Sunday, April 10, 2016

Death before sin?

I've written before about deontological and consequentialist morality, pointing out that in most cases the actual conclusions are the same.  The former might say "taking my friend's car is bad because it's stealing," while the latter says "taking the car is bad because it will harm my friend," but both agree that you shouldn't steal the car.

But there are edge cases in which there is a big difference, most notably, the question of whether it can ever be right to do something bad for a sufficiently good reason.  These cases don't come up all that often -- usually the conflict is between morality and some more selfish desire, rather than one morally-significant goal and another.  But they do arise from time to time, and it's important to have some idea what you would choose.

People's opinions on these dilemmas are not consistent.  Most of us, going based on intuition rather than systematic morality, would tell a lie to save a life or steal if we were starving, but we wouldn't be able to shoot a child to save five lives.

Different systematic moralities come up with different answers.  Catholic morality comes down very heavily on the side of doing no evil, regardless of the greater evil that may come to pass.  I was taught in moral theology that there is always a moral option, but sometimes the moral option is that you die, or that other innocent people will die.  The end goal is following the moral law and hopefully going to heaven -- not any earthly end.

Even in Catholic morality, though, there are some carefully-crafted exceptions.  First, some things that seem against the moral law aren't truly wrong.  Stealing to feed yourself when you are starving is not actually stealing at all.  Lying to save a life might not really be lying.  Second is the principle of double effect, which is difficult to explain, but which relies on distinguishing between an act that is wrong in itself and one that simply has evil effects which you didn't desire.  So to directly kill a person would be wrong, but to do something which indirectly results in their death might be all right for a sufficiently grave reason.

To a consequentialist, this all seems very nitpicky.  Can the moral quality of an action really be changed by whether you set the bomb or just allowed the bomb to go off?  If the same number of people died, to the consequentialist, there really is no difference.

Now I want to make a distinction here between consequentialism and utilitarianism.  Utilitarianism is a subcategory of consequentialism, but many conflate them.  A person whose end goal is "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" may wind up justifying some things that look bad to the rest of us -- eugenics, for instance.  But a consequentialist could have different, non-utilitarian end goals, like "the preservation of all human life possible."

At this point I am leaning more toward consequentialism, because it frustrates me to see human life put second to inflexible rules.  Today, in a discussion of the Vatican's new document, I invented a scenario which I imagine is probably not uncommon, at least in some parts of the world: A couple is in a second, invalid marriage.  They have kids and neither is religious.  But one spouse converts to Catholicism and is told that it is mortally sinful to continue sleeping with her invalidly-married husband.  She tells her husband, and he says, "Forget it.  Celibacy is your commitment, not mine; I didn't sign up for a sexless marriage.  If you're really set on this, I'm going to leave you."

Like I said, there are kids, and they live in a country where there isn't much available to help a single mother.  Her children's livelihood depends on her keeping her husband around.  So from a consequentialist perspective, the answer is obvious -- she should continue to sleep with her second husband.  If this choice is accepted by others, it may weaken society's belief in the indissolubility of marriage -- the Church's argument for condemning her -- but considering the situation it's probably an acceptable risk to take.  Yet from a deontologist perspective, she should stand her ground and not sleep with him, regardless of the consequences.  He might leave her and their children.  They might become homeless or starve.  That's not morally relevant to a deontologist because the moral quality of her action is decided by the action itself, not the effects.

And that's why some Catholics are upset at the Pope's suggestion that this might be "the most generous choice" or what God might call someone to.  It undermines the whole of Catholic morality, which is that moral laws are inviolable and it is never acceptable to break them, even if it can be predicted to result in disastrous consequences.  If there is no moral way to save a pregnant mother without an abortion, then she and her baby must both die, because one cannot do evil for any reason.  If one must deny Christ to save one's children, the children must die.  That's the way Catholic morality works, and for the Pope to imply there could be the smallest exception seems to undermine the whole thing.

I've started to be a little horrified by this.  Sure, I don't think I would kill an innocent person to save others, but I'd definitely tell a lie to save some else.  I'd cooperate with a rapist to save my life or someone else's.  I'd deny just about anything to save my kids.  I just think human life is more important than anything else.  Rules are great -- I have plenty of personal rules which I follow -- but rules exist to serve human life and dignity, not to be prioritized above them.

What do you think?  Are there any circumstances in which the ends justify the means, and what do you think those circumstances would be?

26 comments:

Belfry Bat said...

Golly, but people do get themselves into tangled situations...

In this hypothetical, you mention clearly that she is married to one man, but living as if married to a second? And I'm guessing that the children are of the second liaison? And... their father has no interest in raising them? And neither does her actual husband? And both the mother and her actual husband are already Baptized? What an awful place you have imagined! Though I do believe it's real enough in many actual places. (Remind me never to tell the stories of my local parish.)

But, in any case, clearly there are more and deeper problems to be working on than whether she should cooperate in her quasihusband's use of her in quasimarriage. Not that that isn't a problem.

Anonymous said...

I live in a mid-size city in central PA that was settled by coal miners 150 years ago. To this day, the population is largely Polish, Italian, Irish and German. Our Catholic churches and Catholic schools should be full. Instead, they're either mostly empty or closed. Why? Divorce.

The Pope is just trying to rebuild the Catholic church's population, or at least slow its decline.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

She should let her husband have custody of the children.

Belfry Bat said...

Well, yes, as far as it goes, that does sound a better plan than resignation to periodic de facto rape. Still, with the hypothesis that quasihusband is willing to engage in de facto rape on a regular basis, one might begin to doubt his suitability as a guardian of children as well. But, well...

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Bat, is "de facto rape" one of your new terms, or is there an actual legal definition one can look up?

Belfry Bat said...

"de facto" is certainly an expression with a established meaning in legal speak... as is rape. I readily admit I haven't myself seen them put together, but... anyways, I wasn't in this case going out of my way to be obscure.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I think you're being incredibly unfair to the hypothetical husband. He clearly wouldn't rape anyone any more than the wife wants to be a de facto prostitute. Where in Sheila's description of him does it sound as if he'd be okay with something like that?

Sheila said...

If I may speak for Bat, it sounds as though he means that, for the husband to want to sleep with his wife knowing it's her conscientious preference not to is the same as rape, because her decision is coerced by her fear of his leaving. I'm not sure I agree (I mean, she did make the vows of marriage, even though she wasn't free to do so, and presumably she still loves him and likes sleeping with him) but there's a good argument for it, I suppose.

But is it right for her to deprive her children of their mother? I would put up with a lot of misery in a marriage rather than abandon my children (or deprive them of their father either).

Belfry Bat said...

... All I have to work with, about his hypothetical character, is his hypothetical declaration "I didn't sign up for [continence]." The indication is: either he would have his way or he would leave. Maybe the leaving is the more likely, and I don't really like that, for his children, either...

Or are you thinking of the genuine original husband?

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I'm thinking of the invalid (de facto?) husband. It just blows my (de facto?--LOL) mind that you think his raping her is more likely than his leaving her.

As for depriving her children of their mother, the original post brings up the possibility that she and her children will starve in the streets. Assuming she wants to avoid that for them and their father is the one who can feed them, this seems like a no-brainer. Having said that, I admit I don't care for single motherhood, especially where boys are concerned. Yet this hypothetical situation is a different case from the sort I normally loathe. While it's obviously better in one sense for the children to eat with their father than starve with their mother, if he were to take yet another wife and scandalise then even more, that would not be a good thing. Perhaps the biggest factor that led to the parents even being in this irregular situation is an anything-goes attitude toward family from the previous generation. If letting the children live with their father would end up with them dying unrepentant of their own mortal sins, well, I'd be the first to say they should die sinless, with mom. Thankfully, we can't be absolutely sure about the future, and can't even claim that A will infallibly lead to B, so I don't have to say it. =P

Honestly, when I first read this, my opinion was that the family should remain together and the mother should just avoid receiving Communion until circumstances allow her to do it without exacerbating a mortal sin. Again, we can't predict the future, so it's just as likely that this will happen sooner than she thinks as that it might never happen. Look at all the separated couples who say that if they had known, while they were having problems, that they'd be able to get along so well later on, they would have stayed together.

"Death before sin" is a great motto if you're really about to be thrown to the lions, but I think that this hypothetical mother is choosing death too quickly. I wonder if her biggest problem is not that her husband, her church, and even her society are so rigid and awful to her, but that she despairs too easily.

Belfry Bat said...

No, not husband "de facto"; de jure perhaps, depending on which jus one means, but ... Sheila seems to understand me well enough (hooray! I managed to signify to someone!).

In particular, what I was emphasizing by iterating "de facto" is that while (as Sheila grasps) the mother may have withdrawn her active consent, the man in question may not understand that (people can be quite thick about things), and so may not be mens reus to any violence.

Belfry Bat said...

I don't think I did express any expectations of what is more likely; but we agree that feeding the children is better than not feeding the children; that not scandalizing them is better than scandalizing them; that ceasing adultery is better than continuing it. This kind of situation isn't difficult because any of the moral questions are ambiguous, but because there are choices implicit in someone that are not compatible with all the goods desired.

Sheila mentions a number of casuistic notions that have developed through the centuries; related to "double effect" (or perhaps rephrasing it) is: it is permissible to choose to limit one particular evil first, so long as that does not involve positively choosing any act with evil object, and all other things being proportionate. Which particular evil is most grave and first to be resisted in this situation I can't guess, and there's probably room for prudential judgment. I do think the fact that the Mother apparently wants to be reconciled to the Church and rectify her situation is a good thing, which ought to bear fruit eventually.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Re: being able to signify to someone
One out of two isn't bad! ;-)

Hey, maybe the hypothetical mother can consider than when reordering her life . . .

Sheila said...

Abstaining from communion isn't a solution, though. It's simply what you do if you're living in sin -- it's just, you're not supposed to live in sin! If you're living in sin, you're morally obligated to stop and if you don't you go to hell. I don't know why people are fussing over communion; it's comparatively not a huge deal. (Perhaps it's a bigger deal to people because they can see it, while eternal damnation is something they cannot see?)

And in my understanding, the husband actually *could* remarry without sin because he was never validly married to wife #1. My aunt was in a similar situation. She wasn't Catholic, but her first husband was, and was previously married. So when she married her second husband, my family concluded privately that *this* marriage was the one that counted, considering her first had surely been invalid.

Still, I would expect you, Enbrethiliel, of all people, to agree with me that mothers aren't interchangeable.

Belfry Bat said...

It's your own hypothetical, Sheila; if you tell us so, then yes, the mother's adulterer is free to marry.

I have another complaint about the so-and-so folks in this hypothetical problem: if there is a priest counseling the mother... (and, of course, if she seeks confession and reconciliation, there has to be a priest) what is he doing to find support for the children? Where is his flock? Are they altogether lacking in Christian charity, or only in means?

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I'm not recommending abstaining from Communion as a solution, but as a way not to make a bad situation much worse. That's a better act of good will than doing nothing just because none of the options are absolutely perfect, which seems to be the only thing you'll accept. And I'm "fussing" about it because I think that her chances of going to hell would be much higher if she lived in sin AND received Communion. I also think they would be at their lowest if, given your insistence that her husband would totally abandon her and that their children would subsequently starve in the streets, she let her husband have full custody.

It's unfortunate that the choice can boil down to "deprived of mother" vs. "deprived of life," but as Bat said, this is your hypothetical situation. If you want the people in it to be screwed no matter what, so you can make some point about the awful burdens Catholics put on other people, then they will be screwed no matter what but at least you will have made your point. I'm just working with what you've given us, which includes the huge "plot hole" of someone who would live-and-let-live-ishly conclude, "If you're really set on this, I'm going to leave you," also being someone who would let his children die to get revenge on his wife for withholding sex. I'd say it's so unlikely that one man would do both that IF the children are starving in the streets, it's probably because the mother is hiding them from their frantic father out of her own spite. Which she wouldn't do if she were the serious Catholic we're taking her to be, so that doesn't fit either. I think you're unfairly stacking the circumstances.

And now it's my turn to be Bat . . . WHERE did I EVER say that mothers are interchangeable? Not just in this thread, but EVER? I probably take a much harder line on this than you do, as I consider adoption an evil rather than a good because it suggests that very thing about both parents (and sometimes even whole cultures). As loving as adoptive mothers can be, they are simply not their adoptive children's real mothers. If some law can't make someone who is biologically male into a female (though it can certainly bully the rest of us into pretending we've lost all our common sense), then it can't make someone who is biologically Mother A's child into Mother B's child. Whenever I see a family raising huge amounts of money so that they can take a poor woman's child away from her and raise him as their own, I am amazed that they do not see that if they gave her all that money, she'd probably be able to afford to keep him. (This doesn't keep single motherhood from being another sort of evil, of course.)

Sheila said...

If the mother selflessly abandoned the family in order to not sin, giving her husband custody of the kids, and he remarried to give them a mother, it seems we're taking "separating the children from their mother" as preferable to "living in an invalid marriage." And you might say that the need is great enough to put up with it, but I don't see that -- I think one is actually harming people, while the other breaks a rule but doesn't actually bring about harm.

Perhaps this man would insist on custody anyway; I'm not sure, because I've heard a lot of awful stories about women in Africa and India where neither the women nor their children are considered all that important -- especially if the children are female. Custom has a big effect; here we have a strong understanding that the women and children are vulnerable and ought to be protected, but in a place where there are lots and lots of vulnerable people and not so many resources to help them, it might be a little different.

Look, I know your religious beliefs are going to trump other considerations here and so you consider your solutions better than mine. But I think the Pope was suggesting cases like this as situations which, while very far from ideal, involve someone doing what they think is best because they don't see a clear way through otherwise. To him (if I'm understanding him -- and who does?) they're doing wrong, sure, but it's probably a venial sin because they feel under pressure. Whereas to me it would be no sin at all, because no one is harmed. (Surely there would be harm in breaking up the first marriage, but it might not have been the woman's fault.)

(This brings to mind Jesus' actual words on the subject -- that a man who divorces his wife *forces* her to commit adultery. Because remarriage wasn't really optional in his society -- a woman needed a protector and Jesus understood that, which is why he puts all the blame on the man. Just a thought.)

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Now I'm confused, because I did say that her living in an invalid marriage was okay with me as long as she didn't receive Communion (not that I'm some gatekeeper to the Eucharist or anything), which both lets the family stay together and lets her practice her faith . . . and you said that wasn't a solution and that I was "fussing." This was the *first* thing I thought when I read the scenario. (The second was: the second husband and hire a hitman to kill the first husband and not tell the wife. =P Now THAT if a solution, but you probably don't like it, either. ;-) )

But if the woman doesn't want to compromise at all, even if it is for the good of her children, to the point that she will willingly die in the street (all *your* givens so far) . . . I'd hope she wouldn't make her children share that death with her.

I added that the father getting full custody might mean his taking another wife himself, exacerbating the sin whether he believes in it or not, and scandalising the children even worse. IF we knew the outcome of that possible future--and I was totally open that we don't--then only then would the children dying on the streets with their mother be preferable to living with their father. (Here I was assuming he also had an original spouse; but in the comments, you say he doesn't . . . which ironically takes away my formal objections to his remarrying, though my personal thoughts on remarriage while a real parent is alive are akin to my thoughts on adoption.)

In other words, I seem to have covered all the bases you have. My initial proposal seems to be exactly like your own ideal, except for my recommendation about the Eucharist. But believe it or not, I didn't say that to be legalistic, but to recognise that a Catholic who accepts the dogmas of both the Eucharist and hell, might not want to receive Communion in such a situation anyway. Especially if she's the sort who is willing to give up sex with a man she loves for possibly decades.

This reminds me of the thread on anxiety when all my suggestions to you were variations of things you said you were already doing, with some success, and you dismissed them as irrational. I guess when it comes from me, it must be irrational, though I'm not quite clear on the reasoning behind that.

I'm also not quite clear why the Pope's suggesting that such a situation would be only a venial sin is so horrifying to you. Isn't that better than it being a mortal sin? He sounds quite compassionate and understanding--and frankly, if it's only venial, she probably could receive Communion without feeling terrible. Win!

It seems as if the only thing you will accept is everyone's acknowledgement that there is no sin at all, because no one is harmed. If that's your standard, I actually do respect that, but it's not the Catholic standard. And it's not an arbitrary one, either, but one that follows from the dogmas.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Forgive my typos, please. I'm on my phone.

Belfry Bat said...

Strictly speaking, the Catholic view is also that if no-one is harmed, there is no sin; the actual difference is that a Catholic believes people have more to them susceptible of harm than does an agnostic.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Thank you for helping me be precise when I have to rush, Bat!

Sheila said...

Sigh ... last night I wrote a LONG response to you, E, and assumed it had posted successfully, but it's not here. Let me attempt to try again.

I think your solution is a merciful one, but it doesn't really work according to Catholic rules. The Church doesn't say "go ahead and break the rules, just stay away from communion," it requires staying away from communion because you've committed a mortal sin, which you're not supposed to do. That's why I'm frustrated at the "people who are fussing about communion" (I meant Kasper, et al, not you) -- they never say if what they mean is, "people in a state of sin should still receive communion," or "staying with a second spouse isn't a sin."

I know plenty of Catholics who have a sort of understanding in their head that the rules are great, but not universal, and they'll break the rules as needed while respectfully staying away from the sacraments if they do. However, that's not what the church says you're supposed to do. It says you're supposed to choose death before sin.

This is all coming up because I got in a debate with some fellow Christendom grads who insisted that a person in the state I described in my example would surely go to hell, along with people who reject Christ under torture and women who cooperate with a rapist rather than get killed. I'm sure that's a minority position among Catholics - most would say the culpability is less because the person is not freely consenting. But it seems to me that to say "staying in this situation is venially sinful" or "cooperating with a rapist is venially sinful" is still saying that those are things you shouldn't do. It's the wrong choice and the right choice would be to have more willpower and not break any rules.

I know more than one person who has suffered the breakup of their marriage or severe harm to it by following Catholic teaching. They didn't know this would be the result, they just trusted God and followed the rules, and things turned out badly. So they feel betrayed, because they thought if God wanted this, it must be for the best, and here are their families suffering because of it! It makes you wonder if the whole, "do what you feel is right and hope God will forgive you for it" attitude is a better approach.

What do you think? Is your suggestion implying that the right thing to do is to sin and hope it's only venial/she'd be forgiven for it, or are you saying it wouldn't be sinful?

I do like Francis' solution, as I understand it, I just also can clearly see how it appears a contradiction to previous teaching about whether it can ever be the right choice to choose sin.

...

About the anxiety thing -- I thought I explained this to you ages ago, but possibly not because you still think I was shooting you down. What I was saying was that I had tried some of those things, but they didn't work very well because my brain kept reminding me they weren't rational. Irrational doesn't mean bad! In this context it just means, fails to convince my obsessive mind. I can't tell myself "my children will never die" because the reality is, they might at any moment and it's not possible to convince myself this could not happen.

I'm already pretty ashamed of being so anxious and being unable to bootstrap myself out of it, so I confess to being kind of defensive toward advice. On some level I feel like the message is "just snap out of it already, I already gave you advice so you should be better by now." I just can't, okay?

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Thanks for taking the time to post another long response.

I really don't know where those other Christendom people are coming from, because I can't see how the hypothetical wife would, were the family to stay together, absolutely merit hell. She wants to choose the good and she is choosing a good. Then again, perhaps it's a certain built-in blind spot that I have. Here it goes . . . Full disclosure: I started regularly attending an SSPX church a few months ago. But because of some comments other people made during the first month, I became very uneasy with what I was doing. I didn't want to stop going, and I was still trying to sort out whether it was a sin or not, so I told myself that while I couldn't even answer that question, I should stop receiving Communion there. This isn't to say that abstaining from Communion is the answer to dilemmas like mine or the hypothetical wife's, but that it is probably the only sure way not to make things even worse, while you're figuring out what to do.

And it's quite possible that the hypothetical wife honestly doesn't know what to do. While it's clear that continuing to sleep with her husband is a sin, it's just as clear that breaking up her children's family is a sin, too. And her advisors, all of whom may be Catholics, might also be giving her contradictory advice.

I think another thing the hypothetical wife and I have in common is that grace of time. (Granted, we could also both be taken out by falling masonry at any minute; but set that aside for now.) And I do believe it's a grace not just because people sometimes need time to see things or time to reason them out, but because circumstances often change while we're waiting. The first husband could pass away. The second husband could have a change of heart. Heck, the second husband could pass away. The woman could be struck by the masonry while a priest is nearby and have time to make a full confession and receive the last rites. She might meet and become friends with someone who can give her and her children a roof over their heads should they be abandoned by their father. I'm not saying any of these are ideal, either, and they certainly don't change the morality of a past situation. But neither can we change the past and fix everything.

Nor can we--and here I'm squarely on your side--do anything if we're not sure whether something is a sin or not. And I don't think the Vatican has been very clear about this, either, whether we're talking about this hypothetical case or my own strange situation.

I have to go now, but I'll respond to the rest of your comment later.

Sheila said...

That does sound reasonable; I too have abstained from communion, not because I thought I was sinning, but because I wasn't sure and I wanted to be on the safe side.

Have you ever read Brideshead Revisited? It has this dreadful bit about "living in sin" that filled with a lasting horror of ever living like that. (Found it here: http://www.obooksbooks.com/2015/4426_54.html) I resolved never to live in sin, though I might of course commit sins from time to time, because the thought of living in sin was just too horrible. To live in sin is to live with God absent from your heart, to have your heart unworthy of God. I couldn't accept that possibility.

But I do see how it is different to say "I don't *think* I'm sinning, but I'm not sure; this is the best I can do for now." I still feel that the Church ought to have an actual *answer* rather than leaving people in a state of "here's hoping something works out!" but yes, I suppose this is what I would do in the woman's case.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I think the Church does have an answer to both this woman and my cases, but maybe isn't saying so for "diplomatic" reasons.

And I still don't have as much time as I'd like, but I'd better say what I can sooner rather than later . . . I am deeply sorry for any part I had in making you feel ashamed about your anxiety. I did have that sense that it was something more easily fixed than it was.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I want to add that the connection you made between shame and inability made something click for me. I don't think inability alone is enough to make us ashamed; there will always be things we won't be able to do and not all of them will bother us. But when our inability to do things makes us feel like a burden for others, that is when the shame kicks in.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...