September 5, 2017 § 131 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). 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 while ignoring the fact that certain objective behaviors are always intrinsically immoral to choose apart from the intention for which the choice is made.
 “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
 At least as it is popularly understood.
August 31, 2017 § 231 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.
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.
June 5, 2016 § 34 Comments
Reader GJ uses the term “weaponized ambiguity” in the comments below, as a cognate of what I have called weaponized nihilism and of what others have referred to as the motte-and-bailey strategy. These are of course all forms of the venerable bait and switch, with the psychological feature that the person doing the arguing may be unaware of his equivocation.
Weaponized ambiguity strikes me, not without irony, as a very clarifying term. It captures and clarifies the way in which the execrable hides behind the banal and tautological.
Examples are always helpful.
Feminism is just the acknowledgment that women are people too … when it isn’t instigating mass murder.
Game is a toolbox of techniques which empower a man to be socially dominant … so pay no attention to the fact that the reason you will only learn it from the male equivalent of sluts is that it is the male equivalent of sluttiness.
Usury is charging unjust interest on loans … pay no attention to the fact that usury is any contractual profit at all on mutuum loans, and that even unjust interest charged on non recourse loans is not usury strictly speaking. The main thing we need to do is to avoid moral clarity.
Contraception involves a purely subjective feeling that you want sex but do not want a baby right now. Pay no attention to the minor matter of choosing objectively mutilated sexual behaviors versus abstinence.
And adultery is sex outside of marriage. But of course you can marry whomever or whatever you want whenever you want, and marriage lasts only as long as you want it to last.
Which is how Humanae Vitae becomes Vix Pervenit.
May 3, 2014 § 54 Comments
Folks are always trying to pretend that “opportunity costs” are real. Opportunity costs aren’t real. Opportunity costs are by definition an imaginary exercise in what might (or might not) have happened if we had chosen a different course of action from the one we actually did choose.
At the fork in the road before we make an actual choice, our imagination can be helpful. We can tell stories about what might happen in the future under various scenarios, and try to make better choices after reflecting on those imaginary stories about possible futures.
But the temptation to treat these imaginary stories – and associated “opportunity costs” – as if they are actually real is very strong, and as a subtle kind of lie this temptation frequently leads unwary moderns like us astray.
Once you’ve seen this kind of rationalization in one place you’ll start to notice it everywhere.
Murdering civilians in wartime, it is thought, must not be judged apart from “opportunity cost”: the quantitative consequences of incinerating two cities filled with civilians using atomic bombs has to be compared to the “opportunity cost” of an imaginary land invasion and all of the imaginary consequences that flow, in the fictional story, from the fictional invasion. Divorcing her husband was necessary because of the imaginary life of misery for herself (and her husband and children, because if Momma ain’t happy nobody’s happy) in the fictional story of the imaginary future in which she had actually kept her vows. Charging profitable interest on a full-recourse loan (usury) was justified because in an imaginary alternate reality the lender could have invested in something profitable. In the Jerry Bruckheimer film I imagine in my mind, failing to torture terrorist captives led to mass murder and destruction in Los Angeles. Joining Team Litterbug was justified because heck, in the story I told in my head I actually won the lottery and lived happily ever after.
Our imaginations are powerful things, and when they are made unequivocally subservient to the moral law they can be a very good thing. But we must never be fooled into thinking that something imaginary out of a fictional story we tell about something that didn’t happen – something like “opportunity cost” – can justify choosing concretely evil actions.
So don’t play the part of the modernist chump who can’t distinguish between fiction and reality. Always do what is upright and morally good, and let imagined realities that might come to pass if we choose evil stay in the realm of fiction, where they belong. The future isn’t in our hands anyway; it is in the hands of Providence.
August 11, 2012 § 11 Comments
I’ve frequently used the individual choice to drive a car and the policy choice to permit the use of cars to illustrate what foreseen but accidental death looks like. This corresponds quite closely to the individual decisions made in a war and the policy choice to engage in a just war. After all, if we didn’t allow people to drive cars and trucks millions would starve. The consequences of refusing to allow the use of vehicles would be dire indeed; so we choose to permit it, even though we foresee that thousands will be killed every year in traffic accidents.
Now, someone might claim that by permitting people to drive cars we are “murdering” the people who die in accidents in just the same way as if we stuck them with a knife. Someone else might claim that by banning driving we would be “murdering” all the people who starve to death for lack of food distribution in just the same way as if we stuck them with a knife. But most people with an ounce of common sense can see that those contentions are as dumb as a bag of hammers. People who can’t see that have put themselves beyond the reach of reason.
That doesn’t mean that moral reasoning stops once we’ve determined that traffic deaths are not directly intended by drivers and policy makers, of course. But for my purposes in this post, the rest of that discussion is an aside.
My purpose in talking about traffic is to show the contrast between accidental death and deliberate killing in a context that we all understand. It also encompasses both the policy decision and the fact that once a policy decision is made, that clearly doesn’t license every possible individual act with a vehicle: jus ad traffic policy and jus in driving.
Today we live in a climate of pervasive moral relativism: a moral relativism which has infected the thought of virtually all political views, left, right, center, and fringe. That isn’t to say that there is a moral equivalence of all political views: far from it. It is just to say that genuine moral absolutists are hard to come by these days, other than in obscure corners of the blogosphere, and often not even there. There are plenty of pretensions to moral absolutism. But when it comes to the absolute prohibition of killing the innocent, we are always treated to bluster about how we can’t judge it immoral apart from the concrete situation. In other words, some concrete situations make killing the innocent morally acceptable: moral relativism with lots of foot stomping and protest disclaiming that it is not moral relativism.
That is too bad, because moral relativism is false, and calling a pig a bird won’t make it fly.
When it comes to war people are constantly attempting to justify killing the innocent by claiming that we can conjure away our intentions. By wishing that circumstances didn’t make it “necessary” to do what we propose to do, we can claim that we didn’t intend the behavior that we chose. Translating that same reasoning to driving in traffic illustrates the unseriousness of the claim. If we had to drive from point A to point B to stop a bomb from going off (or do some other Really Important Thing), and a big crowd of people was in the way, and we ran lots of them down in order to get from A to B, it is the height of sophistry to claim that we didn’t “intend” to run them down.
So all the folks out there who claim that it is morally licit to kill innocents in war when the stakes are high enough ought to just come clean with themselves and with us. They are moral relativists. If that is what you are, then be that. But don’t pretend you are a moral absolutist. You aren’t.