Might makes right

March 30, 2010 § 33 Comments

One of the more difficult elements of the just war doctrine is the requirement that the country defending itself must actually have the power to defend itself in order for the decision to wage war to be just.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

– the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

– all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

there must be serious prospects of success;

– the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

(Emphasis mine).

Of course this means “might makes right” only as a necessary condition for a just war, not a sufficient condition. All of the other conditions must also be satisfied. But it is perhaps important to make it explicit that, contrary to modern egalitarian and democratic sensibilities, one of the requirements for justified remote material cooperation with evil is that the person doing it must be powerful enough to actually achieve the intended good end.

Put differently, we can’t justify our acts of remote material cooperation with evil by appealing to outcomes we are powerless to bring about.

Circumstantial Causes

March 26, 2010 § 24 Comments

There is a ridiculous objection which often comes up when discussing voting or other sorites-building contests like the rocket race in the last post.

The objection goes something like this:

If we accept that our own personal act of voting has negligible influence over the outcome of the contest it must follow that the outcome of the contest has no cause, since everyone’s individual vote has negligible influence over the outcome. Obviously the outcome has a cause; therefore our individual vote has non-negligible influence over the outcome.

A moment’s reflection reveals the silliness of this objection.

The outcome of the contest is caused by all of the votes taken together. These votes are separated into two categories. All but one of the votes are votes cast by other people, not you. Therefore they form part of the circumstances of your vote. The remaining vote is, of course, your vote itself.

The outcome of the contest is determined by your action in combination with the circumstances of your action. The influence of your action on that outcome is literally negligible compared to the influence of the circumstances: the outcome is going to be the same whether or not you even exist, let alone whether or not you vote in a certain way.

Therefore it is simultaneously true that the outcome is caused by all the votes taken in aggregate, and that your vote’s influence on the outcome is literally negligible.

To the moon, Alice!

March 25, 2010 § 14 Comments

Suppose there is a big rocket race. Several teams compete to win, but only two of those teams are actually viable as winners. It takes about a million pounds of rocket fuel to win, and only those two teams have a practical hope of getting that much fuel.

The way teams get rocket fuel is by soliciting it from individuals. Every individual in the country gets one-tenth of an ounce of rocket fuel – and only one tenth of an ounce. We each get to decide which team gets our tenth-ounce of fuel.

Can I meaningfully influence the outcome of the race with my tenth-ounce of fuel? No.

Does the process of choosing who gets my tenth-ounce of fuel have meaningful effects on me, and on those people who I interact with in doing the choosing? Absolutely.

With that background, if giving my fuel to a team involves remote material cooperation with evil, which effects are most important for me to consider when evaluating whether or not I have a proportionate reason: effects which flow from the outcome of the race, or effects which flow from my own act of giving fuel to a team?

More funding for abortion is just the status quo

March 25, 2010 § 11 Comments

And hey, given that it is the status quo it is fine and dandy to formally support the law that does it, as long as you support that law for other reasons, right?

I checked into what my own bishop is teaching about the matter, and was referred to this:

Nevertheless, for whatever good this law achieves or intends, we as Catholic bishops have opposed its passage because there is compelling evidence that it would expand the role of the federal government in funding and facilitating abortion and plans that cover abortion. The statute appropriates billions of dollars in new funding without explicitly prohibiting the use of these funds for abortion, and it provides federal subsidies for health plans covering elective abortions. Its failure to preserve the legal status quo that has regulated the government’s relation to abortion, as did the original bill adopted by the House of Representatives last November, could undermine what has been the law of our land for decades and threatens the consensus of the majority of Americans: that federal funds not be used for abortions or plans that cover abortions. Stranger still, the statute forces all those who choose federally subsidized plans that cover abortion to pay for other peoples’ abortions with their own funds. If this new law is intended to prevent people from being complicit in the abortions of others, it is at war with itself.

Nothing but Net

March 24, 2010 § 9 Comments

Apparently the argument is in the ether that it is OK to support legislation which permits or even funds abortion, as long as that legislation will result in a net reduction in the number of abortions.

That is a load of poppycock.
Lets assume for the sake of argument that there is a law up for consideration. This law bans all abortions for white people, but it permits other abortions already permitted under the law and adds in that killing, say, Haitians up to age six is now permitted.
Lets suppose that on a net basis this law will in fact reduce the net number of legal murders, even though it permits murders which were not permitted under the previous law.
According to arguments in some quarters it should be OK to support this new law, since on a net basis it reduces the number of legal murders. This illusion arises because some folks are interpreting Evangelium Vitae’s language – more restrictive – to mean a net decrease in some aggregate number. But this is obviously not what it means. More restrictive means more restrictive; it doesn’t mean using some net actuarial argument to grant permission to murder, or for that matter to fund the murder of, human beings whose murders are not federally funded under current law.
It is always wrong without exception to support removing the legal protection of the life of one single innocent in the law. That includes even the small legal protection of not having her murder funded by the government.

A veracity heuristic

March 23, 2010 § 42 Comments

When Planned Parenthood and pro-life groups unanimously agree on something, it is probably true.

Planned Parenthood caught in the Girl Scout cookie jar, again

March 23, 2010 § 3 Comments

I guess the idea is that this delightful brochure might be helpful if a little girl gets Lemonaids.

On yesterday’s Big Healthabaloo

March 22, 2010 § 24 Comments

Does anyone really care what I think about it? Why?

What I think is basically this:

Well, that is a relief. For a while there it was starting to look like “pro-life Democratic congressman” might not actually be an oxymoron. I was skeptical, but ready to be convinced by concrete action. Fortunately we can all go back to the world we know now, where Democratic Party overtures to pro-lifers are universally the candy-laced-with-cyanide we’ve come to know and love.

The Usual Suspects spent a long time trying to convince us that no babies would be murdered at taxpayer expense. Now they are hard at work convincing themselves of it. Wait ’till you see the actual roster at the Pearlies, boys! Congratulations, you won again! I can’t wait to see Vox Nova and dotCommonweal become the very model of a modern anti-abortion activist blog, now that their other “pro life” goals have been achieved. What could possibly be a higher priority to genuine pro-lifers now than full-on hard-charging anti-abortion activism?

My breath is bated.

Oh, and it looks like the Massachusettes Gop Centerfold didn’t save the day after all.

That’s what I think. FWIW.

How many divisions does the Pope have?

March 22, 2010 § 6 Comments

Recent events have left me reflecting on the fact that Catholics in general seem to have politics which pretty closely mirror the population at large, with all the requisite divisions that implies. The cynic in me is inclined to interpret this as meaning that most Catholics are bad Catholics.

[F]or years we’ve been playing a series of sudden-death overtimes against disaster. According to the rules, our losses are enduring but our wins are only temporary because they’re just followed by another sudden-death overtime.


The obvious way to restore Western Civ as a standard that makes sense would be to restore the principle that formed it and made it something worthy of our loyalty. Since the West grew up as Catholic Christendom, to all appearances that principle is Catholic Christianity.

That’s an awkward thing to say. After all, a religion can’t be adopted for political reasons. If it is it’s not religion, it’s ideology, and it’s not believed, it’s just play-acting. Ideological play-acting leads to either cynicism and corruption or fanaticism and tyranny, depending on how much effort people put into making it all seem real. It’s not the way to go.

We all have some sort of belief about what the world at bottom is really like. Since God by definition is the Most Real Being, that belief is our religion. As such, it determines what we make of the people, situations, and issues that make our world. Similarly, what we make of people, situations, and issues shows what we think about the world, and therefore what our religion is. To say religion is basic to politics is to say that our politics is an expression of our religion.


A lot of the problem I think is an understanding of religion that trivializes it. Trivial religion is not religion though. Christianity is not the current view of things plus Jesus added in as a cosmic nice guy to make us all feel good. It involves a basically different understanding of what’s real.

Who am I kidding? Just go read the whole thing.

One of many great ironies of modernity, from my point of view, given deep modern attachment to the idea of separation of Church and State, is that by turning politics into this vast mass-market participatory ritual we’ve made separation of religion and politics impossible. If the State is constituted by the free and equal choices of the democratic masses, each person is part of the State; a call for separation of Church and State is a call to separate the Church from every person.

So far the process seems to be proceeding on schedule.

As individuals our politics does say basic, fundamental things about us as persons. No basic, fundamental thing about us as persons is untouched by our religion. In past times it may have been possible for the peasants to live apolitically: a genuine separation of Church and State, at least for some folks. Today, to choose not to decide is still a choice – sometimes, I would argue, the best choice.

That is why Catholics with different politics will always see each other not only as political enemies, but as disloyal Catholics. We can’t make the truth not matter. The only way to heal divisions is to remove those divisions. Removing divisions requires people to admit they are wrong, or at least to cop to what is horribly wrong in their own coalitions; and most people would rather minimize and paper over, or at least avoid talking about, or at very best give perfunctory lip service to opposing, what is despicably vicious and wicked in their own compromises. Thus the always growing popularity of the tu quoque.

Fiat Bux

March 19, 2010 § 40 Comments

UPDATE 1/5/2016:

[NOTE: this post and this post are more recent – and therefore perhaps better refined editorially and substantively – discussions of fiat dollars and fractional reserve banking, respectively.]


Folks are constantly suggesting to me, when the subject of usury comes up, that a big part of the problem is fiat currency as opposed to currency backed by gold or some other commodity.

The more we discuss the matter the more convinced I become that they are wrong.

Money is nothing in itself: it is just a medium of exchange which makes it easier for parties to trade than actually trading a camel for a tent. As such it provides a tremendous social good, without which we would live in the stone age. It is perfectly reasonable and good, then, that money is an economic exchange medium provided by and guaranteed by the government.

Commodity-backed currency, though, is actually a wee bit more than just a medium of exchange. Gold, after all, has value in itself, since it is a useful commodity. Fiat currency has no value in itself. Because of this, fiat currency is a more honest medium of exchange than commodity-backed currencies which distort transactions somewhat through the introduction of the commodity itself into the picture. An ideal, transparent, honest transaction of camels for tents just involves the camels and tents; not camels, tents, and gold.

Fractional reserve banking is an entirely distinct matter from fiat currency versus commodity-backed currency. In fractional reserve banking, the bank keeps some amount of money at the Federal Reserve. That bank is then permitted to loan out up to N times that amount of money to borrowers: we’ll call this quantity of money L.

Not everyone needs their cash all at once, and folks are constantly making payments on outstanding loans, so the bank really only has to have L/N extra dollars on hand in order to cash checks drawn on L dollars worth of loans, on average. Figuring out the L/N relationship between these numbers – basically how much cash the bank has to keep on hand as a cushion in its cash flow – is the “fractional reserve” part in fractional reserve lending. (N.b.: the goal here is apprehension (and alliteration), not perfect pedantic pecuniary precision).

So far no usury, and as discussed above fiat currency is actually a better, more honest and transparent, medium for these transactions.

But now we throw in the usury angle, as discussed in previous posts, by distinguishing between asset-recourse loans and person-recourse loans.

When the bank makes an asset-recourse loan, it only has recourse to a real asset in order to recover principal. In essence the bank “owns” a share of the asset and the borrower pays interest for use of the bank’s share of the asset, over time also buying out the bank’s ownership share. It’s all good: nobody has created money out of nothing or cheated anyone.

Notice that this is true even if the money is spent on something other than the asset to which the bank has resort: the owner in essence sells a share in the asset to the bank, and uses the proceeds for something else. Everything is still all good.

But when the bank makes a person-recourse loan, it has recourse to the person for the principal no matter what is done with the money. If the person spends the money on wine, women, and song, that money really came from nowhere. There is no real asset involved backing that money; just the person’s putative future ability to raise money to pay off the loan.

So the problem with fractional reserve banking as presently practiced isn’t fiat currency, and it isn’t that loans are made which exceed the amount of cash held in reserve. Neither of those is in itself the least bit dishonest or unfair.

The problem with fractional reserve banking as presently practiced is that some of the loans made in fractional reserve banking are usurious loans, because they involve recourse to persons, rather than assets, for principal. As usurious loans they steal from others, robbing buying power away from the currency itself, doing injury to the borrower and swiping an increment of buying power here and an increment there from the non-usurious transactions taking place at the same time, for the benefit of lenders.

Or at least that is my current provisional theory.

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