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.

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Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Uncategorized | Tagged | 3 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

Abstain

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.”

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Mindful

As we approach the New Year we are reminded of the opportunity of choosing new resolutions. Today I want to describe the skill of mindfulness. Some of you will already be using it regularly, but I think you will agree that it is a real gift to those who have not yet learned to use it. And of course you may have your own methodology to teach us. I am going to describe what I do: I hope it will be a good starting point.

I use it as a regular, nightly, occasion. It enables me to be alone with myself for a period of 10 to 15 minutes. It has the effect of reducing tensions (a good way to be ready for sleep) and bringing me peace. While not religious in itself, it is a valuable preparation for night prayers.

In a comfortable upright chair I start with a few moments looking at a picture I drew of my late wife’s hands. It somehow reminds me of her in a characteristic way. Perhaps mindfulness is not necessary in Heaven, but it assures me that she supports me in my efforts on earth.

I close my eyes and, for a minute or two, I look through my eyelids and the colours and shapes I can see. I do a similar action with my nose, and exploring my mouth and my ears.

Then I move down to my neck – a well known place for tension – and waggle both the top and bottom of it until it feels supple and relaxed. I stiffen and deliberately relax the muscles of my shoulders. And work down my arms to my fingers which, one by one, I feel gently in touch with my thighs.

This is followed by my deep breathing. There are three stages: the top of my chest, the middle, and the bottom. Over the years, incidentally, this exercise, common to yoga, has increased my lung capacity considerably.

Then I crunch my bottom up several times. I am told that this also strengthens the muscles of the waterworks. And, as we grow older, this is increasingly important. Women, I understand, are the more vulnerable. I then work down through thighs, legs and feet. But all the while I pause and check back that my loosened muscles have not slipped back into tension.

Following all this I move into to deep slow breathing for as long as I wish. In practice I use an oven timer to tell me when to finish. I don’t want to distract my mind with watching the clock.

There is no magic here. You may well benefit from your first occasion but you need to follow the exercise for a week or ten days before you can clearly see how it has helped you to be at peace – not only during the exercise but in your whole approach to tension. Here is an anecdote: last week I had an examination in hospital which involved putting a line down my throat, and the full length of my oesophagus. I am told that some people need a sedative for this, but I just used mindfulness, and I was fine. So, it happily turned out, was my oesophagus!

Try it!

Posted in Neuroscience, Quentin queries | 16 Comments

Are you an addict?

Fixed odds betting terminals have been much in the news. Recently the Government, under pressure, has brought forward a new regulation which stipulates a maximum bet of £2 a ‘throw’. Currently the maximum bet is £100, and a focussed gambler can make a bet every 20 seconds. Many of them lose up to £1000 in a single session. A total of of about 1.8 billion pounds is lost every day. Betting houses take great care to encourage their regular customers, and work very hard to keep them going.

How stupid! – we may think. Surely even the simple minded must know that the odds are calculated to ensure that over time the profit goes to the provider, the dumb client is always the loser. Well – not always. You could walk into a betting shop, put in your £100, win £10,000, and walk out, clinking with money – and never return. And that of course is the bait.

Addiction carries with it a sense of internal obligation. Tobacco smoking is a common example. Yes, there is certainly a moment of pleasure puff by puff but there is likely to be a big price to be paid in the end. And I should know: I smoked for many years, and by now I have had two heart operations.

We think of addiction as a mental phenomenon, forgetting that it is present in the brain. The brain conveniently helps us in our habits by creating the neural connections which save us from having to think. A familiar example is driving a car where many of our procedures, such as changing gear or checking the side mirror, require no conscious thought. Our brains do the thinking.

This can be even more serious if our habit changes our biological needs. The smoker actually needs tobacco more than the non-smoker, just as the non-sleeper can become dependent on their tablets, and begins to find that his dosage is increasing. But what interests me today is our potential addiction to our questionable social habits.

On the wireless the other day I heard a man describe how his mother continually plagued his father for his stupid absent mindedness. The father, as it happened, was a scientist of repute – and once considered for a Nobel Prize. My guess is that the mother could only breach the gap between their intellects by her criticisms. Her inferiority complex required, but never satisfied, the difference.

I, for instance, find in conversational discussion that I am strongly inclined to make sure that everyone knows how well read I am in the subject. It must be very annoying to all those who now feel at a disadvantage. I spend more time trying to save tuppence in the supermarket than I do at spending a thousand pounds. I remember well my wife’s expression of interest when listening, or in many cases not actually listening, to my latest ideas on the Universe.

And I am given to not really listening to other people, even though I know its importance. I am much too keen to prepare my stylish answer. I forget that a conversation should be an episode of mutual caring exchange not a tennis match.

I wonder whether our fierce discussions on this Blog about climate change are well thought out – with an open mind investigating the evidence. Or are they the product of a closed mind – to be protected at any cost. Much the same might be said of religious beliefs.

Those are just examples, but I suggest that we spend some time looking at our social habits, and particularly those which concern people close to us. Spouses, children, colleagues, friends? We might well be helped by asking such people to tell us about how it feels at the receiving end. We could learn a lot.

Posted in Moral judgment, Neuroscience, Quentin queries | 25 Comments

The single priest

Do we think it is time to discuss the question of clerical celibacy? It has a long history. Even some pre-Christian religions required it of their leaders presumably because marriage did not seem fitting for those in direct communication with the gods. It did not appear to be an issue at the beginning of Christianity and no doubt the fact that St Peter was married would have been taken into account. However the Council of Elvira (304 AD) stated that all clerics were to”abstain completely from their wives and not to have children.”

During the Middle Ages the desirability of celibacy broadened, and the clear rules were finally stated at the Council of Trent. And there it stands. However, the movement of married Anglican clergy into the Catholic Church means that we now have married clergy on board. If we consider the possibility of dropping obligatory celibacy in general for the future there are a number of issues to consider: For example:

Do we think that a priest, as the representative of Christ, should maintain his whole focus on his vocation? He should not be distracted by family responsibilities.

How are priestly families going to be financed? If this is by the Church, that means us.

Which should a married priest put first if there is a clash – marriage and family or priestly duties?

How can a celibate priest have a deep understanding of his married flock when he is without the experience?

The Eastern churches have allowed priests to be married; it does not seem to have damaged them.

Sexuality in marriage requires deep physical desire – sometimes bordering on lust. Surely this is wrong for a representative of Christ?

Is celibacy a haven for those who lack sexual instincts, or who have perverse sexual instincts?

Would the removal of celibacy attract our badly needed increase in the number of clergy?

Would the removal of celibacy so lower the status of the priesthood that many would feel that it did not fulfil their vocation, and so reduce the priesthood?

What do you think?

Posted in Quentin queries | Tagged | 70 Comments

Well, would you?

In a village in Poland in 1942 you, as a member of a company of middle aged Germans soldiers, are raising your rifle at a crowd of women, children and the elderly. Your commander has given leave to any soldier not to take part in the massacre. Out of 500 soldiers only fifteen choose to opt out: three percent. Are you one of them?

Would I have been one of them? I can’t tell because I have not lived in German society between the Wars. And I am aware that, notwithstanding my freewill, I am a product of my personal history, and that must be strongly influenced by the culture in which I have lived. The best picture I have read of that culture is Sebastian Haffner’s memoirs: Defying Hitler (2000).His account takes us from his schooldays in WW1 to leaving Germany in 1933. Later he was to become a leading journalist. He returned to Germany in 1954 and died in 1999.

In trying to understand their criminal behaviour over three decades I first wondered whether the German nation had particular characteristics which drew them towards their acceptance of Nazi behaviour. Haffner reminds us that Bismarck described how German moral courage, never a strong characteristic, disappeared in front of authority: “insubordination (is) altogether impossible for the German military – whoever happens to be in power.” Elsewhere, Haffner refers to the German inability to recognise “the stink” of evil social activity. They might argue and debate the Nazi system but they were not capable of standing back and simply recognising the odour of evil.

In his later summary Haffner describes Germany, with all its historical fine qualities, as destroyed by nationalism. By nationalism he means an unrealistic attitude of conceit and admiration for anything German. This creates an unquestionable vanity which assumes that the state, whatever its condition happens to be, must be defended, promoted and obeyed. Those who stand back, reflect and question are disloyal and already slipping into treachery.

Against this background the day to day circumstances of Germany, following the first war, were extraordinary. The shock of losing the war destroyed, at least at that time, all the confidence built up over the centuries. The Treaty of Versailles was seen by many as a betrayal by civilian government of the courageous army. Ordered society was replaced by factions of the left and right, all was uncertainty and fear. Add to that gross hyperinflation of the currency and you have a society which needs a saviour. And Hitler was in the wings. His first, and popular, appearance was the “Beer Hall” putsch, followed by a period of prison. And in prison he started to write Mein Kampf.

This, and its second volume, set out his racist ideology which justified any actions which promoted Aryanism, including grabbing “living room”(Lebensraum) in countries to the east. It identified Jewry as an international plot to take over countries from within. It set out a program whereby the rights of the citizen were replaced by the aims of Nazism, leaving liberals in fear of critical comment even among their friends in case they were betrayed to the authorities.

And now I have to ask myself how I would have behaved as a German in the 1930s. Would I have stood up and publicly exposed the Nazi evils? I wouldn’t have been standing up for long. And I have family. Would I have gone along quietly trying to avoid any personal guilty actions? The German Catholic Church seems to have followed such a discretionary agenda, with some success. It was fortunate in that its numbers were so large that the Nazis did not dare to destroy it – although it was suspected that, once the war was won, it would have been outlawed.

I might have looked back through my life as a young German and seen my crippled, disordered country rescued by the Nazis, under an inspirational leader, and turned once again into a nation of consequence. While recognising the evil elements, might I have thought that this was a price that had to be paid: stability versus chaos? I think back to the 1930s and the Spanish Civil War, where many good people, including the then editor of the Catholic Herald, accepted that the bloody restoration of good order under Franco’s autocratic government was preferable to the uncontrolled chaos of a republican victory.

I hope I would have been a hero but I fear I might have failed the ultimate test. At the least I have come to understand how the ordinary, good, Germans of that generation would have shouted out Heil Hitler along with their comrades.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 43 Comments