If only I could throw dinner parties for semi-fictional characters…

I’ve been reading Hillary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, and I’ll admit I don’t like it as well as Wolf Hall.  I don’t feel the same intimacy with Robespierre that Wolf Hall gave me with Thomas Cromwell, and the distance is killing me.  However, I thought readers of the blog might like this dialogue between Camille Desmoulins and a French judge in the early days of the revolution.

“I object to the use of the courts as instruments of the intrusive moralizing state”

“Really?”  The judge leaned forward; he liked to argue generalities.   “As you seem to have wiped the church out of the picture, who is going to make men what they ought to be, if the laws do not do it?”

“Who is to say what men ought to be?”

“If the people elect their lawmakers–which, nowadays, they do–don’t they depute that task to them?”

“But if the people and their deputies were formed by a corrupt society, how are they to make good decisions?  How are they to form a moral society when they have no experience of one?”

“We really are going to get home late,” the judge said.  “We shall be here for six months if we are to do justice to the question.  You mean, how are we to become good when we’re bad?”

“We used to do it through the agency of divine grace.  But the new constitution doesn’t provide for that.”

“How wrong can you be?” the judge said.  “I thought all you fellows were on course for the moral regeneration of humankind.  Doesn’t it worry you that you’re out of step with your friends?”

“Since the Revolution, you’re allowed to dissent, aren’t you?”

I’m seized with the desire to introduce Thomasina from Arcadia into the debate, although she is only speaking of physical entropy, not moral entropy in the quotation below:

THOMASINA: Mr Noaks – bad news from Paris!

NOAKES: Is it the Emperor Napoleon?

THOMASINA: No (She tears the page off her drawing block, with her ‘diagram on it.) It concerns your heat engine. Improve it as you will, you can never get out of it what you put in. It repays eleven pence in the shilling at most.

…(SEPTIMUS retrieves his book from THOMASINA. He turns the pages, and also continues to study Thomasina’s diagram)

SEPTIMUS: Why does it mean Mr. Noakes’s engine pays eleven pence in the shilling? Where does he say it?

…THOMASINA: Oh … yes. Newton’s equations go forwards and backwards, the do not care which way. But the heat equation cares very much, it goes only one way. That is the reason Mr Noakes’ s engine cannot give the power to drive Mr. Noakes’s engine.

SEPTIMUS: Everybody knows that.

THOMASINA: Yes, Septimus, they know it about engines!

In a pre-conversion post, I mentioned how the worst true thing about my worldview might be the impossibility of becoming good when we’re bad.  It could be as impossible as stirring jam backwards out of rice pudding.  The State and the law aren’t up to that task, but they can give us the space and peace to seek out grace.  From St. Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons:

ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

ROPER: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast– man’s laws, not God’s– and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Life Lessons that Can’t be Taught at College’s Scale
The Story of Shmuel and Tailoring Support [Guest Post]
Effective Altruism and Caritas [Radio Readings]
Can’t I Love You Into Being Happy?
About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    These days people don’t want to make bad people good with laws. They want to do it with social programs. Some through education. Some through eliminating injustices. Some through sexual freedom. They deal with every problem except the central one. Sin. Sin cannot be solved by any human effort. Just by grace. All the other things are good to a point but they are limited. People need to open their hearts to the grace of Christ.

    • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

      And what does the grace of Christ consist of? Do you see the grace of Christ in a child receiving an education? What about receiving three meals a day instead of two? Do you see the grace of Christ in an otherwise uninsured person receiving medical care? Will you make sure that these things happen if the government doesn’t?

      I think my first question is the most important. What does the grace of Christ consist of? Can’t human effort cooperate with the grace of Christ? Shouldn’t it?

      • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy

        Human effort should always cooperate with God’s grace. It should never try and replace God’s grace. It is hard to be specific about what that looks like. That is why a Jesuit university that was founded educate people and disciple them as well can drift into secularism and nobody can point to exactly what went wrong. It just becomes obvious the school has lost its religion. Government programs are similar. The people who start them are often Christian. Somehow the heart and soul of those programs dies and it is just about working a system.

        So what does the grace of Christ consist of? If consists of faith, hope, and love. When we progress from one to the other we can truly love with the supernatural love of God. If we skip God and just try and love in human terms it will always degenerate into something inhuman.

        Wherever politics tries to be redemptive, it is promising too much. When it wishes to do the work of God, it becomes, not divine, but demonic.

        Truth and Tolerance, 116 Pope Benedict


  • Ted Seeber

    I’ve had a really hard time this week giving the Devil any due at all.

    Benefit of the law nothing. Benefit of 98% of Catholic souls…grrr.

    But that’s the trap. The trap is to despair in the face of evil. It’s what tempted me to Atheism once upon a time, it’s what tempted me towards Calvinism this week.

    Someday I’m going to have to look up a good biography on Jean Calvin, just to see how he survived arguing Total Depravity when chasing the Libertines out of Geneva.

    Because I sure as heck have struggled under trying to understand evidence that seems to point to total depravity for three days. A week of this, and stepping in front of a train would look mighty good.

  • Grok87

    The State and the law aren’t up to that task, but they can give us the space and peace to seek out grace. ”
    Very nice turn of phrase Leah!
    It brings to my mind two of today’s readings, the first from morning prayer and the second from today’s gospel.
    Them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer;
    Their holocausts and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar,
    For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
    Isaiah 56:7

    Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves,
    as well as the money-changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords
    and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen,
    and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables,
    and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here,
    and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”
    Jn 2:13-22

    The interpretation I have heard as to why Jesus was so upset at the commerce in the temple courtyard, is that this was the only place that Gentiles (presumably Gentiles with Jewish tendencies) could worship/pray. They were forbidden by law from entering the temple itself. So yes, Jesus wanted to clear out the merchants and give us gentiles (the “them” of isaiah) SPACE and peace to seek out grace.

  • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

    It seems like a pretty big leap from “Laws can’t teach us morality” to “only the (fuzzy term we call) grace afforded by (one particular conception of) Jesus can teach us morality”. Who’s to say society can’t bootstrap itself to better morality? First, because laws very clearly incentivize good behavior, and one could easily view morality as habitual good behavior, and second, because history tells us that societies actually do bootstrap themselves to higher moral ground. Slavery and patriarchy didn’t disappear when Christianity was introduced; they disappeared when society went through a period of scientific, economic, and cultural enlightenment. Contra the claims of Christianity (or at least, some Christians I know), increased individual freedom has led to overall more moral societies.

    • Scott Hebert

      Jake: Definition of terms, please.

      “Good behavior” would do nicely for a start. You define morality as ‘habitual good behavior’, and while I disagree with this, it seems also circular, particularly without a definition of ‘good behavior’.

      It is arguable, I suppose, that in a democratic society, the laws incentivise ‘whatever the majority wants’. If you equate this with ‘good behavior’, you implicitly ascribe to either a utilitarian and/or a legalistic ethical system, in my understanding of those terms.

      I would certainly agree with your conclusion in a potential sense, but I am not sure that the evidence actually shows this.

      • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

        To be desired or approved of.

        The way in which one acts or conducts oneself, esp. toward others

        You are correct that I lean towards utilitarian ethics. Whatever does the most good for the most number of people. In the context of a well functioning society, this includes fairness, equal opportunity, mutual respect, justice, education, and rational thought, among others.

        I suspect your question is intended to nail me down on objective vs. subjective morality, where’s my source of morality coming from, etc. That’s a fun discussion (which we all seem to have at least every other combox), but for the purposes of this discussion, I don’t think it matters. We pretty much agree, in practice, on most of the major tenants of “good behavior”. I doubt you’ll reject any of the things I listed as being good things. So I’m asserting the claim that the furthering of these goals came about as part of a revolution of enlightened thought rather than a revelation of some divine reality. So the claim that “corrupt” people can’t institute a society that is morally progressive seems demonstrably false in a historical sense.

        • Scott Hebert

          Actually, I disagree with your definition of good behavior. By the definitions you cite, ‘good behavior’ is ‘the way in which one acts _so as_ to be approved by others’? Or is it ‘the _approved_ way in which one acts towards others’? Or is it some other concatenation of the terms? You have given me no information, and certainly not a point that can be even discussed.

          Utilitarian ethics seem to have this constant problem is that it is entirely an applied ethical system. What is ‘the good’ under utilitarian ethics? Are we talking about a simple aggregation of a different ethical system? If so, then utilitarianism will not get us very far in this discussion.

          Regarding the elements of a ‘well functioning society’, before I go into the terms you use, I would like to point out that you are begging the question with the term ‘well functioning’. From an ethical perspective, ‘well functioning society’ can only mean a society that functions well according to a given ethical system; that is, under that system, the society is ethical. But that is precisely the question under discussion, and therefore the term is inadmissible.

          Fairness. Definition, please. To give an American political analog, I can have a discussion with any number of people about ‘fairness’ and their conception of fairness would certainly not be considered ethical in the least.

          I have similar issues with the rest of the list. Your list reads more or less like ‘democracy is ethical’. I would certainly like to have a discussion as to whether that proposition is true, but we’re not to that stage yet. I am quite willing to state that democracy as a political theory is ethical… in theory. But then, so is communism.

          Finally, regarding objective vs. subjective ethics, I ascribe (as I think is obvious even now) to objective ethics. As such, I would also ask for a definition of ‘moral progress’, as that is something that, stated as such, I vehemently disagree with.

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

            You can ask me to define words in an infinite regression if you like, but that’s really not my point here. For the purposes of this discussion, I don’t care what ethical system either one of us is using- I just care about the observable consequences that we agree on. My point is that we (presumably) agree that slavery is wrong, that people should treat each other with fairness and respect, that people should not be tortured and killed for having divergent beliefs. Independent of how we arrived at those conclusions, we’ve both arrived at them.

            Given that as our standard, my claim is that history tells us that Christianity is not what led us as a society towards those ideals. Christianity had a few thousand years to try, and it failed to do so. Society bootstrapped itself, explicitly through the rejection of dogma, towards these ideals.

    • TerryC

      The eighteenth century saw two great revolutions. One in America and one in France. The guiding principles behind one was that man was a great creature that if allowed to by circumstances would rise to the heights, embracing liberty, equality and fraternity. The other was based on the untrustworthiness of man, who could only seek life liberty and the pursuit of happiness through a government based on the balance of power that would prevent the tyranny of the majority from overriding the rights of the individual. One was based on trusting in the goodness of man, the other on his inherent sinfulness. The one which held up man in his perfection resulted in the Reign of Terror. The other, though having to suffer slavery, civil war and depression eventually resulted in universal suffrage and the best standard of living in the world, a place where people are considered poor because they don’t own a cell phone.
      Christianity’s purpose is not to improve the world, not in a social economic sense. Surely we are called to help the less fortunate in their lot in life, but to make social improvement the purpose of Christianity is to mis understand Christianity. The purpose of Christianity is eternal salvation. Along that path it has done much to improve society. Slavery was not abolished (to the extent that it has been abolished) by a society that has “bootstrapped” its way above it, but by the very Christian man William Wilberforce, without whom slavery in the western world might have gone on for many more decades, if not longer. Wilberforce opposed slavery on Christian grounds, and he made his argument against it based on Christian ethics.
      If history has taught us anything in the twentieth century, the bloodiest century, is that absent Christianity humanity has no respect for human dignity. The great suppressions and exterminations of man in the twentieth century were carried out by pagan or atheist regimes, not to paint ethical atheists with a broad brush. We see it now as so-called ethicists discuss how old a child must be before it is immoral to kill it, and how much worth a person must have to society before paying for medical care for them. These are not Christian concepts, but come out of a secular mindset where the person only has dignity and value based upon social value.

      • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

        One was based on trusting in the goodness of man, the other on his inherent sinfulness

        This is a vast oversimplification, if it can even be called such. The guiding principle behind the American revolution was not the inherent sinfulness of man- it was the desire for freedom from tyranny, both religious and political. Likewise, the governmental system first set up in America made no comment on the “sinfulness” of man. It was based on the empirical observation that when a small group gets too much power, bad things happen. More than anything, it was a reactionary swing of the political pendulum against the governing style of England- Americans had had bad experiences with governments that had too much power, so they sought to limit the power of their own.

        I am less educated on the history of France, but I suspect that the reign of terror came about for reasons far more complex than that France “held up man in his perfection.”

        The other, though having to suffer slavery, civil war and depression eventually resulted in universal suffrage and the best standard of living in the world, a place where people are considered poor because they don’t own a cell phone

        Yep. America is pretty awesome. But you can’t thank Christianity for that- or else you should have seen the same in Rome, in the dark ages, in the middle ages, in the crusades, and all throughout Christian Europe.

        A hypothetical:
        Most of western society since 300 BCE have shared common trait X. The vast majority of them had terrible records on human rights, justice, free thought, and freedom of religion. 1500 years later, another society was founded that also shared common trait X. A hundred years later, that society abolished slavery. In another hundred years, it ended segregation, and women’s suffrage gained broad adoption. It also developed the fairest judicial system the world had ever seen. Would it be reasonable to conclude that trait X was the cause of these moral gains? Obviously not. If you disagree, congratulations: the introduction of the stirrup led to the end of slavery.

        (yes, that last part is a joke. But it illustrates a point, I hope- you’re doing all kinds of special pleading if you claim that Christianity leads to more moral societies)

        Christianity’s purpose is not to improve the world, not in a social economic sense

        Purpose, no. But we would expect this as a consequence of any actually true non-gnostic religion.

        The purpose of Christianity is eternal salvation. Along that path it has done much to improve society

        I believe the evidence disagrees with you.

        The church itself has funded scientific research, no doubt- but not to any extent that is surprising given the size, scope, and function of the church as a political institution for the past 2000 years. Nothing clearly supernatural there.

        Slavery was not abolished (to the extent that it has been abolished) by a society that has “bootstrapped” its way above it, but by the very Christian man William Wilberforce, without whom slavery in the western world might have gone on for many more decades, if not longer.

        No, slavery was abolished by society- by the men and women who fought and died in a civil war to end it. William Wilberforce may have been influential, and he may have been a very Christian man as well. But if you would like credit for him, you shall also have to take the blame for Popes Steven VI, John XII, Benedict IX, and Urban VI, not to mention the crusades, the inquisition, the treatment of Galileo, and so many other historical examples of injustice. Good men come in all beliefs, and I’m not making the argument that Christian doctrine is incompatible with the abolition of slavery- I’m saying it’s not the cause. It had its chance to be the cause when it was the dominant religion for 1500 years, and it failed utterly.

        If history has taught us anything in the twentieth century, the bloodiest century

        This is true, but only because our weapons have gotten so much more powerful and our populations have grown so much. Man is not inherently more aggressive than he has ever been. If anything (judging by the history and mythology I’ve read), man has become decidedly less bloodthirsty.

        absent Christianity humanity has no respect for human dignity

        Sorry, but this is laughable. I am absent Christianity, and I have respect for human dignity. So did this guy. More to the point, Christianity hasn’t gone anywhere. Violence in the twentieth century is no indication for “absent Christianity _____”, because Christianity wasn’t absent in the twentieth century. If you’re thinking of explicitly atheist governments that committed transgressions, congratulations: governments generally do that. There have only been a few in history that haven’t. We can find ample example of both Christian and atheist governments doing so.

        …and how much worth a person must have to society before paying for medical care for them. These are not Christian concepts, but come out of a secular mindset where the person only has dignity and value based upon social value.

        I wish you luck in devising a plan for universal healthcare in which no hard decisions have to be made, and no consideration of cost must be taken. The math says it’s impossible, but if you find a way, I and all the other atheists will be absolutely thrilled (seriously).

    • Kristen inDallas

      On what planet is becoming conditioned to the point where we require incentives to behave well a step towards being more moral. My 3 year old will clean his room if I dangle candy, but that only tweaches him to value candy. There’s nothing to stop him from hitting another kid and taking the candy, once he works out that that’s an option. The trick is in teaching people to do good things for the sake of the good. For the sake of something incorruptable. I’ve yet to work out how to do that without a higher power.

      • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

        This appears to be how morality actually works in the real world, both in humans and animals. It’s why parents punish and reward their kids, and why kids without strong parental influences are much more likely to end up in jail. Morality is learned behavior.

        Incentives are a stand-in for the long-term benefits of behaving morally. For example, the benefits of living in a society with no crime are enormous, but not obviously apparent to everybody. By making the consequences for crime more immediate and more apparent, we disincentive behavior that is detrimental to everyone.

        The goal is not to make someone dependent on incentives to do the right thing- the goal is to recognize that there are actually incentives inherent in reality. People do the right thing because the right thing has good consequences, and people avoid doing the wrong thing because the wrong thing has bad consequences. For Christians, those consequences may be of a different ilk than for atheists- disappointing/offending God, eternal ramifications, purification of spirit- but “good things” are still fundamentally good things because of the consequences associated with them. When you teach your children that some things are good and some are bad, you’re still using incentives to convince them why they should or should not do something. They’re just a lot more abstract than a piece of candy.

  • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

    That quote from A Man for All Seasons is one of my favorites ever :) Such a succinct explanation of (for example) why we protect offensive speech: because it’s the same law that protects our own speech.

    I agree with Jake, history demonstrates that it’s entirely possible for a society to “bootstrap itself to better morality.” For one thing, morality isn’t energy — it doesn’t get used up. It’s more like a skill or talent, where the more you do it the better you get at it. Or like love, where sharing it inspires it in others.

    Randy said, “Sin cannot be solved by any human effort. Just by grace.” Which is exactly why I find Christianity such a depressing religion. It basically tells human beings that they are by nature and definition hopelessly depraved from birth and that they can do exactly nothing about it — wow, what an enticement to believe.

    • Iota

      “It [Christianity] basically tells human beings that they are by nature and definition hopelessly depraved from birth and that they can do exactly nothing about it ”

      I’m almost sure you must have et that argument, but I’m tempted to reply just in case you hadn’t…

      [There is no single "Christian" view of Grace, Sin etc - I'm sure you know that, but I feel like emphasizing that. I'm a Roman Catholic]. I view the whole ” hopelessly depraved from birth” thing (i.e. Original Sin) a little differently then you write about it. Namely:

      1) we are all made in God’s image, therefore it is quite possible for us to do good things “naturally” (i.e. within our normal nature).
      2) Those good deeds are, however, insufficient compared to what we should be doing. That is possibly rather depressing, but – I think – quite observably true (both for atheists theists). The argument could run e.g. like this (simplistically): if we really were “good people” we wouldn’t be buying luxuries (and I mean that quite broadly, e.g.including all sweets ), preferring to spend that money on hunger relief, providing healthcare to disadvantaged people etc. That we, collectively, have a demonstrable problem with it sort of proves we aren’t as good as we like to think. And this is actually quite horrible, since – I’m simplifying here a bit, but not that much – every time I buy a chocolate bar, I’m sanctioning the fact someone somewhere won’t be getting some form of assistance they deserve as much as I do, because I’m using up resources which could be redirected to another person’s more important need).
      3) Given #2 the just thing would have been for us all to condemn ourselves. (you probably disagree with that, given some stuff we talked about earlier)
      4) But we (demonstrably again) cannot normally be morally perfect, according to that metric (i.e. we really can’t live by the Golden Rule, though we like to quote it), even if we sort of want to. We have our besetting vices, we aren’t sufficiently disciplined, we tend to think of people removed from us as actually not that important (most of us WOULD probably be more disciplined about saving money off our extra luxuries or comforts for close friends or family members than for strangers, even though “objectively” the stranger might be in more dire need of assistance.
      5) #4 is Original Sin (the tendency to will against good). It does not mean we can’t do any good (see #1) but that it’s insufficiently good.
      6) Catholicism claims that there is a God who actually cares enough to help me become a better person (in this demanding sense), i.e. a saint.
      7) It also claims that He is willing to forgive past mistakes, weaknesses and all the other stuff that comes with them, so long as you want to work with him and demonstrate that (i.e. Mercy).
      8) He also has the power to recompense those, to whom my inadequacy in goodness has brought harm.

      8) The obvious argument against #6 #7 and #8 is the existence of evil. But (while I think this is probably the most respectable and reasonable reason to not be a believer) the secular answer to the problem of evil could probably be summed up as “Stuff Happens” (or somewhat less politely). Even if one would argue that humanity has the power to eventually make itself ideal morally, there is still no justification whatsoever for the state the world is now in and for any transgressions against the Golden Rule that we commit (and no restitution later). There is no justification or restitution for even one starving, mistreated, destitute person, whom, we (collectively) could have helped. And there are millions of them. So we end up indicting ourselves by appealing to the problem of evil, because we are responsible for at least some evil, almost literally right now.

      Given all that I actually find Catholicism a lot more hopeful than any brand of atheism I’ve ever come across (as a world-view – Catholics as persons can be quite awful or even horrific).

  • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

    That’s my favorite quote from A Man for All Seasons.

    • leahlibresco

      Mine too.

  • http://ayearoflivingadventurously.wordpress.com Emily

    LOVE a Man for All Seasons. And Arcadia. I always wanted to play Thomasina, but I’m probably too old now (I wanted to say the line about carnal embrace….always cracks me up.). I could still be Meg in MFAS, though!

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