Have I made a mistake?

Why is the first paragraph of this column so important? That is easy to answer. If the first paragraph sounds sufficiently interesting you are more likely to read on. And, providing that your interest continues as we get into the thick of it, you will read to the end. But we may not be aware that this may be a simple instance of how evolution frequently leads us into error. You may like to consider the most usual ways where psychologists tell us we tend to go wrong.

My first example is known as fight or flight. For our pre human ancestors the safest response to any threat was either to prepare immediate defence or to escape from the situation. So our brains learnt to respond instantly, and, even before our conscious thinking, our bodies reacted – for example, a possible danger triggered the adrenalin needed for swift action. Fortunately we don’t meet such threats too often, but our ability to digest our first reactions, and our tendency to maintain them is still with us. For example, the initial impression of a candidate applying for a position can influence the final decision, even in the light of contradictory evidence.

Physical appearance can alter the verdict of a jury or the size of damages. The friendships and the relationships we develop can be affected for better or worse.
Another common source of potential error is confirmation bias. When we have taken a definite view on some issue or another we are liable to maximise the evidence which supports our belief and to minimise the evidence against it. A classic example is climate change. That there were opposing sides to the debate was easy to understand initially but, given the mounting evidence, it is no longer so. Yet there are still those who believe that the claim of likely climate change is some sort of international conspiracy. Their patron saint appears to be President Trump. We may often meet confirmation bias in religious discussions, and we are more likely to be aware of the evidence which supports our beliefs than the evidence which opposes them.

I have personal experience of what are called fixation errors. I may well get stuck when I am drafting a column: what should the next paragraph be?; how is the darn thing going to end?; why did I ever start it? Then I took the advice of Linda Blair (a clinical psychologist, google her). She demonstrated, in a Telegraph article, the value of deliberately switching from one task to another on a regular basis. The studies showed that this regime produced better results than sticking to the first task until completion. It has often saved my life. Since then I have reinforced this through deliberate methods of freeing my brain, allowing it to present me with a range of entirely new ideas.

In theory the broader and wider our experience the better off our decisions should be. But there is a danger that our memories become selective. For instance, following a disappointing holiday in a foreign country, we might carry a general idea about that country for ever afterwards. We may do the same with staff: men versus women, graduates versus non graduates, Irish versus Scottish, may give us long term firm opinions from a single instance in our experience. Prejudice rather than thought out and researched views may well be guiding us.

Which! Magazine (November 2018) has some excellent material about purchasing, on line or in store. The sellers make good use of comparisons – a common source of error. For a simple example, an expensive television may be deliberately placed by a cheaper one – and by comparison the cheaper one seems a bargain. This is reinforced by suggesting that a quick purchase is essential. Our fear of loss (twice as powerful in its influence as the attraction of gain) may rush us into error. It seems odd that respectable businesses should use such ingenious traps to deceive us.

Married or female priests, adultery in second marriages, contraception, homosexuality, clericalism are all issues discussed today. Have your views on any of these been modified in the last 20 years? If so, what has altered your mind? It may be rigorous logic or further information. But it is also likely to have been influenced by the views of others. It is hard to be an outlier; it’s more comfortable, and consistent with evolution, to be in line with people like us. It has been suggested that our tendency to make common judgments is unique to us as a race and a reason for our success, compared for instance with the Neanderthals. Annoyingly, if your views have not changed over 20 years you will then have to consider whether your brain has been active at all.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Philosophy | 21 Comments


Prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance – the classical cardinal virtues. They read well but their old fashioned names allow us to leave them in the back of our minds. So it might be useful to look at some of the virtues which we meet everyday. My first virtue to be examined is Empathy.

This habit is closely connected to loving our neighbour since it requires us to be responsive to him as he is in himself and not merely as we see him from the outside. It should not be confused with sympathy (often good in itself but not relevant here) which means sharing our neighbour’s feelings. Empathy means understanding what these feelings are so that we can react constructively to them.

A hospital nurse will no doubt feel sympathy for her patients from time to time. However she knows that she cannot afford to allow too much emotional involvement; this would not only be an unbearable strain for her but it could well interfere with her professional care. Yet if she is without empathy and so has no understanding of what her patients are feeling or experiencing then her ability to help them will be much reduced.

Empathy preserves us from thinking that what is good for us will necessarily be good for our neighbour. This would be to love him as if he were ourselves. If we love him as we love ourselves then we have to try to love him in his own terms – from inside, so to speak. Only in this way can we love him in the way we love ourselves.

Imagine a situation – quite familiar nowadays – when you have finally reached a customer service clerk after a tedious track through an automated telephone system. How easy it is to allow your aggravation to colour your attitude to what you might see as non-cooperation. But think for a moment how it must feel to be the clerk, who is bound by the company’s regulations and has spent the day, as he does every day, dealing with aggrieved customers.

Does the situation look a little different now.? Is it possible that a better understanding of what the other person is experiencing would motivate us to be more constructive, and might even get us the help we require? As it happens telephone staff rate very low on job satisfaction; you might not care to change places with them except in your imagination.

But more important, perhaps, are our relations: spouses, children, parents, siblings etc. Of course we love them all, but how about our empathy? Have we really thought about their feeling, or just assume them? I look back on a long and excellent marriage. And I can see many issues I could have handled better if I had used empathy more fully. How about you?

Apologies for the late appearance of this blog. Entirely my fault, I fear.

Posted in Quentin queries, Spirituality, virtue ethics | 34 Comments

Finishing Finnis

In a recent blog we were discussing the case of Professor Finnis and homosexuality. It brought us up to the question of Natural Law. So let’s try to remind ourselves of what we know about this.

The concept of Natural Lsw is straightforward. Have you got a washing machine? If so I hope that you use it in accordance with its washing machine nature, so that it performs properly and does not break down. You can find out its nature partly by observation and common sense, but more thoroughly through studying the manufacturer’s handbook.

Human beings are subject similarly to their own nature. As an example we can recognise this because we are social animals. So we need to have rules about, say, telling lies or stealing. And of course we have the manufacturer’s handbook – which we call the Bible. In addition we have a service team appointed and guaranteed by the manufacturer to guide us when we need additional help. We call this the Church. And, like the properly used washing machine, we flourish. But there is a difference of degree here: if we break the rules of the washing machine we may have to buy another one; if we break the rules of human nature the sanction can be the weeping and gnashing of teeth into eternity. Best get it right!

Natural Law has been with us for a long time. We need to go back to the Greeks and to the philosophy of Stoicism – which the Romans borrowed from the Greeks, and was readily taken up by the Church, and further developed by moral philosophers. Think Aquinas. There was however an important change in the evidence. For nineteen hundred years after its foundation the Church was able to use biology as a certain source of some elements of the Natural Law. The argument was simple: God had created our biology directly so we could, so to speak, read off his requirements from that. For example, we may never tell an actual lie because the faculty of speech was created for sharing the truth.

Many of the issues here are of course about sexuality, which is necessarily related to biology. The obvious example is artificial contraception. It is easy to see how a condom interferes directly with the nature of sexual intercourse., and so it follows that there can never be a permissible reason to justify it. But here I use the example of homosexuality since this was the major factor in Finnis’s teaching.

No one would try to deny that the male and female sexual organs are the basis of heterosexual activities. So if we use the measurement of biology we must conclude that the homosexual act is evil in itself, and can never be justified. But let’s rephrase that and speak of homosexuality as a mismatch.

A mismatch is ordinarily avoided because it throws up problems as a result. Broadly it is undesirable. But if we suppose that an individual, through no fault of her’s or his, is emotionally ordered towards homosexual desires and away from heterosexual desires, can we find room to excuse a committed homosexual relationship?

Since homosexual promiscuity is a much greater and more damaging mismatch, we might even go further pace Finnis,and formalise committed relationships. I, however, do not think that such relationships should be called ‘marriage’. Marriage is a unique concept and and its identity should not be misused. However I would have no difficulty with a church service which noted, celebrated and prayed for such a relationship. Pope Francis, speaking of homosexuality famously said:”Who am I to judge?” In that context he quoted St John of the Cross “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.”

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 44 Comments

Was Finnis right?

In January Radio 4’s Best of Today reported that students had asked that John Finnis should no longer be permitted to teach as a professor at Oxford University. The grounds were that Professor Finnis, whose speciality is Natural Law, had publically criticised homosexual activity as inherently evil, indeed comparing it to bestiality. His position is set out at some length in an academic article he published in 1995.

Strictly speaking this was correct, but Finnis was not discriminating against homosexuals per se but against the activity of homosexuality itself. Nor was he attacking those states which did not legally forbid homosexual acts. But he was arguing that the intrinsic evil of homosexuality should prevent states from facilitating it or in any way encouraging it.

The paper starts with his claim that the early Greek philosophers (Aristotle, Socrates/Plato), who had no objection to close relationships between grown men and boys, condemned homosexual acts as such. Clearly there were academic arguments with regard to the exact translation of key words. As a lay person I was not finally convinced by either side.

He moves on to the intrinsic nature of sexual intercourse. We are familiar with the two elements of this: the expression of the relationship between man and wife, described as two in one flesh, and the biological function of potential conception. At first sight we might say that these elements are of a different order. Most obviously it is possible to control conception through several different precautions. Why, we might think, should we not be free to avoid conception, when there are sound reasons to do so, while benefiting from the expression of marital love through intercourse.

This objection becomes clearer if we consider a couple who, for responsible reasons, choose to use the safe period. One might argue that this method of control is actually a greater practical interference to the loving embrace, than modern contraceptives. But Finnis, who does not address this particular point, would have answered that artificial contraception changes the nature of the sexual act: the openness to conception, he claimed, is integral and fundamental. But how would this apply to a couple who happen to be infertile: for example, post menopausal? He argues that for sexual intercourse to be the full biological expression of marital oneness, what is ultimately gifted from husband to wife must retain its integral capacity to fertilise whether that can actually occur or not. A barrier on the male side, such as a condom, or a biological barrier on the female side through the pill, is to give the marital embrace with one hand, and remove it with the other.

Finnis is consistent. He does not only criticise homosexuality, he condemns fornication or masturbation – indeed any expression of genital sexual activity which takes place outside marriage. These are all perversions of our sexual nature. But his purpose here was only to explore the extent to which the state can and should avoid the promotion of disordered sexuality for the benefit of the individual and the state itself. That was 1995. How is it nowadays?

You may want to read his actual words. You will benefit from doing so. He writes clearly but comprehensively, and you will need a good hour to read it at https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1208&context=law_faculty_scholarship

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

Morals in fact

Socrates had a trying habit of asking people exactly what they meant by a particular word, or particular claim. The analysis would swiftly expose whether his opponent knew what he was talking about. It may not have got him many friends, but perhaps it got everyone a little closer to the truth. So today I suggest that we explore the word “ought”. I use it in the moral sense: I ought not to steal, rather than: I ought to have my car serviced.

Morality is a subject which has fascinated many philosophers over the centuries, and they must forgive me for converting their hard work into a few sentences. I start with utilitarianism. This is expressed as: the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s easy to understand. Although putting it into practice can be quite complex. While we associate it with philosphers such as Jeremy Bentham and J S Mill, there have been several others (going back to the Greeks) who would be described as consequentialists, and so belong to the same family.

Immanuel Kant, starting from a basis of reason, taught the principle that we should “Act only on a maxim that you can at the same time will to be a universal law.” For example if we claimed that people should be free to tell lies how would we react if others told lies to us – and what would be the effect on communication in our society?

The evolutionary approach holds that ‘good’ behaviour, such as communication and working together (as we find in some of the lower animals, but to a lesser extent) leads to success and so to successful breeding.

Natural Law theory – which was influenced by Greek Stoicism and taken up by the Romans, was adopted by Xtianity (involving God as creator). It remains the basis of Catholic moral principles. By observing natural law we flourish, by ignoring it we decline. Humans acting in accordance with their nature sounds commonsense but conclusions such as the prohibition of artificial contraception, or the condemnation of homosexual activity might raise an eyebrow.

David Hume taught that our choice of moral rules is the expression of our dispositions and our emotions. Words like ‘ought’ or ‘morally wrong’ do not add any information to the facts. Similarly, A. J. Ayer, holds that ethical sentences serve merely to express emotions. They are expressions of approval or disapproval, not assertions. This is sometimes called the Boo Hurrah theory.

But the main drift of philosophy has been to distinguish between right and wrong actions. Christian morality, if you hold it, does provide an ‘ought’ by involving God as creator. The sceptics follow the solution of removing any force from such an ‘ought’. But what meaning does ‘ought’ carry in the minds of others?

I discussed this question with the philosophy group which I run. Mainly agnostic but including two Catholics and an atheist. It took us an hour and a half, but right at the end someone concluded that the objective of morals was to benefit others, but including ourselves. Immediately, and without the help of the New Testament, everyone agreed that it was this concern which was common to all moral questions. We finished happily. But I was left thinking about the next question: where does this love come from? And why should we respond to it? I will bring that up on another occasion – but perhaps you have some ideas.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Uncategorized | Tagged | 30 Comments

The drama of aging

This November the BBC reported a dramatic study, published by The Lancet, which told us that falls in the fertility rate of nearly half of all countries have resulted in insufficient births per fertile woman to maintain their population. The information was described as a “huge surprise”. Not to Catholic Herald readers of course since this column described the situation, its gravity and the likely consequences back in February 2015. And perhaps the headline over-egged the drama because in fact the fertility rates of well to do countries are very low; while the rates of poor to do countries are very high.

The fertility of the poorer countries is easy to understand. The lack of education, the unavailability of contraception, child mortality and the dependence on other family members inevitably result in high fertility rates. The prosperous countries have the opposite reasons for reducing family size. The UK, for instance has a fertility rate of 1.91 – similar to the US, and higher than many European countries. The rate required to maintain the population is about 2.1.

Our first reaction might be to congratulate ourselves on our contribution to reducing the population. But, before we do so, we might consider the situation of Japan. It is seen as a model of what can happen to a modern country which reduces its population. After the War, when Japan was, in effect, under the control of the US, artificial contraception was introduced – and widely taken up. Stanislas de Lestapis, the Jesuit demographer, writing at that time about the long term consequences of reducing the birth rate, was uncannily accurate in his description of the future. So much so, that the circumstances of modern Japan are now taken as a model for our own potential futures.

The first problem is simply mathematical. If a society drops its birth rate significantly the first effect is the growing discrepancy between generations. The younger, working, generation becomes relatively smaller than the retiring generations. The Congo, for instance, has a fertility rate of about 7. Imagine the effect of that rate dropping to 2. Even allowing for substantial improvement in infant mortality, the disproportion is going to cause big problems, and will continue to do so for several generations. Lestapis focussed on this discrepancy of generations, but he was not in a position to chart future increases in longevity.

Life expectancy in Japan is already four years ahead of the UK, and in the next forty years Japanese women can expect to live, on average, into their 90s. Over a quarter of its population is older than 64 years and appears to be creating a new level of society with its own social, economic, and medical needs. One characteristic is impaired cognitive function through forms of dementia. In Japan about five million people have some form of this disorder, and this is expected to rise to seven million by 2025. By that time the cost of care, medical and other services, will be around $160 billion. Interestingly The Lancet, in a major study of increasing longevity, attributes the poor performance of the USA in this regard at least partly to “to high and inequitable mortality from chronic diseases and violence, and insufficient and inequitable health care.”

This alarming situation is not just a matter of concern for the Japanese, it will eventually occur in many countries including our own. Even more dramatically it may one day directly affect anyone reading this column. I can only imagine what it would feel like to have dementia. There are of course many levels and types of mental disorder but I suppose that a gradual loss of competence must be increasingly distressing. It may well be shaming too since dementia carries a social stigma. It will be easier to write us off than to offer the sympathetic care and company which we really need. As one commentator said, “Having even advanced dementia doesn’t mean people know nothing, that they don’t have feelings. All they have is deep insecurity about their memories.”

Ironically we are fortunate in just one respect: the Japanese are facing this enormous problem already. They are establishing models for the care of the aged, which we in turn will be able to adapt and use. Those among us who have relations or friends with mental disorders or other incapacities will be well aware of the coming problems. Already some will have shortened their working hours or even abandoned paid work to care for relatives. The rest of us must understand the need for a systematic approach to care for this new level of society. It will be expensive but unavoidable.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns | 44 Comments


Current norms for England and Wales, issued by the Bishops’ Conference in May 2011, re-introduced the expectation that all Catholics able to do so should abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year, effective Friday, September 16, 2011. So Wikipedia tells us. I don’t think that I took this in at the time – a pity because abstinence on Fridays played quite a large part in my life.

It affected me because I had never been keen on fish. In my early days abstinence on Fridays was a definite rule, rather than the pious exhortation it reads like nowadays. So I decided not to go to work on Fridays. Over several years I was effectively self employed so it was easy enough to devote Fridays to organisation and the telephone. My wife liked this because she was able to assist me with this important part of my work. And I was following my father’s example: he always reserved Fridays for writing his books at home. He also held the theory that if you happened to eat meat by mistake you were able to eat it for the rest of the day. His rationale was that we were obliged to abstain from meat on a Friday: once you had innocently taken a bite, you could no longer abstain, so the rule no longer applied. Neat! I thought.

Later in my work life I was in various executive positions. But I kept to the habit. I would put lengthy reports and difficult issues on one side, and take them home with me on a Thursday. (Nowadays I would use a laptop. Even in those days I had identical computers, Amstrads, in both places.) So Fridays became the most important day of my week: it was devoted to serious thinking and planning. So much so that when the large public relations company who looked after our interests took to telephoning me at home I simply failed to renew their contract. I don’t think they ever knew the reason. So nowadays I would maintain that many responsible jobs would be the better for a four-day week.

Ironically, now well retired, I am at home seven days a week. But I still maintain my Friday abstinence. And that’s an irony because the rule does not apply after the age of 60. From my current viewpoint, 60 is quite a young man. Indeed my children are currently moving into their own sixties.

But I would argue that penance is important. Not simply because the Church favours it but as a realisation that any suffering chosen or accepted which is offered to God is present on the Cross – and contributes to the work of the Passion. I have told the story before of how I realised, when under an angioplasty, that the pain I had was similar in form to the asphyxiation on the Cross. When I accepted that I was asked to be part of that, a strange thing happened. The extreme pain did not go away, but I did. The pain was happening in my body, but was no longer happening in me; it ceased to matter. I can think of neat psychological explanations, I’m good at that sort of thing. But I can also recognise digitus dei when it touches me.

So you know what I am going say, because it’s the New Year. Let’s share our ideas for penances for 2019. Nothing dramatic, but some regular penance which will continue to remind us that, as Christians, each of us has a place on Calvary. “I live, now not I, Christ lives in me.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 23 Comments