Perhaps the saddest post…

My post today is very short. And when you read it I think you will be sad too. It’s at
I am sending it today because it may well appear in the Catholic newspapers, and I think we need time to study a full account.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Church and Society, Moral judgment | Tagged , , | 17 Comments

The times, they are a-changing

The recent post “Touch my button” (click on Home to review it) brought to the fore how our society is rapidly changing. The subject of artificial intelligence led us to consider how it is likely to change our everyday world as it becomes more sophisticated and more available. Even in the last 10 years the computer, the smart phone and social media have become important to the way we live – sometimes to the detriment of those who have been left behind.

It has not only been a change in facilities; it has led to social change too. The surprising election of President Trump seems in large part to be down to the substantial number of people who felt that the status quo of the establishment ignored their interests. In this country there is a growing number of left wing workers who are getting hot under the collar. It is not quite the French Revolution although it sometimes shares the same language. So I thought it would be interesting to jot down a few concrete and controversial issues which we might consider. You may be able to think of many more. I start with three statements, Take your choice. From time to time there will be more.

Digital faculties will eventually store detailed, perhaps day to day, personal records through which every citizen will be followed, and be obliged to conform to ‘acceptable’ opinion and behaviour.

The term British Values is a list in the imagination of the exhorter. It approves what he approves, it condemns what he condemns. It is an intolerant wolf in a patriotic sheep’s clothing.

The gap between the rich and the poor is likely to increase. Think of the difference between the earnings of large company executives versus their ordinary workers.

Posted in Quentin queries | 13 Comments

Messy marriage

Last week was Marriage Week. This is an international celebration promoted by the Marriage Foundation. They refer to recent studies which give a picture of how we stand in this country. The news is not good. The United Kingdom has among the highest rates of family breakdown in the developed world. Nearly two thirds of British children who are born to unmarried parents experience breakdown before the age of 12. Other countries, such as the US and Belgium, have substantially lower rates. Spain’s figure is 6 percent.

Children born to cohabiting parents have a 94 per cent greater likelihood of such breakdown than children born to married parents. But even for children born into marriage our rate of early breakdown is about one in three. Check the figures at the Marriage Foundation.

I do not think that anyone with imagination will deny the multitude of personal tragedies which are the outcome of this. I don’t focus here on the parents, or whether or not they are at fault, but on the children. Consider for a moment what would have happened to your life if your parent’s marriage had broken down while you were a child. I know of cases where the scars have lasted a lifetime. And tragically there is evidence that such children have a higher rate of marital breakdown when it comes to their turn.

I am not optimistic. I am in close touch with a number of people in their twenties. They are all good people (many baptised as Catholics) highly educated and building promising careers. They have long term partners of similar quality. From time to time I raise questions about marriage with them, and I try to explain the difference between the totally committed relationship and the ‘for the time being’ relationships which they have. They listen politely But they think that, although I mean well, I am very old fashioned. They take the view that there is plenty of time to get married – perhaps when they want children. Meanwhile they see intercourse as a value in its own right, and a proper expression of their long term, but uncommitted, relationship.

And perhaps I am old fashioned. We did not quiz our children about their intimate lives, although there was plenty of round table conversation, but we had house rules. They could entertain the opposite sex in their bedrooms but doors had to be left open. Now I see that fewer parents are concerned about this and that couple sleepovers, with parental permission, are common. I assume they use contraception, they’re not idiots. Could we maintain our position nowadays? Fortunately we do not have to try.

Is the Church, via the schools, getting the message across? I recall a conversation with a fifteen year old convent girl. She knew and understood the Church’s teaching but this teaching was kept in a closed compartment. Real life was different. We might think that higher levels of education would relate to more stable marriages. But the Marriage Foundation figures tell us the opposite: it was the married couples with lower education whose children were less likely to experience parental breakdown before they were 12 years old.

Behind all this lies an increasing psychological separation between marriage and reproduction in our culture. We have seen this recently in the formal acceptance of homosexual marriage. It is no coincidence that it has grown alongside the availability of artificial contraception. Some will argue that this forcefully supports the Church’s prohibition; others will argue that the existence of the prohibition has reduced the credibility of the Church’s overall teaching on marriage. But the change in our secular culture would have come about with or without the Church.

Leaving aside our witness through personal example, how can we change attitudes within our society? If we cannot persuade our political masters that the misery caused by broken relationships warrants direct attention, perhaps we need to fight Mammon with Mammon. The cost of the breakdown of long term relationships now approaches £50 billion a year – an increase of 30 percent since 2009. We know that marriage is significantly more stable than cohabitation. Strong governmental support of marriage as an explicit policy might well reduce this considerably.

And we should revisit the tax benefits of marriage so that every potential couple will wish to have the financial advantages of the wedding ring. I have heard it said that the huge cost of a splendid wedding often requires postponement. We were married in a parish church, the reception was in a nearby family house and we could only afford a two day honeymoon. That was 60 years ago. It reminds me that a rich wedding followed by a poor marriage cannot hold a candle to a simple wedding and a rich marriage.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment | Tagged | 23 Comments

Say what you mean

`Words carry their own luggage by way of overtones.’ The English language is remarkable for its richness, and often allows for a choice of word or expression according to the flavour which the speaker intends to convey. The two versions of the same statement which follow are both saying the same thing. Or are they?

The modern advertising executive is full of creative ideas which can turn a rather staid image into something new and exciting. He knows what aspiring consumers want and he makes sure that the product really fits their expectations. He makes the best use of the latest scientific and psychological methods to ensure that a client’s major investment in publicity gets the very best return. After all his fees depend on satisfied clients.

The trendy advertising guy touts the latest gimmick needed to turn a respectable product into a slick package. He’s on to the yuppie wavelength and knows just how to appeal to the punters’ greed. He’ll describe the current, fashionable theory of consumer behaviour, with a good sprinkling of psychological jargon, and suggest that you can safely bet a fortune that it’ll work for you. Win or lose, he still gets his cut.

I’ll leave it to you to decide between those two descriptions. But it’s worth spending a minute or two analysing the methods they use to convey totally different impressions. What is the difference between `creative ideas’ and `latest gimmick’, or between `major investment’ and `betting a fortune’? The contrast is exaggerated in order to make the point; but it reminds us of the importance of the choice of language needed to appeal to the right patterns in the Target’s mind.

The above is am extract from a book on persuasion in business which I wrote in 1990. It had a good, international, run but as, almost invariably happens, it eventually disappeared without trace. I do occasionally get query letters from South American university students, but that’s all. However the idea here is interesting because we are all prone to choosing our language in order to make our point effectively. And certainly religious language makes use of it.

We occasionally hear those in authority telling us that this or that is a ‘mortal sin’. More precision could be achieved by ‘this or that is potential matter for mortal sin’. If we take this further we come across ‘grave disorder’ – and we are really frightened. But it would be more accurate to refer to ‘serious mismatch’. ‘full knowledge’ and ‘full consent’ are conditions for mortal sin. What does this mean? No one has full knowledge about anything, and we have no way of telling whether our consent is full. When the choice is heaven or hell I think we need a little more clarity.

It’s the same at the other end of the scale. We cheerfully use the word ‘grace’. But we can mean it in so many different ways. In fact there are different forms of grace but we might be hard put to produce a short definition of any of them. How about ‘virtue’? Or even ‘love’ itself? That’s a word which has distinct different meanings, but we use it frequently because it helps the emotional force we need to get our ideas across.

I notice this subtle use of language in many contributions to this Blog. And I would be critical if I were not aware that I am given to it as well. You may like to consider some of the ways in which, perhaps unconsciously, we use manipulative language in order to persuade.

It starts young. I recall, from over fifty years ago my small son moving from “Granny I want a Ghostbuster’s gun” to “Granny, I need a Ghostbuster’s gun.” And he got it.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 11 Comments

Touch my button

Some weeks ago I heard a serious Radio 4 discussion on future sexual activity provided through artificial intelligence. It assumed that some day, not too long in the future, we would have the facility of sexual robots – presumably of any gender or favoured anatomical details which, to the eye and touch, would be indistinguishable from the real things. One would of course be able to select any form of sexual activity according to taste at the time. This would seem to be the epitome of separating sexual activity from any element of personality and love.

Something similar is already happening in Japan. I understand that many young men who show no interest in sex, achieve their emotional satisfaction by sustaining fictional relationships with young girls who appear only in cartoon form in a game which is accessed through a tablet computer. Against a background of many years of economic stagnation, they have tuned out of the real world and opted for a retreat into fantasy. About a third of unmarried women under 34 have no partner, and double that proportion of men. And many claim that they are “not even looking”. About a quarter of both sexes are virgins. Anecdotal reports suggest that committed relationships are hazardous, expensive, and interfere with other life choices.

Fortunately I am now at an age when such changes in attitude will not affect me directly. But, were these to do so, I would remind myself of the nature of artificial intelligence. I have quite a lot of it in my house already. Take my washing machine. Once the power button is pressed it works making several appropriate decisions, and eventually presents me with clean clothes, already nearly dry, and fit to hang up in the kitchen. Similarly my central heating does its job of switching on and off, requiring me only to interfere at the change of the seasons.

An intelligent robot is in no way different in principle. It has a much higher degree of autonomy since we now have digital control and programs which can make far more defined decisions through their vast complexity. But they are no more persons, have no more intelligence and no more freedom and consciousness than my washing machine.

Could I, in a moment of frustration and far into my cups, ever fully convince myself that a robot which appeared to be a delightful blonde with infinite sexual appetites, would really meet my need? If it were so, I would be careful in my use of her control panel. Pressing sado masochism might be a mistake.

How do we foresee the condition of a society which is gradually separating sexual expression from love and commitment?

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 88 Comments

Love, Death and Sterilisation

The Honourable Henry Thynn was born on 30 December 2016. His father was Lord Weymouth, but Lady Weymouth, 30 years old, did not give birth. That was an unnamed American lady who, for a consideration, undertook to carry the baby to term. Apparently US laws on surrogacy are more secure than ours. I am not concerned here with the morality of such an arrangement (which also, I assume, involved conception in vitro) but rather with the situation of any married woman for whom a pregnancy would be medically dangerous.

Lady Weymouth, 30 years old, has a rare condition called hypophysitis. It is a complex condition which had caused difficulties with her first pregnancy, and would seriously threaten her life through a second one. But for my purposes her condition stands in place of many commoner conditions which foresee dangers in pregnancy. I think in particular of a close friend who, after four children, was told that she should have no more because of her increasing tendency to blood clotting. She was 32. It must have been a difficult decision.

If we stand back from Catholic moral theology, we might think that the choice would be sterilisation. I know that in this case the couple considered this since they were faced by an imperative to avoid a conception. Their other possible choices were to use completely safe methods of contraception, or to cease marital congress for some 20 years and the arrival of menopause. They rejected contraception as the best approach, not only for aesthetic reasons but because the degree of danger, through faulty methodology or practice, was too high a risk where failure would mean the threat of maternal death.

Would this couple instead be well advised to reject refraining from marital congress? There was a time when the Church believed, and Augustine taught, that the sexual aspects of marriage were regrettable and only justified by the need for reproduction. It was taught that, although marital congress, being ordered by God, could not itself be condemned provided there was explicit intention to reproduce, it was effectively impossible to partake without being guilty of at least venial sins of lust. This teaching was never seriously questioned until the late 19th century, but step by reluctant step, the establishment has gradually accepted that, notwithstanding the obvious perils of lust, a married couple having a fine time in bed is a good thing.

We now understand that marital congress is at the centre of the intimacy which draws the couple together, completing and maintaining the concept of two into one flesh which Adam and Eve first expressed. And science complements this by noting the hormone release which itself draws the couple together. Of course there are times, even long times, when congress must be eschewed; these must be borne with supportive love. But to opt, as my friend might, to refrain for some twenty years would be a hazardous choice, and inconsistent with the relationship of marriage.

So we might expect them to choose sterilisation. I don’t suppose they were much concerned with Catholic moral theology. But in our circumstances, Catechism in hand, we should be. It is of course permitted to remove damaged organisms for the good of the body. But to, for instance, ligate healthy fallopian tubes in order to achieve permanent sterility is gravely wrong, irrespective of reasons. It comes under the condemnation of “mutilation”. Humanae Vitae confirms this prohibition “whether of the man or the woman”. Vasectomy for the husband would be a permanent loss of function – which he might require were he widowed and re-married. But it is harder to see why my friend’s fertility is of value to her life or her marriage when she must never use it.

But moral theology does not see it this way. The appeal is to natural law from which we may read from human structures what God requires. There are no exceptions, though in this case some might feel that the outcome is extreme. But in fact there have been exceptions. Although never formally approved, the Church was complicit in the castration of young males for the Vatican choir. Much more recently the gift of a kidney between living persons was regarded as a mutilation. What was once taught as an intrinsic evil is now hailed as an instance of heroic love.

Is this another case of a definitive law, long maintained in our moral tradition, which must nevertheless yield to particular circumstances? I am not going to tell you what my friend and her husband decided, but let’s imagine that they consult you about this decision. How would you advise them? You might dodge the problem by saying that it is a matter of conscience for them. But you can’t dodge me. If you were in their position, what would you decide?

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment | Tagged | 27 Comments

Are we animals?

Did you watch “Spy in the Wild” on BBC1 on 12 January? It was the most intriguing wild life programme I have ever seen. It was based on using animal robots which could be placed among different species – giving them, over time, plenty of opportunity to observe the most intimate moments. These were photographed through the robot’s eye.

The emphasis was on the relationships between the members of the pack – whether this was giraffes or elephants or monkeys (and several others). It became clear that each species had developed different social habits. But they all contributed to the welfare of their pack. You will have seen clips of elephant herds where all the members work as a team to protect the very young. We recognise the long term effects of evolution. Over perhaps millions of years those who behaved in a way which contributed to survival were more likely to live and breed so that their descendants inherited such desirable characteristics.

So far so obvious. But what came across most vividly was the strength of emotion. I only have to watch my cats (litter twins) meeting in each other’s territory to see strong, if hostile, emotions in action. But here what I was often watching was the emotion of care. We saw maternal love, self sacrifice and ritual mourning, to say nothing of adopting a pet from a different species. Had I not known that these were lower animals I would have thought that they were practising something essentially similar to loving one’s neighbour as oneself.

This interests me because it strongly suggested that a whole range of our virtuous actions are likely to be the outcome of our evolution rather then any spiritual goodness in us. Likewise our evil actions may largely come about in the same way. Just as the lower animals have their own natural law – to which they are wedded in order to flourish, so we have a natural law which, while being necessarily more complex, must be followed if we are to flourish.

Of course we have free will. Our advanced intelligence allows us to look at our natural law and then decide whether to follow it or whether to spurn it in order to get an immediate, apparent, advantage. I presume that the lower animals just go along with it. When they breach it we assume that it is not a moral fault but some other causal factor which we may not spot. My cats’ instinctive protection of their territory remains even though in their actual circumstances peaceful cooperation would be to their advantage.

It leaves me wondering just how much of what I think of as moral decisions are in fact the outcome of my evolution and my experiences. They may not be moral at all. Such virtues as others may (perhaps) spot in me may very well not be virtues at all but an instinctive gift from my ancestral line. My caring behaviour for my family (I have 21 descendants, and counting) may be no more than my acquired instinct to ensure that my genes are preserved for the future.

And, just as I finish this, I read an article in New Scientist which describes studies which show that even the experts are given to approving evidence which supports their existing opinion, and rejecting evidence which attacks it. So, for example, a debate on the inevitability of global warming will tell us more about the inclinations of the arguers than the strength of the evidence. And, if that is so for the soi disant experts, is it also so for us – not only for global warming but for all the issues on which we have firm opinions?

Posted in evolution, Moral judgment, Neuroscience, Quentin queries | 27 Comments