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.

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§ 31 Responses to A Mental Case

  • Rodak says:

    None of which has <>anything<> to do with the gold <>qua<> gold.

  • zippy says:

    Right. Immaterial facts about that bag of gold are not material facts about that bag of gold. But they are still facts about that bag of gold.

  • Anonymous says:

    Dear Zippy,Would it be wrong if:(a) a person who did not know the gold was stolen spent it. Say, Bob’s wife, who didn’t know they had a bag of gold in the cellar.(b) a person who did know the gold was stolen (Bob’s wife emerged from here rather flighty self-centered cocoon.I ask because it would seem that as you noted below the licitness or illicitness of the action would depend upon knowledge and understanding of the relationship of the gold to the person.But I fear I’m dragging you off-track again. Apologies if so. I’m more interested in the general application of the argument than I am in the specific point you’re trying to make, which I accept without need for this demonstration.shalom,Steven

  • zippy says:

    Steven:A non-culpable error in judgment is by definition non-culpable, but that still doesn’t make it <>good<>:<>< HREF="http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor_en.html" REL="nofollow">It is never acceptable<> to confuse a “subjective” error about moral good with the “objective” truth rationally proposed to man in virtue of his end, or to make the moral value of an act performed with a true and correct conscience equivalent to the moral value of an act performed by following the judgment of an erroneous conscience. It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good.<>Beyond citing the Magisterium we can see this pretty clearly just by appealing to common sense moral intuitions. If the thief’s wife spends the gold on Disney tickets and Gucci shoes, and later <>finds out<> the fact that the gold was stolen, she has different moral obligations than she would if in fact the gold were not stolen. Once she finds out that her husband stole it from an orphanage she has some obligation to try to make amends, try to restore what was taken, even though she spent it non-culpably in the first place.So objective, mental-state-independent immaterial facts about particular material objects have moral implications.

  • zippy says:

    Steven:<>I’m more interested in the general application of the argument than I am in the specific point you’re trying to make…<>I should say, Steven, that I also am more interested in the general argument than the specific cases. I discuss the particular cases – some obvious and uncontroversial (the thief who wants to spend stolen money on Disney tickets) and some much more controversial (the man who gets a vasectomy and wants to resume relations with his wife without first taking any steps to restore his fertility) as part of my overall assault on materialism and moral relativism, which are closely related and mutually reinforcing errors to which even a great many good Catholics are not immune. So I appreciate your comments and questions. They aren’t a distraction at all.

  • Anonymous says:

    Sorry, I missed something here. Is there any attribution of the rightness or wrongness of the act of spending the gold to the specific actual pieces of gold that were stolen? Gold (or money in general) is interchangeable. If Bob, after stealing the money out the back door, goes around to the front door and asks to exchange some gold for some silver, the silver is not pure and untainted by that act. Having engaged in an un-criminal act of exchanging gold for silver does nothing to cure the taint, right? The gold that was the actual object stolen is back in its resting place, but the wrong still exists. Or suppose Bob stopped by the pawn-shop and converted his stolen gold into silver, and dumps the silver into the strong box at home with all the other silver. And then Steven’s scenario plays out: Bob’s wife spends some of the stolen silver on tickets to Disneyland. But what if some of the silver was their own to begin with? My point is, there is a perfectly valid sense in which the silver Bob brings home is stolen, and using it carries exactly the same moral weight as using the original gold pieces. But that’s not the whole reality. If the wife spends some of their own silver on tickets there is nothing objectively wrong about that. But the wife uses some of the new, tainted silver on the tickets too. That is objectively wrong, though non-culpable, if Zippy is correct. Zippy says <> or to make the moral value of an act performed with a true and correct conscience equivalent to the moral value of an act performed by following the judgment of an erroneous conscience. It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good.<> But whether the wife happened to grab some tainted silver coins or only grabbed untainted, properly owned coins, is entirely a matter of accident and totally beside the point of the moral reality. If she had reached into the box and grabbed only the safe coins and used only those, she would not have engaged in an objectively bad act, according to Zippy’s reasoning. So whether her act is objectively good or bad hangs on a pure accident completely outside her mind, intention, and will. The real account of her action as a moral event cannot rest on a pure accident of whether her handful included tainted coins rather than pure coins only. Zippy, I think the business of reduced culpability of following an erroneous conscience is intended to relate to a conscience which incorrectly formulates a standard of action, based on faulty application of moral sense. I agree the wife is in error. But I don’t think the wife’s situation is regarded as having a faulty conscience – at every moment of her action, she agrees that it is wrong to spend stolen money. Her error is not that of a faulty conscience at all, it is in her knowledge of the facts about the silver coins – another kind of error altogether. It seems odd to say that kind of error – an error about a random chance result – can result in an objective moral disorder as such.

  • zippy says:

    If you don’t like gold, try something more definitely (less) fungible like a car. (Maybe those particular gold pieces have sentimental value to the owner though).

  • Anonymous says:

    (Yeah, I thought about the possibility of gold that has sentimental value.) By all means, remove the fungibility from the scene. This does away with spending something like money, of which the parts are indistinguishable one from another. Make it a car. Then there can be no mistaking it. Unless Bob steals the same model that his wife drives, and parks it in the driveway, so when she drives it to Disneyland she does not realize it is a different car. Oh, wait, does that clear things up?

  • zippy says:

    Even mistaking the car for her own – which isn’t an issue in the cases of a man who got a vasectomy or the thief who stole the gold, since they absolutely know the history of the objects in question – has different moral implications from it actually being her car. Clearly if the rightful owner shows up and convinces our protagonist that it is in fact not her car, our protagonist has the duty to return it. If there is an argument over who owns the car, one side is <>objectively right<> and the other is <>objectively wrong<>.So again, there are <>true immaterial facts<> about material objects which have moral implications, certainly whenever we are aware of those immaterial facts. Just because two material objects (or materially identical objects with different postulated histories) are stipulated to be <>materially<> indistinguishable, it does not follow that our <>moral<> obligations with respect to them are the same. People think the moral implications are the same, or that every immaterial fact is a subjective mental state in the person, because our thinking is corrupted by materialism. Even those of us who explicitly reject materialism are not immune to having our thinking corrupted by materialist/morally relativist modernity.And furthermore, this is just as true when our bodies are the material objects in question. So the moral implications of accidentally mutilated fertility are quite plausibly different from the moral implications of a deliberately mutilated fertility, despite stipulating no <>physical<> differences between the two, and independent of whether our protagonist <>wishes he hadn’t<> intentionally mutilated his fertility.

  • Anonymous says:

    <> Clearly if the rightful owner shows up and convinces our protagonist that it is in fact not her car, our protagonist has the duty to return it. If there is an argument over who owns the car, one side is objectively right and the other is objectively wrong. <>Agreed. And yet, the “objectively wrong” is not “objectively moral wrong”. If the wife finds out through good proof that she was driving someone else car, she does not confess that she stole the use of a car. There are objective evils in the world that are not moral evils. <> So again, there are true immaterial facts about material objects which have moral implications, certainly whenever we are aware of those immaterial facts. Just because two material objects (or materially identical objects with different postulated histories) are stipulated to be materially indistinguishable, it does not follow that our moral obligations with respect to them are the same. <> Agreed, 100 %. If I marry one of 2 identical twins, I should have carnal relations ONLY with my husband, not his twin. But if my parents arranged my marriage, and I only met my husband 2 days before the ceremony, and if his wicked brother steals into my room at night without my knowledge to enjoy my bed, he is guilty of rape, not simply of adultery. This goes hand-in-hand with my side: I have not committed any moral evil at all, even though the objective physical act was that of sex with someone not my spouse. I don’t need to confess anything, not because there is no culpability to my moral act, but because my act was not morally evil. He raped me, so I there is no way I have committed adultery.

  • zippy says:

    Anon:I agree about culpability in those cases. But notice a feature of all of the examples: it isn’t that there <>are no<> immaterial facts about the objects with moral implications; it is that you <>don’t know<> the facts in question. You are <>mistaken<> about the facts; but notice that you couldn’t be mistaken if they weren’t true facts independent of your mental state.It is true that we can be mistaken about either material or immaterial facts, like “that substance is poisonous”, and we are not culpable for non-negligent mistakes of that nature. And again, there is nothing unique here about material facts versus non-material facts: if we don’t know the facts, and we don’t have a responsibility to know them before acting, we aren’t culpable for the evil results. (Though even then we may incur a responsibility to mitigate any evil effects, once we <>do<> know).But none of this is pertinent to the <>kinds of cases<> I have been discussing specifically. In the kinds of cases I have been discussing specifically – a thief who stole a bag of gold; a man who got a contraceptive vasectomy; etc – he <>knows<> the history, he <>knows<> what he has done, he <>knows<> the morally pertinent facts, both material and non-material. There is no question of him making a <>non-culpable mistake of fact<>.And because he knows those facts, simply <>wishing that they were not true<> is not a “mental state” escape hatch from his moral responsibilities. He is still a free moral agent acting in the context of known facts, whether he likes those facts or not. Wishing they weren’t true, wishing he had not done what he did, no matter how strongly and sincerely he wishes that, doesn’t alter either the material or immaterial facts.

  • Anonymous says:

    <> Wishing they weren’t true, wishing he had not done what he did, no matter how strongly and sincerely he wishes that, doesn’t alter either the material or immaterial facts. <>I agree with you. And yet, I seem to remember someone arguing (maybe here, maybe at another blog) that if the man had a surgeon do a reversal operation, and the doc says: “I tried the best I could, but I cannot assure you I succeeded, I give it maybe 25% chance it worked” then the significant facts are different in the moral picture. There is only one way to find out whether the reversal worked, and that is to try. If it turns out to have been unsuccessful, the only way that can be known is by having tried for a baby and failing. And in that case, the man’s attempt to reverse the fact of the sterility is a new fact: even though he is still in effect sterile (through his own earlier act) he is not forbidden from conjugal relations with his wife. So even though the objective reality may be that he is still sterile, other objective facts also come into play to determine the moral rightness of his use of sex.

  • e-rroneous says:

    Anonymous brings up an excellent and interesting dilemma here.Would Zippy actually consider such a person who attempted to have his vasectomy reversed but, regardless, failed; if he should, nevertheless, continue sexual relations with his wife, would such a person still be considered (according to Zippy) committing an intrinsically evil act?

  • zippy says:

    <>And yet, I seem to remember someone arguing (maybe here, maybe at another blog) that if the man had a surgeon do a reversal operation, and the doc says: “I tried the best I could, but I cannot assure you I succeeded, I give it maybe 25% chance it worked” then the significant facts are different in the moral picture.<>I agree. I found the attempted-reversal-proof-in-the-pudding case brought up by a commenter illuminating in that discussion, and I think attempted reversal certainly <>may<> be sufficient to make marital relations licit. Looking at it this way:1) My healthy fertility;2) My fertility which has been accidentally mutilated;3) My fertility which I mutilated on purpose; and4) My fertility which I mutilated on purpose, but which I have attempted to restore with some reasonable possibility that restoration was successful… are all different things, where ‘different’ means objectively different independent of my mental state, and even though some may in principle be <>physically<> indistinguishable from others.

  • e-rroneous says:

    “I think attempted reversal certainly may be sufficient to make marital relations licit.”Apparently, not Penance in itself?That is, in this particular case, you seem to be avoiding the empirical facts themselves.You seem to be saying here that unless the responsible agent undo what he has done (which puts an unbearably undue burden on the penitent here to the very extent of even losing his own life), penance cannot be had by him and, therefore, he cannot continue with the living of his own life which, in a married life, consists of taking to bed his loving wife and engaging in sexual relations with her.Would you likewise command a murderer to perform a similar feat and have him undo what he himself had done; that is, raise his victim from the dead before he could, henceforth, continue with the living of his own life which, according to the seemingly rigid construction of your interpretation here, he does not have a right to unless specific remedy such as that (i.e., undoing the act) is performed?

  • zippy says:

    It makes no sense to do penance for an act and then turn around and do exactly that same act all over again.

  • zippy says:

    <>Would you likewise command a murderer to perform a similar feat and have him undo what he himself had done;<>Not at all. Just that he must not murder again, no matter what hardship is entailed by not murdering again.

  • e-rroneous says:

    Zippy,I specifically utilized the murderer example in order to try to express the near impossibility of undoing something as a vasectomy which, ultimately, may very well result in the lost of that person’s own life.I don’t quite see how an alternative penance could somehow take its place in reparation for the sinful act (there is precedent for that, I’m sure you know) instead of having the sinner suffer inevitable death.

  • zippy says:

    Ah, but now you are talking about a different act. In a murder there is just the one act, an act of murder. There are two distinct acts in our cases: the <>stealing<> of the gold, and the <>spending<> of the stolen gold. The latter is what we are discussing, and if it is intrinsically immoral then confessing it and doiung penance cannot confer a moral license to just go do it again. That would be like being licensed to murder again, not being expected to undo the first murder.(In point of fact there is precedent in this kind of situation with murder. If a man murders his wife for the purpose of marrying another woman he is permanently impeded from marrying that particular woman for the rest of his life, though it may be licit for him to marry some other woman if he repented of the murder).

  • e-rroneous says:

    Zippy,“There are two distinct acts in our cases: the stealing of the gold, and the spending of the stolen gold. The latter is what we are discussing, and if it is intrinsically immoral then confessing it and doiung penance cannot confer a moral license to just go do it again.”Exactly.We are speaking about 2 distinct acts.As far as I can tell, the act herein (i.e., the evil sin he had committed) is the man having had the vasectomy.In addition, the ‘gold’ example also is not apropos in this situation since it, too, does not take into consideration a likewise severity in the case of vasectomy.Reparations can assuredly be performed in the ‘gold’ example in many possible ways, including actual return of the gold itself or something having value equivalent to the gold with no undue (and even impossible) burden placed on the penitent whatsoever, which would entail a loss of life.

  • zippy says:

    <>As far as I can tell, the act herein … is the man having had the vasectomy.<>No, that is specifically <>not<> the act, of the two distinct ones, I am discussing. I am discussing his contracepted sexual act, not his deliberate self-mutilation.Some people in the earlier discussions took the position that contracepted sexual acts are not in themselves immoral. It is not an outrageous position to take, but I think there are many more problems with it than there are with accepting that contracepted sexual acts <>are<> immoral acts in themselves distinct from, for example, getting a vasectomy or donning the condom or inserting the IUD or Norplant. As with the stealing and the spending, or murdering the wife and marrying the mistress, the preparatory act is one act and the consummation is its own distinct act; and each is immoral in itself.All of this was discussed in the earlier threads on the particular subject of vasectomies. That isn’t really my focus here though. My focus here is to tease apart some of the specific fallacies involved in much of the ‘morality is nothing but mental states’ discourse that many modern people have adopted: thus the two examples, one controversial and the other one would ordinarily expect not; but because I combined them in one post it has brought the fallacies into relief.

  • zippy says:

    I don’t know why you keep saying this:<>…which would entail a loss of life.<>Nobody, least of all me, is saying that the person should kill himself or even take undue risk. So you should stop suggesting that someone <>is<> saying that, lest thy posts become subject to my tyrannical “if it annoys me, over the side it goes” editing policy.

  • Anonymous says:

    Would this bag of gold contain any of MY tax money?Karl

  • e-rroneous says:

    “Nobody, least of all me, is saying that the person should kill himself or even take undue risk.”But that is exactly what you are prescribing when you say that penance for such a one who had undergone such an operation as that of a vasectomy; until such time that very operation is thus undone, his penance remains yet unfulfilled, and taking to bed his beloved wife cannot ever again be a right so redeemed but only thereafter and not before.

  • e-rroneous says:

    I bring forward the fact, yet again, that undoing a vasectomy does in fact bring an undue burden upon the penitent himself that would most likely result in loss of life (i.e., his very own) which I’m sure you would agree given your previous statement wherein you yourself said “that the person should kill himself or even take undue risk”.

  • zippy says:

    <>But that is exactly what you are prescribing when you say that penance for …<>No, that completely misrepresents what I’ve said. Refraining from a contracepted sexual act, or refraining from spending stolen gold, or refraining from committing murder, etc isn’t a <>penance<>.No doubt someone who confesses to committing a contracepted sexual act is given a penance by his confessor: say the Divine Mercy or something. But that doesn’t obviate the “go and sin no more” part. If you want to address my actual argument you have to address the contracepted sexual act or spending the stolen gold as intrinsically immoral acts; refraining from doing them is not a <>penance<>, it is (I argue) a requirement of the natural law.<>I bring forward the fact, yet again, that undoing a vasectomy does in fact bring an undue burden upon the penitent himself …<>First of all, nothing <>requires<> him to attempt a reversal. As a prerequisite to further licit sexual acts he may very much want to do so though.Secondly, needing an operation isn’t the same thing as committing suicide. If it is as dangerous as you say then he shouldn’t have it done, and should instead stay in a state of continence.

  • e-rroneous says:

    Corrigendum:…I’m sure you would agree given your previous statement wherein you yourself had said “that the person should [not] kill himself or even take undue risk”.Thus, I would assert that another suitable form of penance may just as well suffice whereafter he might still, as husband, take to bed his wife — as it <>should<> be.Also, I don’t see why the wife should likewise endure similar penalty and thereby suffer for a sin that is not even of her own doing in that she should herself go deprived of what rightly is hers in marriage.

  • zippy says:

    And again, it isn’t a <>penance<> to refrain from doing evil. You can’t substitute “pray ten Hail Mary’s” for “don’t spend the stolen gold”, such that once you say ten Hail Mary’s it becomes morally acceptable to spend the stolen gold.The notion that it is a penance is a red herring, and does not address the argument.

  • Kevin says:

    It is almost impossible to die from a vasectomy reversal. Even the most botched reversal imaginable has the advantage of being in a rather self-contained part of the body, and so could hardly be fatal. E-rroneous’s erroneous arguments put me in mind of the tremendous concern abortionists usually profess for the “health of the mother.”

  • Anonymous says:

    <> including actual return of the gold itself or something having value equivalent to the gold with no undue (and even impossible) burden placed on the penitent whatsoever, which would entail a loss of life. <> “Undue”? What is undue here? A man commits a mortal sin in mutilating himself, and you say death is undue? But mortal sin in and of itself obtains a DUE punishment of eternal hell-fire. If that is the due punishment for the sin, how can a lesser punishment be in excess? Adam’s sin was eating a fruit against orders. And the explicit punishment was “lest ye die.” How true it is when God says “My ways are not your ways,” and asks “Am I unjust, or is it not you who are unjust?” Sometimes I disagree with Zippy, but not here. The requirement to observe the natural law in the actual circumstances is not a penance for the sin, it is just the demands of the natural law. If a man is wholly and absolutely impotent, (and even if he was made so by no act of his own) then he cannot marry. That just the result of applying the natural law to his actual situation. Likewise if a man is castrated (say by someone else). It is not a penance for him to submit to the circumstances God has dealt him, it simply his obligation to observe the natural law as expressed in concrete circumstances. Just as it is required of me not to spend the bag of gold sitting in front of, seeing as how it does not belong to me. Even though, if circumstances were different, I could spend such a bag of gold.

  • zippy says:

    Kevin:Good point.You would think, from the reaction that this subject gets, that many people don’t have access to < HREF="http://www.google.com/search?q=vasectomy+reversal" REL="nofollow">Google<>.

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