Minute Particulars

"...minute and particular." -- Enormous Generalities

Tuesday, November 25, 2003


Probably 99.9% of my readers don't know me personally; so, chances are you don't know me personally. And that means you'll just have to take me at my word that I don't think I'm a prude or as pure as the driven snow. If you'd like me to explain why I don't think I'm a prude or as pure as the driven snow . . . well . . . then you'll probably not see anything awry with the two comments I mention below.

Commenting on this passage:
Anybody who has several sexual partners in a year is committing spiritual suicide. He or she is ripping the veil from all that is private and delicate in oneself, and pulverizing it in an assembly line of selfish sensations.
InstaPundit claims he doesn't agree with this and then explains . . . well, see for yourself. I'll wait (it'll open in a new window).

I hope I'm not the only one scratching my head here. Can one reason for a happy marriage really be that a person has had several sexual partners prior to marriage? I don't know that it can't be a reason, but I marvel that this kind of thing even gets mentioned as one of the reasons for a happy marriage. These kinds of comments seem callow. I mean, really, what are we supposed to come away with after reading VodkaPundit's related post that InstaPundit linked to. What's the point of such posturing?

Let me stress that I'm not suggesting that a person who has had a lot of sexual experience can't be in a happy marriage; that would be a silly thing to claim. Rather, I just don't understand how that could ever be a contributing reason for a happy marriage.

One of the obstacles to any reasonable discussion about marriage is precisely this kind of ambiguity in our use of the term. One reasonable person thinks that having had several sexual partners prior to marriage can be one of the reasons for a happy marriage. Another reasonable person thinks it's ludicrous to even suggest this. It seems to me we're going to have to be a lot clearer about what we all mean by "marriage" in many of the current debates if we want to make any progress.




This report is troubling:
Jurors in the trial of John Allen Muhammad said his lack of emotion, combined with the extreme violence of the sniper attacks, convinced them he deserved to die.

Robert Elliott said he watched Muhammad sit stoically during the six-week trial, even during grueling testimony from victims.

"I looked for something in him that might have shown remorse," Elliott said Monday after he and 11 other jurors recommended Muhammad be executed. "I never saw it the whole time."
Here's what I don't understand. If Muhammad was claiming he was innocent during the trial, why would a juror look for or expect signs of "remorse"? If this really played a role in the jurors' decision to impose the death penalty, isn't it somewhat problematic? Is showing remorse relevant in a case where a defendant has pleaded innocent? I can understand how a defendant's remorse might be a relevant fact in a capital case if the defendant pleads guilty. But someone who pleads innocent really shouldn't be expected to show remorse. In fact, it seems that showing remorse after pleading innocent would convince the jurors once again that the defendant was guilty of the capital crime and likely reinforce their imposition of the death penalty.


Saturday, November 22, 2003


A good friend once said that being married is a bit like living in a house of mirrors. You see yourself from all the perspectives you were once oblivious to. It's usually not pretty. I was discussing a blog debate with my wife recently and rather than her usual and noble response of smiling, feigning interest, and praying that I'll move along swiftly to something of substance or the den, she asked, "Have you ever admitted you were wrong on your blog?" Hmm. A quick search of this site returned:
Your search - "I was wrong" site:particulae.blogspot.com - did not match any documents.
That's a bit disconcerting.

I notice that Mark Shea has a recent post in which he freely writes "I was wrong" about a past spat with someone in his comment boxes. In fact, he's clearly not afraid to use the words that apparently don't appear once in my meager musings here. A search turns up a handful. I even ran a search on a few other blogs I frequent and was embarrassed to find that they each were big enough to use these words that never seem to darken my little blog:
Eve Tushnet

Ut Unum Sint

Video Meliora . . .

Summa Contra Mundum

Flos Carmeli
Now, admittedly, sometimes the phrase turns up when it's used rhetorically as in, "I thought Minute Particulars was a sensible blog, but I was wrong." Also, using a search engine and only one permutation of "I was wrong" is not a very scientific study. Still, I'll admit it's a little troublesome. The only succor I took from this little exercise was that "I was wrong" doesn't seem to appear over on Disputations, the blog Minute Particulars aspires to be like when all grown up. Phew! And surely this post, spattered with "I was wrong"s throughout, will soon appear in the search engine database and save me from that akward:
Your search - "I was wrong" site:particulae.blogspot.com - did not match any documents.




Christopher of Against the Grain recently wrote:
It should be clear by now that I do not share the opinion of those who believe disagreement with the Pope and Ratzinger over this war constitutes unfaithfulness to the Church. I certainly do not think one could apply the label of 'dissenter' to Neuhaus, Novak, Weigel, Hudson, et al. or to any Catholic who with consideration and humility offered their respectful disagreement with the Vatican on this matter.
I agree with most of this. Disagreement among Catholics on most moral matters about a particular event does not in anyway imply "unfaithfulness." But, as I explain below, I think saying "disagreement" rather than "dissent," at least to my ear, shifts the context to the realm of "personal opinion" rather than "prudential judgment." While many in the debate have cast it in terms of "prudential judgment" or highlighted statements from bishops suggesting that "people of good will may differ on how traditional norms apply in this situation," I think some of these responses don't clearly distinguish between personal opinion and prudential judgment. Here's a somewhat revised explanation of this I posted back in March.

"Disagreement is not an easy thing to reach." This wonderfully counterintuitive statement from John Courtney Murray has been highlighted again by recent debate; this time it's the debate on exactly how Catholics ought to react to a statement on a current situation by bishops or the pope. Frankly, I'm not quite sure what it is we're all disagreeing upon. I know it must be hidden somewhere in all the "isms" that are being used to describe various positions.

The first impediment to genuine disagreement about this issue has been the terminology. At least in the discussions I've been involved with, there's an interesting resistance to the terms "official statement" and "dissent." Some hold that "official statements" by bishops and the pope are not official statements unless they are doctrinal or statements of principles that aren't applications to particular situations and current events. I don't quite follow this objection. On the one hand, we're not talking about an opinion by the pope overheard at dinner about a soccer match that day. On the other, we're not talking about an infallible teaching or even an ordinary teaching that requires the assent of the faithful. We're talking about statements intended for the public by bishops, the pope, or appropriate Vatican officials, about important current events. Yes these are prudential judgments. Yes they are not binding nor do they require the assent of the faithful. But if these aren't "official," if these don't reflect current judgments about current events by bishops and the pope from their "office" as bishops and pope, then I don't know what "official" means.

I understand that a Catholic might wince at the realization that he or she utterly disagrees with an "official statement" from the pope or USCCB. But I don't think limiting the scope of what's "official" is the best technique around this. While it might make it less awkward to, as Mr. Dreher put it, "stand by their president, and not their pope, in this matter," denying that there are official statements on an issue seems to water down the statements of bishops and the pope to mere opinion devoid of wisdom or inspiration from the Holy Spirit. And if we can't call statements on important current events by bishops and the pope "official," then our disagreement will only be about opinions, and underlying our conversation will be the assumption that bishops and the pope don't really have authority or competence to make statements on these matters. It would then follow that we really don't have to take them seriously. This seems the implicit and even explicit position of a number of Catholics.

The other disputed term is the word "dissent." Some insist that "dissent" exclusively implies an unfaithful break from the Church, though obviously the word has a much more general meaning as well. If the only objection to using "dissent" is that it has a strict ecclesial meaning then I'm happy to say "disagree" or some such term. But I used the word deliberately in previous posts not to suggest that any dissent is necessarily unfaithful, but to suggest that one is disagreeing with an official statement of the bishops or popes that has a context and implications that "disagree" doesn't quite get at.

Actually, I wonder if avoiding the word "dissent" is really a very smart tactic. If you don't want to distance yourself from the context of a bishop or pope's prudential judgment, and surely authentic discussion ought to attempt to preserve the proper context of such judgments, then why not roll up your sleeves and get dirty? Why not claim that as a faithful, good-willed, intelligent Catholic, you are dissenting from an official statement by the USCCB or pope? Using "disagree" or some such term undermines the weight of the official statement and the impact that a contrary opinion might have; and yes, avoiding "dissent" waters the position of the bishops and pope down to mere opinion devoid of wisdom or inspiration from the Holy Spirit (you see the pattern developing).

By now many who have objected to the use of the above terms are probably seeing red, saying
That idjit at Minute Particulars is at it again! He's claiming that the statements from the USCCB or pope are binding on the faithful and anyone who disagrees is a devious, dastardly dissenter!
And this brings us to the next obstacle for our ever getting to the point of really disagreeing: the creative reinterpretation of comments and positions into straw men that can be whisked away swiftly and easily.

My concern from the start, when I first raised doubts about the wisdom of Catholics writing an Open Letter that seemed inappropriate, was that there have been motions, some subtle and perhaps unintended, some explicit, vigorous, and deliberate, to vitiate the Church's moral authority in secular matters. I get the impression that Catholics are being encouraged to look for loopholes, to walk within the letter but perhaps not the spirit of Church Teaching, to wiggle and squirm so they can comfortably dismiss the clear statements of concern about current events from the USCCB and the pope. I don't mean genuine, faithful dissent that may be heroic, objectively correct, and noble. I don't mean a humble, reverent shaking of one's head in disapproval. I don't mean the kind of disagreement that leaves one uncomfortable, causes one to look again for what is not seen, and hobbles one a bit by pangs of conscience. I mean the dissent of Catholics who boldly proclaim the bishops are wrong, the Vatican is wrong, the pope is wrong on an issue of utmost moral significance.

I don't understand the loud and booming dismissals of official statements by USCCB and the pope that many have offered for public consumption. I don't quite see how these Catholic pundits can be so confident; from my vantage point they only seem to be offering a simplistic notion of the difference between doctrinal statements and prudential judgments, a shallow reading of the Tradition, and subtle but definite resistance to letting the Lumen Gentium shine without filters or obstruction through the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

But more importantly I'm troubled by the following fact: most of this resistance is coming from faithful, good-willed, intelligent Catholics. Sure there are some frothing fringe folks, but many of these opinions are coming from those who, judging from what they've said in the past and on many issues, are wiser, smarter, and older than I am. It's as if the cap is stuck on the St. Blog's toothpaste tube and the current crisis is giving it a good, hardy squeeze; the toothpaste is squirting out in places I would have never suspected. And this is disturbing because it makes it clear that the consensus on many issues of earlier times was a little more brittle than I thought.

I simply don't know the reason this tendency to be so dismissive of statements from bishops and the pope has arisen in faithful, good-willed, intelligent Catholics. Surely it's complex and my dim words have not been an attempt to explain it. The perceived shaking of the foundations caused by the sexual abuse scandal is a likely contributor. And what some see as the brazen battering of U.S. policies by bishops and the Vatican is likely at play as well. But at some point a line gets crossed in order to stand on "new ground" that seems to offer firmer footing for a particular situation. Assuming that "new ground" really is more solid and stable, I wonder how well that ground will support the broader issues one inevitably faces once a crisis passes.


Thursday, November 20, 2003


Hernan of fotos del apocalipsis noticed my A DANGEROUS FRAME OF MIND post below where I mentioned Robert Louis Stevenson's open letter in defense of Fr. Damien of Molokai. He points out that Stevenson's short story, The Bottle Imp, a delightful story that I had not read before, has a reference to the leper colony on Molokai.

Here's a passage from the story that will give you a glimpse of its intriguing premise.
"Of glass [the bottle] is," replied the man, sighing more heavily than ever; "but the glass of it was tempered in the flames of hell. An imp lives in it, and that is the shadow we behold there moving; or so I suppose. If any man buy this bottle the imp is at his command; all that he desires-- love, fame, money, houses like this house, ay, or a city like this city--all are his at the word uttered . . . .

"And yet you talk of selling it yourself?" Keawe said.

"I have all I wish, and I am growing elderly," replied the man. "There is one thing the imp cannot do--he cannot prolong life; and, it would not be fair to conceal from you, there is a drawback to the bottle; for if a man die before he sells it, he must burn in hell for ever."




Here's an impressive story that makes me a bit uneasy. There is something gritty and sobering about a priest willing to live in such a dangerous neighborhood and do simple, small things like a prayer service, a prayer service, by the way, for a homicide victim on the very corner and at the very time of day the murder occurred just two weeks earlier. I say it makes me uneasy because I always get the nagging feeling that there's no real excuse for my not doing, in an analogous way (I'm not a priest), something so simple. Most of us are capable of such simple, concrete responses, and yet most of us don't dream of actually carrying them out. Seeking those in need and simply being with them, praying with them, or helping them in a myriad of little ways, is a pretty straightforward action to plan and carryout; so is fasting and prayer. And yet, these seem to be the first sort of things tossed when "serious" discussion and responding to the "big picture" are attempted.


Monday, November 17, 2003


I'm rerunning the two posts below in response to some who think this article, which claims that there is clear evidence for a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, changes the whole discussion of whether we should have invaded Iraq. Eve Tushnet has a good roundup of many of the responses. I'm not arguing one way or the other here. I'm willing even to accept for the sake of argument that no one can seriously deny the link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. But if we accept this as true, does news like this change the justification for our invading Iraq?

If it's merely bringing to light what was clearly and solidly behind the reason for our invasion in the first place, then it would seem to reinforce the claim that the decision was just. However, if this is really an ex post facto justification, then I think it's morally problematic. I explain why in the two posts below from earlier this year.




Unless you are privy to intelligence information common citizens don't have access to or part of a well-connected investigative team with the time and resources necessary to track down these things, the debate about whether there were really weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the quantity and quality of such weapons if they were present, and the role they may have played in convincing various leaders to go to war is, well, a debate that's a bit futile.

Think of it this way: let's say your neighborhood newspaper runs a local story that you want to verify. You probably could track down who said what, when, and where since you might be able to actually talk to the folks involved or go and see for yourself. But it would still be difficult and take more time than you probably have. In this context, something as international and cloaked in secrecy as the existence of WMDs in Iraq is likely too big and far away to get a complete handle on; certainly there's not much an ordinary citizen can dredge up on his or her own. And, really, would any of us actually know a weapon of mass destruction if we saw some satellite photos of one or stubbed our toe on it? At some point we all have to trust somebody on these issues, as on most issues of any importance, beyond our little patch of reality.

But we're a republic after all, not a pure democracy. We couldn't and shouldn't have to track down the sources and veracity of testimony for every critical issue our nation faces; we trust elected representatives and/or those whose job it is to examine the actual situation, do the right thing, and explain their actions promptly and with as much candor as national security permits. Most of us don't know what evidence was presented to the decision makers and really have no reason to assume any malfeasance, and probably, though this can be unnerving, we ought to assume those in power are well-intentioned until the facts prove otherwise.

What's surprising is not that trusting somebody can be difficult and often proves disappointing (that's life after all), but that folks discuss this issue as if they've seen and handled the evidence firsthand, as if they could properly interpret what must surely be highly technical data. I'm amazed at some of the comments from people who have no better access to what really happened than I do about the righteousness or wickedness of our actions in Iraq.

But if the debate about what really happened is academic to the extent that we aren't part of those who really do know what happened, maybe we plebes ought to at least admit it's academic and clear the ground of all the pundit debris. This would have the advantage of actually giving us something we can discuss in a reasonable manner below the hyperbolic din. And shouldn't we all first start with what we hold in principle before getting so sweaty about who said what, when, and where?

One way to shake out where we all really stand is to put forth a relevant but hypothetical situation, a situation about which we can indeed know the details. Let's say we invade a country for one reason, let's call it reason A, and discover after our invasion that reason A actually didn't pertain, (we might call this reaction OOPS); but let's also posit that we discover circumstances that present us with another reason, let's call it B, that would have been just as valid a reason as A was had we only known it prior to invading. In fact, A and B, while substantially different, seem to have equal moral weight and urgency. Now then, does the discovery of reason B after our invasion justify our invasion even if we had vehemently stated prior to attacking that we were doing so based on reason A?

Yes or no? Let's not talk about what you read or heard on talk radio. Let's stick to basic moral concepts that we all ought to have pondered on occasion. In principle, can one do something because of A, discover that A doesn't apply, discover that B would have been just as valid, and justify one's actions now with B after the fact?

If you say "yes" then you're comfortable with an end justifying a means to that end, and further, you're comfortable with discovering that end after the fact.

If you say "no," then you're aligned with what I think is the traditional moral stance on ends and means, the principles of which I discussed briefly in my post last month, ENDS AND MEANS.

Examples of folks abandoning the traditional moral understanding of ends and means without a second thought are legion these days. But it's appearing in spaces where careful thought is usually the norm; so much so that I'm wondering if the lapidary moral maxim "an end never justifies the means" is being dismissed as unrealistic or not universally applicable anymore.

Here's a recent example from many I could link to: Calpundit had a post where he asks, "When is it OK for a president to tell a lie? A big lie?" While the context is Iraq, he gives an example from the past:
Let's take the canonical case in recent history: FDR and World War II. Did Roosevelt know that the Japanese were planning an attack on Pearl Harbor? This is still a matter of intense speculation, but let's suppose he did. Was he right to let it happen anyway?

In hindsight, most of us would say yes. The dual threats of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany were so great that he was justified in getting America into the war regardless of whether he gave honest reasons. History has proven that his judgment was wise, and if it took a lie to convince America to go to war, then that lie was warranted.
This, of course, is an ex post facto justification of a crucial event in history. And it's a perfect example of the end justifying the means to that end in moral discourse. Tacitus also sees no problem with ex post facto justification, as this surprising post (via The Poor Man) makes clear:
In the absence of a WMD threat, I might note that this wouldn't be the first time that a war received ex post facto justification. The Anglo-French aim of a free Poland was not secured at the end of World War II, but that seems to matter little; instead, we find that a principle moral justification for that war was one thing that almost no one at the time was actually fighting for -- an end to the Holocaust. . . .

So by all means, take the Administration to task for pushing the WMD line as it did. But don't travel from there to a point wherein the war itself was wholly immoral. A savage tyranny that filled mass graves with hundreds of thousands of its men, women and children was destroyed forever. That's justification right there. Simply because you wish to deny credit -- however rightly or not -- for that deed does not mean you must maintain that the deed was not done, nor that it was ignoble.
The problem with these kinds of approaches is simply that the moral principles that prohibit an end being used to justify the means to that end are not contingent upon the importance or urgency of the action involved. The traditional argument against this kind of reasoning is grounded in our human nature and the metaphysical principles of act and potency, principles which simply don't change when the stakes are high or the time short. What does seem to change, it seems, is our perception of these principles. When the stakes are really high or when we are convinced of the outcome of a potential event we tend to cut corners a bit and justify what would normally be a wrong action.

This, of course, is nothing new and probably something only saints steer clear of habitually and consistently. We all cut corners; it's called sin. What's disconcerting is not that we might have cut some corners in our moral judgments of late, but that lopping off corners is readily admitted by many as the only way out when the going gets rough.



ENDS AND MEANS (from May 2003)

Whether you think the war with Iraq was a fine and noble venture or a huge mistake, I've noticed that two related questions still remain just out of focus beneath many of the reactions and comments I've read:
1) Was the war a preemptive or preventive strike?
2) Can an end ever justify the means?
The first question may seem old and stale and I'm not going to drag it through another round of debate here. But how you answer the question is significant. If you say,
No, it was not a preemptive strike, it was self-defense and as such it was well within just-war requirements,
then my concerns are moot. But if you answer
Yes, it was a preemptive or preventive strike,
then your answer to the second question, I think, will need some nuance. While there are many interesting and even intelligent explanations of how the war was not preemptive, I think most people understand that it was a preemptive or preventive war, a strike to thwart a future and likely threat.

Now, unless you simply give no credence to just-war theory, a preemptive or preventive strike, when you look at it in plain bright light, simply doesn't fit into most descriptions of traditional just-war theory. This doesn't mean at first glance that preemptive strikes can't be used justly; but it's tough to find it in the traditional sources and current articulations of just-war theory. And actually, in light of the moral principles behind most just-war theory, there's a good reason for this. A preemptive or preventive strike is not considered a viable option, I think, because it is an instance of the end justifying the means.

While most of us have a notion that "an end never justifies the means" or some variation of that, I wonder if many realize that this is what preemption is? Wouldn't we describe a preemptive strike in this or a similar manner:
The threat of a looming danger moves one to eliminate a possible event (the end) with a strike (the means) that is not directly linked to any actual event (e.g. the actual use of weapons of mass destruction) but only to a possible event (e.g. the possible use of such weapons).
The reason this is an end-justifying-the-means scenario is that a possible event does not have the same moral weight as an actual event; and so whenever a possible event is the object of a moral response, we are no longer in the realm of traditional morality which requires actual events to judge.

To this, some may say,
Fine, then traditional morality is going to have to stretch or change because preemptive or preventive strikes are warranted when there's the possibility that weapons of mass destruction will be used.
Maybe. But if that's your sense of things you may have a difficult time lashing your moral sense onto a firm metaphysical foundation.

I think part of the trouble here is a failure to grasp why the end never justifies the means. This is not just some lapidary maxim that sounds nice but doesn't ring true when things get rough and we have to cut moral corners. It's a rock-ribbed truth of existence and human nature. In this case, an end (preventing a possible event) has prompted a means (war with Iraq to eliminate the possible event) in a manner that is morally disproportionate -- not because of any specific aspect of the Iraqi situation, but because a possible event is not a morally valid end.

A moral judgment is made when we apply principles to a present situation. Why "present"? Well, the present is all that exists from moment to moment. A "moral" judgment is emptied of meaning if it is not about human beings acting and being acted upon or if it is not applied to existing beings in existing circumstances. I can't condemn a murderer for murder until the murder actually happens. That's why we distinguish murder from attempted murder. In a way, you'd think we wouldn't make such a distinction. If you shoot me in the heart and my bullet proof vest saves me, you won't be charged with murder, but attempted murder. While it seems that you are morally culpable for murder if you knew nothing of my vest and intended to kill me by shooting me in the heart, we don't make such jumps into events that don't exist. My murder didn't occur and so you aren't charged with it.

Human beings are free and have actions that cannot be anticipated with any moral certitude. If we apply principles to a future situation, a situation we anticipate and conjecture about, we are no longer making a moral judgment, we're making a bet, a wager about the outcome of something. If the outcome we've anticipated actually occurs, any previous moral judgments are still just that, previous moral judgments that don't apply to the event that actually occurred.

The obvious, though myopic, objection to this runs something like this:
So, you're saying that until someone plants an axe into my skull, an axe that someone is currently swinging toward my head, I can't -- let's say I can freeze the action and ponder it -- I can't with moral certitude state that they are going to murder me!?
Well, yes. But obviously this is not to say that I can't or shouldn't move out of the way or even shoot the person swinging an axe at me to stop him -- assuming that's the only reasonable means I have. And this is the point that some of the preemptive strike advocates have missed.

Preemption attempts to anticipate with moral certitude what another person will do before they do it. This, of course, by definition can't be done. "Moral certitude" and "anticipate" don't go together. I don't think you can wiggle out of this bind unless you either deny that your action is preemptive or that the action you anticipate is freely done.

Surely the relationship between sovereign states is more complex and different than the simplistic examples used here and in most moral examples. But the principles still pertain. Either the principles are wrong or ends-justifying-the-means approaches, even when they involve massively complex situations, need to be seen for what they are. Some have suggested that weapons of mass destruction have so changed things that we have to rethink the traditional approaches and prohibitions against preemptive or preventive attacks. But surely the first step in rethinking such things is a recognition of what is being proposed.




Amy of Open Book recently mentioned this article (req's reg.) about Christopher Hitchens who
. . . played "devil's advocate" – against Mother Teresa. This would seem an outsized case of windmill-tilting and nose-thumbing. While she was alive, the Nobel Prize-winning nun often topped international polls as the most admired person on the planet. Last month, she was beatified by the Catholic Church – the second major step toward sainthood, after being found "venerable." Yet Mr. Hitchens testified against her – at the request of the church.
There were many interesting comments about the whole issue of Hitchens' scathing criticism of Bl. Teresa. How scathing? In a recent column, Hitchens concluded with the following:
Many more people are poor and sick because of the life of MT: Even more will be poor and sick if her example is followed. She was a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud, and a church that officially protects those who violate the innocent has given us another clear sign of where it truly stands on moral and ethical questions.
This is one of those issues where it's hard to know where to start. There are so many things that you simply can't assume you hold in common with someone like Hitchens. The moment you dig in to respond is the moment you realize you need to step back to address another aspect of the issue that you can't assume you would both hold in common. You keep stepping back until you get a glimpse of the enormity of the project and then, if you're like me, despair a bit that you'd practically have to reiterate a whole tradition just to get onto the pitch to kick some small point around. Even if I thought I were capable of it, I'm sure I don't have the time or energy. Maybe someone with the ability and energy ought to make the time?

I was reminded, though, of Robert Louis Stevenson's open letter in defense of Fr. Damien of Molokai. While the events and circumstances are worlds apart, Stevenson's words to Hyde seem to me to be the kind of response Hitchens requires. You should read the whole thing if you haven't before. Here's an excerpt:
And I take it, this is a type of our division; that you are one of those who have an eye for faults and failures; that you take a pleasure to find and publish them; and that, having found them, you make haste to forget the overvailing virtues and the real success which had alone introduced them to your knowledge. It is a dangerous frame of mind.


Wednesday, November 12, 2003


I'll drink to that! (via TS O'Rama)
Like chocolate and wine, the darker the beer, the better it may be for your heart, according to a new study.

In a comparison of Guinness Stout, a dark beer, and Heineken, a light beer, the darker brew had substantially more anti-clotting activity, according to a University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist who presented his findings Tuesday at the American Heart Association annual meeting.
Of course, if I had known about the study, this bit
While the research was done on eight dogs and in the lab on human blood, Folts said the findings apply to people as well.
would have read
While the research was done on eight dogs and an eager blogger . . . .
Eight dogs?! Could they really not find any human volunteers for this?


Tuesday, November 11, 2003


I've worked out a lucrative agreement with myself to rerun some of my posts (primarily from last March) leading up to our invasion of Iraq. I do this because many are again discussing whether we should have invaded and, more to the point, what we ought to do now.

I also find that there continues to be something amiss in the moral reasoning of many (not all) who continue to insist that our reasons for invading were just. As many have noted, there really does seem to be an explicit or implicit willingness to use an end to justify the means to that end. And there are many flavors of this error.

But there's something about the notion of preemption which, while related to this error, goes beyond it as well. I hope to post something (new!) on this later, but I think the error is related to what I discuss in the YOU ARE WHAT YOU DO post below. The reasoning seems to be something like this: while no one wants any more of our soldiers or innocent civilians killed or maimed, these repercussions are kept in perspective when we realize that so many millions are now freed from the oppression of a ruthless dictator. The moral frame of what is permissible for a good and powerful country seems to get shifted a bit here because we are freeing so many from such evil. And I wonder if this shift is related to the question I ask below, "Why should anyone ever refrain from an action that cannot reasonably have any negative consequences for them?" In fact, if we simply add "and does so much good" to the question, I think many might answer, "We shouldn't refrain!"




Peacemaking and the Use of Force: Behind the Pope's Stringent Just-War Teaching is an interesting article written nearly four years ago that shows the fairly clear lines of concern Pope John Paul II has had from very early in his pontificate. Here's a small bit, but you should read the whole article:
Finally, Centesimus Annus, with echoes of earlier 20th-century popes, presents John Paul II's negative judgment about war as an instrument of policy:
No, never again war, which destroys lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution of the very problems which provoked the war.
This passage has become almost a leitmotiv in the Vatican's response to the use of force, repeated again and again in papal statements and other Vatican declarations.

As a rule of thumb, I would suggest that here as elsewhere the Pope should be taken at his word. While the form is rhetorical, the substance is serious. The point is that the consequences of war are beyond calculation. We should consider soberly whether the use of force does, in fact, do what the Pope says. Above all, does it take the life of innocent people? Does it leave behind a trail of resentment and hatred? Does it make finding a just solution more difficult? These objections do not rule out resorting to force, especially in case of humanitarian intervention. They do imply that every effort must be taken to avoid the vastly unpredictable consequences of taking up arms.



YOU ARE WHAT YOU DO (from March 2003)

There are a lot of ways one could enter the vast pool of wisdom that the virtue tradition created. You could dip your little toe in gingerly with a question about whether it's okay to sneak into a movie theater without paying (why is that always the quintessential light-weight morality question?) or you could do a cannon ball into the middle by grappling with an issue like torture right from today's headlines.

Moral issues can be difficult in two ways. The first difficulty is getting a handle on the theoretical aspects of an issue. What precepts are we obliged to follow? What kinds of actions are morally licit? The other difficulty is the application of morality to particular actions.

Take the standard, boilerplate example: A hunter shooting another hunter whom he mistook for a deer (assuming he didn't think it was a deer wearing an orange vest, smoking a cigar, and cleaning a rifle by the campfire!) is a different moral event than a premeditated plan conceived by one hunter to shoot deliberately another hunter. The intention of the person acting is an important factor in specifying whether the action was good or bad, whether the shooter was morally culpable or not for killing another hunter.

For anyone who believes that human beings are created in the image of God and have an intrinsic and divine dignity, most extreme moral issues aren't difficult in theory. That torture is always wrong is something that in theory is pretty clear for those who recognize the dignity of every human being. The difficulty is located in the consideration of what constitutes torture and how these tenets must be applied, not in the moral principles involved. But if you hope to convince others who don't accept your principles of faith and only acknowledge a morality grounded in reason and human nature you start getting into some tricky moral quandaries.

One of these tricky spots in a morality prescinded from truths of faith becomes clear with a kind of question that goes something like this:
Why should anyone ever refrain from an action that cannot reasonably have any negative consequences for them?
Why shouldn't we torture someone who will eventually end up dead or in prison for life anyway? He or she could never retaliate. Why shouldn't I kill someone if I would gain something by it (money, position, freedom from obligation) if I can do it in a way that virtually assures me that I will never get caught? If there is no immediate negative consequence, no subsequent negative consequence, and no eternal negative consequence, why refrain? If you're resisting this hypothetical because there is always a chance, even if very remote, that someone will get caught, let's assume for the sake of argument that one will not get caught. Why refrain?

I noted in a previous post that torture is a bit like being in a room where the entire floor is covered with a few inches of gasoline and you've decided to make someone tied to a chair in the middle of the room talk by using a blowtorch. Of course, the moment you slosh over to the person and light the blowtorch is the moment your world explodes in a ball of flame. The point of this silly image is that the torturer is definitely and concretely affected by his or her act of torturing another human being. And the reason for this is found in the virtue tradition.

Likely the most important implication of the virtue tradition is that it addresses the dynamic between "who we are" and "what we do," and it does this without explicitly appealing to articles of faith -- Aristotle was a pagan. The virtue tradition is responsive to the uniqueness of the human being, a creature both immaterial and material in composition, neither angel nor brute:
[T]he human soul is said to be on the horizon and boundary line between things corporeal and incorporeal, inasmuch as it is an incorporeal substance and at the same time the form of a body. ( SCG.2.68)
An incarnate spirit, a creature capable of actions which transcend the material world, the human being is nonetheless shaped and moved by the effects of his or her immersion in the historical world of matter; in fact, St. Thomas's great insight regarding the nature of human beings was his insistence that the soul informing the body is the natural condition of the human being. This insight is significant regarding the nature of moral reality because any appeal to disembodied principles or necessary ideals — a tendency that is persistent throughout history — will fall short in considering the natural condition of human beings.

The virtue tradition is a response to our natural condition and it highlights the fact that our activities will necessarily impact our disposition to the world. Paul Wadell puts this very nicely:
The intention of an act gives a special quality to the act, it identifies it. But when we act, the identifying quality of the action also becomes an identifying quality of the self; the intention which forms the act also forms the person who acts, the two are internally connected.
While we remain free in the truest sense, the habits which accrue to us, both good and bad, affect our basic posture toward the world and create propensities and inclinations toward certain actions.

That virtues are "habits" is a source of confusion since the word has many meanings and in current parlance it tends to conjure up a kind of behavior that is unappealing or unhealthy. But if you understand what the tradition is driving at by using the term, you'll find a wealth of wisdom. Aquinas has a long and nuanced section on "habits" in his Summa Theologica that is well worth working through. He writes:
habit implies a disposition in relation to a thing's nature, and to its operation or end, by reason of which disposition a thing is well or ill disposed thereto.
The virtue tradition has as its central concern the habits by which incarnate beings can more readily live a good life. There is a resistance to broad generalizations and an emphasis upon particular situations. Morality is not considered a science in the strict sense, since it involves human actions which can never be reduced to necessity in particular instances. There is necessity in the larger considerations: e.g. the definition of a human being, the free will that all human beings possess, the inclination of all human beings toward a perceived good; but the specific occasion of a human action will always have a component of freedom to it, and thus be a matter of contingency rather than necessity.

And so, back to the question:
Why should anyone ever refrain from an action that cannot reasonably have any negative consequences for them?
An approach along the lines of the virtue tradition and emphasizing only the tenets that we can derive from reason would, I think, conclude that the very act of torturing another human being would shape one's moral outlook, one's disposition toward other human beings, in a manner that is habitual. Because the action is so extreme, I would suspect that even after one occurrence a habit of cruelty, inability to empathize, and a kind of blindness to decency would creep into one's constitution. Such a habit doesn't necessarily mean one will torture again -- perhaps the occasion was unique and never arises again -- but it necessarily taints one's perception of fellow human beings in a manner that I would think would be difficult, though not impossible, to undo. So the answer would be that there is indeed a negative and very real consequence. The act of torture obviously devastates the one tortured; but it also devastates the one doing the torture. The torturer and the tortured enter a nightmare that neither can emerge from completely. The difference of course, is that the torturer is the cause of the nightmare and the very act of torturing another person necessarily distorts his or her ability to relate to other human beings.



COLD COMFORT (from March 2003)

It's interesting that one of the most cited texts from the USCCB on Iraq by those who disagree with the bishops is the following:
People of good will may differ on how traditional norms apply in this situation. The gravity of the threat and whether force would be preemptive are matters of debate, as are the potential consequences of using or failing to use military force.
I wonder if those taking comfort in the fact that a judgment doesn't require assent, in this case a judgment by bishops or the pope about the current Iraqi situation, might be dismissing the opinion in part because it doesn't require assent. I've read suggestions that the opinion of bishops and the pope on Iraq doesn't touch on faith and morals; but surely it's an application of these. I've also sensed that some think a prudential judgment is a kind of personal opinion about a matter that "people of good will may differ on" and thus, because they consider themselves people of good will, they implicitly or explicitly hold that their opinion is necessarily equal to the opinion of the bishops and pope. I'd like to suggest that there might be a bit more to disagreeing with bishops and the pope on prudential issues than the doesn't require assent mantra might suggest. But to do this we need to consider again the nature of a prudential judgment.

Here's a fine description of prudence from Josef Pieper:
The immediate criterion for concrete ethical action is solely the imperative of prudence in the person who has the decision to make. This standard cannot be abstractly construed or even calculated in advance; abstractly here means: outside the particular situation. The imperative of prudence is always and in essence a decision regarding an action to be performed in the "here and now."
The opinion of bishops and the pope on Iraq doesn't require assent because any application of moral principles requires a prudential judgment, a judgment in the "here and now" about a concrete situation, a decision upon which people of deep faith and good will might differ. If you think about it, in theory, there are very few if any applications (not principles or laws or doctrines, but practical applications) of Church Teaching that would necessarily and in every case require assent or agreement of the faithful given every possible permutation of intention, events, and circumstances. If you're thinking "the divinity of Christ" or some such thing you're missing the point; look again at the last few sentences and the parenthetical, I'm talking about "practical applications." How do you apply the doctrinal truth that Christ is divine? In the moral realm, even applying the straightforward and unequivocal prohibition against killing an innocent human being can get difficult when one must determine the particular aspects: intention, innocence, mitigating circumstances, etc. Certainly you can say it's always wrong to kill an innocent human being, but applying that in particular situations is often quite difficult.

A judgment requiring assent would have to be applicable to and anticipate every possible particular situation in advance. The reason judgments requiring assent are so rare is that it's nearly impossible to account for every possible mitigating circumstance when the judgment is applied to concrete, complex, and particular situations. Judgments by bishops and the pope that are prudential don't require assent in the manner that doctrinal declarations do because doctrinal declarations can have universal scope for every possible circumstance -- even if applying the doctrines to the world is difficult; prudential judgments don't have this same scope.

But judgments "not requiring assent" have somehow drifted to being perceived by many as "judgments that have the same weight and authority as my own judgments as long as I'm good willed about it." This, I would suggest, is a distortion. Judgments by bishops or the pope not requiring assent are still informed by the Holy Spirit, the teaching authority of the episcopal office, and the solicitude the Church has for the dignity of every human being.

A judgment of the bishops and pope, even a unanimous one that holds that the current conditions for a just war have not been met could very well be wrong. But if so, it will only be seen as such in hindsight. The purpose of these prudential judgments is to guide all men and women of good will in the "here and now." Dissent from these positions ought to be done with reverence, with humility, and frankly, with a little fear and trembling. I say this NOT because one is somehow not "faithful" if one dissents from the prudential judgments of bishops or the pope. Rather, I say this because one is deciding to go it alone or with others of like mind who have themselves decided to go it alone. This could indeed be noble and even heroic. History may show that those who have strongly disagreed with the present opinion of bishops and popes on Iraq were virtuous, faithful, brave men and women of good will who fought the good fight and were clearly right to dissent.

But this kind of dissent loses its authenticity if it stems from suspicion of the motivations of the pope or bishops, or is rooted in doubt that the Holy Spirit is working through the pope or bishops, or derives from a love for one's nation that surpasses love for the Light of nations, or is grounded in good old fashioned despair about the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ:
Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which He communicated truth and grace to all. But, the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, it is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word. As the assumed nature inseparably united to Him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a similar way, does the visible social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it, in the building up of the body.
Finally, it seems to me that faithful dissent needs to be accompanied by an awareness of the fact that formation of conscience is very closely tied to Church Teaching:
In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church. (CCC)
Dissent from Church Teaching should never leave you feeling warm and toasty. For Catholics, the Church is so central to any application of moral theory, and the very basis of such an application, a well-formed conscience, has its roots so deep within the Church, that any dissent from prudential judgments that the bishops and pope make ought to be a cold comfort at best.


Sunday, November 09, 2003


I posted this back in January, but I think it's becoming especially relevant again. It remains the case that, "with all of the councils and advisors and committees and teams, with all of the machinations and strategy, someone, somewhere will make the critical decision that sets things into motion." Now, though, the decision is how best to resolve the crisis in Iraq as sensibly and soberly as possible. Just as it was a prudential decision ultimately by one person to commit our troops, so too, it will be a prudential decision to decide what to do now that we're mired in what all admit were the inevitable uncertainties that always surround war. And, I suspect, most would admit that the situation remains one which has indeed sprawled out faster and farther than any one person could possibly track and reel in enough to make a decision without having to rely on the decisions and intelligence and goodwill of many others. It remains, indeed, a hard condition.
Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart's-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony? (Shakespeare, King Henry V)
Josef Pieper, whom I've quoted before on the virtue of prudence, writes:
The immediate criterion for concrete ethical action is solely the imperative of prudence in the person who has the decision to make. This standard cannot be abstractly construed or even calculated in advance; abstractly here means: outside the particular situation. The imperative of prudence is always and in essence a decision regarding an action to be performed in the "here and now." By their very nature such decisions can be made only by the person confronted with decision. No one can be deputized to make them. No one else can make them in his stead. Similarly, no one can be deputized to take the responsibility which is the inseparable companion of decision. No one else can assume this burden. The strict specificity of ethical action is perceptible only to the living experience of the person required to decide. He alone has access to the totality of concrete realities which surround the concrete action, to the "state" of the person himself and the condition of the here and the now.
He is speaking of a decision that we might face in very ordinary times, but his words apply to any action that has moral significance by anyone, whether private or king.

While we talk as if major decisions like committing troops to an invasion of Iraq can "have momentum" and are "made by committees and various processes," it seems to me that at some point there is a lynchpin decision made by one person. With all of the councils and advisors and committees and teams, with all of the machinations and strategy, someone, somewhere will make the critical decision that sets things into motion. It might seem strange to reduce so massive and monumental a decision to one person at one point in time, but morality can't be applied to organizations like physics to a Rube Goldberg machine; morality always involves particular actions by a particular individual at a particular time and place.

Perhaps this is silly and a bit extreme, like the idea of a butterfly flapping its wings causing all the right motions to precipitate a hurricane halfway around the globe, but I don't see how else we can describe such things without appealing to an abstract process or system or institution. While we often speak of the evil of an abstract idea like an empire, country, regime, institution, and so forth, notions of moral good and moral evil are only applicable to human individuals and their actions.

Any scenario, whether it be the United States "deciding" to unilaterally invade Iraq or a U.N. Security Council resolution that "decides," any scenario will have lines and branches of decisions that eventually lead to or require one decision by one person at a particular time without which the whole scenario would collapse.

It occurred to me, assuming this tracing out of human decisions and actions holds true, that if major decisions really do eventually resolve in a person, decisions of unimaginable scope and importance, how is it possible that such a decision can fulfill the traditional requirements of a good moral decision? Surely no one person can personally keep the "totality of concrete realities" in mind to make such decisions. These global issues sprawl out faster and farther than any one person can possibly track and reel in.

And so, the situation requiring a decision ends up getting chunked and packaged into bite-sized pieces by other trusted decision makers who then present the "concrete realities" in manageable pieces to the one who ultimately makes the decision. But these, of course, are no longer "concrete realities" in the sense used by Pieper above, are they? They are artifacts "packaged" and "presented" rather than an understanding of the situation grasped by one present to the events and situation.

We're faced, it seems, with some tough moral issues. How can someone act morally and responsibly in decisions of such scope, and how do we ascribe moral culpability with actions that have such vast implications? And what about those who advocate a decision or help carry it out? Again from King Henry V

WILLIAMS (a soldier)
But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at
such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of

So, if a son that is by his father sent about
merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the
imputation of his wickedness by your rule, should be
imposed upon his father that sent him: or if a
servant, under his master's command transporting a
sum of money, be assailed by robbers and die in
many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the
business of the master the author of the servant's
damnation: but this is not so: the king is not
bound to answer the particular endings of his
soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of
his servant; for they purpose not their death, when
they purpose their services. Besides, there is no
king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to
the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all
unspotted soldiers: some peradventure have on them
the guilt of premeditated and contrived murder;
some, of beguiling virgins with the broken seals of
perjury; some, making the wars their bulwark, that
have before gored the gentle bosom of peace with
pillage and robbery. Now, if these men have
defeated the law and outrun native punishment,
though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to
fly from God: war is his beadle, war is vengeance;
so that here men are punished for before-breach of
the king's laws in now the king's quarrel: where
they feared the death, they have borne life away;
and where they would be safe, they perish: then if
they die unprovided, no more is the king guilty of
their damnation than he was before guilty of those
impieties for the which they are now visited. Every
subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's
soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in
the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every
mote out of his conscience: and dying so, death
is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was
blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained:
and in him that escapes, it were not sin to think
that, making God so free an offer, He let him
outlive that day to see His greatness and to teach
others how they should prepare.

'Tis certain, every man that dies ill, the ill upon
his own head, the king is not to answer it.

O hard condition indeed.


Friday, November 07, 2003


Steven Riddle has a fine post on Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables. It's been a while since I've read it, but one of my favorite passages from it comes early in the story:
There is something so massive, stable, and almost irresistibly imposing in the exterior presentment of established rank and great possessions, that their very existence seems to give them a right to exist; at least, so excellent a counterfeit of right, that few poor and humble men have moral force enough to question it, even in their secret minds.




Maybe every generation has a point when satire is no longer possible. Here's a report about a couple suing for a "wrongful birth":
How much should a doctor pay for botching a vasectomy?
More than $300,000, according to Leo S. Winebarger -- the cost of raising his unexpected child. . . . The suit contends that the couple already have suffered $10,000 in economic damages and expect the child to cost another $300,000 before turning 18.




Have violent weapons now infiltrated books meant for two-year olds? This is from a version of The Little Red Hen that my son recently received as a gift. The caption for this page is, "Then I will thresh the wheat." I thought the fact that she looks like Bruce Lee wielding nunchucks was quite funny and surely unintentional. I suspect the fact that many martial arts weapons are derived from ordinary tools, in this case farm tools, might explain this, though I think an actual hand wheat thresher is longer and less weapon-like.


Thursday, November 06, 2003


I wonder if some are concerned that in making much ado about nuance, particulars, and discussion in moral matters, picking the proverbial fly poop out of the pepper in situations that seem maddeningly obvious, we risk losing moral certitude about anything or pushing it to one side while we yammer on? If so I don't blame them. I think it's an understandable initial concern. But notice what this concern presumes about moral debates:
Nuance, particulars, and discussion are only required when two or more people hold little or nothing in common with respect to the moral issue at hand.
After all, if they hold much in common there ought to be little to debate and they ought to get to work to do good. Right?

But I think this might be a bit backwards. It seems to me that discussion, discussion which seeks to clarify matters so that appropriate people can make prudential judgments, is required precisely when two or more people hold much in common with respect to the moral issue at hand. So I would change the above presumption to something like this:
Nuance, particulars, and discussion are required and only really possible when two or more people hold much in common with respect to the moral issue at hand.
Look at a simplistic example: if I'm trying to discuss the immorality of abortion with someone who can only see abortion as an issue of sovereign choice for the mother, my efforts will likely be in vain because we aren't holding the same morally relevant object in common. I have in mind the innocent unborn child; the other person has in mind the sovereign right of choice that belongs to the mother. In this case, nuance, particulars, discussion all fall away. While it may look like a discussion of moral matters, I'd suggest it's really a discussion about what we don't hold in common. And it results in the predictable polarization of the issue: we each see that we hold very little in common that is morally relevant. I'm clinging to the fact that an innocent unborn child ought to be protected and the other person is clinging to the fact that a mother's right to make a choice about whether to allow the unborn child to be born ought to be protected. We are, in essence, clinging to different "things." Ironically, in our heated "moral debate" we hold very little in common of moral relevance.

It's when we hold important and morally relevant things in common that nuance and particulars and discussion are called for. Just think about it. In a situation where euthanasia is rearing its head, most on both sides of the issue would agree that discussing options for an incapacitated or dying human being is very different from discussing whether we should shoot a horse with a broken leg (does that still happen?). Most on both sides of the issue would agree that what the person wants or would want done, what spouse, family, and friends are concerned about, are important aspects to consider. There is already much held in common, so why should we be concerned with nuance, particulars, and discussion?

Well, as becomes evident when you are actually involved in such situations, there are fine shades of meaning that need clarification, important specific and particular facts and circumstances that need to be brought to light, and concerns and testimony of those involved that should be made known to all meaningfully involved. These things arise precisely because so many hold so much in common: an understanding of human nature, of the dignity of every human person, of what is the good that should be sought for those whom we love, and so forth. If these common truths were dismissed, there would be no need to clarify shades of meaning or particulars or concerns.

And so, two things occur to me. First, perhaps we ought to cherish the fact that we really can hold so much in common with others. For me, the desire to make careful moral distinctions and bring important morally relevant particulars to light is a sign of great hope, for they aren't possible apart from what we hold in common. What the discussion in moral matters provides is focus, a sharpening of the common truths we already hold so we can see more clearly and judge more properly.

Second, perhaps we ought to recognize that we are often not really debating morality with those who oppose us so much as debating what it is we hold in common. And perhaps our first task ought to be an examination of what we might actually hold in common before we attempt to discuss moral matters. Such an approach might illuminate other things we clearly hold in common, and these might very well lead us to further things we hold in common that we never realized we held.


Tuesday, November 04, 2003


I've received quite a few emails (sorry if I didn't respond, I'm hoping this and another post or two will suffice) about my concerns around the Schiavo case; strangely, many responses assumed that I had somehow sided with the husband and even implied I was advocating euthanasia. And yet, here's the first paragraph of the my first post on this:
I haven't said much here on the agonizing story of Terri Schiavo; and I don't plan to. It has become a flashpoint for many, and perhaps it really is a portent of just how bad things are in our society. Most of the reports I've read have been from those who don't know Terri Schiavo personally. And those who do know her seem to be so polarized about this, her husband, her parents, those supporting either her parents' wishes or her husband's, that it's hard to know what to make of it. What I do know is that euthanasia in any form is wrong while at the same time taking extraordinary measures to maintain life is not called for and can in some cases be inappropriate.
Note the words in bold. What I have indeed stated and continued to insist upon is that I know too little about the case to make a meaningful moral judgment about it.

This is not unusual or uncaring. There are lots of events happening all over the world about which I don't know enough to make meaningful moral judgments. The key word here is "meaningful." I have plenty of gut reactions and opinions. But it would be irresponsible of me, even if few would really care or be affected, to make light of such serious matters by comporting myself as one who can and should pass proper moral judgment on events I've learned about in newspapers and on TV.

Still, it's been an interesting experience to receive responses of outrage or disappointment that assume I've suddenly become pro-euthanasia and even pro-choice. While I really don't know and don't presume to know what someone is thinking, really thinking, when they declare that they are morally certain that euthanasia and abortion are permissible, I think I've had a small epiphany about what they may find irrational or unreasonable in the calm, agitated, or even shrill arguments directed at them by various pro-life folks (including myself). I think they're reacting, at least in part, to phrases like those directed at me, phrases like "obvious to anyone" or "morally clear to any decent person." This was the tone and reasoning of many of the responses I received by those who assumed I was advocating euthanasia.

Now, here's the problem, and let me put this as plainly as possible, in a manner that I'm sure some will outright reject: many people who don't see abortion and euthanasia as morally wrong are reasonable, sober, decent people. If this is not a given, then what possible motivation would anyone have to pursue reasonable discourse with these folks? (For some, maybe that's the point.) Some of these reasonable, sober, decent people simply don't find the same aspects of these issues as "obvious" or "morally clear" as others might.

It is undeniable that the moral rightness of many issues in the past that seemed "obvious" or "morally clear" to many are now considered by many to be morally repugnant. And the moral rightness of many issues in the present that seem "obvious" or "morally clear" to many are simultaneously considered by many to be morally wrong or problematic. And there is a reason for this. As strange as it may sound, appeals to common sense, to what is obvious, to what is crystal clear to any decent person, cannot establish a consistent morality and will not stand up to a careful moral critique. What do you then do when two people with opposing views on abortion or euthanasia appeal to "what is obvious"? Who then is the final arbiter of what is "obvious"?

I received a very smart response to my post on "nuanced discussion" in which the person wondered if there came a point when something becomes so obviously immoral, e.g. the forced marches of Jews into gas chambers, that insisting on nuanced discussion is silly. In other words, isn't there a time when we really can say that the morally right thing to do is "obvious." To this, I replied that I agreed that nuanced discussion would not be the proper response if this or anything similarly immoral were occurring right in front of us and we could stop it. But our moral development and formation of a conscience by which we would know such a thing is immoral certainly require the benefit of nuanced discussion and moral tradition. In fact, nuanced discussion and moral tradition are what enable most of us to ward off powerful cultural pressures that blunt the urgency of moral issues or allow immoral acts to proceed under the veil of what is "obvious."

I appeal to nuanced discussion and a moral tradition because I don't think I'd do a very good job on my own. Unlike some who seem to think they wouldn't have been or aren't now susceptible to a moral milieu that is blind to so much that is evil, I don't make such presumptions. I don't consider myself very heroic or virtuous now, so why would I suddenly be heroic and virtuous in another time or another place, perhaps a time when most considered slavery an "obvious" morally acceptable practice, or a place where most consider oppressing women an "obvious" morally acceptable practice? And because I don't think I would've been then or am now magically immune to immoral situations that many or most consider good for reasons that are "obvious," I insist on nuanced discussion and cling to a solid tradition in moral matters.

Common sense, what is obvious, what is crystal clear to any decent person, none of these are inoculated from the insidious and inevitable distortions that plague us while immersed in a culture, in a time or place that press upon our moral universe and obscure what is good and right in a complex world. When you appeal to common sense and decency in defining what is "obvious," and someone disagrees with you, what then do you do? Short of beating on each other with clubs, what recourse is there? Again, who is the final arbiter of what is "obvious"? It seems to me that if we can't critically look at what is "obvious," then we are lost.

A critique of what is "obvious" requires the "nuanced discussion" I refer to. It is shaped from but not chained to a vibrant moral tradition. It establishes or clarifies moral precepts from irrefutable first principles rather than from consensus, common sense, and what ought to be "obvious" to everyone. Without an ability to look beneath what is "obvious," we would hit the bottom of our moral viewpoints and then begin to beat our "obvious" ideas against each other in vain, an all too familiar sight these days.

If I seem confident that there are ways to establish moral truth that don't depend on consensus and claims about what is "obvious" or "clear to any decent person," it's because such an approach does exist. While the central truths of Catholic moral tradition are the Word Incarnate and the revelation that every person has a dignity that is divine in source and end, much of the articulation of this morality is based on principles of reason and grounds ethics upon the first principles of metaphysics. And it is here that one can find the critical tools to get beyond the impasse of opposing "obvious" viewpoints. With nuanced discussion and an appeal to what we all hold in common as human beings, it ought to be possible that reasonable, sober, decent people can move toward or at least begin to hope for resolution in some of these difficult moral matters.