Church authorities greatly erred in condemning Galileo, but here’s the part of the story we aren't usually told: They didn’t criticize him for following the science, but for not following it. Many scholars and Church authorities considered his heliocentric hypothesis interesting and possibly true, but he treated it as proven, even though it didn’t square terribly well with observations. (And now we know why: He assumed circular orbits, not elliptical.)
This ought to serve as a reminder that policy can never be based just on "what the science says," because science never speaks with one voice. It is often, in a sense, political, even if it is not partisan. Small wonder, because the evidence doesn’t speak for itself. It may not even be clear what counts as evidence in the first place, and the evidence is viewed through the lens of preconceived ideas that may be wrong. Disagreement among scientists is normal and healthy, but just as in the rest of life, a minority may be suppressed for a long time just because the majority can get away with it.
Consider recent dogmas about population growth. The psychology of sex. Continents that stay in one place. Natural selection. Climate change. Renewable energy. And by the way, epidemiology.
The classical natural law tradition holds that there really are such things as exceptionless moral precepts, rules that must never be broken, lines of conduct that can never be placed in right order to the ultimate and final good.
If true, this is profoundly important. Many, especially those who are called consequentialists and proportionalists, think it is false. They believe that under certain circumstances, anything whatsoever might be morally permissible, or even required.
I think the tradition is correct and the objectors dreadfully wrong, but the objector asks, “How can this be?” Consider a simple moral precept that seems to have no exceptions: “Do not steal.”
On the face of it, the precept seems pretty clear. But what counts as stealing? To clarify, we might say “Stealing is taking from another person.” But not all taking from another is wrong. It isn’t wrong to levy a just tax for the common good, or to make an offender pay a fine. The objector says, “See? There aren’t any exceptionless precepts.”
The straightforward solution is that whatever really is stealing is wrong, but those things are not stealing.
But to make this answer work, we need to specify more clearly what counts as stealing.
Perhaps we can do better with Thomas Aquinas’s formula, “Stealing is taking from another person unduly,” or, as we would say, “wrongly.” But now the objector might say that this formula makes the original prohibition of stealing tautological: It turns it into the circular claim that it is wrong to take what it is wrong to take.
With a little help from the tradition, let’s go still further. “Stealing is deliberately taking from another person what rightly belongs to him against his reasonable will.” Have we now escaped our difficulties?
Well, I do think this traditional formula defines stealing correctly, but right away we notice that it requires us to understand a set of other moral concepts: “Deliberately” acting, what “rightly belongs” to a person, and what it would not be “reasonable” for him to will.
And obviously, the explanation of each of these moral concepts would require us to understand still more moral concepts. To consider just the first one, suppose I elucidate by saying “Deliberate action is action performed knowingly and as the outcome of consideration and choice.” This requires us to understand what is meant by action performed “knowingly,” and what is meant by “deliberation and choice.”
The problem isn’t that there are exceptions, but that in order to understand any ethical reality fully – in this case the wrong of stealing -- we have to understand others as well.
This is the sort of thing that makes contemporary people throw up their hands and say “It’s all subjective anyway.” But there is nothing special about ethics; to understand anything we have to understand other things too. The meaning of one thing always depends on the meanings of others. If I say “turn out the light,” then in order to understand me you have to know what a light is, which light I mean, and what it means to turn it off. The fact that things are related to other things doesn’t make the meaning of turning out the light subjective, and it doesn’t make the meaning of stealing subjective either.
Still, we might wish things were simpler. Could we make them simpler by reducing everyday ethical meanings to more elementary ones, and those to still more elementary ones, until finally we reached a finite set of absolutely simple starting points? Well, there are starting points, but that’s not how they work. As St. Thomas pointed out, everything in ethics does come down to the elementary notions of good and evil -- unless we understand what those two mean, we cannot understand anything else – but that doesn’t mean we don’t need other ideas too.
For example, justice is good and injustice is evil, but justice is a particular species of good, differing from others. To explain what species it is, we have to bring in the idea of what people deserve. Does that mean that if only we expand our set of elementary notions from “good and evil” to “good, evil, and desert,” then all our problems will be solved? Nope, for what people deserve depends in turn on proportionality. It would not be proportional for me to demand that you give me six dollars in return for three dollars’ worth of bread. So are we all right if only we expand our set to “good, evil, desert, and proportionality?” Not then either, because proportionality depends on other things, which depend on other things, which depend on other things.
There is probably no limit to this sort of thing – the further we go in deriving ethical “theorems” from “axioms,” the more elementary notions we will have to bring in. Yes, certain basic notions are necessary for understanding any ethical statement at all, but no, we cannot reduce all ethical statements to a finite set of elementary ones.
Something like this is true in logic and mathematics too. The further you go, the more axioms you need to prove the theorems. They don’t teach that in Geometry I, but it’s true.
Mathematicians have learned to live with that sort of thing. So can we. We don’t have to despair of understanding what the moral rules mean, because it is always possible to settle things that aren’t clear to us by considering others that are at least more clear to us. Can we reduce every ethical notion to a finite set of absolutely elementary notions without anything left over? No. But we can reduce every ethical notion to notions that are clearer to us.
We do this every day, and not just in ethics. You say you want me to turn off the light. What do you mean by the light? I mean the brightest light source that can be stopped from giving light. What do you mean by turning it off? Stopping it from doing that. Have all possible questions been answered? No! But do I get it? Yes! And that’s enough.
Back to ethics: Saying that stealing is deliberately taking from another person what rightly belongs to him against his rational will doesn’t answer all possible questions either. But in the vast majority of cases, we do understand “enough to go on” about what it means to do things deliberately, what rightly belongs to a person, and what it is reasonable for him to will. If we are still puzzled, we can ask more questions. If even the least attempt to explain what we are not to take from others left us in the dark, we would have a problem, but this turns out not to be so.
We are now in a better position than before to answer the question of whether there are any exceptionless moral precepts.
At the level of complete generality, the proposition “Avoid evil” has no exceptions.
At the second level of generality, the proposition “Do not steal” still has no exceptions.
At the third level of generality, the proposition “Do not take from another unduly” still has no exceptions.
At the fourth level of generality, the proposition “Do not deliberately take from another person what rightly belongs to him against his reasonable will” still has no exceptions.
It is not until a much later stage of detailed specification that we begin to hit propositions that do have exceptions, such as “Whenever someone has left his property in your safekeeping, then if he demands it, return it to him.” To these more detailed rules – though not to the general ones -- there are exceptions, and the more detailed we make them, the more exceptions there are. For instance, if I am staggering drunk when I ask for my car keys, you should withhold them until I am sober. Yet it would be absurd to suggest that the ordinary person hasn’t a clue how to proceed concerning these exceptions. He knows a great deal.
True, since the ordinary person doesn’t speak like an ethical philosopher, he may not be able to parse the proposition “Do not deliberately take from another person what rightly belongs to him against his reasonable will.” But whether or not he can parse it, he intuitively grasps the things that the proposition is about.
For instance, he grasps that if I drive away without knowing that his property is in my car, it does not count as stealing. He grasps that that if he deprives a murderer of his weapon, it does not count as stealing. He grasps that if a starving man sneaks a carrot from his over-stocked garden despite his unreasonable refusal to let him have one, it does not count as stealing either. (I mean ethically. The criminal law may be less discerning.)
Those who think about these things can explain the reasons why none of these are stealing. For example, culpability requires knowledge; I may have been culpable of carelessness for driving away, but not culpable of stealing. Moreover, the institution of private property exists because the good of all is better accomplished with it than without it; it does not exist merely for the good of the possessor.
The problem, then, isn’t that we can’t state exceptionless rules. It is merely that we can’t state them in such a way that they can be understood even by moral cretins.
This implies: That besides rules, we need virtues, like wisdom, which tell us what living by the rules is about. We possess these virtues to varying degrees. Some ethical precepts are so simple that they can be understood by everyone. Others can be understood only by the wise, so that those who are wise must instruct the simple.
But this does not imply: That there are exceptions to everything, that the general moral rules are circular, or that, under the right circumstances, anything whatsoever might be permissible.
So the proposition that when properly understood, some precepts have no exceptions whatsoever, involves us in subtler matters than may at first appear. But it is true.
Worst Therapeutic Motto of the Year:
"Addiction Can Happen to Anyone"
A hundred thousand grains of sand is a heap. If you take away one grain, it is still a heap. If you take away another, it is still a heap. Skip ahead. If you take away all grains but one, the one remaining grain is not a heap. When did the collection stop being a heap?
Philosophers call this kind of puzzle the sorites paradox, or the paradox of the heap.
Here’s another example. If everyone in the crowd is blocking traffic, hurling incendiaries, trying to burn down buildings, threatening people with AK-47s, and throwing frozen water bottles at police, we say there is a riot. If one only refrains from doing such things, it is still a riot. If only two people refrain, it is still a riot. Skip ahead. If everyone but a single isolated person refrains, it is not a riot. When did the riot become a peaceful protest?
A number of solutions to the paradox have been proposed. One solution is that there is no such thing as a heap. Another is to set a threshold: To say, for example, that if the collection contains fifty thousand grains or less, it is not a heap. The most commonsensical solution is to say that “heap” is a relative term: Depending on various factors, some of them numerical, such as how many grains of sand the collection includes, and others contextual, such as what the sand will be used for, we are more or less likely to call it a heap. In this case, of course, we need to know how such factors affect the ways we speak, because the standards can always be challenged.
Reporters seem to choose from among the same solutions in reporting on the recent disturbances in the cities. Some call nothing whatsoever a riot. Some set a threshold: So long as only a few people have been shot and no courthouses have actually burned down, the disturbance is not a riot. But most use the term “riot” in a relative sense: Depending on various factors, some of them numerical, such as what percentage of the crowd are doing violent things, and some of them contextual, such as whether they espouse goals the reporters agree with, they are more or less likely to call the disturbance a riot.
In this case too we need to know how those factors affect the way they speak. So far as I can tell, the reportorial rule of thumb is that if the crowd is left-wing, then so long as fewer than fifty percent of the crowd are blocking traffic, hurling incendiaries, trying to burn down buildings, threatening people with AK-47s, and throwing frozen water bottles at police, the disturbance is “mostly peaceful,” and not a riot but a protest or demonstration.
Needless to say, this standard can also be challenged. If fewer than half of my neighbors pulled knives on me, I wouldn’t call my neighborhood mostly peaceful. Would you?
See? Who said philosophy isn’t practical?
There really are exceptionless rules, but we lose a lot focusing on rules to the exclusion of the corresponding virtues.
Consider two different acts: Murdering and desecrating the body; murdering and eating the body.
Viewed simply as acts, it is not easy to say which is worse. However, the latter shocks us more profoundly because it suggests a deeper disturbance of moral character. That counts for something.
Can someone pray if he doesn’t believe in God? I don’t see why not.
In trouble, I might scream “Help!” even if I don’t think anyone can hear me, just on the chance that someone can. In the same way, I might cry “God, I need you. I don’t think you are there, but if you are, I will try to do what you ask. Please get me out of this dark.”
Nonbelievers, take heart. I think God hears prayers like that.
But a lot of things considered prayers are nothing of the kind, like communing with my “inner goddess,” or like chanting “Every day in every way I am getting better and better.” That bald-faced lie isn’t a prayer to the Deity but a flattery of the Self.
Or like sitting on the porch and drinking coffee – a best-selling Unitarian minister came up with that one. True, one might commune with God while sitting on the porch and drinking coffee, but sitting on the porch and drinking coffee is not, per se, communing with God. Better the prayer of an honest nonbeliever than rank self-deception.
Or like the chant “Aum” or “Omm.” Some people say that this is addressed to a spirit, in which case it would be a prayer, though to what spirit it may be addressed is another question, about which no one much seems to care. So far as I can see, the chant is more often a sort of self-hypnosis.
Or like the fellow in the old Ray Bradbury tale who got in touch with the All by meditating on the hum of high-tension electrical powerlines. Electricity can’t hear you. The totality of life and death, animals and stars, harmonicas and pneumonia, pop concerts and yogurt smoothies, love, malice, lies, truths, and illusions can’t hear you either – and its answer would be worthless if it could.
More nonbelievers’ prayers would be offered, perhaps, if they were more often meant when they were offered. What we do mean when we pray without believing is often more like this. “God, I want your help this time, but then please leave me alone until I ask for you again. If you want me to do something, I’ll think about it, but don’t rattle my preconceptions or ask me to change my life. Just now I need a little light, but otherwise, please, I would like to be left in the dark.”
God, Who always reaches down to us even when we are not reaching for Your hands, give us grace to mean it, even if we don’t yet believe it.
Common sense urges that the easier it is to commit crime and the harder it is to detect it, the more crime will be committed. Against common sense, the “fact-checkers” are out in force, chanting in unison that very little fraud is associated with mail-in voting.
How would we know? The same things that make such fraud easy to commit also make it difficult to discover.
Studies claiming that there is very little mail-in voting fraud actually find nothing of the kind; what they tend to find is that very few discovered errors in vote counts can be proven to have resulted from voter impersonation.
If you are trying to mess with an election, the idea is not to be discovered.
Besides, voter impersonation is not the only form of fraud; for example one can “lose” ballots.
Wait until mail-in voting becomes universal. Then watch crooked party activists pull out the stops.
Moral: Always prefer common sense to a "fact check" with flawed assumptions.