What Comes Next?

Monday, 08-31-2020


The current system of education, both lower and higher, is getting ready to implode -- not as quickly as some expect, but much more quickly than others think, and the higher will go first.

Some have asked how to replace the system (for example with video instruction by superstars).

Foolish, foolish.  What they ought to be asking is how to replace the things that gimmicks like that can't replace.


Wouldn’t That Be Interesting?

Thursday, 08-27-2020


For all sorts of reasons, opinion polls mean far less than we think.

Some people don’t trust promises of anonymity, and either refuse to participate, or tell the pollsters what they think they want to hear.  This is especially true in an era when some opinions are subject to harsh penalties.  You can lose your job.

Some think they understand the question but don’t, especially when news coverage has been inadequate.  Are they being asked whether black lives matter, whether they agree with the actions of people who say black lives matter, whether they agree with the reported actions of people who say black lives matter, or whether they agree with their demands?

Some are systematically underrepresented because of how the pollsters divide people into groups and weight them.  Do they weight them according to how they are registered, how they say they are likely to vote, or how they voted in the last election?

Perhaps the best-known reason is that the answer the person gives depends on how the question is worded.  Are they asked whether they support restrictions on abortion on demand, or on “reproductive liberty” or “a woman’s right to choose”?

These problems aren’t easy to solve, partly because of the biases of the pollsters themselves.  Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  It would be interesting to poll the pollsters, but who could you trust to poll them? 

As to the problem of how to word the questions, though, here’s an idea:  Assign people randomly to groups.  Word the question differently for each one.  Don’t report “the answer.”  Instead report the differences in the answers.  Let readers make of them what they will.


What Should We Make of Integralism?

Monday, 08-24-2020



I have been trying to figure out what to make of the political theory called integralism, and would appreciate hearing your reflections.  Although it presents itself as distinctively Catholic, most Catholics seem to be against it, and people who invoke Thomas Aquinas seem to be found on both sides, as illustrated by this piece.  On these seas, I’m a babe in a basket.



This is not the first time I’ve taken this question, but I’ll try to answer more fully this time.  Although integralists seem to propose a relationship between Church and State that puts the Church in the drivers’ seat, precisely what they want is less clear than you might think.  Making the matter even harder to talk about is the fact that various writers associate integralism with all sorts of different propositions, for example about the purpose of law, the nature of the common good, and the apportionment of power among the branches of the government.  I would say that integralists and their allies are very right about some of these matters and very wrong about others.  Let’s break out some of the questions and address them one at a time. 

1.  Whether there is such a thing as religious neutrality.  No.  Whether implicitly or explicitly, every political order revolves around certain views of the goods, including the ultimate goods, and repudiates others.  The integralists are right about that.

2.  Whether the impossibility of religious neutrality implies that we should have a confessional state.  We should ardently pray for the State to be friendly and cooperative to the Church.  It would be wonderful if its rulers themselves adhered to the faith, though this means less than one might think because one can never know whether they mean it.  However, the whole notion of a confessional state is usually misunderstood.  In a sense, the Declaration of Independence already proposes a confession of faith -- it appeals to the laws of nature and nature's God, views Him in a way Christians can accept (even though they consider it incomplete), and presupposes a high view of the person whom He made.  But although the Declaration’s confession is declared, it is not enforced.  By contrast, although modern liberalism pretends to have no confession of faith, it vigorously imposes one, and the one it imposes is profoundly at odds with the one Christians profess.  One confession is declared but not enforced; the other is enforced but not declared.

3.  Whether the law should encourage the virtues.  Of course.  Barring tyranny and incompetence, what else does law ever do?

4.  Whether the law should encourage them by every means.  Certainly not; there are limits.  The reason for these limits is not that we suspend judgment about the virtues, but that we judge that overreaching undermines the virtues.  For example, the law can forbid acts of hatred, such as murder, but it cannot forbid hatred as such, which is an invisible movement of the heart that the law cannot detect.  Another illustration is that the law should not demand too much, too fast, of persons imperfect in virtue, or else wicked men may break out into yet greater evils.  Quoting Proverbs, St. Thomas drives home the point by remarking that "he who bloweth his nose too violently draweth forth blood."

5.  Whether the law should encourage "private" virtues.  Some opponents of integralism have urged this point of view against its defenders, but the question is poorly framed, because every virtue has public consequences.  For example, we may say that marital faithfulness is private, but family instability hurts everyone, and a statesman who cannot keep his vows to his wife certainly cannot be trusted to keep his promises to the citizens.  On the other hand, the critics would be right to say that not all acts of virtue have public consequences, and the law should concern itself only with those acts that do.  Honesty:  Should the law require that a teenager be honest in her diary?  No.  Should it require that a witness not perjure himself?  Yes.  Courage:  Should the law require timid persons to stand up to boors?  No.  Should it require soldiers not to desert their posts?  Yes.  Wittiness:  Should the law require citizens never to tell unfunny jokes?  No.  Should it require them never to tell libelous ones?  Yes.  You see where this is going.

6.  Whether the law should encourage not only the ordinary virtues, such as justice and temperance, but also the spiritual virtues, such as charity and faith.  It can't.  Ordinary virtues are acquired by the moral sweat of doing the right things until they become habitual, and the law can certainly call upon us to do the right things.  However, integralists need to remember that although not without the cooperation of the will, spiritual virtues are infused by the Holy Spirit, and the law can do nothing to instill them.  What it can do is honor them – and, as I said earlier, be friendly and cooperative to the Church, where the real spiritual action is going on.

7.  Whether the law should promote the common good.  Of course it should; law is a public institution.  Some critics have faulted integralists for saying so, but there has been a lot of loose talk on all sides about the common good, and promoting the common good has sometimes been viewed as though it were in competition with protecting individuals and their rights.  No, it is only at odds with the liberal notion of what it means to protect them.  Properly understood, the common good includes ensuring that individuals have the legal powers to conduct their own proper affairs, for instance to make fundamental decisions about the education of their children.

8.  In the name of the common good, should the law absorb or take under its wing those less encompassing forms of association, such as the family, which make their own proper contributions to the common good?  Of course not.  The State should respect subsidiarity, the principle that less encompassing forms of association should be honored and allowed to do their work.  These forms of association do not exist for the state; rather it exists for them.

9.  Should the primary decisions about the common good be put in the hands of a strong judiciary?  No.  Some integralists seem to think so, but the making of laws, and the adjudication of cases according to the laws, should not be combined in the same hands.

10.  Then should the primary decisions about the common good be put in the hands of a far-reaching and powerful executive?  Some integralists seem to take this view too, but I think it is wrong; the executive should cooperate with the legislature rather than taking its place.  One can certainly imagine a country in which the people have become too corrupt to choose wise lawmakers, so that the job falls to a king instead.  However, that is a desperate recourse, not an ideal.  Moreover, the making of a plethora of laws by a maze of executive agencies, whether or not called a royal bureaucracy, ultimately destroys the rule of law itself, because the rules become too complex and mysterious to be known, understood, or even obeyed.

One more point.  I hope no one on any side thinks the State should enforce the faith upon persons outside herself.  “Human salvation is procured not by force,” Isidore says, “but by persuasion and gentleness," and this is the Church’s doctrine too.  She does have the authority to teach the moral law that all men of good will accept, however cloudy their understanding of it may be.  But she has never claimed to be able to make detailed, authoritative prudential judgments within the envelope of this moral law.  Whatever opinions, even good opinions, a Pope may have about the best refrigerator gasses, or whether to drinking straws should be paper or plastic, such things are beyond the Church’s competence.  For that we have human institutions.


Why I Can’t Talk About Integralism

Public Worship, Public Error, and Indifference

Secularism and Its Children

Has Common Good Constitutionalism Anything to Do with Constitutions?

Interpreting the Law

Why Liberalism Is Illiberal, Part 1 of 2

Why Liberalism Is Illiberal, Part 2 of 2

The Strange Second Life of Confessional States


Repressive Tolerance Theory Rides Again

Thursday, 08-20-2020


A generation ago, the New Left followers of Herbert Marcuse preached the theory of “repressive tolerance,” which meant that tolerating the free expression of all opinions is repressive, because it hinders the triumph of the good ones.  Like socialism.

That was merely the first drip of a drenching wave of paradoxes that become more and more extreme.  In the old days, you had to express hatred to be considered hateful, and had to commit violence to be considered violent.   Now it all depends on your opinion.

If you have the right one, you can be called peaceful for brandishing an AK-47 on the street, hurling an incendiary device, or trying to burn down a building.  If you have the wrong one, you can be called hateful for proposing love.


Is There a Moral “Sense”?

Monday, 08-17-2020



I am relatively new to Thomism and find your blog posts helpful, but I have a question.  Does our knowledge of the natural law begin with sense data?  Is the natural law a sensible thing?  If so, by which sense?  St. Paul states that the natural law is written on the human heart.



Good question.  The senses do not immediately perceive the natural law – they don’t “see” or “hear” it -- because the senses, by themselves, perceive only singulars.  The eye sees only this apple, and the ear hears only this robin.  However, the rational mind has the power to recognize the universal forms implicit in the singular that we sense:  Apple as such, robin as such.  Thus, too, even though we encounter only particular instances of universal truths (for example that this door is open and not closed, and that this statement is true and not false), we are able to grasp their universality as well (for example that nothing can both be and not be in the same sense at the same time).

By the way, this power is one of our greatest distinctions from beasts, which never rise beyond the knowledge of singulars.  It also demonstrates the immortality of the human soul, because although the senses depend only on the body, the power to recognize the universal forms implicit in the singulars that we sense transcends the body, therefore does not depend on the body, and therefore can survive the body’s death.  On the other hand, this power also has limits.  For example, it is sufficient to work out demonstrations that God exists, and demonstration of certain other truths about Him, but it is not sufficient to show us the essence of God as He is in Himself, because He cannot be seen or touched.  Only in heaven will we see Him face to face, when the power of our minds is supernaturally elevated.  But we need not go further into these matters now.

Back to your question:  We know the first principles of practical reason, which are the first precepts of natural law, by means of the power of the mind St. Thomas calls synderesis and that I like to call “deep conscience” (by contrast with conscientia, which is conscience in application).  In much the same way that in the realm of theoretical reason I immediately grasp such principles as that, say, two things equal to a third thing are equal to each other, so in the realm of practical reason I immediately grasp the precepts that, say, I must not commit undeserved harm to another person.  All of the precepts of the Decalogue are knowable either as first principles, or as proximate implications of the first principles.

But besides synderesis, we have other help too:

2.  From various considerations we infer the reality of God, His blessings, our indebtedness to Him, and the fact that He Himself is our supreme good.  Putting all this together with synderesis we recognize that we owe Him obedience, and must never commit any act that is not rightly ordered to Him, for example scorning Him or giving created things the honor that only He deserves.

3.  From the order of our own souls and bodies we recognize that our powers have meanings and purposes; for example, the sexual powers are all about the procreative unity of the spouses.  From this we recognize that we should not conduct ourselves in ways that undermine and thwart these meanings and purposes, for example by having sexual intercourse outside of marriage.

4.  From the evidence of our lives we recognize that certain deeds have not just accidental but essential consequences.  From this we recognize that we should avoid deeds that have bad fruit, for example using heroin to get high.

Does this help?


Follow-up question:

Thank you so much for your reply.  St. Thomas' positions are slowly becoming clearer to me.

If I understand you and St. Thomas correctly, our intellects simply grasp first principles, including the first precepts of natural law.  But how do we reconcile the following two passages in his book On Truth:

1. Whatever is in our intellect must have previously been in the senses. (Q. 2, Art. 3, Reply to Objection 19)

2. There necessarily are some things in our intellect which it knows naturally, namely, first principles -- even though in us this knowledge is not caused unless we receive something through our senses (Q. 8, Art. 15).

It seems to me that these two propositions cannot both be true.  If we grasp first principles naturally, then they need not have been in the senses.    

Thank you for your patience and I look forward to reading your thoughts.  Thank you also for all your work.



I see your difficulty.  You are assuming that what is known naturally must be known innately, and must therefore be independent of the sensesSome of the revisionist natural law thinkers of the early modern period thought of natural knowledge that way, but St. Thomas doesn’t.  He believes in natural knowledge, but not in innate knowledge.

To consider the simplest example, I know naturally that good is to be done.  I wasn't born knowing this, and if I had never had the experience of anything good, I could not even have conceived the ideas that this proposition relates.  Having had such experience, however, I see for myself that the idea of what is to be done is “contained” in the idea of what is good, and is necessarily true.  How’s that?



Yes, this helps a lot!


What the Galileo Story Really Tells Us

Thursday, 08-13-2020


Church authorities greatly erred in condemning Galileo, but here’s the part of the story we aren't usually told:  They didn’t criticize him for following the science, but for not following it.  Many scholars and Church authorities considered his heliocentric hypothesis interesting and possibly true, but he treated it as proven, even though it didn’t square terribly well with observations.  (And now we know why:  He assumed circular orbits, not elliptical.)

This ought to serve as a reminder that policy can never be based just on "what the science says," because science never speaks with one voice.  It is often, in a sense, political, even if it is not partisan.  Small wonder, because the evidence doesn’t speak for itself.  It may not even be clear what counts as evidence in the first place, and the evidence is viewed through the lens of preconceived ideas that may be wrong.  Disagreement among scientists is normal and healthy, but just as in the rest of life, a minority may be suppressed for a long time just because the majority can get away with it.

Consider recent dogmas about population growth.  The psychology of sex.  Continents that stay in one place.  Natural selection.  Climate change.  Renewable energy.  And by the way, epidemiology.


The Puzzle of Exceptionless Rules

Monday, 08-10-2020


The classical natural law tradition holds that there really are such things as exceptionless moral precepts, rules that must never be broken, lines of conduct that can never be placed in right order to the ultimate and final good.

If true, this is profoundly important.  Many, especially those who are called consequentialists and proportionalists, think it is false.  They believe that under certain circumstances, anything whatsoever might be morally permissible, or even required.

I think the tradition is correct and the objectors dreadfully wrong, but the objector asks, “How can this be?”  Consider a simple moral precept that seems to have no exceptions:  “Do not steal.”

On the face of it, the precept seems pretty clear.  But what counts as stealing?  To clarify, we might say “Stealing is taking from another person.”  But not all taking from another is wrong.  It isn’t wrong to levy a just tax for the common good, or to make an offender pay a fine.  The objector says, “See?  There aren’t any exceptionless precepts.”

The straightforward solution is that whatever really is stealing is wrong, but those things are not stealing.

But to make this answer work, we need to specify more clearly what counts as stealing.

Perhaps we can do better with Thomas Aquinas’s formula, “Stealing is taking from another person unduly,” or, as we would say, “wrongly.”  But now the objector might say that this formula makes the original prohibition of stealing tautological:   It turns it into the circular claim that it is wrong to take what it is wrong to take.

With a little help from the tradition, let’s go still further.  “Stealing is deliberately taking from another person what rightly belongs to him against his reasonable will.”  Have we now escaped our difficulties?

Well, I do think this traditional formula defines stealing correctly, but right away we notice that it requires us to understand a set of other moral concepts:  “Deliberately” acting, what “rightly belongs” to a person, and what it would not be “reasonable” for him to will.

And obviously, the explanation of each of these moral concepts would require us to understand still more moral concepts.  To consider just the first one, suppose I elucidate by saying “Deliberate action is action performed knowingly and as the outcome of consideration and choice.”   This requires us to understand what is meant by action performed “knowingly,” and what is meant by “deliberation and choice.”

The problem isn’t that there are exceptions, but that in order to understand any ethical reality fully – in this case the wrong of stealing -- we have to understand others as well.

This is the sort of thing that makes contemporary people throw up their hands and say “It’s all subjective anyway.”  But there is nothing special about ethics; to understand anything we have to understand other things too.  The meaning of one thing always depends on the meanings of others.  If I say “turn out the light,” then in order to understand me you have to know what a light is, which light I mean, and what it means to turn it off.  The fact that things are related to other things doesn’t make the meaning of turning out the light subjective, and it doesn’t make the meaning of stealing subjective either.

Still, we might wish things were simpler.  Could we make them simpler by reducing everyday ethical meanings to more elementary ones, and those to still more elementary ones, until finally we reached a finite set of absolutely simple starting points?  Well, there are starting points, but that’s not how they work.  As St. Thomas pointed out, everything in ethics does come down to the elementary notions of good and evil -- unless we understand what those two mean, we cannot understand anything else – but that doesn’t mean we don’t need other ideas too.

For example, justice is good and injustice is evil, but justice is a particular species of good, differing from others.  To explain what species it is, we have to bring in the idea of what people deserve.  Does that mean that if only we expand our set of elementary notions from “good and evil” to “good, evil, and desert,” then all our problems will be solved?  Nope, for what people deserve depends in turn on proportionality.  It would not be proportional for me to demand that you give me six dollars in return for three dollars’ worth of bread.  So are we all right if only we expand our set to “good, evil, desert, and proportionality?”  Not then either, because proportionality depends on other things, which depend on other things, which depend on other things.

There is probably no limit to this sort of thing – the further we go in deriving ethical “theorems” from “axioms,” the more elementary notions we will have to bring in.  Yes, certain basic notions are necessary for understanding any ethical statement at all, but no, we cannot reduce all ethical statements to a finite set of elementary ones.

Something like this is true in logic and mathematics too.  The further you go, the more axioms you need to prove the theorems.  They don’t teach that in Geometry I, but it’s true.

Mathematicians have learned to live with that sort of thing.  So can we.  We don’t have to despair of understanding what the moral rules mean, because it is always possible to settle things that aren’t clear to us by considering others that are at least more clear to us.  Can we reduce every ethical notion to a finite set of absolutely elementary notions without anything left over?  No.  But we can reduce every ethical notion to notions that are clearer to us.

We do this every day, and not just in ethics.  You say you want me to turn off the light.  What do you mean by the light?  I mean the brightest light source that can be stopped from giving light.  What do you mean by turning it off?  Stopping it from doing that.  Have all possible questions been answered?  No!  But do I get it?  Yes!  And that’s enough.

Back to ethics:  Saying that stealing is deliberately taking from another person what rightly belongs to him against his rational will doesn’t answer all possible questions either.  But in the vast majority of cases, we do understand “enough to go on” about what it means to do things deliberately, what rightly belongs to a person, and what it is reasonable for him to will.  If we are still puzzled, we can ask more questions.  If even the least attempt to explain what we are not to take from others left us in the dark, we would have a problem, but this turns out not to be so.

We are now in a better position than before to answer the question of whether there are any exceptionless moral precepts.

At the level of complete generality, the proposition “Avoid evil” has no exceptions.

At the second level of generality, the proposition “Do not steal” still has no exceptions.

At the third level of generality, the proposition “Do not take from another unduly” still has no exceptions.

At the fourth level of generality, the proposition “Do not deliberately take from another person what rightly belongs to him against his reasonable will” still has no exceptions.

It is not until a much later stage of detailed specification that we begin to hit propositions that do have exceptions, such as “Whenever someone has left his property in your safekeeping, then if he demands it, return it to him.”  To these more detailed rules – though not to the general ones -- there are exceptions, and the more detailed we make them, the more exceptions there are.  For instance, if I am staggering drunk when I ask for my car keys, you should withhold them until I am sober.  Yet it would be absurd to suggest that the ordinary person hasn’t a clue how to proceed concerning these exceptions.  He knows a great deal.

True, since the ordinary person doesn’t speak like an ethical philosopher, he may not be able to parse the proposition “Do not deliberately take from another person what rightly belongs to him against his reasonable will.”  But whether or not he can parse it, he intuitively grasps the things that the proposition is about.

For instance, he grasps that if I drive away without knowing that his property is in my car, it does not count as stealing.  He grasps that that if he deprives a murderer of his weapon, it does not count as stealing.  He grasps that if a starving man sneaks a carrot from his over-stocked garden despite his unreasonable refusal to let him have one, it does not count as stealing either.  (I mean ethically.  The criminal law may be less discerning.)

Those who think about these things can explain the reasons why none of these are stealing.  For example, culpability requires knowledge; I may have been culpable of carelessness for driving away, but not culpable of stealing.  Moreover, the institution of private property exists because the good of all is better accomplished with it than without it; it does not exist merely for the good of the possessor.

The problem, then, isn’t that we can’t state exceptionless rules.  It is merely that we can’t state them in such a way that they can be understood even by moral cretins. 

This implies:  That besides rules, we need virtues, like wisdom, which tell us what living by the rules is about.  We possess these virtues to varying degrees.  Some ethical precepts are so simple that they can be understood by everyone.  Others can be understood only by the wise, so that those who are wise must instruct the simple.

But this does not imply:  That there are exceptions to everything, that the general moral rules are circular, or that, under the right circumstances, anything whatsoever might be permissible.

So the proposition that when properly understood, some precepts have no exceptions whatsoever, involves us in subtler matters than may at first appear.  But it is true.