Saturday, February 26, 2011

A New Poem Draft

I have several posts in the pipeline, but I am extraordinarily tired. In the meantime, here is a new poem draft. For the meaning of the word 'seelie', which, with its antonym 'unseelie', has always been one of my favorite words, see here.


In brightness born of moonflow, here I bathe,
the stars stretched out like pebbles where I wade,
and here I wash my soul and here I play,
for night is more a friend to me than day
when silver on the flowers like a dew
of light gives every stem a seelie hue
and night like velvet black wraps diamonds fair
that glance out in your eye and in your hair.
What care I for a throne or crowns or rings?
With treasures formed of moonlight I am king.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Cry of All, the Game of Few

It has been a while since I've had any quotes from this blog's namesake:

The eye by long use comes to see even in the darkest cavern: and there is no subject so obscure but we may discern some glimpse of truth by long poring on it. Truth is the cry of all, but the game of a few. Certainly, where it is the chief passion, it doth not give way to vulgar cares and views; nor is it contented with a little ardour in the early time of life, active perhaps to pursue, but not so fit to weigh and revise. He that would make a real progress in knowledge must dedicate his age as well as youth, the later growth as well as first fruits, at the altar of Truth.

George Berkeley, Siris, section 368.

Misty Twilight of the Soul

There is a misty twilight of the soul,
A sickly eclipse, low brooding o'er a man,
When the poor brain is as an empty bowl,
And the thought-spirit, weariful and wan,
Turning from that which yet it loves the best,
Sinks moveless, with life-poverty opprest:—
Watch then, O Lord, thy feebly glimmering coal.

George MacDonald, The Diary of an Old Soul (February 25).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Thursday Virtue/Vice: Truth or Truthfulness

Aristotle discusses the virtue of truthfulness briefly in Nicomachean Ethics IV.7. Aristotle posits truthfulness as the mean between boasting and mock-modesty. As he says, "the man who observes the mean is one who calls a thing by its own name, being truthful both in life and in word, owning to what he has, and neither more nor less." Truthfulness for Aristotle, then, is primarily truth about oneself, neither exaggerating or understating about oneself; and it is in this light that we make sense of his claim that truth is more noble than falsehood. Because of this, Aristotle argues that truthfulness is closer to mock-modesty than boastfulness: boastful people we find contemptible, but the mock-modest, if they don't go too far, can even seem attractive. Aristotle's conception of truthfulness is pretty close to what we would call frankness.

Aquinas starts here when he discusses the virtue of truth, and, in fact, gives Aristotle's definition for truthfulness; distinguishing it from other senses of truth, he says (in ST 2-2.109) that it is "that truth whereby a man, both in life and in speech, shows himself to be such as he is, and the things that concern him, not other, and neither greater nor less, than they are". But he uses this as a leverage-point to fit more into the concept of truthfulness than Aristotle ever explicitly does. The way he does this is by recognizing that what we know and believe is part of who we are. So if we are going to be truthful about ourselves, truthfulness about our beliefs and knowledge. For the same reason Aristotle suggested, "to say what is true is a good act," but truthfulness about oneself necessarily requires that we be truthful about the world as we know it to be. This truthfulness gives us a simplicity, in a positive sense, because it excludes duplicity, "whereby a man pretends one thing and intends another." Aquinas's virtue of truthfulness is annexed to, or a potential part of justice, "through having something in common with justice, while falling short from the complete virtue thereof." Like justice, truthfulness is directed to others and involves a kind of equal exchange (in this case, sign for thing). Also, like justice, it involves rendering someone what is due to them:

Since man is a social animal, one man naturally owes another whatever is necessary for the preservation of human society. Now it would be impossible for men to live together, unless they believed one another, as declaring the truth one to another. Hence the virtue of truth does, in a manner, regard something as being due.

It differs from justice, however, in the sense that the debt, i.e., what is due, is purely moral. In this sense it is more like equity (which, roughly, concerns the spirit of the law) than like justice in the strictest sense.

William Whewell, in his The Elements of Morality, includes Truth as one of the five principal virtues: Benevolence, Justice, Truth, Purity, and Order. Justifying Truth's placement in this august company, he says (Vol. I, Book III, Chapter II),

[A]mong the necessary conditions of a Rule of human action, is the existence of a Common Understanding among men, such that they can depend on each other's actions. Lying and Deceit tend to separate and disunite men; and to make all actions implying mutual dependence, that is, all social action and social life, impossible.

Like Aquinas, Whewell holds that truthfulness involves a moral right rather than a jural or legal one; and because Truth in this sense involves a consistency between internal and external actions, he also calls it Integrity.

Each of the principal virtues in Whewell's scheme involves duties that are characterized by principles or precepts. The principle that belongs to Truth as such (discussed in Volume I, Book III, Chapter IX) is "that we must conform to the universal understanding among men which the use of language implies," or, to put it more colloquially and briefly, that we must not lie. As one would expect a Victorian to do, he takes a very strong stance on the duties associated with truth: the duties of Truth extend beyond lying in the proper sense to rule out any form of deception whatsoever. Because of this, Whewell thinks, we ought to cultivate what he calls the Spirit of Truth: we ought to cultivate virtues such as Openness, Frankness, Simplicity of Character, and Singleness of Heart, by repeatedly engaging in truthful actions, so that we are far removed from any kind of deceit.

Whewell's conception of virtue, however, is slightly different from Aristotle's and Aquinas's; for Whewell, morality consists in conforming our lives as best we can to Moral Ideas. Thus Whewell posits Truth and the rest as ideals of moral life, to be continually approached and approximated.

Like Red Wine Pours the Day Across the Night

by Paul Elmer More

O Love, the sun mounts up
Behind the eastern hills,
And from his golden cup
Like red wine pours the day across the night.
O joy! and O delight!
And all the feathered quire,
Drunk with the gladness, fills
The world with music breathing sweet desire.
O Love, the sun mounts up
Behind the eastern hills;
And from his golden cup
I drink a wine that fills
My heart with madness like an eager fire.
Open the window, Love,
Behold I climb above,
And in thy white arms smother this desire.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Holding the Infinite Turtles

More Zmirak on Lying

John Zmirak has an even more awful and incoherent argument up on the question of lying but he is right about the danger of detraction, although his claims about it are somewhat excessive; and since I was pretty harsh on him previously, I thought I would notify people of the newer development of his argument, so they can read it for themselves, and so the harshness of the last post won't be the last word. I just can't prevent myself from saying, however, that this is silly:

My first instinct in dealing with people who insist that a consistent theological tradition, in itself, is enough to close this question is to suggest that they call the police on their local Protestant banker and insist he be arrested for usury, then burned for heresy.

Arresting people and giving them capital punishment are both matters of positive law; they change with the times by the very nature of the case. The real question, and what would really be the parallel to the lying case, is if Zmirak thinks he has good arguments that we should do things the consistent and overwhelming theological tradition would require us to call usurious and heretical. And if that's so, I'm afraid it again would be difficult to see how Zmirak thinks that he actually has the right background to talk about Catholic moral theology without merely confusing people, because he will have gone way out on a limb there, particularly since usury and heresy are both things that have been directly addressed not just by a consistent theological tradition but by conciliar and papal definitions. But there is a bit more to the issue of lying than just consistent theological tradition; there's the problem of how the Church's explicit and repeated condemnations of strict mental reservation can be upheld if Zmirak's position were right. (I hope to discuss the relation between lying and strict mental reservation in a post at some point on the purely philosophical problems with 'right to know' accounts of lying, which Zmirak prefers.) It's also worth noting that while again Zmirak has claimed that Aquinas advocated torture of heretics, Aquinas is not so explicit, and merely affirms that, insofar as baptismal vows are relevant to the interests of the state, the state has the power to compel people to keep them, with exactly the same power it has to compel people to keep other promises in which state interests are involved.

The detraction issue is interesting, though, and worth raising; detraction, like lying, easily admits of mortal and venial sin, and like lying is part of a larger genus, not all members of which are sins at all (fraternal correction, for instance). Insofar as there was anybody who discussed the matter for the definite purpose of blackening the name of Lila Rose in particular, that certainly was detraction. It doesn't follow, however, that anyone discussing the matter in an attempt to understand Catholic teaching on lying, or who was defending a particular position in the dispute was thereby engaging in detraction. Detraction in the case of public actions is tricky, too; public actions, especially public actions of an organization with which one is in sympathy or of members of a movement of which one counts oneself a member, at least raise the question, "Should we let this be a precedent?" And as long as it's a question asked honestly, and not with the ulterior motive of blackening someone's name, there's no detraction involved at all. Whether the question is asked honestly, of course, will vary from case to case.

ADDED LATER: And Zmirak has yet another article up on the subject in which he again shows a failure to understand two key points:

(1) The primary argument of his opponents is not "How dare you disagree with saints and doctors of the Church? Who do you think you are?" (as he puts it) but that if you disagree with many saints and doctors of the Church on a moral question -- which saints tend to know something about -- you had better have excellent arguments, which Zmirak has repeatedly shown he does not have.

(2) Given that his position is inconsistent with the view of so many saints and doctors of the Church, the attempt by Zmirak, from his very first post, to smear as immoral people who hold the same view as those saints and doctors of the Church (in terms suggesting that they are legalistic, literalistic, uncompassionate, and so forth) is absolutely unacceptable.

Double Effect

Jennifer Fitz has an excellent post on the principle of double effect. There's always a bit of a danger with it; the temptation is to make lazy appeals to it, but it takes some thought to apply it properly.

There are a number of pitfalls that have to be avoided with the principle. One of them (which even professional philosophers do not always avoid) is the fact that the meanings of terms have changed somewhat over time. When Aquinas talked about 'intention' in the famous passage on self-defense, from which we get the principle of double effect, he meant something broader than what we mean by 'intent'. We have no precise word for what Aquinas had in mind, but 'intention' in his sense is essentially one's whole disposition to an act. The word was associated with archery: the archer disposes (intends) the arrow to wherever it hits. In our case, intent is obviously a lot of that; but there cases where intent is not the only thing relevant to intention in Aquinas's sense -- cases of negligence, for instance, where the quality of your disposition to act depends as much on what your intent wasn't as on what it was.

The principle is also usually said to deal with foreseen but unintended effects, but this is too strong and too narrow. It is too strong because if you go into the act foreseeing that it will definitely follow from what you are doing, it is part of your intention. The principle of double effect can only apply where there is a possibility of the bad effect not occurring, or at least seems to be a possibility of the bad effect not occurring. (That's why Jennifer is quite right to raise the problem of whether there is actually a double effect or just one.) And it is too narrow because many of the most interesting and useful applications of the principle occur where the effect was not (sorry; that 'not' was a typo --ed.) foreseeable but was never actually foreseen. In cases of self-defense, for instance, killing your attacker might have been foreseeable, but you might not actually have had time to foresee it. And in such a case it's clear that the reason why your action wasn't malicious or negligent, assuming it was a proportionate response, was that your disposition to act was a disposition to protect yourself and not take a life, with the fact that you didn't actually have a chance to foresee the foreseeable effect being a sign of this. When we actually do foresee the foreseeable effect, but only as a possibility, things get much more complicated, but the principle of double effect can still apply.

As Jennifer notes in her post, the fact that we can sometimes split the effect into intended and unintended effects (i.e., effects we set ourselves to do and effects we didn't set ourselves to do) is essential for much of our life; it's the only way we can function in a world where all sorts of actions are risky, and it follows pretty directly from the fact that we use means for ends.

As Jennifer also notes, the principle of double effect doesn't have much room to work in most cases of lying or deception: we are usually doing exactly what we've set ourselves to do. There are cases of deception where it would still apply: for instance, if I say something to someone knowing that (given their background) there's a real chance they could seriously misunderstand, but my reasons for saying it anyway are still good. In such a case I'm not aiming at deceiving them at all; it's just that it's a risk. But in general, no. And in the case of lying, it can only work at all if we already know that lying is sometimes an acceptable means to an end. There are actually cases, as Jennifer suggests, where a kind of deception can be an acceptable means to an end -- these kinds of deception are governed by considerations of what people have a right to know. A lot of basic security features will make use of deception in this sense, by setting up decoys, dummies, and the like that will trip up people who don't have a way to distinguish them from the real thing. But double effect couldn't tell us whether lying is right as a means to a goal, because that's not the principle of double effect does. It presupposes what is right or wrong; what it does is tell us that we can sometimes distinguish effects that we don't will from effects that we do, and that only the former are relevant to deciding whether our action was one kind of action or another. When we know that, we can give specific reasons why killing someone in self-defense is not murder or serious negligence. But it's only because saving your life is a good action on its own that it does so.

Eternal Spirit of the Chainless Mind

Sonnet on Chillon
by George Gordon Byron

Eternal Spirit of the chainless Mind!
Brightest in dungeons, Liberty, thou art;--
For there thy habitation is the heart,--
The heart which love of thee alone can bind;
And when thy sons to fetters are consigned,
To fetters, and the damp vault's dayless gloom,
Their country conquers with their martyrdom,
And Freedom's fame finds wings on every wind.

Chillon! thy prison is a holy place,
And thy sad floor an altar, for 'twas trod,
Until his very steps have left a trace,
Worn, as if thy cold pavement were a sod,
By Bonnivard! May none those marks efface!
For they appeal from tyranny to God.

Bonivard, or Bonnivard, was a Genevan patriot who was imprisoned at the Castle of Chillon (which indeed looks like a place that would inspire poems) by the Duke of Savoy. Byron has a longer poem, more famous, on the same subject, although that poem is told from Bonivard's perspective.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Cassian on Lying

When people try to find some other tradition in Catholic tradition on the subject of lies, the two names usually appealed to are St. John Cassian and St. John Chrysostom. Looking at Cassian is interesting, and provides important lessons about the pitfalls of reading the Fathers too naively.

Cassian's Conferences are a compendium, in dialogue form, of the wisdom of the Desert Fathers on how we train our souls and perfect our hearts. It is one of the great monastic classics, and with his Institutes is very influential for moral theology (to name just the most widely known example, the first rudiments of what would eventually become the famous list of the Seven Deadly Sins begins with Cassian). The discussion of lying occurs in the seventeenth Conference, and occurs because of a matter of some dramatic interest. The monks involved in the dialogue had promised the Elders at their monastery that they when they toured the desert of Skete (where the most famous ascetic hermits and monks were), gathering spiritual knowledge, that they would do so quickly and return to their monastery at once. When they did so, however, they realized that this promise was a heavy burden: by staying with the Desert Fathers, the monks could grow in their spiritual and moral life, and, indeed, there was too much spiritual wisdom among the Desert Fathers to make their tour any more than a grazing of its surface; but they were bound by their promise to return to the monastery as quickly as possible.

In light of this, Cassian (as one of the characters in the dialogue) suggests that they consult the Desert Father with whom they are staying, Abbas Joseph, and treat his decision on the matter as if it came from God himself. And so they agreed. When they meet again for prayers, Joseph notices that they are all a bit downcast and asks the reason. They tell him, and he agrees that keeping one's oaths and promises is very important, and that a monk ought therefore never to promise anything hastily. But as they have already promised, it does pose a dilemma. Joseph's solution is that they should break the promise, because
the will in choosing should incline to that side which involves a loss that is more tolerable, or can be more easily made up for by the remedy of making amends. If then you think that you will get more good for your spirit by staying here than what accrued to you from your life in that monastery, and that the terms of your promise cannot be fulfilled without the loss of great good, it is better for you to undergo the loss from a falsehood and an unfulfilled promise (as it is done once for all, and need not any longer be repeated or be the cause of other sins) than for you to incur that loss, through which you say that your state of life would become colder, and which would affect you with a daily and unceasing injury.

He then goes on to discuss why some promises should be broken, and answers some of the monks' worries. Then we come to the key text for our purposes: Germanus, the monk who has primarily been presenting their worries to Joseph, says that they are worried that breaking their promises could serve as a bad model for other younger monks, in whom it might encourage lying. Joseph suggests that whether it is so or not will be more determined by the state of the souls of the younger monks rather than from their action, but he also goes on to argue that some lying is salutary.

It is important to be very careful here. It is clear from the examples and arguments used by Joseph that at least three things are included under the term 'lying' that later tradition distinguishes: promise-breaking, saying something false in order to mislead, and 'hiding' (i.e., presenting a different face to the world than one has in private, as when a monk hides the fact that he is fasting). Indeed, one of the reasons Augustine plays such a big role in later moral theology about lying is that he is one of the first to recognize that the term was used so ambiguously and to begin roughing out a scheme for distinguishing these different uses; and most of the history of the moral theology of lying has been a series of refinements on Augustine's basic refinements. It becomes generally recognized in the moral theology that follows Augustine that some promises should be broken and some 'hiding' is permissible, and that these aren't even necessarily lies at all; so we need to be careful in how we compare what Cassian says to what Augustine or someone in the Augustinian tradition like Aquinas says -- the two are separated by the fact that Cassian is using a very loose colloquial term from common conversation about morality and Augustine, worried about some of the confusions and sloppiness of this sort of colloquial term, has put in some work to make it more precise.

One thing that we must get out of the way, however, is eliminate any suggestion that Joseph argues that any kind of lie is simply OK considered as a lie. His argument is very different: it is that a lie is like hellebore, which will poison a healthy person but in extreme cases can be used as a medicine to cure him. Joseph insists quite clearly that only in cases of utmost necessity should one even consider a lie like Rahab's: only because on the spur of the moment there was no other obvious way to save the spies was Rahab's lie something that should have been done, and it is only because of that that we should not condemn the action. He also talks about a lie (at least sometimes) involving a stain and about its interfering with one's own spiritual perfection. Indeed, the sort of necessity involved can only be necessity arising where there is love of neighbor and no complete danger of our own salvation; as he will say later, everything should be done for "the preservation of love, for which all things else should be disregarded." Given a forced choice between lying (to our spiritual detriment) and failing to love our neighbor, there is no real contest: we are to love our neighbor in the best way we can, as long as in doing so we aren't putting our very salvation in danger. But it's important to keep in mind, throughout, that while some of the things Cassian calls 'lying' are actually lies, what he means by 'lying' is just the various ways in which we can knowingly mislead people. (Actually, it's even broader than what we would usually mean by this, since it includes among other things breaking promises you really intended to keep when you made them.) And pretty much everyone in the tradition of the Church is agreed that there are ways in which we knowingly mislead people that are not to be condemned in any way.

When you peel away all these things that Cassian calls 'lying' that the Augustinian tradition does not, and just focus on the things that everyone agrees are lies, then the two traditions don't actually seem very far apart. Joseph repeatedly talks about lying in terms that make it sound like its a venial sin; some of the things he says suggests that he might think that there can be special dispensations (as Scotus allows), and possibly he thinks there have been (apparently unlike Scotus). What we really find with Cassian is moral theology in a transitional state: his precise view is unclear because he has no precise view (it doesn't entirely help that this is a dialogue and thus that the answers are built dialectically and dynamically). This is not to say his view is not well-developed: with Cassian we find moral theology beginning to take into account a massive amount of moral examples and advice that have to do with lying and begin to make sense of it all at once rather than in a piecemeal way. He lacks, however, Augustine's somewhat closer analysis of the different ways in which we might knowingly mislead someone, and because of this he makes no distinction between breaking a promise you shouldn't have made, saying something false for a good reason, and not being completely open about everything. Given how broadly he is taking the term, his basic position is actually something everyone agrees with: there are times when it is necessary as a matter of charity to try to mislead someone, knowing that they will likely be misled. He does apply this at times to lies in the narrow sense but does not do so in such a way as to suggest that the lie is therefore not defective; he does say that sometimes such lies are blameless, when charity is on the line, but does not clarify the sense in which this is so. And thus it is not possible to put Cassian in clear opposition to Augustine on the issue of lying; he says things that can be taken as either consistent or inconsistent with Augustine depending on how one takes his claims to map onto precisions he does not make. It is even possible to read him as, with perhaps a minor exception or two, taking a much stronger stand against deception generally than many in the Augustinian tradition do.

Regardless, it's clear from Cassian's discussion that any kind of deception is dangerous business, and never to be undertaken lightly.

Links of Note

* The Philosophers' Carnival is up at "Enigmania".

* The Girls on Film take famous guy scenes from movies and recreate them with women.

* William Tighe on Eric Lionel Mascall

* Keith Burgess-Jackson takes note of what Bentham really thought was "nonsense on stilts".

* Johann Sebastian Bach moving the hearts of Japan.

* Christopher A. Decaen, Aristotle's Aether and Contemporary Science (ht)

* What Early Greek Philosophy Was Not Like... at "Kenodoxia"

* A summary of Hume on representationalism (i.e., the discussion of constancy in T 1.4.2) at "Beyond Necessity"

* Arsen Darnay reminds us of the origin of the word 'eavesdropping'.

Stacking Categorical Propositions

An advantage of the stack method of representing logical propositions is that it allows for the easy tracking of distribution, and shows quite clearly its relation to universality.

Suppose we take a standard A (universal affirmative) proposition: Every beagle is Snoopy-like. We can represent this, stackwise, in the following way:


That is, Snoopy-like is here the term under which Beagle falls, with no allowance for exceptions. We can then represent the I (particular affirmative) proposition Some beagle is Snoopy-like as:


Snoopy-like is still the term under which Beagle falls, but the asterisk lets us know that we are allowing exceptions to this relationship (not guaranteeing any, of course, just allowing them). We continue on with the E (universal negative) proposition, No beagle is Snoopy-like:


(I use the tilde instead of the minus here because I think it stands out better.) This lets us know that the term under which Beagle falls is non-Snoopy-like, and no allowance is made for exceptions. And to conclude the cycle, the O (particular negative) proposition, Some beagle is not Snoopy-like:


Just like E, of course, but this time allowing exceptions.

Now the old way of handling syllogisms, which once was common in logic textbooks is by way of distribution. It fell out of favor for quite a while as an unclear concept, but has slowly been making a comeback as people have begun to think that there was something to the idea after all. In Sommers-style term functor logic, for instance, distributed terms are associated with minus signs and undistributed terms with plus signs, and it is precisely this that makes the whole thing work. The standard way of assigning distribution to the four families of categorical proposition is as follows:

Subject Term Predicate Term
A Distributed Undistributed
E Distributed Distributed
I Undistributed Undistributed
O Undistributed Distributed

That is, subject terms are distributed when quantity is universal and predicate terms are distributed when quality is negative. (Asebinop was the mnemonic suggested sometimes in the nineteenth century: A subject, E both, I neither, O predicate; which, I confess, has never seemed to me a particularly memorably mnemonic.)

Keeping this in mind we can see that our rules for stacking guarantee that distribution is respected. Terms at the top of a stack are undistributed unless they have ~ (because they are predicate terms) and terms at the bottom of a stack are distributed unless they have * (because they are subject terms). So far, so simple. But it's worth keeping in mind that the basic idea of stacking is to show relations of universality: those terms are more universal or encompassing, at least in principle, that are on top or to the left (although this latter is not perfectly straightforward), while ~ so to speak makes a top term more encompassing and * so to speak makes a bottom term less. Distribution is what it is because of the three properties that determine how expansive or restrictive a term is in its relation to another term: position in the stack (i.e., status as subject or predicate), ~ (i.e., status as negative or positive), * (i.e., status as exception-allowing or non-exception-allowing).

Properly speaking, of course, a term is distributed, or used distributively, when it applies to everything for which a term has 'personal supposition'; so this all makes quite a bit of sense, although full discussion would require getting into details of supposition theory. But supposition theory itself is a detailed theory of what we might call the capacity of a term to stand for something, and terms are included in or fall under other terms to the extent that what they stand for is part of what the other term stands for.

Thinking of our stacks in terms of the universality relations among terms, we can also see why something like subalternation makes sense. If I have a proposition like this:


I am saying that Beagle falls under or is included within Snoopy-like, no exceptions; if I add a * to the bottom of the stack:


all I am doing is saying that Beagle falls under or is included within Snoopy-like, and I am not committed to there being no exceptions: the * just indicates that the term might, for all I'm claiming, cover less than it does when unrestricted. This is a weaker claim, and by the dictum de omni (what applies without qualification to a term still applies to the term under qualification) the one follows from another.

The other oppositions, of course, work much the same way: contrariety and subcontrariety add or subtract a ~, and contradiction adds or subtracts ~ and also *. One potential disadvantage is that conversion is less perspicuous.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Stylishly Flawed

Pearls Before Swine

The Peacock

Do not as very many do, my brother, pay too much attention to the virtue you may possess and thus neglect passing judgment on the vices you have disregarded. But imitate the example of the peacock which naturally acts quite differently. It has its ugly feet, like those of a chicken, always in view, but displays the spectacular beauty of its tail behind it. In its feet it sees something gross that it may despise, but ignores its tail that might cause it to be admired. Before its eyes is that which causes it humiliation, but on the back it carries that for which it can strut before all other birds. You too should hide that which is virtuous within you, but never fail to view and judge what might be sinful and in need of correction.

Peter Damian, Letter 95. Today is the feast day of San Pietro Damiani, Doctor of the Church. He was a stern theologian, but whenever I think of him I can't help thinking that he has a name like a party. I dare you to say, "San Pietro Damiani" and not think that it sounds like lots of fun.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Scotus on Lying

Since I previously said a little about Aquinas on lying, I thought I would add a little bit about Scotus on lying.

All the scholastics see the Ten Commandments as serving a sort of dual function: they identify or express essential elements of natural law but do so in a form specifically to be implemented in the covenant with Israel. The prohibition against false witness is, of course, one of the Ten Commandments, and was seen as expressing a natural-law prohibition against lying. All the scholastics are essentially agreed on this: lying is always wrong. They are also essentially agreed on most of the reasons for this: the authority of Scripture, the authority of Augustine, and the authority of reason (in the form of arguments that were universally considered at least probable, e.g., the fact that encouraging lying is bad for society) concurred on the point: that's a scholastic Triple Crown. There were some differences, however, and this was due to a key split in scholastic views on one important concept in natural law theory: dispensation. This is a very tricky issue, so what I say about it here will be brief and crude.

The best known account of dispensation of natural law today is Aquinas's. 'Natural law' covers two kinds of precepts: general precepts and precepts for particular situations. In precepts for particular situations the appropriate authority -- and especially God -- can grant a dispensation. For instance, usually you have to pay back loans, but God could in principle overrule that. The general precepts are exceptionless: nobody, not even God can actually dispense from them (because that would involve a contradiction). And Aquinas is very clear that all the precepts indicated by the Ten Commandments are general precepts.

There is another view, which in part due to Bonaventure, became associated with the Franciscans. On this view, only the precepts of the first table (which have to do with rendering what is due to God) are indispensable general precepts. The precepts associated with the second table (which have to do with rendering what is due to our neighbor) are dispensable by God. Scotus notes that the second-table commandments do not concern themselves with good as such, which the first-table commandments do, but good under various qualifications relevant to human beings. This means that in principle God could remove a condition implicit in the precept so that in principle they could be broken without compromising one's pursuit of the last end. The 'in principle' is important: Scotus goes on to argue tht while these dispensable precepts have no strictly necessary connection to the indispensable precepts, they have a very profound harmony with them, and so any such dispensation would necessarily be quite rare and for extraordinary purposes.

Thus when Aquinas says that lying is always wrong, he means there are absolutely no possible exceptions. When Scotus says that lying is always wrong, however, he wants to allow the possibility of a dispensation from God for extraordinary purposes. Any Scotists reading this can correct me, but as far as I know there's no evidence to think that Scotus holds that God has ever dispensed from the precept against lying -- there would have to be clear reason to think that God actually revealed such a dispensation. Dispensation from the precept against lying looks to me like a pure hypothetical for Scotus. But even if not, it is, again, rare, for extraordinary purposes, and would require clear signs from God. The only real difference between Aquinas and Scotus on this point is that Aquinas holds tht it is never possible to lie without doing something wrong, while Scotus would allow that it might be possible to do everything one does in a lie and yet not do something wrong if God had reason to set it up things in that case in a way that he generally (for good reason) does not. Either of these views can reasonably be held by a Catholic; but Scotus's view provides about as much leeway as can seriously be granted on the subject.

[Incidentally, on what it is about lying in itself that makes it wrong, the Wadding editors suggest that Scotus rejects Aquinas's view and accepts a different view. But, having read all the relevant passages in grad school while trying to pull together a paper on dispensation in natural law theory, and having re-read Scotus on lying, I don't see much similarity between Aquinas's actual view and the one Scotus rejects, and while the emphases are different, with, e.g., Aquinas putting more emphasis on the object in building his argument, every major element of the view Aquinas reaches seems to me to be in the view Scotus reaches and vice versa. Because their vocabulary is not exactly the same one could read them as putting forward essentially different views, but this doesn't seem obviously required by any argument made, and I think this is one of those areas where the differences between the Common Doctor and the Subtle Doctor have been exaggerated. At least, any assumption that they are opposed needs to be closely examined. But this is a side issue.]

The Strangest Whim

A Ballade Of Suicide
G. K. Chesterton

The gallows in my garden, people say,
Is new and neat and adequately tall.
I tie the noose on in a knowing way
As one that knots his necktie for a ball;
But just as all the neighbours—on the wall —
Are drawing a long breath to shout ‘Hurray!’
The strangest whim has seized me . . . After all
I think I will not hang myself today.

Tomorrow is the time I get my pay —
My uncle’s sword is hanging in the hall —
I see a little cloud all pink and grey —
Perhaps the Rector’s mother will not call —
I fancy that I heard from Mr Gall
That mushrooms could be cooked another way —
I never read the works of Juvenal —
I think I will not hang myself today.

The world will have another washing day;
The decadents decay; the pedants pall;
And H.G. Wells has found that children play,
And Bernard Shaw discovered that they squall;
Rationalists are growing rational —
And through thick woods one finds a stream astray,
So secret that the very sky seems small —
I think I will not hang myself today.

Prince, I can hear the trumpet of Germinal,
The tumbrils toiling up the terrible way;
Even today your royal head may fall —
I think I will not hang myself today.

It's a very Chestertonian conceit: there are always reasons not to kill yourself, and every single one of them is a reason to live -- and not just to live, but live it with zeal.