Thursday, October 13, 2016

Worries about Chesterton

This is a 'book review' I wrote in 2011 for the now-defunct 'Faith in the Home'. Chesterton's influence in the Church continues and I thought it would be good to put this out there somewhere.

‘Orthodoxy’ by G.K. Chesterton (first published 1908; Baronius Press edition, 2006) pp181 
Review by Joseph Shaw

It’s not often I review a book which has been published for more than a century, but at this time of rising Chestertonian revivalism, with Chesterton studies, Chesterton institutes, and reprints and references constantly appearing, it is as well to take stock of what is going on on planet ‘GCK’. Contrary to my own expectations, I am not very enthusiastic about what I see. Rather than trying to give a balanced assessment of GKC’s overall work, which would be a monumental task, let me list some of my misgivings, based on this one work.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Swinburne on sexual morality

The extraordinary and unprofessional reaction to Prof Richard Swinburne's paper at the SCP Midwest conference just over a week ago stimulates me to want to do what a lot of people appear to think should not be done: to engage with the issues Swinburne raises, and the arguments of his paper, philosophically. In a rather brief form, I'm going to do that here.

Swinburne divides moral principles into different categories, which we can call the precepts of Natural Law, and precepts of Divine Law. The latter are only binding because God has commanded them; the former are part of the nature of things, necessary moral truths as they apply to the circumstances of the world we live in. This distinction is common to Aquinas and Scotus, but Scotus puts more of the familiar moral principles of the Decalogue into the category of Divine Law, saying that (a) God had good reason to command what he did, but also that (b) God could have commanded differently, even without changing physical creation. Thus, whereas a Thomist might think that the obligation to honour our parents might work rather differently if human nature was such that we never knew who our parents are (and were born like turtles, out of eggs buried on the beach), a Thomst does not think that God could have told us to ignore our parents given how humans actually grow up. A Scotist thinks that all the precepts of the 'Second Tablet of the Law', from 4th to 10th Commandments (on the Latin/Catholic numbering), could have been different if God had so willed, even given human nature as it is.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Review of Francis Kamm, The Moral Target, in the Philosophical Quarterly

In this review I give a brief critique of Frances Kamm's reliance on ethical intuitions in her discussions.

It concludes:

The untangling of such confusions and distortions is not the work of sociologists, but of philosophers. It means that, rather than take for granted each intuition in a train of argument, we must take up the task of analysing, explaining, clarifying and systematizing our moral thinking, and setting our intuitions into some historical context. Given the audience of a piece of work, it can be perfectly reasonable to take certain assumptions for granted. On the other hand, ‘this seems right’ is seldom a sufficient reason to prefer one option to another, when anything important is at stake.
The whole review can be read here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

In response to the Beattie petition on the Polish Abortion Law


An ‘Open Letter’ or petition has been publicised calling on the Catholic Bishops of Poland to withdraw their support for a legislative initiative to criminalise all abortion. The signatures are arranged in alphabetical order, but the second name, Tina Beattie, Professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton, is one of the very few which will be widely recognised, and it will be convenient to refer to the document as ‘the Beattie Petition’. The text, purporting to come from signatories who ‘respect the Church’s moral stance against abortion’, is a disgraceful, but wholly unsuccessful, attempt to justify a failure to protect the unborn. It’s central contention, that abortion is not always an act of injustice towards innocent life deserving of legal protection, cannot overcome, and only ignore, Pope St John Paul II’s powerful declaration the Church’s infallible teaching on abortion, in his 1995 Encyclical Evanglium vitae §57:
Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

Before analysing the Petition, it is well to consider what legislation can hope to achieve on the subject of abortion. The answer is simple: the criminalisation of abortion will reliably suppress the openly practiced, legal abortion industry.

Abortion’s proponents, including the Beattie Petition, invariably argue that ‘driving abortion underground’ is of no benefit, but this is far from being the case. Most obviously, in times and places where abortion has been illegal, but where the availability of illegal abortion has been widely known, and efforts to stamp out illegal abortion far from vigorous, the number of abortions actually carried out has been very small compared with the number performed when abortion has been decriminalised, even under apparently restrictive legal regimes.

There are in addition three other important benefits of criminalisation.

First, the abortion industry’s legal existence creates permanent pressure for the easing of restrictions on abortion, by its support for political campaigning in favour of abortion; similarly, its existence acts as an advertisement of its services, even if some forms of open advertisement are not permitted.

Second, the abortion industry, as countless examples from around the world have demonstrated in recent years, has scant regard for the legal limitations under which it is supposed to operate, or for the safety of its clients. Indeed, it is also a fallacy, exposed in the most painful manner by recent criminal convictions in the United States that, unsafe and even illegal abortions, with poorly trained abortionists and in unsanitary conditions, necessarily disappear when abortion is legalised.

Third, the existence of legal abortion is corrosive to the ethos of the medical profession, whose training and practice is obliged to take account of abortion as a supposedly legitimate procedure. In practice, where abortion is legal and hospitals carry it out, administrators will put pressure on practioners to perform this unpopular procedure, and will ensure that it is included in medical training. A section, at least, of the medical profession will, often against their will, necessarily become involved in abortion, and its putative legitimacy will have to be taken into account in any discussion of medical ethics, undermining a proper understanding of the role of the doctor in relation to his or her patients, in the tradition of the Hippocratic Oath and of Catholic teaching on the Natural Law.

The central contention of the Beattie petition bears on another benefit of criminalisation, which is the most important of all: its effect on women in crisis pregnancies. The Petition claims:
We appreciate the complex ethical challenges involved in any intentionally abortive act. However, we also believe that our Catholic faith calls us to be attentive to suffering in all its forms, and to respond with trust in the mercy, forgiveness and compassion of God when faced with with [sic] profound moral dilemmas that offer no clear solution. In situations where abortion is deemed necessary – such as those currently permitted under Polish law – we believe that access to early, safe and legal abortion is essential.

The cases currently permitted by Polish law are those where a pregnancy is the result of rape; where the mother’s life is endangered by the pregnancy; and where the unborn child is severely disabled or terminally ill. It is these cases alone which will be affected by a complete ban, and which are addressed by the Beattie Petition.

It is difficult to see ‘mercy, forgiveness, and compassion’ at work in the decision to abort a disabled or sick child, particularly when the serious psychological and physical dangers abortion, compared with childbirth, has for mothers. Abortion is the preferred answer, rather, of a medical and social system which would rather not be burdened by the task of supporting mothers and their children in these difficult circumstances.

When a child is conceived in rape, the motivation of the rape victim and her friends and family in seeking abortion is easy to understand. It is equally clear, however, that it can never be a healing choice for a mother to consent to the destruction of her own child. The testimony of many women to the psychological trauma caused by abortion does not encourage the view that abortion is an easy way out for victims of rape.

The Petition focuses, instead, on the case of mothers whose health in endangered by continuing a pregnancy. In this case, the question arises of whether, in the context of modern medicine, such cases actually occur. The 2012 Dublin Declaration on Maternal Health states:
As experienced practitioners and researchers in obstetrics and gynaecology, we affirm that direct abortion – the purposeful destruction of the unborn child – is not medically necessary to save the life of a woman.

This has been signed by more than a thousand medical practioners. The Declaration clearly distinguishes, as the Catholic moral tradition does, and as laws restricting abortion typically do, between abortion, as a procedure aiming at the death of an unborn child, and the medical treatment of a pregnant mother which may endanger the child’s life. In the Catholic tradition, as in the law, the latter can often be legitimate, taking account of the seriousness of the threat to the mother, the possibility of alternative treatments, and so on.

The Beattie Petition appeals to the tragic circumstances implied in each of these cases, with the implication that offering the possibility of abortion is the compassionate thing to do. For a mother in a crisis pregnancy, in some cases traumatised by rape, in other cases seriously ill, or struggling to come to terms with the news that her child is severely disabled, the offer of abortion is not a compassionate intervention. When offered, perhaps with the encouragement of doctors or family members, it will generally present itself as a recommendation. Like all medical recommendations, it will in such circumstances require a special strength of character to resist it, particularly when accompanied by the implied threat: if you don’t abort, the baby will remind you of the rape, the baby will be disabled, the baby will kill you: claims which will not necessarily be true. Such recommendations may be accompanied by pressure, of a subtle or not so subtle kind, from partners or family members, who may for a variety of reasons prefer the baby not to exist. The open door to abortion will distract the attention of all involved from the alternative possibilities: of accepting the unique and sacred character of the child’s life, and of coming to terms with the problems implied by the pregnancy with the support of doctors, family members, and where appropriate the state. Offering abortion to mothers in these cases can, in practice, be hard to distinguish from dispatching them down a pathway of convenience for others, a pathway in which the complications of a crisis pregnancy are swept aside, and the mother is left to cope with the trauma of abortion instead, a trauma the existence of which the advocates of abortion, like the signatories of the Beattie Petition, do not wish even to acknowledge.

It is precisely in these tragic circumstances, more so than in cases where abortion is motivated by apparently frivolous considerations, that the reality of abortion is apparent, as an injustice not only to the unborn, but to the mother. Legal abortion opens up the most vulnerable women of all to pressure to consent to a crime against their unborn child, and against themselves. The criminalisation of abortion, as proposed today in Poland, is a step towards the protection of women and the unborn alike.

Two other claims of the Beattie Petition should briefly be considered. First is the claim that abortion could be reduced by greater availability of contraception:
Finally, there is a body of evidence to show that the best way to prevent abortion is to respect women’s human dignity and freedom of conscience with regard to reproductive decisions, by guaranteeing access to reliable methods of birth control.

Such evidence as is commonly cited is far from decisive, however; what is widely observed and agreed is that the majority of women seeking abortion had been using contraception. The connection between a contraceptive culture and the demand for abortion was set out by Pope St John Paul II in Evangelium vitae (1995) §13. It is strange, in any case, that this claim should be thought to have bearing on the cases of pregnancy resulting from rape, or where abortion is suggested because an unborn child is disabled, or the pregnancy is supposedly a danger to the mother’s life. However rare or common such cases may be, reliable contraception is not going to prevent them arising.

The second claim is the alleged relevance of religious freedom, and Dignatatis humanae, the Declaration on Religious Liberty of the Second Vatican Council, §2. This section deals with the freedom to profess religious beliefs. Any understanding of religious freedom must distinguish between the manifestation of beliefs in harmless ways, and the alleged manifestation of religious beliefs in ways which are unjust to others, particularly others who are do not, or cannot, consent to this treatment. What is unjust must, in turn, necessarily be assessed objectively. Dignitatis humanae makes precisely this distinction, in §7, and ignoring this fact is an indication of a lack of intellectual integrity in the Beattie Petition:
The right to religious freedom is exercised in human society: hence its exercise is subject to certain regulatory norms. In the use of all freedoms the moral principle of personal and social responsibility is to be observed. In the exercise of their rights, individual men and social groups are bound by the moral law to have respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare of all. Men are to deal with their fellows in justice and civility.

As a matter of fact, the Second Vatican Council directly addressed the issue of abortion, in the Dogmatic Constitution Gaudium et spes, §51, which stressed the obligation to guard against what is a crime, and not just a private sin:
For God, the Lord of life, has conferred on men the surpassing ministry of safeguarding life in a manner which is worthy of man. Therefore from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.

The Beattie Petition also includes an appeal to ‘the call to mercy and compassion mercy’ of Pope Francis. The petitioners can find no comfort, however, in the Holy Father’s most recent publication, the Post-Synodal Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (2016) §83:

So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb, that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life, which is an end in itself and which can never be considered the “property” of another human being.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Nuns in the Congo: non-authoritative, but true

The Pope referred to the famous case of the 'Nuns in the Congo' in the latest aeroplane interview. The case is about nuns who, fearing rape, take some kind of contraceptive pill. Pope Francis' exact purpose in making the reference was unclear, but not nearly unclear enough for the Vatican spokesman Fr Lombardi, who relived his triumphs in obscuring the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI on the dangers of condoms for people with AIDS, and in throwing sand into the eyes of everyone trying to make sense of Pope Benedict's remarks about male prostitutes using condoms.

In the meantime, Sandro Magister seems to have uncovered the history of the 'Nuns in the Congo' discussion, which wasn't what pretty well everyone had assumed up to now, claiming that Pope Paul VI said nothing on the subject. Rather, it had simply been discussed by some theologians under Pope John XXIII.

Being a moral philosopher rather than a historian or, for that matter, a mind-reader, I think the contribution I can best make here is to explain why the Nuns in the Congo case is important, regardless of whether Pope Paul VI or any other pope authorised any ruling about it.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

The narrative of victimhood: transsexuality

Fallon Fox, born a man, competes against women in
Mixed Marshall Arts, and does pretty well...
I've just noted on my other blog that living as a transsexual has been categorised by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as incompatible with the Faith. This is about the argument in favour of tolerating or promoting this lifestyle.

The transsexual phenomenon is not entirely new, but it is taking on a new form and become a cause celebre with astonishing speed. From a common-sense point of view it seems sheer lunacy: people can now simply claim to be the sex opposite to that indicated by their biology, and have this assertion officially recognised, with or without any medical diagnosis or intervention (not that either would make any real difference).

The radicals who have promoted the social acceptance of transsexuality in this sense have followed the strategy used in a number of other successful campaigns to change attitudes. In the cases of contraception, abortion, IVF, euthanasia, and drug use the appeal is made to a victim group disadvantaged by a old law or attitude, and opponents of change are accused of lacking compassion. Drug users are perhaps the least sympathetic of the proposed victim groups, which is why the legalisation of drugs has been a harder struggle, but the efforts by the liberal media to portray them as charming and harmless are all the more evident.

The other obstacle to the success of the strategy is the existence of a rival group of victims. These are most obviously identifiable in the case of abortion, which is why liberals can't stand depictions of the 'clumps of cells' removed in abortion as they really are: looking like babies. The narrative of people being victimised by an archaic law or attitude is thrown into doubt when it turns out that the proposed new practise simply victimises another set of people. The debate then has to focus on which set of victims has priority.

I'm focusing here on the structure of the arguments, not on their soundness. In the real world, there are real victims and real oppressors. Presenting people as such, however, does not make them so.

Considering this victim/ oppressor narrative is a very crude way of looking at the debates. In reality pro-lifers, for example, argue that women who are pressured into abortion, or who are hoodwinked into thinking of it as having no psychological consequences, are also victims. But the media like dealing with these simple narratives, and their opponents, to be successful, have to find a way to derail the narrative decisively. They need to be able to show, with a simple word or image or heart-felt example, that the victim vs. heartless oppressor story is the wrong way around. That Robin Hood is robbing the poor to keep himself rich, say. Pro-lifers haven't managed this yet, though attitude trends suggest they may be making progress.

The most spectacular example of a derailment, of a victim/ oppressor story being turned around, is is with paedophilia: or, as some of its proponents like to call it, 'intergenerational sex'. Right into the 1990s attempts were being made to establish it as a story about harmless paedophiles being oppressed by outmoded laws and attitudes. The most harmful thing to do to children was to tell them (or agree with them) that sexual contact with adults was wrong, we were told. It was the children's stories which turned it around. It was impossible, in the end, to brush aside their testimony.

A good example of a contested narrative is prostitution. Are those who use prostitutes victims or oppressors? Amnesty International has decided that they are victims: they should be able to exploit the desperation of women forced into prostitution to their heart's content. Most feminists take the opposite view: men who pay for consensual sex with professional sex workers should be hounded. I've been surprised at the strength of the pro-prostitution narrative, which has led to a degree of civil war among progressives, but I don't think it can last. The awfulness of the reality of decriminalised prostitution in Germany throws a bucket of cold water over the idea that clients are (when subjected to penalties) the victims.

The lack of a rival group of victims makes IVF and contraception particularly hard to oppose. On the other hand, the establishment of the disabled as a rival victim group in the case of euthanasia has seriously complicated efforts to promote it.

In the case of the debate about transsexualism, the liberal promoters of the idea naturally depict the transsexuals as victims and anyone not playing along with it as heartless oppressors. The victimisation consists of not allowing the transsexuals to do what they want to do. The problem the liberals face in this case is a ready-made rival group of victims: women, many of whom have no desire to share their changing facilities, loos, and competitive sports with people who are biologically male. Liberals have found themselves attacking these women in most extreme terms, but these victims are not going to go away, and unlike unborn babies, they can speak for themselves.

We live in interesting times, as the saying is. I wouldn't like to bet on it, but it may be that the liberals have bitten off more than they can chew with this one. Screaming 'bigot', at seventeen-year-old girls who don't want to shower in front of a biological male, is only going to get you so far.

(For a taste of the debate about what Americans so charminly call 'rest rooms', search for 'lila perry' on Twitter. To see the gloves really come off, search for 'terf'. It stands for 'trans excluding radical feminist'.)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Conference on Human Nature

Conference on Saturday 3rd May

Human Nature: Biology, Ethics and Theology

With Rev Prof Nicanor Austriaco OP
Associate Professor, Molecular Biology and Genetics, Providence College
Visiting Research Fellow, Anscombe Bioethics Centre

Fr Austriaco will present two papers on recovering natural inclinations and disinclinations in biological and ethical discourse, looking at how biological dis/inclinations relate to the Virtues, Natural Law and Original Sin.

Dr Joost Banneke (Clinical Psychology) 
Rev Dr Robert Gay OP (Biology, Bioethics)
Dr Simon Kolstoe (Biomedical Chemistry, Research Ethics)
Rev Dr Richard Conrad OP (Chemistry, Dogmatic Theology)

10.30-4pm, at Blackfriars Hall OX1 3LY

Please register online HERE.
Or via / 01865 610212

Registration is £10 (includes lunch)