Why the Columbine massacre was necessary

September 5, 2017 § 130 Comments

Someone inclined to take the position seriously would likely frame it as Harris and Klebold “having no choice”.

This was the only option available to them, as just two powerless high school kids against the implacable foe of constant institutionally tolerated bullying.  This was the only way to decisively accomplish their good intention of getting people to take bullying seriously. There had been lots of anti-bullying awareness-raising to no effect. There are many suicides because of bullying, so in the long run their actions saved more lives than were lost.

They didn’t intend the “deaths” of innocents and other bad “effects” — understood as premoral or merely physical occurrences in the manner JPII describes in Veritatis Splendour (his seminal condemnation of this pattern of thought)[1]. There was no other way for them to achieve the good they hoped to accomplish. They did not want anyone innocent to die as something for its own sake.  Their anti-bullying message could have gotten through even if, by a miracle, everyone had survived. And who is really “innocent,” anyway?

This is where proportionalist moral theology leads.  Proportionalism can be understood as applying the principle of double effect[2] while ignoring the fact that certain objective behaviors are always intrinsically immoral to choose apart from the intention for which the choice is made.


[1] “There thus appears to be established within human acting a clear disjunction between two levels of morality: on the one hand the order of good and evil, which is dependent on the will, and on the other hand specific kinds of behaviour, which are judged to be morally right or wrong only on the basis of a technical calculation of the proportion between the “premoral” or “physical” goods and evils which actually result from the action. This is pushed to the point where a concrete kind of behaviour, even one freely chosen, comes to be considered as a merely physical process, and not according to the criteria proper to a human act. The conclusion to which this eventually leads is that the properly moral assessment of the person is reserved to his fundamental option, prescinding in whole or in part from his choice of particular actions, of concrete kinds of behaviour.” — Veritatis Splendour

[2] At least as it is popularly understood.

The indiscriminate sacredness of bombs

August 31, 2017 § 228 Comments

We are always responsible for the behaviors we choose.

Bombs are indiscriminate weapons: they kill everyone in their fatal blast radius without discriminating between innocent people and belligerents. This is the nature of bombs.

When we choose to detonate a bomb we are choosing to kill everyone we know to be in the fatal blast radius. That is the nature of the objective behavior we have chosen.

But many people seem to believe that the indiscriminate nature of bombs qua technology has a sacred charism which takes away our responsibility for our choices. The fact that a bomb is objectively indiscriminate somehow implies that we aren’t responsible for killing all of the people we choose to kill when we deliberately destroy their living bodies with a bomb. We are only responsible for killing the people we wanted to kill with an imaginary discriminate weapon, not all of the actual people we actually chose to kill with our actually indiscriminate weapon.

But the fact that bombs are indiscriminate weapons doesn’t change the nature of human choices and moral responsibility. Bombs are not quasi-sacramental objects which move our moral responsibility out of objective reality and into an imaginary inner world wherein we didn’t actually choose to kill everyone known to be in the fatal blast radius.

The modernist notion is that bombs as a technology change the moral nature of killing, moving it into a subjective imaginary realm in which we are responsible for the choices we would have made in an idealized imaginary world: we are not responsible for the actual choices we actually made in the real world.  You might notice a certain similarity to the idea that financial and medical technology have changed the moral nature of usury and contraception.


See recent Crisis Magazine articles here, here, and here.  You can see my own comments on these articles on my Disqus profile.

We are free to disagree that I am punching you in the face

August 19, 2017 § 45 Comments

Take a contentious dispute between A and not-A, and suggest that people are free to disagree on the question.

Present a bunch of arguments why someone might believe not-A.

Personally attack anyone defending A with actual arguments by suggesting that in asserting A they violate the free to disagree principle.

Studiously ignore the fact that if asserting A violates the free to disagree principle, then asserting not-A also violates this principle.

Biting the logic bullet

August 11, 2017 § 124 Comments

In general there is a lot of resistance to morally evaluating the means we choose to accomplish our ends in their own right, independent of those ends. Modern people resist evaluating behaviors in themselves against objective moral criteria.

It is certainly true that, in order to be morally evil, a particular objective kind of behavior must actually be chosen by a moral agent in an act of the will.  It is also true that choices of behavior are preceded by the formation of interior subjective plans, intentions, mentalities, and dispositions, all of which are themselves subject to moral evaluation. Later behaviors are often preceded by earlier behaviors, carried out in preparation for the later behavior. And it is possible for a moral agent to suffer from an error of knowledge: for the person making the choice to be mistaken, to think that the kid waving a toy gun is actually a criminal waving a real gun.

A subjective error of knowledge is of course (and obviously) entirely different from the person making the choice having a malign subjective opinion that it is morally acceptable to shoot children waving toy guns. Malign subjective opinions don’t change objective moral reality. Subjective opinions don’t in themselves change objective reality at all, although disordered preferences can certainly give rise to disordered behaviors.

Once we accept the premise that good ends don’t justify evil means it follows that we must be able to morally evaluate means in themselves, independent of ends, and reject those means which are morally evil. We’ve already stipulated a good end. It further follows that we can’t start with the principle of double effect and reason our way backward from the good end to conclude that the chosen means is not evil.

The means we choose to achieve our ends must always, first, and foremost be evaluated morally in themselves, independent of those ends.

And this is a logic bullet that most people just aren’t willing to bite.

Triple jeopardy

July 11, 2017 § 15 Comments

John Noonan’s basic thesis is that Church doctrine prohibiting usury doesn’t categorically prohibit anything at all: that the doctrine boils down to the idea that charging interest is either licit or illicit depending on circumstances and subjective intentions extrinsic to the contract itself. The putative coup de grace in reaching this conclusion for Noonan is what is called the triple contract.

The triple contract is an agreement between two parties, but in order to understand it you have to first consider a contract between three parties: lets call them the investor, the managing partner, and the insurance provider.

The managing partner proposes (say) to undertake a risky but potentially very profitable sea voyage. The investor provides funds to finance the voyage in return for a fixed profit. The insurance provider, for a fee, provides security to the investor: a guarantee that the investor will receive his money back and a fixed profit, even if the voyage fails.[1]

In the triple contract the managing partner is also the insurance provider, and he imputes his fee as the insurance provider to himself.  In effect he agrees to provide an insurance bond as an inducement to get the investor to invest, and then underwrites the insurance bond himself.

As with most attempts to turn the moral prohibition of usury into a decorative accessory which doesn’t actually prohibit any well defined objective behaviors, the part you aren’t supposed to notice is the whole matter of security for contracts. In this case the fact that insurance bonds (understood equivocally) were accepted as morally licit is supposed to make Noonan’s readers fail to notice the difference between actual property staked as security and a personal IOU.

A personal guarantee is not a licit “insurance bond”. Rent charged against a collection of property, set aside and held in escrow as a contingency if things don’t go according to plans, is licit.

Of course, if you game the scenario forward this raises the question of why a managing partner with the resources to fully insure the investor and his profit would bother with an investor in the first place. But it might make sense if, say, the managing partner had illiquid property like farms or estates to post as security: property he doesn’t want to sell unless the enterprise fails.

So if you encounter the triple contract as something supposedly problemmatic when you are reading about usury, you can rest assured that it is a nothingburger.  The sleight of hand involved rests on all of the usual equivocations.


[1] Note that in insurance underwriting it is not typically the case for an insurance bond to cover even 100% of the possible loss, let alone the entire loss plus a profit, because of the perverse incentives this creates to destroy economic value.

Fungible fungible and promise keeping

June 23, 2017 § 11 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.

Greed consumes lust

June 19, 2017 § 13 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.

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