Saturday, August 22, 2015

Miller on the Morality of False Identity

The recent videos that have raised an uproar about Planned Parenthood have stirred up some discussion again about undercover sting operations and Catholic moral theology on lying, of the same kind that occurred due to the undercover operation of LiveAction a few years ago. It has been much of the same. But one bright point is that Monica Migliorino Miller at Crisis has given the kind of response to worries that should have been given all along. A few points:

(1) Usually I would complain immediately about mixing up truthfulness, lying, and right-to-truth passages from the Catechism, but as Miller is explicitly focusing on the question of whether assuming a false identity is lying, so they all are actually directly relevant to the specific topic at hand. This makes the argument, in and of itself, one of the better ones I've seen.

(2) Miller says:

Aquinas approved of actual gestures of false signification stating: “A man may be deceived by what we say or do, because we do not declare our purpose or meaning to him.”

This is a somewhat baffling gloss. Precisely Aquinas's point in the discussion of ambushes is that these things do not involve false significations; these are cases in which we don't declare our meanings (we aren't signifying), and others are themselves responsible for the fact that they come to the wrong conclusions. The whole point is that we are concealing the truth, not that we are signifying what is false. And, in fact, Aquinas is quite clear that false signification with the intention to deceive is exactly what lying is, and always wrong -- his primary argument that lying is wrong is based on the issue of false signification.

(As a side note, Miller assumes throughout that the issue is intent to deceive; but in Catholic moral theology, intentio is a somewhat broader word than the English word 'intent'; it means the way you dispose yourself to act, which can include not just intent but a number of other things, like acquired habits. I don't think this affects her argument in any very serious way.)

(3) Catholics need to be careful with double effect when talking about lying. Lying is directly analogous to murder in these cases. When someone attacks you, this does not give you the right to try to kill them: that is murder, although under the circumstances much more excusable than murdering on a plan. You can see this quite clearly if you think about a scenario in which we find A and B, who are enemies. In this scenario, A is strolling along and suddenly is attacked by B; A suddenly realizes that now is his chance to destroy B once and for all, and he kills him. That is murder, plain and simple; the fact that B attacked A may make it harder to show that it was murder in a court of law, and it might, depending on the situation, make A's murder of B less serious than murdering on a plan; but defending yourself does not give a license for murderous intent, nor does it make intent that would be murderous suddenly non-murderous.
If you are attacked, however, it is entirely just to defend yourself from attack. In a life-or-death situation, the attack may well lead to killing your attacker. But the whole point of double effect is that for this to be just, you have to be out to defend yourself, not using the attack as an excuse to destroy your attacker.

The effect in cases of lying and deception, of course, is that the person in question is deceived; being deceived is the aspect of the case that directly corresponds to being killed in the self-defense case. It is not necessarily wrong to act in such a way that the other person is deceived; situations in which the other person is acting unjustly may indeed provide some fairly clear cases, although they do not do so automatically. But this is not a license to speak falsely with the intent to deceive. You must still be truthful; it's just that, as in the self-defense case, in which you have been, through another's injustice, placed in a paradoxical situation in which the effect is not one a just person would aim at, despite acting entirely justly, you have been placed in a situation in which being truthful happens to result in another's being deceived.

However, Miller (and this is a major strength of her argument) avoids the common error of trying to treat double effect as a blanket license here, and thus focuses narrowly on the question of false identity. And here she is entirely correct, as far as her argument goes. Having what we would call a false identity is not in and of itself an act of lying; and she is right that this is so even on a strict interpretation of Thomistic principles (given some things he says to Jerome, Augustine might be more skeptical). When Jesuit priests who were undercover in England during the reign of Elizabeth I went around under the name Mr. Smith (or what have you) to hide the fact that they were priests, this was not intrinsically wrong. To recognize this, it is not even actually necessary to get into the question of mental reservation, as Miller does and the Jesuits did, although this is certainly one way to go. If I call myself Mr. Smith, that's what I am called. If I, like the young Clive Staples Lewis, firmly resolved one day that everybody should call me Jack, Jack my name would be.

We get into more dangerous waters, however, if we are talking about not merely hiding my identity under an alias or pseudonym but impersonation. Miller's recognition of false identity as a form of self-defense is actually quite ingenious, but the argument necessarily comes with a very short tether. Just as in the attack, I must not be aiming to kill another human being but acting justly to both of us, so too in these cases of false identity one would have to not be aiming at false communication for the purposes of deception but exercising the virtue of truthfulness. And it is quite obvious that on this ground there are lots of things that you could not possibly do in order to create and maintain your false identity. I do not have sufficiently precise knowledge of how the videos were maintained to know whether the cover was maintained truthfully. But it is important regardless to understand just how small the room to maneuver provided by this argument is.

All in all, this is a good defense: it proportions its conclusion properly to its actual premises; while there are things I would change myself, it is laid out fairly well; it handles ethical analogies massively better than most discussions on this topic I have seen; it doesn't mangle double effect beyond recognition; and it doesn't treat the Catholic tradition of moral theology as a wax nose. I don't think it gets anyone all that far, but what it does get is properly earned, and I have no major complaints about it.

Rosmini for August XXII

A Christian should have the reasons of his own nothingness engraved upon his mind; firstly, those which prove the nothingness of all creatures; secondly, those which humble mankind especially; and thirdly, those which humble him personally.
Maxims of Christian Perfection v.3 [SC]

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Word that Witched the Woods and Hills

Modern Elfland
By G. K. Chesterton

I cut a staff in a churchyard copse,
I clad myself in ragged things,
I set a feather in my cap
That fell out of an angel’s wings.

I filled my wallet with white stones,
I took three foxgloves in my hand,
I slung my shoes across my back,
And so I went to fairyland.

But lo, within that ancient place
Science had reared her iron crown,
And the great cloud of steam went up
That telleth where she takes a town.

But cowled with smoke and starred with lamps,
That strange land’s light was still its own;
The word that witched the woods and hills
Spoke in the iron and the stone.

Not Nature’s hand had ever curved
That mute unearthly porter’s spine.
Like sleeping dragon’s sudden eyes
The signals leered along the line.

The chimneys thronging crooked or straight
Were fingers signalling the sky;
The dog that strayed across the street
Seemed four-legged by monstrosity.

‘In vain,’ I cried, ‘though you too touch
The new time’s desecrating hand,
Through all the noises of a town
I hear the heart of fairyland.’

I read the name above a door,
Then through my spirit pealed and passed:
‘This is the town of thine own home,
And thou hast looked on it at last.’

Rosmini for August XXI

Try to be as kind and cheerful as possible in conversation, for a man who can maintain his soul in holy cheerfulness is less subject to temptations of envy or motions of anger. To this end, take dear St. Francis de Sales as your model.
Letters 2669 [SC]

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Two New Poem Drafts


The desert wind with grit and fearsome force
does scrape the cheek like steel and flame
as sun beats down on scented cedar trees
that on the mountain distant-wise are seen;
all rock and stone, and stone and rock, and bones,
the land around still spreads; it has no flesh.
But as the cat cries out afar in search of prey,
and as the hoopoe bobs along erratic path,
and as the sons of Maron hid in hills still pray,
I brave the sandy storms that lightning bear, and wrath,
for chalice sweet of wine, and mound of grain,
and joy of garden-birds once past the rain,
and dates and raisins sweet, and cakes of bread,
the splendor of your smile and starry eye,
the scent like myrrh that crowns your regal head,
and peace, but for one day, as blessed of men.

Unicorn Hunt

(1) Covenant and Philosophy

The hunters seek the Unicorn.
With splendid light it speeds!
Too swift for human minds to catch
that tramp along on clayborn feet.
The Reason born of God, it runs
like thought itself, like light or breath,
evading every hunter's net,
the never taken, dearly sought.

(2) Annunciation

The Virgin sews in garden close
beneath an oak that spreads its bough,
at dewfall when the light is dim,
beside a candle's glimmer-glow.
Then like a ray from distant star
that peeks from sky with sudden zest
the Unicorn is there with her,
and softly lays its head to rest
upon her lap, like baby born,
as angels blow her hunting horn.

(3) Baptism and Passion

A dragon once in ancient days
with venom dripping, made its way
through twisted roots, and slithered down
to poison garden-spring with death,
a bitter death that burned the soul.
The Unicorn with pensive head
its saving horn bowed lowly down
to dip its light in burning death.
The water cleared, now dewfall-fresh,
but night enmeshed the Unicorn.

(4) Resurrection and Judgment

The Virgin wept as softly slept
the Unicorn on garden grass,
as dull as glass its alicorn,
and dragon rose in anger fierce;
it felt the waters healed of death
and rose to slay the Unicorn.
But Virgin tears that trickled down
awoke the Unicorn to fight,
its saving horn aglow with light,
and battle shook the garden close.
The horn of light with splendor broke
the maw of death; and in its throes,
the dragon shed its blood around,
and where it spilled and mixed with light
there grew a pomegranate tree
with fruits that give eternal life.

The Mencius, Book V

Book V.A (Wan Zhang I)

In the fifth book we see Master Meng as a teacher, answering questions from students and commenting on texts. Many of the sections comment on various aspects of the reign of the legendary hero-king Shun. In addition to this theme, the book as a whole is also unified by the student Wan Zhang, who is in thirteen out of eighteen total sections (eight in A and five in B). Other themes that recur are the mandate of heaven and the responsibility for ministers to put the Way into practice.

In the first three sections Wan Zhang and Mencius discuss various things attributed to the life of Shun and how they relate to moral questions. V.A.1 discusses whether Shun, because he wept over the treatment his parents gave him, bore a grudge against his parents (i.e., failed to be dutiful to his parents); Mencius replies that it is part of the relation of son to parent to want to be loved by parent, and thus that it shows his dutifulness to his parents:

When a person is young he yearns for his parents; when he begins to take an interest in women, he years for the young and beautiful; when he has a wife, he yearns for his wife; when he enters public life he yearns for his prince and becomes restless if he is without one. A son of supreme dutifulness yearns for his parents all his life.

But Wan Zhang presses the point in V.A.2. When Shun married, neither he nor his father-in-law, the Emperor, told his parents, which seems a bad example to follow. Mencius is not impressed by the argument, though; the reason Shun's parents weren't told was that they would have opposed the marriage. Nor was this in any way undutiful; to have to forgo such an important relationship as marriage simply on one's parent's whim is, besides not good in itself, the sort of thing that makes one bitter against one's parents. Shun's younger brother Xiang, with the help of his parents, tried to kill him, but failed; Shun, however, went on as if nothing had happened, and Wan Zhang wonders whether Shun could have been so oblivious (presumably because it reflects on his wisdom)? Mencius, however, doesn't think he was oblivious but that he was just strongly attached to his brother. This leads in V.A.3 to a related question: Xiang constantly tried to kill Shun, but Shun made Xiang prince -- this seems problematic, because, as Wan Zhang notes, it seems a rather bad thing to do to the people he made Xiang prince over. But Mencius replies that a humane man loves his brother, and wishes him to do well. At the same time, however, he took care of the people by appointing officials to do the actual work of government.

The rest of Part A consists of a common pattern of someone (in every case except V.A.4 Wan Zhang) asking Master Meng whether something commonly said about some important figure is true; Mencius then goes on to argue that this common claim doesn't make any sense and that something else must be true. In the course of doing this he gives us a great deal of information about his views on several subjects. For instance, V.A.5 gives us Mencius's basic idea of the mandate of Heaven. According to common story, Yao gave the Empire to Shun, who succeeded him. Mencius, however, denies that this makes sense; the Empire is not an Emperor's to give. What actually happened is that Yao recommended Shun to Heaven and Heaven accepted the recommendation by turning the Empire over to Shun. This was seen reflected in the fact that his sacrifices went well and that the people flocked to his support without being in any way forced to do so.

This discussion continues with V.A.6, in which a contrast case is considered: people say that Yu tried to choose Yi as his successor, but whose successor ended up being his own son, thus showing that people were less virtuous. Mencius denies this, however; it is a matter of what Heaven does. When Shun recommended Yu, Yu did not grasp after the throne; Shun's son could have been Emperor, but people continued to treat Yu as Emperor because of all the good he had done in cooperation with Shun. The same thing happened in the case of Yu: Yu recommended Yi to Heaven, and Yi did not grasp after it. But the people did not flock to Yi; they flocked to Qi and supported him because he was the son of their Emperor. Yi had not helped Yu for as long as Yu had helped Shun or Shun had helped Yao; and, moreover, Shun and Yu were obviously better people than the dissolute sons who didn't get the throne, while Qi was not himself a bad or stupid man at all. Thus, Mencius says, it is not enough to be a good and virtuous man: one must also have the recommendation of the Emperor (which is why Confucius was never Emperor), and Heaven does not set aside the sons unless they are depraved (which is why a good man with the Imperial recommendation like Yi was never Emperor).

As is always the case in Confucian discussions of the mandate of Heaven, an obvious concern throughout this discussion is to insist that moral principle has a superiority over political will -- it is Heaven, not human design, that makes emperors -- but it is also true that Confucians never assume that ruling is only a matter of being virtuous.

Book V.B (Wan Zhang II)

The second part of Book V seems less structured than the first part, but a number of sections have to do with ministers serving princes. V.B.1 discusses a number of several different ministers who could seriously be considered sages, drawing lessons about the nature of wisdom from their cases. It also identifies the sense in which Mencius takes Confucius to be a great sage:

Po Yi was the sage who was unsullied; Yi Yin was the sage who accepted responsibility; Liu Hsia Hui was the sage who was easy-going; Confucius was the sage whose actions were timely. Confucius was the one who gathered together all that was good. To do this is to open with bells and conclude with jade tubes. To open with bells is to begin in an orderly fashion; to conclude with jade tubes is to end in an orderly fashion. To begin in an orderly fashion is the concern of the wise while to end in an orderly fashion is the concern of a sage. Wisdom is like a skill, shall I say, while sageness is like strength. It is like shooting from beyond a hundred paces. It is due to your strength that the arrow reaches the target, but it is not due to your strength that it hits the mark.

One significant aspect of this conclusion is that, as Mencius understands it, sagehood is consistent with many different styles and talents. The great ministers here, Bo Yi, Yi Yin, Liu Xia Hui, Master Kong, all had very different approaches. What makes Confucius the greatest of these was not so much that he was more of a sage but that he was adaptable, so that he was not merely skilled in this or that but able to adjust his actions to any circumstances. Other sages had the strength of character to 'hit the target', but their doing so depended to some extent on how well suited their talents were to their situation; Confucius, on the other hand, could hit the target under a wide variety of conditions. This adaptability is shown in V.B.4: "Confucius took office sometimes because he thought there was a possibility of practising the way, sometimes because he was treated with decency, and sometimes because the prince wished to keep good people at his court." It is likely that this is also at least part of the point of V.B.5 and V.B.7.

V.B.8 gives us another insight into Mencius's understanding of the importance of the ancients, calling it "looking for friends in history":

And not content with making friends with the best Gentlemen in the Empire, he goes back in time and communes with the ancients. When one reads the poems and writings of the ancients, can it be right not to know something about them as men? Hence one tries to understand the age in which they lived. This can be described as "looking for friends in history".

The truly noble in a sense transcend the times. Their rightful companions are determined by virtue (cp. V.B.3), not transient things.

to be continued

Rosmini for August XX


The very smallest degree of holiness acquired by man is of infinite value, and we may well give all to purchase so precious a gem and the field wherein it is hidden. I take this field to signify the religious state, in which, according to those beautiful words of St. Bernard: "Man lives more purely, feels more rarely, rises more speedily, walks more cautiously, receives the dew of grace more frequently, rests more securely, dies more confidently; his soul is cleansed more quickly and rewarded more abundantly."
Letters 5649 [SC]

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Rosmini for August XIX

Let us start from this truth, that God is the God of Holiness and Holy is His Name. Sanctity is the perfection of His nature, the end of all His works; all that He does, all that He wills, is directed to this end. God therefore essentially wills His own sanctity, and the sanctity of His creatures.
Conferences on Ecclesiastical Duties xix.7 [SC]

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

My Tongue a Plaint Composes

Thule's Lament
(To her homing war sons)
by Stephan G. Stephansson

My tongue a plaint composes,
My heart compels a tear,
On greeting you exhausted
From the battle's grim career,
With broken shields and sabres
With kindred blood asmear.

A blessing high—without intent—-
Was rendered me by him,
Who first disarmed my eager sons,
Unscathed of heart and limb.
Our friendly shores, at peace with all,
No fears may since bedim.

But thrice accursed be the knaves
My errant sons beguile
To war, with blinded eyes, upon
A neighbor's domicile;
As Hoth, with tragic innocence,
Obeyed a tempter's wile.

About the graves of No-man's-land
May peace be with the slain;
And may the stains of clotted gore
Conceal the marks of Cain.
But oh, to view the human wrecks
That wander back again
Repletes a mother's pain!

Rosmini for August XVIII

Humility is a most lovable virtue. Everybody loves and wishes well to the humble man because he never gives offence, and willingly yields to the desires and feelings of others, even at the sacrifice of self. He is readily listened to, and his words like some sweet balm penetrate the heart.
Conferences on Ecclesiastical Duties ix.9 [SC]

Monday, August 17, 2015


If Harry Potter were done as an anime:


I particularly liked the Hogwarts founders, although it was a bit funny how perfectly James Potter and his friends map onto standard anime stereotypes.

Rosmini for August XVII

All Christians should remember to walk constantly in the Divine Presence. This exercise is sufficient to guard those who practice it faithfully from all sin, and indeed even to make them saints.
Catechetical Instructions 7 [SC]

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Meet Bl. Antonio Rosmini-Serbati

MrsD asked me about Rosmini's life, and I realized that I've never actually said more than a few things about it. So it seems appropriate to remedy that.

Antonio Rosmini-Serbati was born March 25, 1797 at Rovereto, which at the time was in an Italian-speaking area of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ordained in 1821, he founded the Institute of Charity in 1828 while in Milan. The Institute started very small, but had the cautious approval of Pius VIII and the enthusiastic approval of Gregory XVI, who was a close friend of Rosmini; despite Gregory XVI's urging, it was not until 1837 that Rosmini was satisfied enough with the shape of the society to submit its constitutions for papal approval. There were some complications (the Rosminian interpretation of the vow of poverty was quite limited), but after some discussion it was granted recognition in 1838 as a regular congregation by the Congregation of Bishops and Gregory XVI. The basic idea of the Institute was to reform the clergy and the laity by working toward complete charity. Unlike many religious societies, it has never actively sought to gain members. Full members take the standard vows, but the vow of poverty is still interpreted in the way that was controversial at the time: those who have taken the vow of property are allowed to own property, of any kind, but this is regarded as a purely civil and legal stewardship for the purposes of the state, and is to be treated as common for other purposes.

Beginning in the 1830s, Rosmini, always boldly speaking his mind, became mired in an extended series of controversies due to some of his published arguments. The most controversial of these was Of the Five Wounds of the Holy Church (written in 1832 but published in 1848), in which Rosmini vociferously attacked five basic problems with the Church in Italy:

(1) Lack of sympathy between clergy and laity;
(2) Poor education of priests;
(3) Division among bishops;
(4) Control of nomination of bishops by secular authorities;
(5) Subordination of Church property and jurisdiction to secular jurisdiction.

The book seems to have been originally intended to be published for a small circle of friends, and the publication seems to have arisen because of an enthusiasm for the recently elected Bl. Pius IX, whom Rosmini thought might reform some of the ills. The book, however, spread like wildfire, pirated by multiple publishing houses, and got him into serious trouble with the Jesuits and with secular authorities. In particular, he was attacked for (a) advocating liturgy in the vernacular; (b) insisting upon the separation of Church and state; (c) criticizing scholastic philosophy; and (d) arguing that clergy and laity had a right in the election of bishops. Rosmini, asked by Pius IX to clarify, did so, but the Congregation for the Index nonetheless decided to place the work on the Index, with Pius IX's approval; Rosmini was never given any indication of what in his clarification was inadequate -- in fact, he was repeatedly told that it was not for any particular theological reason, and Rosmini's own suspicion was that it was done to smooth things over with the Austrian government -- but he submitted to the decree without any hesitation.

Rosmini continued to be investigated, but in 1854 the conclusion was reached: he was a faithful son of the Church, and his works were othodox (although that did not imply that they were correct). Pius IX regarded this as settling the matter entirely, and slapped down any of Rosmini's opponents who tried to restart any inquiries into the matter. It was a happy ending, of a sort; Rosmini lived just long enough to see it, dying the next year. But his opponents did not die, and every so often new controversy would flare up.

In 1878, Bl. Pius IX died, and the great Leo XIII was elected Pope. In the period between Rosmini's death and the death of Pius IX, quite a few manuscripts that he himself had never published, had been published. As a result, a new investigation by the Holy Office produced in 1887 a list of forty propositions drawn from Rosmini's works that were censured; and the censure was affirmed by Leo XIII.

There are a number of peculiarities with the censure. For one thing it is very vague. There is not a single explanation for why any of the propositions were censured, although guesses can be made in some cases. It is unclear how the propositions were collected; in one notorious case, the proposition is built out of phrases that are not only not found together in any passage in Rosmini's works, but aren't even from the same volume of the work from which they are drawn. Most of the propositions are from the posthumous works; the few that aren't are clearly to be read in light of those that are. And the censure itself is unique, and one of the weakest ever given in the nineteenth century -- an era in which the Holy Office had a very wide variety of precisely understood censures to draw from. The censure was, in particular, that at least these forty propositions, all philosophical, in Rosmini's works did not seem to be consonant with Catholic truth.

The Holy Office in the era of Leo XIII was not frivolous with words. It is important to grasp this: nothing in Rosmini's works has ever been condemned as heretical. Here is a test of your orthodoxy, for you: you leave seventeen volumes of writings, and the worst thing the most serious possible investigation can come up with in all of that is that there are at least forty of your claims, mostly drawn from works you never had a chance to finish revising, that appear not to harmonize the Catholic faith -- not that they are inconsistent with it, not that they definitely fail to harmonize with it, but that they do not seem to be in harmony with it.

The Institute of Charity, following Rosmini's example, submitted to the Decree immediately. Because of the Decree, Rosmini's thought did not have much of an influence for quite some time, although nobody every denied that he was a devout Catholic or that the Institute of Charity, who became known as the Rosminians, did an immense amount of good for the Church. It's sometimes speculated that he had some influence on the Second Vatican Council, because some of the Council's reforms were similar to those advocated by Rosmini a century before, but it's hard to know how much of this was real influence and how much of this was convergence on similar solutions. Things began to change, however, with St. John Paul II's 1998 encyclical, Fides et ratio, on Catholic philosophy. It reaffirms the special importance of St. Thomas Aquinas to the philosophical tradition of the Church, but also mentions a number of other philosophers favorably: Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventure, Edith Stein, and others. One of these was Rosmini.

In 2001, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger issued a clarification about the nature of the censure of the forty propositions, and in 2007 Rosmini was beatified by Ratzinger, who had become Benedict XVI.

Despite the fact that he was very active in the intellectual life of his day, relatively little has been done on his work, although, due to the activity of the Institute of Charity in English-speaking countries, it is fairly easy to find many of his works in English. But there has been some slowly expanding study of Rosmini's thought, and he notably has an article devoted to his philosophical work in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Rosmini for August XVI

When a man about to do or to say something good, feels tempted to vanity, he should not on that account refrain from doing or saying that which tends to the divine glory, but having raised his mind to God and purified his intention, let him say to the enemy with St. Bernard: "I did not begin for you, neither will I leave off for you."
Manual of Spiritual Exercises p. 66 [SC]