Fungible fungible and promise keeping

June 23, 2017 § 13 Comments

“But let your speech be yea, yea: no, no: and that which is over and above these, is of evil.” – Matthew 5:37

Fungible” means interchangeable for use: one cup of sugar is fungible with another (assuming similar enough qualities) because when we put that sugar to use, we are indifferent as to which particular cup of similar-quality sugar we use.

Recourse” (or “full recourse“) means that when some property is transferred into an individual’s (or group’s) possession, that individual (or group) personally guarantees to return, not the actual property, but some property with equivalent use.  In short, recourse means that what secures contractual performance is a personal guarantee to restore the equivalent of what was borrowed.

Once one grasps that in a mutuum loan “fungible thing” means “treated as fungible by the contract”, fungible thing and recourse become convertible into each other. Fungible and recourse are fungible contract terms, if that isn’t too confusing a way to put it.

Now the security on a contract is whatever it is that secures the contractual performance of the contracting parties: whatever it is that ensures that the contracting parties each hold up their end of the bargain.

If a contract intended to produce profits is to be morally licit, the thing(s) which secure the contract cannot be treated as fungible (alienable) by the contract.  The collateral which secures a bank loan may not (as per the contract) be sold until the loan is fully discharged, because once the collateral has been sold by the borrower it can no longer act as security on the loan.

If the agreement is that certain property bound to the contract may be consumed or alienated without discharging the borrower’s obligation to repay, that specific property cannot act as what ultimately secures contractual performance.  A complex contract (a societas or census) may include other property which acts as security; but property which the contract treats as fungible cannot act as security.

A recourse contract – even if it also includes collateral as partial security – is ultimately secured by a mere personal guarantee or IOU.  If the collateral is completely consumed or alienated the borrower remains personally obligated to repay the loan in full; so the collateral on any recourse loan is treated by the contract as fungible in the pertinent sense.

This is reflected in Pius V’s words in Cum Onus where he insists that any licit census contract must be secured by “a fixed immobile good”: by some property which the contract does not treat as fungible/alienable from the borrower or managing partner.

A non recourse contract is a contract which by definition does not involve making promises which the parties may not be able to keep.  And a recourse contract by definition involves the parties making promises they most certainly might not be able to keep. This in my view is why St. Francis Xavier admonishes confessors to:

Ask [penitents] what profits they make, how, and whence? What is the system that they follow in barter, in loans, and in the whole matter of security for contracts?

You will generally find that everything is defiled with usurious contracts, …’

And this is yet another way, in addition to all the prior ways discussed, in which we might intuit the wickedness of usury: it involves profiting by deliberately insisting that borrowers make promises which they may not be able to keep.

A fungible error

June 20, 2017 § 25 Comments

A fungible thing is something which we habitually treat as interchangeable with different objects of the same kind and in the same amount.  A cup of sugar is considered a  fungible thing because we typically don’t care whether we are using this particular cup of sugar or that one: any cup of sugar with similar qualities will do.

Scholastics – academics who study the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas and other medieval Catholic scholars – tend, like philosophers of any school, to adopt certain habits of mind.  One of the Scholastic habits of mind is to reflexively consider the nature of a thing as one argues or dialogs about that thing.  This is of course perfectly natural and salutary, but I suspect that it underlies a common error when thinking about usury.

Because when it comes to usury, what is central and essential is the nature of the contract not the nature of the property lent.  Vix Pervenit:

We exhort you not to listen to those who say that today the issue of usury is present in name only, since gain is almost always obtained from money given to another. How false is this opinion and how far removed from the truth! We can easily understand this if we consider that the nature of one contract differs from the nature of another.  [Emphasis mine]

Scholastics – unlike Aquinas himself – tend to approach usury as having something to do with the nature of the property lent, qua fungible thing.  But a mutuum loan is not, strictly speaking, a loan of a fungible thing: it is a loan of a thing which the contract treats as fungible.  Aquinas explains this in his discussions of usury; here he is in de Malo:

As the Philosopher says in the Politics, things can have two uses: one specific and primary; the other general and secondary. For example, the specific and primary use of shoes is to wear them, and their secondary use is to exchange them for something else. And conversely, the specific and primary use of money is as a means of exchange, since money was instituted for this purpose, and the secondary use of money can be for anything else, for example, as security or for display.

He goes on to explain that it is not the nature of the property itself, but the kind of use which is authorized by the contract, which is the essence of the mutuum loan and therefore the essence of usury.  A contract which treats the lent property as fungible — as alienable from the borrower — is a mutuum loan; and it is on this kind of loan that making any profit whatsoever is morally illicit:

But if persons lend their money to others for another use in which the money is not consumed, there will be the same consideration as regarding the things that are not consumed in their very use, things that are licitly rented and hired out. And so if one gives money sealed in a purse to post it as security and then receives recompense, this is not interest-taking [usury], since it involves renting or hiring out, not a contract for a loan. And the reasoning is the same if a person gives money to another to use it for display, just as, conversely, if one gives shoes to another as a means of exchange and on that account were to seek a recompense over and above the value of the shoes, there would be interest-taking [usury].

So Thomists and other thinkers who attempt to take the sinfulness of usury seriously would do well to follow the Doctor, and avoid the pitfall of confusing the fact that a usurious contract treats the property lent as fungible with something intrinsically the case about the property itself.

And Aquinas’s correctness on the doctrinal point – that usury consists in the nature of the contract, not the nature of the property lent/borrowed – can be easily confirmed by checking Magisterial sources, such as Vix Pervenit (cited above) and others (see here and here, for example).

Greed consumes lust

June 19, 2017 § 14 Comments

Discussing usury in a previous post, Wood asks:

Why are we so susceptible to this particular sin, or at least why did the Enemy choose to attack here? Why do we “want” to be so blind here?

The idea that wealth can be conjured out of nothing, that we can create wealth ex nihilo, is very alluring. Look at the appeal of lotteries, “who wants to be a millionaire” game shows, and other kinds of gambling. Wealth is even more appealing than sex: in fact most people assume that wealth is fungible with sex, and other things besides. So wealth is better than sex. Wealth is a superset of sex: greed consumes lust.

Usury creates the illusion that wealth can be conjured ex nihilo by making an incantation, by speaking a magic spell: the personal IOU.  Usury empowers us to speak into the void and say “let there be money!”; and there was money, and also sex, because those with money get sex as a concomitant.

Enchiridion brevis

June 15, 2017 § 37 Comments

Denzinger, for those who don’t know, is a compendium of Catholic doctrines which is used to teach seminarians.  What is notable about it is that it isn’t a catechism or commentary: it is a collection of actual authoritative magisterial statements on a wide range of moral and theological subjects, originally commissioned by Pope Pius IX.  The content of Denzinger is actual epistemically authoritative pronouncements of the teaching Magisterium collected over the millennia, as opposed to some person’s explanation of “what the Church teaches”.

One of the things that struck me when I bought my first copy of Denzinger was how small it is, as a collection of the explicit authoritative communal beliefs of a millennia old institution with a global footprint: as the collected actual resolutions drawn from two thousand years of disputation and controversy.   No one can hold the dimunitive single volume in his hands, and then witness the glory of medieval cathedrals and universities, without concluding that the production of true propositions on paper is not the primary activity of the Church.

Another unmistakable impression was that when you read someone’s commentary represented as “what the Church teaches,” what is most remarkable is how much of that commentary represents the imported and unexamined metaphysical baggage of the author.

But you don’t have to trust my impressions. You can form your own by carrying a copy of Denzinger into St. Mary Major in Rome or one of a thousand other churches and cathedrals.

Feed my lambdas

June 14, 2017 § 36 Comments

Doctrine is to pastoral practice as [fill in the blank] is to farming.

I’ll start: “mathematics”.

Recourse to the Magisterium

June 12, 2017 § 38 Comments

The distinction between recourse contracts and nonrecourse contracts as central to understanding usury – the conclusion that personal loans charging any profit whatsoever are usurious, whereas corporate bonds are not usurious – is obviously something I just pulled out of that wacky traditionalist tinfoil hat I was insanely doffing to the King.

Or maybe not.

We do in this our perpetual decree, reprobate and condemn all contracts, pacts, and conventions whatever, to be celebrated in the future, whereby it will be provided on the part of persons putting into company money, animals, or any other things whatever, that if, even by mere accidence, any injury, loss, or damage, follow, the very principal, or capital be always safe and restored [fully by] the managing partner … Fellowships of this nature … are to be entered into honestly, sincerely and with good faith, with fair and just conditions, … so that the managing partner be not [personally] obligated to pay as gain a certain sum, or quantity, free, as aforesaid, from all risk or danger; nor to restore the capital, if, by any casualty, it should perish. But if the capital, at the dissolution of the partnership, be extant, let it be restored to him, who had contributed it to the company, unless it is to be shared with the manager, or otherwise distributed, according to law, between the contractors. …

— Pope Sixtus V, Detestabilis avarita ingluvies, 1586, cited in Usury, Funds, and Banks by Rev. Jeremiah O’Callaghan, 1834

and [annotation] mine.

And of course it is sheer coincidence that the medieval Popes who were clearest in their condemnation of abortion, contraception, and the like are the very same popes who were clear in their condemnation of usury.

Wonder Woman is a female eunuch

June 9, 2017 § 60 Comments

The shield maiden is in fact an ancient archetype, notable precisely because she is an exception and very much not a feminine role model for women in general; just as for example the eunuch is an ancient archetype and very much not a masculine role model.  Observe modernity’s expectation that the ideal man is basically a eunuch; the ideal woman a shield maiden.

The existence of these ancient archetypes combined with “choose whatever you want to be, except that only subhumans make the tyrannical traditional choice” modernity is toxic.

The search engine of Christ on Earth

June 5, 2017 § 81 Comments

The pope is primarily a sovereign, that is, a flesh and blood man born of ordinary human parents who possesses supreme authority over the Church.  He is the Vicar of Christ: a human representative of Christ who is  – Christ is – absolutely and supremely sovereign.

Human beings really don’t like to serve their masters in general, and they especially don’t like to feel obligated to obey other flesh and blood human beings.  Unlike God human beings are messy, smelly, fleshy, hairy, blood-and-bone animals with limited intellects, voracious appetites, narrow perspectives, egos well out of proportion to their ant-like personal significance in the scheme of things, mountainous lasagna layers of prejudice about matters they don’t understand, and prodigious helpings of vice. Who would want to be actually morally obligated to obey such a creature?

Atheists avoid the problem entirely by anointing themselves supreme intellect, but alas, this option isn’t available to believers. Protestants resolve the issue by appointing themselves Popes of their own personal Churches, projecting their own opinions onto pages of infinitely plastic interpretable text.

And one pervasive way for Catholics to be rid of this terrible and humiliating sense of obligation to obey a smelly beast with an oversized brain is to confound authority with degrees of epistemic certainty. After all, once we acquire knowledge of good and evil won’t we ourselves be like God?

So we are to obey Father because “Father knows best”, not because he is Father. If we knew better than Father our obligation to obey him would disappear. Father doesn’t actually have authority; he just happens to be in an epistemically superior position through accident of history, at least for the time being. Sovereignty is justified by the sovereign’s superior knowledge: by his capacity to infallibly declare doctrine, not by something so humiliating to us as actual possession of real authority.  It is to this transcendent knowledge that we give assent, not to the flesh and blood king. And the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is always there to set us free.

Popes almost never make infallible proclamations of doctrine though. The primary concomitant to the doctrine of infallibility is that almost nothing that a Pope says or does is an expression of epistemic certainty. His power qua Pope resides almost entirely in his real capacity to bind us to obedience in certain matters in the juridical domain of day to day Church rule — whatever we may think of, and whatever may be the objective wisdom or folly in, his decrees.

Institutionally of course there is real content to the Deposit of the Faith, and over the millennia this content has clarified and developed. Individual Popes and Councils have certainly made contributions here and there; though at least one Council is claimed, by the very Popes who called and ratified it, to have been purely pastoral: that is, to have defined no doctrines or dogmas at all.  “Pastoral” refers to the day to day life and actions of the Church as explicitly distinct from defending doctrine, that is, it refers to most of what the Church actually does as an authoritative living hierarchical institution headed by a flesh and blood monarch.

But the accumulated institutional body of knowledge at Ford is distinct from the authority of its CEO. The thing about Daddy is that on the sparse occasions when he actually tells you what to do you’d bloody well better do it, unless you have compelling contrary reasons and are willing to face the consequences of disobedience.

And the thing about individuals and whole societies with Daddy issues is that they usually don’t really want an actual Daddy. What they want is a flesh puppet with Daddy’s knowledge, competence, and authority to use his voice to speak their opinions and make them feel better about themselves.

The daddy issues of modernity

June 2, 2017 § 32 Comments

The natural law gives rise to absolute and categorical negatives: to absolute prohibitions which morally bind always and everywhere to prohibit certain kinds of behavior, independent of intentions and circumstances. Murder, contracting for usury, torture, and adultery are always and without exception morally wrong kinds of behavior.  Once a contemplated action is recognized as intrinsically immoral in species it is always morally wrong to choose that behavior.

It is also always morally wrong to intend the intrinsically immoral behavior of others, either as a means or an end.  We call this formal cooperation with evil.

The authority of particular men arises from and builds upon the natural law.  A father has authority over his children by nature; his imposition of a particular bedtime morally binds his children to obedience in virtue of his natural authority qua father.  We call the particular commands of a person in authority positive law.  For brevity I will refer to “the person in authority” as “the sovereign“.

Positive law can take two different forms.

In one form of positive law the sovereign directly asserts a particular command in a particular concrete situation: go to bed right now.

In another form of positive law, the sovereign promulgates a normative rule:  in thus and such a circumstance, this is to be done. Bedtime is eight o’clock.

Commands from authority are not the only kind of positive law.  For example we all have a positive natural law moral obligation to give alms: to materially support the poor and downtrodden, our brothers and sisters in Christ.

But it is fundamentally impossible for positive law to morally bind us to particular actions under all conceivable circumstances. Positive law is always by its very nature regulated by prudence. Going to bed at eight o’clock when the house is on fire would be a kind of mechanical rule-following which makes no sense under the particular circumstances. The positive rule is normative, but cannot by its nature be categorical.

I can’t explain this more plainly than the Church itself explains it:

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.

Rules, procedures, and written law are not capable of becoming transubstantiated incarnations of authority itself.  The crafting of positive rules, the writing of text onto paper, is not a sacrament. Bureaucracy cannot become a substitute for fathers, daycares cannot become a substitute for mothers, and formal decision procedures cannot become a substitute for kings.

This is distressing to the modern mind, which desperately wants to believe that a politics with minimized authority is not merely coherent, not merely possible, but is the only moral state of affairs.

Ultimately though reality doesn’t really care about the daddy issues of modernity. Pervasive commitment to an incoherent conception of authority doesn’t make authority go away as a feature of reality: it merely makes authority sociopathic.

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