A Mental Case

February 26, 2009 § 31 Comments

This isn’t nearly as difficult as people are trying to make it.

Bob steals a bag of gold. A week later, Bob spends that bag of gold to buy tickets to Disneyland. Bob knows what he is doing the whole time: he doesn’t have amnesia or mental illness or whatever.

I’m interested in focusing on the second specific act, Bob spending the bag of gold.

To say that the morality of his act ‘depends on his mental state’ can mean any number of things, some of which are true and some of which are false. It is true in general, for example, that Bob’s culpability for spending the stolen gold depends on his mental state. (Well, not really in this case, because we have stipulated that he knows what he is doing. But in general, if he was delusional and thought he had been given the gold by his uncle or whatever, he might not be culpable).

For example, one kind of mental state is “Bob knows he stole the gold, but he wishes he had won it in the lottery rather than stealing it”. And nothing about that mental state can make it morally licit for him to spend the gold on tickets to Disneyland.

So it is platitudinously true that our culpability for our acts depends on our mental state. But it is not true in a way that helps any of my critics. My critics seem to want the objective status of the bag of gold – stolen or legitimately won – to depend on Bob’s mental state at the time he spends it. But the gold’s objective status doesn’t depend on Bob’s mental state at the time he spends it, even though it is not a material property of the gold.

Praises from around the blogosphere

February 24, 2009 § 6 Comments

Some of my readers might be interested in this take on some of the things I’ve recently written. Though there are other opinions too.

Lasting, Grave, and Certain Poverty

February 23, 2009 § 39 Comments

When the facts on the ground are very clear, a prudential judgment is dominated by the principles involved: there is very little if any room for reasonable men to disagree. Since the facts on the ground in the Iraq war are now very clear – there were no WMD’s nor AQ connections, and there is no way we would have gone to war if the Administration had not whipped us into a frenzy over WMD’s and AQ connections – that makes the case cut and dried based on the principles involved. At best one could say, in the most charitable reading possible, that invading Iraq was a mistake. It is completely wrong, outright laughable at this stage, to suggest that it was just under the just war doctrine. It obviously, clearly was not, to the point where there is no sense even discussing it with someone who will not concede as much after going over the basic facts and clear principles.

But in order for that kind of clarity to transfer to economic prudential judgments, such as whether or not to mandate or supply such and such an unemployment benefit, it would have to be the case that the facts on the ground – including facts like “when such and such a policy is enacted it will have these and only these effects” – are very clear. But unlike the case of the Iraq war, the applicable facts on the ground are absolutely not clear, at all. In fact I am pretty convinced that it is not even possible in principle for them to be clear when dealing with long term effects of complex systems like weather and economics. So cries of “dissent” from the Catholic Left fall flat, and reveal a kind of primal hubris behind them.

If someone argues against a principle of Catholic social teaching directly that is one thing. There are plenty of posts in my archives which are not at all sympathetic to capitalism as an ideology, and I’m all in favor of digging out the foundations of the kind of ideological, anti-human classical liberal capitalism which is the predecessor and father of today’s Leftist managerial liberalism. But the mantra on some parts of the Catholic Left, that it is dissent from CST to disagree with them about what economic policies best serve the common good in the face of horrendously complex systems and implications, is risible.

"Settling" is for Losers

February 21, 2009 § 13 Comments

It is a popular meme among Christians who have sold out to the pro-abortion movement that we must “settle for what we can get”. The statement is both true and false at the same time. That is, what we do is in fact constrained by what is moral, and by what is achievable. But the word “settle” says more than that: it says that we should set our sights low, we should not work too hard to achieve “the impossible”, we should compromise with mass murdering pro-abortion nazis to try to “reduce the number of abortions”, etc.

I call baloney. “Settling for what you can get” is for losers. Nobody has ever accomplished anything important by “settling”: indeed, the very word “settling” implies taking your eye off the end goal, giving up on the important thing and taking something less, like table scraps thrown to the dogs.

Winners never “settle”. Winners take every hill and position along the way, accomplish everything that can be accomplished without compromise and without relenting, and never lose sight of the end goal.

The end goal in the legal fight over abortion is abortion outlawed in every jurisdiction, every outlaw abortionist swinging from a gibbet. There are many other important non-legal goods to be pursued, many important goals in terms of supporting women and children in distress, to be sure. But this notion that in the legal fight over abortion pro-lifers should “settle” is the siren song of Hell.


Even physical things are not merely physical

February 20, 2009 § 51 Comments

Modern people like ourselves tend to think in very physicalist terms. In thinking about things in terms of what “happens” rather than in terms of things that we do or do not do as acting subjects we tend to get lost in a number of fallacies, losing track of a number of key distinctions. In the last post we discussed one such crucial distinction, the distinction between acting and not acting, without which much moral confusion ensues. In this post I am going to discuss another problem with abstracted physicalist thinking: the treatment of physical objects, including but not limited to the body, as nothing but physical objects.

We of course know intuitively that as a moral matter, physical objects are not merely physical objects. As a deontological matter a bag of gold that I stole is a fundamentally different object from a bag of gold which I earned. Both may be identical bags of gold physically, but the objective moral content of each bag is clearly very different. What I should and should not do with each bag of gold, the earned one and the stolen one, is about as different as things can be. And this remains true even after I have confessed to stealing the bag of gold and received absolution from a priest.

And so it is with the body. The objective moral content of my body which I have (let us suppose) deliberately mutilated to make it infertile is fundamentally different from the objective moral content of my body which has been injured in an accident, or was mutilated against my will by someone else. Notice that this has nothing to do with my interior dispositions or intentions at all: it is a fact that my impaired powers of generation were deliberately made so by me, or were made so through an accident. As a moral matter there is no genetic fallacy here: my moral obligations with respect to morally different objects are different, even if those objects are the same -qua- physical objects. To treat even physical objects as nothing but physical objects is a kind of physicalism.

So as a moral matter, “my fertility I deliberately impaired” is a different object from “my fertility impaired in an accident”, which is different still from “my fertility which I deliberately mutilated but which I have attempted to restore”. Again we notice that none of these things pertain to my intentions in acting right now: these are morally pertinent historical truths about the object in question, in this case my body. These things are objectively true no matter what intentions or dispositions I have right now.

And that is why I find it very plausible that a man who has had a contraceptive vasectomy should not ever engage in sexual relations with his wife, at least until he has attempted a restoration. As we have discussed before, if his contracepted acts were intrinsically evil grave matter which he had to confess, then absolution does not grant him a license to go do what he just confessed all over again. We are never licensed to do evil, not even in the face of great hardship and suffering. Anything we confess and for which we are absolved is something we should never do again, ever. We are all sinners, so sometimes we will. But when we do, we cut ourselves off from the Blessed Sacrament, a relationship which can ordinarily only be restored through valid Confession. And part of valid Confession is resolution not to sin again.

Doing and Not Doing

February 19, 2009 § 27 Comments

We will remain forever confused about the morality of acts as long as we fail to acknowledge the difference between doing this particular thing, and not doing some thing. Something done is a concrete behavior chosen, a potentiality actualized: a real part of the world. Something not done is an abstraction, a potentiality not realized: it is not something real. “I did X” stated by a corporal human being expresses a fundamentally different kind of (de)ontological truth than “I did not do X”. The latter can be evil in the presence of a positive duty to act; but it is always a mistake to confuse a positive concrete act with refraining to act. It is for this reason that the negative moral precepts prohibiting certain concrete behaviors or specific acts apply always and everywhere, whereas positive duties to act always fall under a prudential judgment. As Pope John Paul II tells us in Veritatis Splendour:

The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception, because the choice of this kind of behaviour is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbour. It is prohibited — to everyone and in every case — to violate these precepts. They oblige everyone, regardless of the cost, never to offend in anyone, beginning with oneself, the personal dignity common to all.

On the other hand, the fact that only the negative commandments oblige always and under all circumstances does not mean that in the moral life prohibitions are more important than the obligation to do good indicated by the positive commandments. The reason is this: the commandment of love of God and neighbour does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken. Furthermore, what must be done in any given situation depends on the circumstances, not all of which can be foreseen; on the other hand there are kinds of behaviour which can never, in any situation, be a proper response — a response which is in conformity with the dignity of the person. Finally, it is always possible that man, as the result of coercion or other circumstances, can be hindered from doing certain good actions; but he can never be hindered from not doing certain actions, especially if he is prepared to die rather than to do evil.

Now, anyone who has followed my writing for long enough knows that I have my doubts about the rather loose attitude many Catholics seem to take with respect to NFP; at the same time, I acknowledge that the Magisterium affirms some reasonable moral latitude for its licit use.

The question of why NFP can in some circumstances be morally licit, while contracepted sexual acts can never be morally licit, can be understood by apprehending the difference between the negative prohibitions against certain concrete behaviors, on the one hand, and positive obligations to act, on the other. I don’t think it can be understood without reference to this key distinction, which JPII emphasizes in the encyclical. Once this key distinction is understood and embraced, however, the difference becomes clear.

A contracepted sexual act combines in one and the same behavior the pursuit of physical sexual satisfaction and a rejection of children. As an actual chosen behavior this is not merely an intention or disposition; this is an actual concrete real act in the world, an act which cannot be chosen without expressing hatred of children. Thus it violates a negative prohibition of the moral law: it is simply not possible for human beings with human nature to choose this kind of behavior with a good will, no matter what protests are made to the contrary. If that behavior is knowingly chosen it is done with an evil will, because that is the nature of the behavior and of the human being who knowingly chooses it.

Abstinence, though, is not a concrete real act or chosen behavior: it is the absence of a behavior, a potentiality which the acting subject chooses not to realize. In order for abstinence to be evil, therefore, there must be a particular positive duty to act at a particular place and time. But when it comes to the marital act, there is no positive duty for a couple to engage in it at particular places and times, where if they choose not to engage in it that choice not to do so is evil. If the couple decides not to get it on on the kitchen floor right here and now, that decision does not inherently by its very nature express hatred of children; else every moment the couple was not engaged in the marital act would be an expression of hatred of children. So while it is indeed possible, because of circumstances or intentions, for abstinence to be morally wrong, there is significant moral latitude in deciding not to act; whereas a contractepted sexual act, choosing to act in a particular way which by its nature expresses a hatred of children, is always morally wrong.

The Other N Word

February 19, 2009 § 62 Comments

Nativity, that is.

Suppose that there was one and only one method of birth control available. Because this is an imaginary world, and I’m making the rules, this one method of birth control requires the person using it to, prior to the sexual act, find a black woman and utter a racial slur at her. (If the person using the method is black, he or she has to find a Jewish woman and deny the Holocaust to her face).

Furthermore, the method only works if the person using it actually means it when he or she utters the racial slur.

Remember, this is the only method that works: there are no other options besides abstinence.

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