The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
Does Christianity inhibit moral progress?

Does Christianity inhibit moral progress (part 2)?
Last modified on Sun Dec 3 16:41:10 2017

This is the latest post in a series about Bertrand Russell's essay Why I am not a Christian, in which I run through his various arguments and show that for the most part (there are a few exceptions) they either don't apply to classical theism, or they don't apply to any form of theism. The first part of Russell's essay discussed the existence of God; the second part the moral character and wisdom of Jesus. Russell concludes with a number of more general issues. Having raised the issue of past Christian objections to what he viewed as moral progress, he now turns to the present (i.e. the 1920s). He raises two issues, firstly concerning the Church's opposition to divorce, and secondly that the Church defines morality in terms of a narrow set of rules which have nothing to do with human happiness.

Suppose that in this world that we live today an inexperienced girl is married to a syphilitic man, in that case the Catholic Church says: 'This is an indissoluble sacrament. You must stay together for life.' And no steps of any sort must be taken by that woman to prevent herself from giving birth to syphilitic children. That is what the Catholic church says. I say that that is fiendish cruelty, and nobody whose natural sympathies have not been warped by dogma, or whose moral nature was not absolutely dead to all sense of suffering, could maintain that it is right and proper that that state of things should continue.

Of course, some would answer this question by saying that the churches have now moved on since the 1920s and accept easy divorce. I would respond that any organisation which has done so is not a Church. Jesus' teaching on the matter is clear: that divorce and subsequent remarriage is an utter evil, although if the marriage was broken by unchastity (and Paul adds the case of a non-Christian partner demanding separation) then the innocent party is no longer bound. This means that an organisation which accepts divorce in any circumstance is arrogant enough to think that it knows the mind of God better than Jesus Himself does (and if it in any way Christian, then it would identify Jesus with the very thoughts of God having put on flesh). It thus would deny Jesus as Lord, and as such cannot be thought of as Christian, and consequently should not be regarded as a Church. Again I say that no Church can advocate for divorce, and no Church would permit remarriage after divorce except in those two circumstances.

Of course, those two circumstances would not apply to a faithful Christian couple. A Christian whose heart is set on God would not commit adultery. And clearly, if both members of a marriage are Christian, then you can't have an unbelieving partner demand separation. Equally clearly, that one partner has a disease such as syphilis is not obviously among these two reasons. Russell also has a more subtle dig at the Church's objection to abortion and contraception; I will briefly mention contraception later, and I discussed the contemporary genocide waged against the very young here.

One might also reply to this that syphilis is now easily treated through antibiotics, or that if the husband had obeyed Catholic principles then he would not have contracted Syphilis in the first place and the problem would never arisen, but this also misses the point. Russell is using this example to illustrate a general principle, so even if we can quibble about the illustration, it still would not affect the general principle. There are times, according to modern views on ethics, where to force a couple to remain together is far worse than letting them separate.

The answer to Russell's particular issue is straightforward. Either the man was infected by syphilis before the marriage started, in which case the lady knew what she was signing up for when she agreed to the match; or he contracted it from her, in which case she has no right to complain; or he contracted it from an extra-marital affair, in which case it falls under one of the two cases where divorce is permitted in Christian teaching. So this particular example is not especially well chosen; but again, it is the general principle, rather than the example, which we are interested in.

I also have no interest in defending the historical record of Christendom. While the Church forbade divorce, the church still permitted it by the back door through allowing annulments -- marriages declared invalid. In practice, this option was only open to the rich and powerful. This, of course, creates an inequality, with rich and poor treated by different standards. Once again, I can only emphasise that the church contains many imperfect people, and put someone in power and they will invariably abuse it. The desire to divorce has always been with us, and those who are trusted with enforcing the law will always create a loophole so they will be able to evade it. In those days, it was divorce. Today it is tax avoidance. Tomorrow it will be something else. That is, unfortunately, human nature, and while we rightly condemn those who do it, putting a stop to it is far harder. The question we have to ask is whether the desire to divorce can in some circumstances be good?

The Church states that divorce is always an intrinsic evil, and a worse evil than the couple remaining together. Modern people say that it is sometimes a better option. The question is which of these two viewpoints is right? Russell assumes without proof that his own position is right and the Church's wrong. A Christian would assume with proof that the Church is right and Russell wrong.

So why does the Church hold to this view that divorce ought, for all practical purposes, be forbidden? A divorce is defined as an act that formally splits the union of marriage. So what is marriage? Like everything else, it is defined by its purposes. We start with purpose, and derive the form of the marriage and what makes a good marriage from those purposes. I will highlight four purposes to marriage. The first three are not specifically Christian principles; but have been commonly agreed by pretty much all societies (except, perhaps, our own). It is thus general, and is not religious in nature. The fourth is derived from Christian doctrine, and thus only Christians would consider it important. The practical consequences of the first purpose only reinforce what could be derived from the natural law principles.

Marriage therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.
  1. First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
  2. Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ's body.
  3. Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

To this classic presentation, I would add the theological purpose that the union of man and woman in marriage, with its transferral and combining of material resources, is a symbol of the union between Christ and the Church, with its transferral of righteousness through the union.

The second purpose is tied to the first. The sexual faculty ought to be directed towards procreation; that is part of the motivation for any act of intimacy ought to be the desire to use it to form a family (whatever else we might get out of the act). This is also why contraception, which is a deliberate act to frustrate that end, is an evil (since an evil is anything that deliberately prevents the fulfilment of a natural purpose; in this case a natural purpose of sexual relations is procreation, so any artificial barrier to prevent that is a moral evil). Here, I should say, that I am not in complete agreement with the Roman Catholic position; I agree that contraception is an evil, but I disagree is always the greater evil in a situation or circumstance. Marriage is essentially an agreement between a man and a woman to repeatedly and exclusively perform the act that leads to procreation, and together raise any children that result. It is an institution derived from the primary natural purpose of sexual intercourse, giving organisation and structure to an ideal that arises from human biology. The relationship between husband and wife is defined by the different, but equally essential, roles the father and mother have in nurturing, raising, providing for, and protecting a child. We are not like brute beasts, who beget and then leave their child to fare for itself. It takes time for a human child to reach physical maturity, and even longer to reach intellectual maturity. The task of a parent constantly changes as the child's needs change as it grows through the different stages of its life, but it never ends. Having children is a lifelong project, and one which should never be attempted alone. For this reason, sexual relationships outside or before the commitment to together raise any children that result from the deed (namely fornication) are misdirected, and an evil. But once the commitment has been made, then sexual intimacy between the man and the woman is very much in line with the purpose of marriage, and should be performed as frequently as the couple can cope with.

It doesn't matter if the purpose of child-raising is unfulfilled as long as the couple try to procreate; it does not matter if it cannot be fulfilled, as long as the couple are of the right natures and whatever imperfection that lead to the infertility is not intentional. Form is defined by purpose, not the fulfilment or lack of fulfilment of that purpose. So here is the standard definition which is derived from the purposes.

The institution of marriage is a life-long union between a man and a woman, created by a solemn covenant to each other, for the purpose of procreating and raising children and for providing mutual support to each other and to the children.

The form of a marriage as man and woman arises directly from the purpose of procreation; two men or two women can't naturally even in principle procreate. An infertile woman could procreate with a man if she were healed; it is an unintentional imperfection that stops the purpose from being fulfilled, rather than the perfection of the men in a same-sex relationship. Thus the two cases are not analogous. It therefore makes no sense to say that two people of the same sex are committing to marriage; it is a direct contradiction. The theological basis for marriage also speaks to this. To say that two men can marry each other is to say that mankind and God are interchangeable in the economy of the Church; an obvious absurdity. The difference between humanity and God is an essential feature of the union between Christ and the Church; therefore the distinction between husband and wife because they are of different sexes is essential to the nature of human marriage.

One man and one woman perhaps goes beyond what is naturally required by these purposes, but it enables them to be fulfilled most effectively. Firstly, it emphasises the equality in importance between the two people in the marriage. It removes absurdities like those which would make the woman the slave or property of the husband (except in the sense that the husband is equally the property of his wife), which has no part in the right understanding of marriage. Marriage exists not to enslave women, but to provide them with physical provision and protection while they get on with the far more important tasks that they alone can do. Secondly, it ensures focus, and that (for example) the man's attention is not divided between several wives, with him consequently not able to give the emotional support they need to each of them (a man can physically service several wives at once, while a woman can only become pregnant to one man at a time, so the opposite case of one woman with numerous men is not so easy biologically, and thus far less common historically). Thirdly, it removes a source of rivalry and dissension. Fourthly, it is fair; it ensures that every man can have a wife; every woman a husband. Fifthly, there is only one Church and one Lord.

The efficient cause of marriage is the covenant between them that brings into the words the task that they have agreed upon: that together they will bring into being a family. Of course, we have built upon this with various ceremonies and rituals. Those aren't so important, and have rightly changed from one generation or culture to the next. What is constant is the promise to form and raise a family together is part of every notion of marriage.

The part that relates to divorce is that marriage is a life-long union. Raising children together is a life-long commitment. It cannot be done with the same focus if the couple have divorced each other and remarried into different families. Equally, the promise for mutual support and comfort doesn't have an end date; it is something we need even more as we get older. This is even without the huge economic and emotional costs for the children caused by relationship breakdown. Finally, for a man to separate from his wife is to declare that he has no problem if God abandons the Church; a woman who leaves her husband pronounces that the Church should be free to leave Christ. The theological implications of this are obvious.

So if marriage is defined as a life-long union, then the idea of divorce is a contradiction and wholly irrational. Thus divorce is always an evil.

But is it always the worst possible evil? Are there not cases when to stay together with an abusive husband or wife is worse than parting? Perhaps, but better still is that the couple stay together without the abuse. That's a lot harder than just walking away. It is even harder in these days with rampant pride and blaming stopping people from acknowledging that they themselves are the problem, and when nobody cares about virtue. The goal is always transformation of character from vice to virtue; and two virtuous people would live together in joy. A short separation might be beneficial if it helps the transformation process, but divorce? That's just the easy way out, and it doesn't cure the underlying problem, but only makes it worse. (Of course, even though it is easy to write such things seated in a comfortable chair and a good relationship with a great woman, I recognise that it to live with an abusive partner that has no intention of changing is a torture beyond my imagination. We can only pray for the strength to endure it, and to turn the marriage into a success. It is also why nobody should agree to marriage without fully knowing that your prospective husband or wife is virtuous and desires to be even better. And nobody should seek marriage or even sex without being well trained in the virtues themselves. A virtuous character is the foundation of a good relationship; therefore virtue must arise first, and the relationship second.)

The point is that this definition of marriage is underpinned by biological and societal necessity. People can try to define marriage to be something else. They can re-write the dictionaries; teach something else in schools; enforce their delusions through the courts. But that doesn't change the basic facts of humanity, or the need for the real thing. Every successful society has been built on a strong foundation of marriage. In every case in history, when the institution of marriage has failed, as Bertrand Russell advocated and as it is failing in our own civilisation, invariably the society collapses a few generations later. The ultimate demise of the culture comes from some economic crisis or overreaching bureaucracy or foreign invasion or mass immigration from an alien culture; but these are only fatal if the family has failed and consequently each subsequent generation diminishes in character and its ability to withstand and absorb such perils. A society is only as strong as the people within it; and if they are faithless to their partners and children, then they will be faithless to each other and that's no society at all.

So why does the modern world approve of divorce? There are as many reasons as there are people, I expect; the one I will focus on is because some people have changed what they believe marriage to be. This view defines marriage as a public expression of romantic love. We all know that romantic love fades; it takes a great deal of work and it isn't easy to keep it going. If romantic feelings are the basis of marriage, and there is no longer any romance, then clearly there is not much point for marriage any more. Hence divorce. Equally, if love is the basis of marriage, there is no reason for it to be restricted to being between one man and one woman, or to forbid it between brother and sister or mother and daughter.

You will notice that I made no mention of romantic love in my discussion of marriage. That is because in my view it is not essential to marriage. Of course, agape love, the desire for goodness in itself, is essential (one cannot give mutual support or make the sacrifices needed to raise children without it), but not romantic love. That doesn't mean that romance is bad -- on the contrary, when properly directed it is very good -- but only that a successful marriage doesn't need it (success is defined in terms of fulfilment of purposes; so if you doubt me look again at the purposes for marriage listed above). But a successful marriage also fosters the circumstances in which romantic love arises: the physical attraction, the hormones in the brain, and the knowledge that you are special to the other person and that he or she is devoted to you. The traditional view is that romantic love is a consequence of a good marriage, but not the basis of it. If your marriage is without romance (as all are from time to time), then the solution is to work through the dry period and do your best to rekindle it; and to encourage your romance to mature into the higher forms of love.

So why should the traditional understanding of marriage be preferred to the modern one? Firstly, because it is built on more solid ground. It is built on human nature as rational animals, rather than some fleeting emotion. If traditional marriage did not exist, we would still have need of it. Secondly, traditional marriage, when properly applied, leads to the romantic love at the heart of modern marriage, but modern marriage does not lead to the self-sacrifice and mutual comfort needed for traditional marriage. Thus traditional marriage satisfies all our needs, and modern marriage only some of them. Thirdly, unless one teaches society, especially children, about what marriage is for, they will not be prepared for it, and will consequently (far more frequently than if they were properly prepared) make a complete mess of it. You will only bring them misery and heartbreak in the long run. Unless you teach children that sex is first and foremost about procreation; and not to attempt to build a relationship until you and your prospective partner are mature enough in the virtues and thus ready for it, then sex will become first and foremost about my own pleasure. That is the constant temptation mankind is faced with, and the worst thing we can do is surrender to it (as modern morality has done). It means that we no longer worry about the character of our partners, and whether they would make good mothers or fathers to our children. It means that we no longer need care about our own character, and whether we ourselves would make a good father or mother. A consequence of that is that our characters will slide, and we will not only be poor parental material, but poor at relationships and everything else as well. It means that we treat girls as sexual objects rather than people. It means that we treat ourselves as mere sexual objects. It means that we see no harm in sexual abuse (after all, if a woman is just an object rather than a person, her feelings are less important than the pleasure I get from her). Such consequences are the inevitable result of a society that values fleeting passion above the self-discipline needed to benefit from and receive the joy of genuine marriage.

I should make one clarification. My objection is not with people who have been divorced, although I will urge people who are not yet divorced to try to find a better way. If the deed is done, I can't do anything to help (besides provide emotional support if need -- or, since I'm not personally very good at providing emotional support, direct them to somebody who can do so); if it is yet to be done, then maybe I can. I don't know and probably can't imagine the circumstances which led to that decision. It's not my place to make judgements about any individual except myself and those who have asked me to mentor them in this regard. And, as I said, there are legitimate grounds for divorce, if your partner was cheating on you (and thus divorce is merely an acknowledgement of that the union was already broken by his or her actions). My objection is with a culture that does not prepare people for marriage. A culture that does not even understand what marriage us. A culture that rightly rails against sexual harassment while at the same time promoting an underlying value system and way of thinking about yourself and your place in society that encourages all the impulses that lead people others; while passing scorn on the "old fashioned" way of thinking which is designed to redirect those impulses into a healthier course. I do not oppose people, but ideologies; indeed it is not possible to care for people without opposing the modern ideologies and laws that seem to be designed to create misery for them in the long term.

So that is why divorce is morally unacceptable. Whether it should be legally unacceptable is a different matter; but certainly the law ought to encourage and prepare people for genuine marriage rather than its more modern imitations. We do ourselves, and, more importantly, our children and their as yet unborn children, a disservice to do otherwise. The Church is most certainly right to oppose divorce, and had it been listened to, our society would be a far happier place than what it is today.

But what is that about happiness? I will define happiness as that feeling of well-being and contentment that we all cherish. Here again traditional morality differs from modern morality, in the same way that they do over romantic love and marriage. Modern ethicists make happiness (or perhaps the lack of misery) as the basis of their moral systems. Classical ethics believes that it arises as a consequence of a virtuous life. It is not the goal of ethics (that is to be virtuous, i.e. to have our will and desires in line with our defining natural purposes), but a side-effect of being moral. Modern ethics makes it the direct goal. Which brings me back to Bertrand Russell's essay.

And, of course, as we know, it is in major part an opponent still of progress and of improvement in all the ways that diminish suffering in the world, because it has chosen to label morality a certain narrow set of rules of conduct which have nothing to do with human happiness; and when you say that this or that ought to be done because it would make for human happiness, they think that has nothing to do with the matter at all. "What has human happiness to do with morals? The object of morals is not to make people happy."

I do think that Russell here misstates the Christian position here a little. For one thing, the expression rules of conduct suggests a duty duty-based ethics, while Christian ethics is primarily virtue-based. For another, we have to be careful about what we mean by "happiness." Aristotle's concept of Eudaimonia, which means a life lived according to the virtues, and remains central to the natural law conception of ethics, is often mistranslated as happiness. If one takes that mistranslation, then the object of morals as a Christian understands it is very much tied in with happiness. However, when we speak of happiness today, that is not what we mean by the term.

One of the modern ethical traditions combined Aristotle's contention that the goal of the reflective life was Eudaimonia, replaced this term with their own definition of happiness, and then made the object of ethics the maximisation of the sum total of human happiness. I take it that this is the school of thought that Russell is defending.

There are two premises of utilitarian ethics. The first is consequentialism, the belief that the goodness and badness of actions is defined by the outcome of those actions. This is opposed to virtue ethics, which sees goodness as applying first and foremost to objects such as people, and a good deed being the sort of thing that a good person would do in those circumstances. Plato, Aristotle, and the bulk of the Christian tradition accept different forms of virtue ethics. The New Testament, with its emphasis on inward transformation and how God judges the heart of people rather than outward appearances, also predominantly in the virtue ethics tradition (though not wholly; some parts of it can be read as being duty based ethics). The third main view is duty based ethics, which sees actions as good or bad in themselves regardless of their consequences or the motivations behind them.

Consequentialism has its problems, as I discuss in detail here. To my mind, the most important of these problems is that it seems to rely on a deterministic physics, or else it contradicts the principle of justice which states that two people in the same circumstances making the same action for the same reason ought to be regarded in the same way. It seems bizarre to label one of them as good and the other evil because one of those actions led to results which were judged as good and the other to results judged as evil due to factors entirely outside their and anyone else's control. Thus consequentialism only makes sense as the most fundamental ethical theory if the same actions always lead to the same outcomes. But this contradicts the experimental evidence, which is inconsistent with physical determinism.

So what of the second premise, that the standard of goodness is human happiness? A happy person is good, a miserable person bad. We should therefore try to ensure that as many people are happy. To many people the statement that "happiness is good" is intuitively obvious. Others are a little bit more sophisticated, and say things such as:

Questions about ends are, in other words, questions what things are desirable. The utilitarian doctrine is, that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end. What ought to be required of this doctrine - what conditions is it requisite that the doctrine should fulfil- to make good its claim to be believed? The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it: and so of the other sources of our experience. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it. If the end which the utilitarian doctrine proposes to itself were not, in theory and in practice, acknowledged to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was so. No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness. This, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person's happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons. Happiness has made out its title as one of the ends of conduct, and consequently one of the criteria of morality.

Of course, we can prove through theory whether things will be audible or visible before they are heard or seen, but that is beside the point. We can conclude that a unicorn, if it existed, would be visible even though nobody has ever seen one. We can conclude that the yet to be born child is visible, even though nobody has seen it, hidden as it is in its mother's womb. Mill defines goodness as that which is desirable; then states that happiness is what people do desire, and therefore that happiness is the standard of goodness.

This argument, as is well known, has many problems. The first is that, by setting human desires as the standard of goodness, it falls to the naturalistic fallacy. The question is not what people do desire but what people ought to desire, and we cannot define that ought in terms of human desire without descending into circularity. The only known way round the naturalistic fallacy is to state that there is a rational and objective purpose or tendency, which in part defines mankind as a species, and is independent of our own desire and thus a standard against which our desires can be measured.

Nor is it enough to say that because the majority of people desire happiness that that desire is good. It is quite possible that the majority of people are wrong.

Thirdly, happiness itself is a concept difficult to define or measure. It is not some singular thing, like telling the truth, or not committing murder. What makes people happy depends on their individual character or beliefs. But characters and beliefs are not fixed; they can change. Therefore we cannot use our feelings as a standard. Somebody will support Manchester United, and be happy when they win. Someone else will support Southend United, and be happy when they win. So which is the morally superior attitude when the two football teams play each other? Or does Southend have the moral imperative to throw the game, simply because of the unfortunate fact that Manchester have more fans and therefore more people would be happy if they win? A woman might feel happy at the thought that she is about to have an abortion. Educate her a little, and she will be in utter dismay and disgust at the thought that her child is about to be murdered. So happiness is no guide to whether any particular act, character trait or belief is right or wrong, because it depends only on feelings which are as changeable as the wind. Our primary goal is to set our desires and feelings in the right direction, which brings us back to virtue and (unless we want those desires to be constantly frustrated by reality) natural law ethics. (And, of course, virtue ethics insists that both teams play to the best of their ability, which history tells us will always result in a Southend victory).

Thus aiming at happiness does not tell us what goals we ought to pursue. If we aim to go left, and succeed, then that might make us happy. If we seek to go right, and manage to do so, then that would make us happy. The pursuit of happiness cannot say which way we should go. Any desire we possess can make us happy if it is fulfilled. Happiness is therefore no guide as to which desire is good. One can get around this by saying that a good set of desires where as many people as possible can have them fulfilled; i.e. where the individual desires of the people within a society are in harmony rather than conflict. But then, one no longer needs to bring in the concept of happiness to judge what people should be aiming for. The target is a harmonious society; and that that society would be happy is merely an accidental by-product of the ethical system, and it can be constructed without reference to it. But if there is an objective goal, independent of our feelings, then that would make one direction preferred over the other. The issue of ethics is thus not to do things to make us happy, but to train our character so that we are happy when good prevails.

So the pursuit of happiness is not relevant to ethics; in this the Church is clearly right. We can be happy whether we are virtuous or vicious. But reason tells us that we ought to aim to be virtuous. But Russell is equally wrong when he says that the Church disregards happiness. Happiness is neither the standard nor the goal. But when we set our goal to be virtuous, every step closer to the state of eudaimonia will make us that little bit happier; it is an accidental side-effect of living a good life.

Thus Russell is wholly wrong when he declares the Church to be the enemy of moral progress. Rather, it is the secular philosophies, with their ludicrous ideas of utilitarianism or the promotion of divorce and other sexual immorality and confusion, which are the enemies of genuine ethical reasoning and human flourishing. Those inspired by Russell have undone sixteen hundred years of moral progress within a few short generations, and unleashed havoc on our society. I only pray that these ideas are destroyed before they destroy Western civilisation.

Is fear the foundation of religion?

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