The right to be right

Deciding on our human rights often turns out to be a controversial matter. But how often do we consider their source? Some would argue that it lies in the will of the people to decide. Others would claim that the source is utilitarian – thus they are rules which must be observed if society is to be settled and peaceful. But if we look at the UN Declaration of Human Rights we find another reason.

In the Preamble appears “Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women…” And the first article reads: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

The implication here is that human rights are derived from human nature, and exercised through the characteristics of our reason and free moral choice. In other words the Declaration is a Natural Law statement. How strange that such a group of nations, representing a miscellany of all religions and none, should explicitly share this view of the dignity of man and accept the imperatives which can be derived therefrom! But that was in 1948. I wonder whether the same would happen now.

I ask because I run a philosophy group. It consists of older people from different professions. One or two practise religion but most of them would describe themselves as agnostic. When I discussed the Declaration with them, they opted first for the “will of the people” cause. But they dropped that when I pointed out some lawfully elected regimes which had behaved disgracefully during the 20th century. They then settled on the utilitarian reason. At no point, despite my questions, did they accept that human dignity might be a possible answer.

I think I can understand why – they are a wily lot. Apportioning inherent dignity to people raises some awkward questions if you want to leave God out of things. The secular belief that we are no more than an outcome of evolved matter is simply inconsistent with dignity: the material on its own has no inherent worth.

It seems clear to me that reason – which transcends the material – and free will – which is incompatible with a universe whose outcomes are determined only by cause and effect – are the essence of human beings, and the only basis which can support human rights.

Am I barmy to think this? And, if not, what questions should I have put to the group, or what points should I have made to them if I wanted to change their minds?

Quentin says: I have some reasonably good news about our fellow contributor, St Joseph. She has been undergoing a lengthy course of chemotherapy, and more to come. She is hoping that her eventual scan will show that her tumour is reduced. She describes herself as “I feel good – no pain just very washed out at times.” She is very grateful for our prayers, and thinks of us all.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 46 Comments

Thirteen weeks to Paradise

“It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing, that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it.” Dale Carnegie told us in his How to Win Friends and Influence People. This brilliant book, despised by the cognoscenti, is a classic of self-help literature. It stands in line with Confucius, Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurus, Heraclitus, Boethius and many others who have offered to help us.

The self-help shelves in a bookshop are always busy. There you may learn all manner of skills from the central values of life to its most detailed elements. And they are potentially effective because their format is designed to take the reader through stage by stage, often buttressed by summaries and exercises. One cannot study the book as the author intends without getting a good grasp of the subject. Indeed, if I am to master an unfamiliar topic I will start by reading an “idiots guide” to give me a route map for my further exploration.

But there can be a snag. We may buy a self-help book with the best intentions. We may leaf through it, perhaps actually read it. We may even have a go at the first section. But, all too often, we are distracted, and the priority which led to our purchase somehow gets lost in the recess of the memory. We may be subject to an illusion, which I fear I share, that owning a book means that I own its contents – whether or not I have read it. There is only one way known to me that is effective in self-improvement, and we owe it to Benjamin Franklin, the 18th century American statesman, who lived in this country for many years. But, before we examine his ideas, we need to choose a subject.

The one self-improvement which we all need is the development of virtue. Agreed? Aquinas describes virtues as habits. One way to interpret this is to grasp that our state of virtue defines the sort of person we are, and therefore how we characteristically behave. Virtue orients us on God. On a natural level, habits are seen as a circuit of neurons. The connection is formed by practice. For instance, if I have the habit of cooking breakfast on a weekday morning it is because I once disciplined myself to do so, and continued the discipline until I had trained my neurons to make the operation second nature. I can now do it on autopilot, and I sometimes do it on Saturday by mistake.

How do we relate the supernatural aspect of virtue to the natural habit? We know in advance that we will never fully understand the way in which these two aspects of our incarnational nature operate, but I will try. Here I rely on Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Doctrine (1960) in which he devotes some 50 pages of dense notes to the subject of grace.

Actual grace is what we need to perform activities which tend towards salvation, and the development of virtue is certainly one of these. Two forces are at work. One of these is the necessary power of God’s grace, the other is our free consent. This is not like two carthorses pulling the same wagon since the whole act is both ours and God’s. (Don’t ask me how this works, I don’t know. I don’t think anyone else knows either.) Unlike traditional Protestantism, which holds that the merit lies only with God and that man remains intrinsically unchanged, Catholicism teaches that the action, and so the actor, is truly meritorious.

At this point (to follow Franklin) we must be concrete. What aspects of virtue are we choosing for development? To achieve the concrete, we need to identify the action which results. If I choose my prayer life, one action might be to review the quality of my night prayers, to include a thorough examination of conscience, and to maintain regularity. In another area, the improvement I seek might be to overcome a habit of being snappy to my nearest and dearest.

You are unlikely to have any difficulty in spotting enough aspects of virtue for improvement. But here lies the danger. If you try to improve on all of these at the same time, and in an open ended way, you are likely to fail. Franklin’s solution is different.

He suggests that we take, and list, the 13 improvements which seem to be most pertinent. Set these out over a quarter, allotting each one its own week. Then concentrate on each in turn before moving on to the next — leaving the others to ordinary chance. We should of course repeat the programme for following quarters, amended perhaps by experience.

Our choice of concrete actions will allow us to keep an informal diary, which will act as reinforcement and will track improvement. When “I will be more affectionate to my spouse” has been translated into, say, “I will give my spouse one or more hugs every day” we will have something definite to measure. I may profitably measure my progress day by day — marking myself out of 10.

The psychology is clear. By focusing on one objective at a time, and for a limited period, we have the best chance of perseverance. And we will be much helped by the reward of measuring success. Franklin’s 13-week scheme is simply a most effective way in which we give the consent of our will. And God has promised that this mundane activity will be inspired by, and infused with, grace.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Spirituality, virtue ethics | Tagged | 6 Comments

Secondsight and the Synod

We are on the eve of the Synod on marriage and the family, 5-19 October. And I propose that we should consider what we expect, hope or fear from this Synod. We know that it has already broken new ground through wide consultation – which has included the laity. Amateur though the questions of the consultation were, it does seem to have reflected substantial gaps between the Magisterium and the body of the Church.

Among the questions which the synod will examine are

Marriage according to the Natural Law
The Pastoral Care of the Family in Evangelization
Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations
On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex
The Education of Children in Irregular Marriages
The Openness of the Married Couple to Life
The Relationship Between the Family and the Person
Other Challenges and Proposals

Synods arising from Vatican II have in the past been very much under the control of the Vatican, particularly the Curia. Both the agenda and the final outcomes often appear to have been master-minded. It has even been suggested that they were presented as a pretence of collegiality, when in fact they have been ?o more than a confirmation of no change. However the advent of Pope Francis may well make things different this time.

Will we see the bishops in open robust exchanges, and – even more importantly – will it be they who decide the outcomes, in communion with the Pope, or the Curia? It will be a real test of collegiality, otherwise we might as well drop the idea. And will we receive a reliable account of the discussions? Or perhaps nothing more than the eventual publication of some kind of carefully drafted official document?

The signs so far indicate that there will be no substantive change in moral doctrine. But there may well be changes in pastoral practice. One of these may be a re-emphasis on the sovereignty of conscience, both its extents and its limits. It is perhaps about time for this Vatican II teaching on this to become a reality in pastoral practice and in general Catholic understanding.

An issue which Francis has highlighted is the pastoral permission for Catholics in certain second marriages to return to the sacraments. Against this may be the view that even a pastoral change here may endanger the concept of sacramental marriage.

The process of marriage annulment may possibly be revised and simplified. Will the outcome here be acceptable to all? Will we get closer to annulment as the Catholic workaround for divorce?

A change in the prohibition of artificial contraception seems unlikely. But will the Church find some way of handling or expressing this in order to bridge the gap the between the laity and the Magisterium? On this blog it has been suggested that bishops have on the whole not given full-hearted support to orthodoxy. Will they express their doubts, if they have any? Will we hear about these?

Will consideration of unions of people of the same sex (perhaps civil partnerships rather than marriage) be a simple confirmation of traditional teaching? Or will the Synod take into account the well-established sexual orientation of homosexuals – leading perhaps to a recognition that ‘natural behaviour’ is open to a wider definition, at least in practice, if not in theory. The habit of deducing sexual morality from physical structures has found less favour with moral theologians in recent years.

You may have other questions to ask. I am very much looking forward to your contributions. And I think we will take the opportunity at the right time to discuss what actually happened.

I have a special request here. Currently I am planning to pose questions about the Synod in my Catholic Herald column for 3 October. Your contributions to my post today will help me greatly in finalising what I write. I will value your help.

Posted in Moral judgment, Pope Francis, Quentin queries | Tagged | 136 Comments

Look me in the eye

In a careless moment I have just knocked a heavy book onto the floor. My dozing cat instantaneously leapt from her favourite chair and scudded out of my study as if the world were coming to an end. She lives a safe and peaceful life but, being a cat, she knows that sudden noises spell danger and so her instinctive reaction is to run.

She is very like me. Aeons ago my ancestor heard a rustle in the undergrowth. He did not wonder whether it was harmless or a predator, his instinct told him to escape – and to keep going. Perhaps there were other hominids who rejected such caution and went to investigate. I did not descend from these for they did not survive to have progeny.

So let’s come forward through a few hundred thousand years, and note a recent study, at New York University, which tells us that we decide, even before we are conscious of it, whether a new acquaintance is honest or not. The recognition of an “untrustworthy” face can be measured in brain changes – even when images have been shown too quickly for any judgment to be made. Evolution ensures that biological creatures have developed to take such instinctive actions when faced by the possibility of danger or opportunity. We act on first impressions. But, like so many responses developed in primitive times they can sometimes be inappropriate today.

I have numerous grandchildren who are at an early stage in the job market, and they sometimes seek my advice about a prospective selection interview. They are surprised that I shy away from detail, and point out to them that selection interviews are hopelessly inaccurate, and that conclusive decisions are likely to be made within the first five minutes. What really matters is whether the interviewer likes the candidate or not. And once his mind is made up, subsequent information which conflicts is unlikely to be registered. It will help to follow a poor candidate; you will look better by comparison.

We may experience the same thing when we attend a talk from a new speaker. How long does it take you to assess his intelligence, his social class, whether you would like him, whether he knows what he is talking about, whether he is worth listening to? You will decide all that in the first few seconds, and much of it before he has opened his mouth. It is true that in some cases you may have to revise your opinion but, most often, your general reaction of optimism or pessimism will carry you through to the end.

Indeed optimism itself can be manipulated. I once had a boss who was very good at refusing my requests but, knowing what a pride he took in his mathematics, I would put in a deliberate mistake. His pleasure in spotting it, together with my admiration for his skill, was often enough to get me what I wanted. Psychologists tell us that someone asked to read a text majoring on either depressing or encouraging words, will be influenced in both their mood and their subsequent decisions.

Hair, height, spectacles, general attractiveness, handshake, accent (class-related, regional, foreign) posture, shape of face, eyebrows, movements, gaze, smile, tone of voice, rhythm of conversation, clothes, skin tone, girth, name, address, are amongst the many signals which we know induce first impressions. And these impressions tend to stick. If you are running from danger it is safer to keep running than to stop and reconsider. Even contrary facts arising later may be denied, but more often they are simply overlooked. Sometimes interviewers refuse to believe that contrary evidence has been given until they listen to the tape recording.

Perhaps our first concern is to school ourselves to give the right first impressions. Have you ever thought of testing your handshake with a friend, or switching from contact lenses to spectacles? (The latter adds 12 IQ points to appearance.) But more important for our purposes here is to consider how accurate we may be in judging others. If we read the signs wrong we may of course make mistakes but, even worse, we may be responsible for an injustice. What precautions can we take?

Sometimes a signal may have a rational basis. So we might be right to suspect that a firm and friendly handshake comes from a firm and friendly person, but the sense of authority we attribute to a tall person is a primitive relic. Imputing greater honesty to received pronunciation than we do to a Glaswegian accent is cultural, and imputing virtue to those of attractive appearance is simply human nature. I do not advocate suspicion or cynicism, but it is prudent to remember that we too are susceptible to judging by the superficial. And we should be consciously open to changing our opinions as further evidence comes to hand.

We may be getting worse at this. A recent study suggests that those who spent too much of their time looking at screens of various sizes, rather than looking at people, gradually reduce their ability to read the emotions of others. It is ironic that social media, which presumably intends to bring people together, may be doing so at the expense of real encounter.

My wife tells me that when we first met, over 60 years ago, she wondered who this odd scruffy person who actually argued with her – unlike her previous respectable boyfriends – could be. I asked her today whether she had revised her first impressions since then. The little pause before she gave her tactful answer told me more than I wanted to know.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, evolution, Moral judgment | Tagged | 38 Comments

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 | 61 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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 18 Comments