Friday, July 25, 2008

On Liberty: Of the Limits of the Authority of Society Over the Individual

Apologies to everyone for the two-week delay in my posting. Without adding much of substance to what has already been said, this chapter is devoted to further discussion of the principles previously adumbrated. Since, in addition to this, I found myself mostly agreeing with Mill's positions, there just wasn't much to incite an immediate response. The below, accordingly, is mostly a summary report of some of the main topics covered.

Given Eric's aversion to taxes, I should report that Mill comes down firmly in their favor:

"[E]veryone who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit[; namely,] in each person's bearing his share (to be fixed on some equitable principle) of the labours and sacrifices incurred for defending the society or its members from injury and molestation. These conditions society is justified in enforcing at all costs to those who would endeavor to withhold fulfilment" (141).

Again, seems obvious to me, but I'm happy to discuss it further.

Mill also offers a distinction (already invoked on this forum by Kevin) between punishment by law and punishment by opinion. Some acts, Mill admits, are hurtful to others, but not to such an extent as to justify government intervention. Public opinion, in these cases, may be punishment enough. We have to decide in an open discussion what kinds of offense fall into what category by weighing the effect legal regulations would have on the "general welfare."

Mill clarifies that he is a great believer in the virtues of benevolence and in personal intervention on behalf of others. What he opposes is just governmental efforts to coerce such behavior out of its populace. He encourages individuals, in their capacity as private persons, to voice their opinions with an eye to steering others away from foolhardiness. ("It would be well, indeed, if this good office were much more freely rendered than the common notions of politeness at present permit, and if one person could honestly point out to another that he thinks him in fault, without being considered unmannerly or presuming" (144).) The other party remains free, of course, to cheerfully ignore our well-meaning advice and avoid our company.

Consistent with his canny ability to anticipate and address possible objections (150 years in advance of this reading!), Mill acknowledges that "[t]he distinction here pointed out between the part of a person's life which concerns only himself and that which concerns others, many persons will refuse to admit" (146). All of our actions, after all, have potentially public repercussions. What he suggests to meet this challenge is that a case be taken out of the provence of liberty and placed in that or morality or law whenever "there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public" (149). Or, in another formulation, he says, a "distinct and assignable obligation" must be violated to justify anything more than private disapprobation (148). (These are not exactly equivalent unless we define "obligation" in terms of "damages," but I'll put this aside for the present.) Mill offers drunkenness as an example: we cannot punish someone merely for being drunk, but we can certainly punish a police officer for being drunk on duty.

"For the sake of the greater good of human freedom," Mill declares, society must bear the harm an individual does only to herself (149). After all, on Mill's model, society has already provided its populace with an education, and they have on top of this whatever wisdom and experience they've attained throughout their minority. If, after all this, someone still cannot conduct her life successfully, it is hardly the responsibility of the government to step in and fix it for her, an office to which it is not competent in any case.

As always, I look forward to everyone's response --


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Guess who's forty?

That's right, it's Humanae Vitae. Well, technically, her birthday isn't until tomorrow, but I get quite excited when it comes to papal encyclicals.

Written in the turbulent Year of Our Lord, 1968, the letter concerned birth control. Held illicit by the Church for centuries, some Protestants had begun to go along with secular society in embracing "the pill". Until 1930, all Christian denominations agreed with the Church of Rome. First the Anglicans made allowances to artificial birth control; every other sect followed.

One of the things which is most frustrating to opponents of the Church, and, paradoxically, one which Her flock cherishes, is the seeming torpidity of Her decision making process. Some of the especially silly critics like to claim that the Church is quick to pronounce a miracle, but this runs counter to all of the evidence. Sure, the people will sometimes buy into chicken nuggets in the shape of the Virgin Mary, but the Church moves very slowly even when the news might be good.

The Church had a position on birth control, but by the time 1968 rolled around, the world was ready for the pontiff, Paul VI, to weigh in--just in case Revelation had a change of plans. And weigh in he did, with a bombshell confirming the Church's long held teaching. There is a very good article in First Things which discusses the encyclical, from which I will quote:

“The execration of the world,” in philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe’s phrase, was what Paul VI incurred with that document—to which the years since 1968 have added plenty of just plain ridicule. Hasn’t everyone heard Monty Python’s send-up song “Every Sperm Is Sacred”? Or heard the jokes? “You no play-a the game, you no make-a the rules.” And “What do you call the rhythm method? Vatican roulette.” And “What do you call a woman who uses the rhythm method? Mommy.”

I'm not sure how many Catholics bothered to read the brilliant document; my guess is not many. But many still chose to ignore the Pope and practice birth control anyway. According to Janet Smith, only four percent of Catholic couples in the United States adhere to the teaching promulgated in Humanae Vitae. I'm quoting from memory from a talk she gave, so my numbers could be a little off, but the point remains: millions of Catholics, who usually follow the Church's teaching--or did--have no trouble swallowing committing mortal sin when it comes to the pill.

Thus FOX News host Sean Hannity, for example, describes himself to viewers as a “good” and “devout” Catholic—one who happens to believe, as he has also said on the air, that “contraception is good.” He was challenged on his show in 2007 by Father Tom Euteneuer of Human Life International, who observed that such a position emanating from a public figure technically fulfilled the requirements for something called heresy. And Hannity reacted as many others have when stopped in the cafeteria line. He objected that the issue of contraception was “superfluous” compared to others; he asked what right the priest had to tell him what to do (“judge not lest you be judged,” Hannity instructed); and he expressed shock at the thought that anyone might deprive him of taking Communion just because he was deciding for himself what it means to be Catholic.

A good argument can be made that this has led to further dissent on other issues. Mary Eberstadt, who wrote the article, points out that the first Church's who gave the go ahead on contraception are now having to rethink their position on homosexuality: "once heterosexuals start claiming the right to act as homosexuals, it would not be long before homosexuals start claiming the rights of heterosexuals."

Hannity provides good evidence for her point. He's a hawk who firmly supports our little war in Iraq, despite the fact that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI pointed out that it failed the Just War Doctrine; he's also down with water-boarding, which Catholics denounce as torture. We've come a long way from St. Ignatius of Loyola, that great defender of the Faith during the Reformation, who claimed: "“We should always be disposed to believe that that which appears white is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides”. Loyola isn't suggesting that one turns one's brain off and marches lockstep; instead, he recognizes that their is a wisdom that is larger than his own.

The secular world--and, in fact, too much of the Roman Catholic world--seemed content to ignore this wisdom and maintain that they knew more than the Church. Or, to offer a less charitable but probably more accurate explanation, they simply wanted to have "freedom" to do what they wished when it came to their sex lives.

But now forty years have passed; and while the secular world is less likely than ever to re-examine the issue, they would do well to do so. As Eberstadt writes:

Let’s begin by meditating upon what might be called the first of the secular ironies now evident: Humanae Vitae’s specific predictions about what the world would look like if artificial contraception became widespread. The encyclical warned of four resulting trends: a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments.

She then goes on to examine the confirmation of these facts, interestingly enough, by secular sources. But then, who could deny them? For all the optimism that greeted the sexual revolution, by almost all accounts, it has been a complete failure. She points out that even feminists are beginning to rethink the revolution; as well they should, since women have been harmed extensively in the process. Yet, apart from in certain Evangelical circles, shelving the pill is not even considered. She writes:

More likely, the fundamental issue is rather what Archbishop Chaput explained ten years ago: “If Paul VI was right about so many of the consequences deriving from contraception, it is because he was right about contraception itself.”

This is exactly the connection few people in 2008 want to make, because contraceptive sex—as commentators from all over, religious or not, agree—is the fundamental social fact of our time. And the fierce and widespread desire to keep it so is responsible for a great many perverse outcomes. Despite an empirical record that is unmistakably on Paul VI’s side by now, there is extraordinary resistance to crediting Catholic moral teaching with having been right about anything, no matter how detailed the record.

Now seems as good a time as any to rethink the issue. I'm not optimistic, of course, but the trends with birth rates suggest that secular society is quickly destroying itself. Meanwhile, the remnant of Catholics will plod merrily along, as a shining testimony to the efficacy and the wisdom of the pope's much derided encyclical.

Monday, July 07, 2008

On Liberty: Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being

Before I get to the third chapter, I'd like to thank everyone for taking the time to participate in the conversation. I think I speak for PJ as well as myself when I say that I hope you stick around.

Now, to Mill. Having discussed, at some length, the importance of freedom of thought, Mill defends freedom of action, albeit with a very reasonable caveat:

The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people. But if he refrains from molesting others in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own inclination and judgment in things which concern himself, the same reasons which show that opinion should be free, prove also that he should be allowed, without molestation, to carry his opinions into practice at his own cost.

Again, Mill fails to define his limits to my satisfaction, but as I have been similarly unable to do so, I have trouble faulting him. He then proceeds to connect this principle to that of individuality, upon which he places a value as high as he believes it lacking among his contemporaries.

It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person's own character, but the traditions of customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.

If he is not strictly an opponent of custom, he loathes a blind attachment to it, and longs for more than empty ritual from his fellow men.

But society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences.

Mill is not terribly fond of the mass of men; he notes that democratic government will be mediocre at best. Individuals, he believes, are few and far between.

The greatness of England is now all collective: individually small, we only appear capable of anything great by our habit of combining; and with this our moral and religious philanthropists are perfectly contented.

Churchill, living some decades later, would have vehemently disagreed. In any case, Mill, quoting Wilhelm Von Humboldt, notes that two things are necessary for individuality: "freedom, and a variety of situations". This individuality is important, not only to the men who are fortunate enough to possess it, but to all of mankind, who may be roused from their stupor by the extraordinary men walking in their midst.

The biggest flaw in this chapter is Mill's tendency to see individuality only as it breaks from custom. True individuality is more than, say, producing offensive art for the sake of "originality". Nor is it true that those who favor custom are incapable of individuality; the conservative Dr. Johnson comes to mind as a counterpoint. Perhaps I am reading him incorrectly, but his plea for individuality struck me as little more than a silly attempt to be different from the mob for the sake of being different. Still, it must be granted that individuality is not an easy thing to coax people into becoming.

The largest achievement of the chapter is in his observation that the increase of trade--the gradual flattening of the world--and the disappearance of any real diversity--despite our attempts to manufacture it--would only exacerbate the problem. One doubts that Mill would be excited by the stock of individuality in the world today, to say nothing of his England.