Friday, February 24, 2006

Pell & his critics

Last week liberal Catholics revealed that they had reported Cardinal Pell of Sydney to the Vatican for preaching “outside of mainstream doctrine” (which, we are told, is not quite the same thing as heresy).

Why? The liberals in the Church don’t like what Cardinal Pell has to say on the issue of individual conscience.

I’m not surprised the liberals are upset. Cardinal Pell has done what the liberals would not have wanted him to do: he has identified the difference between a view of morality inspired by secular liberalism, and a Catholic view.

What is the secular liberal idea of morality? Liberals believe that we become human when we choose for ourselves who we are and what we do. Therefore, liberals generally make the assumption that there is nothing in our nature, or in the way the world is constituted, which might limit the choices open to us. We can inscribe on ourselves whatever seems best. As long as what we choose does not restrict the similar freedom of others it is permissible.

What matters to a liberal is more the fact that a choice is “self-authored”, rather than what is actually chosen.

This is a view which runs counter to the authority of traditional moral codes and that of church hierarchies, as these will both appear to a liberal to be external impediments to the self-authoring individual.

What does Cardinal Pell have to say about such ideas? A good place to find the answer is a lecture given by Cardinal Pell two years ago at the University of Cambridge.

In this lecture, Cardinal Pell argues against the idea that there is a primacy of individual conscience. Pell begins his argument by quoting and commenting on the following from John Paul II:

For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (cf. Romans 2:-14-16). Naturally, though this law is written in our hearts, it is not our hearts’ law: it is God’s law.

This is not what a liberal would want to hear. This is not a view of man as being unbounded in his choices, but one which asserts the existence of a moral law (and therefore the possibility of right choices) and also the existence of a given moral nature in man (and therefore the possibility of a “right will”).

Our dignity as humans, in this view, depends on whether our will is aligned with our given moral nature. It is a perfection of will, rather than a “liberation” of will, which is important.

Later in the lecture Cardinal Pell observes that,

Unless all kinds of implicit Christian assumptions are made explicit, the claim to the primacy of individual conscience easily becomes in our cultural context the same as a claim to personal moral autonomy. Fine though autonomy is, in Christian hands this has tended to become code for “rationalisation of personal wishes” and there is no dignity in that, unless our wishes are for the genuine good. A wish isn’t dignifying just because it’s mine.

Again, this won’t go down well in the liberal heartlands. Cardinal Pell is explaining that in a liberal society, arguing for the primacy of individual conscience easily slips into the idea that there is no higher moral authority than ourselves as individuals, so that we can falsely dignify as “moral” whatever it is that we desire for ourselves.

Cardinal Pell develops this theme further when he notes that,

Most Western moral philosophers since the eighteenth century ... have followed Kant in advocating some form of moral self-legislation and government (autonomy) ... Kant would be appalled by contemporary autonomy liberalism. He believed in objective morality ... which autonomy gives us the means and opportunity to follow, never a self-made morality of private preference.

Finally, Pell discusses the views on conscience of Cardinal Newman. It seems that even in the 1800s, Cardinal Newman thought it important to distinguish a Catholic view of conscience from the secular liberal view.

First, Cardinal Newman emphasised that conscience was external to our own will: he termed it a “messenger from Him” or “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ”. That this placed Newman outside of liberal orthodoxy he well knew:

Newman carefully distinguishes this proper understanding of Christian conscience from its secular alternative, which is “in one way or another a creation of man”. “Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the 18 centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will ... It is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience.”

I won’t attempt a more detailed summary of Cardinal Pell’s arguments. All that I’ve tried to show here is the effort made by Cardinal Pell to separate the secular liberal view of morality from the Catholic one. Cardinal Pell is correct, I believe, in thinking it important to make this distinction at a time when the Church is suffering the effects of “the acid rain of modernity on our Catholic communities.”


  1. a liberal society, arguing for the primacy of individual conscience easily slips into the idea that there is no higher moral authority than ourselves as individuals, so that we can falsely dignify as “moral” whatever it is that we desire for ourselves.

    The problem I have with this is that if I am not the one to decide what is moral, then who is? Who is this human being who is my superior and who has the true knowledge of what is good and moral and what is not that is not available to egotistical, self-centered, deluded little me?

    I don't believe in the Christian religion, so I reject the idea that the Bible is the authority on what is good or not. So where does that leave me?

    This is my primary criticism of the conservative viewpoint. Conservatives criticize the libertarian idea that each person should be free to do as they choose as long as they don't infringe on others' right to do the same, but their subsitute for autonomy is submission to traditional ideas of what is good. Well a lot of times, tradition is wrong and stupid - for instance, Islamic tradition is wrong and stupid. And if the muslims don't free themselves from submission to that tradition they will never make progress as a civilization. Tradition is not good in itself, and I completely reject any philosophy which says I may not listen to my own voice of conscience but must instead submit to the rules laid down for me by authority or tradition instead.

  2. Mark, Pell doesn't say you can't listen to individual conscience.

    He does say, though, that Catholics ought to understand conscience in Catholic, rather than liberal, terms, as something which comes from God rather than man.

    Second, he points out conscience is not always "luminous" in what it teaches, and is frequently puzzled or obscured.

    Third, Pell points out that the liberal theory of moral autonomy can't work in a pure form in practice, because social reality and public order will always require some assertion of authority.

    This is true, isn't it? If I were to walk naked down the main street with a heroin syringe hanging from my arm, I wouldn't be infringing anyone else's freedom to choose, but I would still meet with the force of state authority, even in the most liberal of modern societies.

    In fact, it's arguable that modern liberalism, in trying to create the "free and equal new man", is much more intrusively authoritarian in enforcing a view of morality (political correctness) than anything which went before it.

    Pell believes that what should be given primacy is the idea of moral truth. If somebody believes as a matter of individual conscience that abortion is OK, and aborts her baby, Pell is concerned that this is still a grave moral error.

    And where does this leave a non-believer? First, you can respect traditional morality without believing it to be infallible.

    For instance, when I was in my late teens, I had a very "open" view of sexual morality, at least in my formal, intellectual views.

    But experience taught me (i.e. the self-destructing behaviours of some of my friends) that the traditional view was there for good reasons.

    Therefore, we should at least try to understand why previous generations chose to live in a certain way, and to benefit from their experience.

    Second, especially when we are young, why shouldn't we recognise the "authority" of people we respect? If someone has lived well, with integrity, why not listen carefully to what they might teach?

    One final point Mark. Don't you think it's true that we often know what a "strong" moral behaviour is, but that we aren't always in a good enough condition, as an individual, to follow through with it?

    That's why the authority of an influential church can be such a force for good. A church, as an institution, needn't waver as individuals inevitably do, and can speak strongly and consistently to us, and bolster the position of that stronger moral voice.

  3. Mark,

    Catholics should certainly be free to decide that according to their view of what is good and right, they should listen to and obey Catholic teachings about morality. That's fine - it's their choice, according to what their consciences tell them.

    And I may not believe in the Christian faith but I do believe there is a God and that there is a purpose to life and that I innately have within me the capacity to listen to my inner guidance and know what is right and what is wrong. And in fact I believe it is part of our mission here to learn to listen to that voice and act on it.

    You write:If I were to walk naked down the main street with a heroin syringe hanging from my arm, I wouldn't be infringing anyone else's freedom to choose, but I would still meet with the force of state authority, even in the most liberal of modern societies.

    This begs the question. Yes, you would certainly meet with the force of state authority, but what we are discussing is not whether you would currently meet with that authority for those actions, but what should be the guidance for what is right or wrong. Yes in practical terms other people will group together to force their idea of what is good on the minority who disagree. But I ask, what truly is the harm of a man walking naked down the street with a syringe hanging from his arm? The sight of nakedness would be of no importance at all if society were raised nudists. And drug abuse is tolerated all the time in the form of drunkenness.

    You can list off all a whole bunch of behaviors which don't directly harm other people but do offend their sensibilities, and which most societies ban. But I ask, what is your justification for that? If it truly harms no one else, and your justification is "because our society has always banned such behavior" then you are no different from the Islamists who say that their culture tells them it is ok to saw the heads off other people.

    I say that giving the weight of authority to tradition and telling people that they may only choose what is moral in the range of behaviors not prohibited by tradition is wrong. If that standard had been adhered to we would still be living by the moral rules of the first cavemen. Certainly women would not have any significant freedom. Would that be right? Was it morally right that women be owned by their fathers or husbands? That's what tradition dictated.

    Right and wrong must be decided by a person's inner moral compass. It does no good to say that sometimes it is clouded or obscured. Yes it is. And a society does have to come to some consensus on what the basic rules of interaction will be. But can you see how empty it is to someone who does not believe in Christianity when they are told that they must submit their individual will to that of a "higher moral authority" (presumably God, as revealed in the Bible or through church teachings)? It makes me want to scream "how do YOU know what the "higher moral authority" says my morals should be?" A Christian who says such a thing to me is no different than a muslim telling me I must submit to Allah as dictated by his one true prophet. In both cases it's just people claiming that an old book tells me what is right and that I should subordinate my conscience to that.

    Well no thanks. I think it is perfectly possible to build a decent society on a mutual agreement that the only things prohibited are those which cause direct harm to other people. That is a highly moral political philosophy, the highest in fact. It gives each person the responsibility and right to decide for themselves what is right as long as it does not infringe on others' rights to do so. It respects each person's humanity and divine spark. It does not smother social growth (such as giving women ownership of themselves) in the name of tradition.

    What is ruining our societies is not a libertarian philosophy, but a leftist philosophy. They give people freedom but they don't make people responsible for the bad outcomes of their choices. They give the drug addicts welfare, they give the slutty youngsters welfare and an apartment, and so on - they take away the natural consquences of bad choices. And they ignore the reality of racial differences and invite into Western societies large populations of highly fertile people who will never, ever be able to compete on an equal basis with whites and will form a permanent, resentful, dependent underclass. If racial differences were acknowledged and the welfare state abolished, it would not be necessary to dictate strict social policies -- people would naturally do what is 'right' because that is the way to avoid pain.

    This is a very interesting discussion.

    I am sorry Shane but your points were a little too abstract for me. I don't understand quite what you are saying.

  4. I am sorry Shane but your points were a little too abstract for me. I don't understand quite what you are saying.

    Heh, on second reading yes they were. OK i scrapped that post. I was trying to get a grip on why you felt the West deserved to survive. Is it culture, folk, a sense of time and history? Liberalism dictates that none of these things matter. They're "unreasonable", based on Tradition and attachment.

  5. I think the West deserves to survive because the white West are my people and it is good for one's people to survive. Yes, it is culture, folk, and tradition to a large extent. And yes, liberalism says these things are unimportant, even dangerous, anachronisms.

    My point can be boiled down to this: I am not impressed by arguments that my conscience should come second to some other higher moral authority. I agree that there is a higher moral authority - God - but the only way I have of knowing what God says is right and wrong is what my conscience tells me. Tradition is no iron-clad guide because traditions have been wrong at times, such as the ownership of women by men. I refuse to abdicate my responsibility and my prerogative as a human being to use my conscience as my guide to what is right or wrong.

    Now this is not to say that a society does not have to set rules. I happen to think that the best rule is "as long as you don't damage other people's property, go ahead and do what you think best". I think it is a rule that allows the widest range of different social arrangments within one nation. For instance, under such a rule liberals could form a voluntary commune and establish "free" health care within it, and thus live out their version of the good life. Conservatives could form communities that adhere to a different set of norms. But it would all be based on a society-wide understanding that people must be free to choose what they see as Good and not have it imposed on them with the only exception being the imperative that you not destroy others' property. We only get into trouble when the liberals or conservatives try to enforce their idea of the Good on everyone.

  6. Mark, I should say from the outset that I don't believe in "ironclad" traditions; I do believe that individual conscience is important; and I think it's wise for a society to ban only the minimum necessary.

    So I am not diametrically opposed to you on the issues we are discussing.

    Still, I disagree when you write that,

    I think it is perfectly possible to build a decent society on a mutual agreement that the only things prohibited are those which cause direct harm to other people.

    In practice, I think this leads to moral standards sinking to whatever the most permissive members of society are willing to undertake.

    The truth is that people are very strongly influenced in their moral behaviour by community standards.

    If a teenage girl exists in a peer group in which it is thought OK to drink, have sex, or get a tatoo, then she will generally follow the peer standards.

    That's why it's important to try to uphold not only our own individual conduct, but the overall moral culture of our own community.

    To do this requires more than saying: you can do what you like as long as it doesn't hurt anyone.

    Yes, it's true that if people were not shielded from the consequences of poor decisions then moral decadence would not run so deeply.

    But even so, why should every generation have to learn the same harsh moral lessons over and over? Why shouldn't the most responsible members of society assert a moral good and seek to avoid some of this pain?

    Two more points. Accepting the authority of tradition doesn't mean justifying things on the basis of "our society has always done it."

    It means recognising that there is often a good reason for society accepting a certain custom, even if the reason is not brought to the surface intellectually.

    So you have a mental outlook in which you at least assume the possibility that a custom is there to serve a beneficial purpose.

    Finally, you seem to have picked up the idea that women in the West were owned by men at some point in the past.

    I don't think this is true. I've read a fair bit of early Anglo-Saxon history, and I have not seen evidence for this.

  7. Mark, one further important point.

    It's not possible for the West to achieve a stable moral good at the current time.

    The reason is this. Our intellectual orthodoxy is liberalism. Liberalism says that to achieve human dignity, we must be free to create who we are and what we do according to our own individual will and reason.

    This belief, though, means that liberals don't want there to be limits on what we can choose according to our own will.

    If the realm of choice is limited, then so too is the capacity for human dignity.

    So liberals react viscerally against the idea that there is some kind of stable, objective moral good which we ought to commit to (as this pre-ordains what we can choose).

    Instead, liberals tend to think it a "liberation" to break through any such moral culture.

    In a liberal society, individuals who break moral taboos are thought to act courageously and progressively (think of the tremendous respect accorded to Alfred Kinsey, a man who in most societies would have been condemned as morally depraved).

    So even if individual conscience were sufficient to generate a stable, healthy moral culture (which I don't think it can do alone), this culture would still be attacked and dragged down by the political orthodoxy of our times.

  8. In the USA, women couldn't vote until 1920. I believe there was a time when women couldn't inherit real estate either. Social conventions frowned on women doing any kind of work other than secretary, nurse, or teacher. I may have overstated it when I said that women were owned by men, but they were certainly considered something less than men. And my conscience tells me that that was wrong, though tradition would have told me that was right.

    I agree that traditions often embody wisdom and that there is a good reason for them. However it has also been true that some traditions were revealed to be based on a false understanding of the world and that discarding those traditions was an improvement. How do we know the difference? By looking and listening and thinking for ourselves.

    I dislike the vulgar aspects of modern culture and I value tradition. I am all for a more genteel society. But I don't think we can or should get there through coercion based on tradition. We have to get there because it is the highest quality way to live and because people see that for themselves. My reaction was to the idea that people should subordinate their conscience to tradition. I can't agree with that. I think people should respect traditions and see them as bright lines drawn by our ancestors for what may have been good reasons, but they should not follow them blindly. They should pay extra attention before they break tradition, and break traditions only when it really makes sense. But I think the individual's conscience must always be their ultimate guide.

  9. Mark, I think at least we are drawing closer together on this issue. And perhaps I can help this process by saying that conservatives don't generally focus on "coercion through tradition", particularly if coercion is understood to mean force.

    The reason is this. Liberals are obliged not only to go against nature in their politics, they are obliged to go against the deeper parts of our nature, as it is these which will seem to be the greatest impediments to what the individual will can choose for itself.

    An important example of this is manhood and womanhood. It is important to liberals that these be made not to matter, as they are things unchosen by individual will.

    So a liberal is in a position in which something deeply ingrained has to be suppressed, which requires a considerable force of both law and political and media pressure.

    A conservative, though, will want to defend the basic proposition that men and women are not the same, and not interchangeable in all things.

    But we don't conceive that this will require generations of coercive laws and political campaigns to be effected in society.

    All we need to do is to counter the influence of liberalism and allow the differences between men and women to express themselves naturally.

    Exactly how the differences between men and women are expressed in our culture and within the family can be left to nature itself to decide, once the differences lose the artificial illegitimacy which has been placed upon them.

    To put this another way, I don't believe that conservative want to coerce men and women to behave according to some preconceived theory; what they want is for the natural differences between men and women to be allowed to be expressed without being politically suppressed.