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Monday, February 22, 2016

Amnesia

Joseph Moore reminds us of the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect:
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
-- Michael Crichton
Indeed, the only proper attitude for one reading various media -- including this blog -- may be "WTF?" TOF does make an effort to confine his comments to areas with which he has some familiarity or in which he has drawn from reputable sources, but even so.

Recently, the media wet its pants and announced that the pope had loosened up the prohibition on contraceptives. This is known as Wishful Thinking. As usual, they had missed the point completely. In Catholicism, inanimate objects are not considered haram or trayf after the fashion of pork. Sin (deficiency) does not reside in a piece of latex, but in the intentions of the person using it. Hence, the Pope's pronouncement that a condom can be used to prevent the spread of a disease is entirely a yawn-fest. Certainly, it may also prevent the spread of life, but if that is not one's intention, the deficiency must be less than if it is. Naturally, it would be better to abstain entirely, but as Aquinas noted, sometimes one must choose the lesser of two evils.

Hence, for example, it is better to rob a bank with an unloaded gun than with a loaded gun; although it is better not to rob the bank at all. But such complexities are lost in the Late Modern, morally-flat world, in which there are no gradations and every sin is either unforgivable (e.g., using the n-word) or not really a sin at all (e.g., fornication).

A second papal kerfuffle was the recent observation that Christianity was more into building bridges than building walls. Again, this is entirely unremarkable to anyone familiar with the admonition to love even our enemies, once given by a Dude who dined with publicans and sinners. (In the Late Modern world, this last would have been very much the lead "story" in the evening news.) But there are people who would much rather traduce the Son of Man than the Candidate for the Nomination.

Why does no one talk about Vera Coking? Or Kelo? It must be a kind of amnesia. (The latter link starts with a marvelous example of the mastery of the English language.)

33 comments:

  1. Sin lies in the act, and intention forms only one component of the act.

    Should Pope advise people to rob banks with unloaded guns?

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    1. See also Benedict XVI's remarks on condoms and male prostitutes...

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    2. i remember how much of a stir that created and all he said was at least these ppl are considering the good in their evil, which is a start.

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  2. WHOA! Aquinas... lesser of two evils! um NO! One is always obliged to choose the good. Last I checked we were not Lutherans. There is NEVER a conflict in fulfilling laws of God - contrary to Francis's suggestion that the 5th and 6th Commandments might conflict. There is NEVER a situation where I am obliged to choose an evil.
    Matthew

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    1. Aquinas gives the example of a thief before the judge. Since one of the natural rights of man is liberty, it is wrong to imprison the thief and deprive his family of livelihood. It is also wrong to take the property of others (property being another of those natural rights). And so the judge must choose the lesser of the two evils.

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    2. Not trying to be picky here - truly interested. Could you give the citation in Aquinas? Given what you have said the example makes no sense. In no way is the judge choosing any evil, he is delivering the thief to a just penalty. It is the thief by his theft who has added the further evil of depriving his family of a breadwinner. Or perhaps here is an example of an error in Aquinas. The Council of Trent is quite clear that one may never choose a moral evil.
      Matthew

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    3. But punishment is always in some way an evil -- i.e., a deprivation of the good. Imprisonment is a deprivation of liberty, which is a good. Execution is a deprivation of life. Confiscation is a deprivation of property. But the judge chooses it because it is a lesser evil than allowing the thief to continue doing business. That is, there is a greater good -- to the community -- that he is choosing, and imprisonment is merely the necessary means to that end. Now, Aquinas actually said "put to death" since justice was more severe in those days -- they did not have faculties for long-term imprisonment -- so choosing imprisonment over execution is another example of choosing the lesser of two evils.

      I answer that, As is evident from what has been said above, the will tends to its object, according as it is proposed by the reason. Now a thing may be considered in various ways by the reason, so as to appear good from one point of view, and not good from another point of view. And therefore if a man's will wills a thing to be, according as it appears to be good, his will is good: and the will of another man, who wills that thing not to be, according as it appears evil, is also good. Thus a judge has a good will, in willing a thief to be put to death, because this is just: while the will of another—e.g. the thief's wife or son, who wishes him not to be put to death, inasmuch as killing is a natural evil, is also good.
      -- ST II-1 Q19 Art 10

      Respondeo dicendum quod, sicut ex praedictis patet, voluntas fertur in suum obiectum secundum quod a ratione proponitur. Contingit autem aliquid a ratione considerari diversimode, ita quod sub una ratione est bonum, et secundum aliam rationem non bonum. Et ideo voluntas alicuius, si velit illud esse, secundum quod habet rationem boni, est bona, et voluntas alterius, si velit illud idem non esse, secundum quod habet rationem mali, erit voluntas etiam bona. Sicut iudex habet bonam voluntatem, dum vult occisionem latronis, quia iusta est, voluntas autem alterius, puta uxoris vel filii, qui non vult occidi ipsum, inquantum est secundum naturam mala occisio, est etiam bona.

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    4. I do think you are imposing a false interpretation on this passage. What the judge determines vis-a-vis the thief is just, but this just incarceration or execution can be viewed as an evil with respect to his family. The judge does not choose an evil at all by condemning the thief,but from the standpoint of the family of the thief, the thief's death is an evil. St. Thomas nowhere says that a lesser evil may be chosen. If an act is morally evil, it may not be chosen without sin. It may not be mortally sinful, but it will be sinful nonetheless. The point in the above text is the difference between the judge, who has care for the common good and so has the duty to punish the lawbreaker, and the family of the thief, who are justified in looking to their private good, even when this is contrary to the common good.

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    5. Would it be more accurate to say that the evil of punishment is something that the judge chooses only accidentally? In other words, the judge is not choosing the deprivation of life as deprivation of life; or the deprivation of liberty as deprivation of liberty; or the deprivation of property as deprivation of property. If he were, then he would be willing a moral evil, which is never permitted under any circumstances. Instead, what the judge is willing is that justice be done in service to the common good, and wills the imprisonment, death, or confiscation of the thief’s property only accidentally. Similar to how the person who kills an aggressor in self defense wills the preservation of their own life, and wills the death of the aggressor only accidentally. So the judge does not commit a moral evil by willing the evil of punishment, since he wills such evil only accidentally; and the good sought after (in this case, justice) is of a more universal character than the good of which the evil is a privation (life, liberty, property, and so on).

      Furthermore, the thief’s wife wills that her husband should live, though she wills this particular good materially. But in order for her will to be right in willing this particular good, she must also will the common good formally, which is what Aquinas goes on to say in that Article. In fact, insofar as the common good itself would be threatened if wives did not defend their particular goods (such as the survival of their husbands), then the thief’s wife is actually serving common good by willing that he should live; in that respect, her will is right to the extent that she subordinates what she materially wills (the particular good) to what she formally wills (the common good), and to the extent that she is willing to lose that particular good for the sake of the common good. But if she willed that her husband should live, but did not also and at the same time formally will the common good, then she would not be willing rightly.

      Is that a correct summation of what Aquinas is saying there?

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    6. I've already stipulated that when an act has two effects, one bad and one good, one must will the good effect and simply accept the bad effect as an inevitable side effect. Now you mustn't perform the bad in order to achieve the good, and the good must outweigh the bad. (These are in line with just war theory.) But I don't think Pope Benedict was ignorant on this matter.

      Recall the example of the man who robs a bank using an unloaded gun. It is reprehensible to rob a bank in any case, but given that, the man who uses an unloaded gun is showing greater moral awareness than the man who uses a loaded gun, let alone one who discharges that gun. Calvinists, I understand, do not recognize the idea of "less bad". I think Jansenists and Donatists felt the same way. Yet surely, there is a handle there to lead the offender back to the light side.

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    7. TOF,

      The Holy Father was wrong about contraception. Here is what he said:

      On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear. I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these two mosquitoes that carry this disease. This needs to be worked on.

      Leaving aside that the incident with Paul VI is a complete myth and never happened, the two cases are fundamentally different. The nuns were in danger of having sex against their will. Those infected with the Zika virus can choose not to have sex. Avoiding pregnancy is not a grave evil; using artificial contraception so one can have recreational sex IS a grave evil. It is not "the lesser of two evils", because there is another option: Abstinence. The Pope is dead wrong, completely wrong, and we should call him out on that.

      Pope Benedict was not; he was pointing out that, yes, it's less evil if a prostitute wears a condom than not, meaning he is perhaps coming to a moral awakening, much like, as you said, a man robbing a bank with an unloaded gun or beating his wife with padded gloves. This is completely different than what Francis said, which is essentially "Hey, if they NEED to use contraception that isn't necessarily a grave sin"...except it is.

      The Trump comments were pretty unremarkable. I don't get this idea where the reporter made it sound as if Trump was saying all of these terrible things about the Pope. That IS what Trump said about the Pope. That is Trump's position. The Pope's response was actually not terrible, as what he said was that "a man who thinks only about building walls is not Christian, but I don't know if that's really true of Trump and will give him the benefit of the doubt". Sounds pretty fair.

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    8. JMHenry: On Aquinas' account, the judge wills the punishment directly, and since he is one who has care for the common good and is the appropriate authority to mete out punishment, he can directly will the harm, even the death of the prisoner. In such a case his will is thoroughly upright. Also, in the case of self defense, a public authority can intend the death of the assailant, whereas the private person may not. This much is clear in the text of the Common Doctor.

      TheOFloinn: Yes, I accept that in this case the judge, foreseeing the bad effect of his just judgement on the family of the victim may only accept that bad effect and not will it. What I was responding to was your claim above: "Since one of the natural rights of man is liberty, it is wrong to imprison the thief and deprive his family of livelihood." It is this premise that I disagree with and which is not supported by the text of Aquinas you cite. Yes, liberty is a natural right of man, but one that he forfeits by violations of justice that bear in a special way on our order to the common good. The criminal makes himself fit for punishment by his transgression, and so the public authority wills the good in punishing him in due proportion with the gravity of his crime.
      As far as the less bad act is concerned, I'm never quite sure how to judge that. Is it the case that an act that is more disordered in itself, but less harmful in its effects (e.g., masturbation) less bad than an act that is less disordered in itself but potentially more harmful in its effects (e.g., fornication)? Or is it a wash in that both kinds deprive the soul of the life of grace?Fornication with a condom is more disordered than fornication without a condom in itself, but the former may prevent the deleterious effect of producing a child who is not ensured of proper upbringing...or is it accurate to say that the production of the child is a deleterious effect? At any rate, this matter is opaque to me.

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    9. what if you have tried to not have sex but at 1 am you can't control yourself and you forget and you just do it. then wouldn't in that case it be better to contracept aka choose something wrong but at least be moving towards good?

      nowhere did the pope say yeah contraception is better or equal to abstaining.

      cheating on your wife is also evil but if you're going to do it at least don't spread hiv or whatever.

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    10. ...what if you have tried to not have sex but at 1 am you can't control yourself...

      Yes, you can. You just didn't. Nobody said it was going to be easy.

      cheating on your wife is also evil but if you're going to do it at least don't spread hiv or whatever.

      It would be totally irresponsible for the Pope to say "As for those who cheat on their wives, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil". He should say "Don't cheat on your wives".

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    11. malcolmthecynic,

      The Pope is dead wrong, completely wrong, and we should call him out on that.


      The Holy Father never said that one should use contraception in the case of the Zika virus, nor did he draw that conclusion, nor can that conclusion even be drawn from his comments (that is, "avoiding pregnancy").

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    12. Anon,

      Yes, he did.

      On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear.

      This is a "clear case" where contraception should be permitted as a lesser of two evils.

      His Holiness, with all due respect, is incorrect.

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    13. That quote does not evince that the Holy Father is saying to use contraceptives in the case of the Zika virus. Again, the Holy Father said "avoiding pregnancy", which does not necessarily require using contraceptives. The only example in which the Holy Father referred to the use of contraceptives was the case of Blessed Pope Paul VI and nuns in the Congo; it does not follow that the use of contraceptives should be applied to other cases.

      Perhaps the Holy Father wondered if an analogy using contraceptives could be drawn between that case and the Zika virus; but again, he never actually concluded that one should use contraceptives in the case of the Zika virus, nor can that conclusion be implied from his comments ("avoiding pregnancy").

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    14. On Aquinas' account, the judge wills the punishment directly, and since he is one who has care for the common good and is the appropriate authority to mete out punishment, he can directly will the harm, even the death of the prisoner.

      Charles,

      What I had in mind is what Aquinas says here:

      [S]ince evil is opposed to good, it is impossible that any evil, as such, should be sought for by the appetite, either natural, or animal, or by the intellectual appetite which is the will. Nevertheless evil may be sought accidentally, so far as it accompanies a good, as appears in each of the appetites. For a natural agent intends not privation or corruption, but the form to which is annexed the privation of some other form, and the generation of one thing, which implies the corruption of another. Also when a lion kills a stag, his object is food, to obtain which the killing of the animal is only the means. Similarly the fornicator has merely pleasure for his object, and the deformity of sin is only an accompaniment. Now the evil that accompanies one good, is the privation of another good. Never therefore would evil be sought after, not even accidentally, unless the good that accompanies the evil were more desired than the good of which the evil is the privation. Now God wills no good more than He wills His own goodness; yet He wills one good more than another. Hence He in no way wills the evil of sin, which is the privation of right order towards the divine good. The evil of natural defect, or of punishment, He does will, by willing the good to which such evils are attached. Thus in willing justice He wills punishment; and in willing the preservation of the natural order, He wills some things to be naturally corrupted. [emphasis mine]

      -- ST I Q 19 A9

      Of course, I could be totally wrong on what Aquinas is saying, and how it relates to the discussion at hand. I'm not an Aquinas scholar.

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    15. Fornication with a condom is more disordered than fornication without a condom in itself

      The modern mind is wedded to the belief that the use of a condom is solely and entirely to prevent life. But it may also be used to prevent the spread of disease. Much as the judge in the above discussions, "The evil he wills by willing the good to which such evils are attached. Thus in willing public health he wills the use of the condom."

      This is the same principle by which Aquinas concluded that the saints in heaven rejoiced in the suffering of the damned. Not because they rejoice in suffering as such, which would be evil, but because that is "annexed" to their joy: much as any of us passing a bad auto wreck may in addition to the natural pity experience the joy, "I'm glad that wasn't me."

      I think there may be some confusion also on the word "evil," which is simply a deficiency in a good.

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    16. "Calvinists, I understand, do not recognize the idea of "less bad"."

      Can you expand on this claim? I can't think of any self-identifying Calvinist that I know (and I know many) who would agree with this statement.

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    17. I had thought the rejected the distinction between mortal and venial sin. You were either saved or lost. If not, glad to hear they've walked it back.

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    18. Well, in one sense you are correct, in that the key salvation distinction is "forgiven" or "unforgiven".

      However, to say that it follows that no distinction is made between sins is like saying that we're all going to die some day so there's no difference between being tortured to death tomorrow or living a full life and dying comfortably in your late 90s. Both might be transient, but one is plainly better than the other.

      This gets to the heart of Paul's argument in Romans 6:1. Given free grace, why not stack up the "saved from" side of the equation as big as possible so as to demonstrate how great God's mercy is? Because it's not just about "saved from", but even more about "saved for". We are saved so that we can be redeemed from sin and be like Christ. Holiness matters. And while all sin is offensive to God, there's a world of difference between "stumbling in many ways" as you seek righteousness and drinking deeply from the well of rebellion from which you have been offered rescue.

      This is all bog standard Protestant theology, as expressed for centuries. Yes, there have been lunatic and heretical fringes (as indeed there also were in the first hundred years, as seen from the various issues addressed in the Epistles), but the idea that only "in" or "out" matters and behaviour does not is expressed only "inside" by heretics and outside by those wanting an easily mocked straw-man.

      (Be careful about the possible reductio ad absurdum, here. I may think it follows logically from atheist philosophy that they have no obligation to their fellow man, but to claim that atheists therefore do not believe in that obligation is to slander a lot of atheists. Similarly, an outsider may draw "logical conclusions" from Protestant thought to places that horrify most Protestant thinkers to go. It's one thing to accuse them of being inconsistent or illogical, but quite another to ascribe to them beliefs that you think follow logically but they actively reject.)

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  3. The pontifex wants to build bridges? mirabile lectu ...

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  4. choosing in a bad situation the lesser of two evils is always good. that's why delivering a fetus early if it's threatening the mother's life, is preferable - even if you know it's going to die on the outside - to killing it in inside.

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    1. choosing in a bad situation the lesser of two evils is always good. that's why delivering a fetus early if it's threatening the mother's life, is preferable...

      But in that case, one is not "choosing an evil" -- at least not a moral evil. The act of, say, removing the section of the Fallopian tube in which an embryo has implanted itself (in an ectopic pregnancy) does not involve choosing an act of intentionally and deliberately killing an innocent human being, even if one foresees that the embryo will die as a result. In other words, not all medical procedures that result in the death of an unborn human involve choosing moral evil, even though the death of the unborn human is a foreseen (but not intentionally chosen) evil that results, and once all other medical efforts to save both mother and child have been exhausted.

      So the question is: Do contraceptive acts (even for the purpose of avoiding a pregnancy in which the child conceived might contract a disease) always involve the choosing of moral evil?

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    2. We're all missing the big point here, which is that there are not two options. There is a third: Abstinence.

      The choice is not between two evils, it's between two evils and a good. That is where the Holy Father is wrong.

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  5. a couple should choose to abstain of course....but if say somehow it forgets or can't control itself or whatever then - if the risk of infection is great - yes at least it should use the condom or whatever. that doesn't mean they should be have intercourse but at least it's the lesser of two evils seems to me.

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  6. The bridges thing is even worse than "hey, the Pope says you should consider bridges along with the walls."
    It was more like AP Reporter: "Hey, Pope, here's a giant straw-stuffed caricature that's attacking you! What do you say to him?" Pope: "Well if that's what he really wants to do, and nothing else, then he's not Christian. But I don't know what he's actually saying, I am not involved in any of that stuff, and I'm assuming that there's a misunderstanding somewhere here."

    And it's hard to make Trump sound worse than he is.....
    *************
    Biggest thing I see faithful Catholics getting annoyed at the Pope for on the condom thing is the inaccuracy about the nuns and a prior Pope. Well, besides the usual "aaaargh!" response.

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  7. TOF,

    I wanted to ask an off-topic question, and felt that this would be the quickest and easiest way to get your attention (please excuse my brief efforts to derail the conversation)!

    If you could recommend a single book arguing that Christianity was a necessary catalyst to the rise of modern science? I'm currently considering either God's Philosophers or something by Edward Grant. Do you have any suggestions?

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    1. Either would do. James Hannam's book is an easy read and draws on Grant and others. Grant places the roots in the medieval period, but does not explicitly assign them to Christianity, though the factors he identifies are obviously the consequences thereof. There is also Stanley Jaki's The Savior of Science.

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    2. Does Hannams work discuss why other civilizations didn't discover science?

      Or does he only answer the question as to why Christianity did discover it?

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    3. I'm thinking he only looks at Europe.

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    4. Do you have a recommendation for one that explores why other civilizations didn't give rise to science? It's my understanding that "The Savior of Science" only treats other civilizations very briefly.

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