Unintended Consequences

A few weeks back I listened to a discussion on BBC Radio 4. One question concerned the wide difference that may exist between the salaries of senior management and the salaries of the lower paid workers. The audience, with the blessing of the panellists, abhorred such gaps. And I was mystified. Was the idea to raise all the workers’ salaries or to guillotine the managers’ earnings?

It is not clear to me why someone who is being paid the proper rate for the job should expect more money because his boss is affluent, or indeed less because his boss is skint. I would, in fact, prefer an affluent boss – there is a better chance that he or she is a good business person who will ensure that my job is safe.

No doubt there are senior managers who do not earn their keep, but on the whole they do. Someone who can build up a business, anticipate the markets, design saleable products and services, and organise distribution does tend to contribute more to the wealth of nations than the average routine worker. We have forgotten how the Industrial Revolution, and the foundations of Britain’s prosperity, was dependent on the inventors and the entrepreneurs who were rightly well rewarded when they were successful, and rightly fell into a ditch when they weren’t.

This urge for equality provides us with an example of the law of unintended consequences. Attempts to reduce the wealth gap in the pursuit of alleged justice result only in mediocrity. This damages the interests of everyone in society – and particularly those at the lower end. Justice and equality are not synonymous.

We do, of course, have a mechanism which reduces high incomes; it is called progressive taxation. Never in our economic history has the proportion of our tax take weighed so heavily on the higher incomes, or so lightly on the lower incomes. Yet there are many who claim that the burden should be even higher. This economic illiteracy is dangerous. Above certain levels, taxation rates actually lead to less revenue. The curve turns downwards as the high taxpayer is motivated to re-arrange his affairs, and there are plenty of legal ways in which he can do so. A state which is more interested in reducing incomes than in increasing tax revenue has started down the path of confiscation. And the law of unintended consequences bites again.

But what about those bogeymen – those terrible bankers? Yes, there have been crooks, as the Vatican bank amply demonstrated, and there have been those who endangered the state through greedy irresponsibility. We need the right regulation, but we must avoid killing the golden goose in the process. The industry employs upwards of two million people, is responsible for 10 per cent of our economic activity and pays £65 billion a year in tax. The EU is constantly looking for ways to cut it down to size, while we who benefit are resentful and ashamed of its success.

Beside the bankers on the naughty stool are those companies who do business here but pay their taxes elsewhere. Yards of newsprint have condemned their perfidy. It is rarely mentioned that several countries, including this one – to say nothing of Ireland – actually compete to provide tax domicile by reducing their corporation rates. Who is the hypocrite here?

There are other examples of unintended consequences. We have a rating system based on domestic property value (irrelevant) and not on household income (relevant). Stamp duty at high rates on domestic property discourages house moves, and inhibits the economic activity which this turnover stimulates. It prevents downsizing, and so releasing accommodation for others. And fewer sales lead to lower stamp duty revenue. Inheritance tax at high rates attacks our natural desire to benefit our children, and hits big families the hardest. Meanwhile, the worldly wise can turn it largely into a voluntary tax.

But what about the poor? Our primary duty here must be to provide what is required for food, clothing and shelter. This means that we need to raise the minimum wage to the Living Wage. It might take three years to achieve this to avoid unintended negative effects. Next, we must work hard to reduce relationship breakdown, which is a major source of poverty and of damage to children. Beyond such steps, we must offer opportunity.

Opportunity starts with education. A child who leaves school without fluent writing, reading and basic arithmetic has little chance of future success. And I note that Mr Gove, in his time, took the heterodox view that teachers should teach. No wonder he had to go. And we have much to do to reduce the cycle of deprivation through which successive generations reproduce inadequacies in the upbringing of children.

Such social programmes are expensive in the short term, and the benefits come in the long term. But they will not ultimately be a burden in a society which rewards success, because the tax revenue will be a by-product of greater economic activity and lower unemployment, rather than a fruitless raising of tax rates.

But I am not optimistic. We are leading up to an election in 2015. That means a race to the bottom in which votes depend on how enthusiastic we are to fleece the provident in order to satisfy the improvident. We have to choose between a society which champions success so that, in the long run, its weakest members benefit, and a society on a direct course towards mediocrity for which the weakest ultimately pay the price. An unintended consequence, indeed!

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment | Tagged , , | 28 Comments

Did you know that…?

I am sure that many readers remember, perhaps with some affection, the old, red-jacketed, Penny Catechism. I once knew most of it by heart – having been required to learn a few questions every day – and to be prepared to answer them in class. (If you want to look at a copy, it can be found on the Internet.) Such theological understanding that I may have has been built on that secure foundation.

Question 221, under the heading of the eighth commandment, reads:
“Calumny and detraction are forbidden by the eighth commandment, and tale bearing, and any words which injure our neighbour’s character.”

Calumny, I understood, refers to false information, detraction to true information.

Oh dear! I wonder how many times I have broken that commandment. I like to think that it was only inattention rather than malice. But the damage is just the same.

Many years ago, early in our marriage – and poor by comparison with the church mice – we set up a youth club in the parish. An immediate task was to raise funds – which we did by begging items from parishioners and selling them for the best price we could get. And then we heard that a lady in the parish was circulating the rumour that we were skimming some of the proceeds into our own pockets. You can imagine how damaging that would be within a gossipy parish community. We called in the pp, and informed the lady that we would take action if the allegation was not withdrawn. So it was all sorted out, and the lady still smiles at us as if butter wouldn’t melt – but we wonder to this day, after half a century, whether there is the occasional ancient parishioner who mutters, “Those Bedoyeres – there’s no smoke without a fire.” It continues to hurt.

Of the two, I think detraction is the worst. At least with calumny it may be possible to demonstrate the falsehood, but the victim is stuck with detraction. I am not of course thinking of responsible whistleblowing, but that little unpleasant truth, which we can spread about with the best will in the world. After all, we have to tell the truth – and people ought to know.

So do we take pleasure in noticing first the bad side of people? Perhaps a test might be a story in the newspaper. Are we inclined to take the paper’s verdict with a righteous tut-tut, or do we first consider whether we have the whole story? There are some, nameless, newspapers (which I do not read very often) which lead me to think that the editor’s knowledge of the eighth commandment is sparse.

But the commonest situation I suspect is “harmless” gossip when we discuss people we know. Do we instinctively talk about their good points first, and then deal charitably with their bad points – if these even need to come into the conversation? Some sociologists argue that gossip is an instrument developed by evolution through which we regulate society and preserve its standards. They even suggest that the high development of the human brain has come about through women gossiping, while their menfolk are out in the bush – merely grunting to each other as they hunt prey.

All I know is that I would prefer others to talk first about any good points I may have, and only reluctantly – if at all – to refer to my shortcomings. And of this I am sure: on the Day of Judgment I would prefer the Almighty to look at my good points first, and to forget, as far as possible, all the others. And if I want God to do that, my best strategy may be to follow it myself.

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Where’s the evidence?

13,978,000,000 years ago the Big Bang started our universe. The scientists tell us with great excitement that they have finally detected the initial gravity waves dating the vast expansion which took place. A leading physicist described it as “one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time”. Moreover it provides strong evidence for the existence of a myriad of other universes – perhaps infinite in extent.

This discovery (already questioned, I see, by other scientists) will have no effect on our belief in God. But I want to use it as an introduction to the conflicts between science and faith. Fortunately scientists who oppose religion as a source of truth on principle are a vocal minority; their soul mates are the believers who, by knee-jerk, dismiss any science which appears to contradict their faith.

Religion, qua religion, is not concerned with such questions as the Big Bang. The proposition is simple: God created everything which exists. We have of course attempted to communicate this proposition through expressing it in stories fitted to the understanding of the original readers. And we have made the understandable mistake in the past of thinking that these stories give us literal accounts. Today, the Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture is able to describe this as “bad science and bad exegesis”.

Science, at least in its propaganda, makes a similar mistake. The questions that it asks are concerned with material causality and it is rightly held that these can only be answered though empirical evidence. Thus they can establish the boiling point of water or the gravitational waves of the universe, but they cannot establish the first cause of creation because that is not susceptible to empirical investigation. They have forgotten Aristotle’s dictum: “It is a mark of the educated man and a proof of his culture that in every subject he looks for only so much precision as its nature permits.” There is a rude arrogance in the claim that one’s chosen methodology defines the limits of accessible truth.

The questions which science asks and the questions which both religion and philosophy ask are different. They do of course bear on each other in different ways. But we need to be clear that science addresses the material elements of causal sequences, and the other two address the immaterial elements of our condition. Let’s look at some examples.

Freewill is a problem for scientists because, by definition, it is uncaused. So the idea has developed that a myriad of causes, dating back indeed to the Big Bang itself, are in operation. Thus our decisions are all determined. At first sight this is plausible. We are aware, when we make a decision, that we are influenced by our temperament, and by our emotional reactions to circumstances. And, if we are reflective, we realise that many of our motivations are unconscious. Scientists go further, and tell us that, since our rational and emotional responses are presented to us only through our brains, there is no room, nor need, for free decisions. It is as if that violin sonata we enjoyed must be attributed only to the violin, which made the music. The violinist is an unnecessary hypothesis.

It does not occur to them that their conclusion is self-refuting. If our decision is in fact only the end term of a vast chain of random causes, we have no reason to suppose that it is true. Random causes can only underpin random conclusions. They cannot even verify the claim that there is no free will.

Related to this, is the question of moral responsibility. I have noticed that non-believers are inclined to be shirty when it is suggested that they have no morals. But they certainly do have morals, and frequently they demonstrate this by their moral disapproval of religious doings. Of course they have to choose between being morally responsible and denying free will; they sometimes forget that they cannot have both. And when they are asked the source of their sense of moral obligation, they tell us that it is because they wish to be treated well by others, or that they are happy in a society which has acceptable moral standards. These are good reasons but unfortunately they are utilitarian, and so do not address right and wrong. Fortunately, they rarely practise what they preach.

A similar difficulty occurs with the question of consciousness. Even scientists recognize this as a hard problem. How does the vast amount of processing generated by the brain get converted into our sure sense of personal awareness? How is it that I experience myself not as thoughts or feelings but as an entity which has thoughts and feelings? The mechanisms of the brain which support consciousness are important to explore but the phenomenon of self-reflection lies outside scientific explanation. Indeed, we have to assume it before we can examine it.

Non-believers are inclined to claim that religious faith can be ignored because it depends on subjective inclination rather than evidence. We need perhaps to point out to them that their ability to make free decisions, their recognition of moral obligations, and their awareness of their conscious selves are all hard data, calling for an explanation. So when it is suggested to me that my beliefs are superstitious because they go beyond the evidence, I am inclined to point out that it is they rather than I who have chosen to exclude the very evidence on which all empirical evidence depends.

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Getting physical

Have you come across the term ‘physicalism’ related to moral questions? I understand it to refer to the imperatives indicated by our biology. A simple example would be the question of certain homosexual acts which stand condemned as a disordered use of our sexual plumbing.

While the Church insists that such acts are intrinsically evil, many moral philosophers argue (in line with the philosopher David Hume) that no moral significance can be deduced from the facts of biology alone. ‘No ought from is’ is the dictum which applies.

Hume, himself, believed that our moral sense arose from an emotion of beneficence rather than a judgment. Darwin and others would no doubt argue that the value of such beneficence to the flourishing of the human race would indicate its source to be evolution.

Physicalism of course plays a strong part in the condemnation of artificial contraception. The marital act is, in my view correctly, understood as being procreative in its fundamental structure. It would follow that a deliberate action which removes that aspect changes the nature of the act. It is, in physicalist terms, as much a perversion (etymologically, a ‘turning away’) as a homosexual act.

That of course leaves open the question whether or not such ‘perversion’ can be justified. The orthodox Church teaching has been that, since the nature of the act is defined by God’s creation, it must invariably be wrong, irrespective of intention. And Aquinas taught that actions contrary to the procreative nature of sexual connection were the most serious form of sexual sin, placing others such as incest or adultery at a lower level of importance.

This view was dealt something of a blow when the moral theologians who were members of the Papal Commission which preceded Humanae Vitae had to accept that the step from sexual structure to moral imperative could not be demonstrated through reason. This did not prevent Humanae Vitae from expressing its prohibition in physicalist terms. Nor did this inhibit John Paul II’s Theology of the Body in its wish to show an intrinsic connection between the outward sign of an action and its inward intention.

While of course the physicalist approach remains current in formal Catholic teaching it does not seem to be popular with the moral theologians with whom I have discussed these issues (though these may well not be representative). I am sometimes referred to the ‘new natural law’ which eschews physicalism and concentrates on the ‘goods’ towards which it is claimed human nature is intrinsically ordered. Procreation is one such good, and it is argued that any action which defies this good is ipso facto contrary to natural law. A deliberate act against the procreative nature of the sexual act would be such a defiance. I am not impressed with this line of argument, but perhaps I do not understand it well enough.

I think we would all be interested in an exchange of views about current approaches to this vexed subject. As far as I know, no current contributor claims to be a moral theologian, but the quality of our exchanges suggest that we have quite enough intellectual clout to do some useful analysis.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Church and Society, Moral judgment, Philosophy, Quentin queries | Tagged | 57 Comments

Some of my best friends are Muslim

Some of my best friends are Muslims. So I was glad to read of the respect we should have for them and their beliefs, as outlined by Pope Francis in Evangelium Gaudium. But many people have a serious concern about fundamentalism, within our society or elsewhere. The impression that Islam is, in some way, structured to impose its tenets, forcibly, if need be, wherever it has power is widespread. The pacific Muslim is merely waiting for his opportunity.

Some years ago I heard a heated debate on the radio between a Muslim and a Christian. To reinforce his points, the Christian reminded his opponent that, since Islam started in the seventh century, we should not be surprised that it was 700 years behind Christianity. It was a debating point of course, and the Muslim was not pleased. But I was reminded recently by a contributor on Secondsightblog, who asked if there was any form of reprehensible Muslim activity which could not be paralleled within Christianity. No one took up the challenge.

You may remember that Archbishop Rowan Williams sparked a big row in 2008 when he suggested that some aspects of Sharia law might be used in Britain. His defence, that we accepted aspects of Jewish and Catholic law, did not quench the fury. You will not need me to document the Church’s history of imposing its principles on secular cultures. The Irish and Spanish constitutions were recent examples – and mild when compared with Pope Boniface in 1302: “We declare announce and define, that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff.” We held that what we required was right and good – just like the Muslims. We imposed our principles because we could.

We shuddered recently at the progress of a cruel Muslim invasion in Iraq. How many innocents were killed by these foul people? Unbelievably, the two factions shared the same religion. Try the Albigensian Crusade in the 13th century. In one incident the entire population of Béziers was slaughtered. The Crusaders were assured by an abbot that the faithful would not die because God would know his own.

But perhaps this was a blip in true Christian values – we would not, of course, sustain for long our intolerance of others. Or would we? St John Chrysostom was, and remains, a Father of the Church yet he was a fierce anti-semite who would have supercharged the Nuremberg rallies. The Third Lateran Council (1179) ruled that no Christian ought to be servant to a Jew, and that Christian evidence should always overrule Jewish evidence. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) ruled that Jews should be distinguished by their clothing, forbade them from appearing in public at Eastertide. And some 50 bulls were to follow over the next 500 years, disadvantaging Jews in a whole range of ways. Undoubtedly the soil of the Holocaust was well composted by our holy forefathers.

Does that make you a little uncomfortable? And I haven’t even mentioned the pious Spaniards sprinkling holy water on the slave ships to baptise their captive passengers. Indeed the American bishops at the time of the Civil War were, as a group, notably pragmatic rather than moral over the slavery issue. Even the Jesuits, who had done such marvellous work in rescuing indigenous slaves from cruel secular masters in Latin America, were ready to use African slaves in their bastions of true Christianity in Maryland, and to sell them on when they were no longer economically viable.

Our principle of the freedom of conscience is laudable, but it was a rare commodity under the Inquisition. Pope John Paul declared that the Holy See “has always been vigorous in defending freedom of conscience and religious liberty.” Unless some strong qualifications to this statement went unreported there are a few heretics who would raise a scorched eyebrow at that.

But look at the issue of the hadith (official rule), proclaimed by the Prophet, that Muslim apostates are liable to execution. That is surely beyond the pale of any decent religion. Let’s see what Aquinas had to say about Christian apostates: “There are unbelievers who at some time have accepted the faith and professed it, such as heretics and all apostates: such should be submitted even to bodily compulsion, that they may fulfil what they have promised, and hold what they, at one time, received.”

We have to acknowledge that the great St Thomas, on whom we lay such authority, taught a Christian version of this hadith. We may argue that his stricture was only aimed at Christians who had been unfaithful. But many Muslims will tell you that their hadith was aimed at apostates, who might betray the group – which, at that time, was small and surrounded by enemies. It’s a better excuse than St Thomas had in the flush triumphalism of the Middle Ages.

I do not have the slightest sympathy with Muslim fundamentalists. But I abhor them, not because they are Muslim, but because they are fundamentalists. The only excuse I can conjure up for fundamentalists, either Christian, Muslim or secular, is some evidence that the common motive is fear. It takes some degree of confidence to live with uncertainty. Unchallengeable ideologies can comfort the nervous mind.

Fortunately the Catholic Church had the strength to change in many ways, precisely because we accept that our impoverished grasp of truth must develop. But if we should wish to condemn the extreme Muslim, we would do well to make an act of contrition first.

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I could hear my wife’s voice in the kitchen. She was clearly speaking firmly to a neighbour, or perhaps a tradesman. But I was wrong – she was speaking to a cat, and explaining to her with some firmness, the virtue of going outside to relieve herself rather than secretively preferring a corner of the room. The cat knew she had done something wrong, but was indifferent to chapter and verse.

That’s the problem when one’s large family of children have hauled up the anchor, the cats have to take their place. Our pair (brother and sister moggies) are intensely conservative. We are required to be in the same places at the same times, just as we and they need to be sitting in the same chairs. They talk in a stream of miaows and whimpers, and we talk back. The conversations are surprisingly lucid, though somewhat dependent on non-verbal communication – which is well understood by all four of us.

So while my intellect suggests to me that animal have no rights, my emotions tell be that they have. The cats have a right to proper food, reasonably available company, feline freedom, the vet when needed, a merciful death, and a respectful burial. But however closely we may have grown together they must ultimately be treated as cats, not as quasi humans.

Do cats have souls? Yes, but animal souls, taught Aristotle. They are sentient, of course, but we do not see them as reflective and rational. What does it mean to a cat to be conscious? I can’t get my imagination around that. And if they do not make choices through reason, their choices are usually rational. Certainly our cats have achieved safe and comfortable lives for themselves.

I note that animals appear to be acquiring increased rights in the secular world. In some dispensations they can inherit property, and have their own lawyers. Their owners can sue for emotional damages. Vets are vulnerable to malpractice suits. There are growing pressures to defend animals from being used in experiments. There was one owner, I recall, who put his investments in his dog’s name – on the grounds that dogs are not liable to Capital Gains Tax. I don’t think it worked.

The great name in all this is the Australian, Professor Singer, whom I have interviewed in the past. He has no truck with any issue of souls; his fundamental criterion is mental awareness, and conscious investment in one’s own survival. By this measurement, for instance, a mature ape would have a better right to live than a new born human, or than someone with a severe mental disability. And he accepts animal experiments only if we would be prepared to use them on a human of similar or less awareness.

When I was a small boy at boarding school I overheard a friend ask a learned Jesuit whether his dog would get to Heaven. The answer was splendidly jesuitical: “Since you will be completely happy in Heaven, if you are unhappy without your dog, he will be there for you.”

I would like to know about people’s experience with pets – how they feel about them, what value they put on them. Can a non-human creature have rights? Does this cover all manner of pets, or just those with whom a relationship is possible? We have not been taught that the lower animals are immortal, but nor have we been taught that they aren’t. Will they participate in the Resurrection (glorified, perhaps?), or will we live in a petless world? Are we justified in using animals for experiments in developing cures for humans? Do you agree with the Singer views about the rights of animals? I am told that animals are not treated kindly in Catholic countries, as opposed to white, Anglo-Saxon (therefore decent?) countries, Why should this be?

Our cats await your answers.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Quentin queries | Tagged | 30 Comments

Lust for power

Will Pope Francis be successful in his mission to reform the Church so that it can approach more closely its vocation to be The Mystical Body of Christ? I emphasised, in my last column on this subject, the essential need for communication – which must operate downwards, upwards and laterally. Today I want to look at another essential factor: subsidiarity. It means that authority must be devolved to the maximum practical extent. Higher authority must not arrogate the functions and decisions which can properly be exercised at a lower level.

Subsidiarity is not a covert ploy for wresting power from authority, or a simple management device, it is, in fact, an outcome of Natural Law, and so mandated by human dignity. Its apotheosis is found in God’s gifts of free will and reason. In the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the concept is strongly emphasised. However, the references here are to secular society. Does subsidiarity also apply to the Church?

Indeed it does, for the Church has all the characteristics of a secular society notwithstanding its sacred mission, just as we individuals retain our all too human characteristics, although we are a redeemed race. And Pius XII confirmed its application to the Church in his “Address to New Cardinals” in 1946.

The desire for power is a form of concupiscence; it entered the human race with the Fall. That power can be rational and necessary is undoubted, but the desire for power in itself is destructive. The obvious example is the politician who, convinced of his essential value to society, becomes a stranger to the truth. When Lord Acton famously said that all power had a tendency to corrupt, it was in the context of the Renaissance popes. But it is present at any level, and we are all susceptible to the itch to control – we rarely cede it willingly. It is no coincidence that love of power and lust are connected: Henry Kissinger told us that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac and, at one time, the power of a ruler was defined by the size of his harem.

Unfortunately the Church, even in modern times, does not have a good record on subsidiarity. Cardinal König wrote, for example, “…the curial authorities, working in conjunction with the Pope, have appropriated the tasks of the episcopal college. It is they who carry out almost all of them”. (Tablet, March 27 1990). The bishops’ synods of that era were emasculated by curial authority and the very concept of subsidiarity was forbidden or criticised (in one case, ironically, by a certain Cardinal Bergoglio).

The sad story of how the Congregation for Divine Worship wrested the translation of the liturgy from the English-speaking bishops after their many years of work is well known. Not only was this a direct offence against subsidiarity but it produced a translation unworthy of the language which gave us the King James Bible.

In more general terms we may describe the past model of the Church as subjecting Christian existence to authority, regulating life even into its most intimate preserves, and thereby attempting to maintain control over people’s lives. Too harsh a verdict? I have taken it directly from a 1991 address to bishops by Cardinal Ratzinger. There is hope here. He goes on to say that this “pre-conciliar” model is superseded by the model of freedom, and claims – rightly in my view – that this is the older tradition.

In terms of structural subsidiarity, the appointment of bishops is significant. While the recommendations of relevant persons may well be considered, the choice is reserved to the Holy See. There are historical reasons for this, and there remain some territories in which it is needed, but there is no good reason why, in most cases, a diocesan bishop should not be chosen by the local Church as a whole – with perhaps a final veto for truly exceptional cases. This limits the danger that a pope may, even unconsciously, prefer bishops who conform to his own views, and thus damage the representative quality of the episcopal college. The bishop is not a papal delegate, he is, in his own right, the leader of the Church in his own diocese.

But in the end, the core of subsidiarity does not lie in structures – for these can only follow the fundamental attitude. In eradicating the lust for power – a difficult task indeed once it is indurated – the right kind of structures will follow. The secular term for this is “tight-loose”. In pursuing its objectives the organisation must be firm and executive in those few matters where this is necessary, and allow maximum room for freedom and initiative where it is not.

Pope Francis has already shown by his example that authority exists for its functions of service and not to sustain rank. He is putting together structures which should push power further down towards those who can use it better. The early documentation for the forthcoming Synod on the Family suggests that there will be serious engagement with the issues important to everyone in the Church. We shall see.

But true subsidiarity, like true communication, will not be easily won. There will be hotheads who will damage the cause through their excesses, and conservatives, full of fear, who will desperately batten down the hatches. We saw all of this following Vatican II. Indeed had Vatican II been fully implemented, much of Francis’s work would already have been done.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Pope Francis | Tagged | 87 Comments