Tuesday, December 6, 2011

False Morality

Humans are wired to strive for good. We can get confused about what is good. We can strive for lesser goods like physical pleasure or money. But we can't just not feel any moral impulses at all. So when atheists try to tell us there is no God they don't tell us there is no right and wrong. What they tell us is religion is evil and they are good. Modern man has the desire to be free from moral constraints but he also has a burning desire to do good and fight evil. Mark Shea linked 2 articles that talk about this. One is a reflection on Pope Benedict
Moral obligation is not man’s prison, from which he must liberate himself in order finally be able to do what he wants. It is moral obligation that constitutes his dignity, and he does not become more free if he discards it: on the contrary, he takes a step backward, to the level of a machine, of a mere thing.
A Turning Point for Europe?, 36
He suggests that if we rebel against a high moral calling we don't get freedom. We just get a lower morality that will be just as difficult and give us less dignity. What could be worse is that running away from true morality can lead us to false morality. So the good we fight for might not be just too small but it might actually be evil. Fr Denis talks about how one common lesser good is consequentialism. That is rejecting the revelation of God about what is good and simply trying to figure out which actions will have good consequences. The trouble is our assessment is limited by how well we understand human dignity and how well we can predict future consequences. So the moral argument is simply, "I don't see what is so wrong with it." But the fact that you don't see means you need moral guidance. Consequentialism says not seeing means you can ignore moral concerns.

The other article Mark links is by Mike Flynn on hypocrisy. It is another way to run from morality and replace it with moral outrage.The trick here is to assume everyone who says they are trying to do good is a hypocrite. Then you can do evil and claim to be better than everyone else because you admit you are doing evil. Now this works better if there is some doubt whether the act in question is actually gravely evil. You can trade on that. We know hypocrisy is wrong so you can trade moral certainty for moral gravity.

Is it better to admit you indulge in porn rather than do it secretly? It depends what you mean. If you mean is it better to confess your failings, they it is true. But if you mean it is better to act like indulging in porn is not morally wrong, then it is false. It is better to try and stay pure and fail than it is to fail without even making an effort. So you have people self-righteously claiming, "My porn might be wrong but at least I am honest about it." That is not better. They say hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue. To feel contrition enough to want to keep your actions secret is better than to proudly and publicly act. The best is to be honest and contrite but we should not be fooled into thinking honesty with no contrition is a step in the right direction.

Again, the reason this works is people see pornography as a minor sin. They see the lying as a bigger issue. It isn't. Pornography is gravely immoral. It is also a choice. Modern society sees it as inevitable. The idea that nobody is pure. Everyone does it. It is just a matter of who admits it. Nonsense. People can be holy. That is the goal. If we switch the goal for just being honest about our vices then we have lowered ourselves.

The really honest sinners not only admit they sin but admit they are powerless over sin. Like step 1 of the 12-step program. Saying you need help rather than saying you commit this sin and everyone should just accept that.That is real honesty. The happy drunk or the happy fornicator or whatever is really not that honest. At some level they know they are doing evil and they are not at peace with themselves.

This is why many of Mike Flynn's examples come from fiction. Fictional characters can flaunt moral standards without the slightest crisis of conscience. Real people have trouble with that. Fiction also allows all the moral characters to be confirmed hypocrites. We imagine a world devoid of saints so our hero becomes the one-eyed man in the world of blind men. But in the real world it is possible, with God's grace, to be good. When you encounter someone who shows you virtue then you just can't be happy with your vice.


  1. This is all rooted in a false sense of Freedom. If you want to read an amazing Encyclical, you should read Libertas by Leo XIII which is "On True Liberty". He demonstrates that certain "rights" are really no rights at all and the path to entanglement in sin. So take your pornography example: the root problem here is that society says it's a 'right' to publish/say whatever they want, which means it's a right to create/distribute pornography, which is the true underpinning cause of the epidemic.

    The false concept of Liberty which most modern societies is built off of is the real problem because everything else is symptom and side-effect and not looking at a cure of the disease.

  2. The "right" to pornography is interesting. Any normal person looks at porn and just sees filth. But if you go to law school you will be taught to look at porn and see freedom of expression. This is why law school takes so many years. It is not easy to make smart people say such stupid things.

  3. This is precisely why Catholicism has not been as effective as it could be, because these errors have been dealt with by previous Popes but those previous Popes have been ignored. As a result, we're stuck knowing things like pornography are wrong but not addressing the real issue. It's directly analogous to the link between abortion (PlanB) and contraception (PlanA), with Evangelicalism thinking they can ignore contraception while fighting abortion.

    Catholics cannot be waving the banner of many so called "rights" when no such rights really exist - much less can we canonize them. And this is where the reality of the problem surfaces. The lawyers you mention do have to fight their conscience and natural law, but none the less their approach is consistent: if one is truly free to write/say anything, that includes pornography. If a Catholic subscribes to this "right," they've unwittingly caved in and are left with no principled basis to oppose pornography: on one hand, the Catholic is saying the publisher has a "right" while on the other hand the Catholic is saying it's a sin. See the problem?

  4. Popes proclaiming God's word is the start of the process not the end. We need to accept it. Internalize it. Live it. To sinful man the word of God will always seem foolish. But when they see a saint then people start to get it. The trouble is guys like me have not been saintly enough. Even when we convert one generation there is always a chance we lose the next one. It isn't easy. We have had some bad popes but in general the popes have been the least of our problems. We just don't want to know the truth because it leads us to our cross.

    BTW, thanks for the link. It looks like a good read.

  5. It is one of my favorite Encyclicals of all time :-)

  6. Another important Encyclical was written directly to Catholics in the United States warning against serious dangers:

    "These dangers, viz.,
    -the confounding of license with liberty,
    -the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject,
    -the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print to the world,
    have so wrapped minds in darkness that there is now a greater need of the Church's teaching office than ever before, lest people become unmindful both of conscience and of duty."

  7. I find this one a little odd I gotta admit. Jesus was ferocious in his condemnation of hypocrisy, particularly religious hypocrisy. One can argue that an attack on hypocrisy was the absolute central theme of his ministry.

    Having been a member of churches which practice public confession
    i.e. you stand up and confess serious sins and receive community support in overcoming them I can't help but think at least based on personal experience that Jesus was absolutely 100% correct that lying and hypocrisy murder faith and murder community.

    I can't begin to tell someone who came from a Reformed background and then a Catholic background how joyful and how freeing and how morality building public confession really is. Everything that Christians say about being a witness and a light and genuine repentance comes from public confession. And absolutely part of the process is someone saying that they are doing X and declaring they have no intention of changing and allowing the church community to prick their conscience to the point that they do act.

    To hear people talk about real sins makes it possible for a radical honesty. I can't forget hearing a woman stand up and talk about her guilt because she resented her baby and the joy and freedom she felt when a lot of other women told her that was natural. I can't forget my own confessions about my deep insecurities and resentments and how much it helped. Saying something out loud you wouldn't even normally be willing to admit to your wife is a truly sanctifying experience.

    I'm sorry you haven't experienced this. You have no reason to believe me, and the Catholic church with its history of private confession is not going to change ... but wow ... public confession is amazing. And it makes possible the good version of what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 18.

  8. CD,

    Public confession used to be the norm in the early church; private confession came later. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but more importantly both cleanse the soul.

    There have been various articles out showing how the decrease in Confession has tracked with an increase in the Psychological Therapist business. Where one left off, the other took over. People still need the 'therapy', but the unfortunate thing is that most therapy doesn't address sin at all.

    What is your current denomination now? You talk as if you left Catholicism.

  9. Nick --

    I'd love you to expand on the history of Catholic public confession, I'm unaware of it.

    As for now I'm an X-Christian. Atheistic Theosophist.

  10. I have not read in depth on public confession, but the Canons of the early Ecumenical Councils and similar documents speak of people having to confess their sins in public and having to do *years* of penance to be readmitted to receive communion again.

    This is also why Indulgences were usually stated in the 'unit' of years, because a given Indulgence would be the equivalent of a person doing that many years of public penance.

    For someone who is X-Christian, you sure seem concerned about the well being of society. It would seem that the 'here and now' be your only concern, seeing that this is your only chance to accomplish something. Typically, the Evolutionary theory of survival of the fittest civilian is the guiding principle.

  11. Nick --

    Oh I see, rites of penance for serious sin. I'm familiar with that. Penance rites where when someone was caught and was excommunicated what the process of restoration was.

    That is a bit different than the sort of public confession I was talking about which is very low consequence. The emphasis is on being honest. The goal is to attack spiritual pride. Creating long term serious consequences creates strong incentives to lie. I don't think you can have both a confessional culture and non-trivial penance for sin. Part of how the confessional culture works is seeing the truth see people free, not see it cast them into years of punishment. Watching others do substantial penance would just as likely cause someone to come to realization that he is never going to confess anything to the church ever again.

    The Amish have that problem. Serious sinners generally leave the community forever taking family with them.

  12. I was raised reformed. I can't say there was much public confession. Occasionally someone would share a conversion story but that was more associated with other traditions. Pentecostal or Baptist maybe.

    Was an attack on hypocrisy the central theme of Jesus' ministry? Not exactly. I would say repentance was more in the center. Hypocrisy is one way to avoid repentance. There are others. Mike Flynn's article points out that today people accusing other of being hypocrites are often not calling on people to repent. They are calling on people to sin more boldly.

  13. Randy --

    Again this is coming from the perspective of someone who went to churches with public confession. If confession is private the church isn't involved in helping people work on repentance. In which case the whole issue of whether rampant lying or having people openly undermine the moral standards of the church is more damaging might be hard to weigh. I'd still come down on the side that developing a culture of rampant lying is worse since

    1) it destroys the ability for church members to even believe one another in private conversation. If members don't even share with one another privately... then there really isn't a church community at all and I'm not sure it makes much difference what the members do.

    2) When people are entrenched in the lies about their own sins they generally have a hard enough time being honest, often honest with themselves. Making a willingness to forever forgo a sin a criteria to talk about it strikes me as undermining even private confession.

    But the bulk of my post is addressing churches with public confession.

  14. I don't think "rampant lying" was happening in my reformed church. Morality was preached strongly. People struggled to be honest with themselves and others. But they did struggle. They didn't just lie all the time. People would share their sins with trusted friends. There was nothing public about it. There were times when someone was caught in serious sin but that was rare.

    As a Catholic the rampant lying is more of an issue. Again, there are those that take seriously confession and mortal sin. But other just do what the church says is gravely immoral and go to communion anyway. Part of that is the Catholic preaching is not as strong. It is very hard to do something that is being condemned from the pulpit.

  15. There is an orderliness in the universe, there is an unalterable law governing everything and every being that exists or lives. It is no blind law; for no blind law can govern the conduct of living beings.