On Value-Neutral Bravery

On Value-Neutral Bravery August 6, 2012

Back before I went off to awesome, wacky summer camp (a few more things to come on that, by the way), I was writing a series of posts on martyrdom, pacifism, drone strikes and other problems of offering resistance.   And it turns out, looking over some of the posts I missed, I wasn’t the only Patheos blogger wondering whether you can praise courage regardless of what exactly the person you’re admiring is steeling herself to do. I was talking about drone strikes and David French is talking about homosexuality.  He decides:

C.S. Lewis said that courage was not just one of the virtues, “but the form of every virtue at its testing point.” In other words, courage depends on and enables virtue. By that measure, I can’t call coming out (even though it is difficult for many) “courageous” because it is in almost every case a declaration of sinfulness and willful sinful activity. Not everything that’s difficult or challenging to do is “courageous” — especially when that difficult or challenging thing also happens to contradict God’s commands. If a husband breaks his marriage vows, alienates his friends, and runs off with the secretary, do we call that “courageous?” Why not? It’s hard to do, but he’s following his heart (like the culture tells us we must), and his action will cause an extreme counter-reaction from those closest to him. We might call that “audacious,” but not “courageous.”

To be clear, sin in one area of our lives of course does not preclude courage or bravery in other areas. Many gay men and women have courageously served our country, giving their lives for our freedom. Resisting a bully can require courage — regardless of the reason for the bullying. We’re all sinful, but we’re all — by God’s grace — capable of courage. But it doesn’t take “courage” to engage in extramarital sex.

I’m pretty confident that at least part of the comment thread is going to be a fight about the moral character of homosexual relationships, but that’s not where my disagreement with French is rooted.  Regardless of whether you think that queer desires are disordered, it’s bizarre to deny they’re rooted in love.

There are plenty of loves we can’t indulge (the married man’s love for the secretary, no matter how moving, could fall in this category), but the act of recognizing and cherishing the other person’s virtues is a good one, even if romantic love is not always the right way to express it.  It’s hard to imagine in any framework that the introduction of eros is enough to taint and erase virtues of charity that you would laud if the relationship were entirely platonic.

Let me bring the discussion back to the battlefield and courage.

I can see virtues in a suicide bomber or a terrorist. There’s bravery, obviously, but there’s also a love of clan or county or just family. I think that, ideally, that love needs to be nourished and expanded until it’s grown strong enough to include the enemy. But there’s a good germ there. The passions may be wrongly directed, but you’ve got a lot more to work with than if the fighter were apathetic or nihilistic.

You can have a discussion about whether certain ways of fighting are beyond the pale or whether certain kinds of love are ultimately harmful, but any desire to sacrifice for another person seems like a first step up Diotima’s ladder in Plato’s Symposium.  You may be trying to offer the wrong kind of sacrifice, and you’ll need to catch on to that, but the reverence is not misplaced.  If it’s blinding you to the needs of people besides the beloved (person or family or country), you need to expand the scope of your love, not just tone down your infatuation.

But French won’t accord queer people the recognition that I’d gladly afford to people who want my death. He is sundering them entirely from the virtues.  It seems like to me that the only fault that can cut you off that completely is indifference.

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  • Assuming that same-sex relations are objectively wrong and sinful, purely for the sake of argument, it is also true that they do not appear to be sinful to most of those who engage in them; rather, they appear to be a positive good. Virtue seeks the good, and courage seeks the good that is arduous or difficult. In the case of “coming out”, the good sought is that of the truth of one’s affections and relationships; the difficulty and danger appears in the negative social reactions from one’s family, friends, and associates; sometimes this comes also with threats of physical harm. The good is real; the danger is real; the virtue is courage.

    Now, virtue in one area helps with, but does not guarantee, virtue in all other areas of a person’s life. There are plenty of examples of people praising the courage of their enemies, even enemies considered to be barbarian or heretical or evil in various other respects. So the question of whether same-sex relations are objectively wrong belongs, it seems to me, to prudence rather than to fortitude. The question of the courage of “coming out” is, for me at least, a clear one.

  • Alex Godofsky

    This whole thing seems definition game-y. We don’t like suicide bombers; we reflexively attach positive emotions to the word ‘courage’; therefore we want to say that suicide bombers aren’t courageous. Why go to great lengths to argue the definition of a word when you can just add a qualifier and say “it seems like we can describe suicide bombers as courageous, but that doesn’t mean the thing they are doing is good; if we can’t convert them to our side, we would at least prefer that they have less courage”?

    A lot of ink has been spilled attempting to gain this minor rhetorical advantage. I think it genuinely impairs our ability to reason when we spend so much energy trying to redefine words with positive affect so that they don’t apply to things we don’t like.

  • I’m getting tired of saying this to people who are perfectly capable of figuring it out for themselves. The Church never condemns any chaste and loyal friendship between persons, be they whom they may. Sexual intercourse, however, is the exclusive privelege of a man and a woman in a valid marriage, full stop. If they haven’t taught you that already in RCIA, you need to start doing a little research on your own. Catholicism isn’t a state of mind, you know, or an art collection, or an anthology of possibly-useful theories: an indispensable part of being a Catholic is giving a free consent of the will to the Church’s teaching authority. For God’s sake let’s not have another high-profile dissident.

    • ted whalen

      No, let’s!

      “We owe the definitions with which the Church has thought it right to surround the mysteries of the faith, and more particularly its condemnations (… anathema sit) a permanent and unconditional attitude of respectful attention, but not an adherence.

      We likewise owe a respectful attention to opinions that have been condemned, to the extent — be it ever so small — to which their content, or the life of those who propounded them, contains some show of good.

      Intellectual adherence is never owed to anything whatsoever. For it is never in any degree a voluntary thing. Attention alone is voluntary. And it *alone* forms the subject of an obligation.

      If one tries to bring about in oneself an intellectual adherence by the act of the will, what actually results is not an intellectual adherence, but suggestion. That is what Pascal’s method amounts to. Nothing degrades faith more. And there necessarily appears, sooner or later, a compensatory phenomenon in the shape of doubts and ‘temptations against faith’.

      Nothing has contributed more towards weakening faith and encouraging unbelief than the mistaken conception of an obligation on the part of the intelligence. All obligations other than the one of attention which is itself imposed on the intelligence in the exercise of its function stifle the soul — the whole soul, and not the intelligence only.”

      Simone Weil, from “Letter to a Priest”, opinion #27.

      • Ted Seeber

        I’m not sure it’s useful to use the writings of a dissident to promote dissent. Can you find somebody more orthodox than a woman who refused to be baptized because she misunderstood Extra Ecclesiam Nullas Salvas, or one that clung to the Manichean Heresy that was over so long before she was born?

        It is good to prevent suffering. But there is such a thing as too much good, to the point where you start doing evil.

        • ted whalen

          I think Weil understood “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” very well — the same way that it was understood by the Roman Catholic Church before Vatican II. Weil had some very nice things to say about atheists, and about those with strong intellectual objections to what she viewed as non-essential doctrines of the Church. She’s certainly not orthodox, but I don’t see why that’s necessarily a problem, especially for our gracious host, who, after all, is also not (yet) a member of the Church.

          And, I think you mean “Marcionist” instead of “Manichean”. From what I understand of Marcionism, it resolves the incompatibility of the wrathful and genocidal character of the Old Testament God and the loving God portrayed by Jesus by positing that the OT God was a type of demiurge distinct from the NT God. While Weil certainly has very few nice things to say about the early Hebrew conception of God, I’ve never seen any of her writings which suggest any kind of Marcionist or Manichean dualism.

          • Ted Seeber

            I meant that she was so overwhelmed by her experience of suffering, that she failed to see the very value of suffering; this was the same mistake that created Manichean dualism to begin with.

            I now understand your idea of not rejecting her based on her apparent negative feenyism- but I’d point out that Fr. Feeney’s strict interpretation limiting EENS to members of the visible church militant was NOT supportable from either scripture or tradition, Pope Paul VI and the Vatican II participants wrote Nostra Aetate to refute it. Of course, that was a good 3 decades after Simone, in her clinging to solidarity with the suffering, starved herself into a heart attack.

        • Brandon B

          Ted Seeber, could you clarify “there is such a thing as too much good”? I can imagine that some particular actions which are normally good become evil when moderation is lost, but that’s not the same thing as doing too many good actions. “Too much of a good thing” is not the same as “too much good”. There is no such thing as too much love, too much beauty, or too much righteousness, for example.

          • Ted Seeber

            In the case of Simone Weils, it was precisely *too much good action* that killed her. Her solidarity hunger strike in conjunction with service to the poor is what gave her a heart attack at 34 years of age.

            Another example of too much good is the idea put forth by both eugenicists and certain fundamentalist Christians that some people shouldn’t live because their suffering is too great otherwise.

          • Brandon B

            I would like to draw a distinction between things that are inherently good and things that are contingently good, i.e. good because they are helpful in acheiving an inherent good. Regarding contigent goods, I agree with you. Food is a contingent good, because it helps acheive the inherent good of being healthy, but if you eat too much food, it stops making you healthier, and it stops being good. Weils, I take it, took on a lot of suffering, and you are contending that this caused her death. Suffering is a contingent good, because it helps acheive sanctification, an inherent good, but there are situations where it stops being effective at acheiving sanctification, in which case suffering is no longer good and should be avoided. If Simone Weils was in such a situation, then her suffering was “too much of a good thing”. I would like to note, however, that her death at a young age is not sufficient to show that her suffering was not acheiving sanctification. St. Faustina also died at the age of 34, after years of chronic illness, and it clear that her suffering contributed to her sanctification right up to her last moments on Earth.

    • deiseach

      Argh. I know this is a bad idea and I’m going to do it anyway.

      Part of the trouble is that we make the word “love” do so much heavy lifting that it gets distorted, and another part of the trouble is the confusion between love and sex. There is the animal instinct of reproduction, the basic drive at the root of all sexual attraction and orientation. Then layered on top of that are layers of affection and familial attachment and romantic associations and the whole nine yards.

      On one side, people are unwilling to recognise or make the allowance for what Leah says – that homosexual love can indeed include what is called “love”, and not just lust or diverted eros. On the other side, there are those who make the argument that all expressions of homosexual desire are purely love and not sexually driven, which is not the case anymore than all expressions of heterosexual desire are love.

      People go to prostitutes for one expression of their sexual nature. People kill themselves and their partners for another. People jump in front of bullets or push the other person out of the way of a speeding car and get hit themselves in another.

      What poisons the well is the confusion between love and sex, or rather (a) the misuse of early Freudian psychiatry to categorise all human psychic economy as down to basic drives, which means that all love is ‘only’ sex dressed up and, as a corollary of that, to repress, control or divert the sexual instinct was somehow dangerous to the health of the organism both mentally and physically, since libido needed to be discharged (b) the dam’ foolishness the Romantic movement engaged in regarding the fetishisation of love as the be-all and end-all, culminating in Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” (think of it: the ultimate culmination of the all-absorbing passion of the two lovers is death, since there is no way they can live and sustain this crescendo of feeling; even if they could be together, eros can only be fully consummated in thanatos – that’s a destructve principle to build any house on) and (c) the intertwining of the two streams of thought in the “Sexual Revolution” where we would all be liberated by following our own interests and discarding bourgeois morality, including any notions about adultery and divorce being bad things. The only evil was denial.

      Eros has been poisoned. A fallen angel is a demon, after all, and the higher it was, the worse the fall. I believe in Original Sin (a doctrine which has often given me a strange kind of comfort as I regard this vale of tears) and everything was dragged down with us when we put having our own way over our love.

      Listen, I’m an idiot. Read what the Pope says:

      “According to Friedrich Nietzsche, Christianity had poisoned eros, which for its part, while not completely succumbing, gradually degenerated into vice. Here the German philosopher was expressing a widely-held perception: doesn’t the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn’t she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator’s gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?

      4. But is this the case? Did Christianity really destroy eros? Let us take a look at the pre- Christian world. The Greeks—not unlike other cultures—considered eros principally as a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a “divine madness” which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness. All other powers in heaven and on earth thus appear secondary: “Omnia vincit amor” says Virgil in the Bucolics—love conquers all—and he adds: “et nos cedamus amori”—let us, too, yield to love. In the religions, this attitude found expression in fertility cults, part of which was the “sacred” prostitution which flourished in many temples. Eros was thus celebrated as divine power, as fellowship with the Divine.

      The Old Testament firmly opposed this form of religion, which represents a powerful temptation against monotheistic faith, combating it as a perversion of religiosity. But it in no way rejected eros as such; rather, it declared war on a warped and destructive form of it, because this counterfeit divinization of eros actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it. Indeed, the prostitutes in the temple, who had to bestow this divine intoxication, were not treated as human beings and persons, but simply used as a means of arousing “divine madness”: far from being goddesses, they were human persons being exploited. An intoxicated and undisciplined eros, then, is not an ascent in “ecstasy” towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man. Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.”

    • I just noticed this comment.

      I’m getting tired of saying this to people who are perfectly capable of figuring it out for themselves. The Church never condemns any chaste and loyal friendship between persons, be they whom they may. Sexual intercourse, however, is the exclusive privelege of a man and a woman in a valid marriage, full stop.

      Please don’t get tired of saying it, because if anything, it needs to be said more. And frankly, it needs to be said to the entirely orthodox Catholics and Christians who talk on this subject also, because it’s not just the “dissidents” who seem to be unaware of it – at least in their writings.

      I’m tired myself, really. I’m tired of seeing this particular issue communicated so terribly, such that one gets the impression that the Catholic Church condemns “two guys holding hands” or “two guys/two women who are devoted to each other”, with the whole “sodomy and particular acts of sexual intercourse/sexual desire” thing somehow being ignored. So I’m glad to see someone else making this point.

      • Also, just to have some fun with the OP.

        I suppose we should take Dan Cathy’s statement, and his steadfast refusal to recant it in the face of some pretty intense media and popular opposition, to be a courageous act – even if we disagree with his stance? (Not that I do, given what I know of it.)

        • Ted Seeber

          YES- very much so. Though I think last Wednesday kind of detracted from the courageousness a bit- as his position proved to be wildly and commercially popular.

  • math_geek

    It sounds like this gentleman needs to read C.S. Lewis a bit closer — “Well, I am afraid it is no good trying to make him brave. Our research department has not yet discovered (though success is hourly expected) how to produce any virtue. This is a serious handicap. To be greatly and effectively wicked a man needs some virtue. What would Attila have been without his courage, or Shylock without self-denial as regards the flesh? ” – Screwtape letters.

    I think coming out can clearly be brave insofar as it’s a statement of truth that can yield a cruel response. Would David French not call this person brave?

  • jose

    Well, if you define willful sinful activity as uncourageous and define coming out as a willful sinful activity, then it logically follows than coming out is uncourageous. Pretty straightforward.

    All he has to do now is to let the world know how you determine what’s a sin so we can reach the same conclusion independently. Looks to me like the different religions just come up with them.

  • Ted Seeber

    Depends how they come out of the closet.

    Being homosexual and running away from family and childhood friends to participate in gay pride parades and sleep with a different person every night is not courageous in the least, even though thanks to the Fred Phelps of this world, you may well be putting your life in danger to do so. And thanks to the AIDS epidemic, you’re very likely putting your life in danger by doing so.

    But coming out as same-sex attracted and yet still chaste, in America today, as a Catholic, may just put you on the road to popular sainthood- and is absolutely courageous.

    When it comes to sin, admitting to the temptation is no shame; failing shouldn’t be a shame either. The shame should be in failing to pick yourself up out of your sin and sin no more.

    • hazemyth

      Are those the only two options?

  • I think I agree with everything except the last sentence. Complete sunderance from the virtues is hell and it includes hate rather than indifference. Sin is rooted in valuing some good over the Good, but it does perpetuate and intensify itself in ways sometimes no longer connected in to the original good. On a smaller scale some neighborhood feuds have long ceased to be about whatever initially triggered them.

  • This is a good post and an important problem, I think. Since virtue is one’s disposition/aptitude for happiness, there are some virtues that are really integral to the moral life, without which one can’t really be said to be virtuous at all. So, for example, someone could have prudence that enabled him/her to see what was necessary and calculate probabilities and so on in order to get things done, and have the courage necessary to endure hardships along the way, and the temperance to forgo pleasures in order to get the goal, but if this is all in pursuit of something like a suit made of human skin, or the world’s most rancid collection of socks, none of the other virtues are really actualized, though they might be potentially there in what a person does. Courage in pursuit of an evil end is not real courage, though it functions in the same way. Just like prudence which lacks the strength of will to endure difficulty isn’t real prudence. So, you see, some distinctions have to be made. Is the suicide bomber in possession of himself in such a way that his mind has governance over his irascible appetite? Yep. Does this closely resemble the virtue of courage? Yep. But it’s not courage. It’s actually a vice (we might call it pertinacity). Could this vice be converted into genuine courage through an improvement of the person’s prudential capacity and the rectification of some misunderstandings? Probably.

    The question of merit and blame for this sort of vice is more complicated, and really depends on the sort of things our bomber fundamentally desires. But in order to iron that out we’d have to go through a catalogue of vices, which would take a long time. Suffice it to say that an erring conscience binds but does not excuse, and that the character of an act is determined primarily by the end for which it was done, secondarily by the nature of the act itself, and thirdly (tertiarily?) by the circumstances in which it was done. Blah blah blah Thomas Thomas Thomas. etc.

  • Homosexual acts are sinful.

    So, is coming out courageous? It can be, depending on the circumstances. Our culture applauds acts of self-revelation generally and ‘coming out’ specifically, so I doubt that coming out is actually courageous in a great many instances where its lauded as courageous. But I’m sure there are instances where it is courageous.

    So is that courage virtuous? I’d say so. I’d prefer another C.S. Lewis quote from the Screwtape Letters, where Screwtape whines that God will claim many souls who died fighting bravely for a bad cause on the specious grounds that they thought it a good one.

    • hazemyth

      Despite greater public affirmation of homosexuality in general and ‘coming out’ in particular, I have never met or heard of a single gay person who has not experienced an appreciable degree of distress and mistreatment as a consequence — whether it’s the loss of friends or family (emotionally or utterly), bullying or intimidation, or even violence. Even when the actual consequences are minimal in retrospect, their prospect in advance can be quite menacing. Despite social changes, ‘coming out’ remains, for most people, a very fraught and painful process. It can be easy to miss this, if you haven’t experienced it, or known someone who has, or if you only have media representations of go by. It is a frightening experience and always requires some courage (in the common sense of transcending fear) to accomplish.

  • There is the assumption that motives are rooted in love. A terrorist might be just motivated by hate. Sometimes Muslim terrorists can be motivated by guilt. They want to die a martyr to atone for sin, typically a sexual sin. The boss runs off with his secretary. Is he motivated by love or lust. Who knows? But the truly loving thing would be to let her keep her chastity so she can find someone who is free to marry.

    The gay person coming out? What do we assume about his or her motivations? Could be truth. Could be rebellion. It can be a step in the right direction. If someone wants to talk more honestly about their sexuality I can see it being positive. If someone wants to live homosexual promiscuity in a more public way then not so much. I would really have to hear the whole story.

  • Doragoon

    The problem with courage of coming out is that it’s involving other people without questioning if they need to know. That’s why think coming out is a selfish act. Regardless of the morality of the act, telling someone about that doesn’t need to know is bragging, or seeking approval. “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand;…”

    I’ve dealt with this personally and have come to realise that as bad as you feel about keeping something important from your friends. They don’t need to know, they don’t want to know, and it’s better for them not to know. You’ll be happier in the long run by not telling them, and letting them see you as they already see you.

    • Ryan

      “The problem with courage of coming out is that it’s involving other people without questioning if they need to know.”
      This assumes quite a lot. Quite a lot indeed. I have never met anyone who has come out who has not struggled with the question of whether the people being come out to needed to know…

    • Ted Seeber

      I would in fact argue that everybody needs to know. Which is why I “come out of the closet” of autism so regularly (mention it in every job interview especially, now that I know the Americans with Disabilities Act on the subject).

      For the Same Sex Attracted Chaste Catholic- coming out can be an *opportunity* to preach on right ordered sexuality and chastity.

      • MumbleMumble

        It’s nice to have the government protecting your rights, isn’t it?

        • deiseach

          When the right exists in the first place, then a person is entitled to it. The rationale for same-gender marriage seems to be that “I have a right to marry the person of my choice”. Well, yes – to an extent. If the person of your choice does not wish to marry you, or is not otherwise available (we don’t permit people too young, already married, or within certain degress of consanguinuity to marry), then you cannot marry that person and will just have to do without.

          When the ‘right’ never existed in the first place, we’re getting into murky territory.

          And on the other hand, I would like those of my co-religionists telling same-sex attracted people to live in chastity, to remind themselves as well as others that this applies to all of us. If you’re single, no sex outside of marriage. If you’re married, no bit on the side. If you’re civilly divorced/separated, sorry, no chance at second love. Co-habitation is fornication, and if you bop along to your (parents’) parish after five years and with two kids in tow, don’t be surprised if the parish priest is not falling over himself with delight at the prospect of the pair of you finally deigning to regularise your situation. Again, that’s something that requires pastoral sensitivity – do you welcome the pair so as not to drive them off and not break the bruised reed, or do you refuse to pretend they haven’t been living in sin and may not have the right disposition to marriage even now? All depends. Oh – and co-habiting straight persons who want a sacramental marriage? You have to live chastely (as brother and sister) before confession and up to the point of marriage, so you don’t get to go on as you have been doing.

          Yes, we’re mean, cruel and hateful to deny people in love the chance at happiness – but at least we’re equal opportunity mean, cruel and heartless. Let’s lecture our brothers and sisters less on the mote in their eyes and concentrate more on the beam in our own.

          • Ron K

            Rights exist because the state gives them to people. You’re effectively saying that the state shouldn’t give people new rights, because it hasn’t given them those rights before. That’s just circular reasoning. The same argument could be given against women voting, or for segregation laws.

            The fact is, society changes and with it are the rights given to people by their governments. That’s why the US constitution is ammendable. That’s why women voters seem normal to us today, and why, in a couple of generations, gay marriage would seem as normal, while another thing would become the new ‘hot button’ topic.

          • Yes, we’re mean, cruel and hateful to deny people in love the chance at happiness – but at least we’re equal opportunity mean, cruel and heartless.

            I don’t think you’re either, actually. I presume you were being fecitious on the first part, but just so we’re clear, the personal sexual ethics of Catholicism make a lot of sense in a lot of different moral frameworks, not all of them religious. I wouldn’t characterize them as mean, cruel, or hateful, just a fair bit more demanding than the prevailing post-sexual-revolution mainstream.

            That said, you’re fundamentally not equal opportunity demanding. To the heterosexual, you’re saying “you can’t partake of this desirable part of the human experience because of a temporal, mutable, or self-selected constraint.” To the homosexual, you’re saying “you can’t partake of this desirable part of the human experience becasue of a fundamental characteristic of who you are, and at no point in the future will you be allowed to partake of it.” It’s one thing to demand that homosexual people adhere to the same standard as heterosexual people- that they abstain from premarital sex, cohabitation, divorce, etc. – but it’s quite nother to demand they adhere to lifelong chastity. The only other people (that I know of) this is demanded of is priests- and they make an active choice to enter into that vow.

            Catholicism may be right- homosexual acts may be inherently disordered and a deviation from the original design of human sexuality- but lets not pretend you’re holding them to the same standard as heterosexual couples.

          • Ron K

            Yes, the Catholic church demands different behaviours of gay people and straight people. What you are ignoring is that being a part of the Catholic Church is, in itself, a choice.

            For all I care, Catholic dogma could state that people of african descent cannot achieve salvation and the best thing for them would be not to reproduce. That’s perfectly fine — as long as they don’t try to impose that skewed religious view of right and wrong on non Catholics. (and as long as they allow Catholics to leave the faith, but that’s another issue).

            That’s why the discussion about gay marriage is, in essence, a discussion about separation of church and state. Personally, I couldn’t care less about what the Catholic view on sexuality is, if it hadn’t had the pretention to dictate right and wrong to everybody, Catholics and non Catholics alike.

          • Brandon B

            “For all I care, Catholic dogma could state that people of African descent cannot achieve salvation…That’s perfectly fine…”

            This really boggles my mind. How can you not care? 1) Evil ideas are moral wounds in the minds that hold them, and 2) evil ideas often lead to evil actions. Do you appreciate what “cannot achieve salvation” means? If there were a group that believed that Jesus saved humanity, but he excluded everyone from Africa, I could not be “fine” with that. I would respect their freedom, of course, but only because freedom is invincible, and there’s nothing I could do about it anyway.

          • Ron K

            You forgot the second half of the sentence. That’s perfectly fine with me *as long as they don’t force that belief on me, or act in a harmful way*.

            It’s true that wrong ideas lead to wrong actions, but you can police actions and can’t police ideas. You have to accept that people and institutions have a right to be wrong, evil and hateful, as long as they harm no one, if you want to keep living in an open society.

            And why *should* I care what Catholics believe? Do you care what Sikhs or Mahayana Buddhists believe?

          • What you are ignoring is that being a part of the Catholic Church is, in itself, a choice.

            I’m a lot less convinced of this than you, I think- if you sincerely believe something is true, I’m not sure you can simply make a choice to stop believing it. Leah has used the analogy in the past of the Pythagorean Theorem- you don’t choose to believe it, you simply do once it’s properly explained (though don’t let me speak for her on the topic). It seems like if you’re actually convinced that the Catholic Church is right about reality, you don’t really have a choice but to go along ith it. Regardless, this seems tangential, just food for thought.

          • MumbleMumble

            “When the right exists in the first place, then a person is entitled to it.”
            What does that even mean? Did you know the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990?

          • Brandon B

            Yes, I care what Sikhs and Mahayanna Buddhists believe. The ideas that people hold shape who they are, and who you are shapes what you do. I don’t think there’s any need to stand around waiting to see if they do something harmful, because an evil idea itself is bad enough to warrant trying to help.

            We know that people have the right to think what they want, and as a practical matter they can’t be forced to believe any particular ideas. However, persuasion is a perfectly good option. That’s the whole point of education: changing what people believe for their own good.

            When dealing with adults, we don’t usually have the luxury of having a teacher-student relationship. If you have a racist uncle, for example, you can at best approach him as a peer. Nevertheless, the right thing to do is try to persuade him, slowly if that’s what it takes, that the people he hates are people too, and he should stop hating them.

          • Ron K

            I’ve worked as a teacher for a couple of years. If someone had told me, or asked me to “change someone’s beliefs for their own good” I’d quit on the spot. That’s not education, that’s indoctrination. Education is about giving tools for thoguht. The test for a good teacher is when students use the tools they’ve acquired in new, surprising and innovative ways, and develop beliefs that are different from each other’s and from the teacher’s.

            The mere phrase ‘for their own good’ makes me sick, because it suggests that I somehow absolutely know what is good for someone else, and have the nerve to impose that on them. I wouldn’t want to be treated like that, and I would never subject people to such a treatment.

            When dealing with adults, treating them like they are completely wrong and need persuasion or ‘correction’ is even more vain and paternalistic. The only thing I am willing to do is to engage with people in dialogue, as equals — I may convince them, or they may convince me, or neither will be convinced. No matter what, we will understand each other’s positions better, and expose hidden assumptions and inconsistencies in each other’s thought.

          • Brandon B

            May I ask what you teach? In some subjects, there are more clearly correct answers than others, but every subject has some correct answers. Art, for example, has plenty of subjective issues, but it also has some indisputable facts. If you prepare a ceramics piece incorrectly, it will break in the kiln. If a student disagreed with his teacher about this, his disagreement would not save his piece from breaking. The teacher would therefore be remiss if he permitted any of his students to have differing beliefs on that subject.

            If one attempted to change another’s beliefs in a way tried to circumvent the person’s freedom, that would truly be indoctrination, and abhorrent. I can also see that maybe “education” is not precisely the word I should be using, since education is more often about imparting skills (e.g. critical thinking, spatial reasoning, etc.) than about imparting particular ideas.

            Still, if you did know something that was good for people in general, wouldn’t it be selfish to withhold it from people you care about, such as your students? For example, I think that getting drunk on a regular basis is unhealthy, and can sometimes lead to a variety of other destructive behaviors. As an undergraduate, therefore, I periodically encouraged my friends to drink less, and made my reasons clear to them. I was never “indoctrinating” them, nor physically trying to restrain them. It feels fair to say I did this “for their own good”, and this did not require me to be paternalistic, or omniscient regarding their needs. I was just trying to be a good friend.

          • deiseach

            Seriously, Ron K? Rights exist because the State gives them to people?

            Then my right not to be shot in the street by an organ of the State depends solely on what the legislature decides to pass on a Thursday night – if, on Friday morning, the police or the army or the Supreme Agency for Public Order deems it necessary and fitting, I can have my brains blown out because Agent Smith thought I looked a bit dodgy and nobody gets to say different?

          • Ted Seeber

            Amen to that one, and absolutely true, and I’d add that my own sin of gluttony is worse than many people’s sins against chastity.

          • Ron K

            According to my limited understanding of current US law, yes, the state would have the right to shoot you with an unmanned drone without a trial.

            That’s using the LEGAL definition of right — which has nothing to do with morality. Legally speaking, rights are guaranteed freedoms that governments assure people — areas in which governments vow not to intervene. In an absolute monarchy, the only one with rights is the King. In a constitutional monarchy or a democracy, rights are given to the people, by the sovereign, be it a King or the people itself.

            Another, simpler example. I live in Germany. Like in most of Europe, I do not have the right to own a weapon. If I lived in the US, I would have that right.

        • Ted Seeber

          Not as nice as it should be. After all, in my one instance of using the ADA, I did not get my job back, and had to find a new one. I did get a negotiated severance pay equal to four months salary, however.

        • Ron K

          > Still, if you did know something that was good for people in general, wouldn’t it be selfish to
          > withhold it from people you care about, such as your students?

          That’s just the point — I am human, and therefore falliable. I can’t know for certain that my opinions are correct, or claim to know what is ‘good for people in general’. Doing so would be claiming knowledge that I do not and cannot posess; it would be claiming moral authority over people that are neither better nor worse than me; in short, it would be the worst kind of slefishness — mistaking my opinions for fact.

          I understand your emotions when you told your college friends to drink less. Doing so, however, is exactly paternalism — you put yourself almost as a parent figure in the moral highground as a moral authority over your peers as you told them what they should or should not do. All because you have an unbased opinion of what the proper drinking habits of college students should be. I would never do that, nor would I tolerate such behaviour from my friends.

          • Brandon B

            The fact that I am never perfectly certain doesn’t mean I am clueless. I am certain enough of many things to risk my life on them. When I drive a car, I’m not absolutely certain that the other cars are not homicidal maniacs, but I am certain enough to ignore the possibility, and if I am certain enough to discourage this belief in others.

            My belief that regular drunkenness is unhealthy is not “unbased”. Drunkenness has been the subject of numerous scientific studies. It is clear that it leads to lowered inhibitions, which means dangerous behavior is more likely, and over time it damages various parts of the body, including the brain and the liver. Depending on the drink of choice, it might also contribute to obesity, which is a risk factor for many other health problems.

            Applying the world “paternalistic” to anyone who wishes to give advice implies that parents are the only people who ever normally give advice. I think this is false as an empirical matter.

      • With all due respect, the basic approach that everybody needs to know anything in particular about me is a bit Oprah Winfrey-ish, don’t you think.
        Your situation is a bit different because of the ADA and legal protections involved, but the case of a coworker with same-sex attractions just deciding to tell me at work – this happened a couple months ago – no, it is entirely inappropriate. We are not personally acquainted and his personal sexual proclivities could not be less interesting to me.

    • I know next to nothing about the experience of gay people and I surely don’t want to second-guess anyone’s (non-)outing decisions.

      But I will note that charity for us straight guy can be overdone too. I think we should and often do prefer knowing over keeping friends in permanent discomfort. If you’re afraid of us being horrible or don’t want to deal with clueless attempts at helpfulness that’s sad but probably justified. But if it’s really just about our comfortable illusions I’ll unwrap an old trope and note the “love your neighbor like yourself” thing also applies in reverse.

  • MumbleMumble

    I’m confused. Are you saying that people who think that homosexuality is immoral should still accept coming out as courageous, even though it’s misguided? At which point, they should try to enlighten the poor soul as to their wayward lifestyle in the hopes that this sinful individual will expand their love and tone down their infatuation?
    You said you’ve got something to work with for the suicide bomber – I’m assuming we’re trying to stop them from becoming a fully-realized suicide bomber. Is your point that Catholics should try to work with gays to change their sinful lifestyle (ie. to stop them from acting out on their homosexual desires)?

    • Ted Seeber

      Coming out is NEVER misguided- but sometimes the results of coming out are misguided.

  • Brandon B

    As tempting as it is to redefine “courage” in a way that excludes ideologies I don’t like, I think that courage is virtuous independent of the other virtues (or lack thereof) that it is used for. When I think about suicide bombers, I deplore both their goals and their methods, but I still think, “I hope all our soldiers are as brave as that.” I also suspect that, if those men where converted away, and they served nobler goals, the same character qualities would serve them well. Because I think that it is the same quality as what I hope for in the good guys, and it would be the same quality if directed towards virtuous ends, it only makes sense to call it “courage”.

    On the other hand, virtuous do tend to reinforce each other, so when “courage” is used to bolster vice one might be suspicious. When Andrew W. K. sings “Party Hard”, he demonstrates considerable enthusiasm about partying. If his fans call this “courage”, however, and then use “courage” to justify their own drunken revelry, they’re clearly not using the right word. I would suggest “gluttony”.

  • I wondering how our ideas of the afterlife impact the selfishness or courageous of a life-sacrificing act. Can a suicide bomber act courageously when he firmly believes that he will recive riches, rewards, and multiple wives in the afterlife for his actions? Indeed, isn’t there a degree of rational choice to his actions. He does a cost/benefit analysis weighing his rewards for dying for his cause vs. living a life without glory.

    I tend to view martyrdom with this in mind as well. The martyr commits a rational act, when he chooses to die for his faith. He gains rewards in the afterlife, and upon his death he becomes something of a heroic legend (Saint) in his faith community. There is certainly a degree of rationality and selfishness to these acts, not simply passions or virtue.

    I think the best account I’ve seen on this issue was in the novel, Silence. The story takes place in 17th century Japan, a time of Christian persecution. The main character, a Jesuit priest, is put in a situation in which he must choose between allowing himself to become a martyr with the Japanese Christian families he has come to love, or he can renounce the faith, spit on an icon, work in service of the Japanese government, and the Christian families go free. Which is the more loving act? Which is the courageous choice?

    • I don’t see the conflict between courage and rational optimization. To scale it down to less dramatic proportions, back when medicine was bitter kids needed courage to take it even if they firmly believed it would make them better.

    • Brandon B

      Selfishness is not the same thing as rationality, and courage is not just a matter of passion. Courage is what it takes to go from “I know what is right” to “I will do what is right”, when there is opposition to doing the right thing. Gilbert’s example of kids taking their medicine is a good one.

      The priest’s dilemma in Japan might be a question of courage (is he too afraid of death to make the right choice), but you’ve framed it instead as a question of what the right choice is.

      • leahlibresco

        Well put.

      • “Selfishness is not the same thing as rationality,”
        I am not talking about rationality, in the way it is used philosophically. I’m talking about rational choice theory, which is the idea that humans are motivated by selfish behavior, and the thought process behind this is a rational process.

        “and courage is not just a matter of passion.”
        I never said it was. In fact, I’m arguing the opposite. Courage is a rational act.

        “The priest’s dilemma in Japan might be a question of courage (is he too afraid of death to make the right choice), but you’ve framed it instead as a question of what the right choice is.”

        No, I framed it as which decision would take more courage. Is it more courageous to sacrifice one’s own life, and the lives of the Japanese families in martyrdom, knowing you will receive eternal rewards. Or is it more courageous to apostatize, and take on the eternal punishments that entails, knowing that you have spared the life of the Japanese families.

        Likewise, I fail to see the courage of the suicide bomber when there are clearly eternal rewards involved. It’s not just loving something over the fear of death. There are also eternal rewards involved for those who take this route. I simply wanted to know how this played into Leah’s view of courage. Is it more courageous or less courageous to die for one’s beliefs once perceived eternal rewards enter the picture?

        As for the medicine example. I don’t see this as a courageous act, or as a moral act (like a martyrdom, a suicide bomber, or a LGBQT fighting for marital rights). This is an act of health, more aligned with the virtue of prudence than courage. In fact one could argue that a child takes her medicine precisely because she is more afraid of the consequences of illness than the pain of the shot/pill/etc. This is the sort of rational choice I’m talking about, and it plays into the idea of courage more-so than passions.

        • leahlibresco

          My problem with this way of talking about choices is that it leads me into Dark Kantianism. I’m happier when people don’t like me and I can do good things for them unafraid that my kindness is contaminated by wanting their good feelings. (I’m not strawmanning; this is how HS!me thought). It can certainly be noble when you do good things without expectation of reward, but I don’t expect a good moral system to leave you wishing that more bad things happen to good people.

  • Erick

    Assuming Mr. French is correct that “coming out” almost always results in sinful action (not just unsinful orientation), I still would think that “coming out” could be courageous in a physical or social sense, even if it is not courageous in a moral sense? Rarely is “having an affair” equivalent to inviting a threat to one’s own physical safety the way “coming out” would be in many places.

  • I can see virtues in a suicide bomber or a terrorist. There’s bravery, obviously, but there’s also a love of clan or county or just family. I think that, ideally, that love needs to be nourished and expanded until it’s grown strong enough to include the enemy. But there’s a good germ there. The passions may be wrongly directed, but you’ve got a lot more to work with than if the fighter were apathetic or nihilistic.

    But French won’t accord queer people the recognition that I’d gladly afford to people who want my death. He is sundering them entirely from the virtues. It seems like to me that the only fault that can cut you off that completely is indifference.

    Your move here doesn’t work, and here’s why.

    You can celebrate the virtue of the terrorist, only insofar as you abstract away from the actual act. Yes, you can admire his willingness to sacrifice his life, his commitment to his people, etc. It’s more difficult to celebrate his act of chopping off the head of a pregnant mother of three and holding her head aloft for the cameras, laughing about how he’ll do the same to any other Copt he finds in his country.

    You can admire the husband’s love for his secretary. The act of adultery itself? The temptation towards adultery? Not so much.

    And French? French is talking, specifically, about “sexual behaviors and lifestyles”. You know – sodomy, gay bathhouses and the like. So to his credit, he’s zeroing in on the key problem with those relationships. He’s silent on, say, the aspects of love and commitment that may (or may not) be involved with such a relationship. He’s right to do so, since insofar as the sex is eliminated from that topic – just as (your example, not mine) the specific act of the terrorist is put aside in the terrorism example – there’s not much that’s objectionable left over.

    So no, it seems that French isn’t ‘sundering queer people entirely from the virtues’. He’s just saying that, no, the decision to frequent a gay bathhouse, take part in an orgy, etc, isn’t courageous. Now, you can respond by saying “there is a LOT more to a gay relationship than the sodomy!” I’d agree. It just happens to be the part that’s objectionable, and the part French targets. And I don’t think it’s right to abstract away “French doesn’t recognize the laudable aspect of a hypothetical gay relationship – the companionship, the devotion, the…” etc. I suspect he would think those traits are laudable, just as he thinks it’s laudable for them to have served their country courageously. It just wasn’t what he was focusing on.

    • Chris

      I think Crude’s post hits the nail on the head, and effectively ends the debate.

      While it might be courageous for a person to “come out” and admit to possessing an “objectively disordered” same-sex attraction, it is in no wise courageous to “give in” to that inclination. That’d be like a closeted alcoholic, after several decades of hiding the ol’ stainless steel flask in the ol’ coat pocket, finally gathering up the courage to admit his alcoholism to an AA meeting, and then celebrating that admission by chugging a 40 oz.

      French clearly states the reason why he doesn’t believe “coming out” is courageous: “because it is in almost every case a declaration of sinfulness and willful sinful activity.” Finis.

      • Brandon B

        Chris, If I were you, I would not be so quick to declare a debate “ended”. A debate is an interaction between humans, not a simple exercise in logic. Nevertheless, I like your simile of the alcoholic getting smashed at his AA meeting.

        Crude, what do you mean by “the husband’s love for his secretary”? Since “love”, in English, can characterize a number of different relationships, I’m curious where you’re drawing the line for right/wrong “love for his secretary.”

        • Brandon,

          Crude, what do you mean by “the husband’s love for his secretary”? Since “love”, in English, can characterize a number of different relationships, I’m curious where you’re drawing the line for right/wrong “love for his secretary.”

          That example was pulled straight from Leah’s original post, so the context should be clear there. I think the question of where to draw the line can be complicated (if it’s an unacted upon romantic love, is it still praiseworthy – in some sense, if you shift perspective and qualify enough?), but wrong would pretty clearly be evident at an act of adultery.

          Speaking of Leah’s OP, I’d also like to point at this claim she made: “Regardless of whether you think that queer desires are disordered, it’s bizarre to deny they’re rooted in love.”

          No. A million times no, because “queer desires” covers a wide, wide range of acts and dispositions. That’s like saying “regardless of whether you think that sexual desires are disordered, it’s bizarre to deny they’re rooted in love”. You have to either do some heavy, heavy qualification there, or you’re running risk of the claim being self-evidently preposterous. There’s a lot of sexual desires out there, queer or no, that have very little to do with love, and damn well are not “rooted” in love, unless you’re reworking love to the point where just about anything is rooted in it. (Stalin’s acts were rooted in love. Granted, it was a love of mass starvation and secular power, but love all the same!)


          Thanks for the endorsement, and I’d agree with your reply.

          • Ted Seeber

            I ascribe the mass starvation aspect of Stalin’s reign to ignorance rather than malice. I think his point of view and knowledge of agriculture was sufficiently twisted that he actually did think he was leaving the Ukranians enough to live on, and thus the famines came as a complete surprise..

    • hazemyth

      “He’s just saying that, no, the decision to frequent a gay bathhouse, take part in an orgy, etc, isn’t courageous.”

      French’s admonition extends to considerably more than promiscuity by gay persons. It applies equally well to monogamous gay relations. I find it telling that most of the people here denying the courage of living as an openly gay person are also falling into the habit of treating that choice as synonymous with wanton lasciviousness.

  • Ron K

    I can see virtues in a suicide bomber or a terrorist. […] there’s a good germ there. The passions may be wrongly directed, but you’ve got a lot more to work with than if the fighter were apathetic or nihilistic.

    Leah, are you saying what I think you’re saying? Are you going to defend the position, that an islamist extremist that preforms a suicide bombing is morally superior to an islamist extremist that just couldn’t be bothered? I’ve seen you writing many ideas I thought were weird, but this is the first time I see something that I consider to be blatantly immoral.

    Even taking a less extreme example, I don’t see how this principle holds. I remember my dad complaining one day about office politics – “it’s better to have an idiot doing nothing, than an idiot doing something”. You can’t seriously claim that having conviction, courage or certainty are good per se. If they are good at all (which I seriously doubt), they are only good when applied to things that are both important and true.

    • Doragoon

      Virtues are not independent entities. Chesterton warned about how the virtues have done mad by being separated from each other. Just as a knife when in the hands of a surgeon can save a life, the same knife in the hand of someone with less skill could kill. The knife doesn’t make the immoral act moral. Neither does courage in the heart of a person with immoral beliefs make his actions moral.

      Is the person who believes in the morality of suicide bombing and terrorism but doesn’t act on it themselves any better than the person who does? There is a strange notion in our culture that beliefs not only don’t matter, but shouldn’t be talked about. Then we’re surprised when someone acts on those beliefs that no one attempted to intervene before then.

      • Ron K

        The knife analogy is a bad one. A knife is a tool. It doesn’t cause anyone to stab. Courage, however, is the difference between fantantasising about killing all infidels and actually carrying that out. Courage and conviction are a sort of belief amplifiers, if you will — they make people bring their beliefs into practice, sometimes with deadly results.

        Yes, a person who just thinks about killing people is more moral than a person that actually carries that out. I would rather live in a world full of apathetic islamists than in a world with a single motivated one. I would even go further and say, that since we are humans, the percentage of people with wrong beliefs about something is somewhere around 100%. Therefore certainty, courage and conviction are extremely dangerous and should definitely not be encouraged or cited as ‘virtues’.

        That doesn’t mean beliefs aren’t important. They are a factor in our actions. The problem with beliefs is they are very hard to change, judge or control, not to mention that trying to control people’s belief leads inevitably to more immoral acts. How would you suggest society could ‘intervene’ in people’s beliefs, and how would you judge if they are the right beliefs?

    • Tim

      “this is the first time I see something that I consider to be blatantly immoral.”
      Ron. Really. She *didn’t* say that – you drew that conclusion by pointing out a possible result of her argument – and a fine reductio ad absurdum it was. Just don’t accuse Leah of promoting suicide bombing; that’s silly.

      Doragoon is right on the money – the virtues are worse separated from each other. So the suicide bomber with courage and passion is better for his courage and passion – but sadly, the evil he seeks is magnified because of his virtues – and so he is significantly worse. Attila the Hun needed quite a lot of courage to conduct all those wars and massacre all those people, as C.S. Lewis points out. Courage is good, but Attila the Hun is still bad.

      St. Ignatius of Loyola was a soldier – I don’t know if that was a good or bad thing in his case – but what a saint he turned out to be once those virtues were redirected.

      • Ron K

        I wasn’t accusing Leah of promoting suicide bombing. I was accusing her of promoting Courage as an absolute good detached from context. You’ve cited a couple of good examples why courage has everything to do with context.

        Therefore my questions to Leah still are:
        a) why value courage at all?
        b) why value courage separately from its context?

        • Tim

          ‘I wasn’t accusing Leah of promoting suicide bombing.’
          You’ve got me there. I jumped the gun. Some people pull that stuff so I overreacted.

          “I would rather live in a world full of apathetic islamists than in a world with a single motivated one.” I would too.

          “Yes, a person who just thinks about killing people is more moral than a person that actually carries that out.” I think we ought to make two distinctions: between types of ‘apathetic murderers’, and between the effects of an action in the world and the effects of an action in a person.

          One ‘apathetic murderer’ doesn’t murder because he doesn’t hate enough. Yes, he’s morally superior to the active radical jihadist. The second apathetic murderer has astronomical amounts of hatred, but he’s just too darn lazy, a spineless invertebrate who watches reruns of The Simpsons all day. Given that we don’t really care about the moral state of would-be murderers, I’m happy to watch the second apathetic murderer rot in his man-cave rather than hurt people. But isn’t he an even more morally disgusting sight – viewed by himself, not looking at the carnage resulting from his actions – than the dedicated radical jihadist training in the flinty mountains for months? I think the apathetic would-be murderer is morally inferior.

          That brings me to my second distinction, between the effects of an action in the world and the effects of an action in a person. Virtue ethics doesn’t necessarily predict which actions have the right effects; its unique contribution is to predict which sorts of actions conduce to being a better person. So a consequentialist analysis (blowing up people will hurt them and is thus wrong) may not square with a virtue analysis (courage and evil intentions is better than apathy and evil intentions). So the active radical jihadist, glowing with courage and passion and dedication – all the qualities that have built civilization – wreaks incalculably worse harm than the invertebrate jihadist.

          So I agree with where you end up, Ron – I just disagree with how you got there. Take it all around, yes, an active murderer has done much worse things than the apathetic would-be murderer and is therefore probably a worse person. (I know who I hate more.) But on the other hand, courage is still courage.

          • Ron K

            I am neither a virtue ethicist nor a consequensialist, and am frankly having a mild headache just trying to relate to those very foreign way of thinking, but even if I try to assume virtue ethics, you still haven’t answered my question.

            Given that Courage may be used to amplify both virtue and vice, wouldn’t that mean that it is at least value-neutral and is not, as Leah claims, a virtue in itself? How can something be a virtue when it results in a less virtuous person? I just don’t see the logic in that.

            All people with murderous intent who do not murder are almost by definition more virtuous than those who commit murder — at least, they have some hope of redemption. A vicious man can be reformed, but a murderer will have to live with his acts forever. I don’t see the distinction between the two ‘apathetic murderers’ — as long as they haven’t yet committed murder, they are morally equivalent. Even in alice-in-mirrorland-virtue-ethics world, actions speak louder than words and influence personality to a much greater extent.

            Yes, courage, passion and dedication have built our civilisation. So have lazyness, greed and will to power. Civilisation is merely a mirror, reflecting all human qualities, and I would hesitate to call it morally good on its best days.

          • Tim

            “I don’t see the distinction between the two ‘apathetic murderers’ — as long as they haven’t yet committed murder, they are morally equivalent.”
            Here, I think, is the nub of the disagreement. A greater person can do worse things than a lesser person. So when a really good and strong person goes off the rails, watch out! On the other hand, there are thugs from LA who turn out to be better, more loyal, more courageous soldiers – once they’ve been straightened out – than many nice weak guys who’ve never hurt a soul.

            “Even in alice-in-mirrorland-virtue-ethics world, actions speak louder than words and influence personality to a much greater extent.” I completely agree. The guy who actually kills someone is much more likely to be a much worse person than the lounge lizard – if taken all around.

    • Ted Seeber

      Blatently immoral to your assumptions is not equal to blatently immoral to somebody with different assumptions.

  • Mark

    After following your blog for a couple of weeks now I have to say that from your writings, you are the most unconverted convert to catholicism that I’ve ever met. In these last few weeks you have promoted donating money to an atheist website. promoted an atheist blog, promoted a lesbian website, promoted a former Christian’s now atheist blog and now defended terrorism as a virtue. Am I missing something?

    • Chris

      @Mark: Yes. She also put in a plug for Lambda Legal. 🙂

      I’ve been following the blog myself for awhile, off and on since Leah announced her conversion. The catechumenal process is almost like an extended identity crisis, and it’s even more acute for a former atheist than for, say, a former Protestant or Jew. Her whole worldview is undergoing some radical alterations. We should be patient with her, and remember that Easter is still a long way off. She’s got time.

    • g

      Mark, plenty of people have suggested that before her conversion Leah was an unusually converted atheist too. Perhaps given time she’ll turn into a more conventional Catholic or for that matter a more conventional atheist, but I wouldn’t count on it.

      • Mitchell Porter

        Absolutely. Leah was a secular rationalist with transhumanist leanings, then she discovered that she was able to entertain an identity like God = Morality = A person, and now she’s trying out Catholic philosophy and culture. Catholicism has considerable diversity in its ranks, but it does also have a catechism, and I would expect a free-thinker concerned with truth to eventually find it impossible to just consent to that catechism in its totality. I think Leah’s natural intellectual destination lies somewhere outside both conventional scientific materialism and all known human religion, in some form of philosophical metaphysics; maybe something new, maybe something from history.

    • Brandon B

      She converted for reasons of moral metaphysics (“Morality loves me”), not particular moral rules. Accepting that there is a God at all is the big first step. Discerning and accepting what he says on particular issues must come second.

  • @b

    Mark, since this is a post about courage, virtue, and goodness, let’s charitably assume “the most unconverted convert to catholicism” (Leah) is –at least– as fair and empathetic as “a MORE converted convert”. And as per the observations you list, demonstratively more so.

  • Chris

    Catholic dissidents are an interesting bunch. They are essentially bred in academia, and some of their b.s. trickles down to the masses who are unlucky enough to stumble upon their books. Then there’s the non-practicing “Practicing Catholics” like John Carroll and Garry Wills, pseudo-academics in their own right, but each mainly acting the part for the public of the educated layman who is enlightened enough to “dissent” from de fide Church teaching. Such people constitute the best argument I can think of for a return to the more liberal exercise of the Church’s power of excommunication.

    I must admit I do not understand why such people continue to take the name of Catholic, and continue to go to Mass, etc. Do they remain Catholic for solely aesthetic reasons? It all reminds me of Savanna Samson’s dogged insistence that she was a practicing Catholic, while simultaneously she was a practicing porn star.

    • Claude

      Some guy on the internet named Chris calls Garry Wills, Professor Emeritus of History at Northwestern, Pulitzer Prize winner, prolific writer of books and essays, etc., etc., a “pseudo-intellectual,” apparently on the ground that Wills is not an authoritarian like Chris. If you, Chris, do not understand why Wills remains a Catholic you might read his book on the subject.

  • Pattsce

    This exact issue is what drove me to virtue ethics to begin with. I tended to, probably because I’m kind of a strange optimist, to always see some sort of “good” in every conceivable intended action — even the most terrible of actions. This always pissed my friends off a little bit, I think. Ending up on the defensive, I might say something like, “Of course rape is wrong; I’m not saying it’s not. I’m just saying that there was Something Good about why and how he committed the rape.” Even if I didn’t realize it, I was always of the opinion that there is an underlying goodness to every action which is either perverted or aimed toward an actually good end.

    I came here not just to note the significance of this issue for me. I wanted to point out that Philippa Foot discusses this is detail in her famous “Virtues and Vices” essay (not the whole book, just the essay). You can read it here: http://books.google.com/books?id=E4GFUsscp5EC&printsec=frontcover&dq=virtues+and+vices&source=bl&ots=D9iN8Wvw8R&sig=v2QzAjLxlXZJ3JE_R7S01g3bpRE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=i6IgUPPVK6XY2QW_5YG4Bg&ved=0CDYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=virtues%20and%20vices&f=false

    Specifically, her discussion of this issue begins on page 14 (Part III). I’ve taken this from another book summarizing Foot’s argument: “In the cases of courage and benevolence being displayed in bad pursuits, what we should say (according to Foot) is that although courage, benevolence, etc., are indeed displayed They Do Not Operate As Virtues in these cases. Although courage is By Nature a virtue, things do not always operate according to their natures. Analogously, a solvent, by nature, dissolves in water – but there can be special circumstances that prevent it from doing so.”

    I thought this might be helpful to the discussion. Also, any chance I can get to plug Philippa Foot, I take it.

    • MumbleMumble

      I realize this is getting off-topic, but what is your response to someone asking the follow-up question of what exactly is the Something Good in the why and how a rape is committed?

      • Pattsce

        Well, a rapist, depending on the circumstance, might have to overcome his own fear and display what could be labeled “courage,” etc. This is similar to the discussion going on here. That is, a terrorist no doubt has to steady his nerves and exhibit incredible self-control before he commits terrible murders. A rapist may have to do the same.

        Now, I am Obviously not defending rape, and I hope it doesn’t come across that way. It’s one of the most terrible things in the world. So is murder. I just mean that the characteristics that rapist or murderer can exhibit look Something Like virtue. I think this can be shown if we consider different types of rapists and murderers. That is, I think a rapist or murderer who is clever, patient, and tenacious is much more impressive than a rapist or murder who accidentally just falls in to his crime.

        Think of the man who faces another man head on and murders him with his bare hands versus a man who cowers away and murders the man when his back is turned. They’re both murderers and both should be punished, but one is clearly exhibiting some kind of honorable or virtuous characteristic, while the other is just weak or cowardly. This, I think, is why we can make heroes (even if they are flawed) out of the former type of bad guy but never out of the latter.

        But I did say that I think there is some sort of “good” in Every intended action. I should qualify that. I just meant (and I usually could not explain what I meant when I said it back when) what I think Aquinas meant when he said good is to be sought and evil avoided. That is, I think every intended action is driven by a desire for Some sort of good. When the rapist rapes he is seeking an underlying good thing: power and/or pleasure. The very underlying desire to have power or feel pleasure are good things. They are healthy drives: drives that are necessary to succeed as human beings.

        The rapist no doubt can be seen (and probably sees himself) as someone on some sort of conquest. He has won his prey when he succeeds. I think the drive to win, to succeed, to have power, is generally healthy and good. It is what is needed to flourish as almost any species. It’s generally just a matter, I think, of how that drive is used. In the case of the rapist, it is obviously used incorrectly. In the case of the hunter or warrior, it is obviously used correctly. But the energy underlying the actions are what I’m getting at, and it’s that energy that I would call good.

        • Pattsce

          I hate seeing grammar errors and not being able to edit posts. It takes quite a bit of patience to not get annoyed by it.

  • dominic

    Distinguish bravery and courage. The title nicely points out that “bravery” is value-neutral. I can also gather from the various comments that courage has something to do with virtue (for some – it is a cardinal virtue). You can praise or admire a person for actions that are BRAVE but it still depends upon your moral categories whether those same actions can be considered COURAGEOUS. Based on my sense of morality, I will say terrorists are brave but they are a long way from having the virtue of courage. Their own moral codes will tell them that their actions are both brave and courageous.

    • Tim

      Dominic, I’ve always thought of bravery as animal fearlessness, as it were, and courage as the virtue that enables us to overcome fear. By drawing the distinction between bravery and courage in that place, though, I’d say terrorists can still have courage. Why not admit that even bad people can have good qualities? I’m with Pattsce – only good things enable us to act at all, even when we act toward bad ends.

      • leahlibresco

        I like this distinction.

      • Kristen inDallas

        Fearlessness does not require bravery, as there was never any fear to conquer in the first place. My 2-yo son is fearless, but he is neither brave nor courageous. For me the distinction is bravery = getting over my fear of others to do what I need to do, courage = getting over my fear of self to do what I need to do. That would put bravery as actions made despite fear of bodily injury, despite fear that someone may not like what I say, despite fear that I may lose everything I care about (and bravery is not a small thing). Courage requires being willing to lose my self, what makes me “me.” Actions taken despite the fear of having to change my mind, or admit that I’m wrong, change the way I act, or put my will above my want – that’s what real courage is to me.

  • Kristen inDallas

    I love your posts and I absolutely agree with you that loving someone, anyone in any way has the seeds of something good to it. It absolutely takes an act of courage to love someone (as friend family or lover) because all those types of love require giving of the self in a way that defeats self-ism and arrogance/pride and is in that sense a virtue.
    However, the act of loving, and the act of coming out are not the same thing. Sure for some, those things happen around the same time and have a way of reinforcing each other, but they aren’t the same. One is giving oneself emotionally to another human being and trusting in that person to care for us as we would care for them. The other is applying a label to my way of being to make it easier for people to put my love in one particular box or another. I am going to give Mr. French the benefit of the doubt and assume that when he says there is no courage in “coming out” he means specifically the act of applying the all-to-easy label that masks a whole host of competing emotions, desires and will. I will assume through charity (even though I don’t know the guy) that he does not diminish the courage it takes to love another person (even one of the same sex) for which you have laid out a very beautiful argument.

  • I find French’s argument odd my self. But on the more general question, I wonder if perhaps this question is getting clouded by not distinguishing three very different kinds of issues.

    (1) Simulacra: At least some virtue ethicists (Aquinas, for instance) hold that one of the ways vices can be opposed to virtue is by false resemblance. The most obvious example is the relation of pride to magnanimity: they both push toward excellence and eminence, to such an extent that they can be confused, or that the name for one can be given to the other when speaking loosely, but pride lacks the appropriateness and order that prudence gives to magnanimity. So, for instance, one of the worries raised on this topic is that these so-called examples of ‘courage’ are more plausibly seen as examples of a simulating vice.

    (2) Excess: If one holds to a doctrine of the golden mean, then every virtue will share material with its corresponding vices of excess. (‘Excess’ in this context doesn’t necessarily mean excess in quantity but exceeding reasonable bounds in any way.) Thus courage and recklessness, for instance, are very similar to each other: the one is just within reasonable bounds while the other is not. This means that some things that in one context will be reckless will in another context be courageous, because circumstances can change what’s reasonable (to put it in extreme terms, leaping in front of traffic to save a child is very different from leaping in front of traffic to grab a penny on the ground, even though both involve leaping in front of traffic without regard for one’s own safety).

    (3) Value-Neutrality: It’s usually recognized that acts of virtue are can be nonvirtuous — virtue doesn’t guarantee infallibility, but, to use Jane Austen’s term, constancy; it’s a disposition, and its acts can go astray. (This, of course, part of Foot’s point in the comment by Pattsce above.) When we morally deteriorate, move from virtue to vice, precisely one of the things that can happen is for the acts of the virtue to be misdirected; this starts a shift from virtue to simulating vice. It’s an old, sad story: one’s good qualities become one’s bad qualities without one ever having noticed. Precisely one of the things that makes prudence important in Aristotelian virtue ethics is that it can block this. But these are usually seen as morally bad. The big question on this subject (it’s a difficult question and I don’t really know any completely plausible answer) is whether there can be consistent nonvirtuous acts of virtue which nonetheless don’t shift your virtue in the direction of vice because even though they are not consistent with full virtue, they are nonetheless consistent enough. I actually wonder if there are any general principles here; perhaps it depends on which virtues we are talking about and on external circumstances.

    • Pattsce

      I think all of this is quite right and is very helpful. There seem to be different kinds of bad people in the world. People who do bad things badly and people who do bad things well. In the first category you’d put street thugs who steal the first chance they get. In the second, you could put criminal geniuses who con, fake, outsmart, and outpatient their targets. What’s most interesting about this, I think, is that you would Never want to have dinner with someone in the first category, while you would probably not have a problem with it in the second category. In the first category, I think, the person is awful, and his actions are awful. In the second category, only his actions are awful. I think this is why the characters in those Ocean’s 11 movies are enjoyable. They are good people who have done bad things.

      Likewise, I think this is what is so difficult about homosexuality. Homosexuals are generally (very) good people who do bad things. Not all, of course, but most I know are generally lovely people. This is what makes talking about sexual ethics so difficult in general. It is very difficult talking about the action without talking about the character of the person committing the action.

  • Tom

    Is it “more” courageous to make a snap decision that you know puts you in a tight spot but you do it anyway because “it’s the right thing to do” or to spend considerable amount of time building up your character such that these moments don’t happen – and the “the right thing to do” doesn’t (in your mind) come at a cost because of all the “character training” you’ve done? Biblically: was it more courageous for Job to remain steadfast towards God because he was a good man or for Saul to preach the Good News that would get him killed because of his “blinding conversion”?

  • R.C.

    I don’t think there’s any doubt here.

    Folk who experience same-sex attraction, who live amongst persons for whom the experience of that attraction represents a stigma, who admit that attraction and run the risk of stigma for the sake of honesty or even activism, thereby exhibit courage.

    I don’t see any reason why one should deny a person’s exercise of a virtue, even when it was in service of a misguided cause. Are we to argue that not a single Nazi soldier on all the battlefields of World War II was ever brave? Lewis himself wouldn’t have believed that.

    No. Virtue is often placed in service of ends which aren’t entirely virtuous. French is well-intentioned, but he has it wrong, here.

    • We need to make careful distinctions.

      Nazi soldiers weren’t Nazi soldiers. They weren’t by-and-large fighting for the Nazi regime, but for Germany and the love of their homeland, or for their comrades. That – in itself – is virtuous. The analogy fails right where it needs to stand.

      A better analogy is whether a man can courageously break into someone’s house. There is a long tradition that says no, because (following Aristotle and Aquinas) virtues are the middle grounds between two vices. Bravery falls between rashness and cowardice or timidity, you might say. Breaking into a house does not display bravery because the risk is not taken on for a good cause; rather, it displays rashness, which is something like bravery in that it requires a defiance of fear, but is different because it does not calculate moral values and/or practical needs adequately.

      In like manner, “coming out” is not a courageous act because it fails to properly calculate moral values and practical needs. There is not usually an actual need to inform others of one’s sexual inclinations, perceptions, etc.. Well-adjusted people don’t typically go around telling people about such things unless it becomes directly relevant, as in, “Hey baby, let’s get it on,” or maybe some locker room banter. The perceived need is almost certainly a neurotic desire for approval. Obeying that does not make a courageous act; rather, resisting our own neuroses in order to behave rationally comes much closer to embodying fortitude.

      Secondly, “coming out” fails morally in that it is irrationally ordered. The act identifies the comer-outer (?) with what is objectively sinful and disordered. It is irrational enough to identify oneself very strongly with a perfectly healthy and legitimate thing, like a particular rock band. Someone who identifies himself principally as a “dog-lover” or a “vegan” has disordered what should be secondary things and made them primary. Someone who identifies himself as “homosexual” does the same thing with sodomy. We do not have here a genuine act of courage or fortitude, but of rashness – akin to the guy who gets up the guts to break into the house.

      Now, all that said, the act of “coming out” usually entails hardships that become opportunities to endure criticism and otherwise to bear wrongs patiently. Those individual acts certainly entail courage or fortitude.

      I am not here saying – before anyone else jumps on it – that gay people can’t have virtue. That is falling into the same double mistake that people with homosexual tendencies often make about themselves: firstly, identifying themselves with a solitary (and disordered) aspect of their personality and then organizing everything else around that (their clubs, neighborhoods, clothing, church membership, aspirations, etc.); secondly, it does another *pars pro toto* by deducing that because the act of “coming out” isn’t courageous per se, that none of their acts can have that or other virtues. Nobody is saying that.

  • Yvain

    If coming out as gay took courage on Monday, but was merely very hard and “audacious” on Tuesday, what would you expect to be different on those two days?

    • leahlibresco

      Ah, nice question. 🙂

      On Monday, I expect people who came out despite the difficulty would be willing to universalize the action they took and on Tuesday they wouldn’t. This points to more of a subjective, person-level distinction between bravery and brazenness than something baked into the act.

      • Brandon B

        What do you mean by “universalize the action”? Is that something like Kant’s idea of imagining everyone else taking the same action?

        • leahlibresco

          Yup. The brazen bank robber presumably wouldn’t universalize bank robbery.

          • Brandon B

            So when you say that gays wouldn’t universalize their actions on Tuesday, is that shorthand for a moral analysis, i.e. their actions are bad therefore everyone else shouldn’t do it, or shorthand for a self-interest analysis, i.e. if everyone did this did my interests would suffer (or something else…)? And, whichever answer you choose, how does that reveal something about the nature of courage?

            If 1) universalizing your action is really a matter of believing that your action is good, and 2) people universalize courageous actions, then courageous actions are necessarily ones whose actors think they are good actions. In that case, it would still be possible that the actors would mistakenly believe their actions are good, yet actually be courageous when doing them (which is the conclusion that you reach, in opposition to David French’s conclusion). Corollary: coming out as gay is courageous if you believe that doing so is good.

            Notice, however, that both 1) and 2) are true on both Monday and Tuesday, which would mean that coming out as gay is courageous on both days. What really separates the two days?

      • I have a feeling this is getting at Kant. Kant’s ethics are fairly antithetical to Christian ethics. It amazes me that Christians so often rely on him.

      • Yvain

        It’s an excellent question! Whoever came up with that formulation was a genius 🙂

        But it seems like a red flag that it results in reducing a question that seems (from these comments) pretty controversial into a formulation with an obvious empirical right answer (yes, all the gays I know endorse other people coming out as gay, except in special cases like where they’re in a theocracy and would be killed). I worry the original question (“Is it courageous?”) is meaningless in the sense that it underdetermines what empirical question it maps to, and the only point of discussing it is for different groups to win points for their side by mapping it to the appropriate question that lets them claim the fuzzy-sounding word “courage”.

        • leahlibresco

          I think that’s a pretty likely possibility. That’s why I try to be pretty liberal about admitting my enemies have a claim on a ‘good’ word. I wanted to hit this topic mainly because using ‘brazen’ instead of ‘courageous’ seems of a piece with not being able to imagine that the world feels coherent to people on the other side. To have a good disagreement, I think you need to understand that so you can look for how the error is hard for them to spot and then point it out to them. (Or, you know, notice that the beam was in your eye). This kind of “all virtues are too good for my enemies” rhetoric seems like a good trigger to notice that you are being useless in a fight.

      • I don’t think that’s a reliable way to tell the difference, because courageous acts on the breaking-point-of-every-virtue definition aren’t necessarily obligatory.

        For example giving up your seat in a lifeboat for someone else is courageous but clearly not universalizeable, or else you would have some kind of rapid rotation system with everyone jumping in and out the boat until the weakest die. Which would be a cool idea for the behavior of some sci-fi alien race in a story for people who buy evo-psych, but not really a good model of ethical behavior.

  • Ok, so here’s my two cents. It’s a tangled issue, so let’s untangle carefully.

    Firstly, let’s be clear on what a virtue is. St. Thomas (e.g. ST I, Q. 123, a. 1; inter al.) piggybacks on Aristotle’s working definition of virtue as “that which makes its possessor good, and renders his work good.” Taking that on face value, homosexual acts as such cannot really be construed as virtuous. “Coming out” could be, in as much as we think of it as “living with integrity,” but that connection is pretty dubious. Publicly proclaiming an urge after secretly acting on it does not really create integrity. We do lots of thinks secretly and with integrity (a priest hears confessions, for instance; and we plan surprise parties; or even manage our finances with a high degree of discretion), and a man might very publicly proclaim actions of terribly dis-integrity (bullying his neighbor, swindling an old lady, whatever – the act of publicly proclaiming the deed, of boasting of it, in no way creates integrity). The restoration of integrity requires a repudiation of a sin, not an embrace of it.

    Brandon Watson’s point about simulcra is very important here. Not caring about the good opinion of good people is not, for instance, the same thing as bravery – rather, it is a simulcrum that we might call callousness. It is different than making a moral stand in spite of the painful rejection weathered by cherished people one knows to be basically good and yet mistaken. This was the position of St. Thomas More – he did not disregard the opinion of every decent soul in England, he did not decide his reputation was worthless. The loss of both was very painful to him, and fortitude was needed to endure the loss so he could serve something higher, more important – the good opinion of God.

    That said, “coming out” may involve all sorts of hardships, which might each be borne with real fortitude. That is, insults might be borne patiently, abandonment bravely, and so on. All that involves fortitude.

    We also have to be careful to avoid thinking of sin as rule-breaking and virtue as point scoring. Sin and vice really decompose our personality, making virtue and goodness more and more difficult. For this reason, it is hard to imagine someone long taking the moral high ground (a virtue) in defense of a vice. Eventually, something gives. And in fact, this is what we see. People who defend wicked behavior – I am thinking of abortion, for instance – do not generally do so with patient magnanimity.

  • Mary

    I cannot help but remark that I find it inappropriate that you would use a picture of a Green Day album on this Catholic blog. Just saying. They do not adhere to the vision you are describing, are not religious at all in fact, and it is disrespectful to *them* to use the image of their iconic album (American Idiot) here, and it is disrespectful to the *Church* to use this image to discuss its teachings. That is my personal opinion, at least, to be taken for what it’s worth.