Eliminating One Bump

Monday, 11-23-2020


The techniques for reinventing the wheel get more and more sophisticated.  All too often, the reinvented wheel is less serviceable than the old one.  I am reminded of an old Johnny Hart comic strip in which the caveman shows off his new triangular wheel, boasting that it improves on the square wheel because it eliminates one bump.

For example, the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors gave us the perfectly useful idea of a vice.  At some point, reinventing the wheel, we began calling acts of vice “mistakes.”  Still later social psychologists took reinvention one step further by calling them “cognitive biases.”

Case in point:  Recently an educational publisher send me an advertisement for teaching material concerning what the author called “loss aversion bias,” a cognitive bias that supposedly makes even “basically good” people do bad things.  The author’s example was a man who took out an illegal loan on his own business because he was afraid that it would fail.  This discussion was supposed to provide students with insight into finance and investment strategies.

There are such things as cognitive biases, but cognitive bias wasn’t the man’s problem.  Because of his timidity, he yielded to temptation to commit fraud.  His problem was vice:  Cowardice and injustice. 

Of course there is a cognitive element in vice, because to do wrong one must think think of it as right, and I certainly don't object to teaching people in business school to shun vice.  But this isn’t that. 

We all have moral flaws, so let us not preen ourselves on how wonderful we are.  But vices don’t spring up overnight; they are habits of the heart.  To the extent that the man was susceptible to cowardice and cheating, no, he wasn’t “basically good.”  And our own sins aren’t “mistakes” either.


Civil Unions and the Pope’s Job

Monday, 11-16-2020


Reader’s Query

The Pope’s latest casual remarks recommending civil union laws have caused quite a stir.  Granted that he wasn’t teaching doctrine but offering a personal prudential judgment.  Granted that he wasn’t saying that same-sex intercourse is okay or that same-sex pairings can count as marriages.  Granted that contract law permits all kinds of partnerships that may have nothing to do with sex.  Still, if the law recognizes not just ordinary contracts but civil unions, then aren’t a lot of people going to be confused?



Yes.  When the idea of civil partnerships was first floated some years ago, the idea was that such partnerships didn’t have to be sexual.  My students used to ask questions like “What if two friends share expenses, one goes into the hospital, and the other is denied visiting privileges because he isn’t a relative?”  Or “Suppose that for purely financial reasons, roommates want to be able to list each other as beneficiaries on their insurance.  Shouldn’t they be able to do so?”  Or the two parties might be sisters, or a grandmother along with a grandson who lives with and helps her while going to college.  The theory was that all in one package, the parties could share insurance, expenses, and so forth.

I used to answer that even if these are deemed to be problems, we don’t need civil partnerships to fix them.  Are close friends prohibited from hospital visitation?  Then allow patients to designate certain non-relatives as having the same hospital privileges as relatives.  Should close friends who share expenses be able to list each other as insurance beneficiaries?  Then allow them to do so.  Little adjustments like this might take a law or two.  The rest could be handled by existing contract law.

The problem with the all-in-one approach was that (a) civil partnership looked like marriage, (b) the change from the language of “partnership” to the language of “union,” which everyone understands as meaning sex, intensified this appearance, and (c) since everyone knew that such proposals were made to head off defining homosexual liaisons as marriages, it looked like a step to so defining them.

Which is exactly what happened.

Which raises a question:  Since it has already happened, why does the Pope open his mouth about the matter at all?  And why is he offering personal prudential judgments anyway, since according to the Church, his job isn’t to make suggestions about civil law, but to teach the Church’s morals and doctrine?  This was just one of numerous grave blunders.

As you are aware, some well-meaning and orthodox Catholic authorities have tried to perform damage control by reminding us that civil union laws don’t explicitly say that the unions are sexual.  Unfortunately, that ship has sailed.  Besides, the Pope’s suggestion about civil unions explicitly referred to homosexual persons having “families.”  Whatever may have been intended, that gives the impression not only that their relationship is essentially marital, but also that they ought to be able to adopt, which amounts to child abuse.  A child needs a mom and a dad.  Since there is no shortage of prospective moms and dads who want to adopt, there is no need to resort to extreme solutions.

It seems obvious that if we are to regard non-marriages as having the dignity of marriage, then any hope of promoting chastity among heterosexuals is also deep-sixed.  If sexual cohabitation is in for homosexuals, then it is in for everyone.  And let us be very clear:  Heterosexual cohabitation without the commitment of marriage is not obviously less immoral than casual fornication.  Regarded as an arrangement for continuous casual fornication, it may even be more.

These disorders will continue until the Pope becomes a better teacher.  Christians must be faithful themselves, and pray earnestly.  Not least for him.


Getting Past the Gatekeepers

Monday, 11-09-2020


Reader’s Query:

I’ve been composing a book about the application of some of Thomas Aquinas’s political and theological insights to our own time.  When I submitted the manuscript to an academic publisher, half of the editorial board was favorable, but the historians wanted me to say a lot more about things like who influenced him.

Well, I can do that, but I don’t want to show off just to appease the board, and besides, I think it would be a distraction.  You’ve been at this longer than I have.  Might I prevail upon you to share with me how you get through gatekeepers?



If the gatekeepers’ suggestions are good ones, then of course you should follow them.  But if you think they aren’t, then don’t.  You’re approaching St. Thomas’s work with the question “What might it teach us about politics?”  The historians on your board are more interested in questions like “What might it teach us about what people back then thought about politics?”  Those might be excellent and worthwhile questions, but they aren’t your questions.

So if you revise your manuscript, include an explanation of the difference between the sorts of questions you bring to St. Thomas, and the sorts other specialists might bring to him.  Explain clearly and firmly that you aren’t interested in his book because of when it was written, the language in which it was written, or who influenced him, but because you think it has something to say to us.  Call attention to why what it says is worth knowing.  That may disarm some of your gatekeepers.  It may even bring them over to your side.

Consider yourself fortunate:  At least their objections weren’t ideological.  When I submitted one of my earliest books, back in the ‘eighties, the first two external reviewers told the press “Publish!”  But although the third praised the manuscript highly, saying that I’d forced him to reconsider all of his most deeply held convictions, he declared that the book shouldn’t be published, because in one chapter I had mentioned God (just mentioned Him, mind you), and “God does not belong in political theory.”  He then went on to blame me retroactively for the massacre of the Huguenots in 1572.

But one can respond to ideological objections like that in much the same way as to the other kind.  So I did revise – but in my revision, I explained why I think God does belong in political theory, and incidentally remarked that atheistic genocides had taken many times more lives than religious wars.  Besides, it all depends on what one’s convictions are, for a person who believes that God opposes the use of violence to promote faith in Him won’t use it.  The editor was sufficiently impressed to solicit a fourth reader report, which was positive.  He pitched the book to his editorial board, and it was published.

Your gatekeepers want you to write a book more like the one they would have written.  If you do make revisions, make them in such a way that the book becomes not less your own, but even more your own.  That’s not pride.  If God condescends to allow certain insights to the historians on your board, how wonderful!  Let them write about them!  Read and learn from them!  But if He condescends to allow certain other insights to you, they you should write about yours, not theirs.  May He bless your project and bring it to the light of print.


Three Patterns of Rule

Monday, 11-02-2020


In a country like ours, that likes to think of itself as a republic, rulers might adopt any of three different patterns for the relationship between themselves and ordinary people, three different attitudes toward their role:

The ideal pattern is How am I doing?  The rulers are statesmen, and the people are citizens.  The rulers promote the common good, principally justice, so far as it can be upheld by law, and the citizens judge whether they are upholding it well or poorly.  Every now and then a politician really does do the right thing.  Since this pattern is not well followed, however, one must evaluate the other two patterns according to their distance from it.

The better of the two bad patterns is Let’s make a deal.  The rulers are deliverers of particular benefits to particular groups, and these groups make up their constituents.  Benefits are bartered for support, one election at a time.  This is how most Republican politicians think the game should be played, especially toward the various parts of the middle class.  Their approach has the disadvantage of encouraging the attitude, “What’s in it for me?”

The worse of the two bad patterns is Trust me.  The rulers are patrons, and the people are their clients.  If the clients accept continual dependence, then the rulers will take care of them in a way that maintains that dependence.  This is how most Democratic politicians think the game should be played, especially toward poor people, ethnic minorities (though not Asians), and, paradoxically, the corporate elite (though not privately held companies).  Toward others they behave much like the other party.  This approach has the disadvantage of discouraging initiative and keeping people in what used to be called their place – but at the same time, doling out privileges.

Such is the power of the ideal that consistent practitioners of the second pattern must pretend to be following the first one.  Such is the power of the approximation to the ideal that consistent practitioners of the third pattern must pretend to be following the second one.  Such is the power of self-deception that some of them may even think they are doing so.

A politician who consistently follows the first pattern is likely to lose his next election.  The best one can hope is that his deviations will not be frequent or flagrant, that his compromises will be principled, and that he will not pervert the administration of justice.  Under the circumstances, such a one deserves support.

But the third pattern is only inches from despotism.  It corrupts and debases the people, and a debased people in turn support their corrupters.  Any politician who takes part in the vicious circle should be viewed as the spreader of a disease worse than any coronavirus.


On Living in the Same Universe

Monday, 10-26-2020


Reader's Query:

Sometimes people say, “Truth is relative, so if I say there is a God, then there is, and if you say there isn’t a God, then there isn't.”  How would you reply?  I think this statement is similar to "I have my beliefs and you have yours, so let's agree to disagree."



This is an easy one, because the truth about matters of fact isn’t relative.  Two people may have different beliefs about whether God exists, but if He exists, then He exists for both of them, and if He doesn’t, then He doesn’t for both of them.  Suppose your friend said, “Truth is relative, so if you say the coffee has been poisoned with arsenic, then it has been, and if I say it hasn’t, then it hasn’t.”  That would be foolish, because if the coffee has been poisoned, then saying that it isn’t won’t make it safe to drink.  After all, you and your friend don’t live in different universes!

My favorite line concerning the notion that truth is relative comes from G.K. Chesterton, who commented on the absurdity of saying “This is the south aspect of Sea-View Cottage.  Sea-View Cottage, of course, does not exist.”  It’s true that from the south, one sees the north side, and from the north, one sees the south side.  But there is a house, and it is the same for everyone.

You remark that the statement “Truth is relative” is similar to the statement “Let's agree to disagree."  I would say they are quite different.  Disagreement between two persons about a state of affairs is possible only because they agree that there is a state of affairs, and they have different opinions about what it is.  For if Fred and Mary agree to disagree about whether the water is boiling, at least they agree that if it is, then the claim that it isn’t is incorrect.  By contrast, someone who says truth is relative won’t even admit that.

So two people who say “Let’s agree to disagree” aren’t denying that there is a real state of affairs.  They are merely saying that for whatever reason – which may be good or bad -- they don’t want to talk about it.


Lesser Evils and Elections

Monday, 10-19-2020


Reader’s Query:

I didn't vote for Trump in 2016 but will probably do so this time.  And in my view, to characterize evangelical Trump voters like me as fear-driven, power-hungry pragmatists is very unfair.  It's not too far removed, I think, from Obama's “bitter clingers” dismissal.  In any event, even though I often talk about this, I’ve realized that I don't have a clear idea in mind about where the line lies between inviolable principle and prudential calculation.  Presumably there are politicians so bad one simply could not vote for them, even though voting for Trump seems to me to be in the lesser of two evils category.  But I'm not sure what defines the line between principled abstention and prudent tactical support.  When is bad character simply disqualifying, no matter the badness of the alternative?  I poked around on your blog to see if you had written a post on this question, but I didn't find anything exactly on target.



Excellent questions.  Thank you for prodding me to respond.

The first consideration concerns intrinsic evils – acts that are evil not just because of their results, but in themselves, so that no result whatsoever could justify them.  These are the ones about which our great thinkers have said, “Let us not do evil so that good will result.”  An intrinsic evil must never be willed, either as a means to an end or as an end in itself.  For example, I must not commit an abortion either because killing the baby would limit the family size, or because I just want the baby dead. 

But you aren’t asking about committing an evil.  You are asking about cooperating with its commission.  Let’s make some distinctions.  A politician who believes in abortion and therefore votes to keep it legal isn’t committing the act, but he is formally cooperating with the act.  One is also formally cooperating in abortion if one believes in it and votes for the politician in order to promote it.  Such cooperation is called “formal” because one is a willing accomplice; will or intention is the crucial element.  Here the principle is that formal cooperation in intrinsic evil is also intrinsically evil.

Suppose that even though the voter says he doesn’t support abortion, there is no way to distinguish the object of his intention from the object of the politician’s intention.  For example, the politician may support abortion, and the voter may say “Though I am personally opposed to abortion, I am pro-choice” -- but in fact they both intend that people have the liberty to kill babies.  This is still formal cooperation, and so it is still intrinsically evil.  However, it is called implicit formal cooperation, because the intention is not admitted but implied.

But suppose that although the voter doesn’t want abortions to be permitted, he votes for the politician in order to achieve some other end -- an end that is distinct from abortion, and to which abortion is not a means.  This is called material cooperation.  The term “material” signifies the fact that permitting the liberty to kill babies is not the intention of the one who is voting for the politician, but only a foreseeable consequence of electing him.  Material cooperation can be more or less remote.  In the case of voting for a politician, it is usually considered remote.

Is remote material cooperation allowable?  Only if two conditions are satisfied:  First, there must be a “proportionate reason.”  In this case that would mean that more evil would result from not electing the politician than from electing him.  Second, it must be possible to avoid “scandal,” which means that I must avoid not only evil but the appearance of evil.  If, by campaigning for the candidate, I give the impression of supporting intrinsic evil, then even if this impression is unintended, I am still committing scandal because of the evil influence on others.

Suppose someone were to decide that he was opposed to a particular candidate because of the candidate’s support of, say, for abortion, but that he would vote for him anyway because of his support for, say, universal single-payer health insurance.  In this case, the condition of “proportionate reason” would not have been satisfied.  After all, the question of whether public health is better supported by private or public insurance is a prudential judgment; it is not intrinsically evil to support either approach, even if one is mistaken, and it is hard to see how defects in the system of insurance can be more important than ending the deliberate killing of innocents.

You mention character, which is more important than most issues, though not so important as to override support for intrinsic evils.  It seems to me that in the present campaign, as in 2016, both presidential candidates are sneerers, mockers, and boasters, though one displays his bad character in ways that the political classes don’t mind, while the other displays his in a way that they do.  I now think that in that previous election year, I did not take this fact seriously enough, and I regret it.

As to what the respective candidates want to do, things seem to me pretty clear.  Mr. Biden enthusiastically supports several intrinsic evils, abortion being but one of them.  His support for this atrocity is even more horrifying because he claims that it is compatible with being a faithful Christian.  Thus, not only is he committing deadly sin, but he is dragging legions of others into it with him.  Despite Mr. Trump’s offensive style, so far as I am aware he has not given political support to anything like the deliberate taking of innocent lives; in fact he has opposed it.  In 2016, I thought there was good reason not to believe him about that, and I abstained.  Since then, though, he has consistently demonstrated that he meant it after all.

When there is an alternative, it is gravely difficult to find some “proportionate reason” justifying the remote material cooperation with evil involved in voting for a proponent of the liberty to kill babies.  What is worse than willfully facilitating millions of infant deaths?  The genocidal murder of the entire population of Canada would be, but no one has proposed anything like that.  Yet.

In short, in the classical analysis the question of whether someone is “too bad to vote for” depends --

  • First, on the kind of bad he is (does he merely make bad prudential judgments, or is he committed to intrinsic evil?);
  • Second, on the kind of cooperation with his bad that my act would be (formal, or material?);
  • And third, since such cooperation is material, then on whether there is “proportionate reason” for voting for him anyway.

In the population at large, clear thinking about these profoundly important matters is in short supply.  The distinction between intrinsic evils and merely bad prudential judgments is not often made.  Sheer, dull familiarity with abortion – along with the fact that the child in the womb is invisible – has dulled our awareness of just how heinous it is that we kill off a quarter or a third of our own little ones.  Even people who consider themselves pro-life do not always think through how vile abortion really is, for in-the-womb infanticide is not merely one issue among others.  If we can destroy the weak, the small, and the innocent -- even our own flesh and blood -- we can do anything.

I do mean anything.  For many other dreadful things are going on, and that is no accident.  In discussing abortion, I have only focused on the worst.  The natural order of marriage is under attack.  One who says there are two sexes is treated as a leper.  Race hatred has come to be viewed as a means of advancing racial justice.  Social distancing is demanded, except for rioters.  The big lie is considered politics as usual.  So is the continuous small lie – lying about everything as a matter of policy.  With the willing cooperation of their practitioners, many areas of science have been perverted to political ends.  University colleges of liberal arts are becoming instruments for crushing the study of the liberal arts.  Convinced of their merits, contemptuous of ordinary people, our political classes quite obviously no longer believe in a republic, and are willing to subvert the administration of justice to destroy a president who isn't one of theirs.  An astonishing number of their supporters wish painful death to him, and say so.  Instead of shouting all this from the rooftops, most journalists do their best to push from the rooftops anyone who might be tempted to climb up there and speak.  Cowardice is the order of the day.  Few are willing to be shamed for opposing the shameful.

If we can swallow moral atrocities, I think all these other evils are only to be expected. They are connected; they are parts of the galloping moral senility of the culture.  Having let go our grip on right and wrong, we are suffering the natural consequences of doing so.  It is dreadful and scandalous, though in view of our moral illness not surprising, that the candidate standing in the way of that juggernaut is himself not a man of virtue.  But he is standing in the way.

Not that his doing so could be anything more than a delaying action.  Politics can guard and corrupt culture, but politics cannot restore culture.  What is needed is something more profound:  A change of heart.  Let each of us look to his own.


“The Dogma Lives Loudly Within You”

Monday, 10-12-2020


Especially in matters of conscience, leftists are always trying to disqualify the arguments of the other side by calling them “religious.”  Most people know that Judge Amy Coney Barrett has been nominated for the Supreme Court.  Judge Coney is Catholic.  As Senator Dianne Feinstein complained during previous confirmation hearings in 2017, when she was up for the U.S. Court of Appeals, “The dogma lives loudly within you.”  You might have thought the senator was complimenting Judge Barrett’s courage and faith; no, she was insulting them.  She didn’t mean that Judge Barrett made poor arguments, but that whether the judge made good ones or bad didn’t matter.  Since Judge Barrett had been outed as a person of religious faith, her views on any subject whatsoever were automatically disqualified.

But what is religion?  The theologian Richard Niebuhr (not to be confused with his brother Reinhold) defined it as “unconditional commitment.”  In this sense, Mrs. Feinstein is religious too, but she has a different religion.  Suppose she were told that “The dogma lives loudly within you” whenever she recited her unconditional commitment to abortion on demand, or her view that it is in the unconditional interests of mothers to be able to have their children killed.

The important question is not whether one has unconditional commitments – whether or not he knows it, every human does – but what makes some commitments more reasonable than others.  We shouldn’t let the other side say “My reasons count, but yours don’t.”  Let them offer their reasons.  Let us offer ours.  May the better reasons win.

You can’t reach fanatics like Mrs. Feinstein this way, because the whole point of disqualifying the other side’s good reasons is to avoid having to discuss one's own bad reasons.  But you may be able to reach confused people sitting on the fence.