Political Parody

Mark Shea says that says that Fr. Peter West “has chosen to calumniate me,” and includes a screenshot of a Facebook post by Fr. Peter asserting that Shea supports Planned Parenthood, basically because Shea has argued that it would be better to vote for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. Shea responds:

This is precisely my position.  I *reject* Hillary’s support for abortion.  But since Trump (who holds exactly the same position on abortion that Hillary does) is certain to do much graver evil in addition to support for abortion, I believe that a Catholic can, in good faith, vote for her in order to lessen the evil Trump will do.  I will not, myself, be voting for her since I don’t live in a swing state.  But I have no problem at all defending somebody who lives in a swing state who does vote for her and would, in fact, urge people to do so (bearing in mind that some cannot, in conscience, do so).  The only thing I would argue is that support for Trump simply cannot be squared with the Catholic faith.

The irony of Fr. West’s despicable calumny is that Trump is on record supporting Planned Parenthood.  And therefore it is Fr. West, who is, in fact, supporting Planned Parenthood since his candidate does.

This is the intractable problem the “prolife” Trumpkin faces.  I do not, in fact, support a single evil Hillary supports–including Planned Parenthood.  And I have said so, repeatedly.  Fr. West, very simply, lies when he says I do support Planned Parenthood and should apologize and retract that lie.  I am acting in strict obedience to Benedict’s teaching.

But a Trump supporter like Fr. West really does commit himself to support and defend every evil Trump wills to do, since Trump agrees with Hillary on every evil she support, plus evils she does not advocate such as torture and the deliberate murder of women and children civilians.

As I stated in the comments there, this looks like a parody of political argument. Shea argues that he does not support Planned Parenthood, even if Hillary does, because he would only support voting for her in order to avoid Trump. But this does not prevent him from saying, “And therefore it is Fr. West, who is, in fact, supporting Planned Parenthood since his candidate does.” And likewise he says that Fr. West “support[s] and defend[s] every evil Trump wills to do,” while saying that “I do not, in fact, support a single evil Hillary supports.”

Obviously, Fr. West would be likely to say exactly the same things while changing the names involved. So it is not reasonable for Shea to accuse Fr. West of lies or of calumny, unless he is willing to be accused of these things himself, since as St. Paul says in Romans, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

Some readers pointed out to Shea that the situations are identical, and that he is engaging in exactly the behavior that he condemns here. Shea responds by doubling down on his position:

A reader writes regarding Fr. West’s calumny:

All due respect, sir, but do you not commit the same error as he does by saying that your accuser supports Planned Parenthood, torture, abortion, etc. because his candidate does? In my opinion, you should remove those statements from this column to make yourself unworthy of any blame in this.

No. I don’t. Because our positions are asymmetrical. Trump is, very obviously, the greater evil. He supports all the evils Hillary does and then some. My sole reason for saying it is legitimate to vote for her is to lessen evil and I have *facts* on my side to show that this is case. The “prolife” Trumpkin’s sole reason for backing Trump is that he is a Republican and Republicans are mystically less evil than Democrats Because Abortion (even though Trump’s views of abortion are identical with Hillary’s.) Because of this I am free to reject and denounce every evil thing Hillary supports–and I have done so repeatedly.

The paradox of the “prolife” Trumpkin’s position is that he must, to support this wicked man, remain silent about or defend every evil thing Trump says and does. This is exactly what Fr. West and countless other Trumpkins have done and will keep doing. Beyond a vague “he’s a flawed candidate”, Fr. West has been mum about Trump’s many outrages or has gone to bat for him, posting standard Muslim-hate boilerplate. And, of course, he has lied that I support Planned Parenthood when he knows perfectly well I have denounced PP times without number.

Of course, if Fr. West “has lied that I support Planned Parenthood when he knows perfectly well I have denounced PP times without number,” then Shea has lied that West supports Planned Parenthood when he knows perfectly well that West has denounced Planned Parenthood times without number, which is doubtless just as true; in fact he was denouncing Planned Parenthood in the very act of accusing Shea of supporting it.

“Our positions are asymmetrical,” in the sense that is relevant, is nearly completely false here. Of course West supports some things that Shea does not, and Shea supports some things that West does not. But in every relevant way, they will be prepared to make perfectly symmetrical statements; just as Shea says that “Trump is, very obviously, the greater evil,” West will no doubt say that “Hillary is, very obviously, the greater evil,” and so on.

In the end, Shea’s argument comes down to saying, “The positions are asymmetrical, because I am right and he is wrong.” But this itself is symmetrical, since West no doubt believes that he is right and Shea is wrong.


When First We Practise to Deceive

Mark Shea potentially provides an example of the sort of reasoning from moral considerations that we discussed yesterday:

The woman in the video says (and I see no particular reason to doubt her) that this is the nickname her recently deceased grandmother called her when she was a little girl and that her four year did not and could not have known that.

Hmmmmmmmm…..  Could be fake.  Could be demonic (evil spirits can reveal to humans things they cannot know naturally).  Could be a divine gift of knowledge.  Thing is, without context and connection to the rest of her story it’s very hard to know what’s going on.

When he says, “could be fake,” he may mean that the woman could be lying, which is certainly possible, but which seems to go against “I see no particular reason to doubt her”.

In any case, “I see no particular reason to doubt her,” appears to be an example of reasoning from moral considerations. We don’t have a special reason to think the woman is wicked or a liar, so we would be treating her better by trusting her.

In fact, even without additional investigation, there is at least one particular reason to doubt her, namely the very existence of the video, as opposed to an after-the-fact narration. The existence of the video suggests that the woman knew what was going to happen, which suggests deceit.

But for the sake of discussion we can assume there is no particular reason to doubt her, as Mark says. The fact that the woman makes a claim is evidence for that claim, but one can still ask which of these statements is true:

(1) For the most part, when someone claims to communicate with a dead person or to witness such communication, the events in question have natural causes such as lying or being mistaken.

(2) For the most part, when someone claims to communicate with a dead person or to witness such communication, the events in question have supernatural or preternatural causes such as divine revelation, demonic deception, or actual communication from a departed soul.

If (2) happens to be the case, there is no problem with trusting the woman, and no problem with going on to consider possible supernatural or preternatural causes.

But if (1) happens to be the case, there may be a problem. I may have “no particular reason to doubt her”, but this is a moral consideration which does not affect the probability of the facts in question, and according to (1), even after her claim, it remains more probable than not that either she is lying, or she is deceived (e.g. she previously used the nickname in the girl’s presence but does not remember this.)

The basic problem here is that it is very difficult, although not impossible, to think that something is true while accepting that it probably isn’t. So if I actually trust the woman, in most cases I will end up thinking that she is probably telling the truth, which according to (1), would be mistaken. Nor can it be said that this is a case where the mistake does not pertain “to the evil of the intellect,” as St. Thomas says about cases where we mistakenly suppose that someone is a good person. Instead, making a mistake of this sort can lead us into very serious intellectual errors. For if we immediately suppose that the woman is probably telling the truth, and if we do the same thing in numerous other cases, we are quite likely to conclude that (2) is the case, when by hypothesis it is not. But a world where (2) is the case might very well be a quite different world from one in which (1) is the case, and thus the error might very well lead us astray about the very nature of reality. This might be somewhat less clear to someone who supposes that (2) is in fact true, or at least isn’t very unlikely to be true, but one could consider similar cases where someone claims to have experienced facts verifying the truth of Scientology or some similar insanity. Believing a person simply because there is “no particular reason to doubt them” can indeed lead to errors of enormous magnitude.

A personal anecdote may illustrate the same thing in a different way. On one occasion, waiting at a bus stop in Vienna, I was approached by an old man who asked, “May I speak with you?”

I replied, “Well, I have to get on the bus when it arrives, but until then it is fine.”

He told his story. “About two weeks ago, I met a poor man on the street who said he had no money and no place to stay. I invited him to stay in my apartment for a while. He did, and everything was fine for a while. But he disappeared yesterday, and he took with him €2,000 in cash and my credit card. Now I always thought that if you did good to others, good would come back to you…”

At the moment the bus arrived, so I simply said, “There could be a lot to say about that, but I need to go…” and got on the bus.

It may be charitable not to judge a poor man by assuming he is the kind of guy who would steal from you. And it may be charitable not to judge someone by assuming he is the kind of person who would lie to you. But charitable or not, if you don’t want to lose €2,000, then you have to consider the actual probability that the person may steal from you. And likewise, if you don’t want to be led into serious errors, you have to consider the actual probability that someone would lie or be mistaken.