Monday, 03 August

20:42

The Ring of Gyges and Planned Parenthood [John V. Gerardi]

Gyges finding his ring, as depicted by Ferrara, 16th century Source: Wikimedia Commons

The release of the undercover videos of Planned Parenthood executives casually discussing the sale of body parts from aborted babies has provoked a lot of reactions–from obvious horror and calls to withdraw all federal funding, to marveling at how the death of a single damn lion in Africa has somehow provoked more international outcry and media focus.  One of the more sadly interesting aspects of the videos is how it brings to focus the consequences of a certain conception of justice first presented in Plato’s Republic, and which is near-universally embraced today.  This idea–specifically, that justice is essentially a live-and-let-live system where the only barometer of morality is whether we are harming another, non-consenting individual–ultimately will allow horrific enormities to be inflicted precisely upon the weak and the voiceless.

In Book II of the Republic, Plato’s brother Glaucon (one of the characters in the dialogue) relates to Socrates and the other interlocutors the story of Gyges, a shepherd who discovered a ring that would turn him invisible.  Immune from discovery, Gyges used the ring to seduce the king’s wife, murder the king, and steal his entire kingdom.

For Glaucon, the story typifies the idea that justice is nothing more than the interest of the stronger.  In a world without consequences, men will behave unjustly because it is in their best interest to take advantage of other people.

The real world, though, has consequences.  As Glaucon puts it, “They say that to do injustice is naturally good and to suffer injustice bad, but that the badness of suffering it so far exceeds the goodness of doing it that those who have done and suffered injustice and tasted both, but who lack the power to do it and avoid suffering it, decide that it is profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to do injustice, nor to suffer it.  As a result, they begin to make laws and covenants, and what the law commands they call lawful and just.”

This account of justice is a forerunner of the Social Contract of Hobbes and Locke.  They stipulated that individuals are free to choose their own concepts of the good for themselves, so long as they agree to be restrained in their actions against one another within the context of society.  Thus, the idea of public ethics is negative.  We act honestly and fairly not because it is good, but only because we don’t want everyone else to rip us off or hurt us.

In America, this understanding of freedom has been in tension with the Christian moral underpinnings of her founders and the vast majority of her citizens throughout history. The Bible always provided an ethical foundation for law and public morality. Freedom was viewed as the dominant political good in America for centuries, but it was a freedom grounded in the baseline standards of Biblical morality.

For the rising Millenial generation, this is no longer so.  John Rawls’ belief that public questions cannot be decided through reasons that are sectarian, or which cannot reasonably be expected to be accepted by everyone, resulted in Christianity being pushed further and further out of public discourse throughout the 20th Century.  When John Kennedy addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960 and declared, “Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates,” it was perhaps the key moment where the Biblical underpinnings of American public morality were jettisoned.  Kennedy would reject his distinctively Catholic views as normative for public morality; today, any kind of orthodox Christian ethical viewpoint is treated as similarly distinctive, and similarly inappropriate for public discourse.

Most Millenials grew up in areligious or irreligious public schools, and sat through 18 years of milquetoast sermons from their 1970’s priests or ministers.  They never had the distinctive moral teachings of Christianity communicated to them.  As a result, what public morality, or universally accepted standards, are left for them?  All that is left is Glaucon’s social contract, where we treat others well only because we do not wish to suffer injustice.

While this can seem to be motivated by a noble exaltation of individual autonomy, it is really more about selfishness and self-preservation, and provides a poor limitation against harming others.  We only refrain from harming people because we don’t want to live in a society where other people can harm us.  Essentially, we are good only because we fear reprisal.  But what if the victim cannot hurt us back?  What if the victim’s life or interest seems insignificant because of his physical or political weakness, or his inability to speak up for himself?  At that point, will we continue to be good?

The videos of Planned Parenthood officials casually discussing the sale of the organs of butchered babies demonstrate what happens when this moral mindset puts on Gyges’ ring.  When your victims are incapable of fighting back, when your actions have no real consequence, any abomination is possible.  It is gruesome, and horrific, and revolting.

An ethical system that refuses to ground freedom in objective moral standards will ultimately be destructive of that very freedom.  If the fear of reprisal is the only standard for morality, there is little to restrict someone from harming the weak and powerless, who cannot harm him.  St. John Paul II predicted this with tremendous clarity in Veritatis Splendor, when he wrote,

Today, when many countries have seen the fall of ideologies which bound politics to a totalitarian conception of the world — Marxism being the foremost of these — there is no less grave a danger that the fundamental rights of the human person will be denied and that the religious yearnings which arise in the heart of every human being will be absorbed once again into politics. This is the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgement of truth impossible. Indeed, “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism”.


15:24

Symposium on Aquinas and modern philosophies to be held in Paris in June 2016 [News - thomistica]

The inaugural Symposium Thomisticum will take place in Paris, June 23-25, 2016. It will be held at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, located in the old Irish College in the center of Paris beside the Panthéon.

The theme of this first Sympoisum is "Aquinas and Modern Philosophies." Paper proposals are invited. The tentative deadline for abstracts is Oct. 1.

Further information can be found here and here.

06:42

The Mob and the Machine [Mary Victrix]

The other day Damian Thompson published a candid history of the Catholic blogosphere, which covers its heyday during the reign of Benedict XVI to its subsequent decline in recent years. Thompson knows a lot about this since he was on the ground floor of the Catholic digital information explosion, having been the writer for the very popular and hard-hitting blog, Holy Smoke.

As noted here before, the information democracy of the Internet has largely served the interests of the more conservative minded, both within the Church and in the secular world, because the mainstream media (secular and Catholic) has long been dominated by the left. Thompson acknowledges this, and accurately situates the new informational freedom in the context of Benedict XVI’s reform of the reform. With papal power behind doctrinal and liturgical reform as well as unrestricted access to the public through the blogosphere, a large sector of the Church, formerly marginalized, now had an opportunity to further what they saw as the true Church’s agenda.

Thompson is honest enough to say that there was also a spirit of payback working among the voices in the conservative Catholic blogosphere. He says the bitterness of some of the exposition was a way of venting, and he even confesses to having even created obviously false narratives about a bishop—basically for the sake of ridicule. He it admits it was both obsessive and fun. But it seemed to him to be justified because it was done in the service of the true faith and liturgical sanity.

After all, Pope Benedict ransomed the traditional Mass through Summorum Pontificum, and brought back from exile those who had long been treated as lepers. But since Pope Benedict’s reform agenda was met by so much episcopal opposition, Thompson conceived of himself as a man on a mission, whose job was

to record every attempt to suppress the Extraordinary Form and to make sure Rome knew about it.

Thompson never quite expresses regret for his excesses, but goes further in admitting that the antics of his commenters was far worse than his own behavior. He also admits that the “far right Catholics raging against the Jews and ‘faggots,’” were more reprehensible than the “sneering atheists” commenting on his blog.

But if this was the worst of it, it did not exclude dabbling of Catholic bloggers in conspiracy theories. In this regard Thompson only specifically mentions the accusations of the Vatican homosexual mafia whose existence was verified by the Vatileaks scandal. However, this instance is not really representative of conspiracy theory as such, since the accusations turned out to have some basis in fact. Conspiracy theory by definition deals in innuendo and plausible but unproven (and often uprovable) narratives that fit a certain selection and arrangement of facts or allegations, usually by people who have something to gain by convincing others that the man is out to get them.

The reality is that the Catholic blogosphere is a clearinghouse for conspiracy theory. The nature of the blogosphere itself contributes to this fact. What passes for a standard of evidence and an ethics of accountability on the Internet has always been woefully lacking. And those whose causes have benefitted from the destruction of the reputation of others have not been eager to be held accountable or to make a distinction between allegation and proof.

In fact, the tribes that have formed in the blogosphere do more to provide protection for their tribesmen, than hold them accountable for the honor the tribal name. The largest Catholic tribe on the Internet, and arguably the most vicious and vindictive, has been the conservative, which because of its previous marginalization has felt itself justified in claiming the status of victim.

While we can all admit that there is truth to the complaints that led to this behavior, it would be to ignore reality to define it as anything other than juvenile. But that is also part of the nature of the Internet. Perfectly responsible adults have a tendency to revert to immaturity when they sit down in front of a computer.

Thompson suggests Pope Francis has taken the wind out of the sails of the Catholic blogosphere. But is that really the case, or was the heyday of the conservative faction just too good to be true? Tribalism never succeeds in establishing the reign of light, justice and peace, and the dominance of one tribe never lasts for long. The liquidation of one faction hell bent on cleansing the world of evil is always followed by the rise and fall of a new (or old) zealotry, unless tribalism itself is repudiated.

But tribalism has not been repudiated, so in the wake of the Franciscan opposition to ideology, especially that of the right, the lefty tribesmen are back to the same old iconoclasm of the sixties and seventies. One good turn deserves another.

In this much, at least, there is little difference in the Benedictine and Franciscan papacies. Benedict had enough of the internecine wars in Rome. Francis, it seems would rather get it all out in the open. But neither pope seem to have had much stomach for the Catholic jihad or for the logic of one dominant force sticking to a weaker.

But whether or not the heyday of the conservative blogosphere is over, there remains the larger issue of the methods of modern communication, whose exponential growth will only assure greater connectivity, interaction and virtualization. The trends Thompson identifies as part of a fading conservative blogsophere will certainly continue, even if conservatives do not especially benefit from them.

I have heard some saying for years that it is only a matter of time until the government gets total control over the Internet and silences the voices of opposition, but it is not the control of big brother or some darkly imagined conspiracy of a secret society that concerns me most. It seems to me that the more frightening consequence of the information “democracy” is that the many will continue to rule in the interests of a few—that more information really means more disinformation, and more self-serving manipulation—all for a good cause, of course. What concerns me is the rise of a machine inhabited by the soul of a mob.

Let us see what happens on both sides of the spectrum at the upcoming synod. Thompson writes of the ascendance of the Facebook and Twitter monitors of ecclesiastical affairs who provide “instant scrutiny” of what goes on behind closed doors. This does not inspire me with confidence. He also notes that it is not only a question of bloggers pretending to be journalists, but now the journalists rely on the bloggers, as do the episcopal crafters of favorable narrative.

The dominant tribe must now claim, not control over the means of communication, like big brother, but control of the narrative, which is not at all the same thing because the dominant narrative is that of the loudest and cleverest mob. It is the art of cutting and pasting, of provoking some comments and suppressing others, of linking and not linking, of keeping the chamber in a constant state of echo.

In fairness to Thompson, whose honesty is to be commended, I must note that the context of his remarks is a post about Father, soon-to-be, Bishop Robert Barron. Thompson has great hope for the future of modern communication because of the selection of this orthodox theologian/communications expert/popular preacher and evangelizer. I think his hope is well placed, because Fr. Barron does not seem to be a tribal loyalist.

As every conservative Catholic knows, it is holiness of life that changes both individuals and society. In the end our present crisis is really about a lack of sanctity—a problem for which we are all in some measure personally responsible. It seems to me that Fr. Barron has a sense that communication and virtue are integrally connected. (What a novel idea.)

I pray that by the grace of his episcopacy and the sanctification of his person and ministry Bishop Barron will help to raise up new saints, because in the end only saints will be able to save the Church from the rest of us.


Filed under: Catholicism, Church, Religion Tagged: Blogosphere, Conservatives, Damian Thompson, Internet

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11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031
July 2014
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
30010203040506
07080910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031010203
June 2014
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
26272829303101
02030405060708
09101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30010203040506
May 2014
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
28293001020304
05060708091011
12131415161718
19202122232425
26272829303101
April 2014
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
31010203040506
07080910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293001020304
March 2014
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
24252627280102
03040506070809
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
31010203040506
February 2014
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
27282930310102
03040506070809
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627280102
January 2014
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
30310102030405
06070809101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
27282930310102
December 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
25262728293001
02030405060708
09101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30310102030405
November 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
28293031010203
04050607080910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293001
October 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
30010203040506
07080910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031010203
August 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
29303101020304
05060708091011
12131415161718
19202122232425
26272829303101
July 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
01020304050607
08091011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
29303101020304
June 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
27282930310102
03040506070809
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
May 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
29300102030405
06070809101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
27282930310102
April 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
01020304050607
08091011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
29300102030405
March 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
25262728010203
04050607080910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031
February 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
28293031010203
04050607080910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728010203
January 2013
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
31010203040506
07080910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031010203
December 2012
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
26272829300102
03040506070809
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
31010203040506
November 2012
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
29303101020304
05060708091011
12131415161718
19202122232425
26272829300102
October 2012
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
01020304050607
08091011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
29303101020304
September 2012
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
27282930310102
03040506070809
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
June 2012
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
28293031010203
04050607080910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293001
May 2012
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
30010203040506
07080910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031010203
March 2012
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
27282901020304
05060708091011
12131415161718
19202122232425
26272829303101
February 2012
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
30310102030405
06070809101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
27282901020304
December 2011
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
28293001020304
05060708091011
12131415161718
19202122232425
26272829303101
November 2011
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
31010203040506
07080910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293001020304
July 2011
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
27282930010203
04050607080910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031
April 2011
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
28293031010203
04050607080910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293001
March 2011
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
28010203040506
07080910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031010203
November 2010
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
01020304050607
08091011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
29300102030405
August 2010
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
26272829303101
02030405060708
09101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30310102030405
June 2010
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
31010203040506
07080910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293001020304
January 2010
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
28293031010203
04050607080910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031
December 2009
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
30010203040506
07080910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031010203
November 2009
MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
26272829303101
02030405060708
09101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30010203040506