Specks and Planks

September 30, 2006 § Leave a comment

On the Limits of Conscience

September 30, 2006 § 4 Comments

We ought never act against our consciences.

Our consciences are not perfectly formed, informed, and conformed. Therefore men of good will will necessarily disagree about the right thing to do under a given set of circumstances.

However, when men of good will debate what the right thing to do is under a given set of circumstances, it is critical to ignore differences in conscience. It is not acceptable to say that men of good will may differ, and leave it at that.

It is of course true that men of virtue may differ. We may well do the wrong thing but, because our conscience is not perfectly formed, informed, or conformed, we may not be culpable for doing the wrong thing. All true and expected.

But men of good will, men of virtue, don’t aspire to be that guy. Men of good will don’t want to do wrong yet escape guilt through ignorance. Men of good will do not aspire to invincible ignorance. Men of virtue aspire to do the right thing, not to do the wrong thing and yet walk away guilt-free.

So most of the time, it will be a stipulated point that a person may be innocent through invincible ignorance and that men of good will are going to disagree as long as we walk this valley of tears. But men of good will must aspire to agreement. Disagreement is a failure: it is a reflection of the fact that our consciences are not perfectly formed, informed, and conformed. So don’t expect invocations of prudential judgement and good will to bring all conversations to a halt. At least, don’t expect that when discussing such things with men of virtue.

Reason Crucified

September 29, 2006 § 7 Comments

A blogger who thinks waterboarding isn’t torture asks:

Would you voluntarily undergo waterboarding to save someone else’s life? Would you undergo hypothermia, belly-slapping, or any of the other techniques if by so doing lives would be saved?

If you can honestly say yes–and I can–then I don’t see what the problem is with doing it to someone else.

Follow the argument here: if any noble sacrifice can be imagined, then whatever that sacrifice entails is not torture and may be done to prisoners.

I guess this wasn’t torture either:


September 27, 2006 § 22 Comments

You walk into a public place. There are individual booths in that public place, setting aside private space for each person who comes in. Each person is handed a publication before entering the booth, and is expected to perform a private act with that publication. You know that the vast majority of people who enter the booth will be performing individually evil acts inside the booth. They may not want to do so, necessarily, but because of what is on the publication they will. As individual acts they will have no directly discernable effect on the outside world, just as your own act in the booth will have no directly discernable effect on the outside world. You have thought and prayed deeply about it, and you are pretty sure – though not completely sure – that what you do in the booth will not be evil taken in itself. But you are just as sure that 99% of the acts taking place in the booths around you will be evil. What is worse, those acts will in ritualistic fashion train the people who perform them to regard what is evil as good. And by going to the booth-ritual you are setting an example for others that going to the booth-ritual is what everyone is expected to do, no matter what substantive choice happens to be available inside the booths.

The Object of Voting

September 26, 2006 § 26 Comments

There are some really great comments in the voting thread below. But there is a key point which I think may be getting lost in the larger discussion. Tom hits it directly when he says:

This may express the intent of the voter, but before we get to intent we need to know what the object of the act of voting is. We need to make sure that the means of mitigating a greater evil is not itself evil. And we need to make sure without making the “everybody does it” fallacy.

When we drop a 500 pound bomb on a military target, and an elementary school filled with children is a mile away, it is pretty clear that “destroying a school filled with innocent children” is not a part of the object of our act. When the military target is in the same building as the school that is far less clear.

Likewise, when we vote for a mayoral candidate who favors torturing suspected terrorists it is pretty clear that the object of our act is not to choose a policy of torturing suspected terrorists, because the mayor doesn’t really have anything to say about how suspected terrorists are handled. But a President is a different matter. When a candidate has promised to do something specific which is within the role to which we are electing him, the argument that we are not choosing the actual thing he has promised to do becomes weaker. And if in our own minds we make the decision “the torture is bad, but it is a small and confined evil, and I therefore choose it as a lesser evil than the abortion policies of the other candidate”, then the argument that we aren’t choosing the evil policy becomes very weak indeed.

The Evil of Two Lessers

September 24, 2006 § 14 Comments

Torture and abortion are both intrinsically evil acts, according to the Church. That is, both kinds of act are evil by the nature of their object. No intentions or circumstances – no, really, no intentions or circumstances whatsoever – can turn an abortion or an act of torture into a good act. Period.

Now suppose – this is purely hypothetical – that you had two candidates for President. One candidate supports the torture of suspected terrorists in very rare circumstances, in order to defuse a ticking bomb. The other supports publicly funded abortion on demand starting at age twelve, with no parental notification.

You think about those two candidates, and you judge that torturing a (very) few (suspected-and-almost-certainly) terrorists is less evil than murdering millions of innocent children in the womb. You cast your vote, choosing the torture over the abortions.

Is this act of voting licit?

As I understand Catholic moral theology, no, it is not. We must not choose evil, not ever. It is not licit to choose evil on the basis that the evil thing chosen is a lesser evil than a different, alternative evil. This is true even when it is a fact that the lesser of the two evils is, indeed, the lesser of two evils.

One of the major problems with voting in a modern democracy is that it is almost impossible to do so without making these sorts of choices. Even someone who is extremely introspective, prayerful, and well acquainted with Catholic moral theology can hardly help but include actual choices of evil into his thinking when determining how to vote. It isn’t impossible in principle to cast a vote without choosing any evil; but it is practically impossible for the vast majority of people. Most people don’t think explicitly about how they make their moral choices. The voting booth in a modern democracy is a vast training ground for generations of proportionalists and consequentialists: a ritualistic reinforcement of modernist moral relativism practiced on a vast scale, wherein choosing the lesser of multiple evils is viewed as a social duty.

In pagan Rome at least it was obvious that lighting the incense, prerequisite to participation in politics, was an explicit act of apostasy for a Christian. In pagan Rome at least the murders of the innocent took place in full public view, in the Colosseum. In our modern pagan society we prefer to keep these things more hidden from view. And as a result of their camouflage we have managed to grow them to proportions undreamed of by our forebears.

More Modern Cannibalism

September 22, 2006 § 4 Comments

Tittle-ation at Disputations

September 19, 2006 § 1 Comment

There Are No Coincidences

September 18, 2006 § 2 Comments

The truth that morality is getting what you want is in the air.

Disobeying the moral law is worse than a crime: it’s a mistake. In the same way as one knows better than to spit into the wind, a healthy society doesn’t (in my view) encourage certain practices, for example, the taking of any innocent human life, rape, extramarital sexual relations, divorce, contraception, and so many other things that have become accepted in our society. The West is dying because we won’t listen to God—yes—but also because we are too full of ourselves and seeking our immediate gratification even to hear nature.

The corrollary, of course, is that to act immorally is to prevent ourselves from getting what we want. Amen to that.

Just Say No to Apology Apoplexy

September 18, 2006 § 1 Comment

A program note to any non-Catholics, and especially Moslems, who do not agree with me that the Catholic Church is the one true religion, the fullness of God’s revelation, and the ark of salvation for every single person who is saved: its cool. The fact that you don’t agree with me probably shows that something is wrong somewhere, but it is not a moral offense against me. I know you probably feel a deep, burning, shameful need to grovel and apologize to me, and to all Catholics everywhere, because we disagree about what is, you know, true. But you don’t have to apologize. No really, stop being so obsequious about it. Carry on.

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