R U happy?

Are you a happy person? Or, to put it another way, how would you rate yourself out of ten on the happiness scale? A person who recognises himself or herself as generally happy almost all the time would score ten. Someone who lives nearly permanently with depression or anxiety would score one. I would put myself at seven to eight. Perhaps seven is better for occasionally I find myself prone to irrational anxiety.

We might look at the factors which contribute to our happiness. I am struck by the fact that happiness is only loosely connected with circumstances. Someone who has a comfortable income and sufficient saving is not necessarily happier than someone who has to budget with great care in order to pay the bills. Sick people may be happier than fit people. We are all agreed that our standard of living has risen dramatically since Victorian times, but are we confident that the Victorians lived a life of tragedy in comparison with us? Do we assume that our medieval ancestors lived in misery compared with the benefits which have developed since then?

Certainly comparisons are important, but they do tend to be short term. So, if we have just acquired a new car, or a new food mixer or a new blouse we may feel happy because we are able to contrast our new benefit with not having it. But the comparison may have faded in 24 hours or 24 days. I have a friend in her fifties who finds it necessary to buy new clothing every week, and sometimes every day. Her cupboards are full, and more than full. Yet many of her purchases actually stay in the box. I take this to be an addiction: the pleasure centre in her brain only comes into action with acquisition. I think that her demanding job, which is pretty thankless, plays a part in this. What else has she got to enjoy?

Temperament is clearly a factor. At the negative end of the scale we find misery through depression. If you know anyone with deep depression you will know that all your advice and reasons to cheer up fall on stony ground. A frequent feature of depression is the belief that you cannot cure it; you are locked in. Some such people may be helped by psychotherapy, but not everyone. Above that dire level we find people who are more inclined to depression than others. And much the same may be said about conditions of anxiety. Sometimes the sufferer here is rationally aware that anxiety is not justified, and never helpful. But they remain anxious.

Upbringing can be a factor. I have a friend whose mother died from tuberculosis when he was six years old. For safety reasons he was not allowed in the same room during her long illness. After her death his father married again, and started a new family. My friend was pushed to the margins – he was an unnecessary addition. Today, seven decades later, he has never escaped from the feeling that he is unworthy of others’ love – so he cannot rely on it, or them.

Perhaps there is an answer in our relationships. Surrounded by loving family we are aware of the value of that. Yet relationships have their hazards too. Who is sick? Who has just lost their job? Who is quarrelling? Who has died recently? The problems come and go: we can move from happy to unhappy overnight. Here again temperament can claim a big part. If we can, in Kipling’s words: “meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same” then we are remarkable people.

Yet there is a brighter side. If we look at the less fortunate areas of our society, or at the almost unimaginable conditions elsewhere in the world, we may hope that some people remain happy, nevertheless. I like to tell my grandchildren of the Blitz and the doodlebugs, rationing and the tough post war years compared with their bed of roses. But in truth I enjoyed it all – and all the more as things improved until Macmillan could say in 1957, “most of our people have never had it so good.” My expectations were small compared with my grandchildren, but they were met. Closing the distance between expectations and their fulfilment is one key to happiness. Perhaps in its pursuit we should focus on pruning our expectations rather than bewailing the gap

Posted in Quentin queries | Tagged | 6 Comments

The habits of virtue

Were you holier at the end of 2016 than at the beginning? And, if not, perhaps this is the time to think a little about the theology of good resolutions. We recognise that we are at the epitome of faith and science: the interweaving of these two lies at the heart of human nature, because grace and psychology cannot in this life be separated. In secular terms we think about the development of new and better habits; in spiritual terms we think of developing our virtues. But even Aquinas finds himself describing the virtues as habits.

The habits which science recognises are found in the neurons of the brain. Ways of thinking and ways of acting create connections which are triggered by similar circumstances. Like programmed automata they do their work without needing direct attention. But we are continuously responsible for checking, moderating and developing their programs so that they tend towards the good. This is the work of grace channelled through the spiritual qualities of reason and choice.

We can rattle through the formal virtues but I am not going to be so ambitious. I want to look at examples of minor virtues which can support the major ones. When I am faced with a flight of stairs I get to the top step by step — a single leap leaves me flat on my face. A resolution to become, say, more loving will be too vague; I need to master its concrete components.

I start with the virtue of self-esteem. Much Catholic writing conveys the impression that our main spiritual concern is our sins and failures; we can scarcely get through a paragraph without proclaiming our worthlessness. But we rarely admit to our progress and our virtues. Yet theology tells us that, even if we had been the only created human person, Christ would have redeemed us through his Passion. We must be worth something, if we are such objects of love.

Examining our conscience during our night prayers, we find it easy to identify our faults and failures. But how often do we mark the good things we have done and the progress we have made? Yet psychology tells us that if we have a high self-image we tend to live up to that. We live down to a bad self-image. So a possible resolution would be to celebrate our progress through the events of each day. And, ask God for the grace, to build on that.

Another possibility is the virtue of listening. Do you really listen to people – children, spouse, friends, clients, strangers? Perhaps not, for good listening is extremely rare. Most of us have conversations which resemble a tennis game: instead of focussing on the message being served to us, we are already positioning ourselves to make our return. A good listener not only hears what is said but checks his understanding. Psychology tells us, through professional counselling, that we can rarely help people unless they know they have been understood. Theology tells us that we can only love people when we have understood them. Only then can we love them as we want to be loved ourselves.

Some of us, perhaps in gossip, are readier to think of the faults in other people ahead of their virtues. It’s much more fun. We must hope that God does not share that sense of fun because, on Judgment Day, we’d rather he focussed on our virtues and overlooked our faults. Psychology suggests that our brain gets a perverse little boost from knocking someone down. The kingdom of Heaven works the other way round. How many people did we speak well of today, and how necessary was it to mention their peccadilloes? Is there a good resolution there?

Taking that last example, we must consider how we can best persevere with the resolutions we have made. Our determination only to speak well of people will be easy to observe while the intention is fresh in our minds. And we might even last until the end of January before it has been entirely forgotten. Here I advise Benjamin Franklin’s self-organiser.

He recommended that we list the 13 qualities which we plan to develop. And we focus on just one for a week at a time, leaving the others to their ordinary chance. Most of us can cope with a week’s concentration. At the end of the 13 weeks we start the cycle again – though we can modify the items, based on our experience. As our cycle of resolutions goes round and round we can hope to see, and to celebrate, a general improvement in our progress towards virtue. For 2018 we revise our list. We may find that some of our new virtues have now become virtuous habits, biologically and spiritually, so we can replace them with other, perhaps more demanding, virtues.

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

Washing machines and the Natural Law

Before Christmas we were discussing “Some of my best friends.” It took us into the subject of homosexuality and, inevitably, into Natural Law. I thought it might be useful to write a little primer on this, so that we can extend our discussion – including disagreeing with my primer if you wish.

Natural Law assumes that if we want an entity to flourish and fulfil its purpose it must be used according to its nature. My washing machine has its own natural law, and I find this described in its instruction booklet. If I follow this the machine flourishes, if I don’t it shudders to a halt. We, too, have a law derived from our nature. The difference is that I own the washing machine but my personal nature comes from God. It is not my own.

Discerning how our Natural Law applies is not always easy – particularly when we get down to detail. We need observation and reason. For example, we see that man is a social creature. So we conclude that telling lies, keeping promises and observing fairness are all required by our Natural Law. Here our own instruction book, the Ten Commandments, is helpful: “Thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt not kill, honour thy father and thy mother etc.” But we note that all of these have to be applied intelligently. For instance killing may be justified by self defence, a starving man is entitled to steal the food he needs, there are circumstances when we may need to deceive, and so on. But these are exceptions, the declared law still stands: it does not fall down because exceptions exist.

A second approach to natural law is discovered through structure. Not surprisingly this often relates to sexuality. Thus we are taught that the structure of sexual intercourse is such that deliberately removing from that act its inherent potential to conceive is to go against human nature as God has created it. When Aquinas attempts to evaluate sexual sins he is hardest on those which offend structure, say, coitus interruptus, than those which don’t – such as rape or incest.

But it is not only sexual. It applies to telling lies which defies the structure of speech. Or mutilation which concerns removing organs from the body other than for the sake of saving the body. It was once argued that castrating males, who could then become falsetto member of the Vatican Choir, was justified by their better life prospects in their new rôle.

A problem arising from the structural approach arises from its absoluteness. This makes it appear more serious than other sins as Aquinas argued (above). If God created the structure then it is his absolute will that the structure should be respected. Thus a woman who has her fallopian tubes ligated for any reason other than a direct medical need, remains condemned irrespective of her reasons.

These difficulties have given rise to new thinking. A combination of Vatican II’s emphasis on conscience, and the acceptance that using artificial contraception does not outlaw a Catholic, have started the ball rolling. Kidney transplants, which were once seen as grave mutilation of the donor, are now acknowledged as heroic.

Perhaps we are moving in the direction I have described in the matter of the commandments: intelligent exceptions may exist without denying the law. Structure no longer has an absolute imperative. It was not created directly by God, as the ancients quite reasonably believed, but indirectly through evolution. And evolution itself, being God’s way of enabling species to develop, will give us important but not necessarily binding clues to the needs of our nature.

Opponents of this new view will cry “Protestantism – where will it end?”. Supporters will claim that the Natural Law itself justifies the use of our reason applied to our judgment of right and wrong – a faculty undoubtedly given to human nature by God.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 23 Comments

Jesus’ Mum

Jesus’ Mum.
It is Christmas time, so I thought a poem I wrote some years ago might be suitable. We do not always remember that the mother of Jesus was an ordinary Jewish woman, living an ordinary Jewish life. No halo for her.


In a corner shrine in every room
That blue veiled figure stood;
A smile demure, a heart so pure.
The virgin with the spotless womb –
In plaster or in wood.

She was guardian of perfection’s goal
For which good Catholics try;
Always on hand to understand,
To see my sin and search my soul
With blank, unwinking eye.

In Mary’s house of sun dried soil
The air was goat-dung fresh,
Her armpit wet with straggled sweat,
Her body ached with pain of toil;
She knew the drag of flesh.

She had moaned her way through painful birth,
Inhaled an old man’s breath,
Knew griping bowel and bloodstained towel,
Heard soldier’s oath and barrack mirth;
And cry of lonely death.

I have no time for the plaster whore
Who knows no human truck;
I cannot pray to the painted clay
But I can bless the womb that bore
And the paps that gave him suck.

© Quentin de la Bedoyere, unless author identified

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Some of my best friends…

Let’s have a look at an awkward subject – homosexuality. We know that there are condemnatory passages in the Old and New Testaments, and that for many Christians that closes the problem. You can study these at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bible_and_homosexuality. But in this posting I am approaching the subject from another angle.

I start with a remark by a homosexual which brought me up short: “You know how you heterosexuals are usually disgusted by the very thought of genital contact between two men. Well we homosexuals are just as disgusted by the thought of genital contact with a woman.” I was faced with the possibility that people who have such a response are on a hiding to nothing.I find myself sympathising.

(I should say here that of course I also have women equally in mind. The word ‘homo’ in homosexual comes from the Greek It is pronounced ‘hommo’. The same word pronounced ‘ho-mo comes from the Latin and means ‘man’ – in this context this is always incorrect, and confusing.)

It would seem that people do not choose their sexual orientation, Genes, the wrong hormones in the womb or early upbringing have been suggested as causes. And, if so, the homosexual is scarcely to blame. Homosexuality involves, almost by definition, a mismatch — that is, a mismatch between gender and orientation. Unfortunately theological vocabulary uses the phrase “grave disorder’ to describe this. That phrase is correct because homosexuality is serious (grave), and a disorder (mismatch). But it carries condemnatory overtones which are not appropriate. Nevertheless disorders tend to lead towards complications and difficulties. Mismatches usually do.

But sometimes such mismatches have happy outcomes. Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Walt Whitman. Alan Turing are just a few names from history. Indeed the arts are studded with homosexuals, and their contributions to our society and culture are considerable.

The frequently used phrase “but it’s against nature” makes no doubt a good general statement. It is not difficult to spot that the construction of the human body is ordered to heterosexuality with a primary function of reproduction. But when a homosexual tells us that at a deeper and subjective level it is not against his nature I find myself wondering. The traditional method of discerning right and wrong through biological structure was understandable in the Middle Ages, but certainly open to question now that we know about genes and evolution.

Just as a post scriptum, I would suggest that homosexual marriage is a different issue. If you believe that marriage is restricted to a committed love relationship between two people, you will approve. But if you believe that marriage is ordered in its essence to reproducing the human race then we should use a different name for a different thing. Perhaps ‘civil partnership’ would do. Oh dear, that’s been used already.

Where do you stand on these issues? Have you always thought this way and, if not, what has changed your mind?

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Neuroscience, Quentin queries | 36 Comments

The threat of old age

What is the disease from which 30 million people suffer worldwide, and will increase to 130 million by 2050? In Britain, the number of sufferers will be around two million. No one fully understands the details of this disease, and there is no cure. It is an immensely costly disease for the state, and for the families of sufferers. In one case known to me, the out-of-pocket costs to the family were £300,000. Despite the lack of knowledge and the immense cost, research into alleviation is substantially underfunded compared with cancer and heart conditions. And, by the way, one in six of those over 80 will get it. That means you, unless you cheat by dying earlier.

I am referring to dementia, and in particular, Alzheimer’s. But it doesn’t really matter, does it? These are ancient people who have had their lives and are now reduced to gibbering idiocy through living too long. Once we have shuffled them into a care home all we need do is make an occasional visit (they probably won’t recognise us) and hope that they snuff it before their life savings run out. I am being harsh, but how long ago did you badger your MP to fight for the funding of more research, and an alleviation of crippling costs?

I am not qualified to write technically, but in elementary terms there is, in Alzheimer’s, a protein called amyloid-β which clumps together to form sticky plaques in the brain. There is also tau, a protein which causes tangles in the brain. The result is neuroinflammation and disaster. Even mild dementia can kill brain cells. They will never be restored. You will get some idea of the clinical difficulties when you learn that more than 200 clinical trials for Alzheimer’s therapies have been binned because the treatments proved ineffective. And no existing treatment addresses the underlying disease process.

Another area of research is to find ways of staving off the start of Alzheimer’s. Even pushing back its onset for a few years would be of great benefit to the individual and a substantial saving in the necessary care which both the state and the individual contribute. Studies based on drug treatment before the problems start are in action but, as I write, there are no conclusive results, either of efficacy or alleviation – and there may not be. The latest (and large) study failed in its final trials.

Although Alzheimer’s can, in exceptional cases, start as early as the 40s, many readers will see its onset only as a remote threat. But they may well have older relatives who are vulnerable. Until a cure or substantial alleviation has been found, the prospect is not inviting. But the first step is to have adequate powers of attorney: sufferers can no longer make their own decisions. Then the costs of nursing care must be considered – and they are considerable.

Anyone who has assets, including the value of their house, which exceed £23,250 must pay for their care. The average cost of care homes with nursing varies from £631 per week in the North East to £920 per week in the South East. Multiply by 52 and you’ll know how many years your relative will dare to survive. Take charitable consolation from the possibility that part of those fees may be being used to subsidise the low fees paid by local councils for the indigent patient in the next bed.

Oh wait, I must have got that wrong. The last Conservative manifesto undertook to cap care home fees to a total of £72,000. But once they had our votes they postponed its introduction until 2020. And what’s the betting on it appearing at that date, even allowing for our rocky financial future? More fool us for failing to be cynical.

There is a little light on the horizon. There is a correlation between mental activity and the likelihood of dementia. This emerged from a remarkable study in which the post-mortem brains of nuns were compared with their detailed biographies – testing the theory that brain performance is improved following demanding mental exercise. It seems that challenging the brain creates other routes for rational processes. In one dramatic example a nun preserved her mental capacity until death, even though her brain was fully invaded by the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s.

So one approach to delaying dementia is to undertake new activities which challenge us to develop further mental skills. It might be learning a new language, mastering a demanding craft or undertaking voluntary work which requires thought and initiative. These are worthwhile in themselves, but if they do lead to fending off Alzheimer’s, we should be grateful indeed. And there is no time to lose. The nuns who fared best were those who showed challenging and intellectual vigour from their childhood.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Neuroscience, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 13 Comments

Can Catholics be moral people?

A newspaper cartoon showed a stalled car being fiercely hooted by the car behind. The driver of the stalled car walks sweetly over and she says: “Why don’t you start my car while I hoot your horn?”

I hope I am not the only person who has been rattled by pressure from another driver, and even done something thoughtless or potentially dangerous as a result. Most of us fear social embarrassment and, taken unawares – unlike the driver in the cartoon, we can be hustled into an unwise action. In such situations the pressure is immediate and strong; we even have a distinct physiological reaction to it.

In other situations the pressure of the group to conform is similarly powerful. Both the words ethics and morals come from roots which means customs or habits, and a pre-Christian view might be that your first duty is to follow the customs of your community. In one sense this is true: if we live in a community we have a general duty to be a supportive member and abide by its rules. But a Christian must ultimately derive his judgements from his perception of the truth; the values of the community cannot be directly a source of truth, though they may witness to it. The psychologists who have tracked moral development in children suggest that the move from deriving moral imperatives from the community to holding imperatives derived independently and potentially at variance with the community comes at quite a late stage of maturity; and many adults never succeed in making this jump.

But when the community we have in mind is the Church we may well feel that the situation is different. This community has the authority of God behind it, and when it lays down the moral law (as, for example, in the Catechism) we are expected to obey. The Church claims authority to interpret the natural law. Natural law answers the question: how must we act in ways which are in conformity with the nature God gave us? An example would be that since man is a social animal there are rules about telling lies or keeping promises; these are necessary for society to flourish. Another class of natural law rules is derived from structure. It is from this that, say, the rules about homosexuality or artificial contraception are derived. They have an added factor. For instance, where we can suggest that there are situations in which we would be obliged not to keep a promise, homosexual acts are always wrong because they are evil in themselves: you can read it from the structure.

There are big advantages here. We do not have to investigate these, and confirm them through our reason. That’s just a waste of time. We know they are wrong because the Church says so. All we have to do is to obey.

But I have already implied that those who allow others to decide — whether it is the State, or the Church, or our boss – leads to immaturity. Only when we are able to confirm good or evil through our own reason can we claim to be moral people. But then of course our reason, mistakenly or not, may tell us that the Church is wrong in a particular instance. We cannot then obey the Church for, as Aquinas teaches, we are obliged to follow our reason whether or not it is objectively correct.

So how do we, as mature people, get the balance right between the authority of the Church and the authority of our own rational decision?

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 30 Comments