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Nov 13 2013

Teachings v arguments

There’s a difference between authoritarian morality and let’s call it reasoned morality. What’s the difference? Well obviously, the first is commands and the second gives reasons.

When bishops moan about attacks on the “religious freedom” of Catholics to punish gay people by refusing to officiate at their marriages or rent them rooms at bed&breakfasts, they cite “church teachings” as their reason for treating homosexuality as wrong and deserving of punishment. That’s authoritarian. “The church teaches that homosexuality is evil” is not reasons, it’s a detour around reasons.

That’s why the habit of punishing people for being gay is gradually (yet also, historically speaking, rapidly) crumbling away: it’s because once it’s pointed out that there are no real reasons for this stupid habit, people start looking for reasons and then finding that there aren’t any. Those people end up changing their minds, some slowly and some overnight.

The people who don’t change their minds are the ones who consider the invocation of phrases like “church teachings” adequate.

This thought is familiar from discussions and practice of child-rearing, too. Some command morality is needed for emergency situations and in the early years when the cortex isn’t developed enough to understand the reasons. But as the child grows and learns and develops the capability to understand reasons, it becomes practical for parents to explain reasons for doing one thing rather than another. It remains possible to have just rules with no explanations or reasons, but many parents prefer to shift more and more to reasons over time.

It’s possible to find some proffered reasons for some church teachings by browsing the Vatican’s website, but the putative reasons are not very convincing. The people who write the encyclicals probably don’t get enough practice in giving reasons for their commands.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    Andrew B.

    Yes, I’m always bothered by Catholics that refer to their church’s little opinions as “teachings.” “Declarations” is a better word, because it’s a large part of how religions operate. An authority figure declares certain things to be so, because of some private insight or revelation, which shows how shaky their claims to knowledge are. I think it’s important to challenge Catholics (or anyone) that uses this language.

  2. 2
    screechymonkey

    But as the child grows and learns and develops the capability to understand reasons, it becomes practical for parents to explain reasons for doing one thing rather than another. It remains possible to have just rules with no explanations or reasons, but many parents prefer to shift more and more to reasons over time.

    Sadly, some people never seem to mind the lack of reasons even long after they’ve reached adulthood. Whenever I hear someone say “well, I guess that’s just how I was raised” as an explanation for why they hold a particular opinion, I take it as an implied concession that they have no argument.

  3. 3
    Eamon Knight

    My experience with non-superficial Catholics is that they justify the teachings in terms of natural law theology, which traces back to Aristotelian metaphysics. Now why we should believe that morals should still be ordered by Aristotle’s categories when we’ve long since recognized that the physical universe isn’t, I couldn’t say.

  4. 4
    Ophelia Benson

    Because they said so?

    :)

  5. 5
    Eamon Knight

    In the case of the specific Catholic I mostly used to argue this stuff with, it came down to “It feels right to me”.

  6. 6
    Al Dente

    Andrew B @1

    Yes, I’m always bothered by Catholics that refer to their church’s little opinions as “teachings.” “Declarations” is a better word

    “Opinions” is an even better word. “Pulled out of our collective asses” is also apt.

  7. 7
    deepak shetty

    Yes, I’m always bothered by Catholics that refer to their church’s little opinions as “teachings.” “Declarations” is a better word,
    My preferred word is Bullshit on most occasions.

  8. 8
    thephilosophicalprimate

    Eamon Knight wrote:

    …they justify the teachings in terms of natural law theology, which traces back to Aristotelian metaphysics.

    “Traces back” is certainly the right phrase, since natural law theology is based on medieval Catholics’ misunderstanding of Aristotle’s actual metaphysics, and sometimes bears no relation beyond the shared terminology. Also, natural law theology almost entirely ignores Aristotle’s ethics, which is a strange thing to ignore when you’re (pretending to) construct a rationally grounded set of ethical principles. I’m just emphasizing this because I hate to see Aristotle take unwarranted blame for the many, many outrageous distortions of his actual views by Aquinas and other medieval theologians. Mind you, Aristotle’s metaphysics is still problematic at best on its own terms — but it doesn’t deserve the blame for, to name one example, the bizarre Great Chain of Being nonsense that the Scholastic tradition somehow manufactured out of distorted bits and pieces of it.

  9. 9
    Minow

    There’s a difference between authoritarian morality and let’s call it reasoned morality. What’s the difference? Well obviously, the first is commands and the second gives reasons.

    But it is all founded in moral assumptions that cannot be derived from reason. Hume called it the passions, but couldn’t explain why some passions were respectable sources of moral suasion and others not. The religious think morality is a part of the universe, a real thing that can be discovered. Around here, we all accept the idea that there is no real moral difference between kinds of people (men and women, gay and straight, black and white, strong and weak etc) but this is a novel idea that cannot be reasoned, it must just be accepted as a foundational belief. That does not make the morality derived from it authoritarian.

  10. 10
    sailor1031

    If one has reached adulthood but still needs to be told what to do “because we say so” – then that one hasn’t reached adulthood.

  11. 11
    medivh

    Minow: Occam’s razor helps; the morality that requires the smallest set of assumptions is more likely to be actually moral. Consider, then, the size of command morality’s assumption set vs. reasoned morality’s:

    Command: {There exists a being, we’ll label as God; God talks to Authority X and hands down morality through that authority; Authority X never misinterprets; God never hands down wrong information}
    Reasoned: {Harm is bad}

    The choice, then, is fairly simple. The fact that “harm is bad” never makes it into command morality even after Authority X passes on God’s morality should be enough to indicate that it’s pretty badly wrong.

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