Thursday, March 28, 2019

09 Thomas on the vices

Some thoughts on rules

“The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit; and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise.” Charles Saunders Peirce
Two of us presented yesterday on the subject of scandal. In the discussion that followed there was some pushback regarding mys use of the word "rules" to describe Thomas's concept of rectitude. I understand the reasons for the resistance and even agree with them. That said, I think a lot hangs on what we mean when we say "rule". I don't mean to argue that Thomas himself would have used the word but rather that using the concepts of rules is a useful way to make sense of what rectitude is.

I raised the issue in regards to two quotes from the second part of the second part of the Summa, Question 43.

Here is the first.
A thing is said to be less right, not because something else surpasses it in rectitude, but because it has some lack of rectitude, either through being evil in itself, such as sin, or through having an appearance of evil.
That is from the reply to Article 1, Objection 2. The question it raises is one of interpretation. Thomas says that there are degrees of rectitude. That seems reasonable. We might say, Terri and Kate are both good singers but that Kate is better.

Does the claim that Kate is a better singer require criteria to be meaningful? We could legitimately say either "no" or "yes".  The consequence of saying no is that there isn't much to discuss. If I say, "yes" then I might point at something like range. I might say, Kate has an effective range of three octaves and a bit. When interpreting this statement the larger context will matter. I might think that Kate does everything else Terri can do just as well but she has the added advantage of also having a greater range. On the other hand, I may mean that even though there are some things Terri can do better than Kate, effective range is such an important quality for a singer to have that it trumps all others. The two statements both refer to a criterion but seem to use them in different ways. The first says that range is a desirable characteristic. The second says not just that it's desirable but carries the implication that a wide range is something a singer should have. (I am speaking in general here. There are cases where it would be reasonable to say a singer must have wide range; that would be the case if she were auditioning for the part of Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte.)

In the Confessions Augustine tells although he liked Faustus he did not find him an especially learned man, "He had read some of Cicero's speeches and a very few books of Seneca." (Book 5, Chapter 6). In her book, Perception, Sensibility and Moral Motivation in Augustine, Sarah Byers argues that this implies that Augustine had read a lot of Seneca, which is undoubtedly true. But we could go farther and conclude that for Augustine a learned man should have read a lot of Seneca.

When we start using "should" regarding a criterion a rule is clearly implied. Does it follow, then, that when we just say that Kate has an added advantage that no rule is applied? How we answer this question is going to depend not just on what we mean by "rule" but also about how we feel about rules.

To return to Thomas, when it comes to determining what is a sin we could use rules. It's not the only way. When I was a little boy my parents used to sometimes say, "You could have done better and you know it." Generally they were right as they knew me quite well. If I know I could have been better morally and failed that might reasonably be imputed to me as a sin. The problem is that others rarely know me well enough to say whether I really did as well as I could. Worse, I certainly don't know myself so well. So I use rules as an analytic tool.

We can miss this because the first time we encounter rules they are rules given to us by someone else. "Always wash four hands before eating!" We're often given an "explanation" of this rule in the form of the benefits of good hygiene but the explanation doesn't really justify the rule. The only justification is that our parents want us to do this and they are our parents so we learn how to act in accord with that rule and others. If I had found a scientific study that cast doubt on the efficacy of hand washing it would not have swayed my parents one bit. And this doesn't change. All through life we are given rules we have to follow whether they make sense to us or not. Most speed limits cannot be justified but I get a ticket if I am caught exceeding them anyway. But not all rules are like that. Indeed, most of the rules our parents give us are good rules.

Furthermore, rules aren't always laws. All laws are rules but not all rules are laws. A law should be clear because a law has to be enforced. It isn't just to have a law so vague that people can never be sure whether they are breaking it or not. A speed limit may be arbitrary but it's pretty easy to figure out what 80 km is and whether or not I am exceeding that speed. Which isn't to say that there aren't unjust laws. Those rules which concern sins are laws but not all moral rules need be laws. To quote from my presentation again,
What does it mean to say something “has some lack of rectitude” while still not having perfect rectitude? Prima facie that is contradictory. I think we could help Thomas out by positing two kinds of rules. There are rules that describe what counts as a sin or what might appear as a sin and there are rules that help us improve our character. If we return to our sprinter, we might say that an example of the first kind of rule is always stay in your lane. Whether she succeeds in that is determined by her not stepping over the line. We might add, don’t even step on the line because that way a judge can’t make a mistake and disqualify you. That would be an example of something analogous to what might have the appearance of sin. “Always do your best” is a rule of the second type.
A rule can be vague and still be a good rule. Always consider the feelings of others is a good rule even though it is pretty vague. We might say it's an aspirational rule. If I want to develop a generous disposition towards others that would be a good rule in the sense that applying it as best as I can will help me to very slowly improve my habits.

Of course, some may not like the word "rules". There are lots of words that can be used to describe regular behavior. Peirce, who I quote at the outset, spoke of habits, dispositions and rules. Thomas speaks or ordered and disordered behavior as well as behavior that has or lacks rectitude. There is no reason to abandon such language. But rules have one singular advantage and that is when it comes time to analyze things. If I want to get from I hurt my friend's feelings because I talked about disease without realizing he has just been diagnosed with cancer I need to say something like either, "It's my fault because I should have known," or "This hard on him but it's not my fault because I could not have known." Both statements imply rules and rules like this are essential when it comes to understanding and improving my character. (Character here meaning just something the sum of my good habits minus my bad, if the reader will be charitable enough to assume that I have more good habits than bad.)

PS: I have not spoken of it here because this post is already too long but there is a long argument about the meaning of specific claims versus generalizations behind this. On the surface, "my shoes are black" looks like the same kind of statement as "all human beings are mortal" but they have very different functions. I can't really test the second. I can say something like, "As far as I know every human being in the past eventually died and I assume all the ones alive now and who will be born in the future will die someday," but I don't actually know this.

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