Rumours of wars

“Wars, and rumours of wars.” We are living at a very dangerous time, faced as we are by Islamic State, threatening not only the Middle East but any part of the world which might be a suitable target for terrorism. Should we get into the ring or merely cheer the good guys from a safe position in the audience? And what are the likely outcomes of either choice?

It is in this spirit that I am copying here a leader from the Catholic Herald. As you may know, leader writers are anonymous, but I have the permission of the author to reproduce it for you. I have edited it slightly for practical reasons.

On the Monday before the anniversary of World War One we listened to Joachim Gauck, the German president, who apologised fulsomely for the “rape of Belgium” which triggered World War 1 — the war to end all wars. We wonder whether the other representatives listening to him were, at least momentarily, aware of the occasions in their own history for which apologies were needed but are not yet given.

To end all wars? We think not. It is true that institutions such as the Common Market and Nato have been effective so far in discouraging global wars, although the threatening shadow of nuclear warfare has played its part. But Wikipedia lists some 240 wars of various levels of severity since 1945. In current history we contemplate examples such as Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Nigeria, Sudan, Ukraine and the Central African Republic. The US State Department identifies eight states who sponsor terrorism, and, to the shame of all believers, much organised violence is motivated, or at least excused, by religion.

We can spend much time analysing the origins of a particular war. For instance some argue that the volatility of the Middle East can be traced back to the British and French highhandedness in the setting of borders after the First War. AJP Taylor argued that it was the railways, which allowed troops to be moved quickly to threatened borders. Those who have listened to the meticulous diaries of the few days which led up to WW1, will have noted the almost casual sequence which led to disaster. But in the end we know that the origins always lie in power and greed – and the psychology never rises above the level of two five-year olds in the playground. We have deep sympathy with those who hold, and witness, that nothing whatsoever can excuse war.

We have no solution. Wars will not end until we love one another. And that will not be before the end of the world, for St Matthew tells us that the last days will be signalled by nations rising against nations and by famines and earthquakes.”

What do readers of this Blog think? I am confident that most of us will put the highest value on peace. Yet, as we have learnt in our lifetimes, there are occasions when a violent response appears to be the lesser evil. But we can also think of occasions when our military action, justifiable though it may have seemed to be, has led us into situations of disaster. Armchair comment is all very well, but imagine that you are Cameron or Obama – and you have to make concrete decisions whose results you cannot easily foresee. We need to pray for those gentlemen.

Many of us on the Blog have had long lifetimes, and so plenty of experience of the follies of war and international politics. What advice will you give?

Posted in Moral judgment, Philosophy, Quentin queries | 47 Comments

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 , , | 43 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.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Philosophy | Tagged , , , , | 32 Comments

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