Silence is not evidence of approval

July 28, 2012 § 4 Comments

In Catholic circles, I seem to find this argument or cognates of it everywhere:

“Lots of good people are arguing that X.  X pertains to a really important issue, and the Pope hasn’t condemned X.  Surely X would have been condemned by the Church if it were wrong, because it is so important.   So the fact that the Church hasn’t condemned X supports the argument that X.”

Elizabeth Anscombe has pointed out that “The argument from the silence of the Holy See has itself been condemned by the Holy See”.  (Warning: evil PDF format).  Some people might not want to take Anscombe’s word for it though.

Anscombe’s citation from Denzinger on this is number 1127. It is from a list of “Various Errors on Moral Matters,” condemned in a decree of Sept 24, 1665 by Pope Alexander VII. In my version of Denzinger it is on page 321, and reads in English translation as follows (this is a condemned proposition):

“If a book be published by a younger or modern person, its opinion should be considered as probable, since it has not been rejected by the Holy See as improbable.”

I don’t know what word in what language in the 1665 manuscript was translated as “book”, but I think it would be reasonable to assume that it refers to published opinion.   So the fact that there is lots of published opinion (blog posts, op eds, or general bloviating anywhere) that X and the Holy See has not condemned X, does not provide evidence for the truth of X.

Taking the silence of the Holy See as evidence of approval isn’t just a fallacy.  It is a heresy.

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§ 4 Responses to Silence is not evidence of approval

  • William Luse says:

    I’ve read it before, of course, but re-read the Anscombe essay anyway. God, I love that woman.

    One passage puzzles me. She says: ” But human pride and malice are everywhere so strong that now, with the fading of Christianity from the mind of the West, this morality [forbidding murder of the innocent] once more stands out as a demand which strikes pride- and fear-ridden people as too intransigent. For Knox, it seemed so obvious as to be dull; and he failed to recognize the bloody and beastly records that it accompanies for the dry truthfulness about human beings that so characterizes the Old Testament.3 [NOTE---3. It is perhaps necessary to remark that I am not here adverting to the total extermination of certain named tribes of Canaan that is said by the Old Testament to have been commanded by God. That is something quite outside the provisions of the Mosaic Law for dealings in war.]”

    This is something to which defenders of the bomb often point, that several massacres in the OT appear to have been commanded by God. Now Anscombe believes that the OT in fact forbids the intentional killing of the innocent and offers several passages in proof. But I can’t tell what she’s making of those which seem to recommend it. Can you?

  • What I take from her literal words is just that she was acknowledging those episodes, acknowledging that they are contrary to Mosaic law, and refraining from further comment. But I might be misreading her.

  • William Luse says:

    That’s what I got too. So the puzzle remains.

  • [...] in a way that satisfies the cravings of those who want their decisions to be made for them does not constitute evidence that one may simply do as he [...]

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