So it can hardly be claimed that the fact the Catechism doesn't call the death penalty a punishment means Church teaching has developed to the point that it is not regarded as a punishment.

Third, if you do want to think of the death penalty in terms of self-defense, it's a trivial matter:

Figure 4. The Death Penalty Considered as a Matter of Self-Defense.

See? There's no need to put it under the double effect rubric; St. Thomas long ago provided for the "referred to the common good" justification for killing done in the name of the one responsible for the common good. It's all there.

Granted, CCC 2263 might seem to argue that yes, warfare and execution are both double-effect cases:
The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. "The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one's own life; and the killing of the aggressor.... The one is intended, the other is not."65
But the internal quotation is from ST II-II, 64, 7, and refers explicitly and only to an individual acting on his own behalf.

That the Catechism should not be read as teaching that the legitimate defense of societies is always a matter of double effect is evident by the fact that doing so is absurd.


Saturday, February 27, 2010

The simple art of murder

On the off chance that someone both cares about and doesn't understand what's going on with the "What is the object of the act of execution?" question:

Here's a diagram of the types of killing St. Thomas discusses under the vice of murder, which he opposes to the virtue of justice:

Figure 1. Schema of ST II-II, 64, On Murder.

Now, nobody's arguing about killing plants, or about whether clerics may kill. So here's a subset of the above figure, with the justifications St. Thomas gives for those types of killing he considers lawful:

Figure 2. Schema of ST II-II, 64, articles 2, 3, & 7.

While of course St. Thomas is not himself the Magisterium, the Church has essentially adopted his teaching as her own.

There are those who maintain that the development of teaching that occurred under the pontificate of the blessed John Paul II -- in particular on the lawfulness of the death penalty, which St. Thomas considered a matter of a public authority killing a sinner for the sake of the common good -- constitutes a substantial change, such that executions and killing in warfare become subtypes of self-defense:

Figure 3. A Proposed, But Flawed, Interpretation of the Development of Church Teaching.

Not quite to-may-to, to-mah-to, since the claim is that the justification of both the death penalty and killing in warfare is the same as the justification of an individual killing an attacker in self-defense -- viz, double-effect reasoning, according to which only the saving of one's life is the intended effect and the slaying of the aggressor is the unintended effect, with only such force as is proportionate to self-defense being used.

This leads to the curious notion that a soldier may shoot an enemy soldier only if he does not intend to kill him, and the notion so ludicrous only an intellectual would believe it that an executioner may execute a criminal only if he does not intend to kill him.

UPDATED with a new caption for Figure 3, to make explicit my disapproval.


Friday, February 26, 2010


Jean Bethke Elshtain is kind of a big deal in political philosophy. She is not, however, a moral theologian, nor is she Catholic, so she makes an odd source for Marc Thiessen to quote (introducing her as "one of America's great moral theologians") in explaining the Catholic moral concept of casuistry.

Still, the author gets to choose his own sources, and if his editor okays it he's good to go.

Now, though, I read this in a New York Times's article about the Thiessen affair:
Jean Bethke Elshtain, of the University of Chicago, said that while soldiers or politicians might have to commit necessary evils sometimes, they "still stand convicted before God, if you are thinking theologically."

"The necessary evil means precisely that: it is both 'necessary' and 'evil,'" she said. "So the worst thing that can happen is to make something like waterboarding legally acceptable."
Assuming the reporter didn't mangle it (and from that last sentence, mangling what comes before is a distinct possibility), Professor Elshtain thinks something can be both necessary and evil.

So we have a political speechwriter who doesn't know what "wrong" means turning to a political philosopher who doesn't know what "evil" means for moral instruction.

And what do you know? Waterboarding wins!

(NYT link via Coalition for Clarity.)



Amateur theologizing

Phillip and I are engaged in a discussion in the comments on this post on the nature of licit capital punishment. He opened with this comment:
I suspect the moral object in the death penalty is not the taking of life. Rather the moral object seems to be defense against an unjust attack.
My reply:
Yeah, except if he's still alive, they throw the switch again.
We kicked this thesis around some, and I've formulated my position thusly:
It is absolutely, utterly ludicrous to say that an executioner does not intend to execute his victim.

Someone who says so is likely engaged in the rankest of sophistry.

There remains the possibility, however, that he's just being an idiot.

But yeah: Sophist, idiot, or both. Those are the possibilities.
To expound on the possibilities: If you say the executioner does not intend to execute his victim and know it's sophistry, then you're a sophist. If you say it and don't know it's sophistry, then you're an idiot.

I gather that there are good intentions in saying such ludicrous things as "in using lethal force against a dangerous criminal, the state is justified only in using force proportionate to render him incapable of causing harm; if he dies as an consequence, his death would have to remain praeter intentionem (i.e., unintended)." After all, Evangelium Vitae does change the Church's teaching on capital punishment, and it's the job of theologians to understand the implications.

However, as I commented to Phillip, the blessed John Paul II was no sophist, so to read him as saying the executioner does not intend the death of the executed is to misread him.

I would also suggest that theologians ought to pick their heads up from time to time and actually listen to what they're saying.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Epistles are written by the winners

We were talking about St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians at our Lay Fraternities of Saint Dominic chapter meeting last night. (For my Catholic readers, that's the one he wrote when he was stomping mad that people were saying you had to follow the Jewish Law to be Christian.)

The thought occurred that the Judaizers (as they're called) who come under St. Paul's fire and brimstone ("if anyone preaches to you a gospel other than the one that you received, let that one be accursed!") probably didn't know they were Judaizers. I expect they considered themselves orthodox Christians, fighting the good fight against old Paganizer Paul.

Jewish Christianity is what they had seen, been taught, and lived for a decade or more before all this nonsense about Gentile Christianity started being spread about. How were they to know that they were the villains of the piece? Jesus Himself told people to listen to the Pharisees, and that He had not come to abolish the Law. Who was Paul of Tarsus to say otherwise?

I take two things from this line of thought:

First, a reminder that it's a good idea to try to distinguish error from motive, and leave judging the motive to God.

Second, an awareness that anyone can mistake the incidental for the essential, if they do not keep their eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, Who gave Himself for our sins.


Team-building exercise

Don't you just hate what They do?



It's looking like my new and improved bodily integrity -- now fortified with natural functions! -- doesn't really fly, in that (to take up Tommy's suggested phrase) we can lose the use of a natural function through means that are not really directed against bodily integrity as the term has traditionally been understood.

I'd still say, though, that we can talk about natural functions -- meaning the functions of movement, nutrition, reproduction, thought, and so forth that accord with human nature -- as a consequence of bodily integrity, in that a body with full integrity is capable of all natural functions (or possesses them at least in potency, or some such way of putting it).

Saying it the right way round, bodily integrity is the state of the body being whole and capable of functioning according to its nature. (I had "unwounded" in there, too, but if bruises, stripes, and the like are understood as contrary to wholeness, then I think it's implied by the other two conditions; also, this way bodily integrity is defined entirely in terms of possessing goods rather than lacking evils.)

In which case, acts touching on bodily integrity must touch on the wholeness and capability of natural functions of the body, but -- contrary to my previous suggestion -- acts that touch only on the circumstantial ability of the body to exercise natural functions which it possesses the potential to exercise do not touch on bodily integrity directly, but only by analogy.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A question of integrity

An objection Tommy raised to my argument in this post causes me to think a little harder about what constitutes respect for the bodily integrity of the human person.

In Casti Connubii, his 1930 encyclical on Christian marriage, Pope Piux XI writes:
70. Public magistrates have no direct power over the bodies of their subjects; therefore, where no crime has taken place and there is no cause present for grave punishment, they can never directly harm, or tamper with the integrity of the body, either for the reasons of eugenics or for any other reason. St. Thomas teaches this when inquiring whether human judges for the sake of preventing future evils can inflict punishment, he admits that the power indeed exists as regards certain other forms of evil, but justly and properly denies it as regards the maiming of the body. "No one who is guiltless may be punished by a human tribunal either by flogging to death, or mutilation, or by beating." [ST II-II,108,4,ad 2]

71. Furthermore, Christian doctrine establishes, and the light of human reason makes it most clear, that private individuals have no other power over the members of their bodies than that which pertains to their natural ends; and they are not free to destroy or mutilate their members, or in any other way render themselves unfit for their natural functions, except when no other provision can be made for the good of the whole body.
Integrity of the human body entails a kind of physical "wholeness," a wholeness of both physical completeness and natural functions -- or, if you prefer, of a physical completeness that itself entails the ability to function naturally.

I think everyone agrees that the sort of physical wholeness confirmable by physical inspection is a part of bodily integrity, so that any sort of intentional wounding of the body -- severing, stabbing, flogging, crushing, and so forth -- is an act directed against bodily integrity.

I'm not sure how far down the "natural functions" path everyone is willing to travel. I'd suggest, though, that if the Church counts having children as a natural function the impedance of which is contrary to bodily integrity, then such things as standing and stretching would also count. If crippling someone so that he can no longer stand is contrary to his bodily integrity, then would not binding him so that he can't stand also be?

Note that I haven't mentioned morality yet. (The Pope did, in the words I quoted, but he's allowed to.) To this point I'm just trying to scope the term "bodily integrity," and in particular to include within its scope the notion of the ability of the body to function naturally -- which is to say, to function according to the nature of the human body.

Another example of what I'm trying to suggest: It is a natural function of the human body to see. Insofar as an act renders a body unfit to see, the act is contrary to bodily integrity. So now I'm wondering, how far does the act of blindfolding render a body unfit to see?


Monday, February 22, 2010

Quis, quid, ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando

Things really heat up in ST I-II, 7, 3. Who isn't dying to know whether the circumstances are properly set forth in Ethic. iii?

In the article, "Whether the circumstances are properly set forth in the third book of Ethics?," St. Thomas characterizes the different ways something can be the accident of an act and enumerates these ways as (more or less) those circumstances identified by both Aristotle and by Cicero (in On Invention):

CircumstanceWhat it touchesHow it touches
TIMEthe act itselfby way of measure
PLACEthe act itselfby way of measure
MODE OF ACTINGthe act itselfby qualifying the act
WHATthe effectn/a
WHYthe cause of the actfinal cause
ABOUT WHATthe cause of the actmaterial cause
WHOthe cause of the actprincipal efficient cause
BY WHAT AIDSthe cause of the actinstrumental efficient cause

"Time" and "place" are pretty straightforward.

The "mode of acting" is, you might say, the adverb of the act. It modifies the act in a way worth mentioning, but not in a way that changes what the act itself is. The examples St. Thomas provides are of a man walking quickly or slowly and of a man striking hard or softly.

The "what" of the act is the act's immediate effect. If I am baking a pie, the what of my act is (God willing) a baked pie. It may seem a bit odd to say that "what is done" is only a circumstance, an accident, of the act, and not the act itself. In fact, we do often conflate the act with its effect. We might, for example, speak of the act of saving someone from drowning, when strictly speaking "saving someone from drowning" is really the effect of the act of jumping into the lake and drawing the person out.

"Why" is just what it sounds like.

The "about what" (which, St. Thomas says, Cicero includes in the "what") is simply the material or stuff that what is done is done to; the ingredients of my pie, for example.

"Who" is who, and "by what aids" are the circumstantial tools or instruments used by the "who" upon the "about what" to effect the "what".

All good to know. But what really glitters like a diamond in this article is the reply to objection 3, which objection says that "the causes of an act seem to belong to its substance," so why, about what, who, and by what aids shouldn't count as circumstances.



Send them over here

A report that the issue of reducing the number of dioceses in Ireland was mentioned by Cardinals Giovanni Battista Re and Tarcisio Bertone(prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and Vatican Secretary of State, respectively) during meetings last week with the Irish bishops reminds one that the U.S. could sure use a few new dioceses. It wouldn't be the first time the Irish Church has provided assistance to us.

I think in particular of the monster archdioceses like Los Angeles (rumors of its division are already bouncing around) and Chicago (six auxiliary bishops = one fat clue), though I can't help but think, parochially (ha), that my own Archdiocese of Washington could use another suffragan diocese. Not that there's anything wrong with the Diocese of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, but -- and I say this with great respect for my brothers and sisters in Christ who, under Bishop Harper, make the Gospel of Jesus Christ present where they live -- visions of rum swizzles do little to add to the gravitas of Washingon's portfolio.

(First link via Luke Coppen's Morning Catholic must-reads.)


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Torture's not so bad!

It would seem that American-style waterboarding of prisoners for information is not torture. Torture causes persistent physical and/or psychological damage to the victim. But American-style waterboarding of prisoners for information does not cause persistent physical and/or psychological damage to the victim. Therefore, American-style waterboarding of prisoners for information is not torture.

I reply, torture is physical or moral violence directed against the bodily integrity of the victim, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says (n. 2297). But offenses against bodily integrity need not cause persistent effects, as is shown by the fact that kidnapping and hostage-taking are also offenses against the bodily integrity of the victim, and they need cause persistent effects no more than waterboarding. So the absence of persistent effects is not proof that an act is not torture.

A speculation: People often think of torture as necessarily causing persistent injury because most methods of torture actually do, or at least can, cause persistent injury. The combination of a will to torture and a will to avoid persistent injury is relatively rare in history.

An observation: I didn't mention this in my reply because it's not necessary to refute the argument in the first paragraph, but: The truth of that argument's other premise -- "American-style waterboarding of prisoners for information does not cause persistent physical and/or psychological damage to the victim" -- is by no means established. In particular, it is not established by anecdotal accounts of American-style waterboarding of SERE trainees, for two reasons. First, among the many circumstantial differences between waterboarding prisoners and waterboarding trainees is the difference in relationship between the waterboarder and the waterboardee, and among the differences that follow from the difference in relationship is that being waterboarded is a different psychological experience for a prisoner than it is for a trainee. The second reason anecdotal accounts of SERE trainees does not establish that prisoners do not suffer persistent injury is that some anecdotal accounts of SERE trainees include persistent psychological injury.

UPDATED with an observation.



Thursday, February 18, 2010

Soup stock

Another good link from T.S. O'Rama, this one to a piece by Mrs. Darwin on inspirational blogging:
I've grown very wary of the pretty conclusion, the spiritual lesson learned, the great insight gained through the grind of daily life. I know why writers use this trick, and I've done it myself -- hard up for something, anything, to post, I remember this little anecdote that could just do for posting if I can put some little inspirational twist on it. And people seem to eat the stuff up, so it must be fine, right?

Of course people draw inspirational conclusions from daily life all the time. What I find tiresome is the... craftedness of it all.
Reminding me of Chesterton's answer to criticisms of those who write for effect; to paraphrase, "What the devil shall we write for? Effectlessness?"

The counter-counter-criticism would be, "Effected writing isn't effective."

Mrs. Darwin continues:
I don't even want inspiration from the internet anymore. I've been trying to immerse myself in Scripture, reading passages from the Wisdom literature each night. This is real. This is what can reach into my soul and open me to God in a way that reading a blog can never emulate. Who can say anything that Qoheleth didn't cover 23 centuries ago?

... I love good, true writing -- not flashy, not gimmicky, not designed to lift me up or force a life lesson or "make me think". Bloggers can do the writing and I'll do my own thinking, without a serving of Chicken Soup for the internet soul.
I look at my own chicken soup posts as bread upon the waters: If there's a duck out there who eats it (and some uninspired posts of mine have been reported to really hit the spot), good! But I shouldn't insist on it happening, or even bet on it, and I certainly shouldn't think of writing it as a solemn duty.


Java and jive

T.S. O'Rama offers a Mother Angelica anecdote on coffee and Lent:
The caller was wrestling over whether or not, or even if she could, surrender coffee as a Lenten penance.

Mother listened for a minute and told her all she heard in her voice was "Coffee!" ... Mother suggested the lady have one cup each morning, for her sanity, and give up coffee the rest of the day. That way, with coffee out of the way, she wouldn't be obssessing over coffee all day, could more easily give it up later in the day, and concentrate on other devotion, not to mention the rest of her life, instead.
Coincidentally, I've been wondering whether, and how seriously, to propose breaking your self-imposed Lenten fasts every Thursday (to pick a convenient day). That way, the fasts won't become ends in themselves.



Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Of the circumstances of human acts, pt. 1

St. Thomas discusses the circumstances of human acts in the four articles of ST I-II, 7.

In article 1, he defines circumstances as "conditions [that] are outside the substance of an act, and yet in some way touch the human act." (This means that the circumstances of an act are its accidents -- an accident being something that belongs to something but doesn't belong to the thing's substance -- but the term "accident" probably doesn't add much nowadays to that definition.)

In particular, circumstances touch the human act by being in the actor together with the act. So, as we'll find out, when an act occurs is always a circumstance of an act, even if when it occurs plays no part in either the actor's will or in the overall morality. (A thief who steals whatever he can whenever he can, for example, takes no account of the circumstances of when he steals, nor does when he steals something affect the morality of his theft.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself, since it's not until article 2 that St. Thomas proposes that circumstances are a matter of interest to the theologian. He gives three reasons:
  1. Whether an act is proportionate to the final end of man's happiness is determined in part by its proportionality to the circumstances.
  2. Circumstances make human acts better or worse from a moral perspective (his proof coming later on), and this is a theological subject.
  3. Ignorance of circumstances can affect whether an act is voluntary or involuntary (or non-voluntary), as was mentioned in article 8 of the previous question. An act has to be voluntary for it to be meritorious, and whether an act is meritorious is a question for the theologian.
I find it a little odd that he phrases the article around the question of whether circumstances should be considered by theologians, rather than considered by the science of theology. They're equivalent, as far as I can tell, but it seems more personal to talk in terms of persons rather than fields of study, and the Summa Theologiae is for the most part not a very personal textbook. My ignorant guess, based only on the repeated references to oratory in this question (especially objection 3 of article 2), is that the students he wrote for, having already studied circumstances in their rhetoric classes, really would ask the question that way: "Why is a theologian, of all people, talking about circumstances?"



Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What does "pro-life" mean?

Politically speaking, "pro-life" is the term groups founded to oppose legal abortion settled on to describe themselves. They've got first dibs on the expression. If you want to complain that in practice "pro-life" just means "anti-abortion," go wait in line for the time machine.*

While they're waiting, though, what do we say to the people who insist that opposing plastic water bottles is also a pro-life issue?

My proposal is to use the Catechism to provide a framework for "life issues" that is as good as any and better than most.

Here is the Catechism's framework for discussing the Fifth Commandment, "You shall not kill" (click to enlarge):

I propose, then, that for an organization, social program, political platform, etc., to be legitimately called "pro-life," it is necessary and sufficient that
  • it advocate a correct position on at least one of the above issues; and
  • it advocate an incorrect position on none of the above issues
(Individual Catholics, of course, are to hold correct positions on all the issues, and advocate for them as prudence dictates.)

* The line for the time machine starts anywhere. Just leave a note saying where you're waiting.


Monday, February 15, 2010

To those Catholic Democrats Republicans who think abortion torture is chiefly used as an excuse to vote for those wicked Republicans Democrats,

I have a question and an observation.

The question: What does it say about your party that this is an issue that could be used as an excuse to vote for the other party?

The observation: Your party can make it go away as a political issue by explicitly and meaningfully rejecting any endorsement of it.



Comment policy update

My Haloscan-era comment policy was one of reserving the right to delete and edit comments and to ban commenters in a purely capricious manner.

This remains intact, though I don't actually seem to be able to edit comments or ban commenters with Blogger.

This part is new: I reserve the right to refer to any anonymous commenter as "Mr. Bimbim," and to treat their comments as though they were the playful antics of a fluffy wuffy cutie patootie doggy woggy. My intent is to irritate anonymous commenters into using the "Name/URL" option -- and, obviously, to entertain myself.


The eyes of Luke

What struck me in hearing yesterday's Gospel proclaimed were these words:
And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said....
In preaching both the Beatitudes and the, er, Woeitudes, Jesus has his eyes on His disciples.

For what it's worth, here are all the verses in Luke that, in the NAB translation, mention eyes (I leave out one mention of the eye of a needle):

Eyes that see:
  • Lk 1:6 Both were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. Describing Zechariah and Elizabeth
  • Lk 2:29-30: "Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation...." The Canticle of Simeon.
  • Lk 6:20: And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours...." The Beatitudes.
  • Lk 16:22-23: "The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side." The parable of Dives and Lazarus
Eyes that want to see, but don't:
  • Lk 4:20-21: Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, "Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing." Jesus preaching in the Nazareth synagogue.
  • Lk 6:41ff: Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?, etc.
  • Lk 19:41-42 :As he drew near, he saw the city and wept over it, saying, "If this day you only knew what makes for peace--but now it is hidden from your eyes." Jesus approaches Jerusalem
  • Lk 24:15-16,31: And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. ... With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight. The road to Emmaus
Contrasting eyes that see with eyes that don't see:
  • Lk 10:23-24: Turning to the disciples in private he said, "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it."
  • Lk 11:34: "The lamp of the body is your eye. When your eye is sound, then your whole body is filled with light, but when it is bad, then your body is in darkness."
Eyes that dare not see:
  • Lk 18:13: "But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'" The parable of the Pharisee and the publican.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

A general objection

It would seem that American-style waterboarding of prisoners is not torture. American-style waterboarding of prisoners is specified by the object of pouring water into the nose and mouth of a person. This is the same object as American-style waterboarding of SERE trainees, and American-style waterboarding of SERE trainees is not considered wrong in itself, much less torture. Since they share the same object, and differ only in circumstances and intention, they must share the same objective moral quality. And since American-style waterboarding of SERE trainees is regarded as objectively moral, so must American-style waterboarding of prisoners be regarded as objectively moral. But torture is objectively immoral, as the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults says. Therefore, American-style waterboarding of prisoners cannot be regarded as torture.

I reply, a description of the object of an act is not necessarily identical to the object itself. The description may be too general, encompassing multiple acts with different specific ends, as for example "undue foretelling of the future" describes both divination by dreams and divination by demons, which are two distinct acts that are further specified by the circumstances through which the foretelling occurs. The description may also be too narrow, failing to specify any proper end or set of ends of the will; this happens, for example, if the description is excessively physical, as with "to push someone," which is only a part of multiple distinct objects such as "to help someone by pushing them" and "to injure someone by pushing them."

Thus, the fact that the objects of both American-style waterboarding of SERE trainees and American-style waterboarding of prisoners can be described as "to pour water into the nose and mouth of a person" does not demonstrate that they are the same species of moral act, nor prove that American-style waterboarding of prisoners is not torture. In particular, it seems to be an example of a too-narrow description that fails to specify one or more proper ends of the will, as waterboarding for training would seem to be an act related to fortitude and waterboarding for interrogation of prisoners an act related to justice.

UPDATED for brevity and (one hopes) general improvement.



Friday, February 12, 2010

Fear, concupiscence, and ignorance

Sounds like the motto of my college newspaper, but actually they're the topics of the last three articles of ST I-II, 6, on the voluntary and the involuntary in relation to human acts.

In article 6, St. Thomas (following Aristotle and St. Gregory of Nyssa) teaches that things done through fear are essentially voluntary. Fear regards a future evil as something to be avoided, but we can only act in the here and now, when that future evil does not yet exist. Sailors who throw their cargo overboard in a storm do so voluntarily; given their knowledge, they genuinely wish to lighten the ship. Still, throwing their cargo overboard is contrary to their will apart from the circumstances of the storm, so he allows that acting through fear is involuntary in that respect.

In article 7, he says that, not only does concupiscence not cause involuntariness, but it makes things voluntary. Concupiscence causes us to desire evil things, thinking them good. The desire is real, even if the goodness of what is desired is not.

Article 8 introduces a threefold relationship between ignorance and the act of the will. An actor may be ignorant of something regarding his act voluntarily -- either because he wishes not to know or because he has chosen not to learn what he can and should know. If an actor weren't ignorant, he might still do what he's doing in ignorance. St. Thomas proposes the following relationships between ignorance and willing:
  • When an actor doesn't know he's doing what he's doing, but would still do it if he weren't ignorant, that's concomitant ignorance, and makes the act, not involuntary, but "non-voluntary," "since that which is unknown cannot be actually willed."
  • When an actor is voluntarily ignorant of something that, if he knew it, would cause him to act differently, that's consequent ignorance. Since the ignorance is voluntary, it can't make the act involuntary. (Except in respect of what would happen otherwise. This "voluntary simply, but involuntary in a certain respect" is similar to St. Thomas's treatment of fear in article 6; I usually see it talked about in terms of "culpable ignorance.")
    For what it's worth, St. Thomas distinguishes two kinds of consequent ignorance. One happens when you wish not to know something that, if you knew, would prevent you from doing something you want to do. This he calls "affected ignorance." The other, "ignorance of evil choice," happens when you will something without considering something you ought to consider before willing it; this, he says, can occur through some passion or habit, or simply because you never took the trouble to learn something you should have learned.
  • When an actor is not voluntarily ignorant, and would do something else if he weren't ignorant, it's antecedent ignorance and does cause involuntariness.
I think, though it doesn't say explicitly, that concommitance trumps consequence. That is, if an actor is unwittingly doing something he would wish to do if he knew he were doing it, then he can't be acting in voluntary ignorance, since he has no particular wish to be ignorant about it.

On the other hand, voluntary ignorance of things an actor can and should know broadens the scope of his ignorance, and so increases the chance he will unwittingly do something he would do even if he weren't ignorant. So a man who kills his enemy, thinking he is killing a deer, when he should have known he was killing his enemy, is guilty of imprudence but not murder.

UPDATED with a description of affected ignorance and ignorance of evil choice.



Thursday, February 11, 2010

Violence and the will

In articles 4 and 5 of ST I-II, 6, St. Thomas addresses how violence can affect the will and the voluntariness of acts.

Violence in this context means an outside force acting against an interior inclination. A violent shove, for example, might act against your interior inclination to walk down the street.

In article 4, St. Thomas says that violence cannot be done directly to the will. He describes the act of the will as twofold: the "immediate act" of the will that we might call "to wish"; and an act of the will commanded by the act of wishing, which in turn commands a person's other powers to fulfill that wish (by, for example, walking somewhere or saying something).

While violence can certainly prevent a person from walking somewhere or saying something, it can't prevent a person who wishes to do so from wishing to do so.

(Violence can cause a person to wish something he wouldn't have wished if not for the violence, but that's not the same as preventing him from wishing something he is wishing.)

The fact that violence can't be done directly to the will doesn't, however, mean that violence can't cause involuntariness, as St. Thomas shows in article 5. The acts of the will are all voluntary, so whatever acts against the will is called involuntary. (Similarly, whatever acts against the natural appetite is called unnatural.) If I am forced by violence to sit where I do not wish to sit, then my sitting is involuntary (and therefore not an act that is either good or evil).



The voluntary and the involuntary, pt. 1

As St. Thomas puts it, "those acts are properly called human which are voluntary, because the will is the rational appetite, which is proper to man." In ST I-II, 6, he discusses what makes an act voluntary, and what might make what would otherwise be a voluntary act involuntary.

In Article 1, he distinguishes voluntary acts and natural acts (his example of a natural act is a stone falling). Both are acting upon a principle that is intrinsic or internal to the actor, but in a voluntary act there is knowledge of the end or purpose of the act.

In Article 2, he argues that irrational animals can act voluntarily, with "imperfect knowledge" exercised "through their senses and their natural estimative power."

In Article 3, he identifies two ways in which you can speak of something as "voluntary" even when there is no corresponding act: you can perform the internal act of willing not to act (e.g., "I think I won't help him up"); or you can fail to perform even the internal act of willing in a situation when you can and ought to act. Thus, though St. Thomas doesn't mention it here, we can speak of "sins of omission," even understanding that each sin is a chosen act.



Monday, February 08, 2010

A basic review

Professional torture apologist1 Marc Thiessen likes to quote a salacious passage2 from Henry Charles Lea's A History of the Inquisition of Spain as a way of demonstrating that "even a remote comparison" between what the Bush Administration (in which Thiessen worked as a speechwriter) did to its prisoners and what the Spanish Inquisition did to its prisoners is a "canard," a "ridiculous argument" that "even a basic review of the facts makes clear" can only be made by someone "completely uninformed."

Here's the full passage:

The water-torture was more complicated. The patient was placed on an escalera or potro
--a kind of trestle, with sharp-edged rungs across it like a ladder.
It slanted so that the head was lower than the feet and,
at the lower end was a depression in which the head sank,
while an
band around the forehead or throat kept it immovable.
Sharp cords, called cordeles, which cut into the flesh, attached the arms and legs to the side of the trestle and others, known as garrotes, from sticks thrust in them and twisted around like a tourniquet till the cords cut more or less deeply into the flesh, were twined around the upper and lower arms, the thighs and the calves; a bostezo, or iron prong, distended the mouth,
a toca, or strip of linen,was thrust down the throat
to conduct water trickling slowly from a jarra or jar, holding usually a little more than a quart. The patient strangled and gasped and suffocated and, at intervals, the toca was withdrawn and he was adjured to tell the truth.
The severity of the infliction was measured by the number of jars consumed, sometimes reaching to six or eight.

The right-hand column contains the bits that, I assume, Thiessen thinks justifies his claim:
Needless to say, none of this even remotely resembles what was done by the CIA.
The left-hand column contains the bits that resemble what was done by the CIA. If that's too many words, let me edit it down to this:
The patient strangled and gasped and suffocated....
What explains his need to make, repeatedly, the laughable claim that pouring water into the nose and throat of a man strapped upside down to a table doesn't even remotely resemble pouring water into the nose and throat of a man strapped upside down to a trestle?

I've already mentioned Thiessen's consequentialism, though I should add that, as far as I can tell, he is at least a sincere consequentialist. That is, he seems to honestly believe that, if waterboarding saves lives, then it can't be wrong. (I contrast this with a cynical consequentialism, according to which, if waterboarding saves lives, then who cares whether it's wrong.)

And so we find him making statements like this:
I feel obligated to respond, to defend the honor of the courageous men and women of the CIA who kept us safe and who cannot defend themselves.
For a consequentialist, honorable end implies honorable means -- and honorable human beings.

Having started down this path, though, the cordeles can only tighten. If the CIA agents Thiessen has spoken to had good intentions -- and I have no reason to doubt their good intentions -- then they are honorable people, and if honorable people do honorable things, then what they did can't be dishonorable, so what they did can't be torture. And if what they did can't be torture, then what makes "water-torture" torture can't be the water, can't be the strangling and gasping and suffocating, so it must be the cruelty with which the victim is held in place.

And if a moment's thought shows how ridiculous that is, then a moment's thought shows that these honorable people did something dishonorable. But that's impossible, so a moment's thought is impossible, so a moment's thought must be avoided by declaring the thought a canard, ridiculous, completely uninformed, near-perfect ignorance.

The result is a best-selling apologist for torture whose argument reduces to, "Is not, is not, is not!"

1. Marc Thiessen would deny being a torture apologist, because he denies waterboarding is torture. I see no reason to follow him in his confusion. That he is a professional apologist he can't deny, since he's written an apologetical book on the subject.

2. It's a small point, but let me make it: Henry Charles Lea, though a respected historian of his day, wrote with a marked anti-Catholic bias. Thiessen, then, would have us compare a description of one activity written by someone biased against the organization sponsoring it with a description of a similar activity written by someone biased in favor of the organization sponsoring it. This is not to say either description is inaccurate, merely that the author's bias will naturally affect the description given, and that comparison between two descriptions ought to account for these differences.



Boy, I don't know about this one

On the one hand, Dominicans.

On the other hand, Oprah.

I'm just not... I can't really....

Oh, well. I report, you decide.


Sunday, February 07, 2010

Brother Know-it-all's Rules for Good Blogging

#17: If you have drafted a post that will leave readers unsure whether you're that dumb or that dishonest, then you should delete the post and link to a video of cute kittens.


Saturday, February 06, 2010

I'd appreciate it

The only people cooler than lay brothers are cloistered nuns.


Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Where does God's presence need to be made known?

There are a couple of prayers in Morning Prayer for the Feast of the Presentation that suggested something new to me:
You are the consolation of Israel, recognised by the righteous man Simeon when he saw you in the temple:
make us recognise you in our brethren.
Lord, may our eyes see your salvation.

You are the hope of the nations, preached by the prophetess Anna to all who looked for the redemption of Israel:
teach us to speak properly of you.
Lord, may our eyes see your salvation.
I sometimes wonder about Anna. We get more of a biography of her than of many people mentioned in the Gospels, yet not one word of her prophecy or preaching.

Maybe -- and don't bother checking Luke for scriptural support, because I'm just making this up -- one reason Simeon and Anna are both mentioned is to signify the dual role of prophecy: to speak to the Church and to speak to the nations. Simeon blessed and encouraged the Holy Family. Anna spoke to all who were awaiting the redemption of Israel.

The Church needs both kinds of prophets -- or maybe I should say both kinds of prophecies, since each of us is able, in some way, to do both.


Monday, February 01, 2010

There's no such thing as unchosen sin

Calumny, as you know, is the act of making a remark contrary to the truth that harms the reputation of another.

Suppose a friend asks you for your opinion about a local tradesman. You reply, "That guy? He does shoddy work at a higher price than his competitors."

This is fine, if you happen to know that he does shoddy work at a higher price than his competitors.

But if he doesn't, you've committed the sin of calumny.

Now, what if your friend mispronounced the name of the tradesman, one who happens to be competent and inexpensive, or if your memory of the tradesman's quality and price is faulty through no fault of your own? Suppose you make an honest mistake, and unwittingly tell your friend something that is contrary to the truth that harms the tradesman's reputation. Assuming you aren't culpable for the mistake, then you have not committed calumny.

But... we still have a remark contrary to the truth being spoken. We still have harm to a reputation.

Where'd the calumny go?

Calumny is a sin, which means it's an act chosen by a moral actor. But if you've made an honest mistake, then you have not chosen to make a remark contrary to the truth. If you don't make a choice, you don't commit a sin.

It's not that, objectively speaking, calumny happened but you aren't culpable. Calumny didn't happen.


Moral math!
For a just man shall fall seven times...
If he's a just man, though, he must have the habit of justice, which means he habitually doesn't fall.

I don't know of a hard and fast rule for determining whether someone does something habitually, so let me propose for the sake of argument that you need to do something right at least twice as often as you do it wrong for you to be said to have the habit of doing it right.

If the just man falls seven times, then, he doesn't fall at least fourteen times.

Traditionally, the proverb has been interpreted as meaning that the just man falls seven times a day. Thus we have (rounding down) a minimum of twenty opportunities a day for the just man to fall.

Is there any reason to suppose that the just man has more opportunities than anyone else? We might suppose his reputation has put him in a position to make more choices than the average person, but in general I think we can get away with 20 as a threshold number of moral choices people make every day.

In any event, we surely all make more than 20 choices a day, and we might notionally rank them in decreasing order of how much intellect and will are brought to bear on them. The choice of answering an email might rank higher than the choice of passing a slow car, which might rank higher than the choice of putting a dirty spoon in the sink.

Of your notional Top 20 Moral Choices on a typical day, how many of them would you say are real puzzlers?

We Internet natterers spend a great deal of time nattering about identical twins and violent lunatics and amnesia and amputating arms and all the cool scenarios that test the boundaries of how moral principles are formulated and how moral action is analyzed.

But [almost] nobody spends much time at all actually living and acting in these scenarios. Ordinarily, our choices are ordinary. Ordinarily, the moral issue isn't whether I knew or ought to have known that the gun was loaded. Ordinarily, the moral issue is whether what I choose to do is something I, and everyone else, know or ought to know is right.