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.

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 Martial 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 practice 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)