Self-Ownership

Monday, 03-11-2019

 

The other day some young people argued to me that there is nothing wrong with sniffing glue.  The premises of their argument seemed to be that (1) each of us owns himself, and (2) owners may do whatever they want with their own property.  One student’s version of the argument included another premise, that (3) what each person deems good for him is good for him just because he deems it to be.   We can call these premises self-ownership, absolute control of property, and value subjectivism.  I think all three premises are mistaken, but at the moment I am concerned only with self-ownership.

Today, self-ownership is often taken for granted.  When I press people to justify the claim that they own themselves, they often express doubt about the existence of God.  If God exists, they say, then perhaps in some sense God would own us, but how do we know that God exists?  It is fair to ask how they know that He does not exist -- but never mind, because something else about this argument is even more problematic.

For suppose their doubts were right, and God did not exist.  Certainly, then, they would not be God’s property.  But it still wouldn’t follow that they are their own property.  To put it another way, I think that given its premise, the following argument works:

  1. God does not exist.
  2. Therefore God does not own me.

But I think that the following argument is a non sequitur:

  1. God does not own me.
  2. Therefore I own myself.

If I were an atheist (and I used to be a sort of atheist), then instead I would argue like this (and in those days I did argue something like this):

  1. God does not exist.
  2. Therefore no one owns anything.

For if there is no First Cause, then among other things there is no First Cause of moral rights, goods, or duties, and so, among other things, there are no rights, goods, or duties of ownership.  So in this case so-called ownership is really about nothing more than who has the power to take.  What is to stop us from taking and using other people?

By contrast, if there is a First Cause, then He may have given us into the hand of our own counsel, as the Old Testament book of Sirach claims.  In this case, to the extent that I do have rights over myself, they come from Him.

Of course if there is no First Cause, then moral rights, goods, and duties are not the only difficult things to account for.  It is difficult to account for anything, even the existence of the selves we claim to own.  For we are contingent beings; we didn’t have to exist.  If we are contingent, then something else caused us to exist.  And something must have caused that cause to exist.  The sensible thing is to trace all the causes to a First Cause that isn’t contingent – one that has to exist.

And that is what we call God.

See here, though, nobody is forcing you to be sensible.  So if you would rather, you can suppose that everything about existence is arbitrary, a brute fact, something unintelligible.  You can even doubt that we really do exist.

Premises like that won’t get you to self-ownership either -- but you can hold them if you want to.

Where they will get you to – well, as Aristotle said in another context, “That is another story.”

 

Visiting Oxford

Saturday, 03-09-2019

 

For all you audiophiles, the audiofiles of the talks at the colloquium on “Aquinas and the Development of Law,” which took place last week at Blackfriars, Oxford University, are already posted online.  The four talks were by Richard Conrad, O.P, Ryan D. Meade, Jonathan Price, and me.  My own, which is also posted on this website’s Talks page, posed the question “Of Course Human Law Develops.  Can Natural and Divine Law Develop?”

The colloquium was enjoyable, the brothers most hospitable, and Oxford, beautiful.  I shot the image of the Blackfriars chapel, above, with my cellphone.  The light was poor, but I rather like the effect.

Oxford is composed of 38 Colleges and 6 Permanent Private Halls.  The Permanent Private Halls, of which Blackfriars is one, are every bit as much a part of Oxford as the Colleges are, but they were founded by religious organizations – in the case of Blackfriars and two others, Catholic -- which take a share in their administration.  Blackfriars was founded at Oxford in 1221, suppressed under Henry VIII when he dissolved and plundered the monasteries and religious houses, and refounded – a momentous event -- in 1921.  It was recognized as a Permanent Private Hall in 1994.

I have tried to imagine the University of Texas having constituent units which are explicitly Christian, but I can’t do it.  It is a fascinating arrangement.

 

The Sins of the Fathers (and Their Virtues)

Thursday, 03-07-2019

 

The First Commandment’s prohibition of worshipping false gods concludes with the warning that God “visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.”  Notwithstanding the fact that Deuteronomy also declares that He “keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations,” generational consequences are often held to impugn His justice and deny the principle of responsibility, for they imply that some will suffer for the sins of others.

But don’t some always suffer for the sins of others?  The natural consequence of sin is that damage ripples not only through me, the sinner, but outward in every direction.  God could have made a world in which nothing had consequences, nothing had meaning:  A world in which, among other things, children turned out the same no matter how their parents raised them.  In that case, why bother with parents at all?

He bothers with parents because He chose to make a world in which finite rational creatures are given the astounding privilege of imitating His Fatherhood and participating in the wisdom by which He governs the universe.  By the fact of raising my children, for good or ill I am also helping raise my children’s children’s children, the privilege is not taken away, but intensified.

With the privilege comes responsibility, for failure to live up to it causes real hurt to others; the obverse of the power to do good is the power to do harm.  If I am a bad father, my children may find it more difficult to trust the Fatherhood of God.  If I adore that which is not, I pave a path that they may walk on too.  So the generational penalty is real – but it is the other side of a blessing:  We are placed in a universe in which what we does matters.

Yet God’s providential care may also mitigate some of the temporal consequences of forgiven sin.  In view of the repeated sins of the people, Moses implores God,

“Now, I pray thee, let the power of the Lord be great as thou hast promised, saying, 'The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation.'   Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray thee, according to the greatness of thy steadfast love, and according as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.”

God replies that although He will grant the pardon for which Moses has asked, there will still be a penalty for those who saw His glory and signs and yet despised Him.  Yes, their children will enter into the Promised Land, but they will not.

And would it have been better for them if they had been allowed to enter it along with their children?  If it is true that temporal punishment is necessary for the correction of our souls, probably not.  Besides, if they had accompanied their children, would it have been better for their children?

 

Musings

Monday, 02-25-2019

 

Isn’t it curious that tattoos, piercings, and scarifications are considered cool, but circumcision is considered a barbaric mutilation?

I wonder why pundits describe certain politicians as ideology-free, since that’s not possible.  Everyone has some view of the world.  Besides, even what we call an unprincipled person assumes the truth of one principle:  The one that states that people like him are the smartest and ought to rule. 

Strangely bad reasoning:  "God hasn’t stopped human beings from committing evil.  Therefore I withdraw my faith from God and place it human beings instead.”

Someone sent me a letter arguing that the abortion of unwanted babies should be legal because they should not be “forced to live a ceaseless hell.”  Observe that the argument would also apply to the destruction of the unwanted weak, poor, sick, sad, and aged.

Monday news flash:  Using styrofoam dishes is endangering the environment because of waste plastic.  Experts urge using china instead and washing it in hot water.  Tuesday news flash:  Washing china in hot water is endangering the environment because of heat and detergent pollution.  Experts urge using styrofoam.

“We haven’t been married long.  How long should we wait to have children?”  If you’re married, you’re ready to have children.  If you aren’t ready to have children, you aren’t ready to be married.

Wrongly put:  “He’s good at what he does, but he’s not very bright.”  Intelligence is not a thing, but a bundle of things.  To be good at what he does, he must be bright in some respects.  So the question is in what respects he isn’t.

“You believe in God only because you were taught to believe in God in childhood.”  Is that something like saying that I believe in arithmetic only because I was taught to believe in arithmetic in childhood?

Displacement of ends by means:  The desire for a powerful government in order to pursue certain goals seems to have given way to desiring certain goals because they require a powerful government.

Part one:  “I prefer to spread the Gospel by example, not by words.”  It is always impressive to come across someone so far advanced in sanctity that people are awed just by seeing him go about his life.  But unlikely.

Our grandparents knew that the rhyme about little girls being made of sugar and spice but little boys being made of snakes and snails was an affectionate jest.  For us it is hardening into dogma.

Part two:  Suppose you really are so far advanced in sanctity.  Even so, without words, isn’t it more likely that people will attribute whatever good they see in you to the wrong cause?

Classical higher learning sought to calibrate and correct the common sense meter.  Our own higher learning seeks largely to disconnect it.  The paradoxical result is that in some respects, educated people are less perceptive than uneducated people, and are certainly less independent in thought.

“I don’t need to believe in God.  I’m my own boss.”  In which god don’t you believe?  I can think of one that you believe in.

"There isn’t any natural law.  When I do the right thing, I just do it because it seems good.”  If there isn’t any natural law, then how do you know that it’s good?  How do you know that good ought to be done?  And how do you know that good is not merely whatever you happen to like?

Although God is said to test people at times, the reason does not seem to be that He needs to find out something about them.  Rather they need to find out something about themselves.

Question:  When the knight came upon the dragon, did he estimate whether the dragon could be overcome in his lifetime?  No.  He stood up and fought.

Anyone can learn from a good teacher.  The real test is being able to learn from a bad one.

Odd comparison:  “Believing in God is like believing in Zeus.”  They aren’t even “gods” in the same sense of the term.  Zeus was a contingent being which something else caused to exist.  God is the necessary being who causes all else to exist.

Wednesday news flash:  If all the used disposable diapers were stacked on top of each other, the stack would reach to the moon.  Thursday news flash:  NASA says it may be possible to reach the moon by building a stack of used disposable diapers.  Scientists urge contributions.

The people of the future will certainly not view our age as golden, but they may look back on it as epic.  In our day the exercise of even the everyday elements of moral character, such as honesty and chastity, is beginning to look like heroic virtue.

Suspicion:  The most powerful reason why some persons want to coerce conscience – for example, to force medical workers who object to abortions to participate in them anyway – is to have as much company as possible in their own bad conscience.

I wonder why the Old Testament prophets are pegged as hurlers of harsh condemnations.  They seem to have spent more time weeping.  Their judgments were warnings; they sprang from divine compassion.

It is a very good thing that any citizen who wants to vote may do so.  It is not necessarily a good thing that they all do.

Why is it said that believing in the doctrines of the Church makes one a “conservative Catholic?”  It would be closer to the truth to say that it made one a Catholic.

Liberal activists tend to be utopian about society; they get angry if it doesn’t measure up to their idea of perfect righteousness.  But liberal and conservative activists alike tend to be utopian about their political party; they get angry if it doesn’t behave like a social movement.

With due respect to Mr. Dylan:  Some people do need a weatherman to tell which way the wind is blowing.

Subtlety is discerning in an appealing error the truth that it includes but distorts, and not being caught by the distortion.

The proper use of blunder is the acquisition of insight.  How much more deeply the sages of the future will understand certain matters, having studied the annals of our mistakes.

 

Making Good Laws, Then and Now

Monday, 02-18-2019

 

To make and evaluate laws, one must always consider the circumstances.  Viewing former ages from the perspective of our own narrow slice of time, it is easy to overlook this fact.  Consider, for example, the legal rule in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy that if a man seizes an unmarried woman to have sexual intercourse with her, then he must marry her:

“If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her; he may not put her away all his days.”

Today we think “How brutal is this so-called Law of God!  The poor young woman is forced to marry her rapist for life!”

Such a complaint misses the point very badly.  It was the times that were brutal, not the law; the nation was only one step removed from paganism.  In the only way reasonably possible, the law was gradually humanizing it.  Women had low status, and marriage was protection.  An unmarried young woman who had been violated or seduced would have been held in shame.  Had it not been for the rule, no one would have been willing to marry her, and even if her father felt sorry for her, he would have resented having to provide for her because there would be no one to pay him a bridal gift.

The right way to think of the rule, then, is not that it forces the young woman to marry the man, but that it spares her the shame of having been his unmarried sexual plaything.  It is he who is forced, not her, because to compensate for what he has done to her he must shelter her for the rest of his days, treating her not as a concubine but as a true wife, never being able to divorce her or cast her off.

The image is The Big Picture by Tom Roberts.

Greetings to my readers Down Under.

 

Just a Message (but important)

Thursday, 02-14-2019

 

Gentle Readers,

As some of you know, the website has a few glitches, which are undergoing repair.  In the meantime, here are some things you need to know to make your time at the site more pleasant.

1.  Don’t use the URL https://undergroundthomist.com.

2.  Update your bookmark to https://undergroundthomist.org.  (An “s” after “http,” no “www,” and ending in “.org.”)

3.  If you have any difficulties – for example, if a page doesn’t load, or if part of a page doesn’t load – you could do me an enormous favor by taking a screenshot (for example with the Microsoft Snipping tool), copying the URL of the page you were trying to read, and sending me both the screenshot and the URL.  If you aren’t able to do that, just a sentence describing the problem would be most helpful.

Thank you!

 

No World, Just Word Games?

Monday, 02-11-2019

Please see the message at the bottom of this post!

 

Query:

I have been studying natural law for my master’s thesis, but so far I haven’t been able to see how to answer the following objection which has been thrown at me.  It runs like this.  Given the implications of deconstructionism and the “linguistic turn,” what one person or culture means by “life,” “nature,” or “human flourishing” is not the same thing that another person (or culture) means when he uses those terms.  They both play by independent rules, given their respective language games, and so they are separated by a chasm that can’t be bridged.  Ergo, natural law is rendered linguistically effete.

 

Reply:

What would you think if your dog had eaten some garbage, was throwing up, and just as you were about to take him to the vet, someone spoke like this? –

 

Given the implications of the linguistic turn and deconstructionism, what one person or culture means by “dog,” “garbage,” and “throwing up” are not the same thing that another person or culture means when it uses those terms.  Each plays by independent rules, given his respective language game, and therefore are separated by a chasm that can’t be bridged.  Ergo, veterinary medicine is rendered linguistically meaningless.

 

Or if you had decided to overcome your fear of flying and take an airplane to a different location, and just as you were about to book the flight, someone spoke like this? –

 

Given the implications of the linguistic turn and deconstructionism, what one person or culture means by “fear,” “flying,” “location,” and “not falling” are not the same thing that another person or culture means when it uses those terms.  Each plays by independent rules, given his respective language game, and therefore are separated by a chasm that can’t be bridged.  Ergo, the practice of air travel is rendered linguistically meaningless.

 

Reality is the way it is, and we all live in the same one.  If we are using words differently, then we should investigate which way of using them corresponds better to how things really are.  Yes, of course there are social conventions, but there must be some shared world even for there to be social conventions; there has to be some bedrock reality even for us to behave differently in it, or disagree about it.

Lewis Carroll wrote Through the Looking Glass before the deconstructionists of whom you speak came onto the scene, but a little parable of his had them pegged.  What they want isn’t to live in the truth of reality with other people, but to manipulate them:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Related: What’s Wrong with Universities?

IMPORTANT MESSAGE

Gentle Readers,

As some of you know, the website has a few glitches, which are undergoing repair.  In the meantime, here are some things you need to know to make your time at the site more pleasant.

1.  Don’t use the URL https://undergroundthomist.com site.  (Ending in “.com.”)

2.  Update your bookmark to https://undergroundthomist.org.  (An “s” after “http,” no “www,” and ending in “.org.”)

3.  If you have any difficulties – for example, if a page doesn’t load, or if part of a page doesn’t load – you could do me an enormous favor by taking a screenshot (for example with the Microsoft Snipping tool), copying the URL of the page you were on, and sending me both the screenshot and the URL.  If you aren’t able to do that, just a sentence of description would be very helpful.

Thank you!