Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The definition game

In various places around the Internet, including my blog, I find myself arguing with people against the idea of gay "marriage." In the course of participating in discussions about this topic, I've started to learn the difference between an effective argument and an ineffective one as regards the idea of same-sex "marriage."

One of the less effective arguments often goes something like this, and is conducted between a traditional marriage supporter (TSM) and a gay-rights advocate (GRA):
TSM: Two people of the same gender can't get married. That changes the definition of marriage.

GRA: What is the definition of marriage?

TSM: Marriage is a legal and sexual union between one man and one woman.

GRA: And where does this definition come from?

TSM: Our culture and civilization. Marriage has meant this one thing for a couple thousand years, at least.

GRA: But if our culture wants to change the definition, then it can.

TSM: But having same-sex marriage changes the definition too much. If marriage isn't between a man and a woman, then what is it?

GRA: It's the legal and sexual union of two people. Gender isn't important.

TSM: But gender is important to the definition of marriage.

GRA: To a definition, maybe. But there have been many definitions of marriage throughout human history. And we no longer think gender matters in most areas. So why should it matter in marriage?

TSM: Because marriage is about procreation, about having children...

GRA: Now, wait a minute! You said the definition of marriage was the legal and sexual union of a man and a women. There's nothing about children in the definition. If there were, then infertile couples and elderly couples couldn't get married.

TSM: Just because I didn't mention it didn't mean that it's not part of our understanding of...

GRA: But it's not in the definition. By the definition, marriage is pretty vague. There's no reason for it to involve a man and a woman, and not two men or two women. There's really no reason for it to be limited to two people, except that our culture isn't ready to take that step.

TSM: You're altering the definition so much that you're making the word marriage mean nothing!

GRA: Well, you can't seem to define it in such a way that it means only what you want it to mean. So maybe it doesn't really mean anything...
There are better ways to argue against gay marriage, of course. But I show this argument, which is a composite of many such discussions I've seen online and elsewhere, to show what happens when you insist on having a precise definition as the starting point for a discussion about a moral issue.

The same thing happens in the torture debate, from the opposite side. The torture defender insists that without an extremely precise definition of exactly what torture is in each and every possible hypothetical situation, we can't possibly say that torture is wrong, that it is morally evil, gravely so. But just as the definition of marriage is hard to pin down in a single declarative sentence drafted in such a way that it reflects the religious, moral, philosophical and cultural understanding of the Christian West and not, say, the understanding of ancient or modern pagan and/or polygamous cultures, etc., so is it difficult to pin down a definition of torture that, while being specific and legal, reflects the moral vision of Christianity. This is especially true of the vision of the Catholic Church, which clearly wishes to promote the idea that we ought to treat all people, including prisoners, humanely, and that various acts of violence, pain, coercion etc. violate that principle.

To put this more simply, in the gay "marriage" debate proponents of same-sex "marriage" want to start with a definition in order to deconstruct that definition; that is, they want a definition of marriage so that they can reword, alter, and destroy the definition to the point where it is meaningless enough to include the understanding of "marriage" they wish to promote. Similarly, in the torture debates, many (though not all) who want a clear, precise, exhaustive, and definitive definition of exactly what torture is want this definition so they can insist that certain things, such as waterboarding, or putting prisoners in freezing cold cells and drenching them with water, or humiliating them in various inhumane ways are somehow not torture, because our definition didn't actually mention these particular things.

In the discussions concerning marriage, it is important to remember that marriage, an enduring cultural institution centered around the building up of strong natural families and the raising by a man and a woman of their own biological children whenever possible, can't be reduced to a mere definition of a sentence or so. It is equally important in the discussions concerning torture to recall that humanity's capacity for the intentional infliction of suffering on our fellow human beings can't be summed up by a quick definition of what torture is. In both discussions, there is a tendency by those on the other side of the issue to insist on a definition merely as a starting point for the deconstruction of that definition--and the point of that, of course, is so that the perversions they wish to allow, whether gay "marriage" or "enhanced interrogation," are suddenly made possible by the destruction of their opponents' definitions of words like marriage or torture.

Monday, August 23, 2010

That slippery slope

Pearls Before Swine

Sorry for the light posting--August is always a busy month. I have a post planned for this week about the problem with framing the debate about torture around the definition of torture.

In the meantime, Stephan Pastis of Pearls Before Swine shows, in the comic linked above, what can happen when you give governments the power to torture. Okay, it's humor, and I don't expect librarians to torture people who turn in books late--but that's the problem with granting government the authority to do evil: there's no guarantee that the evil will never be done to you.

We've already heard about pro-life activists placed on government "watch lists" for peaceful protesting and other free-speech activities. And I've read, on other blogs, calls for American prisoners--that is, American citizens arrested and charged with crimes--to be tortured in order for the truth about the crimes to be discovered.

This is why it's important to oppose torture even when the arguments are that it is necessary for American safety, will only be used against foreign criminals and terrorists, etc. Because once the government has the power to torture anybody, there's no guarantee that they will restrict this evil to foreign prisoners, or criminals, or terrorists. None whatsoever.

Monday, August 9, 2010

There are limits

Today is the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan. Three days ago was the anniversary of the similar bombing of Hiroshima.

I've reposted, on my personal blog, a post about Nagasaki, which I wrote a few years ago. I would like to repeat here a part of my preface to that post: I am firmly and irrevocably on the side of those who say, without nuance, that our use of these weapons to destroy over a hundred thousand people, most of them civilians, to force Japan to an unconditional surrender (when, in fact, the Japanese had made overtures already for a surrender even on what were called hard terms) was a hideously immoral act, a grave evil.

Even if there had been no talk of surrender on the Japanese side, our use of these bombs was gravely evil. From their legacy come things like "pre-emptive bombing" and "enhanced interrogation" and the other policies of truly unjust warfare that have somehow become acceptable to far too many people.

A nation which thinks that using weapons which killed hugely disproportionate numbers of civilians was somehow justified by circumstances is a nation that will not accept any limits to its power. But there are limits; God places them upon us as a duty, and we are not under any circumstances, however dire, allowed to violate His moral law.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Same-sex marriage, immigration, and human dignity

I wish I had time to think through and write a post or three on some recent Federal court cases. But I only have time to make a quick note and raise a question.

First, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton blocked a big chunk of Arizona's law that brought immigration enforcement to the local level.

Second, yesterday U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker ruled California's marriage-defining amendment to their state constitution as unconstitutional.

Both these rulings are of interest to Catholics, and I would note that (despite the apparent difference in subject matter) both are interesting for the same reason. The reason is that they ultimately are about how the government upholds or denigrates the dignity of the human person.

This is even the apparent concern of the judges who made the rulings. However, this is where competing notions about the foundation of human dignity arise.

From a Catholic perspective, human dignity is based in the gift of being made in the image and likeness of God, and is augmented by God's call to communion with him in the life of his Son.

It's not at all clear to me what basis these judges have for their ideas of human dignity.

So here's my question: in a nation that A) treats illegal immigrants - and those who employ them - with horrendously inconsistent laws and enforcements, B) regards marriage as a merely contractual arrangement, D) promotes research on human embryos, having been convinced that they're merely "blobs of tissue", and C) is willing to torture both foreigners and its own citizens ... how can we present to our elected officials and to the public generally a clear and consistent idea of human dignity? How can we preach the Gospel in such a way that it falls not on deaf ears?

That's a real question, not a rhetorical one. I'm working on some bits of an answer, but I have other ducks to get into a row just now. Hopefully I'll be able to post a few more ideas soon.

Monday, August 2, 2010

An enduring commitment to the protection of all human life

(Cross-posted at And Sometimes Tea.)

The FDA has approved a company's study of the medical cannibalization of children:

A Menlo Park biotech firm said Friday that federal regulators will let it proceed with the world's first human test of a treatment made from embryonic stem cells, a much-anticipated but controversial study of patients with spinal cord injuries that had been placed on hold for nearly a year because of safety concerns.

If the treatment from Geron works, it "would be revolutionary," said Dr. Richard Fessler, a neurological surgeon at Northwestern University, who will lead the study of a stem-cell treatment designed to be injected into patients with spinal injuries to restore their motor function. "The therapy would provide a viable treatment option for thousands of patients who suffer severe spinal cord injuries each year."

Geron has spent 15 years and more than $150 million to develop the treatment, and "getting it into a clinical trial, just by itself, is a big deal," added Fessler, who has no financial ties to the company.

Many people hope that human embryonic stem cells, which can turn into any type of tissue in the body, could prove useful for everything from generating organs for transplants to helping test drugs on numerous diseases. But because the cells are derived from discarded 3- to-5-day-old embryos, their use by researchers has sparked ethical concerns and a highly contentious national debate.

The Food and Drug Administration had put the study on hold last year after a few animals the company was testing with its treatment developed small cysts. Although similar cysts had appeared in earlier animal studies, they appeared with "a higher frequency" in more recent animal tests, the company said at the time.

So eager is the culture of death to commence turning the surplus of manufactured children into a viable commercial product so they can make even more money off of the buying and selling of human beings that they are ignoring the potential side-effects, as well as the slightly inconvenient reality that adult stem cells, which carry no ethical baggage, are actually working quite well:
For all the emotional debate that began about a decade ago on allowing the use of embryonic stem cells, it's adult stem cells that are in human testing today. An extensive review of stem cell projects and interviews with two dozen experts reveal a wide range of potential treatments.

Adult stem cells are being studied in people who suffer from multiple sclerosis, heart attacks and diabetes. Some early results suggest stem cells can help some patients avoid leg amputation. Recently, researchers reported that they restored vision to patients whose eyes were damaged by chemicals.

Apart from these efforts, transplants of adult stem cells have become a standard lifesaving therapy for perhaps hundreds of thousands of people with leukemia, lymphoma and other blood diseases.

"That's really one of the great success stories of stem cell biology that gives us all hope," says Dr. David Scadden of Harvard, who notes stem cells are also used to grow skin grafts.

"If we can recreate that success in other tissues, what can we possibly imagine for other people?"
Embryonic stem-cell research has yet to produce much of anything, and there are those pesky side-effects to consider. But, of course, researchers are sure that the only reason they've yet to perfect a magic cure for all known ailments of humankind except for reality television and news anchors is the fact that the Christianists out there are kind of squeamish about killing unborn children, mixing their cells with a jigger of gin and a dash of vermouth, and quaffing this new "Fountain of Life Cocktail" (price: dead innocents and the immortal souls of everybody involved in this hellish practice) and so won't allow oodles of free government money to entice women into selling off for cash those unwanted extra embryos they created in a rush of parental dreaming, back when they were still married to the father.

Here's the problem, for pro-life Catholic voters: Republicans are not as vehemently opposed to this barbarism as we'd like. In fact, quite a few of them aren't opposed at all (and apparently lack the awareness to see what is wrong with a phrase like "Find out how you can join the fight for personal freedoms and against Personhood today..." which can be seen on that homepage). In terms of our elected officials, it is sadly the case that in 2006, 17 Republican Senators voted in favor of expanding federally-funded ESCR, and a year later about 40 House Republicans did the same. And even those who oppose an expansion of federally-funded ESCR don't usually oppose the Bush "compromise" on the issue, which allowed such funding on research involving existing cell lines.

I've heard the objection: but compared to the Democrats, with their funding of abortion via the health care bill and their push to require Catholic hospitals to give out abortifacient contraceptives to rape victims and their support of partial birth abortion, etc., Republicans are shining examples of pro-life consistency and virtue, regardless of this little "hiccup" involving research on five-day-old unborn human beings (or on the cell lines already derived from such children, as if it's perfectly moral to participate in and profit from the murder of the unborn so long as one isn't actually doing the killing, or some such thing). There's no denying that when it comes to life issues, most Democrats are measurably worse than most Republicans--but if there are no consequences to Republicans for their support of things like ESCR, if people of faith give them a "pass" on this issue because they're better than the alternative, etc., then we do two things: we weaken our witness to the value of unborn human life, and we make it easier for the Republicans to run weaker and weaker candidates in the arena of life issues, and harder for us to insist that support of the killing of the unborn, whether via abortion or via medical research, is a deal-breaker for us when it comes to our votes.

In some senses, we've already done this. But should we continue? Or should we insist that the phrase "pro-life" means something real and substantial, and means, above all, an enduring commitment to the protection of all human life, born and unborn, regardless of age, health, or condition of dependency?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Not a valid basis

War is not a blanket excuse for violating divine moral principles - or even human law.

Case in point: a contractor working for the U.S. military in Iraq is being sued for allegedly torturing prisoners in their charge. (CBS news link here.)
U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte dismissed L-3's claims that they are immune to civil lawsuits because they were working for the government in wartime. The judge said this was "not a valid basis for the defense."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

War - even a Just War - does not somehow magically remove a person from the world as it is. It does not make killing right. It does not make the enemy to be less than human. What it does is: acknowledge that I'm likely to end up killing someone who is trying to kill me and my countrymen, and that this evil is unavoidable in defending the innocent against attack.

Those who cite war as some extraordinary moral circumstance that turns evil into good have abandoned the Just War tradition, and have rejected the ancient Catholic teaching on the subject.