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Posts Tagged ‘Morality’

True happiness and the real meaning of the moral life: see the post here at Jericho Tree by Sr Margaret Atkins.

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This is the accusation from Naomi Wolf, in an open letter to Zero Dark Thirty‘s director, Kathryn Bigelow:

Your film Zero Dark Thirty is a huge hit here. But in falsely justifying, in scene after scene, the torture of detainees in “the global war on terror”, Zero Dark Thirty is a gorgeously-shot, two-hour ad for keeping intelligence agents who committed crimes against Guantánamo prisoners out of jail. It makes heroes and heroines out of people who committed violent crimes against other people based on their race – something that has historical precedent.

Your film claims, in many scenes, that CIA torture was redeemed by the “information” it “secured”, information that, according to your script, led to Bin Laden’s capture. This narrative is a form of manufacture of innocence to mask a great crime: what your script blithely calls “the detainee program”.

What led to this amoral compromising of your film-making?

This is Bigelow’s defence:

I support every American’s 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.

But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.

Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.

This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation.

And this is Slavoj Žižek’s response to Bigelow’s response:

One doesn’t need to be a moralist, or naive about the urgencies of fighting terrorist attacks, to think that torturing a human being is in itself something so profoundly shattering that to depict it neutrally – ie to neutralise this shattering dimension – is already a kind of endorsement.

Imagine a documentary that depicted the Holocaust in a cool, disinterested way as a big industrial-logistic operation, focusing on the technical problems involved (transport, disposal of the bodies, preventing panic among the prisoners to be gassed). Such a film would either embody a deeply immoral fascination with its topic, or it would count on the obscene neutrality of its style to engender dismay and horror in spectators. Where is Bigelow here?

Without a shadow of a doubt, she is on the side of the normalisation of torture.

I saw the film at the weekend, and I think Wolf is right.

It’s not, as Žižek argues, the supposed neutrality of the depiction; some of the most powerful indictments of evil have come about through stark, cool-eyed, non-judgmental descriptions of the reality of what has taken place – bringing the horror into the moral daylight, even without explicit  moral comment.

Nor is it, as Wolf herself writes, the factual question about whether torture was or was not effective in helping the US to locate Bin Laden.

It’s much simpler, and it’s to do with the nature of film and not with arguments about historical truth. It’s the fact that in the dramatic arc of the film, torture is justified; whatever ethical unease we may have as thinkers and moralists, in cinematic terms, we identify emotionally with the protagonist, the heroine, so that the plot device (in this case torture) becomes – whether we like it or not – emotionally justified.

The plot is very simple: men are captured; men are tortured; some of them give information; Maya, the intrepid CIA agent, won’t give up on her hunt for Bin Laden; some of this information, combined with other information, leads Maya to discover the whereabouts of Bin Laden; Bin Laden is killed. Even if your conscience says that torture is always wrong, even if the horrific portrayal of torture in this film actually makes you firmer in your opposition to torture, at an emotional level you can’t help wanting Maya to find him (this is what we do in films, we root for the protagonist, we long to find the ‘MacGuffin‘), and as a viewer caught up in the chase, you can’t help being grateful that the information was finally found – whatever the means.

As a film, it’s gripping and beautifully produced, but still slightly disappointing. There is very little context or background; we never really understand what makes Maya tick; it’s two-dimensional.

Another moral issue, equally important, gets completely ignored in the film: whether it is right to assassinate someone in these circumstances. Everyone in the film, on Maya’s side, wants to find Bin Laden and kill him; no-one asks whether this is justified, morally or legally. I’m surprised and even worried that reviewers don’t seem to have commented on this (but let me know if you have seen a review that has).

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I had a discussion this week about public confession, prompted by the Lance Armstrong/Oprah interview. It wasn’t so much about the cyclist or his past exploits, but the more general question of whether this kind of public ‘confession’ is good for the individual and good for society; and whether there is always a natural and swift movement from repentance to rehabilitation to reconciliation to redemption if we finally take the step of admitting we were wrong. So I don’t want to judge an individual here (I try not to write about people’s misdeeds or misfortune), but to think about the general question.

oprah by story acccents

Is public confession necessary? In Catholic sacramental terms, of course, you never make a public confession – it’s between you and the priest and God, and it’s protected by the seal of the confessional, which is inviolable and absolute. But is it sometimes necessary, or at least important, to admit your wrongdoing in public and to say sorry in public? Yes, I think so. If, for example, you have persistently lied in public, then simply in terms of justice you are (all things being equal) duty bound to correct the untruth, and in terms of the reconciliation you seek with those you may have misled and hurt by your lies, you owe them an apology.

There may be situations where this isn’t prudent, or where the public retraction and apology may do more harm than good, to individuals or to the common good; but in ordinary circumstances, we need to apologise for and try to put right the things that we have done wrong; and if that has involved some great public harm, then the correction and the apology should normally be public.

Does that mean we can always say, categorically, that a public confession or apology is a good thing? Well, to borrow the language of sacramental theology, you need more than just the ‘confession’ (saying to another what you have done wrong) to make a good confession: you also need genuine sorrow in your heart (‘contrition’), and a sincere and practical intention to put things right and avoid wrongdoing in the future (a ‘purpose of amendment’); and – as a supplementary – to take on a penance, as a part of the wider ‘putting right’ and as a help to your ongoing conversion.

And this is also where the tools of moral philosophy are very helpful. At an objective level, if someone has lied in public, then it is good to correct the lie and apologise. The objective moral ‘act’ is, in this case, good: it’s good to tell the truth, it’s good to put things right, it’s good to say sorry. But as well as the objective act, you need to factor in the subjective motivation (the reason why someone has chosen to do this), and the circumstances surrounding the act.

What are the deepest reasons why someone is choosing to do this thing at this time? Are they morally good reasons? And what are the circumstances that colour the whole decision and the act itself? Maybe we can’t know for the moment in a given case; sometimes we are not even aware of our own real motivations. But these are, in one traditional way of understanding moral actions, the three elements that we need to consider when we think about our own moral choices: the objective good or harm that is done (whatever our motivations); our personal motivations themselves; and the circumstances. If we choose to do what is good, for good reasons, in appropriate circumstances, then we have – usually – made a good choice.

I say ‘usually’, because another factor (now it’s getting extra complicated: he said there were three elements, now there are four…) is whether there is also a better or greater good that we could have chosen instead. The Ignatian motto, remember, is to do all things not just for the glory of God, but for the greater glory of God.

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When I told a friend I had been at the 40 Days for Life prayer vigil, she told me I should read Abby Johnson’s book Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Eye-Opening Journey Across the Life Line.

If you haven’t heard of it, here is the blurb:

Abby Johnson quit her job in October 2009. That simple act became a national news story because Abby was the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas who, after participating in her first actual abortion procedure, walked across the road to join the Coalition for Life.

Unplanned is a heart stopping personal drama of life-and-death encounters, a courtroom battle, and spiritual transformation that speaks hope and compassion into the political controversy that surrounds this issue. Telling Abby’s story from both sides of the abortion clinic property line, this book is a must-read for anyone who cares about the life versus rights debate and helping women who face crisis pregnancies.

In many ways it’s a simple story, simply told. She’s young, idealistic, naive, and a little bit damaged; she ends up working for Planned Parenthood almost by accident; she’s good with people and good at her job; she’s increasingly uneasy about what she is doing and what the organisation stands for; and this is brought to a head when she’s asked to participate directly in an abortion procedure because they need another pair of hands in the theatre.

It’s not a story of a radical pro-abortion campaigner having a sudden conversion; it’s more about how an ordinary person without strong moral convictions and without a habit of reflection can drift into this world and find themselves standing in a place they don’t really want to be. I was struck by her apparent innocence, her naivety; and then by the courageous way she reacted when she knew she was in the wrong place.

You learn a lot about Planned Parenthood and the reality of day-to-day life in an abortion clinic. You see, in a non-judgmental way, how much of this work is motivated by sincerity and misplaced compassion; and it is a credit to Johnson that she writes with kindness and respect for her former colleagues. You also get an insight into the ongoing development of the pro-life movement in the States, and the genuine charity and concern that motivates those involved in the vigil outside the clinic where Johnson worked.

The drama of her final conversion, and her decision to cross the line and seek help from those on the other side is incredibly moving.

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So this is the week in which Barack Obama came out in favour of ‘gay marriage’, the Queen remained silent (in her address to parliament), David Cameron seemed a little less sure about where this is going politically (despite the renewed commitments of equalities minister Lynne Featherstone), and Mitt Romney reaffirmed his conviction that marriage is between a man and a woman.

In an editorial this morning the Times said this is ‘a cornerstone issue of civil rights’. You can see how this ‘framing’ of the question closes down any serious debate; it turns it into a battle between the good people who are for civil rights and the bad people who are against them; it completely avoids the much more serious and consequential issue of whether this proposed legislation in favour of same-sex ‘marriage’ will actually change the nature of marriage and the family or not, and what the effects of this change will be for individuals and for society. The Times doesn’t acknowledge that you are not just giving an apparent right to gay people, you are also redefining – for every person and for the whole of society - the nature of marriage and the family as it has been almost universally understood.

There is still time to respond to the Government’s consultation – see the link here. And to sign the Coalition for Marriage petition here.

There is no space for lengthy replies on the consultation website – they limit the word count quite strictly. It’s good in some ways, because it means you have to clarify your thoughts and cut out the flannel.

Here is the reply I wrote for the consultation, and sent to my MP:

I am against this proposal for five reasons.

First, it radically transforms the meaning of marriage for all couples (not just same-sex couples) and turns it into simply a committed relationship between any two consenting adults.

Second, it makes different forms of family life equivalent, and disregards the evidence that it is in the best interests of children to be brought up by their own natural/biological parents. Marriage between a man and a woman is the only relationship that allows children to be conceived by their own natural/biological parents and raised in that lifelong family unit, which is why it is given a special status. This is not a prejudice but a natural reality.

Third, this proposal will increase prejudice and intolerance against those who believe and teach that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

Fourth, it drives a wedge between civil and religious views of marriage, which can only harm society. At present there is a single understanding of marriage, shared by both religious and non-religious people, but celebrated in different contexts (civil or religious).

Fifth, this proposal has been ‘forced’ onto the political agenda; it was not in any party manifestos; it is not a pressing political issue for most people; and 70% of people support the traditional understanding of marriage (according to a recent poll).

[This is slightly over the consultation word count, so I had to cut a couple of phrases - I can't remember which!]

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Are you, at least in relation to most of the human population, WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic)? Then it’s likely that culturally and politically you are a left-leaning liberal whose highest values are autonomy, self-realisation, social justice and fairness. And you are probably suspicious when people appeal to religion, human nature or the well-being of any non-inclusive group to justify their values and political agenda.

David Goodhart reviews The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

Haidt is a liberal who wants his political tribe to understand humans better. His main insight is simple but powerful: liberals understand only two main moral dimensions, whereas conservatives understand all five. (Over the course of the book he decides to add a sixth, liberty/oppression, but for simplicity’s sake I am sticking to his original five.)

Liberals care about harm and suffering (appealing to our capacities for sympathy and nurturing) and fairness and injustice. All human cultures care about these two things but they also care about three other things: loyalty to the in-group, authority and the sacred.

As Haidt puts it: “It’s as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning.” This does not mean that liberals are necessarily wrong but it does mean that they have more trouble understanding conservatives than vice versa.

The sacred is especially difficult for liberals to understand. This isn’t necessarily about religion but about the idea that humans have a nobler, more spiritual side and that life has a higher purpose than pleasure or profit. If your only moral concepts are suffering and injustice then it is hard to understand reservations about everything from swearing in public to gay marriage—after all, who is harmed?

Haidt and his colleagues have not just plucked these moral senses from the air. He explains the evolutionary roots of the different senses from a close reading of the literature but has also then tested them in internet surveys and face to face interviews in many different places around the world.

Morality “binds and blinds,” which is why it has made it possible for human beings, alone in the animal kingdom, to produce large co-operative groups, tribes and nations beyond the glue of kinship. Haidt’s central metaphor is that we are 90 per cent chimp and 10 per cent bee—we are driven by the “selfish gene” but, under special circumstances, we also have the ability to become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives.

One of my most politically liberal friends read this book and declared his world view to be transformed. Not that he was no longer a liberal but now “he couldn’t be so rude about the other side, because I understand where they’re coming from.” This will be music to Haidt’s ears as the book was written partly as an antidote to the more polarised American politics of the past 20 years, marked by the arrival of Bill Clinton and the liberal baby boomers onto the political stage.

The American culture wars began earlier, back in the 1960s, with young liberals angry at the suffering in Vietnam and the injustice still experienced by African-Americans. But when some of them adopted a style that was anti-American, anti-authority and anti-puritanical, conservatives saw their most sacred values desecrated and they counter-attacked.

Some conflicts are unavoidable and Haidt is not suggesting that liberals should stop being liberal—rather, that they will be more successful if instead of telling conservatives that their moral intuitions are wrong, they seek to shift them in a liberal direction by accommodating, as far as possible, their anxieties.

I’m not sure about this. It suggests that those on the right – politically and culturally – have a bigger, better, clearer and richer view of the complexity of human life and motivation, and that those with a liberal mentality focus on too narrow a range of social values. But if a more naturally conservative thinker fails, say, to be troubled by income disparity or the possession of first-strike nuclear weapons, doesn’t this reveal a moral blind-spot or a failure to recognise certain fundamental social values? Or at least, wouldn’t someone on the left think that?

It also suggests that those on the left are less likely to be religious – and we disproved this in a recent post.

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I gave a talk about baptism this weekend at a retreat, and by sheer coincidence/providence I happened to visit – for the first time ever as an adult – the church of my own baptism in west London. I knew it was there; I’d just never made the time to go and find it.

The talk was part of the wonderful Expression 2012 - a retreat for young people in Salisbury, now in its third year. The topic I had been asked to speak about was ‘living your faith in the world’. So instead of making up my own list of ‘spiritual resources’ that could be helpful for any young Catholic trying to live their faith, I spoke about the ‘resources’ that the Church herself gives to each one of us at our baptism: a set of godparents (representing the support of the whole Church), a creed (representing the richness of the whole Catholic faith), a baptismal robe (representing our new-found dignity as a children of God and the purity of heart that we hope to preserve), and a baptismal candle (representing the light and love of Christ).

I know we are given many other things as well, but these very concrete and visual gifts gave me an opportunity to talk about some of the habits that make living one’s faith easier and more joyful than it might be, and make it less likely that we will lose it: trying to find Catholic friends and groups that will support you; reading the bible and learning about your faith; trying to live by your Catholic values and be a person of kindness and charity; and coming to know the love of Christ in a personal and intimate way through prayer and the sacraments.

So baptism was on my mind this weekend, but not particularly in a personal way. Then I got a lift back to London with a friend, who dropped me off at Gunnersbury station. Then I find that the tube is closed for the weekend, and there is the dreaded bus replacement service in its place. I try to ‘relax into’ the ordeal, as I’m in no rush to get back. The bus comes, and it drops everyone off at Turnham Green station to pick up the District Line. And there, directly opposite the station, is the Anglican church where I was baptised 45 years ago! St Michael and All Saints, Bedford Park.

It was incredibly moving to step inside for the first time in all these years, especially after the reflection at the weekend, and after being very touched by the adult baptisms in  Westminster Cathedral at the Easter Vigil. This is the place where my Christian faith began – where I was clothed in Christ all those years ago, cleansed from original sin, adopted as a child of God, incorporated into Christ’s body the Church, and made a sharer in the life of the Most Holy Trinity. I had a good look at the font – I assume it was the one in use back in the ’60s – and said a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving for the grace of baptism, and for the faith of my parents and godparents that brought me there.

It’s a beautiful and highly distinctive church – see the image above. The font is at the back, with an enormous ‘lid/cap’ (technical term please?) hanging from the ceiling. I pushed it aside a couple of inches to see inside, but then became terrified that the whole contraption would collapse around me.

The church seems to be very Anglo-Catholic, but I’m not very good at telling these things: the seven windows in the east wall depict the seven sacraments; there are votive candles and Stations of the Cross; a tabernacle above the high altar in the sanctuary; and even a statue of St Joan of Arc!

In case anyone is confused – my parents were both Anglican when I was born, hence my baptism here at the Anglican parish church in Turnham Green (off Chiswick High Road).

I’m always telling parents to celebrate the anniversary of their children’s baptisms each year, with as much festivity as they would their birthdays. It was good to remember my own baptism this weekend.

[Update: I just found a photo of the baptismal font on Flickr! Here it is:]

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You might be sick to death of media discussions about same-sex marriage, but just in case you need a bit more background and food for thought, here is the latest briefing paper from Catholic Voices. (There is a link to the paper in the 5th paragraph here.) Despite the ‘Catholic Voices’ label, it doesn’t try to argue against redefining marriage from a religious point of view; instead it appeals to a vision of how marriage as presently understood serves the common good of society – for people of no faith as much as for people of faith; and it argues that redefining marriage will harm the whole of society and not just the religious groups that might be promised some kind of ‘exemption’.

Here are a few choice paragraphs. First, on the implications of the redefinition for society as a whole:

It is also inadequate to assert, as does the gay rights lobby Stonewall, that “if Roman Catholics don’t approve of same-sex marriage, they should make sure they don’t get married to someone of the same sex.”  The question of whether marriage should be redefined such that its meaning and nature cease to be conjugal is a one which affects the whole of society; and a matter on which all people – whether gay or straight, married or unmarried, religious or unreligious – are entitled to express a view.  Marriage has an intrinsic cultural and social meaning – a conjugal meaning – which is not specific to religious understandings of marriage, although religion gives it extra meaning. Whether entered by the religious or the civil route, marriage is marriage; its intrinsic conjugal meaning will need to be rejected in order to allow same-sex marriage.

Second, on the impoverished vision of marriage being presented in the re-definition:

When the Prime Minister, David Cameron, last year addressed his party’s conference, his justification for legalising gay marriage differed from that of his Equalities Minister. “Yes, it’s about equality,” he said, “but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other.” This frame allowed him to claim that he did not support gay marriage “despite” but “because of” being a Conservative.

Similarly, the liberal-conservative Economist asserted that “the real nature of marriage … is a binding commitment, at once legal, social and personal, between two people to take on special obligations to one another.” The magazine went on to ask: “If homosexuals want to make such marital commitments to one another, and to society, then why should they be prevented from doing so while other adults, equivalent in all other ways, are allowed to do so?”

This same truncated thinking underlies the Government’s consultation paper, which gives as one of its “principles for change” the following statement: “The Government recognises that the commitment made between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, in a civil partnership is as significant as the commitment between a man and a woman in a civil marriage.”

These definitions of marriage as merely an expression of commitment between two individuals are severely truncated: as Archbishop Vincent Nichols has pointed out, “equality and commitment do not amount to marriage”. The quotes above make no reference to the key element in the conjugal understanding of marriage which has permeated our culture and history and which – as our poll shows – remains widespread. Unlike the Prime Minister, most people see marriage as a union of a man and a woman for the sake of the bearing and nurturing of children (even if children do not always result). This conjugal understanding of marriage is not just marriage’s real meaning; it is also the reason it is respected and promoted by the state.

Then a passage about the importance of marriage for the common good:

Marriage’s importance to society rests on three premises:

  1. The family is the founding unit of civil society
  2. At the heart of the family is the sexual union of a man and a woman given to each other for their sake and for the good of their children;
  3. Marriage provides the ideal, irreplaceable environment for the raising of children, who benefit psychologically, emotionally, and in countless other ways by being brought up by their mother and father.

Marriage has many “goods” – emotional commitment and stability among them. But the reason the state promotes marriage is because of its link to, and benefits for, children. These benefits are inextricably bound up with the conjugal union of man and a woman, who become mother and father to the children they generate. Other arrangements for bringing up children are not promoted and legitimised by the state because, however loving the carers, they are far less beneficial. Children brought up by divorced or single parents, by adopted parents or by relatives, by same-sex couples or in foster homes, are all missing something essential to their well-being; and that is why society (and the state) do not promote and institutionalise such arrangements. For while there are bad marriages and bad families, and sad cases where children are abused by their parents, the overwhelming, unchanging norm is that a child raised by his or her mother and father stands the best chance in life. It is not simply the presence of two parents of opposite genders, but the presence of two biological parents, that best supports children’s development – and this is something recognised, as our survey shows, by 84 per cent of British people.

Although marriage is indissolubly linked to children, it is not simply a means for procreation. Couples who cannot for some reason reproduce can still be married: both Church and state accept that a marriage exists as long as it can be consummated – that is, as long as the behavioural conditions for procreation can be fulfilled.

Marriage is singled out and promoted by state, religion, and civil society, because it serves a far-reaching social good – the welfare of children. No compelling case exists for the state recognising same-sex (or other, non-marital) relationships in the same way as it supports marriage.

And finally, on how a redefinition would impact on everyone, and not just on the gay couples who would choose to ‘marry’ in this way:

One thing is clear: the redefinition which the Government proposes would require the state renouncing the conjugal understanding of marriage. Because society takes its cue from laws and the state, that redefinition will send a clear message that the state no longer holds to that conjugal understanding. The implication will be that the union of husband and wife is not, after all, a privileged context for the upbringing of a child. No kind of arrangement for the rearing of children can any longer be proposed by the state (and therefore society) as an ideal.

To suggest otherwise will in time be considered narrow-minded and intolerant. The very terms “husband and wife”, “mother and father”, would need to disappear from public and educational literature to avoid “exclusive” or “intolerant” language. The redefinition of marriage will require the cultural dethroning of the conjugal ideal. This is not a smaller matter for future generations of children, whose interests risk being sacrificed on the altar of an ideological view that same-sex relationships are as worthy as heterosexual ones of being upheld by the state. “Redefining marriage will have huge implications for what is taught in our schools, and for wider society. It will redefine society since the institution of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks of society. The repercussions of enacting same-sex marriage into law will be immense” [Cardinal Keith O'Brien].

Losing the idea of gender complementarity as necessary for children will also have consequences. “Having two opposite-sex parents provides the child with the capacity to relate intimately to both males and females, and to adopt an engendered role from both influences … It is not in any child’s best interests to choose, through a redefinition of marriage, deliberately to deny these facts and then to institutionalise this denial” [Archbishop Peter Smith]. As the columnist Matthew Parris, who is gay, writes: “I am glad I had both a mother and a father, and that as after childhood I was to spend my life among both men and women, and as men and women are not the same, I would have missed something if I had not learned first about the world from, and with, both a woman and a man, and in the love of both.”

Do read the whole text, which partly deals with some of the objections that you might be raising as you read these summary paragraphs. There is a link to the paper in this report.

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A miracle happened on the Piccadilly line on Tuesday evening. They broke the rules. The flew in the face of convention. They boldly went where no man or woman had gone before. They trampled on the strongest known London Underground taboo.

Three strangers had a conversation together.

Notice how carefully I choose my words.

(1) Three: Not one person having a conversation with himself. This happens quite often – through alcohol, insanity, loneliness, frustration, whatever. Not two people getting caught up in conversation. This happens now and then. Maybe I experience this a bit more often because I’m a priest in a clerical collar, which gives an opening. But in this case three individual human beings, sitting on the tube, apparently normal people.

(2) Strangers: All three were strangers to each other. So this isn’t two friends plus another stranger; or three old friends who bump into each other; it’s three people who have never met before. Unless they were plants/actors? Maybe I was on Candid Camera?

(3) Had a conversation together: Not just ‘grunted’ (‘Oh for goodness sake’; ‘what are they playing at’) or ‘exchanged information’ (‘What’s the next station?’; ‘Green Park’) or ‘shared curses’ (no descriptions needed).

Someone threw in the opening gambit, the others dipped their toes in, they felt their way forward hesitantly, and then they went for it and actually talked to each other – for about ten minutes. As normal people would. About where they had been, where they were going, what they were doing. It was remarkable.

At first, being British, what did I feel? Acute embarrassment. A discomfort so deep it was beyond words or reason. I thought, ‘Oh no – they can’t do that! Don’t they know? Where is this going? How can this last?’ As if some natural order had been disturbed; a sense of foreboding. I looked away; I concentrated even more intently on what I was reading.

Then, after about two minutes, when I realised it wasn’t just a dream, I felt an almost dizzy sense of liberation, a gratitude; even a kind of awe in the face of the boundless possibilities that open up to humankind when people realise they can be normal and that they don’t have to play the games. More than an experience of the Emperor’s New Clothes; as if I had secretly believed that the train would crash and even darker things happen if we didn’t follow the rules. (Where did these rules come from? Were they given as an injection when we were seven days old? Something in the water?)

Ten minutes of conversation between three strangers. I had a small part in it, but I wasn’t one of the three main protagonists. It began, inevitably, with an enquiry about where we were; and when the second person couldn’t answer, I threw in ‘Boston Manor’ – and then sank back into my reading.

But now comes the truth. It’s all as I have said, and it was indeed miraculous. It’s certainly the first time in my 45 years that I have witnessed this. But it was the Piccadilly Line; and yes, we were travelling from west to east – in other words, we were coming from the direction of Heathrow.

So perhaps, for the social anthropologists who have been devouring this post, it wasn’t technically part of the Underground system – they will bring up some formal exemption; perhaps, because it’s almost a spur from Heathrow, it counts – in the sociology of urban space – not as a tube line but as an airport lounge; as if the category of ‘train’ or ‘tube’ was somehow suspended for the thirty minutes from Terminals 1,2 and 3 to Earls Court.

In an airport lounge, even in Britain, you are allowed to talk to strangers, even to two or three at the same time; as long as you amble in nonchalantly, and back off at the merest hint of disinterest or disdain. And yes, I admit it, the conversation was about where they had been (on their travels) and where they were going. Or in this case, where they had not been (because someone had missed their plane – it’s a long story…And maybe that’s why it was allowed to develop, because it activated the sub-rule that you can break the rule and talk about recent or impending public disasters; only this wasn’t public but private, but it was felt so intensely that it took on a public dimension).

So maybe it wasn’t a miracle.

But they did talk. And they were complete strangers. And it was the tube!

And I was there to witness it! Something to tell my great nieces and nephews in years to come.

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On Sunday afternoon I met with a group of young adults to talk about the Christian understanding of work. It’s an important topic!

Very often people don’t think about it – even those who have a deep faith. They just go to work and get on with it; and perhaps they bring it to prayer when they are about to lose their job, or when they are seeking a new one. But not much more reflection than that. Or they ‘over-Christianise’ work, and think that as Christians they ought to be doing something that is ‘holy’ (which is half-true), which usually means something that is in the charitable sector or in one of the caring professions – and if they are not, they end up feeling guilty and a bit inadequate about their more mundane job.

So what is the meaning of work for a Christian?

A couple of paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church are very helpful (2427-8):

Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” Work honours the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him.

It can also be redemptive. By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish. Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ.

In work, the person exercises and fulfills in part the potential inscribed in his nature. The primordial value of labour stems from man himself, its author and its beneficiary. Work is for man, not man for work.

Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community.

So there are a number of different motives for human work, different meanings, and they all have their place in the divine plan. One is not more ‘holy’ than another. It’s worth putting them into a more systematic list, and then seeing what each of them means for one’s own job – whatever it is.

Why get up in the morning? Why go to work? Here is the list. We work: (1) to earn money so that we can live and so that we can support our family; (2) to share in God’s work of creation through what we are actually doing; (3) as a way of serving others or contributing to the good of others – directly or indirectly; (4) to honour God by using our gifts and talents and fulfilling our potential; (5) as a way of bringing the Spirit of Christ to bear on ordinary life; (6) as an opportunity for us to grow in holiness; and (7) as a way of sharing in the redemptive work of Christ, above all by accepting the suffering and hardship of work.

Notice how the theology here is both idealistic and realistic at the same time. There is the nitty-gritty of simply needing some cash so that we and our family can live – and that is a good thing, not to be despised. There is the idealism of sharing in God’s creative and redemptive work, of fulfilling our potential, of serving others, etc. But there is also the realism that work is often hard and at many levels unfulfilling, yet it still has a meaning – as an opportunity to grow in virtue and offer up our difficulties to the Father in a spirit of sacrifice and faith.

What’s missing? Perhaps something about how we work, often, simply because we enjoy it (perhaps this comes under ‘fulfilling our potential’), or because we like being with people, or because we have a vision or passion for what we are doing, or because our parents, for example, have pushed us into following a certain career path. Maybe these extra ideas fit into the main list somehow.

And notice how many questions it raises. How do we know what job to take (if indeed we have a choice at all)? What if we can’t find any work? What if our work is destructive (morally? culturally? environmentally?) rather than creative? What if we are not using our talents, but apparently wasting them? What if the work is so hard or degrading that it becomes a form of injustice or oppression? What if we are required to be involved in wrongdoing or illegality – directly or indirectly? Or if we know about others at our workplace who are involved in such things? Is it wrong to be ambitious? Is it wrong to want to do better than others in order to succeed? What if the culture of work is damaging our relationships, our family life, our ability to live our faith? And a thousand other questions – many of which we discussed on Sunday.

I’m not going to try to answer them all here! Maybe there is material for some future posts here…

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We often think that the big lies are the important/damaging ones – and they usually are. But the small lies, and even the ‘innocent’ white lies, can be equally destructive. It’s not just because they can set a pattern of deception that might have greater consequences; it’s also because the core moral decision to deceive or to conceal something apparently trivial often reflects a much bigger background compromise that we are wanting to make.

We justify small lies by saying they are of no real consequence. But if that’s really the case, why do we think that simply telling the truth in this minor matter would be such a difficult option?

Last Night is 6/10 film about a young married couple in New York tempted by infidelity. The husband goes away for a business meeting with a gorgeous and seductive colleague; and that same night his wife bumps into her former French boyfriend who was never really reconciled to their separation. What will they do? What choices will they make?

The ‘will they/won’t they?’ tease is what keeps the slightly dull plot moving forward. But the moral interest, for me, lies in those moments when they have to decide how much truth to tell, or when we realise that something not insignificant from the past has been concealed. Infidelity (don’t worry – I’m not giving the plot away) very often depends on whether or not someone is willing to tell the truth about the ordinary, boring things.

When you are about to tell a small or habitual lie, it’s worth stopping to ask: Why?

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One of the many topics explored at the Theology of the Body conference over the weekend was shame. Not the moral shame we feel when we’ve done something wrong and wish we could undo or hide it; but another kind of ‘anthropological’ shame we feel as an instinctive response to those who treat us as if we were just objects.

Christ raising Adam and Eve

John Crosby explained how in Pope John Paul’s anthropology, we long to be recognised as persons, with an innate dignity and an inner life of our own. This is one part of his ‘personalilst’ philosophy. If someone simply looks at us (we might say stares at us), they don’t get beyond the surface sheen of our body – so we become objectified or ‘instrumentalised’ (as the jargon goes), turned into ‘instruments’ for the use of another – even if they mean no harm – and denied our own personhood and subjectivity.

This happens all the time, and usually it doesn’t matter too much. It does no harm that we are only able to glance at the hundreds of people in the high street, and that we can’t engage with them enough to appreciate their inner beauty. But if someone quite consciously stares at another, looks at them without seeing them as a person, it becomes an intrusion; and this is even more the case if they are being turned through this look into a purely sexual object.

Shame is our natural defence against this intrusion. This is quite distinct from the shame that comes if we are guilty of doing something wrong and desperate to hide our wrongdoing. The ‘good shame’ takes place almost at an existential level, rather than a moral one. It involves an inner withdrawal. To stop myself being turned into an object, I hide myself – physically, emotionally, psychologically and even spiritually. I don’t want to allow the ‘shameless’ look of the other to trap me and reduce me to the sheer materiality of my bodily existence. The shame I experience is much more than a feeling – it is a strategic response, a form of legitimate self-protection.

The goal, ultimately, is to recover that original innocence of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve could stand without shame before each other in their nakedness – truly ‘seeing’ each other in all their personal depths, delighting in their humanity. I don’t mean this literally – there are other important reasons why we are not naturists. But the idea of standing before each other without shame, and of allowing others to come before us without the need to feel this anthropological shame, is part of our redemption and a return to innocence.

There are simpler words to express all this: the need for respect, acceptance, reverence, humility, gentleness, openness, sincerity, etc. Pope John Paul just wants to get behind the language to see why it really matters at the level of his personalist philosophy.

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Very nearly a masterpiece – if you have any doubts about the power of cinema or whether film is the highest form of civilisation known to humankind, you need to see the re-released version of Apocalypse Now on a very large screen straight away.

I kept thinking, ‘How did he do this?’ The cinematography; the set pieces; the editing; the music. It’s breathtaking. It’s a long time since I have giggled with sheer delight at the audacity of  someone’s film-making.

What’s it about? War in general? The Vietnam war in particular? Madness? Morality? The risk of playing at God and thinking someone to be God and knowing that someone is not God? Possibly. Especially in Brando’s speech about the power that lies in the hands of those who are willing to dispense with moral scruples. Or is it about film itself?

This would have been Hitchcock’s answer: Film is not about anything – it’s not the content or meaning that matters – it’s the involvement of the viewer in the unfolding of the film itself, the momentum of desire and longing, the desperate need to know and arrive, and the delayed gratification of a story that is constantly twisting out of view.

It’s only the last half-hour that doesn’t quite work – too slow and too introspective. But then I’m not sure where else Coppola could have gone.

Do see this film on the big screen. It won’t be around for long. Here are the London listings for the next week.

PS – It was a joy to see this at Screen 1 of the Cineworld, Haymarket, just down from Piccadilly Circus, which is a huge old-fashioned screen with its proscenium arch still standing – such a change from the local multiplex.

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How could someone lie about the films they have seen? How could someone pretend to have seen a film that comes up in the dinner-table conversation and expect to get away with it?

I’m not being self-righteous here; I’m not even talking about the ethics of lying. I just wouldn’t have the courage to start nodding my head as someone describes some breathtaking scene from a recent movie, in the knowledge that they might ask me what I thought, or what happened next, or what colour the wallpaper was. Basically, I’m not a good liar, and the terror of being found out overcomes the terror of facing the consequences of telling the truth.

Yet, it seems, four out of five people lie about the films they have seen in order to impress others; and one in three of us claims to have seen the Godfather when the nearest we’ve been to the film is hearing the theme tune in a lift. Ben Child reports about the lovefilm.com research.

Second on the list is the 1942 Humphrey Bogart tearjerker Casablanca, which perhaps explains why so many people seem to be confused about its most famous line. More than one in 10 said they had fabricated a viewing.

In third place was Martin Scorsese‘s Taxi Driver, from 1976. Eleven per cent of people said they had lied about having seen the director’s drama about a mentally unstable Vietnam war veteran. Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Quentin Tarantino‘s Reservoir Dogs rounded out the poll’s top five.

Lovefilm editor Helen Cowley said: “Whether it is a small white lie about having seen a cult classic or nodding along to friends as they recount the infamous horse head scene in The Godfather, there are some films that we just do not want to admit we have not watched.”

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I promise this will be my last Royal Wedding reflection. But here’s the question: Is it ethically acceptable to lipread when two people are having a private conversation? Of course lipreading, in itself, is not wrong – any more than reading a text or listening to someone’s voice. But for the Royal Wedding last weekend, every newspaper and TV station seemed to employ a professional lipreader to ‘listen in’ to the private conversations of the protagonists; but no-one seemed to question the ethics of this.

If someone has a private conversation, even in a public place, do they still have a right to privacy? What’s the difference between lipreading a private conversation and listening in on a phone call? Why, in other words, are we outraged when a national newspaper admits that it has been tapping the phones of famous people, but not when the world’s media decides to ‘listen in’ on these intimate private conversations?

Is it because they take place on the public stage, so the rules of privacy don’t apply? Is it because these people know about the possibility of being ‘heard’, so they are implicitly recognising that their actions are available for public consumption? Is it because the distinction between public and private does not exist anymore? Is it because ordinary life has become a Big Brother studio, and we all accept as part of the ‘social contract’ that every word we speak might be picked up by a hidden microphone?

Don’t worry – I’m not pretending to be outraged myself. I’m just curious about where the ethical line is: What’s public? What’s private? And why is it that we are quite happy for some private truths to be exposed to public scrutiny but not others?

Holly Watt reports on some of the great lines (and here I am, happy to repeat them…):

“You look beautiful,” he told Kate Middleton, as she walked towards him in her Alexander McQueen dress.

“Yes, it looks fantastic, it’s beautiful,” he added, according to Ruth Press, who has been deaf since birth and works as a forensic lipreader.

Prince William also cracked a joke to his father-in-law at the altar before the royal wedding ceremony, saying: “We’re supposed to have just a small family affair”.

The joke by William to Michael Middleton in Westminster Abbey was spotted by Tina Lannin, lipreader for O’Malley Communications.

She also spotted Prince Harry nervously comment ”Right, she is here now”, as Miss Middleton arrived at the abbey.

And Charlie Swinbourne writes about his experience as a lip-reader, and the fallibility of the process:

Reading lip patterns is vital in helping deaf people fill in the words they can’t hear. I’m partially deaf, and I’ve been lipreading ever since I learned to speak. As well as being a vital part of communication, it’s also fun. I’ve lipread couples bickering in restaurants, footballers telling referees exactly what they think of them, and on Friday, the royal wedding.

During a national event at which the protagonists were visible but crucially not audible, hundreds of deaf people, including my partner and I, added our translations to Twitter in real time. We soon found out that several deaf friends of ours had thought ahead and were actually getting paid for it; working for national news outlets, one working for a series of tabloids and another, for a 24-hour news channel and a magazine.

What was funny was just how often the translations differed from each other. For instance, did William tell Kate at the altar “You look – er, you are beautiful“, or did he say: “You look lovely?”Or, as we thought, did he say: “You look stunning, by the way. Very beautiful.” Then there was the Telegraph, which initially reported William as saying: “You look stunning babe!’

The differences in translation proved that lipreading, far from being some kind of super-power deaf people have (and a great gimmick in movies featuring deaf characters), depends heavily – it’s said 70%-90% – on guesswork. I recently visited a lipreading class to test out my skills, and found that even with a lifetime’s worth of experience, there were still words I struggled to make out.

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If you are looking for online resources in bioethics, here are a couple of useful sites (following on from my recent post about the distortion of language in bioethical reporting).

Dolly the Cloned Sheep

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a bioethics page with links to various articles and downloadable pamphlets. The topics include: stem cell research, cloning, genetic enhancement, IVF, eugenics, human dignity, reproductive technology, etc.

The Anscombe Bioethics Centre is the main Christian bioethics institute in Britain. The resources are here (articles, publications, newsletters, etc); and there is a big list of articles and links here at their old Linacre Centre site (I’m not sure if all these articles have been moved over yet).

I also happened to come across this very informative blog last week called Mary Meets Dolly, “A Catholic’s Guide to Genetics, Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology”. The author, Rebecca Taylor, has her own page of links (I can’t recommend them all as I haven’t looked at them all yet…). And this is from her ‘About’ page:

My name is Rebecca Taylor.  I am a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and more importantly, a practicing Catholic. I have been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for five years. I have been interviewed on EWTN radio on topics from stem cell research and cloning to voting pro-life.

All of this began several years ago when I was discussing stem cells and cloning with an older gentleman at a family party.  He was very knowledgeable about biotechnology, but was surprised about many little-known and quite misleading facts.  He asked where I had gathered those facts, and I told him I was reading every pertinent scientific reference I could get my hands on. He looked me in the eye and said, “Young lady, it is not good enough to read, you must do something!”  I found out later he was a former U.S. congressman from California.

Indeed, I began to notice a general lack of understanding about contemporary issues in genetics, genetic engineering, and reproductive technology, issues that have shaped, and will continue to shape, the future of humanity, for good or ill.  I work with professionals whose business is medical genetics, and even they are confused about the pragmatics, not to mention the ethics, surrounding cloning, stem cells, and recent advances in genetic engineering.  If professionals could be confused, I feared that the average Catholic would feel lost amidst the scientific jargon and, unfortunately, the hype.

I decided to start marymeetsdolly.com to try and provide Catholics with solid, pertinent resources and clear, plain commentary so they could be more conversant with the issues proffered by the newest of the “brave new world” movements.

With this website, I hope to take what I have learned (through months of studying the technologies and ethical stances involved) and explain the advances and the issues in terms the person-on-the-street can understand.  With the help of my father, a theologian, I hope to juxtapose and illuminate today’s genetic research and engineering with the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life.

At this site, Catholics can find information to better understand stem cell research, therapeutic and reproductive cloning, genetic testing, and much more.  The Topics section has articles covering various technologies; what is moral, what is immoral.  It also has articles on pertinent topics by other authors.  The Books section has a reading list for those who want to do their own research.  The Links page has a list of websites through which one can keep up to date in this rapidly changing field.  The Glossary page lists important terms and their definitions.  The Church Teaching page has official Catholic Church teaching on reproductive issues and the sanctity of human life.  The Blog has my daily thoughts on new developments and a chance for you to respond.  And my favorite, the Quotes section, has all the verbal gems I have found that say it all.  

On the question of language, see her post about whether our understanding of when human life begins is a matter of belief or of knowledge.

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An article about bioethics in the Times gives a frightening example of the way language can be distorted to misrepresent the truth and skew an ethical argument (last Friday, 11 March, page 3). It makes you wonder whether it’s just lazy journalism, or whether the Times has some particular interest in slanting the ethical debate in these areas.

 

Painting by David S. Goodsell - mitochondria at top right

The article is about a new ‘therapy’ designed to cure mitochondrial failure, which can cause fatal conditions that affect about 100 children in Britain each year. These are the facts, reported in a ‘How it works’ box at the side, and sifted from the body of the article: two embryos are created, both from the father’s sperm, but one from the mother’s egg, and one from a donor’s egg. Two pronuclei are taken from the ‘mother/father’ embryo, which is then discarded. These are then placed in the ‘donor/father’ embryo (from which the pronuclei have been removed), which has healthy mitochondria. This newly ‘created’ embryo is implanted in the mother’s womb and allowed to gestate.

So let’s be clear: an embryo is harvested (I can’t find a better work) of its pronuclei, then discarded, and another embryo is given new pronuclei and allowed to grow. It’s embryos we are talking about. Leave aside for the moment what you think about the personhood of embryos, or their dignity or worth, or whether they have a soul, etc. The scientific point that no biologist would deny is that an embryo is a human life in its very earliest states; a new creature, at the beginning of its life, biologically/genetically distinct from the life of its parents.

Mark Henderson, Science Editor in the Times, does explain all this. But he peppers the article with ambiguous phrases about what is actually happening. First, in the main article, he writes that ‘the treatment involves merging DNA from two fertilised eggs, one from the mother, the other from a donor’ [my italics here and below]. This is strictly true, but it’s a strange way of referring to embryos. It would be much more natural to talk about two embryos rather than two fertilised eggs, and the suspicion is that this is a way of drawing attention away from the reality that embryos are being harvested and discarded.

Second, in a Commentary box also written by Henderson, he writes, ‘The notion of creating a baby with a small genetic contribution from a third parent is bound to strike some people as controversial’. This is a misleading. The mitochondrial DNA in the new embryo will have been indirectly inherited from the donor – in this limited sense the donor makes a ‘contribution’; but it is actually taken from the embryo that has been created from the donor’s egg and father’s sperm. The ‘small genetic contribution’ is not taken from a third parent (which sounds like a benign piece of information), it is taken from a newly created human embryo.

Notice how Henderson is comfortable calling the finally created healthy embryo a ‘baby’, but never refers to the discarded embryo that has had its two nuclei removed as a baby.

Henderson goes on to say in his Commentary that the new procedure adds a fresh dimension to issues of surrogacy and egg donation ‘because a third person will also contribute a small amount of DNA to the baby’. I presume he is trying to say that the third person contributing the DNA is the donor. Once again, it’s true that the mitochondrial DNA is indirectly inherited from the donor, but the ‘contribution’ is made directly by the embryo not the donor.

Then, in the caption underneath the photograph of a baby’s foot held in an adult’s hand, we read that ‘The technique replaces faulty mitochondria from the mother with a healthy form from a second egg‘. This is completely untrue. The healthy mitochondria do not come from an egg, they come from a newly created embryo, which has its pronuclei replaced with the pronuclei from another embryo.

The ‘How it works’ box is both honest and dishonest at the same time: the text says ‘These [pronuclei] are injected into a healthy embryo‘; yet the caption right beside it, under the illustration, says ‘Egg with healthy mitochondria‘. Perhaps Henderson was not responsible for these captions and boxes.

You may think I’m being obsessive about language. It just frightens me how language can be manipulated in a reputable newspaper to distort the truth and mask both the scientific and ethical reality of one of the most serious issues facing our culture. It makes you wonder whether the Times is seeking to promote a controversial scientific procedure rather than just report it and let the facts speak for themselves.

Here is the full Commentary [subscription required]:

The notion of creating a baby with a small genetic contribution from a third parent is bound to strike some people as controversial.

Yet Professor Turnbull’s team, which has developed the new IVF technique, is driven by the noblest of ethical motives: the desire to help families affected by a devastating burden of disease.

If the procedure is approved by Andrew Lansley, it stands to help women like Sharon Bernardi, from Sunderland, who has seen six children die in infancy because they inherited mitochondrial disorder.

When Professor Turnbull published promising results a year ago, she posed for photographs with her son Edward, then 20, who had a mitochondrial condition called Leigh’s disease.

Mr Bernardi died last week. As scientists began to consider whether the therapy should be used on patients, his death serves to illustrate the terrible impact these disorders can have — and the need for prevention.

When weighing the advice they will give to Mr Lansley, the expert panel he has convened will consider the safety and effectiveness of Professor Turnbull’s procedure.

They will want to see evidence that human embryos created this way appear to be normal, as well as the results of animal studies.

The medical benefits will need to outweigh the risks that are always involved when techniques like this move from laboratory and animal experiments into human reproduction. There are also ethical issues to be considered.

The principle that more than two parents can contribute biologically to the birth of a child is already recognised in Britain, as egg donation and surrogacy are legal. The new procedure adds a fresh dimension, however, because a third person will also contribute a small amount of DNA to the baby.

Embryo-rights groups will oppose the technique, because it involves merging two embryos, one of which is destroyed. It will also concern some people who object to manipulating DNA in irreversible ways, even if there is a medical benefit, or who feel it is wrong to subject a potential child to a procedure to which it cannot consent.

Mr Lansley could approve the work himself, but given its controversial nature he is more likely to give MPs a free vote. This would provide the first test of this Parliament’s attitude towards bio-ethics. David Cameron, whose disabled son Ivan died in 2009, is understood to be privately supportive.

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How do you represent evil in literature, art or film? Is it possible to get beyond the surface effects of evil to the malevolent heart, where choices are made and the fundamental moral drama is played out?

I’ve just finished reading Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. (No, I haven’t seen the film yet – I was desperate to read the novel before seeing the film, so I’d come at it fresh and without knowing the ending.) It’s meant to be a study of evil, in the person of Pinkie, the teenage protagonist - but I’m not sure it works. [Minor plot spoilers follow]

Brighton Rock

He certainly does some terrible things, but he comes across to me more like a trapped animal than a moral agent. He’s heartless, he knows he’s doing wrong, but he doesn’t really know what the moral alternatives are as practical possibilities. He’s a bully, living off the strategies he learnt in the school playground. He’s constantly reacting, often with much cunning and forethought, but only once or twice does an almost metaphysical abyss open up before him, and the feint possibility of freedom become a reality.

This is from J.M. Coetzee’s introduction to the Vintage edition:

[In the person of Ida Arnold Greene creates] a stout ideological antagonist to the Catholic axis of Pinkie and Rose. Pinkie and Rose believe in Good and Evil; Ida believes in more down-to-earth Right and Wrong, in law and order, though with a bit of fun on the side. Pinkie and Rose believe in salvation and damnation, particularly the latter; in Ida the religious impulse is tamed, trivialised, and confined to the ouija board.

In the scenes in which Ida, full of motherly concern, tries to wean Rose away from her demonic lover, we see the rudiments of two world-views, the one eschatological, the other secular and materialist, uncomprehendingly confronting each other…

Rose’s faith in her lover never wavers. To the end she identifies Ida, not Pinkie, as the subtle seducer, the evil one. ‘She ought to be damned… She doesn’t know about love.’ If the worst comes to the worst, she would rather suffer in hell with Pinkie than be saved with Ida.

This last point is the most interesting aspect of the book: how love (however ambiguous) might bring you to want to be with someone in the depths of hell, rather than deny that love and lose them. But, in hell, wouldn’t you lose each other too? And are you really doing someone a favour by joining them on that road? Rose is worried that by choosing something ‘right’ (in Ida’s terms) it would be a betrayal of her relationship with Pinkie, of her faithfulness to him. It reminds me of Simone Weil, and her worry that to accept baptism would alienate her from all those who were not baptised.

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A follow-up to Tuesday’s post about creativity and the place of constructive criticism in communities. I happened to read this piece by the philosopher Julian Baggini about the importance of complaining in a society that wants to be just and fair.

Constructive complaints are not just an effective tool for social improvement, they reflect a distinctive capacity we have as human beings for seeing beyond the present to new possibilities. This is the link between complaining and creativity.

Being able and willing to complain is what makes us rational and moral animals, capable of seeing and articulating the difference between how things are and how they should be.

The kind of constructive complaining that Baggini discusses is not the same as simply having a moan. A good complaint always has a moral aspect.

I think most people associate complaining more with moaning, whinging or relatively trivial consumer matters than they do high principle. That’s partly, of course, because as a matter of fact, many of our complaints are just kvetches. We moan as ice-breakers, to bond, to express frustration, or simply to express our values. But as a practical activity, I think complaining has become too associated with rights of contract. We live in an entitlement culture, in which, if anything goes wrong, we look for someone to blame, someone who is legally responsible. Trip up in the street and the thought soon arises: who can I sue? Your insurance company will tell you never to admit responsibility if you hit another car, even though usually one party is responsible.

Too often, complaint is not about principled objection on moral grounds, but opportunistic objection on grounds of self-interest. To rectify this, we need to work on mastering the art of complaint. Constructive complaint requires only two things: that what you are complaining about should be different, and that it can be different. It sounds simple, but too often our protests fail this test. Most commonly, as anyone who deals with public complaints for a living will tell you, many of our objections just don’t get the facts straight. If I had a penny for every time I had been castigated for writing something I never actually wrote, I’d have £823.87 by now (and I can almost hear the next penny dropping as I write).

Wrong complaint comes in numerous other varieties. To take just one, there is the contradictory complaint, whereby our objections demand incompatible things. For instance: complaining that first-past-the-post hands power to parties with only minority support and then complaining when a coalition partner compromises on major issues. You can, of course, complain that the partner has compromised too much on the wrong issues, but to demand no movement on any issue of substance is incompatible with the complaint that governments in the UK should reflect the electorate’s wishes more proportionately.

This example is a good one because it shows how easy it is to complain sloppily, but also how important it is to get the complaint right. There is a lot to object to in the programme of this government, so it matters that we do not waste our energies making ill-informed, contradictory or otherwise mistaken complaints. So we should not listen to those who tell us we should complain less and be more “positive”. Rather, we should make complaints that are principled and thought through. A good society depends on its best complainers.

Jean-Paul Sartre bases his whole existential philosophy on this insight. He uses the language of ‘negativity’. The miracle of human existence is that we are not trapped in the present, we are always looking beyond – not just to what will be, but to what might be, what could be, what should be. We are always conscious of what is ‘not’, and our understanding of the reality in which we are presently immersed is determined by how we envision a reality that has not yet come to be. This reaching into the future is part of what makes us human, and part of our essential nature is to be dissatisfied. It doesn’t mean we are never happy, just that happiness will always (in this life) be provisional.

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What’s the point of studying obscure topics in the arts and humanities when there seems to be no practical purpose or economic benefit for the students themselves or for the society that funds them? Six years ago the then Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, was happy to suggest that public funding should only support academic subjects of ‘clear usefulness’.

Nigel Biggar wonders what universities are for, and gives a beautiful reflection on the poverty of this kind of utilitarian assessment. He explains the importance of the moral education that takes place when we study histories and literatures, religions and cultures, theologies and philosophies, music and drama:

One valuable gift that the arts and humanities make is to introduce us to foreign worlds: worlds made strange by the passage of time; present worlds structured by the peculiar grip of unfamiliar languages; worlds alien to us in their social organisation and manners, their religious and philosophical convictions.

Introduction to these foreign worlds confers a substantial benefit: the benefit of distance from our own world, and thereby the freedom to ask questions of it that we could never otherwise have conceived. In foreign worlds, past and present, they see and love and do things differently. And in reflecting upon that difference, it might occur to us from time to time that they see and love and do things better. So, one precious contribution of the arts and humanities is their furnishing public discourse with the critical resources of an understanding of foreign worlds, resources vital for social and cultural and moral renewal — a renewal that deserves at least an equal place alongside scientific and technological innovation.

He develops this idea and says that it is not just about appreciating other worlds and other people but understanding how to relate to them. This is ultimately a training in virtue:

The arts and humanities not only introduce us to foreign worlds, they teach us to treat them well. They teach us to read strange and intractable texts with patience and care; to meet alien ideas and practices with humility, docility, and charity; to draw alongside foreign worlds before we set about — as we must — judging them. They train us in the practice of honest dialogue, which respects the “Other” as a potential prophet, one who might yet speak a new word about what’s true and good and beautiful.

A commitment to the truth, humility, a readiness to be taught, patience, carefulness, charity: all of these moral virtues that inform the intellectual discipline into which the arts and humanities induct their students; all of these moral virtues of which public discourse, whether in the media or in Parliament or in Congress, displays no obvious surplus. All of these moral virtues, without which this country and others may get to become a “knowledge economy”, but won’t get to become a “wisdom society”.

And public decisions that, being unwise, are careless with the truth, arrogant, unteachable, impatient and uncharitable, will be bad decisions — and bad decisions cause needless damage to real institutions and real individuals.

What I’m saying, then, is that in addition to providing talented individuals with the opportunity to grow their gifts and find a social role to exercise them; in addition to producing qualified applicants for positions in legal practice and in public administration; in addition to training the labour-force to man a high-tech, service-oriented economy; and in addition to generating new scientific knowledge with technological or commercial applications, universities exist to form individuals and citizens in certain virtues — virtues that are not just intellectual, but are also social and political.

It’s no surprise that he turns to John Henry Newman for inspiration. It will be interesting to see whether Newman’s ideas about university education get any new publicity when his beatification takes place in September.

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On 18 April 2005 the then Cardinal Ratzinger preached to the cardinals who were assembled in Rome to elect the new Pope. He provoked a huge amount of discussion by saying that Western culture is creating ‘a dictatorship of relativism’.

Here is the homily in full; and here is the relevant paragraph:

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

I was involved this week in a programme by Edward Stourton about the significance of this provocative term, and the place of religion more generally in contemporary culture and politics. The Analysis programme was broadcast on Radio 4 on Monday evening; you can listen to it hear on BBC iPlayer.

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Bullying by aeneastudio.I’d heard about these schemes that bring criminals face to face with their victims. I’d never given them much thought.

Gavin Knight writes about the work of David Kennedy, an academic at Harvard who helped to develop Operation Ceasefire in the US. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Boston was gripped by an epidemic of gang-related violence. The instinct of the police and courts was to come down as heavy as possible on those who were caught.

Kennedy suggested a different approach: talk to them; make them think about the reasons for their actions; show them the consequences of their behaviour — for their own lives and for the lives of those they had harmed; and help them to see that deep down they wanted something else, something better.

It’s an Aristotelian approach to moral reasoning: look at the ‘end’, the consequences — above all the consequences for you as a person — and reflect on whether this is what you really want. In the hard-edged context of gang violence it sounds idealistic and even naive. But apparently it worked:

He summoned gang members to face-to-face forums—“call-ins”—which they could be compelled to attend as a condition of parole. The first was in Boston in May 1996, with a second in September that year. In the call-ins, gang members were not treated like psychopaths but rational adults. It was businesslike and civil. The object was explicit moral engagement. They were told what they were doing was causing huge damage to their families and communities and that the violence must stop. The police said that any further violence would result in the whole group being punished. In emotional appeals, members of the community, victims’ relatives and ex-offenders spoke about the consequences of gang violence. And youth workers said that if they wanted out of the gang life they would be given help with jobs, housing, training and addiction problems…

In the call-ins Kennedy aimed to show that the street-code was nonsense. Gang members were challenged about using violence to avenge disrespect. They were told about a drive-by shooting where a 13-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet. “Who thinks it is OK to kill 13-year-old girls?” they were asked. To counter the belief in loyalty they were given examples of gang members fighting among themselves. They were asked: “Will your friends visit you in prison? How long will it take your friends to sleep with your girlfriend when you’re in jail?” One gang member called out: “Two days. And it was my cousin.” One by one, the rules of the street were dismantled…

Ceasefire challenged the orthodoxy of traditional enforcement. It questioned whether enforcement and criminal justice were effective deterrents. Old-school cops were stunned that a group of drugged-out killers could be influenced by moral reasoning. Criminologists were confounded that homicide, a personal crime often committed on impulse, could be stopped simply by asking. It sparked a vigorous discussion amongst academics who could not believe the results.

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The Power of Prayer by Loci Lenar.I gave a talk recently about vocation and life in the seminary, to a group of people mainly in their 60s and 70s. One of the questions that often comes up with people of this age is whether the present generation of seminarians is more conservative than in the past. My answer is to say that these categories (‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’; ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’) don’t apply any more.

If you are trying to define yourself against other members of your church or religion, then these kinds of categories, however crude, might be necessary. But the key moment of self-definition for young Catholics today is simply whether to continue calling themselves Catholic or not; whether to deepen their Christian faith, or to reject it.

In a thoroughly secular culture, where friends, colleagues, and even family members are formed by secular values, the decision to hold onto a Catholic identity is the crucial one. Having made that radical decision, these young Catholics, quite naturally, want to deepen their interest Catholic teaching, in Catholic worship, in Catholic morality, etc. This is why they seem ‘conservative’. But they’re not really — they are simply Catholic.

Here is my sociological take on all this: Most older Catholics, say in their 60s or 70s, grew up secure in their Christian identity, with a culture that for the most part supported and reaffirmed that identity. The challenge for them was to get out of the ghetto and into the world; to become immersed in a secular culture they hardly knew, in order to influence and enlighten it. The secularisation of religion was perhaps a necessary part of this movement outwards.

But if you grow up in a culture almost completely devoid of any Christian influences, as young people do today, then the challenge for you is to find a Christian identity and lifestyle that will guide and sustain you. This is not about retreating into the ghetto or turning the clock back. It is first of all a matter of preserving your Christian roots, and nourishing your own faith. And then it’s about building up the self-confidence that allows you to engage with the secular culture from which you come (and which you never actually left).

This is why, it seems to me, the priority for young Catholics today is to create a strong Catholic identity and Catholic culture for themselves — which then allows them to dialogue with their peers and engage with the wider culture. They might seem to be conservative, but they are simply trying to be Catholic.

Remember that in darker ages it was the monks who made the best missionaries; it was those who stepped ‘inside’ and showed so much concern for the liturgy and the tradition who were then the ones with the courage to step ‘outside’ and embrace the world.

[After drafting this post I came across an article by John Allen entitled 'The next generation of Catholic leaders'. We seem to be thinking along similar lines...]

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I mentioned a few weeks ago that a series of talks about ‘the Fundamentals of Faith’ was coming up. These have now happened, and thanks to the technology team at the Diocese of Westminster you can watch or read them all online. The main link is here.

Just to remind you of the topics: There are talks on Authority and Conscience; Prayer; the Bible; Finding True Happiness; God, Creation and Ecology; and Catholic Social Teaching.

The link to my own talk about ‘Happiness and the moral life’ is below. [That's Fr Dominic Robinson at the beginning; I start the talk at 2:40].

Faith Matters, Lecture 4 Autumn 2009 from Catholic Westminster.

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Barcelona - Supercopa 2009 - Thierry Henry by boldorak2208.What’s the difference between an outright cheat and someone who tries to push the boundaries without being caught? This is the moral debate raging after Thierry Henry’s handball gave France their win against Ireland in the world cut playoff game on Wednesday. [The photo is Henry playing for Barcelona.] The story has moved from the back pages to the news and editorial sections, with politicians and pundits weighing in. Perhaps this moral questioning is heightened by the MPs’ expenses scandal and the collapse of trust in the financial sector.

Is Henry a cheat? He has confessed to handling the ball, but claims it was an instinctive reaction in the heat of the moment. So if cheating means consciously breaking the rules and trying to get away with it, then it’s grey. We are into a debate about whether we are responsible for our instinctive reactions, and whether it is the job of the footballer to referee himself.

In some areas of life the fact of not being caught is enough to make something acceptable. The classic example is the card game ‘cheat’, where you have to put down as many cards as possible, telling your competitors which cards are in this hidden pile, and hoping that they won’t call your bluff and catch you out. The very point of the game is to get away with as much as possible.

But say you are playing poker, and you hide an extra ace up your sleeve and use it to your advantange. If this comes to light after the game you’ll be disgraced, have your winnings taken back, and be branded a cheat and a liar. No-one will think you clever or audacious. Poker, despite the deceptions and subterfuge, is an honest game. The same is true in golf, if you ‘accidentally’ kick your ball into a better position without anyone seeing it; or in cricket, if you tamper with the ball illegally.

Football is grey. Diving in the penalty area and deliberately handling the ball are generally considered immoral – like cheating at poker. But trying to edge past the defender against the offside trap and getting away with it is considered legitimate – if it goes unseen. No-one really expects a striker to put his hands up after a goal and say ‘sorry ref, I was six inches behind the last defender, but unfortunately the linesman didn’t spot it’.

The problem in politics and business and finance, and in much of contemporary social life, is that more and more people think they are playing ‘cheat’ instead of poker or golf. There is no ‘inner accounting’ – to the idea of sportsmanship, or to the voice of conscience, or simply to one’s own integrity. There is only the ‘outer’ accountability of whether we get caught or not. There has always been dishonesty, but the question now is whether this dishonesty becomes so built into the culture that we become unaware of what we have lost. [See Henry Winter's article in the Telegraph for an example of righteous indignation at Henry's behaviour; and see the comments below the article for the view that he was just playing a tough game and doing all he could to bring his team to victory.]

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Kate Wong brings us up-to-date on the latest research into the Neandertals in this month’s issue of Scientific American.

I’ve always been fascinated by ‘Neandertal Man’ as he/she used to be called. We think about what it would be like to meet aliens. (Well, I think about what it would be like to meet aliens!) Would we be able to communicate? Would we be able to understand each other? Yet here in our own back yard, in Europe and the Near East and much of Asia, modern human beings were living side-by-side with another hominid form, meeting and presumably trying to communicate, only 30,000 years ago. I refrained from saying ‘another human species’ because the great and still unresolved question is whether we belonged to distinct species, and whether or not modern humans and Neandertals could interbreed. And despite the theories about genocide (by humans), climate change, and diet – we still don’t know why they became extinct about 28,000 years ago.

Grottes de Lascaux II by davidmartinpro.It seems that they had jewellery and bone tools and made sophisticated weapons; but modern human beings had the edge – in their social organisation, in the efficiency of their physique, and in their sheer intelligence and creativity. ‘The boundary between Neandertals and moderns has gotten fuzzier’, writes Christopher B. Stringer – but there is still a boundary. There is something radical and new about human intelligence, a leap and not just a lurch, that gives rise to art, creativity, sophisticated language, morality, and some more reflective kind of self-consciousness. And, interestingly, one of the key markers for paleoanthropologists is the emergence for the first time among human beings of symbolic customs surrounding the burial of the dead. Human intelligence seems to go hand in hand with an appreciation of the significance of death.

Neandertals, we presume, in some way asked questions about how to live; human beings, as far as we can tell, are the only creatures to ask questions about the meaning of that living, and the possibility of living beyond death.

Prehistoric Painting by Klearchos Kapoutsis.

[A wonderful book that first got me interested in human uniqueness in relation to Neandertals is Becoming Human by Ian Tattersall, OUP 1998. It's probably a bit old now, but it is still in print]

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Tristram Hunt: on how progressive politics is in danger of losing touch with notions of good and evil, dignity and nobility.

He takes the analysis from Susan Neiman’s new book, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists, and applies it to Labour’s deregulatory policies on betting shops and lap-dancing clubs. There have traditionally been two impulses in progressive politics: first, to create a society where certain human values and ideals can flourish – a society that has some common notions of what it means to be happy and fulfilled as a person; second, to create a society in which individuals are free to pursue their personal fulfilment  in whatever way they choose. The latter move, which seems so attractive and egalitarian, can end up merging with the worst aspects of the unrestrained market economy: witness the proliferation of bookies and strip clubs in suburban high streets; it can also lead one to deny that there is anything objectively worthwhile about human life – other than the choice itself of how (or whether) to live.

The Governor. by Manky Maxblack.

These are big questions about the relationship between personal autonomy and objective morality, between subjective notions of happiness and objective fulfilment (if there is such a thing). Peter Maurin (co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement in New York) once said that we should try to create a society in which it is easier for people to be good. He wasn’t moralising. He meant, I think, that it is almost impossible to imagine how a politician – or anyone committed to their own community or society – can avoid having some notion of what is truly good and fulfilling for the human person. It’s hard, in other words, to have ideals and zeal for progress if one does not have some convictions about good and evil, dignity and nobility.

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