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May 09, 2008

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Joyless Moralist

Once again, I wanted to say a few words here, but I'll try to make it briefer than the post I wrote last night. Actually, that post itself should offer some insight into why I *do* think it permissible (indeed necessary, if one wishes to be a Christian) to commit oneself without reservation to an authority. (Though I don't think we ought to submit to state authority in quite the same way, but I won't get into that here.) Anyway, I thought I'd also say a few words on the grounds for considering treason (whether to Church or state) a crime.

In my view, Nathan's way of looking at things places far too much moral weight on the notion of "consent." This isn't very surprising; many of the thinkers that he admires *do* make much of it, as an obvious way of filling in the holes in moral philosophy when they begin to lose confidence in the older idea of a "human nature." At least speaking for my part, he errs when he supposes that treason is a crime because it is a violation of a social contract to which men have (somehow) agreed. I don't know exactly what I think about social contracts, but in part they seem to be a strategy for trying to impute tacit promises to people where explicit ones are lacking. In that case, they're not very necessary to me, because I'm perfectly happy with the idea that different people can have different obligations foisted on them without their consent.

Indeed, this idea seems very harmonious with Christianity as a whole. We do not consent to have the nature that we have, nor for the structure of reality to be as it is, but these fixed facts determine many things about the way we ought to live. Furthermore, people who have been taught the truth and equipped to live it are expected to do more than others, not because they've agreed to it but simply because they can. "Where much is given, much is required." Consider that parable, in fact. The Master summons his three servants and gives them different sums of money with the expectation that they will go out and use them to make more. Are the servants given the opportunity to opt out of the job? Given how the parable ends, how do you think the Master would have responded if the first servant had said, "Ahem, ten sounds like rather a lot for me and I'm quite busy at the moment, so perhaps I could swap places with the one-talent guy?" I'm not saying that consent is at all times irrelevant to obligation, but it isn't a necessary prerequisite. We can have obligations merely in virtue of who we are and what we have been given.

As concerns the obligation to believe, I can short-cut a bit because Nathan has himself given me a nice opening. In his discussion of the requirements of conscience, he makes this clarification:

"Now, if part of the social contract is a prohibition of treason, there may be some citizens who think their consciences obligate them to commit treasonable acts-- say, to blow up the Lincoln Memorial. But those citizens are mistaken; their consciences do not so obligate them. And certainly every American is capable of not engaging in treasonable acts. A prohibition of treason, therefore, demands of Americans what it is both in their power and morally acceptable for them to do-- to refrain from treasonable acts."

It seems you must be assuming here that 1) there things that it is wrong to do, and 2) people have faculties that can allow them to perceive that these things are wrong. Following these assumptions, you think it reasonable to demand that people not do some particular set of things. Presumably there will be cases (there do *seem* to be) where people think that they're morally obliged to do things that fall within the class of forbidden actions, and by preventing them we might in some sense be encouraging cowardliness, or a breakdown in moral fiber. Prima facie, there does seem to be something admirable and principled in "always doing what you think is right." However, if you think it right to blow up the Lincoln Memorial, you're in a bad situation. You do something base by failing to act on your moral convictions, but you would be doing even worse if you *did* act on them. Your defective moral state has led to a choice between two evils. Thus it seems unfair to blame the state for instilling cowardice or baseness in its citizens by refusing to let them commit heinous acts -- the only reason this became a problem in the first place was because of moral failings in the individual for which the state is (let's assume) not responsible.

Well... it shouldn't be too terribly difficult to imagine how I might cross-apply the same sort of reasoning to scenarios involving belief. Indeed, there's no need even to cross-apply; all I need do is suggest that "speech acts" might sometimes fit under the class of actions that the state reasonably prohibits. It depends on the idea that 1) there are things that are both true and false, and 2) we have natural faculties for perceiving the truth or falsity of various things. When someone fails to to this, they can sometimes be held culpable for their defective beliefs, which a proper use of their faculties would have enabled them to detect. So, even though it's true that the state puts them in a bit of a bind when it orders them to recant, the fact is that they would have been doing something base either way, and it isn't clear that misrepresenting their disordered views is the worse of the two evils.

In the long post that I lost I had an extended discussion of lying. I won't repeat that here except to say briefly that I think we have to dismiss the two "easy" definitions as both being inadequate. We could take lying to be 1) saying something false, or 2) saying something one believes to be false. We sometimes use the word in each of these ways, but in weighty matters such as these neither is fully adequate. The true definition must take note of the fact that it is possible to willfully and culpably take a falsehood into one's life in such a way that one believes it. People who do that are in some sense bound to lie whether they accurately represent their current views or not. I'm inclined to think that probably just about all of us do this to greater or lesser degrees... though hopefully we strive for "lesser"... but that being the case, there does seem to be something twisted about demanding that people always voice their current views, no matter how depraved those might be, all in the name of "honesty."

Of course there are also cases in which people non-culpably speak falsehoods -- in Catholic moral philosophy we group those under the heading "invincible ignorance." Obviously justice requires that we ensure that people are *not* invincibly ignorant before they can be punished for any views the might have expressed. No doubt there have been cases when that rule was not vigorously observed, but at any rate everyone important has always agreed that it should be.

At the end of the day, it sort of seems that what's bothering you is the notion that, in a world in which thought-crime exists, no one will be able to enjoy the kind of mental freedom that you value. You make references to 1984 (never mind the fact that the authorities in 1984 were systematically *eradicating* true beliefs from their citizens' minds) and talk about people not having the power to fully consent to the law. Well, in the first place, this is literally not true -- the human law binds only external action, not thought, and in that sense it *is* always possible to comply. But as far as mental freedom goes, didn't Jesus already tell us? It is *the truth* that sets us free, not the complete lifting of all restrictions. Almost nobody thinks -- certainly no important Catholic thinker would say -- that legal compulsion should be the primary tool for bringing people to the truth, but if you want to create an optimal environment for acquainting a large number of people with a particular sort of world view, pressures of various kinds will have to be applied. The freest society will not be the one that tolerates the broadest range of views, but rather the one that best brings the truth to light.

Joyless Moralist

Yeah, so that wasn't all that short. But maybe still shortER than the one from last night. :)

Joyless Moralist

"and talk about people not having the power to fully consent to the law. Well, in the first place, this is literally not true -- the human law binds only external action, not thought, and in that sense it *is* always possible to comply."

Sorry... I was hurrying and so missed this rather serious confusion that I noted when glancing back through. I was acting as though "consent to" were equivalent to "comply with", which obviously it isn't. My mistake. As the earlier part of the post will show, I don't think it of utmost importance that all men "consent to" the law (nor can Nathan, if he is serious about allowing the state to prevent people, under some circumstances, from doing things they consider to be morally obligatory.) But it is possible for all people to comply with a law that prohibits the preaching of heresy.

Nathan Smith

To respond to JM's point would make the discussion too labyrinthine, so I'll just point out a couple of false steps.

1. "if you think it right to blow up the Lincoln Memorial, you're in a bad situation. You do something base by failing to act on your moral convictions, but you would be doing even worse if you *did* act on them."

No. You do not do wrong to fail to act on false convictions about what one is morally obligated to do. A person who thinks he should blow up the Lincoln Memorial but does not do so does not do wrong. It is, however, wrong to lie, even if, unbeknownst to you, you would actually be speaking the truth. The treason law that compels people not to blow up Lincoln does not compel anyone to do wrong. The heresy law that compels people to recant from things they still believe DOES compel people to do wrong. Everything that follows this sentence in JM's argument is invalidated by this error.

2. "I won't repeat that here except to say briefly that I think we have to dismiss the two "easy" definitions as both being inadequate. We could take lying to be 1) saying something false, or 2) saying something one believes to be false. We sometimes use the word in each of these ways, but in weighty matters such as these neither is fully adequate."

Incorrect. Lying is NEVER used simply to mean "saying something false," without reference to the speaker's beliefs. It would NEVER be accurate to say a person is lying in an "honest mistake" situation. Now, it IS true that a person may engage in self-deceit prior to a lie. In that case, they may in some sense be lying even when they say what they really believe. That *broadens* the category of lying. But that's irrelevant here. The narrowest sense is sufficient for our purposes. A state that compels recantations of heretics is directly causing, and culpable in, lies in the simplest and least ambiguous sense, where the speaker consciously says the direct contrary of his beliefs.

There is no need for distinctions about lesser and greater evils. The "medieval" state compels lies; the modern American state does not. It is not appropriate to be utilitarian here. Compulsory lies are inappropriate and should be condemned in a comprehensive way without regard to the consequences. Of course, the real damage is subtler: even the truth is falsified by being spoken as a lie, and so forth. But we don't need to get into that longer and more difficult discussion.

A few more quibbles:

"the kind of mental freedom that you value..."

It has nothing to do with what I value. What is at stake is the honesty that conscience demands of every man.

"people not having the power to fully consent to the law. Well, in the first place, this is literally not true -- the human law binds only external action, not thought, and in that sense it *is* always possible to comply..."

I'm not so much concerned with the *power* to fully consent to the law as the *moral right* to consent to the law. It is wrong to make a promise that could entail lying, and to consent to a state that may compel speech is to precommit to lie under given circumstances.

"But as far as mental freedom goes, didn't Jesus already tell us? It is *the truth* that sets us free, not the complete lifting of all restrictions."

The "truth shall set you free" line has nothing to do with the present discussion. Jesus says that "whoever sins is a slave to sin" and wants us to be free of *this* slavery. Not by force of course.

Finally, Joyless Moralist needs to stop making Orwellian utterances like this:

"The freest society will not be the one that tolerates the broadest range of views, but rather the one that best brings the truth to light."

One could plausibly argue that there are other values that are more important than freedom, or that at some point there is a trade-off between freedom and other social values, and that it can be a good idea to restrict freedom to some extent for the sake of some other social value, truth or equality or whatever. Joyless Moralist has another idea. She wants to destroy the word freedom by using it in incomprehensible ways. *Of course* the freest society is the one that tolerates the broadest range of views; that's true by definition. There are various uses of the word "freedom," including "inner freedom" which depends on the individual's ethos and mindset; this meaning of freedom can't be appropriately applied to societies. Even in the freest societies-- i.e., the politically freest societies-- many or most people will submit to all manner of conformisms, and that doesn't reduce political freedom. Let's respect the meaning of words.

Nathan Smith

"To respond to JM's point..." I meant "to respond to JM point by point."

Joyless Moralist

"Now, it IS true that a person may engage in self-deceit prior to a lie. In that case, they may in some sense be lying even when they say what they really believe. That *broadens* the category of lying. But that's irrelevant here."

On the contrary, I think it extremely relevant. Provided you're willing to admit that much, it is perfectly possible that the medieval state compels no lies at all. The argument would go something like this.

1. There are certain combinations of beliefs that a person could not possibly hold without engaging in some form of self-deception. (Surely true, even if we wouldn't all agree about how many and which these are.)

2. Everyone who is tried as a heretic holds one of these sets of beliefs, and it is for these that he is ordered to recant.

3. Heretics are liars. They are only be asked to retract their lies.

Obviously you'd have to do a lot of work, both historical and philosophical, to credibly confirm or deny (2), but even if there were certain cases where the law was applied badly, I think it more than plausible that the medievals would have seen the punishment of heretics in something like this light.

" *Of course* the freest society is the one that tolerates the broadest range of views; that's true by definition. "

Well, fine, insist on that definition if you want to, but in that case it just isn't clear that the Christian should want to live in the freest society. Not saying that freedom has *no* moral significance to the Christian, but the relationship between political freedom (in your sense) and Christian virtue will certainly be complicated.

Nathan Smith

Wrong again. Let's see if I can make this clearer. Define Category A lies as cases where a person makes a statement contrary to his beliefs. Category B lies are cases where a person makes a statement consistent with beliefs which, however, were formed partly or wholly through self-deception. Category A lies are understood to be more unambiguous and fundamental cases of lying than "Lying" can be defined narrowly to include only Category A lies, or broadly to include both Category A and Category B lies.

A heretic compelled to recant commits a Category A lie. He does so even if we make the very unwarranted and implausible concession that the heretical statements were always Category B lies. Probably it would not be appropriate to speak of him retracting the Category B lie, anyway, because he may and probably will not undo the self-deceit involved when he formed the false beliefs, and that was part of what constituted the lie. But that doesn't matter one way or the other. Whether the belief was formed in such a way as to make the heretical statement a Category B lie is irrelevant. By denying a belief that he still believes, he commits a Category A lie.

Perhaps an example will help. Suppose a compulsive braggart is always telling exaggerated stories about the past to entertain people, which he comes to believe in himself. Among the stories is, let's say, that he once rode on a walrus. Possibly we can persuade him of the falsity of this story by questioning him in more detail and showing him how implausible the story, with the details he remembers, is. In that case we might get him to retract the story through being really convinced that it is false, and this might be called the retraction of a lie. But suppose that instead we try to torture him into admitting he never rode a walrus. He has come to believe that he really did, and his reaction to our tortures is to become still more certain that he did. Finally he submits for mere terror and says the words "I never really rode a walrus," with the words feeling to him like a violation of conscience, a denial of a truth which the experience of trying to hold onto it through torture has, if anything, strengthened.

If the idea of the compulsive liar clinging to his lies under torture sounds implausible, that only underlines the implausibility of regarding heresy as a Category B lie. Even if all punishments for heresy were the compulsory retraction of Category B lies, the compulsion would still amount to coercion of Category A lies and be unacceptable on that ground. Under a more realistic view of heresy, (a) much heresy is surely not lying in any ordinary sense, and (b) to dig down through a person's epistemic history to find out whether it was is impossible. Therefore we cannot describe the punishment of heresy-as-honest-mistake as "certain cases where the law was applied badly." To apply the law so as to coerce lies is inevitable in practice and necessary to achieve the law's goals. A scruple that forbids coercing people to lie is incompatible with a law that compels heretics to recant. The only way to avoid compelling people to lie is to have freedom of religion, at least in the limited sense of allowing people *not* to profess the beliefs of the dominant church, and of *not* requiring recantations when they have unknowingly slipped into making heretical statements. And that is why freedom of religion is compulsory for a moral society.

Thanks to Joyless Moralist for permitting the normal meaning of freedom to be used. She is correct that "it just isn't clear that the Christian should want to live in the freest society," and that "the relationship between political freedom... and Christian virtue will certainly be complicated." It may well be that a Christian would be just as happy in a less free society. He may be glad for a state threat of punishment to prevent him from falling into what he regards as sin, and he may not even mind being thrown to the lions for his Christianity, for that makes him a martyr! But if it falls to the Christian to exercise power, the practice of Christian virtues will ultimately impel him to grant religious freedom. Even this is, as JM says, "complicated." If there are no real non-believers in a society, only people who blaspheme in anger, then one may enact a law against blasphemy without forcing anyone to go against his conscience by being silent about the most important matters or telling lies. Such a law is only a potential evil which becomes an actual evil if non-believers appear. There will also be a perennial temptation to let the end justify the means. Also, there will be a perennial temptation to let "the end justify the means," to compel a few heretics to make a lying semblance of accepting the faith in order to prevent their doctrines from spreading. The consequence of this, that *truth will be expressed as a lie*, is more insidious and unholy, but its consequences are less obvious and so a Christian ruler may be tempted to do it. But ultimately there is no choice for a Christian polity but religious freedom, and that is, praise God, what all Christian polities today have achieved.

Joyless Moralist

Okay, well, taking your terminology, it seems to me that forcing someone to speak a truth that is also a "Category A lie", is morally equivalent to forcing someone not to do something that they think is right when it actually isn't, i.e. preventing someone from taking violent revenge on another person who has dishonored their family, or from blowing up the Lincoln Memorial. I really just don't see any absolute moral imperative not to pressure people into telling "Category A lies" particularly if they ARE Category B lies. Again, I don't deny that there may be certain PRAGMATIC reasons not to let government do this, but it seems silly to me to suppose that there's an inalienable right to culpably spread falsehoods, whether or not the person has tricked himself into thinking that they're true.

As for your skepticism about whether or not it's possible to know that a person IS telling a Category B lie... well, skepticism is all it is. If we knew something about 1) what is true, and 2) the faculties that people have for figuring out the truth, we wouldn't necessarily need to know every detail of the individual's own past to be confident that some measure of self-deception must be involved with particular sets of beliefs that they might hold. Actually, I think most of us make judgments like that about other people (that they're kidding themselves, that they're refusing to face reality, etc.) pretty regularly, because our actual understanding of human psychology is considerably greater than you seem to be assuming. Anyway, so *I* find it perfectly plausible that the heretic could be accurately judged to be engaged in some kind of self-deception, but whatever, we're not going to sort out that question right now.

Tom

I insist that you all stop broadcasting falsehoods on this blog, whether you believe them to be true or not (ie, all of the religious nonsense). If you don't stop, I'm going to coerce you to stop in very unpleasant ways informed by historical precedent...

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