Why the Columbine massacre was necessary

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)[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 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.

Sex lottery perverts

October 10, 2016 § 6 Comments

The point of playing the lottery is winning the jackpot.  The action is buying a ticket and waiting around for the results.

Winning the jackpot is a wonderful thing, but it comes with responsibility.  To be a property owner is to be a steward of that property.  Being a good steward of property involves risk, work, and expense; all of which increase with the value of the property.  (These don’t exhaust the requirements of being a good steward: they are just some of the requirements).

Someone who buys a lottery ticket and immediately throws it away is a lottery pervert: he acts contrary to the nature and purpose of lotteries, and contrary to accepting the responsibilities associated with the possibility of winning, a possibility intrinsic to buying a ticket.  A lottery pervert who buys a lottery ticket and throws it away would do better to just not play in the first place — even though playing may give him a thrill. In general someone who seeks the experience of playing the lottery while ruling out the possibility of winning attacks, by doing so, the nature of playing the lottery as an act of a rational being.  This approach to lotteries sets itself in opposition to the nature of lotteries and/or the rationality of the person playing.

If he already bought a ticket but feels unequipped to be a good steward of the jackpot, he ought to at least wait until the payout and donate it to someone who will be a good steward. Throwing either the ticket or the winnings into the trash is perverse, with respect to the nature of lotteries.

Lottery perverts act perversely no matter what the odds of winning happen to be; whereas someone who buys a ticket and waits for the result is not a lottery pervert, no matter the odds of winning.

And the same is true of sexual perverts.  Sexual perversion isn’t a matter of playing  with odds: it is a matter of perverting the nature of a sexual act

Stigmata, scars, and brands

October 10, 2016 § 5 Comments

As incarnate beings, our bodies bear witness to many of the choices we have made.

A more or less neutral term for this is scars. Scars may be the result of accident, of injustices committed against us, of noble acts, or of shameful acts.

When our bodies bear witness to noble actions on our part, we might refer to these as stigmata. (The most noble of stigmata are the fatal wounds of the martyr and, well, stigmata).

When our bodies bear witness to shameful actions on our part, we might refer to these as brands.

Stigmata are ennobling; brands are shameful; mere scars in themselves are neither ennobling nor shameful.

Examples of stigmata include the physical signs in a woman’s body caused by bearing children for her husband[1].  The same scars on an objectively unmarried woman or an adulteress are brands: signs of her immoral actions.

Tattoos in modern liberal societies are most often brands: self inflicted scars which make personal flaws manifest in literal scars deliberately engraved into the body.  Sometimes though tattoos can be stigmata, as when they symbolize the brotherhood of a particular group of men fighting for a noble cause. The same kind of common mark is a brand when the cause is ignoble, for example, in gang tattoos.  As deliberately self-inflicted, no voluntarily acquired tattoo is a mere scar.

Sterilization deliberately acquired is a brand.  Sterilization accidental or forced is a mere scar.

These are objective characterizations.  You don’t get to choose in an act of will whether a particular wound on your body is noble stigmata, ignoble brand, or mere scar: it is what it is because of how it got there. You can choose whether or not to mutilate your body with brands; but you cannot in a revisionist act of will turn what is objectively an ignoble brand into mere scar or noble stigmata.  It is no genetic fallacy or retreat to subjectivity to observe that noble stigmata and ignoble brands are different kinds of objects, with different moral implications.

Most people understand this to some degree, whether or not they want to accept it.  Thus things like fat shaming as a reaction to fat acceptance: fat acceptance attempts to neutralize the shame associated with gluttony (a vice which is all too easy to indulge in modern society); or even to turn it into something noble. But of course not all fat is shameful brand.  Some, as with the aforementioned fecund wife and mother, is noble stigmata. Stereotypes are useful, but they aren’t an excuse to turn off your brain.

[1] Or, as we might say today when referring to her actual husband, her first husband; with all the usual caveats about widowhood, prior fornication falsely labeled ‘marriage’, etc.

Behave yourself

March 3, 2016 § 45 Comments

Based on recent combox discussions, it is clearly time for a little refresher in basic moral theology.

We are morally responsible for:

  1. Behaviors we choose.
  2. Behaviors we intend to choose.
  3. Behaviors of other people that we intend.  (This is “formal cooperation”).
  4. Imprudent choices we make (material cooperation with evil, prudential judgment, and the principle of double effect all fall here).


A (temporarily or perpetually) continent person:

  1. Does not (while continent) choose any sexual behaviors.
  2. Does not intend to choose (while continent) any sexual behaviors.
  3. Does not intend (while continent) for anyone else to choose particular sexual behaviors or specific sexual acts.
  4. May or may not be acting prudently.


That brings us to our scenario:

Cut to Germany.  Rapefugees are raging through the streets, global media cameras are all comprehensively and studiously pointed at a couple of gun toting white guys somewhere in the remote western United States.

Helga Homemaker has a diaphragm or other barrier contraceptive that she puts in as limited protection against roaming rapefugees. She takes it out when she engages in sexual activity with her husband.

If she has done moral wrong, it must be because she:

  1. Chose a contracepted sexual behavior. (nope)
  2. Intended to choose a contracepted sexual behavior. (nope)
  3. Intended for someone else to choose an immoral behavior. (nope)
  4. Acted imprudently.

Folks who believe that Helga does wrong cannot base that judgment on the intrinsic immorality of choosing (or intending to choose) contracepted sexual behaviors.  They must argue that she acts imprudently.

And I think that argument is weak.

Raping nuns on the holodeck

February 26, 2016 § 31 Comments

By all accounts Pope Francis’ airplane interview story, about Paul VI authorizing nuns in danger of rape to use contraceptives, is false. It would almost be better if it were true, because the fact that it is false seems to be leaving everyone deceived. I’ll address one particular way in this post. (I addressed a different way in the previous post).

The interview has given rise to a discussion which is especially pernicious, because various parties are turning it into a debate over the application of the principle of double effect. So most people who read stories about the interview are likely to be presented with two sides to choose from, both of which are wrong, under a form of (selectively) relativistic moral reasoning which is disconnected from reality.

The principle of double effect cannot ever apply to contracepted sexual acts, because contracepted sexual acts are intrinsically immoral in themselves, as kinds of behavior. Choosing an intrinsically immoral kind of behavior is always morally wrong, full stop, no exceptions. The principle of double effect describes conditions under which a morally neutral behavior with both bad effects and good effects is and is not permissible. But contracepted sexual acts are not morally neutral behaviors in the first place.

Nominalists don’t believe (or make a selective pose as if not believing) in the reality of kinds of behavior. They believe that individual human acts are chosen (that individual objects exist), and that categorizing these acts (actual objects) into kinds of behavior (kinds of objects) is a matter of lumping things together in whatever way suits our purposes, giving those lumps a name (thus nominalism). Categories are merely tools of the mind which we fashion for ourselves, mere names for more or less arbitrary aggregations of bits of reality: categories are not objective features of reality-in-act, actual reality.

Nominalism is, of course, insane and self refuting; and like all incoherent views can only be applied selectively in a context of more or less heavy doping by unprincipled exceptions and other impurities of the mind. The heavily doped semiconductor is an archetype of modernity, with the will providing base-emitter current or gate-source voltage: modernity is a fabric of programmable switches over which we impose our will to construct the virtual reality in which we live, inside the padded walls of the holodeck or the vast virtual reality system of the Matrix.

Contraception is a kind of behavior: a kind of sexual behavior. A nun who wears a chastity belt is not choosing a sexual behavior; she is physically excluding certain sexual behaviors from material possibility (to the extent of the chastity belt’s security). A rapist may violate her in other ways, but the chastity belt restricts the ways in which he is materially capable of violating her. When she chooses to put on a chastity belt and give the key to her Mother Superior she is not choosing that a rapist violate her in one of those other ways: she is choosing to block the possibility of violation in a particular way.

A vowed religious woman living in a third world hellhole (or, say, in Germany) where she is likely to be raped is not choosing a particular kind of sexual violation when she wears a chastity belt. She isn’t choosing a sexual act at all. This is not a matter of applying the principle of double effect to a contracepted sexual act, because she is not choosing any kind of sexual act at all. She is merely securing her body – imperfectly, as is the case with any kind of security – from a particular kind of violation.

Now, it is entirely possible that she is unjustified in doing so under some moral analysis or other: perhaps a particular chemical chastity belt under consideration is abortifacient, for example. But the behavior she is choosing cannot be permissible on the basis that she is supposedly justified in choosing a contracepted sexual behavior under the principle of double effect. A rape victim is not choosing the sexual behavior of her rapist at all, by definition.

The point is not to justify the use of particular kinds of chemical or physical chastity belts by nuns in some particular set of conditions or other. The point is that people who are talking about it as an application (right or wrong) of the principle of double effect to contraceptive behaviors are making a basic category mistake — where categories are objective features of reality, not merely nominalist buckets into which we get to put whatever we want however we see fit.

A legitimate rape victim is not choosing a sexual behavior at all; and the category ‘non-sexual contracepted sexual acts’ is not even rationally coherent, let alone an objective feature of reality. It exists only in the Matrix.

Horton hears a homicide

January 10, 2016 § 18 Comments

In fact, body and soul are inseparable: in the person, in the willing agent and in the deliberate act, they stand or fall together. – Veritatis Splendour

The physicalism-relativism dichotomy in moral casuistry is a false one, a false dichotomy which arises from the post cartesian separation of reality into utterly distinct physical and subjective realms.

Kant allows that things in themselves do exist, but only as etherial noumena that we can’t know anything about.  (How he manages to include things he can’t know anything about in his philosophy is left to the ouroboros). Modern materialists allow that consciousness exists, but only as a ghostly and irrelevant epiphenomenon of the mindless bouncing around of wave-particles in accordance with the laws of physics. Their putative knowledge of this is illusory on its own terms.

Back here in the real world, a man’s behavior follows from his intentions. Different intentions imply different behaviors, and vice versa.  That is why things like contraception and usury are and shall be judged based on objective standards: the notion of ‘subjectifying’ morality by confining moral judgment to someone’s ‘heart being in the right place’ rests on false, question-begging metaphysics.

A man who intends to mow the lawn doesn’t run the mower over a concrete parking lot, or take off the blade before he starts his task. A man who intends to win the lottery doesn’t buy a ticket and then destroy the numbers on his ticket with a sharpie.

Likewise, a man who runs the mower over the grass intends to cut the grass (whatever further intention he may have); and the man who buys a lottery ticket and does not mutilate it intends to participate in the lottery, even if the notion of winning millions of dollars fills him, to his credit, with trepidation at the thought of the concomitant complications and responsibilities.

[28] But what think you? A certain man had two sons; and coming to the first, he said: Son, go work today in my vineyard. [29] And he answering, said: I will not. But afterwards, being moved with repentance, he went. [30] And coming to the other, he said in like manner. And he answering, said: I go, Sir; and he went not.

[31] Which of the two did the father’ s will? They say to him: The first. Jesus saith to them: Amen I say to you, that the publicans and the harlots shall go into the kingdom of God before you. [32] For John came to you in the way of justice, and you did not believe him. But the publicans and the harlots believed him: but you, seeing it, did not even afterwards repent, that you might believe him.

Matthew 21:28-32

It is sometimes objected that (for example) when one surgeon murders his patient while making it look like an accident, and a different surgeon actually does accidentally cut the aorta, that these are “the same physical act”. The idea is that in the rarified world of subjective intentions the acts may be different, but that physically they are identically the same.

As I’ve mentioned before, this begs the question by very carefully looking at the situation at only a certain fuzzy resolution, and then quickly looking away. Because even a strict physicalist would have to agree that different neurons are firing in different ways in the different brains of the different surgeons in the different cases.

Subjective meat

June 8, 2014 § 25 Comments

Modernity is engaged in an all out war against the good, the true, and the beautiful. A key component of that war is convincing people that moral norms and the moral gravity of human choices are subjective rather than objective.  This is, of course, a pile of errant nonsense.

The relationship between the subjective and the objective in human choices is obvious to children but can, like many deep philosophical subjects, seem befuddling to intellectuals.  Catholics are fortunate to have an authoritative tradition to draw upon to slice through the befuddlement, and the tradition that applies to this particular subject is the traditional understanding of mortal sin.

In order for sin to be mortal, Christian tradition holds that there are three requirements: grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent.  What distinguishes mortal sin from venial sin is that the matter is objectively grave and that knowledge and consent are sufficiently present subjectively.

But all sins, not merely mortal sins, involve the interplay of matter, knowledge, and consent.  The matter of sin is the objective content of the acting subject’s choice.  (Keep in mind that “objective” is not a synonym for “physical”).

Moral wrongs always involve a defect, and the degree of personal culpability of the acting subject always depends upon his choice to do something which is objectively evil: personally culpable evil is always a defect in the will.

But as we’ve discussed before, defects of knowledge make it possible to do something evil unwittingly. Defects of knowledge also make it possible to do something that isn’t evil while under the impression that it is evil.  Eating meat that was sacrificed to idols while under the impression that doing so blasphemes is evil because, even though he is mistaken about the objective facts, the acting subject is under the impression that he is doing moral wrong but chooses to do so anyway.

So we have a number of permutations of human acts as analyzed under the trio of matter, knowledge, and will:

  1. Morally good acts.
  2. Non-culpable mistakes, where knowledge is non-culpably defective, will is good, and matter is objectively evil (Catholics call this “invincible ignorance”).
  3. Culpable mistakes where knowledge is culpably defective (the person should know better) and matter is objectively evil. (This is “negligence” or something roughly equivalent).
  4. Culpable acts in which knowledge is defective, the action itself is accidentally objectively good or neutral, and the will deliberately chooses evil because of defective knowledge.  This is like the case of the man who eats meat sacrificed to idols while under the mistaken impression that doing so is blasphemous.
  5. Culpable acts in which the matter is evil, the person knows what he is doing, and chooses it freely.

Scandal, of course, is any act the matter of which involves leading others to sin — any kind of sin.

There is of course plenty more that could be said: this is just a very basic outline resting on the traditional Christian understanding of moral evil.  But the one thing you’ll notice is that the moral gravity of the matter of the act is always objective.  Even in case 4, where the action itself is objectively neutral or good, the moral gravity arises from what the acting subject mistakenly thinks he is doing.  The thing that he mistakenly thinks he is doing is – objectively – committing blasphemy.

Because we are not omniscient it is possible for our knowledge to be defective.  This gives rise to a number of permutations in how it is possible to do moral wrong.  But the possibility of making mistakes does not cast any doubt on the objectivity of moral standards: as Pope St. John Paul II put it in Veritatis Splendour,

It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good. Furthermore, a good act which is not recognized as such does not contribute to the moral growth of the person who performs it; it does not perfect him and it does not help to dispose him for the supreme good.

Fertile discussion

May 9, 2014 § 78 Comments

In the comments below, CJ writes:

Also, (I’d like Zippy or someone else to correct me if I’m wrong), but even if a woman had a hysterectomy to remove, say, a cancerous uterus, the surgery itself would be licit under double effect, but subsequent intercourse would be sinful.

As with many things I think the Catholic answer is that there is no one-and-done Catholic answer: that is, there is a range of theological opinion which is consistent with doctrine.  That doesn’t mean that there is no right answer.  It just means that the Magisterium of the Church has not officially defined, as doctrine, specifically what the right answer happens to be in the detailed cases under consideration.

My own personal view encompasses a “range within the range” (with all the usual caveats: I’m just some guy who happens to be Catholic). My views are considered pretty hard core, but they are not as ‘strict’ as what CJ suggests. In my view the principle of double-effect for the most part does not enter into it, since we are working with questions of intrinsic morality.  The principle of double-effect only apples to questions of extrinsic morality, when the behaviors in question are morally neutral in themselves qua chosen behaviors.

A person can be dealing with any of three different factual situations: (1) naturally fertile organs, (2) accidentally infertile/diseased/mutilated organs, or (3) deliberately mutilated organs which were healthy prior to the deliberate mutilation. “Accidental” here refers to the choices of the person whose body it is: forced sterilization by a government or whatever is ‘accidental’ in the morally pertinent sense, as is disease and, uh, accident.  It is important to keep in mind that a purely physical description of the objective physical facts fails to encompass a moral description of the morally pertinent objective facts.

Case (2) breaks down further, because in some cases (2a) diseased organs threaten a woman’s health no matter what she does (cancer, say) and in others (2b) they do not threaten her health unless she becomes pregnant. Assume the diseased organ has been removed — an assumption to which we shall return.

Case (3) breaks down further into situations where the person has made a bona fide attempt to reverse his self-mutilation (3a) and cases where he has not (3b).

My present view is that (married, obviously) sexual relations are definitely and unquestionably licit in cases (1) and (2a) (directly contrary to CJ’s impression). I don’t have a strong view of whether relations are morally licit in cases (2b) and (3a) (the ‘hard cases’ if you will), and I am pretty certain that relations are illicit in case 3b.  (It is this latter conclusion that makes some folks consider my views “hard core” or rigorous, sometimes incorrectly characterized as rigorist or physicalist).

(2b) is a ‘hard case’ because it is pregnancy itself which is a threat to the mother’s health, not the diseased organ. The real issue is whether it is morally licit to remove the diseased organ in the first place.  It is not in fact a healthy organ, which suggests that it is licit to remove it. It is not however a threat to health in itself if left alone, which suggests that it is an illicit self-mutilation to remove it. I relate to the inclination toward the former, because removing a diseased but non-threatening organ does not strike me intuitively as ‘self-mutilation’ in the same sense as removing a healthy organ.  It bears passing similarity to the situation when nuns who are at risk of rape use contraception.   But I am uneasy with any definite, categorical conclusion in this far corner of the casuistry; possibly because different concrete cases might have to be broken down further.

And that’s OK, because we don’t have to have definite answers to every question in order to have definite answers to some questions.

He mistook it for a sin

October 21, 2013 § 29 Comments

Intrinsically immoral acts take place when an acting subject deliberately chooses an objectively immoral kind of behaviour.  Behaviours are objective, and many can be observed by a third party.

To a third party observer an objectively immoral action can be the result of a defect of the acting subject’s knowledge, or it can be the result of a defect in his will.  It is a moral evil when the defect resides in his will.

Consider a married man who sleeps with a woman who is not his wife.

Suppose he suffers from a defect of knowledge: that is, he really thinks that she is his wife.  In this case he is not guilty of moral evil.  But he has still chosen an objectively evil action: he made a mistake.  Legitimate mistakes are always accompanied by regret upon their discovery and never take on the status of a morally good act.  They at best remain, in the words of the Catholic magisterium, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good.  It is not a sin strictly speaking but it is still accompanied by regret and remorse.

If the man does know that the woman he is sleeping with is not his wife, then his choice of action suffers from a defect of will not of knowledge: his choice of action is sinful.

In order to know if the choice of an objectively immoral action is deliberate, we have to place ourselves into the perspective of the acting subject. Otherwise we can’t tell if the action was the result of a defect of knowledge or a defect of will.

But we can still categorize adultery as an objectively immoral behaviour, which no person can deliberately choose in full knowledge without committing moral wrong.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Object of an act category at Zippy Catholic.