The Branding of John Stuart Mill

Monday, 10-16-2017


The law is reluctant to criminalize an act unless it can be framed in terms of the harm the act causes to others.  Although this principle is often credited to John Stuart Mill, he does not deserve the credit.  Versions can be found in Aristotle in the fourth century B.C., and in Thomas Aquinas in the high middle ages.

The difficulty is that many different versions of harm principle compete in the public square, and each gives a different answer to questions such as what sort of act is really harmful and how harmful it is.  Mill was the author, not of the generic harm principle, but of an influential, dangerous, and highly misleading brand of harm principle.

How did he promote his brand?  Mainly by pretending that it was the only one on the shelf.  Consider his arguments against Lord Stanley, who wanted to prohibit the sale of strong liquors.  Just for the record, I disagree with Lord Stanley concerning the prohibition of alcohol.  However, I think arguments like Stanley’s should be answered, not merely ruled out of order, as Mill tries to do.

For the truth is that both men couched their arguments in terms of harm.  As Mill's own quotations make clear, Stanley held that the sale of strong liquors harmed him as a representative citizen in four ways:  (a) by endangering his security, (b) by creating a misery that he was taxed to support, (c) by tempting him to conduct which would threaten his moral and intellectual development, and (d) by weakening and demoralizing society, from which he had a right to claim mutual aid and intercourse.  Now there are many legitimate ways to argue against Stanley.  For example, one might argue that in this particular case, prohibition would cause greater harms than it prevented.  Yet Mill pretends that Stanley was not speaking of harms at all – that he merely demanded the right “that every other individual act in every respect exactly as he ought.”

How could Mill get away with such preposterous misrepresentation?  By definitional sleight of hand.  Mill thinks there is a large, easily identifiable class of acts which have no effects on other people at all.  The way he arrives at this conclusion is simply to redefine most harms – including those which Stanley mentions -- as non-harms.  For in most cases (he is a bit inconsistent), Mill assumes:

  •    That the harm of undermining mores essential to human flourishing is not a harm;
  •    That the harm of seduction to evil is not a harm;
  •    That harm to which a person consents is not a harm (he does make a large exception for voluntary slavery);
  •    That the harm of giving offense is not a harm;
  •    That the harm of destroying one’s abilities to fulfill his obligations to others is not a harm; and
  •    That the risk of harm, distributed in such a way that we do not know who will be hurt, is not a harm. 

Although all of these harms are real, Mill persistently resorts to the fiction that he is mapping out "that portion of a person's life which affects only himself."

By the way, he also ignored the troublesome fact that harms cannot be weighed in a vacuum.  Just how much harm a particular line of conduct is likely to bring about depends on the context in which it takes place.  For instance, how much harm might be caused to others by my riding a motorcycle without a helmet?  That depends on such things as whether I have a family that counts on me for love, counsel, and financial support, what other duties I may have that my death would prevent me from fulfilling, whether I pool my risks with others through private or social insurance, and whether those who see me injured are ethically bound to render aid.

Mill’s latter-day followers go much further than he did.  As we have seen he opposed only the criminalization of so-called self-regarding acts.  Our would-be Millians oppose “judging” or discouraging them in any way.  On this point, surprisingly, he was on the side of moral conservatives.  Not only did he admit that some of the acts he called self-regarding may be morally wrong, but he thought that morally wrong self-regarding acts may and even should be discouraged, and in all sorts of ways.

For example, he thought that we should be far more willing to argue with those who commit them than common notions of courtesy permit; that we may avoid the society of such persons; that we may warn others against them; that we may give them last place in the distribution of those benefits to which nobody is entitled as a matter of right; and that we may warn them ahead of time that this will be one of the consequences of our disapproval.  Today’s Millians tend to forget all of this.

But that is what happens when one reasons recklessly.  Careless arguments do not attract followers through what is careful in them, but through what isn’t.  Is it surprising, then, that each new wave of followers is more reckless than the one before?

An Angry Millian


The Healing of Broken ... Links

Friday, 10-13-2017


Recently I discovered that three of the links to videos of my talks were broken.  I've set the fractured bones, and the three convalescents are as follows.  If you discover any other broken links at this website, dear reader, please let me know.

Why Is There Sex?

Annual Conference of Courage (the Catholic ministry to persons with same-sex attractions), 2013

Why I Am Not an Atheist:

Veritas Forum, University of Wyoming, 2012

The Journey Home:

Interviewed by Marcus Grodi, EWTN, 2005


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The Good Libertarian

Monday, 10-09-2017


In my recent post “How Not to Have Clean Hands,” I criticized libertarians who pretend that they take no ethical position about what to do.  Someone unfamiliar with what I’ve previously written about libertarianism might mistakenly conclude that I think all libertarians are like that.  Since I don’t, I thought it might be good to replay a few thoughts which I posted to this blog several years ago.



Is it possible to be a libertarian and still believe in natural law?



It all depends on what you mean by libertarianism.  There are two kinds of libertarianism, corresponding to two different understandings of what liberty is and why we need it.

One kind of libertarianism holds that we need a rich palette of definite liberties so that we can perform our duties and obtain what is good for human beings.  For example, it maintains that because parents have a duty to educate their children, they also have a right to do so, and because human well-being depends on finding the truth about God, every person has a natural right to seek it.  This kind of libertarianism is perfectly compatible with natural law.  In fact, it’s based on it.

The other kind holds that we need indefinite liberties so that we can escape our duties and obtain what we merely happen to want.  For example, it maintains that we have a right to behave however we please in sexual matters, even to the detriment of families and children, and that if unwanted children are conceived, we have a right to kill them.  This kind of libertarianism is radically incompatible with natural law.

The name “fusionism” is sometimes used for an alliance between social conservatives and libertarians of the former kind, based on shared belief in natural law, shared respect for the proper functions of government, and shared mistrust of government which exceeds these functions.  I take it that this is where you stand.  So do I.

The challenge to fusionism is that today, the great majority of people who call themselves libertarians are libertarians of the latter kind, who may speak against all-powerful government, but who paradoxically end up embracing it.

The most common reason for this embrace is that when they say they are libertarians, they mean that they are libertarian in sexual morality.  But they have to be statists, so that when the dreadful social consequences of libertarian sexual morality come rolling around, someone else is forced to pick up the tab.

Consider for example the popularity of the Obamacare contraceptive mandate among certain groups (by the way, although the mandate has recently been weakened, it has not been abolished):

“I believe in liberty!  How dare you tell me how to run my personal life!  What do you mean, you aren’t telling me how to run my personal life?  You refuse to pay for my abortions and contraceptives, don’t you?  In the name of being able to do as I please, I demand that you do as I please!”

Searchable Blog Archive


On Not Tolerating Tolerance

Monday, 10-02-2017



I'm an economist and follower of Natural Law idea.  What do you think about Thomas Mann's statement that "tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil"?



Good question.  The statement is made by a character in one of Mann’s novels, but let’s leave aside what Mann himself might have thought, and consider the statement itself.

If it means that some evils must never be tolerated, then it is true.  Only a madman, a thug, or a fool would boast of his “tolerance” for rape, murder, or pillage.

But if it means that no evils should ever be tolerated, then it is false.  One must balance the evil of the thing itself with the evil that might be brought about by legal prohibition.

Some evils cannot even be detected – a law that fined people for having nasty thoughts would merely increase hypocrisy.  Prohibition can also provoke people into greater evils, whether by making the forbidden things glamorous or by making those who love them rebellious.  At times, the prohibition of an evil even risks destruction of nearby goods.  Suppose we tried to encourage faith by outlawing the expression of doubt.  Unable to ask questions, could anyone ever find his way to God?  Or suppose we tried to suppress avarice by outlawing the making of money.  As an economist, how long do you think it would take until the economy collapsed and the population was starving?

Now about some matters, there is no such thing as “just enough.”  The classical example is that we should not praise a man for committing “just enough” adultery.

But about other matters, there is such a thing as “just enough.”  Courage, for instance, lies in a mean between cowardice and rashness.  The coward has too much fear, the rash man too little.  You could also say that the coward has too little audacity, and the rash man too much.

The virtue of tolerance also involves a “just enough,” because it lies in a mean between excessive severity and softheaded overindulgence.  We can err either in failing to tolerate what we should, such as chewing too loudly in restaurants, or in tolerating what we shouldn’t, such as using violence for political gain.

One of the lessons to be drawn from all this is that contrary to common opinion, the virtue of tolerance is not attainable by relativists, but only by those who believe in moral law.

For in order to know when to tolerate, to what degree, for what reasons, and in what ways, we have to judge real goods and evils.

Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics


How Not to Have Clean Hands

Monday, 09-25-2017



My ethics class was assigned to read a section of one of your books about formal and informal logical fallacies.  I consulted my teacher for clarification of a statement you made after explaining appeal to the excluded middle:  "Unfortunately, entire political and ethical philosophies are based on the illusion that one never really has to take sides."  His advice was to ask you directly.

I was curious as to whether the philosophies you mention would include libertarianism in politics, and relativism in ethics.



A wide variety of ideologies hold that one never has to take sides – in effect, that one can make a decision without making a decision.  This is always fallacious, and usually a fraud.

The most famous examples of a public official pretending that he could make a decision without making a decision was Pontius Pilate, who said to the mob that wanted to crucify Jesus Christ, "I am innocent of this righteous man's blood; see to it yourselves."  In other words, he was claiming that even though he had authorized the execution, he was not taking sides as to whether it should be done.

In the nineteenth century, many people said that they took no position on whether slavery was right, but they did not want to pass a law against it.  To say that masters should be allowed to keep their slaves is, of course, taking a position in favor of the masters.

Since Roe v. Wade, many people say that they are not in favor of abortion, but only in favor of choice.  But of course to be in favor of the choice to commit an abortion is to take a side against those who think it should be illegal and in favor of those who think it should be legal.

Some people say that they have no opinion about whether the law should reflect monogamous or polygamous legal arrangements; they say the law should be neutral between them.  But what they mean by being neutral is to permit a person to have more than one wife if he wants to, and that is the polygamous legal arrangement.

Libertarians, and also relativists, often claim that they take no ethical position about what to do, but want people to make their own choices.  But of course they do not think people should have the right to make every sort of choice; for example, I don’t know any libertarians or relativists who think people should have the right to shoot convenience store clerks.  Usually, though, they do think people should have the right to enter any sort of sexual arrangement they wish.  Obviously, then, they are making a moral distinction between shooting people and sleeping with them, but the language of liberty obscures this decision.  Notice that I am not saying that people do not have any rights.  However, to recognize which rights are real and which rights are not, one needs a moral philosophy.  There is no way to make this decision neutrally or relativistically.

Not just libertarians, but many political theorists, mostly liberals, sometimes conservatives, say that the law should be neutral among different “conceptions of the good.”   This is absurd.  To pass a law is to hold that the law is good.  To hold that the law is good, one must hold a view of what is good and what is not.  So the law is never neutral among different conceptions of the good.

Whenever someone touts neutrality, what is usually happening is that he is condemning the other fellow’s moral opinion by pointing out that it is a moral opinion, and smuggling his own moral opinion into law by pretending that it is not a moral opinion.  This is why I call neutrality a fraud.

Of course, it is not a fallacy to choose a third alternative if there really is a third alternative.  For example, one may choose to vote for candidate A, choose to vote for candidate B, or choose not to vote as a protest.  But if the alternatives are logical contraries, such as “permit” and “don’t permit,” there is no third alternative, and pretending that there is one is evasive.

Some people mistakenly think that if they admit that the law inevitably involves moral judgments, then everything we judge wrong or untrue will have to be illegal.  Surprisingly, this is not the case.  However, the good reasons for not prohibiting everything wrong or untrue are not neutralist; they are themselves moral in nature.

To mention just one:  Truth is good, and promoting truth is right.  However, even when we think we know something true, the best way to promote it, to clarify it, and to discover whether we have made a mistake about it is often to debate, and obviously, one cannot have a debate if the very act of expressing the other opinion is illegal.  In such a case, prohibiting the expression of the opinion we believe to be false would injure the noble cause of truth itself.

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The Problem with Liberalism -- and Conservatism


The Academic Witness

Monday, 09-18-2017


I’ve given short and long versions of this talk over the years, most recently by invitation to a group of Christian scholars at another school in 2013.  Perhaps it will not be out of place in this blog.

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In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul says that whatever we do, we should do from the heart, “as unto the Lord” and not men, because it is Him whom we are serving.

Whatever you do, Paul says.  That includes our scholarship.  Scholarship is no more special than anything else we might do that pleases Christ.  But whether we prove theorems, sweep floors, write articles, dig wells, design circuits, or lay bricks, we should do it for Him.

What does it mean to practice scholarship "as unto the Lord"?  Does it mean just working hard?  No, a Christian professor of English literature is something more than a hard working professor of English literature.  Nor does scholarship "as unto the Lord" mean merely working with a nicer attitude.  An electrical engineering professor who has long office hours and remembers to thank the secretary has not thereby done everything that being a Christian scholar of electrical engineering requires.  To be a Christian scholar is to work with a radically different purpose, a radically different orientation, and even a radically different approach to truth.  In our time, under the dictatorship of relativism, the very conviction that there is a truth sets us apart from a great many of our colleagues.

Now a mathematician must learn how to prove theorems, and a scholar of history must learn how to scrutinize documentary evidence.  So too, there are prerequisites for doing our scholarship in such fashion that it can be offered unto Christ.  I count at least four of them.

The first such prerequisite is commitment to Christ’s lordship.  We may understand quite well that God wants our friendships, our spouses, our children, our entertainment, and so forth.  Do we always understand that He wants our scholarship, that He wants what we do for a living?

The second prerequisite is the practice of the virtues.  When you applied for your academic position, probably no one asked about your moral character, but everything depends on it.  I’m not just talking about honesty, but about the whole range of virtues.  Every unrepented vice requires lies.  Eventually, therefore, every unrepented vice metastasizes into the intellect.  If I don’t live right, pretty soon I can't think straight.  But thinking straight is a scholar's job.

The third prerequisite for scholarship "as unto the Lord" is a Christian view of one’s own discipline.  Consider philosophy.  Two generations ago, perhaps most American philosophers were atheists; today, most are theists, largely because of the work of Christian thinkers.  What would it mean to rethink the other disciplines in a Christian way?  How about economics?  Political science?  Mathematics?  Surely not mathematics, you say.  Isn’t "Two plus two is four" just as true for atheists as for Christians?  Yes, it is, but don't draw from this fact the false conclusion that mathematics has nothing to do with theology.  For example, some mathematicians accept the ancient pagan idea that the ultimate ground of all reality is not God, but mathematics itself.  This particular idolatry has been around for a long time.  One of the books on my shelf includes a Pythagorean prayer to the number ten.  Oftentimes such idolatries affect the way we do our work, but in ways that escape our notice.  We should make it our business to notice them.

The fourth and final prerequisite of scholarship "as unto the Lord" is discerning that scholarship is one of the ways of life permissible for you.  For many of us, perhaps most of us, more than one use of our gifts may be pleasing to God.  Yet from the fact that more than one way to use your gifts may please Him, it does not follow that every way of using them will do so.  Many of my students enter scholarship just because they like their field, or because the life of a scholar appeals to them, or because some teacher told them they had promise.  These things are well and good, but they do not add up to serving God.  I should not wish to be misunderstood, for it would be surprising if Christ wanted you to something for which you did not have promise, and something would probably be wrong if you disliked your field.  But your feelings are not the final measure of His guidance.

If you have done your best to discern what He wills for you but still cannot tell, then do not be unduly concerned.  As John Henry Newman remarks, even our perplexity may serve Him.  We must just make sure that our perplexity does not result from not wanting to know His will.  In the meantime, we should keep the commandments, and do the work before us as well as we can.  When the time comes, what He needs us to know, we will know.

Having spoken of the prerequisites for scholarship “as unto the Lord,” let me now speak of the snares.  By my count there are at least five.

One snare is intellectual pride, our tendency to take personal credit for our intellectual gifts.  I have never met a scholar who didn't suffer this tendency to some degree.  For some reason, scholars are more inclined to pride in their intellectual gifts than plumbers to pride in their technical gifts.  Like me, do you find this fact rather terrifying?  God gives us our gifts for His kingdom.  In the next life, we will not have the pleasure of those gifts which we have refused to offer to His service during this one.

The second snare is intellectual selfishness, the tendency to do the scholarly work we prefer rather than the scholarly work which most pleases God.  We may prefer it because we find it easier, because it is more familiar, because it is more interesting, or because it earns the greatest worldly recognition.  If it is not work that glorifies Him, none of this matters.

Snare three is intellectual clubbishness, the urge to conform ourselves to the prevailing views of other intellectuals.  As the historian Paul Johnson has suggested, intellectuals “are often ultra-conformist within the circles formed by those whose approval they seek and value.”  God does not intend us to stop being social creatures, or to refuse to learn from others, but He does intend us to think outside of the prevailing secular orthodoxies.  Clubbishness should have no power over us.

Snare four is intellectual cowardice, the tendency to hold back from speaking our minds even when we do think outside of the prevailing secular orthodoxies, for fear of disapproval and penalty.  Of course we have to exercise discernment.  There are times not to speak of certain things.  But there are certainly times to speak of them, and sometimes to speak of them loudly.  In general, the time to speak loudest is just when we are running into the greatest opposition just for being Christians.

The fifth and final snare is intellectual sloth.  Sloth is the failure to love the good with the ardor that it deserves.  The essence of intellectual sloth, the kind of sloth that tempts us as scholars, is loving the intellectual life more than the intellectual goods which this life is ordained to seek.  I mean especially the good of truth.  Do we suppose that it is enough to love the truth?  It is not enough to love the truth.  We must love the truth more than the pursuit of truth.  We must also love it more than the pleasures of the scholarly life.  If I love truth less than I love the smell of a book in which truth might be written -- if I love it less than the fact that the book belongs to me -- if I love it less than the fact that I wrote the book myself -- then I am no friend of God.  If I love truth less than the privilege of controlling my schedule -- less than the pleasure of going to conferences -- less than the petty thrill of being thought smart, or even truthful -- then I am in peril of hell.

If you think Christ has nothing special for you to do with your scholarship, you aren't listening to Him.  He does have something for you to do.  Listen; He is telling you now.  Perhaps it is something that others have done.  Then again it may be something that no one has done.  It may even be something that no one else can do.  You must be willing to be small, because it may be a small thing.  It may be a single small insight, a single species of fact.  How large it is does not matter.  The point is that whatever it is, it is committed to your stewardship.  Find the stone.  Mortar it carefully into the ramparts of the palace of knowledge, for the glory of God, King and Architect.

I began with a quotation from St. Paul, and I close with another.  He urges us in the letter to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”  Although this passage is directed to the whole Church, I think it applies in a particular way to Christian scholars.  After all, it concerns the formation of the mind.  It could serve as our intellectual charter.

So may we be, not Christians who happen to be scholars, but Christian scholars: Servants of the Lord Jesus Christ, who rules not only matter, but the mind.


The Empire of Mood over Mind

Monday, 09-11-2017


Last Monday’s post suggested that neutralism and agnosticism are merely poses.  Although their proponents claim not to believe anything either way concerning God, actually they suppose that it does not matter and cannot be known whether there is a God.  This supposes plenty about God.  At the least, it supposes that what Christians believe about Him is false on all points, because they hold that He can be known, He desires to be known, He has provided the means to know Him, and whether we believe in Him matters.

Lately, though, I have been reading some of the works of the early twentieth century Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc.  He would have said that neutralism and agnosticism are merely examples of a much broader challenge to faith and sound thinking, which he calls, with some misgivings, the Modern Mind.  Here is how he defines the mentality in Survivals and New Arrivals (1929):

“The mark of today's Main Opposition, differentiating it from nearly all the perils of our Christian past, is that it propounds no explicit heresy.  Its conflict with the Faith is a conflict of mood; it is a conflict following on a certain mentality, not on any body of propositions.  In the case of all the old heresies a definite series of propositions came at the origin of the affair; a conflict of moods followed.  An anti-Catholic habit of mind was produced, with all its consequences in a myriad social customs and in all the atmosphere of a society, but at the root lay perfectly clear doctrinal postulates which could be discussed in the abstract and accepted or denied without reference to their possible indirect effects .... With each section of the Main Opposition today it is the other way about.  You may by prolonged analysis extract from its moods its ultimate principles, but the moods do not start from those principles.  Their victims are not conscious of any such principles.  When presented with them, they will often, and honestly, deny them to be held.”

Thus, the marks of this mentality are (1) that it opposes a mood to the faith rather than a proposition or an argument; (2) that it is possible, by analysis, to extract propositions that people possessed by the mood would seem to regard as true; but (3) that those possessed by the mood are not necessarily conscious of holding these propositions, and may even deny doing so.

I would add that such people are usually suspicious of reasoning in general.  Even if not, they do not like to have their suppositions brought to light.  The chief opponents of Christian faith in our time – in fact, of all sound thinking -- are mood warriors.

This is why it is so difficult to oppose them.  Historically, Christianity has answered its opponents by countering their premises with arguments.  But mood warriors may not even know they are opponents, are unconscious of their premises, and respond to the unearthing of these premises by taking offense – that is, by taking up yet another mood, the mood of indignation.

I am increasingly persuaded that Belloc is right.  A great many shibboleths of the modern mentality follow the pattern he describes.  Consider those who rely on the authority of their immaterial minds to announce that only matter is real.  Or those who proudly say that they believe in no God, but who merely place other gods before Him.  Or who pride themselves on doubting everything, never pausing to reflect that in order to doubt one thing, one must assume something else which is not at the moment in doubt.

It isn’t logic that rules in these attitudes.  They are moods.

What gives rise to the dominion of Mood over Mind?  A great many causes conspire.  One cause is that our society values quick results; people are in too much of a hurry to think carefully.  Another is that we are harvesting the bad fruits of a number of intellectual movements sown over the centuries, the common element of which is distrust of the mind’s power to know reality.  Very few people could name these theories, but they have left their mark on their mood.

Belloc himself singles out two other culprits.  Since both of them tend to be demagogic, they hurt though they ought to be helping.  One is corrupted public education, which destroys the healthy common sense of uneducated people without building the good mental qualities of educated people; it turns out half-educated people who think in slogans.

This seems to be true.  I have observed that even what passes as the teaching of “critical thinking” in schools today is mostly the teaching of prejudices.  For example, the schools teach correctly that the mere fact that most people believe something does not prove that it is true.  But in contempt for what most people believe, they go further, insinuating that the beliefs of most people are irrelevant to establishing the truthThis elite prejudice is very often false.  For example, what most people believe about whether they have free will is plainly evidential, because they have personal experience of making choices.

Belloc’s other culprit is the popular press, which in our day includes social media.  It isn’t that he wants to shut down freedom of debate, but that he thinks these media stupefy discussion rather than informing it, submerging the mind rather than elevating it.  Do people dislike thinking?  The media minister to that dislike by staging an orgy of sensational pictures, headlines, and now tweets.  Do people ascribe a false authority to repetition?  The media serve them by reiterating ceaselessly.  Whatever our diseases of mind and spirit, they pander to them.

In a day when the most widely read news medium allows just 140 characters for the expression of complex thought, and in which the rulers of the country find this allotment more than ample for their rants, can we doubt it?

Given a few centuries, almost everything passes.  The empire of Mood over Mind will strangle itself.  The question is whether it will quietly yield the throne to its former inhabitant, or abdicate in favor of an even more dreadful tyrant.  The resolution of the question may rest with us.

In another age, a Father of the Church, Gregory Nazianzen, wrote that “to those who are like wild beasts, true and sound discourses are stones.”  He meant there is no need to hurl rocks; it is sufficient to fight intellectual challenges to faith and sound thinking by reasoning against them.  In our day, though, we must first reestablish the habit of reasoning.

I think we had better get started.