From Garry Wills, A “Bias Makes You Stupid” Cautionary Tale

aristotle-at-university-of-thessaloniki-greece

                                     Abortion authority, Aristotle…

“Bias Makes You Stupid,” an Ethics Alarms slogan so perpetually relevant that it has its own topic category, has seldom been so tragically demonstrated than by Garry Wills’ embarrassing op-ed in today’s New York Times titled “The Bishops Are Wrong About Biden — and Abortion.” Wills is one of America’s most prolific and provocative public intellectuals. Now an emeritus professor of history at Northwestern, he has written more than 50 books on such diverse topics as Richard Nixon, John Wayne, and the Gettysburg Address. I’ve read those three and a couple of others; he’s an unusually good writer for a historian, rigorous in his scholarship and fair in his selection of references. But Wills is also a Roman Catholic and an academic liberal and progressive, so he is apparently plagued by guilt and cognitive dissonance. It is most depressing to watch this man whose analysis I have so often admired descend into the most hoary of logical fallacies, rationalizations and worst of all, intellectual dishonesty in order to defend, of all people, Joe Biden, who in a game of Scrabble with Wills would be placing words like “CAT” on the board while the historian was laying down SYZYGY on a triple word score.

Progressives feel they have to defend abortion to stay on “the team,” and frequently get themselves into the worst logical traps when they try to do so. Here’s how desperate Wills is: he actually wrote this: “The opponents of abortion who call themselves “pro-life” make any form of human life, even pre-nidation ova, sacred. But my clipped fingernails or trimmed hairs are human life.” A lie AND a ridiculous analogy! Only the most extreme and radical of “pro-life” activists argue that a fertilized egg that fails to adhere to the uterus is the equivalent of a human life; that is not a mainstream position of opponents of abortion, since such pre-fetuses are self-aborting. And as Wills well knows, his fingernails and hair will never develop into a human being if nature is allowed to take its course. That argument is signature significance for a biology ignoramus or a con artist, yet Wills is neither…or wasn’t, until his pro-abortion bias made him stupid.

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Comment Of The Day: “Comment Of The Day: ‘Ethics Heroes: The US Conference of Catholic Bishops’”

Socrates

We have a veritable Comment of the Day chain. Sarah B.’s COTD yesterday on the Ethics Alarms post applauding the U.S. Catholic Bishops for preparing to hold Joe Biden accountable for his open support of abortion had inspired two excellent questions, in sequence, from reader Curmie. Both were answered with brio by Ryan Harkins.

We’ve never had such a Socratic Comment of the Day exchange before, and maybe I should have a separate category for such delights, but I don’t. So I’ll just introduce this by saying, “Here is Curmie and Ryan Harkins collaborative Comment of the Day on the post,Comment Of The Day: ‘Ethics Heroes:The US Conference of Catholic Bishops.” (Curmie plays Socrates.)

Curmie: One question, or rather series of related questions, for Sarah B, from a long-lapsed Protestant:

As respects “grave matter,” is there an inherent element of volition in the act itself (it wasn’t an accident), and if so, is there a distinction between literally not knowing the sinfulness of an act (had no idea the Church forbids a certain action) and deciding for oneself that the act is innocent, despite Church doctrine? And, assuming any of these distinctions are relevant, are we talking about a disjunctive yes/no, or something along the lines of a continuum?

I’m thinking of the Ancient Greek and Shinto (to name two) concepts of pollution (as opposed to sin), and wondering if Catholicism is closer to the former than I had hitherto believed.
In a pollution-based theology, Oedipus is still guilty of incest despite his active attempt to avoid it. In today’s world, according to this idea, a driver who hits and kills a child who ran out into the street is still guilty, although the event was entirely accidental, and the driver did everything possible to avoid hitting the child.

Ryan Harkins: In backing up, the Catholic Church teaches that a sin is mortal if it meets three requirements: first, that it is grave matter; second that the sinner knows that it is grave matter; and third, that the sinner consents, or intends, to commit that act. Grave matter is grave because of the extent of damage it does, and this is regardless of intent. Killing someone is grave matter; they are just as dead if you didn’t intend for them to die. I think St. Paul encapsulates this idea in his letter to the Romans when he writes, “Sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses (Rom 5:13-14).” The point is that even though you don’t know that what you are doing is wrong, because the act itself is inherently wrong, it will still cause harm. So the gravity of an action is not a matter of volition.

Where volition enters the picture is in the second two conditions. A person might not know that an act constitutes grave matter, but this could either be an unintentional state, in which he is not culpable for his ignorance, or it could be willful ignorance on his part. One aspect of being Catholic is the assent to the Church as authoritative, infallible on matters of faith and morals. A Catholic then has an obligation not just to follow the Church’s instructions, but to learn what the Church actually instructs. This touches on what Sarah B was saying on primacy of conscience: we should follow our consciences, but we have a duty to properly form our consciences as well. On some matters where the Church has not made any official pronouncements, the faithful are allowed flexibility of opinions. But on many issues that are hot topics today, the Church has made pronouncements, and those are, as far as any Catholic is concerned, infallible and made so through the protection and guarantee of the Holy Spirit.

A Catholic does not evade culpability by concluding privately that an action the Church condemns is actually innocent. His rejection of Church authority would actually be itself grave matter, on the order of the great sin of the Devil, who said, “Non serviam.” The sin of pride has long been held as the father of all other sins. It is the sin by which we seek to supplant God as the arbiter of good and evil. For a Catholic, who ought to know that the Church claims infallibility on matters of faith and morals, to reject Church teaching, he either has to deny the Church, or he has to believe he has some higher authority than the Church.

As for whether we are speaking of a disjunctive or a continuum, my answer is both. When it comes down the end of the day, either you have committed a mortal sin or you haven’t. But because of the third condition for a sin to be mortal, the question of whether one actually committed a mortal sin can become murkier. Take an addict, for example. It is a sin of gluttony to engage in debilitating drug use. So the use of hardcore, recreational drugs like meth, cocaine, and heroin is grave matter. (The use of lesser drugs like caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and a few others do not fall into this category because the impact of moderate use is not very large. Drugs that have practically no “moderate” dosage are the ones that would constitute to grave matter.) But an addict has lost a great deal of his capacity to resist temptation. As he tries to quit, his falling of the wagon and using is of lesser severity than someone taking those drugs the first time. As he progresses, and he regains control over his appetites, then his culpability in slipping up and using again increases.

So there can be debate over whether a sin was actually mortal, due to the degree in which a person consents to a wrong. If someone resists temptation for a long time, but is eventually worn out by the struggle, did he really consent when he finally gave into temptation? However, this line of questioning can be destructive. Overly scrupulous people can argue themselves into condemnation over the slightest of offenses, and any of the rest of us would really like to rationalize our sins into the venial category, given the opportunity.

Of course, any of this is tangential to the question of public support of abortion. On this the Church is very clear. Abortion is a grave evil, perpetuated against the most defenseless and the most innocent members of the human race. Any Catholic politician who advocates for expanding access to abortion is defending an intolerable evil, and any excuse of being personally opposed is insufficient. A politician is to be held to a higher standard in this regard than a private citizen because of his capacity to influence legislation one way or another. Since the Church has expressed all this, there should be no excuse for any Catholic politician.

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Ethics Heroes: The US Conference of Catholic Bishops

Bishops

It is unusual to call an organization’s decision to follow its own rules heroic, but I have low expectations of the Roman Catholic Church. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops voted 168-55 to draft a document on “Eucharistic coherence,” because the Church has been anything but coherent regarding the status of allegedly devout Catholics who support abortion.

Catholics are forbidden from participating in the ritual of the Eucharist if they are in a state of sin. Abortion is considered a very serious sin in the Catholic Church, which holds that life begins at conception. Thus a public figure, indeed an elected official, indeed a President, who openly supports abortion cannot take holy communion, because he is endorsing and enabling a serious sin. This isn’t hard. The much publicized “controversy” over the Bishops’ decision to follow their own Church’s ancient rules ( and those of the New Testament: “Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.” — 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 ) resembles the current controversy in baseball over the MLB decision to enforce the hundred-year-old rule against pitchers doctoring the ball.

I know, everything reminds me of baseball, which has played a much greater role in my life than religion. But this is the same situation at its essence. The Catholic Church ducked, weaved and looked the other way while many U.S. politicians professed their belief in Catholicism as they openly and directly contradicted and actively undermined the Church’s core beliefs. They sought to have the benefit of appealing to the religious while simultaneously advocating a practice that their own Church condemns.

The New York Times—my wife keeps asking me why we pay 80 bucks a month for this shameless propaganda device, and I am running out of reasons—says that the Bishops’ vote is a “move to target a president, who regularly attends Mass and has spent a lifetime steeped in Christian rituals and practices, is striking coming from leaders of the president’s own faith, particularly after many conservative Catholics turned a blind eye to the sexual improprieties of former President Donald J. Trump because they supported his political agenda.”

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Thanksgiving Ethics Quiz: The Vatican’s Cool Nativity Scene

I don’t understand this at all.

Thanksgiving is, at least in this country, the traditional kick-off of the holidays and all the madness, music, traditions, literature, art, fun, reflection and controversies that accompany them.

Slightly off topic: I just looked in on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade broadcast.

Oh. My. God.

What is a parade without anyone watching and cheering along the route? What’s the point? All the energy, all of it, is gone. Worst of all are the live—are they really live?—performances of numbers from various Broadway shows in the middle of the street. These are always weird, but without any ambient sounds or people in the background, they are creepy and weird. The look like a post-nuclear apocalypse freak-out by community theater survivors. Also creepy: the networks’ socially distanced “hosts” now resemble those old Soviet news shows where the anchors were separated by about 15 feet at a long desk.

Where was I? Oh, right, the holidays…

With all the commercializing and vulgarizing of Christmas, the unlistenable “modern” Christmas songs, and the cynical “Christmas is horrible” movie comedies (like “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”), the culture relies on the Christian religious institutions to provide context, continuity, seriousness and dignity to the season lest the ritual cease to have any meaning at all. With that duty in mind, here is the just-revealed Vatican Nativity scene:

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Your Ethics Alarms Thanksgiving Ethics Quiz is…

WHAT THE HELL??

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One More Time: SCOTUS Must Decide Between Freedom Of Religion And Gay Rights in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia

In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia the U.S. Supreme Court will decide yet another legal controversy that should not have occurred at all. Like the various cake-designing law suits, two parties that easily could have come to a mutually agreeable compromise decided, as the old saw goes, “to make a federal case of it.” Now, with the decision bound to abridge somebody’s constitutional right, we will have yet another example of how “Hard cases make bad law.”

This week the Justices heard arguments testing its 2015 decision establishing a right to same-sex marriage with Philadelphia’s decision to bar a Catholic agency that it had hired to screen potential foster parents because the agency refused to screen same-sex couples and approve them, since the position of the Church is that same-sex marriage is a sin. Hence the question: Is Philadelphia discriminating on the basis of religion by refusing to continue using the agency based on its religious mandates? The Church’s lawyer, Lori Windham, says that the agency only wants to continue work that it has been doing for centuries. Besides, she argued, gay couple had ever applied to the agency. If one had, she said, the couple would have been referred to another agency.

What’s the beef, then? Justice Alito says that like the bakery cases (my comparison, not his), LBGT activists want to bend the Church to its will, resulting in Philadelphia acting based on hostility to the Catholic agency’s views.

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Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Dunce: The Archdiocese of Detroit”

Let’s start off this weekend on a high-minded note: Ryan Harkins’ mega-defense of the Catholic Church.

You better get readin! Here is Ryan Harkins’ Comment of the Day on the post, “Ethics Dunce: The Archdiocese of Detroit”…

(I may be back at the end.)

I want to begin with a brief discussion on Catholic doctrine on sexual morality. In its essence, Catholic doctrine says that sex has two united purposes: procreation, and bonding together a husband and wife and any children they produce. To take human sexuality out of that context is harmful to both the participants who engage in disordered acts, and it is harmful to society for the precedent and scandal such activity creates. Just as eating has a specific purpose, namely fueling the body, when it is taken outside its context, it creates disorders. Enjoying the food you eat is fine; but eating solely for the enjoyment leads to bodily harm, such as obesity and diabetes. So sex, when taken beyond the context of its purposes, leads to disorders.

The problem with sexually abusive priests, the problem with sexual harassment in practically every enterprise out there, the problem with broken families and absent fathers, all trace some, if not all, their origins to sexual disorder. Making the pleasurable aspects of sex the primary goal of sexual activity leads to the use and abuse and discarding of other people as objects to be consumed. I have experienced this myself, and part of the reason I feel so strongly on this topic is because I have introduced a great amount of dysfunction into my marriage and other relationships by years of self-serving pleasure-seeking.

There’s yet a deeper aspect of human sexuality in the context of the Catholic faith, namely, the concept of man being created in the image and likeness of God, based in the text from Gensis which says, “So God created man in his image. In the divine image he create him. Male and female he created them.” Catholics note that both individually and as family, man images God. As an individual, every human has intellect and will, and in that each human is an image of God. But the Christian faith has revealed God as Trinity — God the Father, The Son who proceeds from the intellect of God (God knows God), and the Spirit, that proceeds from the will of God (God loves God). So an individual images God because an individual can perceive himself, and can love himself. But the family images God, as well, because (following Genesis), there is man, and the woman who proceeded from man, and the child that proceeds from the love of man and woman. Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: The Archdiocese of Detroit

Terry Gonda has been a loyal member and supporter of the Catholic church for decades, serving as musical director of her parish for over twenty years. She is gay, but never hid the fact from her family, friends, church or pastors. She was also married, to another woman, naturally. This wasn’t a secret.

However, somehow the word got to the Detroit Archdiocese, where it was deemed that her same-sex marriage made her morally unfit to keep her job. On June 12  she received an email reading,  “The Archdiocese is choosing to activate its morality clause to terminate your employment.”

The blow came  just three days before the Supreme Court ruled that employers couldn’t fire workers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Whether the ruling will apply to religious organizations is the subject of other cases before the Court, which heard oral arguments last month in Our Lady of Guadalupe School vs Morrissey-Berru, a case about whether teachers at private, religious schools are subject to the exception in the Civil Rights Act.

Gonda says that her Catholic mentors and employers always modeled Pope Francis’s compassionate and tolerant attitude toward homosexuality. She was never shunned for being gay, nor after her 2011 marriage to  Kirsti Reeve, 51. (That’s Kristi on the left, Terry on the right.) Terry told an interviewer that she is certain the Church believes “they’re doing the right thing — they’re trying to protect the church.” Continue reading

Comment Of The Day: “Open Forum” (Catholic Church Thread)

This seems like a nice, fraught time to post A. M. Golden’s comment in the last Open Forum, especially since he broaches the controversy over the Roman Catholic Church’s relationship with Nazi Germany and its efforts (or lack of them?) in support of Jews during the Holocaust.

Here is A.M.s Comment of the Day:

The Catholic Church signed a Concordant with the German government agreeing not to get involved in politics (something I’m sure every progressive in the U.S. has wanted for years and would heartily endorse) in return for the Germans agreeing not to interfere with the Catholic instruction of youth. This was an agreement that the Nazis grudgingly complied with for a limited time before finally interfering whenever they wanted.

Yet…the Catholics objected to converted Jews being discriminated against because the Nazi racial theories still considered them biologically Jews regardless of their religious persuasion. Many German Protestants had the same concern. There were also many who risked their lives to save Jews due to their religious convictions – spurred by their minister or priest’s teaching.

There were ministers and priests that preached against the T4 Aktion – the Nazi euthanasia program – that killed mentally and physically disabled children and adults. Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 6/26/2018: Our Amazing, Evolving, Contentious Culture

Good Morning!

1. Outrageous Self-Promotion Dept.: Just in case you live in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., AND are interested in the cultural impact of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan in the U.S., AND would like to see me (and three long-time friends and colleagues who will periodically join me in performing some selections from the brilliant satirical operettas) discuss this rich and wide-ranging topic (Politics! Satire! Movie scores! Broadway musicals!) over a three-hour session that will fly like the wind, all it will take is a mere 50 dollars (just 35, if you are a Smithsonian Associates member) and your attendance. I’d love to see you. The program is Gilbert and Sullivan in the 21st Century, this Saturday, June 30, at 9:30 a.m. Here are the details.

2. Speaking of culture…If you want to feel better about the state of U.S. culture, I recommend watch a Beach Party movie. I just saw the first one all the way to the end for the first time—to realize that it was easily the best of its line (there were six—SIX!!!—more) is mind-boggling all by itself—and found it immediately uplifting. The 1963 William Asher-directed relic looks like it’s from some particularly demented parallel universe, depicting a weird place where 30-year-olds pretend to be  loitering teenagers who do nothing all day but gyrate to frenetic versions of the Twist, listen to awful surf music that makes the Jan and Dean sound like Brahms in comparison, do some surfing themselves (but just the males), and interact with B-list comics like Morey Amsterdam and Harvey Lembeck. The songs and their hackneyed lyrics make you yearn for the nuanced hip-hop musings of Kanye West; the comedy makes “Big Bang Theory” seem like Oscar Wilde, and to speculate on what kind of populace would actually enjoy such badly-conceived and sloppily-executed crap is to risk madness. If this was America in 1963, a) Good riddance, b) How did we survive? and c) No wonder the Soviet Union thought they were going to win!

No blacks are to be seen; indeed no skin color of any shade but glistening white is visible anywhere—didn’t these people even tan? Here’s a typically clueless exchange to ponder:  Annette Funicello: “The professor got his robe from the chief of the Tokyo Fire Department!” Random 30-year-old teenage beach bum: “Great! I’ll call him if my rickshaw catches fire!”  [laughter]. In the hilarious motorcycle gang, where all of the actors appear to be at least 45, the male members’ leather jackets say “Rats” on the back, and their female cohorts’ jackets say “Mice.” None of the”girls” have any function in the film, and no higher purpose, than to moon after the guys and gyrate in their faces.  Accepted conduct is for every male youth to gawk, pant, and emit some sound the equivalent of a wolf whistle every time a shapely female passes. The romantic lead (of sorts), teen idol Frankie Avalon, trying to make virginal, had-to-get Annette jealous, grabs a generic Scandinavian waitress and just starts kissing her. It’s like a magnet. Just kisses her He doesn’t  even wait. When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Then he tells her he loves her so she’ll make out with him until Annette loosens up. This is the hero, remember.

They should show this film in every junior high school American History class. I’m very serious about this.

3. An abject lesson in how the news media uses language to manipulate public perception: Virtually every news report about the Trump administration’s actions at the Mexican border described them, and are still describing them, in headlines as “family separation.” The cumulative effect of this is to make casual, not fully-engaged readers and listeners think that family separation is the objective of the policy. The objective of the policy is to enforce current immigration laws while obeying other legal requirements, such as the one that forbids children from remaining with federally  detained parents.  This is, under the Ethics Alarms definition, fake news: deliberately deceitful reporting that conveys a false impression. The equivalent would be characterizing the imprisonment of African American men convicted of felonies as “the Trump policy of making black families into single-parent households.” Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, April 12, 2018: Mistakes, Senators, Survivors, The Pope And Cosby

Good morning!

(I’m in a good mood because this happened last night…)

1. Incompetent elected officials of the month…From Reason:

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary and Commerce, Science, and Transportation committees grilled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the company’s insufficient efforts to protect users’ personal data…

Sen. Roy Blunt, (R–Mo.) … didn’t seem to understand that Facebook lacks a means of accessing information from other apps unless users specifically opt in…. Sen. Roger Wicker (R–Miss.) needed a lot of clarification on how Facebook Messenger interacts with cellular service. Zuckerberg had to carefully explain to Sen. Brian Schatz (D–Hawaii) that WhatsApp is encrypted, and Facebook can’t read, let alone monetize, the information people exchange using that service. Zuckerberg had to explain to multiple senators, including Sen. Dean Heller (R–Nev.), that Facebook doesn’t technically sell its data: The ad companies don’t get to see the raw information. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D–Vt.) brought along a poster on which his office had printed out images of various Facebook pages. Leahy asked whether these were Russian propaganda groups. “Senator, are you asking about those specifically?” Zuckerberg asked. He of course had no way of knowing what was going on with those specific pages, just from looking at pictures of them….Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.) offered this metaphor: “the way I explain it to my constituents is that if someone breaks into my apartment with a crowbar and takes my stuff, it’s just like if the manager gave them the keys.” But …Facebook didn’t willfully assist in a crime. …Sen. Debbie Fischer (R–Neb.) didn’t understand, at a fundamental level, that if you’re using Facebook, you have agreed to let Facebook know a lot of information about you. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) asked whether Facebook had any major competitors. …

 

This is a theme of regulation, rules and laws in the cyber age: the officials responsible for regulating the uses and abuses of technology don’t use the technology involved, don’t understand it, aren’t willing to take the time to learn, and are apparently not even aware of how irresponsible and incompetent this is, how stupid and lazy it makes them look, and how it undermines the public trust.

2. But don’t worry…In his testimony, Zuckerberg said that Facebook was working on a way to ban “hate speech.” I can’t wait to see what the left-wing crypto-fascists who run the Big Tech giants consider “hate speech.”  Actually, we have some pretty good clues. Facebook silenced pro-Trump video-bloggers “Diamond and Silk,” deeming their political content “unsafe to the community.” Continue reading