Don’t wear a tuxedo in the shower

December 3, 2006 § 12 Comments

Formal definitions – and the positive law is a kind of formal definition, as are citations from the Catechism, from Scripture, and really from any written document whatsoever – are useful and necessary. But they are not the only thing, and when they are treated as the only thing the result is errant nonsense. A positivist loses sight of the fact that the map is not the territory, that the text is not the reality, and that treating the map as though it were the territory becomes more and more deceptive – outright false even – the closer you get to the actual territory. The fact that Q can be formally derived from P is taken to establish that in reality, the existence of (what one conceives of as) the referent of P means that (what one conceives of as) the referent of Q is also real.

If you happen to be Ludwig Wittgenstein or a postmodern (Wiggy, much as the positivists worshipped him, seems to be the explicit crossover guy between the positivists and the pomos) you realize the manifest nonsense in that. Logical “truth” isn’t truth, it is just a formal statement on a piece of paper that happens to have been derived using some formal rules. But since – like the positivists – you reject metaphysics** (and the heuristics which appeal to metaphysics) as a bunch of ambiguous mystical hooey when it comes to anything of practical import, this leaves you nowhere to go. Everything is just storytelling and the powerful get to decide what reality is by enforcing their story.

You might have noticed that the Magisterium of the Church doesn’t engage in the kind of “rack up propositions and spew out deductions” reasoning that defines a great deal of Protestantism and, because of Protestantism’s inherent positivism, a great deal of Catholic apologetics to Protestants. There is a reason for that.

** For the purposes of this discussion, “rejecting” metaphysics and ignoring it as irrelevant are the same thing. Also, it should be noted that it is impossible in practice to reject metaphysics. Rejecting or ignoring metaphysics therefore does not result in no metaphysics at all but rather in arbitrary, unprincipled, internally incoherent metaphysics.

Another Heuristic

December 3, 2006 § 1 Comment

“We don’t waterboard people in jails, not even murderers and child molesters. No law authorizes it. That alone suggests to me that it has nothing to do with reforming or influencing the will, because there are any number of licit methods for doing that.” – Jonathan Prejean in the comments at Disputations.

Stipulate that a prisoner in fact has a duty to tell us some crucial information, and that he is refusing to fulfill that duty. It is licit to punish him to help reform his will, and we choose to “punish” him by doing X to him.

Then suppose instead that he had committed mass murder. Would we ever do X to punish him? Is it part of our ordinary process of punishing mass murderers – the kind we don’t need any information from – to do X to them?

If what we are doing to someone who is witholding information is not something we would ever do to a proven mass murderer as part of his punishment, then what we are doing isn’t punishment.

Heuristics are not formal definitions of a thing. But formal definitions are not the only way to grasp a thing; and indeed often too much emphasis on formal definitions will directly lead to a failure to grasp a thing. That will be the subject of another post.

Is the object of gluttony a disproportion?

December 2, 2006 § Leave a comment

The Magisterium tells me that in order to grasp the object of the act, I have to place myself in the perspective of the acting subject and ask what specific behavior he is choosing.

I am a glutton. I am sitting at the Thanksgiving dinner table, in a state of satiation. I choose to eat more.

I don’t see a recourse to proportion in order to understand the object of the act.

Differences in Kind

December 1, 2006 § 13 Comments

(Note: originally posted in slightly different form as a comment here).

The basic thesis many seem to have adopted is that the object of the act is not different in kind from intent and circumstances: that the object is itself defined by intent and circumstances. The notion of “intrinsically evil” which follows, then, is just that once we’ve identified the intent and circumstances which define the object of this particular act, and that list of intentions and circumstances define an object which is evil, then no other intentions or circumstances can make the act licit.

This contention is supported by particular examples of intrinsically evil acts, and the way those intrinsically evil acts are talked about in the Catechism. We apply the label “circumstance” to the fact “is married to” (for example), and treat the application of that label as though it has ontological significance. In other words, we treat the labeling of “is married to” in the Catechism as though it is the same kind of thing as (say) “while a bomb is ticking”.

This is wrong, in my view, for several reasons.

One reason it is wrong is that the Catechism simply doesn’t work that way, nor do most – any really – Magisterial documents work that way. But especially the Catechism. The purpose of the Catechism is to communicate how to live the Faith to all the Faithful in everyday language. If the Catechism expressed things in terms of the (de)ontological difference between object, intent, and circumstances in every discussion of every specific moral point (say if it went into a dissertation on the subject when discussing theft), nobody would get it. The Catechism does mention moral theology in passing, like an automobile maintenance manual might mention physics. But don’t try to derive the conditions surrounding quark confinement from the maintenance manual for your Chevy.

Another reason is that the notion that the object is really the same kind of thing as intent and circumstances, with just particular ones chosen and fixed in concrete to define a class of acts as intrinsically evil, isn’t supported by a careful reading of Veritatis Splendour. Never is John Paul ambiguous about the fact that he is discussing a different kind of thing when he refers to the object of the act versus intent and circumstances. We may have difficulty describing object, intent, and circumstances or understanding them ourselves without using the same labels (e.g. “the circumstance of being married”). But a descriptive difficulty doesn’t imply that there is no distinction between the realities. An existential condition of an act – a condition which if it is not true then the act is not that kind of act – is not a circumstance. It isn’t the same kind of thing as a circumstance.

A third reason is that, just as a first-person matter, I have a pretty strong intuition about the difference between what I am choosing to do with my body and the circumstances and intentions which surround my doing it. VS discusses the unity of body, soul, and will in the object of the act. It discusses the object of the act as a choice of specific behavior, irrespective of the reason why we choose that behavior, and as something which cannot be separated from its bodily aspect. I understand intuitively, and I suspect that at least some others do too, the difference in kind between my choice of behavior and the things I intend to come about because of my behavior. This has similarities to what are called qualia in the philosophy of mind: we all know what the quality greenness is by intuition, but any attempt to define greenness in some third person formal way will fail. And VS confirms that “[i]n order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person”. The object of the act is a kind of moral qualia: and critically, like other qualia it is resistant to formal definition. So naturally when the Church attempts to help us understand it, what she says cannot be treated as formal statements which can be plugged into a logic machine to produce third-person-readable results which remove all ambiguity. Logic is useful in a negative sense here: if something which is asserted is illogical then it cannot be right. But logic applied to Magisterial texts cannot produce the particular kinds of formal outcomes people seem to desire. (This is related, by the way, to the problems Protestants have in attempting to root their doctrines in biblical texts alone: when I refer to positivism I am referring to this general issue of the misuse of formal language to do things it is literally not capable of doing).

The Deposit of the Faith subsists in the Church, not in Church documents. And the reason why is because the Splendour of Truth literally cannot be captured in a document.

Where Am I?

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