The Heap Theory of Human Personhood

Monday, 12-14-2020


An interesting claim was offered in class discussion one day.  The students were discussing the famous, or infamous, 1999 exchange between Senators Santorum and Boxer about partial-birth abortion, in which Boxer refused to specify any point, even after birth, at which the child was entitled to Constitutional protection as a human person.

Student reactions fall all over the map.  Some criticize Boxer for refusing to answer, others sympathize with her because she was being pressed to answer a question she preferred not to.

To one of my students, Santorum’s line of questioning seemed unfair, because it supposed that one is either a person or not.  Well, I think that one is, from the moment of conception.  In my student’s view, though, personhood is a matter of degree.  Asking “What makes someone a person?” is like asking “How many grains of sand have to be added together they count as a heap?”

Call this the Heap Theory of human personhood.  Many of the public would agree with it.  Just as a larger group of grains may be more like a heap than a smaller one, you may be more like a person than I am.  On a 100-point personhood scale, perhaps you’re a 62, but I’m only a 51. 

People who hold this view never think through its implications.  If the premise is true, then we ought to initiate a rigid caste system, because the desires of those who are higher on the personhood scale should trump the desires of those who are lower -- even as to questions such as who shall be permitted to live.


How Are You Doing in the Pandemic?

Monday, 12-07-2020


Reader's Query:

An overseas friend asks “How are you handling the return to classes?  Are you doing everything online in your country?



At my own university, only 5% of this semester’s classes are being held entirely in person.  Some are hybrid, but most are entirely online.  The university is like a ghost town.  I belong to the minority who have elected to teach entirely in person.  After a long spring, it was good to be with the students again, but it has been strange to conduct class discussions in almost-empty classrooms with persons speaking through sound-absorbing barriers who can't see each other’s faces.  Physical presence itself has become a lot like Zoom.

Surprisingly, the young people are careful about keeping their distance.  Many of them wear masks not only indoors, where face coverings are required, but even outdoors, which seems unnecessary because people in the open air are usually separated by great distances.  Course enrollments are capped at a small fraction of room capacity, and the rooms are well-ventilated.  Despite all this, and despite the fact that teachers are almost always at least twelve feet from students during classes, faculty are required to wear masks even while lecturing.

Off campus, the hypocrisy of public officials continues.  In November, the mayor of my city streamed a video urging citizens to stay home, because “we may have to close things down if we are not careful.”  He didn’t mention that he was streaming it from Mexico, where he was on vacation.

Hypocrisy alternates with hysteria.  The original goal of “flattening the curve” has long been forgotten.  Many months ago it morphed into eliminating all infections, which is impossible.  By that standard we should follow the same rules during every flu season.  In fact, we should follow them all the time.  After all, someone is always sick with something.

That’s how it is in my country.  How is it in yours?


Parody: Cardinal-Designate Hopes for Dialogue with President-Presumptive

Monday, 11-30-2020



Wilton D. Gregory, the new cardinal-designate of Washington, D.C. said he would not prevent Joseph Biden, the Catholic president-presumptive who promotes abortion, from receiving Communion in the archdiocese.

“Hey, I’m a bureaucrat,” said the cardinal-designate.  “It’s not as though I were a shepherd of souls or anything.  If the gentleman is in peril of damnation, it’s no skin off my nose.”  A twinkle in his eye, he added “We call that being pastoral.”

The cardinal-designate continued, “I don’t highlight one issue or another.  It’s no different than if he supported, say, infanticide or the sexual abuse of minors.”  He said that disagreements about such things as are part of “being a family, a family of faith.”

“Informed Catholics won’t be confused,” he asserted.  “They’re smart.  They don’t need me to tell them what the Church teaches.”  When the interviewer asked about canon law, which specifies that anyone who facilitates abortion automatically incurs excommunication latae sententiae (just by the fact of doing so), the cardinal-designate replied “See?  Like I said.  You knew that already.”

The cardinal-designate declared, “The difficulty is that too many people want to call some Catholics unfaithful just because they discredit the faith of the Church.  Like the Pope says, who am I to judge?”

“Besides,” he concluded, “non-Catholics and uninformed Catholics will respect the Church more if it doesn’t stand for anything.”

See:  In Washington, With New President,

Cardinal-Designate Hopes For Dialogue


Have a Happy, Non-Neutral Thanksgiving

Thursday, 11-26-2020


The Supreme Court insists that the Founding generation intended the government to be “neutral” between religion and irreligion.  Although, in embattled decisions, the Court has allowed such things as prayers at public meetings, it rules that governmental use of religious language is allowable only if it has an essentially non-religious purpose, such as making a public occasion more solemn.  The idea, I guess, is that language like “God save the United States and this honorable Court” isn’t about God, but only about how honorable the Court is.

Following is the full text of President George Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation, issued in October, 1789.  You may have read it before, since on days like this it is all over the internet.  Tell me, though, is it neutral between religion and irreligion?  What does Washington says its purposes are?  Do you read them as essentially non-religious?

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.  That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord.  To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Notice that although Washington rightly declines to pick winners in the competition among denominations, he is not at all ambivalent about the nature of God.  There is exactly one of Him.  He is the all-powerful ruler of the universe.  He is good, and the source of all good.  He cares whether we are just, pays attention to what we are doing, and distributes His blessings accordingly.  Acknowledging our gratitude to Him, and asking pardon for our national and personal sins, is both a public and a private duty.

Have a happy, non-neutral Thanksgiving.


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.