Talk dirty to me

July 16, 2014 § 54 Comments

Human language is a natural faculty like sex. The fact that we learn the specifics of (say) the grammar and vocabulary of English from others is similar to the fact that we learn the courtship dance in a particular culture from others. Treating speech as a taught-and-learned ‘social construct’ is as foolish and misguided as treating sex as a ‘social construct’.

I’ve previously covered the subject of property and my thoughts on moral theology related to property: usury, currency, slavery, and the like. In order to do that I had to do some reading and take several steps back to think about the metaphysical nature of property and currency. Our modern modes of thought pollute almost everything we try to think about, sometimes in quite subtle ways; so frequently getting a handle on things requires grasping the subject matter from multiple and ‘inverted’ perspectives. For example although it is true in an everyday sense expressed to modern people that “it is morally licit for a starving man to steal bread”, that everyday way of saying it can cast confusion on the fact that, as an intrinsically immoral act, it is always morally wrong to steal.

My blog isn’t a catechism: an attempt to explain some basics in everyday language to ordinary people, impossible to understand absent charitable interpretation, without worrying that overly-literal interpretations could lead to contradiction. This is a place where bad ideas come to die; and as such, it is important for the arguments and understanding to be rigorous.

So I plan to start doing some thinking and reading about the subject of lying, as time allows.  It isn’t something on which I’ve ‘gone deep’ here yet.  The blog format is informal and conversational, so as with other topics you’ll probably see my thoughts unfold more or less as I have them.

Understanding the moral theology of lying will require getting a grasp of the core metaphysical elements involved in telling lies: language and meaning.  So this exploration follows directly from recent discussions of positivism: you won’t adequately grasp my thoughts on lying unless you already have a reasonable grasp of my thoughts on positivism and nominalism, because, quite appropriately, when we listen to speech or read text almost all of the meaning comes from somewhere other than the text.

Speech is a natural human faculty like sex, and its telos is an empathic sharing of meaning between minds. Speech doesn’t do the heavy lifting of creating meaning; words light up and help combine meanings that the listener for the most part already apprehends, or else he wouldn’t understand the speech at all. Speaking and listening requires significant preexisting common ground between speaker and listener in order for it to be meaningful at all.

So lying is to speech as contraception is to sex: both involve the behavioral use of a natural faculty in a manner directly contrary to and destructive of its telos. Lying attempts to construct false meaning – meaning which does not correspond to truth – in another person’s mind; truth-telling is the use of speech in an attempt to construct meaning in another person’s mind which does correspond to the truth.

My preliminary thought – and this is preliminary – is that this understanding has interesting implications for the classic scenario of the Nazis knocking at the door asking if any Jews are hiding there. Because when the Nazis do that, we know that when they are asking for Jews they are asking if there are any Untermenschen present whom they should haul off to the camps; and it isn’t obvious that answering “yes” is truthful even if Elimelech and Ezra are hiding under the floorboards.

§ 54 Responses to Talk dirty to me

  • Peter Blood says:

    Deceiving someone by “telling the truth”–I bet the devil cackles with delight.

  • peppermint says:

    Did God create language so that people could communicate facts and arguments? Considering how infrequently it is used that way, and how few people seem to be able to use it that way, one wonders instead if language evolved so that people could brag, berate, belittle, and coordinate to rob and rape and murder.

    Man is a vile creature, and vile is he who says so — Dostoevsky

  • Zippy says:

    peppermint:

    one wonders instead if language evolved so that people could brag, berate, belittle, and coordinate to rob and rape and murder.

    The beauty of an evolutionary perspective is that it allows us to pretend that human faculties have no telos and we aren’t responsible for our actions.

  • jf12 says:

    @peppermint, High five!

    For the New Testament church, the primary purposes of language are to glorify God and for evangelization.

    Paul gives in 1 Cor 9 a fine discussion of the purpose of seeming to be that which you are not, repeatedly using the phrase “became as”. In fact he specifically claims in verse 21 to have acted like he was breaking Jewish laws in order to win the confidence of non-Jews.

  • Zippy says:

    There is the question of whether our actions in general are ordered toward bringing people to the truth; and then there is the more specific question of whether a specific use of language is ordered toward bringing the persons to whom we are speaking to the truth.

    The more specific kind of question about the right use of speech is what pertains to lying specifically, it seems to me. Lying is a misuse of language as pertains to meaning, so in order to understand it we have to understand correct use of language as pertains to meaning. And in order to understand that, we have to have some sort of metaphysically correct grasp of language and meaning.

    Pertinent to the present discussion, it can’t possibly be right to take Paul’s statements about being all things to all men too literally; otherwise we should (e.g.) become PUA in order to bring the gospel to PUA, murderers to bring the gospel to murderers, frivolous divorcers in order to bring the gospel to frivolous divorcers, etc.

  • […] Source: Zippy Catholic […]

  • jf12 says:

    @Zippy re: “so in order to understand it we have to understand correct use of language as pertains to meaning”

    I think that is the key to understanding Paul’s approach: by him taking into account the fact that they would have misunderstood and therefore would have rejected the Absolute Trvth if dumped in their laps. It was literally true that, e.g., the unconverted could not handle the truth.

    Another fine example (partly also exemplified by Paul’s milk/meat developmental distinction is “What should we tell the children?” in order to get them to think what we want them to think (no, not in the Machiavellian sense).

  • jf12 says:

    re: literally. Paul literally was pretending to be an out-law, though. How does that square with your “can’t possibly be right” framework?

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:
    Paul is referring to Jewish religious practices, e.g. circumcision etc, not to violating the natural law (that is, actually sinful behavior).

    In Catholic terms he was referring to disciplines not to moral doctrine: as a Christian Paul was not subject to Jewish ecclesial authority, he was subject to Peter’s authority. I realize that guys like Luther invoked those passages to encourage people to “sin stoutly”, but, well, that’s what the Hussite/Wycliffite heresy gets you: Bohemian rhapsody, man.

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:

    What should we tell the children?” in order to get them to think what we want them to think (no, not in the Machiavellian sense).

    Not “what we want them to think” at all, but the truth, as their station and capacity allows them to grasp it.

  • Fake Herzog says:

    Zippy,

    As your thought on this subject unfolds, I hope you address this post:

    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/11/murderer-at-door.html

  • Zippy says:

    Fake Herzog:
    It is basically the same scenario as Nazis/Jews. I am getting ready to travel at the moment, but I have a suspicion that the old “does the murderer at the door have a right to the truth” question is similar to the old “may a starving man steal bread” question — that is, the question is malformed and steals several metaphysical bases. I don’t think it is like the “may a female rape victim convince her rapist to wear a condom” question, because a rape victim isn’t choosing a sexual act at all. What is at issue is what precisely is it morally licit to say to the murderer at the door; and saying something which affirms him in his errors isn’t necessarily telling him the truth: that is, using language to accurately communicate meaning.

    Beneath this is the idea of one and only one “literal” interpretation of a bit of language. The positivism discussion ought to have all sorts of alarm bells going off at the presumption that “literal” is a qualitative category of some kind rather than a ‘measure’ of the degree of ambiguity between speakers who share metaphysical common ground.

    But more thought and reading are necessary to go further.

  • jf12 says:

    Is vs ought. An uncomfortably large part of children’s instruction not merely leaves out temporally inconvenient truths, such as chunks of meat, but actively albeit lovingly deceives via convenient untruths “You don’t have to cry. Those noises were just the house settling. Go back to sleep; you’ll always be safe here.” i.e. “this milk will always be here when you need it.”

    In fact, that part of children’s instruction which promotes Ought as though it were Is is entirely deceptive in *intent* as well as execution.

  • vetdoctor says:

    “My preliminary thought – and this is preliminary – is that this understanding has interesting implications for the classic scenario of the Nazis knocking at the door asking if any Jews are hiding there. Because when the Nazis do that, we know that when they are asking for Jews they are asking if there are any üntermenschen present whom they should haul off to the camps; and it isn’t obvious that answering “yes” is truthful even if Elimelech and Ezra are hiding under the floorboards.”

    >>Noted you are still not affirming it is ok to lie. You are redefining the question to allow you to say, “No” to the men at the door. I’m not sure this is the same thing as giving an ambiguous answer to an imprecise question.

    This will be interesting.

  • Fehlerscout says:

    Untermenschen–if you want such a word– would be capitalized as all German nouns are, and would not have the umlaut.

    Mit freundlichen Gruessen,
    FS

    [Fixed thx. –Z]

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Well the Nazi at the door question should be simple as it is apparently positivistic to question whether a Warsaw Ghetto Jew should not obey Nazi authorities (when the Nazi flag is flying over Warsaw townhall).

  • Zippy says:

    vishmehr24:
    Do you have a question about something I specifically said? If you do, citing what I actually said might mitigate the impression that you come here just to thrash away at your private straw men.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    it is apparently positivistic to question whether a Warsaw Ghetto Jew should not obey Nazi authorities

    The question is not whether or not you should obey authority. You should always obey authority. The question is whether or not the Nazis actually had authority in the first place. Keep in mind that the authority to do something immoral cannot possibly exist. That would be an immoral moral obligation. Or, to put it in argumentative terms, “Cool straw man bro. Burn it again.”

  • vishmehr24 says:

    JustSomeGuy,
    “The question is whether or not the Nazis actually had authority in the first place.”
    Correct. And by the townhall criterion …

    Are the Jews obliged to obey Nazi town hall when it asks them to do something not immoral per se e.g. walk down to the plaza with their all their belongings.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    Are the Jews obliged to obey Nazi town hall when it asks them to do something not immoral per se e.g. walk down to the plaza with their all their belongings.

    Yes, although I don’t think the example you gave meets the criterion you gave. Any command directed at the torture and/or slaughter of Jews (or any evil, for that matter) is an immoral command – even if it’s only proximately directed toward that end.

    An order to get ready to be shipped off to prison camp is just as immoral a command as a command to actually go to prison camp.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    JustSomeGuy,
    So, if an invader attacks and conquers America, then the Americans are morally obliged to obey all the commands (that are not immoral per se) the invaders issue?

    Was America created on this principle?
    Does any country or people exist on this principle?

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    So, if an invader attacks and conquers America, then the Americans are morally obliged to obey all the commands (that are not immoral per se) the invaders issue?

    Assuming legitimate authority – the existence or nonexistence of which depends upon the exactly specific details of the exactly specific situation – yes.

    was America created on this principle?
    Does any country or people exist on this principle?

    Irrelevant. Many a country – America included – has immoral (or at least morally neutral) founding principles. Whether or not an authority exists is a moral question. No amount of official documentation can create an immoral moral obligation.

  • Dystopia Max says:

    The answer, for me, is academic:

    1. All wars are fought via deception as a primary means of winning.

    2. Wars do not require declaration or for both sides to mutually recognize hostilities. There are all sorts of one-sided wars across the world.

    3. If a man has chosen sides in that war, and is fighting actively on that side, to have him taking actions meant deceive his enemy is expected, and probably warranted.

    4. Mark Shea, having already shown himself ready to believe and propagate the most ridiculous lies, slanders, and loose associations about them “Dark Enlightenment NeoreaKKKtionaries” he’d been hearing all the rumors about, has very clearly identified the side he chose. Thus he found himself embarrassed by those willing to feed him sillier and sillier versions of stories he was already inclined to believe.

    5. Zippy, very possibly because more powerful officers on the other side of that war have been expressing disapproval for his associations with their sworn enemies, (who had the gall to use their own tactics against them!) was invited to pull a William F. Buckley and post a hasty set of denunciations of these purge-worthy undesirables over a made-up legal technicality.

    6. Myself and other honorable men of the blogosphere would have none of it, as we have never known Zippy to behave in this petty a manner over this niggling an issue. Therefore we fought back and fought hard, appealing initially to the incongruity of his actions (as that was the most offensive and off-putting portion to those who knew him) and only later on to the technicalities of his complaint(because it seemed to us a transparent foolishness whose momentary unanswerabilty lay in the very strong sense that we had defeated this argument years ago.)

    Now that the Lord has provided me with both a Zippy blogpost expressing interest in what I thought was my weakest throwaway line and a completely serendipitous blogpost giving a hard experiential skeleton to a position that I’d only had a vague outline of before, I’d like everyone here to read Michael O Church’s article on the nature of Living in Truth and Fighting the Lie. Pay particular attention to the section on Stone Soup and “convex dishonesty,” which seems to be the most relevant parallel here. The op against Mark was of precisely that kind of creative dishonesty meant to produce positive results for the rest of their community in support of the Truth-that the Cathedral and its willing minions, while the majority, can be embarrassed and defeated with minimal effort. Naturally these operations are morally dangerous, but if you want them to stop, then do your research, pick a side, and assist in ending the God-damn war through the actual victory of the worthiest side as soon as possible, rather than waiting for the the deaths or moral exhaustion of both players and calling it just reward, with neither interest nor care about the stakes involved till they affect you personally. You may have simply presided over Hell’s latest land grab:

    “Within a trust-sparse corporate environment, to do anything requires a certain dishonesty (also known as “social proof arbitrage”). Trust sparsity means that everyone’s default will be to look at you with the “bozo bit” on, and ignore your input. The first thing you must do– the only thing that’s important– is flip that damn switch using whatever means possible. Until you’ve done that, nothing you achieve will matter. After you’ve flipped your “bozo bit” to the off position, you can get some real work done. But if your “bozo bit” is on, the only thing you’ll be able to do is fourth-quadrant work. Get out of that mess as soon as you can. Fourth-quadrant work will stink up your career if you’re on it for too long.”

  • vishmehr24 says:

    JustSomeGuy,
    By Zippy you are engaging in genetic fallacy. Immorality or amorality of American founding is irrelevant. Time heals all ills. What matters now is whose flag is flying on town halls.

    You ask me to “assume legitimate authority” when the entire question is whether the conqueror has “legitimate authority” over the conquered people or not. This is question-begging.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    Time heals all ills.

    So, over the course of time, the words, “just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed” can magically come to mean something that is not logically incoherent?

    You ask me to “assume legitimate authority” when the entire question is whether the conqueror has “legitimate authority” over the conquered people or not. This is question-begging.

    You provided me with a hypothetical without sufficient detail to determine whether or not authority existed.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Dystopia Max,
    You talk of winning wars and here it is proved by the phase space and thermodynamics that any advantageous course of action is virtually certain to be immoral. Crime does pay and the worldly do prosper.

  • Zippy says:

    Dystopia Max:

    Zippy, very possibly because more powerful officers on the other side of that war have been expressing disapproval for his associations with their sworn enemies, (who had the gall to use their own tactics against them!) was invited to pull a William F. Buckley and post a hasty set of denunciations of these purge-worthy undesirables over a made-up legal technicality.

    Apparently any disagreement with NRx is a Cathedral conspiracy. Criticism cannot possibly be substantive — by definition.

  • Zippy says:

    “Sting operations” (e.g. Live Action) are definitely lies, because they use language to deliberately and explicitly create false meaning to entice listeners to do evil.

  • Mike T says:

    Because when the Nazis do that, we know that when they are asking for Jews they are asking if there are any Untermenschen present whom they should haul off to the camps; and it isn’t obvious that answering “yes” is truthful even if Elimelech and Ezra are hiding under the floorboards.

    What they mean also doesn’t change the level of honesty in your literal response to their literal question. If they asked you “does anyone in this house have any reason they cannot eat a ham sandwich” and you said “no” it would be a lie because Elimelech and Ezra are supposed to keep kosher.

    We could of course simply cite the example of Rahab and be done with it, but that would not allow for morality to be reduced to algebraic formulas that always balance (even if we don’t like the answer).

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    What they mean also doesn’t change the level of honesty in your literal response to their literal question.

    Looks like we’ve got a positivist folks. Words… text… any means of conveying information; none of it has intrinsic meaning. Words would mean nothing to you if they weren’t lighting up little blips of pre-existent meaning inside your head. It is not possible for a text to contain a single, literal meaning.

    that would not allow for morality to be reduced to algebraic formulas

    That’s precisely what’s being argued against here. Only a positivist can think ‘one size fits all’ moral rules, like “this is the right thing to do in all situations with characteristics x, y, and z,” exist.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    @ Zippy:

    Now you’ve made the mistake of taking Max’s rant seriously. I can’t wait to see this thread get hijacked by another ridiculous pro-neoreaction nutcase.

  • Zippy says:

    Positive rules (thou shalt) are not universal. Negative moral norms (thou shalt not) are universal. (See Veritatis Splendour). In this the Church is simultaneously anti-positivist and anti-postmodern: if an act is definitely identified as intrinsically immoral, it is impermissible; but positive precepts always involve prudential judgement because it is impossible to comprehensively describe every situation in which it is obligatory to do X.

  • Silly Interloper says:

    Looks like we’ve got a positivist folks.

    Let’s be careful not to be too positivist on what “literal” means. I believe what Mike T indicates here–and something that cannot so easily be disregarded–is that both parties know what is (literally?) intended by the Nazi’s question.

  • Silly Interloper says:

    I think the implications of knowing what is literally intended by the Nazis is that dealing with what they intend can’t be some Aes Sedai* trick. The solution must contend with intended meaning and how to fulfill/not fulfill the answer without misrepresenting true meaning. Maybe. Er. . . I dunno.

    *http://wot.wikia.com/wiki/Aes_Sedai

  • We can all agree that lying is wrong, and the Nazi at the door scenario presents us with the question of what is actually a lie. If one is unsure in such a situation, I should think that the probabilist solution would be to mislead the Nazis, as opposed to the rigorist refusal to answer. I’m certainly not saying that there is no real solution, I’m just not sure what it is. The Live Action deceptions did not proximately save anyone, and I think that even if they are ambiguous, it would be better to err on the side of truth in that scenario.

  • jf12 says:

    Zippy, you may have dismissed the computer proof of Gödel’s ontological argument, but maybe this will be less boring: an *evolutionary* framework that expresses the adaptiveness of both lying and faith.
    http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/comm/haselton/unify_uploads/files/Johnson_etal_2013_TREE.pdf

  • William Luse says:

    How about this? The Nazi asks, “Are there any Jews here?” The person hiding them replies, “There are none of that sort here,” his voice dripping with contempt for ‘that sort.’ The contempt is meant to mislead regarding his opinion of ‘that sort.’ However, he knows that what the Nazi means by Jews is the sort of people suitable by birth for imprisonment, maltreatment, and extermination. But since no man is thus suitable, the claim that “none of that sort are here” is not a lie, its truth unaltered by the feigned contempt. This, I trust, is what is called a wide mental reservation, as opposed to a strict one, which is probably not licit: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10195b.htm

  • Zippy says:

    Exactly Bill. So thinking of “broad mental reservation” as a kind of cheat or loophole is a basic misunderstanding of the situation, just as thinking of NFP as a kind of cheat or loophole is a basic misunderstanding of the situation. A properly done “broad mental reservation” is a kind of truth-telling.

  • William Luse says:

    Of course, I wouldn’t have the wits to come up with such an answer on the spur of the moment. I’ll need to rehearse for the reign of the anti-Christ.

  • Scott W. says:

    “There’s no one here that shouldn’t be.”

  • Benjamin2.0 says:

    I was thinking of taking a cue from the host, Scott:

    “I would never allow a foul Untermenschen into my home!”

    It works even if they don’t specifically ask for the same. It also has amusing implications if it deters the hunters from entering. I call that a win-win.

  • Silly Interloper says:

    I was thinking along the same lines. Maybe something like: “I wouldn’t let vermin in here.”

    But I’m not quite happy with it. Knowing what the Nazi’s think, it seems that one is witnessing to the Nazis that the Jews are, indeed, vermin (or untermenschen, etc.). Basically affirming their beliefs.

    If the Nazis call frogs “wallabees,” and we know it, does it make it not lying to convey to them that there are no “wallabees” in the basement with the mini-kangaroo species in mind, all the while with a basement full of frogs in bated croak? It probably is, but that shows a shift in pointers, and I think you are proposing more of a shift in meaning.

    An attempt at shifting meaning: if we grew up next to a pond with Nazis and they believed all the frogs of the pond had magic doughnuts in their bellies, would it be a lie to tell them you had no frogs in your basement because their belief in magic doughnuts was wrong? What about: “We have no magic frogs here”? I dunno.

  • Peter Blood says:

    Why not just tell the truth and take your lumps? You don’t really know what’s going to happen, anyway.

  • Silly Interloper says:

    Are you asking seriously?. . . because the one being questioned is not the one taking the worst of the lumps, the Jews that will be gassed if he gives them up are.

    One of the things bothering me at the moment is that the proposed solutions seem to follow certain formulae for lie avoidance, but 1) if they are morally acceptable, they require a sort of preparation and rehearsal that the man faced with such a problem likely won’t have, and 2) the Nazis could easily figure out those formulae, which might actually signal them that there are, indeed, Jews hidden somewhere and cause them to be more diligent in their search.

  • Some guy says:

    Ummm… is the title of this post a reference to this recent song?

  • Peter Blood says:

    …the Jews that will be gassed if he gives them up are.

    You don’t really know that.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    You don’t really know that.

    You also don’t really know with metaphysical certainty that the armed marauder in your home intends to do you harm. That doesn’t mean you can’t employ self-defense against him.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    IOW, surety beyond a reasonable doubt is enough to act. Note that ‘reasonable’ isn’t code for ‘subjective’.

  • Zippy says:

    Some Guy:
    I’ve never heard that song, as far as I know, though I did not press “play” on the video.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    @ Zippy:

    For a second there, I thought, “What’s he talking about? I didn’t post the video.”

    Then I realized some thief stole the better part of my user name.

    The nerve of Some Guys.

  • Zippy says:

    On the Internet everyone is just some guy.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    That’s the joke.

  • […] with status signaling, propaganda for power, language as a way of generating behavior rather than sharing meaning, getting everything specified formally, and ‘successful memeplexes’ – bundles of […]

  • […] is, needless to say, nonexhaustive. And particular instances of other kinds of sins (e.g. theft, lying, usury) may be grave or venial depending on content: stealing a cookie from the cookie jar is […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Talk dirty to me at Zippy Catholic.

meta

%d bloggers like this: