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Was Killing Osama Bin Laden Just?

“For the United States, a Long-Sought Prize; for Obama, a Welcome Victory.” The New-York Times headline last week captures a critical truth about Bin Laden’s assassination: it carries more symbolic than strategic significance:

How much his death will affect Al Qaeda itself remains unclear. For years, as they failed to find him, American leaders have said that he was more symbolically important than operationally significant because he was on the run and hindered in any meaningful leadership role. And yet, he remained the most potent face of terrorism around the world and some of those who played down his role in recent years nonetheless celebrated his death.

Killing of any kind, even of someone as wicked as Osama bin Laden, should give us pause, as Patrick Clark observes over at In the Christian tradition, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that wicked people should be killed for their transgressions. Operative here are Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard it said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth fora tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

Thomists, following Augustine, do not take this passage as commanding passivism or non-resistance. Aquinas holds that is just to kill sinners “if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin . . . in order to safegard the common good” (II-II, Q. 64, art. 2). In a bit of a departure from Augustine, Thomas also allows for killing in self-defense:

It is not necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.

This passage forms the basis of the just war tradition which allows Christians to engage in warfare for the protection of the common good. There are, however, important limitations to the circumstances in which such killing might be justified, patricularly regarding proportionality and the protection of the innocent (II-II, Q. 64.2, ad. 1).

Thus, if killing Osama bin Laden was simply an act of self-defense, it would seem like a relatively unproblematic act in the Thomistic moral tradition. But it was not self-defense that most motivated his execution:

Mr. Obama called Mr. Bush on Sunday evening to tell him that Bin Laden had been killed. Shortly after Mr. Obama’s announcement at the White House, Mr. Bush issued a statement congratulating his successor, saying, “No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”

What is this justice that has been done? I suggest it is rather vengeance that has been accomplished, “the infliction of a penal evil on one who has sinned,” as Aquinas defines it (II-II, Q. 108 art. 1). It is vengeance that has sent people dancing in the streets all over this country (or in the libraries as the case may be at my own Boston College, where amid celebrations, exams and papers still have to get done):

“I don’t know if it will make us safer, but it definitely sends a message to terrorists worldwide,” said Stacey Betsalel, standing in Times Square with her husband, exchanging high fives. “They will be caught and they will have to pay for their actions. You can’t mess with the United States for very long and get away with it.”

For Aquinas, vengeance is not evil in and of itself, but its moral evaluation depends on the mind of the avenger. If the intention of the avenger is evil of the person on whom she takes vengeance, the act is rendered unlawful,

because to take pleasure in another’s evil belongs to hatred, which is contrary to the charity whereby we are bound to love all men. Nor is it an excuse that he intends the evil of one who has unjustly inflicted evil on him, as neither is a man excused for hating one that hates him: for a man may not sin against another just because the latter has already sinned against him, since this is to be overcome by evil, which was forbidden by the Apostle, who says (Romans 12:21): “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good.”

Vengeance is only justified when the intention is good, “for instance that the sinner may amend, or at least that he may be restrained and others be not disturbed, that justice may be upheld, and God honored.” Moreover, vengeance, when motivated by an upright will, is actually a special virtue, reckoned under the virtue of justice: “Man resists harm by defending himself against wrongs, lest they be inflicted on him, or he avenges those which have already been inflicted on him, with the intention, not of harming, but of removing the harm done. . . Therefore vengeance is a special virtue” (II-II, Q. 108, art. 3).

I think there is a relatively good chance that a Thomist could justify vengeance in this case. Thomas even goes so far as to say that killing out of vengeance can be profitable to the common good. Notice, though, the contingency of these two sentences. Merely because vengeance can be justifiable does not mean it ought to be sought out. The justification of an act of vengeance depends on whether or not the act was prudent.

I want to suggest that in this case, killing Osama bin Laden was not prudent. First of all, it seems he was killed with relatively little resistance. With our highly-trained Navy Seals responsible for the mission, there is no reason that I can see that he could not have been captured and tried. Bin Laden’s capture could have prevented criticisms like the ones we see from his own family, published recently in the NYTimes:

If he has been summarily executed then, we question the propriety of such assassination where not only international law has been blatantly violated but USA has set a very different example whereby right to have a fair trial, and presumption of innocence until proven guilty by a court of law has been sacrificed on which western society is built and is standing when a trial of OBL was possible for any wrongdoing as that of Iraqi President Sadam Hussein and Serbian President Slobodan Miloševic’. We maintain that arbitrary killing is not a solution to political problems and crime’s adjudication as Justice must be seen to be done.

Moreover, Osama bin Laden’s execution resulted in the death of non-combatants, including a woman. The Christian tradition has a precedent that in executing vengeance, the “wheat should not be uprooted with the chaff,” and if the innocent suffer along with the guilty, vengeance ceases to be virtuous. Aquinas acknowledges that vengeance may be executed on a populace that bears a common guilt, thus providing a possible justification of the killing of a non-combatant in the execution, but again, only if in conformance with the demands of prudence:

On the other hand, if it is not the whole but only a part of the multitude that has sinned, then if the guilty can be separated from the innocent, vengeance should be wrought on them: provided, however, that this can be done without scandal to others; else the multitude should be spared and severity foregone. The same applies to the sovereign, whom the multitude follow. For his sin should be borne with, if it cannot be punished without scandal to the multitude: unless indeed his sin were such, that it would do more harm to the multitude, either spiritually or temporally, than would the scandal that was feared to arise from his punishment (II-II 108.1, ad. 5).

It is not clear to me that Osama bin Laden’s death has not caused a scandal, especially if the remarks made by his family are commonplace, as I suspect they are:

I Omar Ossama Binladin and my brothers the lawful children and heirs of the Ossama Binladin (OBL) have noted wide coverage of the news of the death of our father, but we are not convinced on the available evidence in the absence of dead body, photographs, and video evidence that our natural father is dead. Therefore, with this press statement, we seek such conclusive evidence to believe the stories published in relation to 2 May 2011 operation Geronimo as declared by the President of United States Barrack Hussein Obama in his speech that he authorized the said operation and killing of OBL and later confirmed his death. . .

In making this statement, we want to remind the world that Omar Ossam Binladin, the fourth-born son of our father, always disagreed with our father regarding any violence and always sent messages to our father, that he must change his ways and that no civilians should be attacked under any circumstances. Despite the difficulty of publicly disagreeing with our father, he never hesitated to condemn any violent attacks made by anyone, and expressed sorrow for the victims of any and all attacks. As he condemned our father, we now condemn the president of the United States for ordering the execution of unarmed men and women.

Relying on the political and moral realism of Aquinas, we don’t get clear answers to the justifiability of Bin Laden’s execution. We get no categorical statements like “Killing is always wrong” or “Christians should never pursue vengeance.” Both killing and vengeance have a place in Aquinas’ moral system. I am just not so sure they have a place in the recent execution of Osama Bin Laden. Regardless, as a Thomist, I am forced to sit uneasy with the president’s decision to call for his execution and not respond, as he did, with certainty about the justice of his actions.

A wonderful new website is launching today called Here 15 talented young moral theologians will gather to offer their ethical insights and reflections on news, the lectionary, and topics of specific academic interest. As the mission states

We are a group of North American Catholic moral theologians who come together in friendship to engage each other in theological discussion, to aid one another in our common search for wisdom, and to help one another live lives of discipleship, all in service to the reign of God. We understand our role as scholars and teachers to be a vocation rooted in the Church and so we seek to place the fruits of our training at the service of the Church, as well as the academy and the world. We recognize that we as a group will have disagreements, but want to avoid the standard “liberal /conservative” divide that often characterizes contemporary conversation, as well as the bitterly divisive tone of so much ethical discussion (particularly on the internet). We therefore endeavor to converse with each other and others in a spirit of respect, charity, and humility.

Unlike some areas of theology which tend to descend in the arcane and incomprehensible, moral theology (or Christian ethics) is one that must be done always in and with the Church with an eye towards the world. This is because the subject of moral theology is how Christians can live a good life in relationship to God and neighbor. So this effect, Charlie of No Hidden Magenta has a post up on happiness.

Moral theology must also deal with the very complex moral issues that we read about in the news, offering insights that will help Christians prudently form a response. To this effect, Charlie has a post on whether having sex requires that you also consent to paying child support, whether you intend to conceive or not. David has a post of Libya. I have a post on Nebraska’s new fetal pain bill.

The blog will offer weekly commentary on the lectionary from an ethical perspective. You can subscribe to the lectionary section to help deepen your appreciation of the readings at Sunday Mass.

Everydaythomist will stay up and running, with about a post a week, as has been my custom for the past three years. Because will not be open to public comments, I will also try to create a place for public comments at everydaythomist on particularly controversial or important issues. But goes beyond what everydaythomist can do in offering a paradigm of theological and ethical dialogue and exchange. I hope you will find the new blog a resource in your own life.

Is There a Christian Response to the Organ Shortage?

Maybe because I teach the topic, but I have been noticing a significant increase in the media’s coverage of organ allocation in recent weeks. In January, two sisters who had been in prison for sixteen years in Mississippi were released on the condition that the younger sister donate her organ to her older sister. The ethical response to this case focused on the financial motives for releasing the sisters:

After considering the matter for several months, Governor Barbour announced in late December that he would not pardon the sisters, but would indefinitely suspend their sentences.

He said he had acted in part out of concern over Jamie Scott’s health, but also to relieve the state of the cost of her dialysis treatment, which is approximately $200,000 a year.

“The Mississippi Department of Corrections believes the sisters no longer pose a threat to society,” Mr. Barbour said in a Dec. 29 statement. “Their incarceration is no longer necessary for public safety or rehabilitation, and Jamie Scott’s medical condition creates a substantial cost to the State of Mississippi.”

Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said Mr. Barbour’s decision to free the women on the basis of the kidney donation had crossed a moral line.

“Either out of ignorance or out of indifference, he shifted what had been a gift into compensation,” Dr. Caplan said. “He turned it into a business contract.”

While it definitely raised ethical eyebrows, the judge’s decision in this case reflects a much larger ethical debate concerning what should be done about the shortage of available organs.

Currently in this country, about 100,000 people are waiting for organs. About three-quarter of these will die before they receive an organ. There are numerous proposals for what to do about the shortage of available organs, some of them rather creepy like the New York “Organ Wagon” that will try and harvest organs from cardiac arrest patients within twenty minutes of death. More serious and far-reaching proposals tend to focus on two solutions: (a) moving to a “presumed consent” policy and (b) encouraging donation through financial incentives.

A “presumed consent” policy already has a lot of worldwide support. Currently, in the US, organ donation depends on explicit informed consent. In other words, organs can only be harvested from your cadaver if you explicitly say so, usually by indicating so on your driver’s license. Supporters of a presumed consent policy argue that the number of available organs could be increased dramatically by requiring explicit “opting-out” of donation, presuming that all those who have not said otherwise have tacitly consented. This is already the policy in many European countries. Opponents argue that such a policy violates the foundational bioethical principle of informed consent, and furthermore, could exacerbate fears about doctors prematurely “harvesting” organs.

Another solution to the organ shortage looks to financial incentives. This is the argument of Sally Satel (herself an organ recipient) who argues specifically that relying on altruism for organ donation has failed. Satel’s argument is not so much that human beings are primarily self-interested rather than other-interested, but rather that an altruistic motive for organ donation alone is not sufficient. She recommends incentives like health insurance, tax credits, education vouchers, funeral expenses, and retirement funding as added motivations for people to donate.

The obvious response to a financial incentive solution is that it will place undue burdens on the poor while possibly disproportionately favoring the wealthy. In other words, it is the poor who would be most motivated by financial incentives to give up their organs without the same likelihood as the rich in actually receiving an organ. Satel’s incentives are primarily federally-allocated, as they are in Israel, thus avoiding the less savory option of having the organ recipient pay the donor directly (which is currently illegal in the US and elsewhere). Critics still argue that such a federal-based solution might not resolve the current organ trafficking problem, and may actually make it worse.

Most recently in the US, the debate has shifted away from increasing the supply of organs towards re-allocating the distribution of organs. The new policy of the United Network for Organ Sharing attempts to replace the current first-come, first-serve model with a more complex rationing protocol that would distribute organs first to those most likely to benefit: the young and the healthy.

“Right now, if you’re 77 years old and you’re offered an 18-year-old’s kidney, you get it,” said Dr. Richard N. Formica, a transplant physician at Yale University and a member of the panel that wrote the proposed policy. “The problem is that you’ll die with that kidney still functioning, while a 30-year-old could have gotten that kidney and lived with it to see his kids graduate from college.”

Under the proposal, patients and kidneys would each be graded, and the healthiest and youngest 20 percent of patients and kidneys would be segregated into a separate pool so that the best kidneys would be given to patients with the longest life expectancies. The remaining 80 percent of patients would be put into a pool from which the network that arranges for organ matches, called the United Network for Organ Sharing, would try to ensure that the age difference between kidney donors and recipients was no more than 15 years.

While this policy shift has been commended for its sensibility, Satel and others are critical of the assumption that we should have to ration organs in the first place. “Rationing should not be taking place at all,” Satel told NPR earlier this week.

Is there an “everydaythomist” response to the organ shortage? Aquinas obviously never dealt with this issue, but there are a few guidelines we might apply from his general worldview. The first is that the debate over how to increase the number of available organs is often susceptible to the utilitarian critique that the “ends justify the means.” In other words, whatever we need to do (within limit) to increase the number of available organs is justified if we can save more lives. From a Thomistic worldview, the ends do not justify the means. The means themselves must be good as well. More specifically, the means chosen to increase the organ supply must also attend to those who are most potentially vulnerable, in this case, the poor who are more likely to give their organs and less likely to receive organs when in need. Thomas is famous for arguing that theft in the case of necessity is not actually theft (II-II Q. 66, art. 7) because “whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.” While this “preferential option for the poor” (not Thomas’ language but not necessarily inconsistent with Aquinas’ idea of justice) need not preclude a financial incentive solution, it does provide us with a reminder to be wary of how the poor will fare in the long and short term should such incentives be implemented.

Second, the debate about organs frequently presumes on both sides that our bodies are our own. Our bodies, however, are not our own property, but rather, gifts from God over which we are stewards. We are not free to dispose of our bodies in any way we would like, but we should also not cling to our bodies as ultimate goods. Christians can be encouraged to donate their organs freely as a sign of the reality of the body’s giftedness. In other words, in donating their organs especially as live donors, Christians are reminded in a very visceral way that the body is a gift, and thus just as Christ gave up his body for us, we in turn are called to give up our bodies for others. As such, Christians need not be opposed in principle to a presumed consent policy on the basis that it violates autonomy. For Christians, autonomy is subordinated to the body’s giftedness. Christians can set a marvelous example to a nation that is rapidly concluding that “altruism isn’t enough” by making altruistic acts a little more common.

Finally, the organ shortage is partially a result of longer life-spans and better overall care for the terminally-ill and severely handicapped like those in a persistent vegetative state. In light of extraordinary new medical procedures to extend life, Christians need also to be reminded that death need not be avoided at all costs, nor must “every step be taken” to extend life. For Christians, what matters is dying well. In order to die well, Christians must prepare, not only by “living well” as Robert Bellarmine wrote in his book “The Art of Dying Well,” but also by making specific plans for end-of-life treatment and organ donation. Many organs are lost because the dying or deceased person did not make their wishes known. Christians reading this who want to register to become an organ donor can also take the opportunity to reflect on what constitutes a good death and how they can begin to live in such a way to make that good death possible. A wonderful exercise for the season of Lent.

Anthropological Musings on the Painfully Hot Ghost Chili

Last Wednesday, the Hub and I ventured over to Inman Square’s East Coast Grill for their legendary Hell Night. For four days out of the year, the talented chefs at East Coast prepare a menu to tantalize and terrify the taste buds. Habenero-infused vodka, Chile Chimichurri steaks, oysters drenched in hot sauce, and a dozen other spicy options ranging from one to nine chili peppers grace the menu. The star of the night, however, is the pasta from hell. This pasta, made from the world’s hottest ghost chilies, has been featured on the craze foodie hit Man vs. Food, where even the daring Adam Richman could only take about two bites. This pasta is hot. And I ordered it.

You are required to sign a waver before you dig in, which is all part of the fun. But after the first bite, the most excruciating pain sets in, the kind of pain that sends tears down your cheek as you dig your high heel into your calf to distract your dendrites from the horror taking place in your mouth. Now, don’t get me wrong. I live for spicy food. I eat sriracha on everything. I nibble on raw jalapenos while I cook spicy Mexican food. I have successfully taken an adolescent dare to drink an entire bottle of Tabasco. And by the time reached the half-way mark on my pasta from hell, I was doubled over in pain and had to stop. But I took it home, and the next night suffered through the rest (armed, of course, with a full bottle of antacids for the heart burn that came later that night).

When I recovered, I started wondering why in the world I freely and intentionally chose to do something so painful, not just once, but two nights in a row. Everydaythomist that I am, I toyed with the question of whether my actions constituted daring, one of the vices against fortitude that inclines the appetite toward danger in ways contrary to reason.

Turns out, scientists are doing research on this very question. A few months ago, the NYTimes featured an article on the pleasure and pain of chili peppers based on the research from Dr. Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania:

[Rozin]has evidence for what he calls benign masochism. For example, he tested chili eaters by gradually increasing the pain, or, as the pros call it, the pungency, of the food, right up to the point at which the subjects said they just could not go further. When asked after the test what level of heat they liked the best, they chose the highest level they could stand, “just below the level of unbearable pain.” As Delbert McClinton sings (about a different line of research), “It felt so good to hurt so bad.”

Rozin disagrees with theories that argue for an evolutionary advantage to eating hot peppers, say, for example, by arguing that they lower blood pressure or provide some other such advantage in health. In fact, Rozin thinks there actually is not an evolutionary advantage at all to such acts:

No one knows for sure why humans would find pleasure in pain, but Dr. Rozin suggests that there’s a thrill, similar to the fun of riding a roller coaster. “Humans and only humans get to enjoy events that are innately negative, that produce emotions or feelings that we are programmed to avoid when we come to realize that they are actually not threats,” he said. “Mind over body. My body thinks I’m in trouble, but I know I’m not.” And it says, hand me another jalapeño.

One of the key observations here is that no other mammal likes hot peppers. And from this observation, Rozin and others draw an interesting conclusion: the human taste for painfully hot peppers says something important about what it means to be human:

[A]s Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, puts it, “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans — language, rationality, culture and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”

That’s from Dr. Bloom’s new book, “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like,” in which he addresses the general nature of human pleasure, and some very specific, complicated pleasures. Some, like eating painfully spicy food, are accidental, at least in their specificity. A complicated mind is adaptive, but love of chilies is an accident.

And that is what I celebrate behind my respirator as my son and I dice habaneros, accidental pleasures. A taste for chilies has no deep meaning, no evolutionary value. It’s just a taste for chilies. I might add, though, that since it takes such a complicated brain and weird self-awareness to enjoy something that is inherently not enjoyable, only the animal with the biggest brain and the most intricate mind can do it.

Take heart, chili heads. It’s not dumb to eat the fire, it’s a sign of high intelligence.

I find this a fascinating and largely compelling contribution to philosophical anthropology. Whereas for most animals, pleasure is a function of biology, humans have a lot more flexibility. They can, in many ways, choose what it is that brings them pleasure, even things that go against biology or evolutionary advantage. That is, human beings are masters of their actions largely because they are masters of their pleasure.

This means that for human beings in particular, morality cannot simply be a matter of examining nature and drawing normative conclusions. Human beings are greater than the sum of their biological parts, and the objects from which they draw pleasure cannot be reduced to merely a biochemical neural reaction.

When it comes to chili peppers and roller coasters, the human ability to find pleasure in biologically unpleasant things may not have much moral consequence, but in other areas the question may be more serious. For example, a friend sent me an Atlantic article on porn addiction which also examines the recent prevalence of anal sex. I hesitate to even quote the article on my blog due to how explicit it was, but I do think the following revelation from the author is significant:

Never was this made plainer to me than during a one-night stand with a man I had actually known for quite a while. A polite, educated fellow with a beautiful Lower East Side apartment invited me to a perfunctory dinner right after his long-term girlfriend had left him. We quickly progressed to his bed, and things did not go well. He couldn’t stay aroused. Over the course of the tryst, I trotted out every parlor trick and sexual persona I knew. I was coquettish then submissive, vocal then silent, aggressive then downright commandeering; in a moment of exasperation, he asked if we could have anal sex. I asked why, seeing as how any straight man who has had experience with anal sex knows that it’s a big production and usually has a lot of false starts and abrupt stops. He answered, almost without thought, “Because that’s the only thing that will make you uncomfortable.” This was, perhaps, the greatest moment of sexual honesty I’ve ever experienced—and without hesitation, I complied. This encounter proves an unpleasant fact that does not fit the feminist script on sexuality: pleasure and displeasure wrap around each other like two snakes.

If anal sex is unpleasant, why do it? Human intentionality, that is, human choice, can transform unpleasant actions and unpleasant objects into pleasure. In Dependent Rational Animals, Alistair McIntyre made the somewhat surprising claim that ethics could not be separated from biology. Ghost chilies and anal sex remind us that morality also cannot be reduced to biology. Human intentionality transcends what we are biologically conditioned to do.

Natural law scholars, especially those rooted in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, debate whether natural law should be grounded in a “metaphysical biology” which assumes that the normative “ought” can be drawn from the biological “is.” The more we learn about biology, the more important biology becomes in our moral reflections, and this, I think, is a good thing. Biology reminds us that we are creatures, not just spirits. It reminds us how much we share with our non-human animal cousins. But, while biology can tell us what it means to be “animal” (which humans are), it cannot tell us what it means to be human. In Aristotelian parlance, our human species is derived from our genus (animal) and differentia (rational). And that differentia does a lot to separate us from our non-human animal cousins. It does not totally separate us, but it separates us enough to give us pause as we realize that our animal nature cannot explain the many perplexing questions regarding why we do what we do. Now, if you will excuse me, I need another antacid.

Christian Conscientious Objection to War

“I think that Jesus would have turned his cheek once or twice but he never would have let anyone punk him around.”

Hearing a fellow soldier reason in such a way as he abused an Iraqi prisoner marked a turning point for Josh Stieber in his own reasoning about Christian participation in the war in Iraq: “Hearing him say it that way just made it sound so ridiculous. Here we supposedly had faith in this guy who very clearly was punked around, and ended up living and dying with sacrificial love. From then on, I really had to face the fact that I couldn’t have it both ways. Either I was going to try to find this inward reality where sacrificial love was possible for a higher goal, or I was going to let self-defense be my ultimate value.”

The above-cited Slate interview with Stieber follows closely on the heels of a recent NYTimes article about Michael Izbicki, a midshipman who, like Stieber, filed for a discharge as a conscientious objector.

Academy graduates accounted for only a dozen of the roughly 600 applicants for the special status between 2002 and 2010, spokesmen for the service branches said. Of those requests, fewer than half were approved. And like many of the other academy applicants, according to lawyers who handle such cases, Mr. Izbicki won his discharge only by taking his petition to federal court.

The Navy rejected Mr. Izbicki’s application twice, questioning the sincerity of his beliefs despite the support of several Navy chaplains and the testimony of two Yale Divinity School faculty members who said his religious convictions seemed to be mature and sincere.

One Navy commander suggested that the pacifist strain of Christianity that Mr. Izbicki embraced was inconsistent with mainstream Christian faith. The same commander likened the Quakers, who supported Mr. Izbicki, to the Rev. Jim Jones and his People’s Temple, a suicide cult.

What is interesting about both of these cases is the way in which both Stieber and Izbicki challenged the “spirit of compromise” in the Christian tradition regarding warfare. This spirit of compromise is often attributed to Augustine, who said that sometime Christian love (caritas) would require disciples to “take the sword,” not for their own defense, but for the defense of the common good. It is Augustine who Aquinas references in his own justification that war is not always sinful:

As Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 70): “To take the sword is to arm oneself in order to take the life of anyone, without the command or permission of superior or lawful authority.” On the other hand, to have recourse to the sword (as a private person) by the authority of the sovereign or judge, or (as a public person) through zeal for justice, and by the authority, so to speak, of God, is not to “take the sword,” but to use it as commissioned by another, wherefore it does not deserve punishment. And yet even those who make sinful use of the sword are not always slain with the sword, yet they always perish with their own sword, because, unless they repent, they are punished eternally for their sinful use of the sword.(II-II, Q. 40.1, ad. 1)

For Augustine, the idea is that you can kill your enemy, and that need not be contrary to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount about non-resistance and turning the other cheek because one’s inward disposition is loving. Moreover, Augustine is wary, nay, terrified, of the potential chaos that threatens the Earthly City, chaos that Christians must be willing to fight against.

Aquinas himself is also an advocate of the compromise position. Observe how he deftly deals with the seeming conflict between the justification of war and the non-resistance of the Sermon on the Mount:

Such like precepts [as it is written (Matthew 5:39): “But I say to you not to resist evil”; and (Romans 12:19): “Not revenging yourselves, my dearly beloved, but give place unto wrath.”], as Augustine observes (De Serm. Dom. in Monte i, 19), should always be borne in readiness of mind, so that we be ready to obey them, and, if necessary, to refrain from resistance or self-defense. Nevertheless it is necessary sometimes for a man to act otherwise for the common good, or for the good of those with whom he is fighting. Hence Augustine says (Ep. ad Marcellin. cxxxviii): “Those whom we have to punish with a kindly severity, it is necessary to handle in many ways against their will. For when we are stripping a man of the lawlessness of sin, it is good for him to be vanquished, since nothing is more hopeless than the happiness of sinners, whence arises a guilty impunity, and an evil will, like an internal enemy.”(II-II, Q. 40.1,ad. 2)

Despite Aquinas’ apparent embrace of a spirit of compromise, it is reasonable to assume that he might fully embrace the decisions of both Stieber and Izbicki. In article 2 of his treatise on war, he asks whether clerics and bishops can engage in wartime fighting and responds in the negative:

Now warlike pursuits are altogether incompatible with the duties of a bishop and a cleric, for two reasons. The first reason is a general one, because, to wit, warlike pursuits are full of unrest, so that they hinder the mind very much from the contemplation of Divine things, the praise of God, and prayers for the people, which belong to the duties of a cleric. Wherefore just as commercial enterprises are forbidden to clerics, because they unsettle the mind too much, so too are warlike pursuits, according to 2 Timothy 2:4: “No man being a soldier to God, entangleth himself with secular business.” The second reason is a special one, because, to wit, all the clerical Orders are directed to the ministry of the altar, on which the Passion of Christ is represented sacramentally, according to 1 Corinthians 11:26: “As often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall show the death of the Lord, until He come.” Wherefore it is unbecoming for them to slay or shed blood, and it is more fitting that they should be ready to shed their own blood for Christ, so as to imitate in deed what they portray in their ministry. For this reason it has been decreed that those who shed blood, even without sin, become irregular. Now no man who has a certain duty to perform, can lawfully do that which renders him unfit for that duty. Wherefore it is altogether unlawful for clerics to fight, because war is directed to the shedding of blood.

Much more than when Aquinas lived, Christians today embrace the idea of the universal call to holiness and the priesthood of all believers. Since Vatican II, this has been a particularly prominent theme in Catholic theology especially. It is no longer the priest alone who is called to the contemplative life, nor is it the priest alone who ministers at the sacrament of the altar. For Protestants and Catholics, the call to priesthood requires a radical transformation of life that is consistent with the call to holiness. In our world today, this call to holiness may very well include a call to pacifism, thus making Stieber and Izbicki contemporary prophets.

Stanley Hauerwas once wrote a beautiful and influential essay entitled “Why Gays (as a Group) are Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group).” In it, he writes

“I am ambivalent about recent discussions concerning gays in the military. I see no good reason why gays and lesbians should be excluded from military service; as a pacifist I do not see why anyone should serve. Moreover, I think it a wonderful thing that some people are excluded as a group. I only with that Christians could be seen by the military to be as problematic as gays.”

Gays can serve now. Maybe it is time for Christians to opt out.

The Virtues of Parenting

My husband I do not yet have children, so forgive me if I seem to be speaking beyond my area of expertise. Parenting has been on my mind a lot recently in light of certain articles of interest. First, David Brooks’ piece in this week’s New York Times is excellent, and responds critically to the author of the new controversial book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Chua’s book is a reflection on her own experience as a “typical Asian mother”: strict and uncompromising in discipline, rigorous in achievement, and unapologetic about the incredible pressure she placed on her children. In “Amy Chua is a Wimp,” Brooks writes perspicaciously

Chua’s critics echoed the familiar themes. Her kids can’t possibly be happy or truly creative. They’ll grow up skilled and compliant but without the audacity to be great. She’s destroying their love for music. There’s a reason Asian-American women between the ages of 15 and 24 have such high suicide rates.

I have the opposite problem with Chua. I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

While I wonder how Brooks knows the cognitive demands of a 14-year old sleepover, I do think he is onto something here. Personal achievement is more than the score one achieves on an exam or the chair one earns in the orchestra. It is about holistic functioning within complex group dynamics. He goes on

This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.

The implication is that parents do best by their children if they not only push them to excel academically and in extracurricular activities, but also if they encourage them to participate in complex social interactions where they can develop their more emotionally-based cognitive activity like “the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.”

The problem is that, as an excellent blog post on dot Commonweal observes, kids these days are doing pretty atrocious things in their group interactions that can seriously thwart personal achievement and overall flourishing. In his discussion of the MTV show “Skins,” Eduardo Peñalver cites Matt Zoller Seitz:

Is “Skins” bad for kids? Well, if shows directly influence behavior, over and above whatever morals that parents teach their kids – a big “if” — then yeah, maybe, I guess so. But on the other hand, I have yet to witness a scenario in either series that I didn’t personally fantasize about in some form or another when I was the same age as the teens that comprise this program’s target demographic. When I was in eighth grade (prime “Skins” age, I’m guessing) I snuck into explicitly violent and/or sexual R-rated films almost every weekend, furtively tried out adult substances, and spent hours futzing with the aerial on top of my parents’ TV set after they went to sleep hoping to catch a fleeting glimpse of fornication on a scrambled pay-per-view broadcast channel. If I were that age again in 2011, I’d probably watch “Skins” religiously for a couple of seasons, then get bored and move on to something else. The series would have been absorbing, silly, sexy and trashy no matter what critics said about it. The fact that it’s officially considered Bad for Kids makes it awesome.

Peñalver responds as I would: “it seems a little strained to call the idea that a show like this might influence kids’ behavior “a big ‘if’.”” If 14 year-olds are doing the sort of things portrayed on “Skins,” Brooks is right to call their sleepover parties “cognitively taxing.” More likely, such sleepovers are cognitively ruinous. It is no surprise that parents like Chua want to reign kids in with strict discipline and high expectations, even if it means social ruin, in order to save them from the sort of life ruin adolescent social interactions often lead to.

The challenge for parents is how to find a balance between pushing their kids to be the best they can be and letting their kids find their own way by watching their friends, experimenting, and making mistakes. The best solution I have seen recently was on my own new favorite television show “Modern Family.” In the most recent episode “Our Children Ourselves,” Phil and Claire Dunphy try and get their high-achieving daughter Alex to relax in fear that she is pushing herself too hard to be the top of the class (great scene with Phil and Claire staring on as Alex jumps on a trampoline, arms crossed, in the middle of the night). When Alex comes in second in the class, she tells her parents that she simply cannot compete with Sanjay, the first in the class who has a doctor and a professor for parents. “I’m doing the best with what I have.”

What ensues is a beautiful effort on behalf of Claire as she tries to prove herself to her daughter by going to a French film with Sanjay’s parents rather than attending the film of her choice–Croctopus. But her efforts fail, and Claire falls asleep during the film, bereft at the fact that she cannot live up to her daughter’s perceived needs. She leaves the theater not only confirming Brooks’ conclusion that social competence is sometimes more important than intellectual achievement (Sanjay’s father cannot work the parking validation machine), but also feeling more competent in her role as a parent, with the unique talents she brings to the table. Most importantly, she leaves the theater with renewed love for her husband and daughter and the family they try to make work.

Aquinas had firsthand experience with overbearing parents. His own father ordered the kidnapping of the adolescent Aquinas when he went off to join the new mendicant order of the Dominicans, the “Begging Friars.” As Chesterton writes,

[Thomas] said he wished to be a Friar, and his family flew at him like wild beasts; his brothers pursued him along the public roads, half-rent his friar’s frock from his back and finally locked him up in a tower like a lunatic.

Chua should know that we have a tradition of “tiger parenting” in the west too. But the moral of the story is that Aquinas would become what he became, try as his parents might to stop him. He would be a beggar and a philosopher, not an abbot and a politician. Chua’s children too will become what they become, despite her effort to “keep them in check.” In the end, parents must realize that the little life in front of them is not their own, not a precious commodity to be fostered into perfection, but a gift and a loan from the Creator who calls us all to our own vocation.

In the end, prudence is one of the most important virtue for a parent. In perfecting parents morally and intellectually, prudence allows parents to deliberate, judge, and command well in their role as steward over a new life. But no less important is hope, by which a parent is able to endure the difficulties of not knowing where their child will end up, but still maintaining the confidence that he or she is in the hands of God.

War Games Build Character?

The NYTimes Magazine this weekend raises the question of new video games like Medal of Honor which realistically depict the current war in Afghanistan. These games are blockbusters, much more popular (and much more profitable) than any books or movies on our current wars. I’m not so much interested in the question of why these games are popular, but rather, I want to look at the ethical consequences of playing such games.

The graphics on these games is astoundingly realistic. The terrain is vivid, the player’s character is clearly seen on the screen as he makes his way through enemy territory. You do a lot of killing. You get killed a lot.

There always seem to be some question about whether such games dispose players towards violence. The article interestingly brings up Stewart Brand who argued in 1972 in Rolling Stone that video games about war were good for consumers and good for peace:

[Brand] wrote that this new form of digital play (“the enthusiasm of irresponsible youngsters”) was “heresy, uninvited and unwelcome” in a world of “passive consumerism.” Spacewar, and by logical extension the new medium of video games, was remarkable, Brand went on, because it was “intensely interactive in real time with the computer,” because it “bonded human and machine,” because it “served human interest, not machine” and, perhaps best of all, it was “merely delightful.” (Brand also wrote that the fact that “computers are coming to the people” was “good news, maybe the best since psychedelics.”).

Suellentrop, the author of the article, notes that in subsequent decades, the view has shifted and most people find violent video games like Grand Theft Auto (where you beat people and have sex with others) are in some sense unsettling. However, those who defend the games argue that what makes them popular is their form not their content. In other words, video games don’t sell because they are violent, but because they are fun to play.

Video games, in this view, are about problem-solving and game play, the captivating, kinetic interaction between the movements a player makes on a controller and the simultaneous action on-screen. And it’s surely true that Medal of Honor’s game play will determine whether it is a best seller or a bust. “Whether this is set on Afghanistan or set on the moon, it doesn’t really matter,” Geoff Keighley, a video-game journalist who hosts a show on Spike TV, told me. Will Wright, the designer of games like SimCity and The Sims, has seemed to embrace this view, saying that games are about agency (the ability to navigate a virtual world), not empathy (relating emotionally to the particulars of that world).

However, video games, especially these new realistic war games, are not only exercises in dexterity and problem solving. They are also stories. They stimulate the imagination, they transport the player into a different, very real-appearing world. And some say that such games evoke empathy. Medal of Honor producer Greg Goodrich told Suellentrop that “the ‘holy grail’ of his medium was to get game play and fiction to interact in such a way that the fusion of the two would affect players in ways that movies and books cannot. ‘I think you have the potential to touch them in a more emotional and engaging way because they took part in it,’ he said.” Suellentrop cites studies in which characters who play such games subsequently have more empathy for Americans fighting abroad.

What are we to make of this? An increasingly popular technique for teaching ethics may shed some light on these games. Ethicists, especially virtue ethicists like myself, frequently use narrative in order to teach people how to reason morally. This is sometimes called “narrative ethics.” Narrative stimulates the moral imagination in ways that dry and calculating moral logic does not.

The other thing that narrative does is shape a person morally, not just their ability to reason morally. Stories always communicate values, of course, but that is not so much what I mean. Stories allow people to “live out” ethical dilemmas and “practice” actions that they may not face in real life. When I read about Raskolnikov walking up the stairs and approaching the landlady’s door (whom he plans to kill), I am not a passive observer. My heart is in my throat, my pulse quickens, my breathing is more rapid. I am, in a sense, him. Similarly, when I read about Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison, I don’t just feel bad for him; I feel in a very real way what that experience was like. Fiction is a way of entering another world as an agent, a person choosing certain actions in response to his or her environment. I become more courageous by entering into the narrative of a courageous person. I become more just by entering the narrative of a just person. I don’t just learn about the actions and virtues of a character in a story; I actually begin to develop some of the same habits of the people I read about and see on television.

Video games are effective means of doing this, more effective than other forms of fiction, because you actually get to control the agent’s action. You get to pull the trigger, leap, duck, turn around. You get to see people die. You get to feel like what it is to be killed. Now, fiction in no way completely represents the real world. Seeing someone die in real life, or killing someone, is not the same as doing it in a video game, but it is not completely different either. It is still a way of participating in a story and acting as a character, and we know that actions build character as well and turn us into the person we become.

War video games, as the article points out, potentially generate empathy with soldiers fighting abroad. And this could be a good thing. But they also potentially dispose players to become fighters, and not just fighters, but fighters who see fighting as fun, victory as easy, dark skinned people as bad, Americans as always good. And I think we as a society know the potential impact such games have on our character. For example, the article describes how the video game Six Days in Fallujah was canceled. In one of the scenes in a game, an Iraqi picks up a gun, and you as the player have to decide whether or not to shoot him, not knowing whether he is an insurgent. The game producers were explicit that they were trying to “add a layer of moral ambiguity to warfare.” The potential problem with this game is that its players might become the sort of people who were more sympathetic towards Iraqis and less supportive of of our fighting.

The fact is, these games are shaping our character. Now we just have to ask ourselves whether when we play them, we are becoming the sort of people we are satisfied being.

Henri Bergson on Intuition

In my experience, Henri Bergson, one of the most influential philosophers of his age, is hardly remembered much less studied in the current period. I became interested in Bergson in light of my studies on Maritain’s theory of poetic intuition, which I believe has significant relevance for ethics. Maritain attended Bergson’s lectures and his own theory of intuition was influenced by Bergson.

Bergson outlines his theory of intuition in The Creative Mind. His main opponent in providing a theory of intuition is Immanuel Kant who held that absolute knowledge, and subsequently metaphysics, is impossible. According to Kant, the kind of knowledge metaphysics requires depends on the ability to perceive the transcendent. It requires a faculty which can grasp the essence of a thing. As Bergson notes,

And precisely because he disputed the existence of these transcendent faculties, Kant believed metaphysics to be impossible. One of the most profound and important ideas in the Critique of Pure Reason is this: if metaphysics is possible, it is through a vision and not through a dialectic. Dialectics leads to contrary philosophies; it demonstrates the thesis as well as the antithesis of antinomies. Only a superior intuition (which Kant calls an ‘intellectual’ intuition), that is, a perception of metaphysical reality, would enable metaphysics to be constituted (The Creative Mind 164).

The “dialectic” Bergson refers to is the ordinary process of human knowing, what Aquinas calls “discursion”:

the human, intellects obtain their perfection in the knowledge of truth by a kind of movement and discursive intellectual operation; that is to say, as they advance from one known thing to another. But, if from the knowledge of a known principle they were straightway to perceive as known all its consequent conclusions, then there would be no discursive process at all (I.58.3).

Take, for example, the mug in front of me holding my steaming cup of hot coffee. I can see certain parts of the mug, and when I turn it or lift it (carefully, since it is holding hot coffee!) I can see some of the parts I couldn’t previously see. But I can’t see the mug in one pure vision, and even less so does it seem that I can penetrate to what the mug is. I see its properties and I piece together the idea of the mug in front of me. This is discursion, which is contrasted with pure knowledge in which all things that can be known about an object are grasped at once (the knowledge Aquinas claims the angels and God have). This is the knowledge Kant held to be impossible.

This pure or absolute knowledge is precisely what Bergson wants to restore in his theory of intuition. He calls this intuition sympathy “by which one is transported into the interior of an object in order to coincide with what there is unique and consequently inexpressible in it” (The Creative Mind 190). He uses the example of an artist (200-2) who makes a series of sketches of Notre Dame in Paris.

Now at the bottom of all the sketches made in Paris, the stranger will probably write ‘Paris’ by way of reminder. And as he has really seen Paris, he will be able, by descending from the original intuition of the whole, to place his sketches in it and thus arrange them in relation to one another. But there is no way of performing the opposite operation; even with an infinity of sketches as exact as you like, even with the word ‘Paris’ to indicate that they must bear close connection, it is impossible to travel back to an intuition one has not had, and gain the impression of Paris if one has never seen Paris (201).

Intuition according to Bergson is a method, a method of ridding the mind of the utilitarian habits it has acquired, that reduce an object only to its immediate usefulness. He holds that according to act on the world, our mind has to assume immobility. His concept of motion is integral to his theory of intuition but is too much to go into at length here. Briefly, Bergson differentiates between space and time. Time contains no juxtaposition of events, but is rather a duration. In time, we have a qualitative rather than qualitative heterogeneity, in which there is difference (hence heterogeneity) but no juxtaposition. In time, there is continuity and interpenetration as opposed to space (in which exists quantitative heterogeneity whereby we can assign a number). Qualitative multiplicity, that is duration, is inexpressible but is not unknowable, and it is the knowledge of duration which Bergson calls intuition. Intuition is the perception, the vision, of duration.

The reason intuition is also a method is that it requires the casting off of the habits of the mind which turn the duration into space. Bergson uses the example of a melody. When we hear a melody, we hear the whole, not a series of notes juxtaposed against one another. When we analyze the melody, we may indeed break it into a number of notes, but we are then analyzing the notes, not the melody. The melody, to be known, must be grasped as a whole. In other words, it must be intuited. It is through intuition that we really experience the world:

In this regard, the philosopher’s sole aim should be to start up a certain effort which the utilitarian habits of mind of everyday life tend, in most men, to discourage. Now the image has at least the advantage of keeping us in the concrete. No image will replace the intuition of duration, but many different images, taken from quite different orders of things, will be able, through the convergence of their action, to direct the consciousness to the precise point where there is a certain intuition to seize on. By choosing images as dissimilar as possible, any one of them will be prevented from usurping the place of the intuition it is instructed to call forth, since it would then be driven out immediately by its rivals. By seeing that in spite of their differences in aspect they all demand of our mind the same kind of attention and, as it were, the same degree of tension, one will gradually accustom the consciousness to a particular and definitely determined disposition, precisely the one it will have to adopt in order to appear unveiled to itself (195).

Thus, the method of intuition is at essence the task of metaphysics. Metaphysics is not a synthesis of knowledge, a sort of piecing together of the notes to form a melody, nor is it analysis, the breaking down of a melody into its component notes. Metaphysics is the experience of the melody. Thus concludes Bergson in his “Introduction to Metaphysics”:

metaphysics has nothing in common with a generalization of experience, and yet it could e defined as the whole of experience (l’experience integrale).

Robotics and What It Means to Be Human

Computer scientist Jaron Lanier has a great op-ed in today’s NYTimes entitled “The First Church of Robotics.” In it, he makes an incredibly profound statement for contemporary ethics:

by allowing artificial intelligence to reshape our concept of personhood, we are leaving ourselves open to the flipside: we think of people more and more as computers, just as we think of computers as people.

Machines in general, and robotic machines in particular, are simply tools created by people and used by people. Machines do not have intelligence, and any evidence that they do (a robot which teaches foreign languages to children, for example) is simply a “form of high-tech puppetry.”

The children are the ones making the transaction take place — having conversations and interacting with these machines, but essentially teaching themselves. This just shows that humans are social creatures, so if a machine is presented in a social way, people will adapt to it.

One problem for ethics, at least according to the author, is not only that the anthropomorphizing of machines devalues human thought, but it also provides an excuse for avoiding human accountability.

What all this comes down to is that the very idea of artificial intelligence gives us the cover to avoid accountability by pretending that machines can take on more and more human responsibility. This holds for things that we don’t even think of as artificial intelligence, like the recommendations made by Netflix and Pandora. Seeing movies and listening to music suggested to us by algorithms is relatively harmless, I suppose. But I hope that once in a while the users of those services resist the recommendations; our exposure to art shouldn’t be hemmed in by an algorithm that we merely want to believe predicts our tastes accurately. These algorithms do not represent emotion or meaning, only statistics and correlations. . .

. . . the rest of us, lulled by the concept of ever-more intelligent A.I.’s, are expected to trust algorithms to assess our aesthetic choices, the progress of a student, the credit risk of a homeowner or an institution. In doing so, we only end up misreading the capability of our machines and distorting our own capabilities as human beings. We must instead take responsibility for every task undertaken by a machine and double check every conclusion offered by an algorithm, just as we always look both ways when crossing an intersection, even though the light has turned green.

A student who turns in a paper littered with typos like using “there” instead of “their” or “they’re” and “were” instead of “where” cannot blame the failure of her computer’s spell-checker. No matter how sensitive our tools become, humans beings will ultimately be responsible for the product generated.

Lanier’s point is, however, more foundational than merely insisting on human accountability for our machines. Rather, he is claiming that the way we think of machines influences the way we think of humans. The more grandiose our depictions of human machinery become, the more we devalue human thought. Rightly, he points to a metaphysical explanation for why this is so:

It should go without saying that we can’t count on the appearance of a soul-detecting sensor that will verify that a person’s consciousness has been virtualized and immortalized. There is certainly no such sensor with us today to confirm metaphysical ideas about people, or even to recognize the contents of the human brain. All thoughts about consciousness, souls and the like are bound up equally in faith, which suggests something remarkable: What we are seeing is a new religion, expressed through an engineering culture. . . .

If technologists are creating their own ultramodern religion, and it is one in which people are told to wait politely as their very souls are made obsolete, we might expect further and worsening tensions. But if technology were presented without metaphysical baggage, is it possible that modernity would not make people as uncomfortable?

A human being is not a mere collection of cells, molecules, and atoms which can be deciphered, imitated, recreated. According to Aquinas, a human being is a hylomorphic unity of body and soul, an irreducible unity of matter and spirit partly subject to scrutiny and partially a mystery. Human thought reflects this combination of evidence and mystery. There are many things we know–like which part of the brain “fires” in reaction to a foul-smelling stimulus or an angry face–but for everything we know, there is infinitely more which remains a mystery: Why does person A react so strongly to bad smells while Person B is relatively unaffected? Why does anger foster artistic creativity in Person X while in Person Y, anger leads to pathological behavior?

Certain superficial elements of human thought might be imitated in the work of a machine, such as the ability to recognize patterns or synthesize concepts, but the really interesting, and ultimately mysterious, work is on the human side in the response to the machines. A human, for example, may be able to respond compassionately and affectionately to a machine that looks and acts like a baby. Such a machine is surely a technological feat, but what is more fascinating is what the humans are doing: responding emotionally. Desire, sorrow, love, fear, and joy simply cannot be imitated. Passions such as these, according to Aquinas, are not simply corporeal responses to an external stimulus, but also involve the spirit, the immaterial essence of the person created in the image and likeness of God. The author’s point in the op-ed fundamentally agrees with Thomas: by reducing thought to a mere series of calculations, we are only providing a reductionist understanding of what thought really is–a mystery.

The Sometimes-Superiority of the Passions Over Reason in Aquinas

Any student of Aquinas can tell you that the passions (the movements of the sensitive appetite toward a perceived good) are inferior to reason. The reason for this is related to Aquinas’ cosmology and his view of the superiority of rational creatures (i.e. humans) over non-rational creatures like horses and wolves. Rational and non-rational creatures have a sensitive appetite, and thus experience passions like love, sorrow, fear, pleasure. Only rational creatures, however, can abstract from a particular apprehended pleasure like a juicy steak and reflect upon the relation of this perceived pleasure to the good as such. A rational creature can ask herself, “Is it ultimately conducive to my overall goodness to view this steak as desirable?” Because she has a rational appetite which is inclined towards more perfect immaterial goods like virtue and knowledge, she can abstract from the desirability of a particular apprehended object (the steak) and determine how the steak holds up under the universal aspect of goodness. She may decide that justice demands a certain respect for animal welfare, a good to which eating the steak is directly contrary, and so she may decline the steak and choose a vegetarian option.

The point is that Aquinas seems pretty clear that reason is superior to the passions. The passions move towards lots of different apprehended goods which may be contrary to the overall goodness of the individual, which means that in the properly-ordered person, the passions are subordinate and obedient to reason. Aquinas says (I-II.24.1) that in themselves the passions are morally neutral in that they are mere movements of the irrational appetite which humans have in common with non-rational animals. In the same article, he says that the passions become good insofar as they obey the commands of reason and will.

The passions can contribute to the morality of an action, as Aquinas explains in 24.3, augmenting the goodness of the act in two ways: first, because the passions, being inferior, are moved by a superior power, so if the will’s goodness is so good that the passions get involved by overflow of the will, then this points to the greater goodness of the act; second, because a person may consent to be affected by a passion, thus rendering the good act more prompt and efficient:

The passions of the soul may stand in a twofold relation to the judgment of reason. First, antecedently: and thus, since they obscure the judgment of reason, on which the goodness of the moral act depends, they diminish the goodness of the act; for it is more praiseworthy to do a work of charity from the judgment of reason than from the mere passion of pity. In the second place, consequently: and this in two ways. First, by way of redundance: because, to wit, when the higher part of the soul is intensely moved to anything, the lower part also follows that movement: and thus the passion that results in consequence, in the sensitive appetite, is a sign of the intensity of the will, and so indicates greater moral goodness. Secondly, by way of choice; when, to wit, a man, by the judgment of his reason, chooses to be affected by a passion in order to work more promptly with the co-operation of the sensitive appetite. And thus a passion of the soul increases the goodness of an action ( 1).

Note, however, that the passions only contribute antecedently in a negative way by obscuring the judgments of reason. Consequently, the passions can be positive, but the real essence of a good act comes from reason. One gets the sense from this quote above that the passions are practically irrelevant to good action. If the moral goodness of an act come primarily from reason and only secondarily from the passions, why should we pay attention to the passions at all, except for to tame and restrain them from disrupting the work of reason.

Aquinas’ response to this is that human beings as a hylomorphic unity of body and soul are not made perfect by mere acts of the intellect, but by the passions (and their corresponding corporeal movement) as well.

Just as it is better that man should both will good and do it in his external act; so also does it belong to the perfection of moral good, that man should be moved unto good, not only in respect of his will, but also in respect of his sensitive appetite; according to Psalm 83:3: “My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God”: where by “heart” we are to understand the intellectual appetite, and by “flesh” the sensitive appetite (I-II.24.3 co).

Still, this doesn’t solve the problem of the basic redundancy of the passions. Earlier in the corpus of this article, Aquinas says explicitly,

if we give the name of passions to all the movements of the sensitive appetite, then it belongs to the perfection of man’s good that his passions be moderated by reason. For since man’s good is founded on reason as its root, that good will be all the more perfect, according as it extends to more things pertaining to man. Wherefore no one questions the fact that it belongs to the perfection of moral good, that the actions of the outward members be controlled by the law of reason.

We get a different view of the passions, however, when we read on in the treatise to Aquinas’ discussion of love, and particularly his distinction between amor and dilectio. Amor is the love of the sensitive appetite and is rightly called a passion. Dilectio on the other hand is the love found in the rational appetite (the will) and hence, because it is not accompanied by a corporeal change, is only a passion by analogy, or what Aquinas calls an affectus. We would think then that dilectio, in that it is rational, would be superior to amor, which belongs to the irrational appetite. Aquinas surprises us. In the sed contra to the question of whether love (amor) is the same as dilection, he writes, “Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv) that ‘some holy men have held that love means something more Godlike than dilection does.'” He goes on to explain in the replies:

The reason why some held that, even when applied to the will itself, the word “love” signifies something more Godlike than “dilection,” was because love denotes a passion, especially in so far as it is in the sensitive appetite; whereas dilection presupposes the judgment of reason. But it is possible for man to tend to God by love, being as it were passively drawn by Him, more than he can possibly be drawn thereto by his reason, which pertains to the nature of dilection, as stated above. And consequently love is more Godlike than dilection ( 4).*

This idea becomes a fundamental basis of Aquinas’ treatment of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, namely that the intellect is incapable of knowing God because the object far surpasses the capacity of the intellect’s operation, and thus knowledge of God comes through a certain connaturality or union with God through love. This is a passive love, because the human can do nothing to prepare for or earn this union. While dilectio is involved, it depends on the prior movement of amor, the passive movement of the sensitive appetite. As Robert Miner writes,

Though the love associated with the rational appetite . . . named by dilectio, is important, it cannot function without the proper passion of love, construed as an act of the sensitive appetite. Love in its most proper sense is sensitive love, because sensitive love is most passive. Allowing oneself to be passively helped by God is the precondition of dilectio, of being turned toward God by rational means. the power of God to draw creatures to himself by sensible means exceeds the power of human reason.

This sometimes-superiority of the sensitive appetite also lines up with our experience. We sometimes love that which we do not rationally consent to, and do not will (thus, no dilectio). Think, for example, of the lapsed Catholic who thinks the organized religion is a bunch of rubbish, and that “God” is just the name we give our infantile desire for a protector. A whiff of incense or the clanging of the bells at the consecration or the glimpse of a bouquet of roses at the foot of a Mary statue may stir that person with love for the Catholic Church, a yearning to participate in Mass, to say a Hail Mary, or some other such expression. Now, she may, upon rational reflection, decide that this stirring of love was irrational and need not be obeyed, but can we really say then that the movement of the rational appetite is, in this case, superior to the sensitive?

Aquinas’ hylomorphic anthropology raises all sorts of issues for questions of hierarchy because the fact is that the human is body and soul, animal and spirit, rational and sensitive, and the perfection of the person relies on the parts working together as a whole. When we continuously assert the superior of reason over the passions (despite the overall truth of this statement) we fail to do justice to the organic unity of the person, and the way in which God works in all the parts to reconcile the person to Godself.

*Of course, Aquinas says in ad. 1 of this article that the quote from Dionysius uses love exclusively in reference to the intellect: “Dionysius is speaking of love and dilection, in so far as they are in the intellectual appetite; for thus love is the same as dilection.” Still, the love of dilection implies knowledge (what is loved must first be known). I think Aquinas is on the opposite side of Nussbaum who thinks that emotion follows from a sort of overflow of knowledge: “If one really acts or takes in a certain belief, one will experience the emotions” (41). Rather, because Aquinas thinks that knowledge is mediated through the senses (I.84.6), it makes sense that the object of knowledge, the object of dilectio, would come first from the senses, and hence would first be an object of love. My point is not to argue for the superiority of the sensitive appetite over reasons (which would be foolish and un-Thomistic) but rather to argue for a much more dynamic role of the sensitive appetite besides the mere obedience of reason.