Anselm’s ontological argument

The most interesting version of Anselm’s ontological argument goes something like this:

1. God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived.

2. What cannot be thought not to exist is greater than that which can be thought not to exist.

3. So if that than which no greater can be conceived could be thought not to exist, then there could conceivably be something greater still.

4. But it is absurd to say that that there could conceivably be something greater than that than which no greater can be conceived.

5. So that than which no greater can be conceived cannot be thought not to exist.

6. So God cannot be thought not to exist.

7. So God exists.

You cannot properly understand this argument unless you read it in the context of the Platonic-Augustinian tradition that forms its background. Knowing something about the later Scholastic tradition would be very useful too. And that is why modern readers typically do not understand the argument. For example, they often think it is an attempt to “define God into existence,” as if Anselm believed that arbitrarily attaching certain meanings to certain words could tell us something about objective reality. But this is to confuse what Scholastics call a nominal definition – an explanation of the meaning of a word – with what they call a real definition – an explanation of the nature or essence of the objective reality a word refers to. Anselm is ultimately concerned with the latter, not the former. While he no doubt thinks that any reflective language user will agree that the notion of “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” is implicit in his use of the word “God,” the more important point he is driving at is that being that than which nothing greater can be conceived must as a matter of objective fact be of the essence or nature of being divine, just as (to use a stock modern example) being a compound of hydrogen and oxygen is of the essence of water.

Of course, many modern philosophers deny that there are any essences or natures to be discovered, and would on that basis reject any distinction between nominal and real definitions. But to make such a denial is, by itself anyway, simply to assert that the essentialism presupposed by Anselm and other Scholastics is wrong, not to show that it is. Hence it cannot constitute a non-question-begging objection to Anselm. In any event, what is relevant here is what Anselm meant to be doing in giving a definition, not what a modern philosopher would be doing in giving one.

Modern readers also often assume that questions of better and worse, great and less great, are ultimately subjective. But this too, if left merely as an assumption, simply begs the question against Anselm. Here the Platonic-Augustinian essentialist background to the argument is crucial. To advert to some of my own stock examples, that a Euclidean triangle drawn with a straight edge is a better triangle than one drawn freehand (and therefore having only roughly straight lines) is a matter of objective fact, given what it is to be a Euclidean triangle. That a squirrel with four legs and a furry tail is a better squirrel than one which has lost its tail and a leg after a fight with a cat is also a matter of objective fact, given what it is to be a squirrel. And so forth. A better triangle is just a more triangle-like triangle, and a better squirrel is just a more squirrel-like squirrel. Better and worse, greater and less great, have to do with how perfectly or imperfectly a thing instantiates the nature that makes it the kind of thing it is. And if some form of classical essentialism is true (whether Platonic, Aristotelian, or Scholastic), then since the natures in question are objective realities, so too are the standards of better and worse that they entail.

Now part of what Anselm is saying is that existence is no different in this regard from being a triangle or being a squirrel. Having straight sides makes a thing more “triangle-like,” and having four legs makes it more “squirrel-like.” Similarly, to be that which cannot possibly not exist, to exist necessarily – which is what Anselm is getting at when he speaks of what cannot be thought not to exist – is, you might say, to be more fully existent, more “existence-like,” than to be the sort of thing which can possibly not exist, something which exists only contingently. And just as to be more perfectly triangle-like makes a thing better qua triangle, and being more perfectly squirrel-like makes it better qua squirrel, so too having necessary existence makes it better qua existing thing.

Now you can’t get more existence-like than existence itself, and Aquinas would, of course, later characterize God as He whose essence just is existence, Being Itself rather than a being among other beings. But something like this doctrine existed already in the Platonic tradition that preceded and influenced Anselm, and it is surely lurking in the background of his conception of God as that which cannot even be thought not to exist. Throw in the Scholastic doctrine of the convertibility of the transcendentals (which entails that being, goodness, and unity are all the same thing considered from different points of view) and it is easy to see why someone would judge that that than which nothing greater can be conceived and that which cannot be thought not to exist must be one and the same thing, and something utterly unique. Throw in also a broadly Platonic metaphysics of essences, and the conclusion that God so conceived of must exist in reality seems to follow straightaway. For how could that which is Existence Itself fail to exist? And if God just is Existence Itself, how could He fail to exist?

It is also easy to see, in light of all this, why Anselm would be unmoved by Gaunilo’s objection (i.e. “Why couldn’t such reasoning be used to prove that, say, a greatest conceivable island must exist (which would be absurd)?”). Islands and other examples of the sort appealed to in Gaunilo-style “parody objections” to the ontological argument are simply not the sort of thing to which its reasoning could in principle apply, given what has been said. For not only islands and other material things, but also anything less than Being Itself, anything in which essence and existence are distinct, could in principle be thought not to exist.

To be sure, I am not claiming that Anselm reasoned in exactly the way I have suggested here, or that all of the concepts involved, much less the terminology, are explicit in his writings. I am saying instead that something like this line of thought is surely implicit in what he did say, given the intellectual milieu within which he thought. Some of themes in question already existed within the tradition in a fully articulated way, others were fully articulated only later, but all are relevant to understanding what Anselm was getting at. (Compare: If future historians of philosophy want to understand what is going on in J.J.C. Smart’s famous article “Sensations and brain processes,” they would do well to read it not only in light of the general materialist tradition that preceded it, but also in light of the specifically functionalist version of materialism that came after it, insofar as Smart’s notion of “topic-neutrality” represents an inchoate version of the basic functionalist idea. And if these future historians happened to be Aristotelians, they would be making a grave mistake if they assumed that Smart means by “matter” what they do, or that functionalists mean by “function” what they do – as mistaken as contemporary philosophers are when they unwittingly read their own assumptions back into an Aristotle, Anselm, or Aquinas. That philosophers of the past should be read in light both of the traditions that preceded them and those that succeeded them is a theme I have addressed earlier, e.g. here and here.)

Most of the standard objections to Anselm seem to me to rest on a failure to appreciate this larger philosophical context of his argument. But not all of them. As my readers know, I hate to come across like a doctrinaire Thomist. But it does seem to me that Aquinas’s objection to Anselm is the one that really gets to the nub of the matter. Aquinas agrees that to grasp God’s essence would be to see that He cannot possibly not exist. God’s existence is in that sense self-evident in itself. But it is not self-evident to us, given the way we have to come to know things (ST I.2.1). For one thing, as an Aristotelian, Aquinas is committed to the view that all our knowledge, including knowledge of God, must derive from the senses. For another, he holds that for us to grasp a thing’s essence is to grasp its genus and specific difference. But when we come to know through the senses (and in particular through the Five Ways) that there is a God, what we come to know is that there is an uncaused cause of the world who is purely actual and in whom there is no distinction between essence and existence. This entails that He is the sort of thing which could not possibly not exist, but also that He is absolutely simple and thus not composed of a genus and specific difference (or of anything else for that matter). Hence we cannot grasp His essence, and thus cannot know what we’d need to know in order for Anselm’s argument to serve as a way for us to come to know God’s existence. In effect, we come to know a posteriori that there must in fact exist exactly the sort of God Anselm tells us exists, while at the same time coming to know that Anselm’s a priori way of getting to Him cannot succeed.

The lesson is not that Anselm’s argument is unsound so much as that it presupposes knowledge (i.e. of God’s essence) that we cannot have. Moreover, the idea that reason points us to the existence of that than which there can be nothing greater is something Aquinas himself endorses as long as it is developed in an a posteriori fashion, as it is in Aquinas’s Fourth Way. (I explain how, and explain and defend the other key metaphysical ideas referred to above, in Aquinas.)


Reason Papers on Locke

Irfan Khawaja reviews my book Locke and Eric Mack’s John Locke in the latest issue of Reason Papers. From Khawaja’s comments on my book:

A clear and well-written overview and critique of the whole of Locke‘s philosophy…

Much of the latter third of Feser‘s book consists of an eminently clear (though not uncontroversial) summary of the main elements of Locke‘s views on rights, property, consent, revolution, and toleration. Readers familiar with this material will admire the clarity and organization of Feser‘s presentation (even as they look askance at this or that interpretation), and readers unfamiliar with it will get the overview that they need. Likewise, much of the latter part of the book consists of Scholastically inspired critiques of Locke, or discussions of the (genuine) tensions between Locke‘s metaphysics and epistemology, on the one hand, and his political philosophy, on the other. Two of Feser‘s criticisms stand out for their subversive potential: (1) Locke‘s skepticism about our knowledge of real essences undermines what he has to say in defense of natural rights… (2) The defects in Locke‘s theory of personal identity undermine his justification of private property… These criticisms, and others like them, should force us to think more carefully about the relationship between Locke‘s Essay and his political works, and will undoubtedly keep Locke scholars busy for some time.

Feser ends the book… with a provocative chapter on “Locke‘s Contestable Legacy.” One bonus of the discussion is a very interesting (and in my view, correct) application of Locke‘s views to international politics in the post-9/11 world... Feser‘s main point, though, is that taken as a whole, Locke‘s philosophy offers us a package deal of incompatible elements, so that “[t]hose who seek to appropriate Locke‘s legacy today must decide which part of it they value most, for they cannot coherently have it all”... Even if one thinks, as I do, that Feser occasionally lets his Scholastic polemics overshadow his examination of Locke‘s theorizing, he is right to push the reader to some such decision. Whether such a reader will be pushed from Lockeanism to Feser‘s Scholasticism is another matter, but there‘s no question that some pushing is in order, and that Feser‘s Locke does an excellent job at supplying it.

As the kids say, read the whole thing. (Not only for what it says about my book, but also for the review of the always-interesting Eric Mack.) Naturally, Khawaja offers some criticisms. Some are well-taken; some I would take issue with. All are valuable, and I thank him for his kind and very helpful review.


Trojan removal (Updated)

Media reports about the Catholic Church are like the Trojan that infects your computer: At first they seem entirely innocent and straightforward, and by the time you find that they are the opposite, it is too late and serious damage has already been done. The controversy over the pope’s recently publicized statement about condoms is only the latest example: What most people will remember are the initial reports, according to which the pope said that “condoms can be justified in some cases.” That is not what he said, but we will no doubt be hearing for months and years to come not only that he did say it, but also (after this already garbled report gets distorted further and further) that the Catholic Church has in some way softened her teaching on contraception.

I don’t have much to add to what others have already said, but since the misconceptions have already started to appear here at my own blog (in one of the combox discussions down below), it seems I ought to do my small part to expose this urban legend while it is still young. The controversy concerns an answer the pope gave to an interviewer who asked him about his widely discussed comments on AIDS and condoms during his 2009 trip to Africa. You can read his full response here. The crucial passage is the following (with the pope’s words in italics):

[T]he sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.

There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.

[Interviewer's question:] Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?

She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

End of quote. Here, it seems to me, are the points to emphasize:

1. Contraception is not even at issue here (contrary to what one commenter in the combox of another post down below seems to think). Contraception has to do with preventing conception from occurring. What the pope is talking about is the example of a (presumably homosexual) male prostitute who wears a condom so as to avoid infecting his “customer” (also presumably male) with HIV. Conception, and thus contraception, are not even possible in such a case.

2. What the pope is saying is that if a male prostitute happens at least to care enough about his “customer” not to want to infect him with AIDS, perhaps that minimal degree of concern could lead him someday to a more human view of sexuality. That is a psychological observation, not a recommendation or a claim about the ultimate moral character of the actions in question.

3. The pope also criticizes the “fixation” many have on condoms as a means of AIDS prevention, and says that such condom use “is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection” and indeed that it is “not... a real or moral solution” to the problem (my emphasis). In other words, to the extent that the pope speaks directly to the moral side of the issue at all, his remarks point away from the recommendation of condom use.

4. All of this was in any event said in the informal context of an interview, rather than in an official ecclesiastical document such as a papal encyclical, or even in a theological book or article. That means it does not have, and is not meant to have, any binding force at all as official Catholic teaching, and is not even intended as a fully thought out expression of personal theological opinion. It is merely an informal psychological observation with which Catholics are free to agree or disagree.

In short, there is nothing about either the context or the content of the pope’s remarks that in any way modifies Catholic teaching. Anyone who thinks he can now justify condom use by saying “The pope says it’s OK” is deceiving himself.

Further commentary from Janet Smith, Jimmy Akin, Ed Peters, and Fr. Zuhlsdorf.

UPDATE: Some more commentary from Fr. Joseph Fessio, Mark Latkovic, Stephen A. Long, and Anthony McCarthy.


Best of 2010

First Things has very kindly put this blog on their Best Blogs of 2010 list. Thank you!


Review of The Grand Design

People keep asking me what I think of Stephen Hawking’s recent remarks on religion. I refrained from public comment because I was reviewing Hawking’s latest book The Grand Design (co-written with Leonard Mlodinow) for National Review. The review has now appeared, in NR’s November 29 issue. It is available online to NR subscribers, and should be on the newsstands any time now. If you are not a subscriber, please do the good people at NR a favor and pick up a copy.


What counts as a lie?

The standard view within Scholastic natural law theory is that lying is always at least mildly immoral. But (several readers have asked) what counts as a lie? A colleague in the elevator on the way to the office says “Hi, how are you?” You answer “Fine thanks, how about you?” even though you’ve got a headache, a rebellious teenage daughter, and financial problems. Have you just told a lie? While playing cards, you put on your best poker face, and while playing basketball you fake out a player on the other team. Since a lie needn’t be communicated in words, are these lies? What about wearing camouflage during wartime?

None of these counts as a lie, and none of them is immoral. As typically defined by natural law theorists, a lie is willful speech or other communicative behavior contrary to one’s mind. That is to say, one lies when one wills to communicate the message that P when what one really thinks is not-P. But there are two crucial things to note about this definition. First, what counts as “communicating the message that P” depends in part on convention and circumstance, because the significance of words and communicative gestures is determined by convention and can vary with circumstances. Second, lying is not the same thing as deception. One can lie without deceiving someone, and one can deceive someone without lying. With these points in mind, we can see that the examples above do not count as lies. Let’s consider them in order.

Language is conventional. “Cat” refers to cats, not inherently, but only given the conventions of English usage. But these conventions are complex. If someone asks where Tabby ran off to and I say “The cat is on the mat,” I will naturally be understood as asserting that there is a feline on a certain floor rug. But if I’m watching the original Ocean’s 11, point to the screen and say “That is one cool cat!” I will naturally be taken to be referring instead to (say) Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis, Jr. It would be silly for someone to say “You liar! That’s a man, not a cat!” because the conventions of English usage determine that under certain circumstances, “cat” can refer to a hipster rather than a feline. Fictional stories and jokes do not count as lies either, because circumstances make it clear that they are not intended to be taken to communicate what the speaker really thinks is true.

Similarly, given circumstances and the conventions of English usage, utterances like “Fine, thanks” are widely understood to be mere pleasantries, the sort of thing one will say out of politeness however one is actually feeling. In typical circumstances, they are simply not conventionally used to express a meaning like “I am completely free of anxiety, physical pain, or difficulty of any sort.” Hence it is as silly to classify them as “lies” as it is silly to count “There goes one cool cat!” as a lie. Utterances, facial expressions, gestures and other bodily movements which are used to mask one’s intentions in the context of a game are also not lies, precisely because everyone familiar with such games knows that in the context of the game they are not conventionally used to express one’s true thoughts in the first place. Hence, putting on a poker face or faking out an opponent are no more lies than “Fine, thanks” or “Sinatra is a cool cat” are.

Stratagems in war are similar. One may not lie during war, any more than one may lie to the murderer at the door. To fabricate stories about atrocities committed by one’s enemy, for example, is simply to lie, and no more justifiable than falsely accusing a fellow poker player of adultery simply as a way of rattling him. But the use of camouflage, feint attacks, moving troops and equipment around in a deceptive way, and the like, are like putting on a poker face or faking out an opposing player in a basketball game.

This brings us to deception, which, as noted earlier, is not the same as lying even though there is an obvious relationship between them. One typically intends to deceive when lying, but one can lie when one knows no one will be deceived. And one can deceive without telling a lie, for example, by speaking evasively or ambiguously, or by using a broad mental reservation. Suppose a murderer comes to your door looking for you, but does not know what you look like. He asks “Is the guy who lives here home right now?” You answer “Yes, he is. Wait here,” and then close the door and run out the back. You have deceived him, but you haven’t told a lie. And one indication that you haven’t is that if the murderer is quick-witted enough, he could figure out that by “he” you were (truthfully) referring to yourself.

Now, a mental reservation involves restricting the possible meanings of one’s words to some particular meaning that the speaker has in mind but does not explicitly indicate. A “strict mental reservation” involves restricting it in such a way that there is no way the listener could guess what it is you really mean. For example, when someone at work asks “Did you take my stapler?” and you answer “No,” meaning “No, not in the last hour (but I did take it two hours ago),” you’ve used a strict mental reservation. Obviously, a strict mental reservation is really just a kind of lie, because there is no way the average language user could figure out what you really mean.

But a “broad mental reservation” is not a lie. It involves restricting one’s meaning in such a way that the average language user could figure out one’s true meaning, given the conventions of usage and the circumstances, even if he is not likely to do so. Natural law writers typically give as everyday examples a confessor, doctor, lawyer, or secretary answering “No” or “I don’t know” when asked about matters he or she is professionally obliged to keep secret. This is legitimate, because given the context – namely the professional relationship a confessor has to a penitent, a doctor to a patient, a lawyer to a client, or a secretary to an employer – such answers can be understood by any reasonable person to mean “No, I have nothing I can tell you given my obligations to the person you are asking me about.” An accused person can also plead “Not guilty” even if he is guilty, because under the circumstances, everyone knows that what is meant is “Whether or not I committed the crime, I am taking advantage of the right I am afforded under law to plead ‘not guilty.’”

This does not mean that anything goes. Obviously there are many circumstances in which it would be wrong to speak ambiguously, evasively, or with even a broad mental reservation. If someone has a right to the information he is asking from us, we should give it to him without beating around the bush. But if he does not have a right to it, or if some harm would result from our giving it to him then and there, though we may not lie to him, we may nevertheless avoid telling him what he wants to know, via one of the methods in question. As everywhere in human life, there will be borderline cases. But this is no more a problem for the natural law view of lying than it is for any other view.

To some people this all might seem like hair-splitting that is far removed from common sense. But though the jargon and distinctions are to some extent technical, the end result actually follows common sense very closely. The man on the street may not know from “mental reservations,” the “natural end of our communicative faculties,” and the like, but he does know the difference between a joke and a lie, he knows when someone is being evasive precisely so as to avoid lying, and he knows that someone known to have personal troubles who says “Fine, thanks” in the elevator is just being polite and is not a liar. The man on the street also knows that telling the murderer at the door “The guy you’re looking for is not here,” and telling children that Santa Claus is real, are lies. True, he will likely go on to say that they are “white lies,” but that is a different issue; whatever he thinks of the ethics of lying, he knows what a lie is. (In this connection, it is not the Scholastic, but rather those who propose redefinitions of lying like “A lie is a falsehood told to someone who has a right to the truth,” who are at odds with common sense, at least where the definition of what a lie is is concerned.)

There is also a theological consideration which Christian readers, at least, should keep in mind before dismissing the distinctions made above as so much Jesuitical pedantry. Consider the following biblical syllogism:

1. God cannot lie (Titus 1:2)

2. Jesus Christ is God (John 1:1), therefore

3. Jesus Christ cannot lie.

I submit that (3) is something every Christian should affirm. If we affirm it, though, we also have to consider that there were circumstances in which Christ spoke in a very indirect way (Matthew 13: 10-13) and also cases where he appears to have used a broad mental reservation (John 7:8; Matthew 9:24). It follows that there must be a middle ground between speaking the truth in a completely straightforward and unambiguous way on the one hand, and lying on the other. And that middle ground is just what the natural law theorist intends to clarify with the distinctions made above. For those Protestants insistent on having some biblical warrant for every aspect of Christian morality, there you have it.

Some Catholic readers might nevertheless object to what has been said, noting that there have been Catholic theologians who have defended the practice of deliberately telling falsehoods in cases like the “murderer at the door” example, on the grounds that the person spoken to in such a circumstance does not have a right to the truth. Sometimes this position is presented as a defense of lying under certain circumstances. But sometimes (and as I noted a moment ago) it is presented as an alternative way to define a “lie” – falsehoods like the one in question, it is suggested, shouldn’t count. Now it is true that there has been debate on this matter in the history of the Church, especially in early centuries. (See the article on lying in the Catholic Encyclopedia for an overview.) But as I noted in my previous post on this subject, there are such serious problems with proposals of this sort that Scholastic natural law theorists and orthodox theologians have for centuries now tended to reject them. The more “hard-line” view associated with Augustine and Aquinas has, as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “generally been followed in the Western Church, and it has been defended as the common opinion by the Schoolmen and by modern divines.” As the Catholic Encyclopedia article on mental reservation sums up the now standard view, “according to the common Catholic teaching it is never allowable to tell a lie, not even to save human life.”

The Magisterium of the Church seems recently to have reaffirmed this position, at least by implication. As theologian Mark Latkovic has noted:

Catholic moral theologian Germain Grisez has observed: “Although most Catholic theologians have considered the prohibition of lying a moral absolute, there is a lesser but significant school of thought holding that lying sometimes can be justified, particularly when it is a question of lying to an enemy, who has no right to the truth, in order to protect the innocent from harm” (“The Way of the Lord Jesus,” vol. 2, Franciscan Press, 1993, p. 406).

These two ways of thinking are reflected in the editorial process involving paragraph 2483 of the Catechism, which was revised for the book’s second edition. The earlier (1994) edition stated that to lie is “to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has a right to know the truth” (2483, emphasis added). This definition, reflecting what Grisez calls the “lesser but significant school of thought,” stems from the teaching of the 17th-century Protestant writer Hugo Grotius.

After the publication of the Catechism, many Catholic scholars wrote to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) about this paragraph. They asked for rectification of the text, which had abandoned centuries of Catholic teaching by accepting the position of Grotius. Fortunately, the paragraph was revised; the 1997 edition eliminates the words “who has a right to know the truth” (see also 2484).

The obvious implication is that the Church does not wish officially to move away from the traditional theological position that whether the listener has a right to the truth is irrelevant to whether something counts as a lie.


The murderer at the door

We’ve been discussing (here and here) the classical natural law theorist’s claim that lying is always wrong. The classic problem case for this sort of view is as follows: A murderer comes to your door demanding to know where he can find his intended victim, who happens to be hiding in your home. Would it be wrong to lie to him? The natural law theorist holds that it would be. Some readers of my earlier posts on this subject reject the natural law position for that reason. Others do not, but are uncomfortable having to swallow something they take to be highly counterintuitive. Both are relying on their moral intuitions. I have explained in an earlier post why I think appealing to intuitions is bad philosophical methodology. I want to say a few things in this post about why the specific moral intuitions at issue in the present discussion should not be trusted.

First, let me clear away some misunderstandings that are no doubt at least part of the reason some people find the view in question counterintuitive. The natural law theorist is NOT saying that you are obliged to tell the murderer where his intended victim is. In fact you are obliged not to tell him. The claim is rather that it is wrong to resort to lying, specifically, as a way of avoiding telling him. You could instead say nothing, or try to distract him, or say something that is vague or ambiguous or subtly off-topic but not untrue. You could threaten him, since he is himself threatening someone under your protection. Indeed, you can do more than threaten him if you are certain that his attempt at murder is imminent. You can punch his lights out, or even kill him if that is the only way to save your own life or that of the person you are hiding. This would be self-defense, and thus not murder. There is no question whatsoever here of your having a duty to sit back and let him do what he wants. The claim is only that it would be wrong to lie. And even if you did lie to him, the claim is not that you would have done something seriously wrong. You would be guilty of at most a venial sin, given the circumstances. So, things are hardly as dire as critics of the view might think.

Of course, many find it counterintuitive to hold that there would be even a slight moral failing in telling such a lie. But the classical natural law theorist has given a reason for thinking there is. As Aquinas says, the basic trouble with lying is that it is a kind of perversity. It takes what has as its inherent, natural end the communication of what is really in one’s mind -- speech and related behavior -- and deliberately turns it to the opposite of that end. The teaching about lying is therefore just a straightforward application of the more general moral system. For the natural law theorist has a worked-out theory of the good, grounded in a sophisticated metaphysics (classical essentialism), that explains why such an action must of necessity be bad (even if not always seriously bad). He argues that unless we accept some such account of the good, no account of goodness as an objective feature of the world, and thus no foundation for morality, would be possible at all. (See chapter 5 of Aquinas, chapter 4 of The Last Superstition, or the first half of “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation” for the rundown.) He also claims that something like the metaphysics that leads to this account of the good is rationally unavoidable in any event. (Again, see the relevant chapters in Aquinas and The Last Superstition.) Then there is the fact that in general, natural law theory conforms to traditional morality, and thus to the common sense of most human beings historically. (Of course it does not conform to the intuitions of contemporary liberal Western academics. But relative to what most human beings think and have thought historically, their intuitions are highly idiosyncratic.) Merely to say that one finds some one small part of natural law theory counterintuitive hardly outweighs all of this.

And we should expect even strong intuitions occasionally to be mistaken. As I argued in the earlier post on intuition linked to above, intuition is only ever a rough and ready guide at best. For example, in general we reason logically, which is why when we begin the study of logic we find that it consists largely in the codification of principles we had already been following implicitly. But even the best common sense reasoning is still rough around the edges, and there are some pitfalls we are prone to if we are not careful. That is why the study of logic is necessary, and why there are such things as fallacies – patterns of reasoning that are bad but which can seem to untutored common sense not to be bad. So, while it is true that from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, philosophical theory should never depart wholesale from common sense, this claim is itself something we know only as a result of philosophical theory, and that same theory tells us that common sense nevertheless needs here and there to be corrected. There is no reason to think that ethics is any different from logic in this respect.

Indeed, there are other cases where the moral intuitions even of religious and traditionally-minded people depart from what we know from natural law theory to be true. Common sense tells us that stealing is wrong, and common sense is right about that. Our intuitions reflect an inchoate understanding that private property is something good for us given our nature. But the concrete details of how a system of private property works out in actual human societies are not natural, but conventional and highly contingent. It requires intellectual effort to determine exactly what the natural law strictly requires of us vis-à-vis private property, what it recommends as best for us when possible but doesn’t strictly require, and what it leaves entirely open to custom and human law. Common sense tracks some of these nuances, but not all of them. It tells us, for example, that the starving man who takes food from a cabin in the woods has done nothing wrong. But it also often nevertheless counts this as “stealing,” which it is not, because (as the natural law theorist argues) the right that the natural law gives us over our property cannot, given its function in the overall moral system, possibly be so strong as to rule out this sort of thing. The owner of the cabin has a property right in his food, but not a right that is so absolute that it would be theft to take it under emergency circumstances of the sort in question. Because of this fuzziness in our intuitions, the starving man might feel guilty, though there is no reason for him to do so. The fuzziness can also lead to extreme positions on the part of those who think they are being “consistent” about treating property rights as natural rights grounded in natural law, such as Rothbardian libertarians (who would regard the cabin scenario as theft, and thus unjust). They are not being consistent, but simplistic and muddleheaded, because the very natural law considerations that ground the institution of private property also entail certain limits on it. (See the article on property rights linked to above for the details.)

Consider also that the intuition that lying to the murderer would not be even mildly wrong is itself historically and culturally contingent. We live in an age permeated by consequentialist thinking – so much so that even the most conservative and religious of people can convince themselves that deliberately incinerating tens of thousands of innocent people is justifiable “for the greater good,” and indeed a paradigm of moral courage. It is no surprise that in such a cultural context, lying to the murderer at the door should seem devoid of even the slightest moral stain. But other ages had other paradigms. For example:

St. Anthimus, Bishop of Nicomedia, would not allow the soldiers who were sent to arrest him, and who were enjoying his hospitality, to save him by a lie; he preferred to suffer martyrdom.

St. Firmus, Bishop of Tagasta, concealed in his house two young men, whom the emperor had unjustly condemned to death. The officers of justice came to the bishop, and demanded to be told where the young men were hidden. The prelate refused to answer; he was put to torture, but this availed nothing: “I can die,” he said, “but I cannot make others miserable.” The emperor hearing of his heroic conduct, pardoned the young men.

(Quoted from Rev. Francis Spirago, The Catechism Explained: An Exhaustive Explanation of the Catholic Religion, pp. 410-11.)

I have noted before that one finds the view that lying is intrinsically immoral defended by thinkers as different in cultural context and philosophical orientation as Aristotle and Kant. Augustine and (as we've seen) Aquinas were also uncompromising, and while there was some debate about the matter in the early Church, the view that lying is always and intrinsically immoral has been the standard view in Roman Catholic moral theology for centuries. Those to whom it seems intuitively obvious that lying to the murderer at the door would not be even slightly morally problematic should consider the possibility that their intuitions reflect their contingent cultural circumstances more than they do any innate moral understanding.

Finally, anyone who claims that it would not be even mildly immoral to lie to the murderer needs to provide some alternative account which both explains why lying is wrong in other cases but does not forbid it in the case at hand. And there are serious problems with such accounts. For example, it is sometimes suggested that it is wrong to lie only when the person lied to has a right to know the truth, which the murderer at the door does not. One problem with this suggestion is that it fails to capture what is wrong with lying per se. For we can fail to respect someone’s right to know the truth even when we don’t lie – for example, when we simply keep silent when someone who has a right to certain information from us asks for it. The view would also have the absurd implication that we can freely tell falsehoods not only to murderers, but also to innocent people who happen not to have a right to know certain truths. For example, it would entail that when there are certain secrets that a government has a right to keep from its citizens (about sensitive military operations, say), the government may not only refrain from revealing them to the citizens, but even tell outright falsehoods instead. It would entail that parents could tell falsehoods to their children, rather than merely keeping silent, about matters they are too young to understand. It would entail that rather than merely keeping silent, we can tell falsehoods to other adults about private matters we have no obligation to inform them about. It would entail that God might tell us nothing but falsehoods, since we have no rights against Him – contrary to the Thomistic view (defended in the post just linked to) that God can only ever will what is good for us, despite His not being obligated to us in any way. (Which brings to mind a further consideration: If even God cannot lie – as St. Paul famously affirms in Titus 1:2 – then where do we get off thinking that we may sometimes do so? Job 13:7 indicates that it would be wrong to lie even for the purpose of defending God’s honor.)

In short, I would say that the natural law position that lying is intrinsically wrong has powerful arguments in its favor, and when rightly understood is not as counterintuitive as it might seem. (Nor have I by any means exhausted the subject here. Natural law theorists have had much to say about the legitimacy in many contexts of broad mental reservations, evasiveness, stratagems during wartime, and the like.) Meanwhile, the alternative view has no good arguments in its favor, and is at best supported by culturally contingent and fallible intuitions. Thus, it poses no serious challenge to the natural law position. If there is a conflict between that position and our intuitions, it is the intuitions that have to go.


There is no Santa clause

What do the figures at left all have in common? None of them exists. Nor would any parent ever tell his child that Superman or Batman is real. Yet some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real. Perhaps some also tell them that the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy is real.

They shouldn’t. These are lies. Parents who do this certainly mean well, but they do not do well, because lying is always wrong. Not always gravely wrong, to be sure, but still wrong. That is bad enough. But there is also the bad lesson that children are apt to derive from this practice, even if the parents do not intend to teach it – namely, the immoral principle that lying is acceptable if it leads to good consequences. There is also the damage done to a child’s trust in his parents’ word. “What else might they be lying about? What about all this religion stuff?”

This issue came up in the comments section of my recent post on lying, and I decided that it was important enough to address in a separate post. My more secular readers might not find it worth the attention. But the reason might be that they think that I am obviously right. Ironically, it is (I suspect) more religious and traditionally-minded people who are most likely to tell this sort of lie. Certainly there are many religious people who do it.

I would urge them to stop. A child is completely dependent on his parents’ word for his knowledge of the world, of right and wrong, and of God and religious matters generally. He looks up to them as the closest thing he knows to an infallible authority. What must it do to a child’s spirit when he finds out that something his parents insisted was true – something not only important to him but integrally tied to his religion insofar as it is related to Christmas and his observance of it – was a lie? Especially if the parents repeated the lie over the course of several years, took pains to make it convincing (eating the cookies left out for “Santa” etc.), and (as some parents do) reassured the child of its truth after he first expressed doubts? How important, how comforting, it is for a child to be able to believe: Whatever other people do, Mom and Dad will never lie to me. How heartbreaking for him to find out he was wrong!

To quote Fr. Thomas Higgins’ once widely-used textbook, Man as Man: The Science and Art of Ethics:

Certainly harmful truth might be withheld from children, but not by lying. They may not be told falsehoods which from the force of one’s words they will rightly take to be true. A child can distinguish between fable and fact. When we purport to tell him things “for real” he does not expect a fairy tale. An example in point is the Santa Claus legend. We obtrude the story upon his belief, insisting that we are not weaving tales and commanding his acceptance – it is nothing but lying. One’s intent is innocent enough, but this is a fair example of the end justifying the means. This conclusion will seem strange to American people. It will be said that we are so used to this story; our own mothers told it to us, it is surrounded by an aura of the happiest recollections. Yet it is speech contrary to one’s mind. God has never and cannot so act toward man, deluding him into accepting fiction for fact. It is a wrong way to discipline young minds – eliciting good behavior by falsehood. The motive of the good should only be the true. Because of this experience, it is difficult for the young to avoid the implicit conclusion that a lie in a good cause is legitimate. For some, the awakening is a cruel disillusionment; thereafter they will be wary of the things that are told them by those whose words should be sacred. (pp. 321-22)

The natural law tells us, and the Church has always taught, that lying is intrinsically wrong. There is no clause that says “…but it is OK when you’re lying to your kids about Santa!”


Is it wrong to lie to HAL?

While it’s still 2010, let’s talk about 2010. I had occasion to watch it recently, and while it’s not as good as 2001, it’s still a pretty good movie (despite its naïve 80s-liberal “Can’t we all just get along?” take on the Cold War). There’s a great scene in it where Dr. Chandra, who has been told to lie to HAL (the computer that famously went rogue in 2001 but is rebooted in 2010), wrestles with his conscience before finally deciding to tell HAL the truth. Would it have been wrong for him to do otherwise?

From the point of view of classical natural law theory, lying is always intrinsically wrong. For as Aquinas argues, it is directly contrary to the natural end of our communicative faculties, which is to convey what is really in our minds. These days, the view that lying is inherently wrong is often considered eccentric or even mad, but historically it is not uncommon. One finds it in Aristotle, for example, and in Kant. And while I would not go so far as to say that no rational person could doubt it, I would suggest that it is only in a culture as morally and intellectually rotted out as ours is by anti-essentialist and consequentialist thinking that it could seem (as it does to many people today) too bizarre to take seriously. Historically, most cultures have understood that what is good for us is in some way determined by the ends nature has set for our various capacities, and (accordingly) that some things are intrinsically wrong because they are contrary to those ends. And that is why the view that lying is inherently immoral is historically not uncommon. While there have always been those who doubted it, most people historically could at least understand why lying might seem to be inherently bad.

It is also important to be precise about what the view actually is. The claim is not that we must always tell others what is really on our minds. We can (and sometimes should) keep silent, or change the subject, or attempt to distract our listener, or in some other way avoid saying what we really think. We can joke, or act in a play or motion picture, because it is generally understood that the words we speak in such contexts do not even purport to express our actual thoughts. We can use expressions that might in a literal sense seem to be falsehoods but which have as a matter of convention come to be used in a non-literal euphemistic way. (For example, “He’s not in,” as spoken by a secretary, is generally understood to be a polite way of saying that whether the person in question is really there or not, he does not want to take any calls or visitors. “I like your new dress!” is generally understood to be the sort of thing one might say out of politeness even if one does not like the dress in question. And so forth.) Related to this, it is not necessarily wrong to speak with a mental reservation – for example, to use words generally understood to be ambiguous so that the listener could plausibly determine what is truly meant, though the speaker knows that the listener will probably take them another way. Finally, not every lie is gravely immoral; in Catholic terms, lying is not always a mortal sin, even when done with sufficient knowledge and deliberation. Context and subject matter are relevant to its gravity.

Still, an actual lie – deliberately speaking or otherwise communicating in a way that is unambiguously contrary to what one really thinks – is always at least mildly immoral. Classical natural law theory does not say we must never use a natural capacity other than for its natural end, or even, necessarily, that we must use it at all. But it does say that we cannot use it while at the same time frustrating its natural end. And that is what lying involves insofar as it entails using speech in its communicative capacity while deliberately frustrating the natural end of communication. (I won’t get into the general case for classical natural law theory here. See Aquinas, especially chapter 5, for the general theory; The Last Superstition, especially chapter 4, for application to the topic of sexual morality; and my article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation” for application to issues related to private property. The first half of the latter article also contains a sketch of the general theory, though the metaphysical background is more fully presented in the books.)

To return to our original question, then, would Dr. Chandra have done something immoral in lying to HAL? Given what has just been said, the answer might seem obvious: If he deliberately told HAL something he knew to be false, he would have been frustrating the natural end of communicative speech and thus acting immorally. But things are not quite that simple. For communication is of its nature interpersonal. As natural law theorists who write on this subject like to put it, you can’t lie to your dog even if you intentionally say something false to him. So, while it is true that Dr. Chandra would have been doing something immoral had he lied to HAL, it is another question whether he really could have lied to HAL even if he had tried to. For that would be possible only if HAL is a person. Is he?

Naturally, someone who accepts the computationalist conception of the mind might say that HAL is a person. But I would say that he is not. This is in part for Aristotelian-Thomistic reasons. A person is an individual substance of a rational nature, and artifacts are not substances in the strict sense. Furthermore, rationality entails immateriality. Therefore, HAL, being (like any other machine) entirely material, could not be rational; and being an artifact and thus not a true substance, could not possibly be a person. (Obviously this is just a summary; see chapter 4 of Aquinas for the details.) There are also the arguments against the computer model of the mind advanced by Hubert Dreyfus and John Searle, which I regard as decisive. Particularly important is the argument of Searle’s paper “Is the Brain a Digital Computer?”, which is less well-known than his famous Chinese Room argument but more fundamental and devastating. (It can also be found in chapter 7 of his book The Rediscovery of the Mind.)

Obviously this is a large issue, and there’s no way I’m going to settle it here. But if HAL is indeed not a person at all, but only a device which mimics the speech behavior of a person, then even if Dr. Chandra had intentionally said something false to HAL he would not have been lying. His actions would have been analogous to those of someone who, just for fun, uses the voice command “Two plus two is five” to activate an alarm system. Hence, Chandra should have had no qualms about “lying” to HAL, because he would not have been truly lying at all.

It is interesting, though – and, I think, telling – that the makers of the film thought, quite rightly, that this plot point had dramatic interest. Arthur C. Clarke (the author of the 2001 and 2010 novels) certainly had no theological or natural law ax to grind, and surely neither did the filmmakers. And yet they clearly intended for their audience to take Dr. Chandra’s moral dilemma seriously. Whatever we might say, Chandra regards HAL as a person who “deserves” to hear the truth: “Whether we are based on carbon or silicon makes no fundamental difference, we should each be treated with appropriate respect!” We’re not supposed to think: “Oh come on, even so, it’s obvious what Chandra needs to do. The lives of the crew are at stake. And HAL is likely to be destroyed anyway, so it’s better for him too if he thinks otherwise, for his own peace of mind. Consider the consequences of telling him the truth! What is Chandra, some kind of reactionary natural law absolutist?” Rather, we’re supposed at least to understand why Dr. Chandra feels uneasy lying, and indeed to regard his ultimate decision to tell HAL the truth as noble.

It would seem, then, that at least some among the liberal and secular audiences to whom a movie like 2010 is meant to appeal, who would likely scoff at the natural law position on lying as extreme and bizarre, nevertheless find themselves in sympathy with something like it when it is presented in a fictional context. However we might try to cover it over with some consciously articulated revisionist moral theory, our unconscious, inchoate grasp of the natural law can seep through in unexpected ways.

(This cognitive dissonance vis-à-vis what liberal audiences like to see in their fictional heroes but criticize in real human beings is something I’ve addressed before, in a post on Watchmen. I previously discussed the metaphysical issues raised by science fiction movies in a post on The Fly.)



Chastek and Coffey contra Kant

My recent post on Kant concerns an Aristotelian-Thomistic objection to Kantian ethics. I offer some criticisms of Kantian epistemology and metaphysics in The Last Superstition, and of Kantian objections to cosmological arguments for God’s existence in Aquinas. Today James Chastek helpfully spells out some further, more general objections Thomists have to Kant’s epistemology and metaphysics. Go take a look. Chastek recommends Oliva Blanchette’s Philosophy of Being as further reading. Another place to look for a detailed Scholastic take on Kant is Coffey’s Epistemology, which addresses the subject at length both in Volume 1 and in Volume 2.
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