I recently heard about the so-called “Agatha Christie” indult, through which the use of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Liturgy was first authorized in England and Wales in 1971, fourteen years before this was permitted anywhere else. Context can be found here. Essentially, a large group of prominent English cultural figures, Catholic and non, submitted an appeal to the Pope that the use of the old mass be permitted; then,
The story goes that Pope Paul VI was reading quietly through the list of signatories and then suddenly said, “Ah, Agatha Christie!” and signed his approval.
Here’s a list of the 57 signatories, with names I recognize placed in bold:
Harold Acton, Vladimir Ashkenazy, John Bayler, Lennox Berkeley, Maurice Bowra, Agatha Christie, Kenneth Clark, Nevill Coghill, Cyril Connolly, Colin Davis, Hugh Delargy, +Robert Exeter, Miles Fitzalan-Howard, Constantine Fitzgibbon, William Glock, Magdalen Goffin, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, Ian Greenless, Joseph Grimond, Harman Grisewood, Colin Hardie, Rupert Hart-Davis, Barbara Hepworth, Auberon Herbert, John Jolliffe, David Jones, Osbert Lancaster, F.R. Leavis, Cecil Day Lewis, Compton Mackenzie, George Malcolm, Max Mallowan, Alfred Marnau, Yehudi Menuhin, Nancy Mitford, Raymond Mortimer, Malcolm Muggeridge, Iris Murdoch, John Murray, Sean O’Faolain, E.J. Oliver, Oxford and Asquith, William Plomer, Kathleen Raine, William Rees-Mogg, Ralph Richardson, +John Ripon, Charles Russell, Rivers Scott, Joan Sutherland, Philip Toynbee, Martin Turnell, Bernard Wall, Patrick Wall, E.I Watkin, R.C. Zaehner.
There’s something magnificent about so many important philosophers, historians, novelists, and poets coming together in defense of Catholic culture. But there’s also, perhaps, something here a bit sad. Of the names I recognize, only David Jones and Graham Greene were actually Roman Catholic, and the latter was not practicing. The rest signed, most likely, because of their respect for English Catholicism as a cultural force, and rightly so: the last century had seen Newman, Hopkins, Chesterton, Belloc, Dawson, Waugh….
Apart from Jones and Greene, Tolkien and Anscombe were still living. I can’t imagine that Tolkien wouldn’t have signed, if he had been invited, and so suspect he had not been. Anscombe’s impulses might not have learned so traditional; I’m not sure.
There are still prominent English Catholics, of course, but it no longer has the feeling of a cultural force. That began with John Henry Newman’s conversion, and the influx of High Church Anglicans from the Oxford Movement it inaugurated; it ended, perhaps, with the Agatha Christi indult, when English literary culture paid tribute to a Roman Catholicism it had all but left behind.
I often write rather harshly about utilitarianism here, so it seems like a good idea to mention one place where it definitely belongs: weighing the side effects of different drugs in an effort to determine which ought to be prescribed. This is the kind of decision that will necessarily involve quantitative reasoning. When we’re faced with the question the linked article poses:
Which is worse – ruining ten million people’s sex lives for one year, or making one hundred people’s livers explode?
The thought that “life is sacred” should not oblige us to go with the former. We make trade-offs involving risks like this all the time; for example, we all get into cars, even though it brings with it a non-negligible chance of injury and death, because we value convenience more than safety. But if cars were sufficiently dangerous, we might not do this.
It’s senseless to approach this question except quantitatively, because the specific chance of danger matters. Take cars. The average American has a 1-in-500 chance of dying in a car accident over the course of his lifetime, which means, doing a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, that he has something like a 1-in-40,000 chance of dying in a car accident every year. Convenience is worth a 1-in-40,000 chance of death. Now take the drug example: is healthy sexual functioning worth a 1-in-100,000 chance of death? If so, then the trade-off should be made. Given how unbalanced 1-in-100,000 is, the answer is probably “yes,” even if we don’t allow healthy sexual functioning as high a value as many today would give it.
Despite what certain political commentators sometimes say (*cough*”death panels”*cough*), these kinds of trade-offs are not unethical, and in fact are an ethical imperative.
This line of reasoning is only valid, however, because the side effects of cars and drugs are just that: side effects. Strictly speaking, the choice we face is not one of “ruining ten million people’s sex lives for one year, or making one hundred people’s livers explode”; rather, we have a choice of allowing the ruination, or allowing the explosions. Such quantitative considerations only come into play once we ensure that the intrinsic effects of our actions pass muster.
The utilitarian responds to this way of thinking by rejecting the very distinction between substantial and accidental. He implicitly substitutes for it a distinction between known and unknown effects: I am to take everything I know about my possible courses of action, crunch the numbers, and do whatever has the maximally good outcome all-things-considered. If things then end up poorly because of factors of which I knew nothing, it’s unfortunate but not my fault (unless I could easily have known better); if they end up poorly because I chose incorrectly given the knowledge I had, I am to blame. This “to blame,” of course, just means “is the component that should be improved in order to maximize outputs.”
This might be a helpful way to think about maximizing output, but it is not a very good way to think about ethics. It assumes that we begin with a determinate concept of what we want, one so well defined that we can always evaluate a course of action in terms of how well it will achieve it, then simply add up the known effects of actions and pick the one with the highest value. This seems to me quite false. Rather, I want to say, we begin with a vague concept of what we want–perhaps no more than the word “happiness”–and give it determinate content in the course of discerning what course of action to take. This kind of reasoning seems difficult, if not impossible, to perform without relying on the intrinsic/extrinsic distinction. But my reason for this is, admittedly, still vague.
[Last June, after reading a great deal of John Henry Newman and Ludwig Wittgenstein, I made a series of posts about epistemology-talk, whose implicit theme found explicit expression in a later post about analogy. Recently I’ve been reading J.L. Austin and Geoffrey Hill, and my thoughts have centered on a different form of non-univocal language: equivocation, which, as I see it, relates to political ethics, our relation to each other, much as analogy does to philosophical reasoning, our relation with the truth. I have a number of posts on the topic planned, but I thought it would be helpful first to get clear (hah) what “equivocation” here means, in a way that makes clear its political and ethical stakes.]
Imagine a Christian living in the Roman Empire, during one of the sporadic persecutions of Christianity. His religious obligations are clear: he must not worship false idols. The laws of the Empire, unfortunately, are also clear: prostrate yourself in front of a pagan statue, or you will be killed. What are we to think, if he goes and burns incense in the temple? We would not accept, as an excuse for his action, that he had not intended to worship a false idol, but had just happened to walk into the temple and had just happened to decide to burn some incense once there. This is about as plausible as if St. Peter had, instead of going outside and weeping bitterly, claimed not to have actually denied Christ, but to have just happened to enunciate the words “I do not know the man!”
Yet Christ, when asked whether one should pay the Roman tributes, said “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21); and those tributes were used to pay for the construction of pagan temples. If the tribute-paying Christian can deny that he supports pagan temples, what prevents Peter, or the incense-burner, from denying that he denied Christ?
The tribute-payer, if he knew the technical language, might invoke the principle of double effect: he foresees this inevitable use of his tribute, but does not intend it.The incense-burner cannot do the same because idol-worship is built into the nature of incense-burning, in a way it is not in general built into tribute-paying. The difference is unrelated to the size of the effect: it’s not that you can ignore bad effects so long as the good effects outweight them. Paying tribute, after all, does more to maintain idol worship than does a single act of incense-burning, but it’s the latter, not the former, which is an act of betrayal. Rather, the difference stems from the manner of relation of effect to cause–intrinsic versus accidental. To burn incense just is to worship idols, while to pay tribute might happen to bring that worship about, but need not itself participate in it.
That above language is vaguely scholastic; in a more modern philosophical idiom, we might talk about the various descriptions under which the actions could be intended. It’s just a fact that, while tribute-paying can be described in relation to idol-worship, it’s quite naturally described in ways that do not even mention it. Any description of incense-burning that does not mention it, however, is simply inaccurate. To accept the principle of double effect is to accept that, when it comes to ethics, these descriptions matter as much or more than do the raw matter (if such a thing exists) of the action performed–more than anything that could be quantified, e.g. the amount of incense caused to be burned.
These descriptions, these determinations of what is intrinsic to an action, are not natural kinds. They emerge, like all meaning, within communities: in the examples given, incense-burning and tribute-paying meant what they did because of their conventional significance with them in the context of the pagan Roman Empire. Actions, in other words, have meanings, just as words do. Speaking poetically, words are actions charged with meaning in disproportion to the magnitude of their physical effects.
So the Christian can faithfully pay tribute because he does not thereby lie; he says only, “I acknowledge the empire’s lawful authority.” He cannot defend the burning of incense, however, any more than Peter can say that he “meant nothing” by his words “I do not know the man.” No one has complete control over the meaning their actions and words carry. In the words of J.L. Austin,
we are bound to non-play [such an attempt], not merely because the convention is not accepted, but because we vaguely feel the presence of some bar, the nature of which is not immediately clear, against it ever being accepted. (How To Do Things With Words, 31)
Yet we do retain some control, some ability to play with the meaning of our words and deeds; not a lot, but rope enough to hang ourselves with. As Geoffrey Hill puts it,
The crucial questions are how much ‘play’ remains in language after the logical excisions have been performed and whether this play is definable as ‘controlled interplay’ or as that ‘play’ which means that something designed for precise mechanical utility is showing signs of malfunction. (The Lords of Limit, ‘Our Word Is Our Bond’, 139)
Play enters into it insofar as the same deeds and words can be described and paraphrased in incompatible ways. Tribute-paying, for example, is quite naturally described without mention of supporting pagan temples. But obviously it can be so described, and someone can do it while intending that description. These actions would at first glance look identical, but would have quite different meanings.
This slack in the conventions cannot be ignored, lest the machinery of language break down. If the Christian simply does not know that what he does might be described as idolatry, there is little more to say, other than that he should have known what he was doing. But if he does know–if he foresees it, without intending it–then what he does is, like all actions justified through the principle of double effect, an exercise in equivocation. Equivocation, we can now say, is the performance of an action (giving someone a gold coin, making certain sounds with your mouth), foreseeing that within one’s current civil polity multiple possible meanings can be ascribed to it, but still intending for only one of those meanings to be understood.
To put it this way inverts the usual line that equivocation is a special form of the principle of double effect, but this is, I think, not a substantial difference, but a mere shift in emphasis. I shift the emphasis thus because, while equivocation is enormously controversial (exploring its licit uses is what gave Jesuits a reputation for dishonesty), the principle of double effect seems to me unavoidable, if we are to do avoid reducing ethics to balancing the scales, while still taking into account the bad effects every action inevitably has.
To say this is not, of course, to forestall any of the myriad objections to the more subtle forms of equivocation give rise. Still, it’s worth recognizing that not only does Jesus’ “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” advocate a course of action justifiable through the principle of double effect, but it is, itself, equivocal. On the surface, it simply advocates following whatever laws the legitimate civil authority passes, but its logic is in fact far more subtle: the tribute is one of “the things that are Caesar’s,” not because he can legitimately demand it, but because it must be paid in coins stamped with his visage. Does this mean that all coins, because minted by Caesar, all already belong to him? That coinage is therefore idolatrous, and so it’s sinful to hold onto any of it? That despite the face on the coins, nothing belongs to Caesar, and everything to God?
I’m not sure how to interpret this passage. I suspect that this difficulty is intentional, and that any explanation for it would resemble the answer Jesus gives to the disciples’ question, “Why speakest thou to them in parables?”:
Because to you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven: but to them it is not given. ‘ For he that hath, to him shall be given, and he shall abound: but he that hath not, from him shall be taken away that also which he hath. ‘ Therefore do I speak to them in parables: because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. (Matthew 13:11-13)
A personal note: on April 5, Easter Sunday, at 4:21 a.m., my wife gave birth to our first child, named Sibyl Marie*.
There seem to me to be, speaking broadly, fewer works of literature about the love found in parenthood than about that found in marriage. This applies to Shakespeare’s plays as well, but the Bard still does a better job with it than most writers. My wife and I have spent this year reading through various Shakespeare plays, and a few weeks ago finished Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Do I have a better understanding of that play’s final recognition scene, now that I have a daughter? I don’t know that I do. As T.S. Eliot wrote, there is “At best, only a limited value / In the knowledge derived from experience.” Still, the scene does seem now like a bigger draw on my attention, as does one of Eliot’s minor poems, a retelling of that scene, which I present here without comment:
T.S. Eliot — Marina
What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter.
Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning
Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning
Those who sit in the sty of contentment, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning
Are become insubstantial, reduced by a wind,
A breath of pine, and the woodsong fog
By this grace dissolved in place
What is this face, less clear and clearer
The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger—
Given or lent? more distant than stars and nearer than the eye
Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep, where all the waters meet.
Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.
I made this, I have forgotten
The rigging weak and the canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.
The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.
This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.
What seas what shores what granite islands towards my timbers
And woodthrush calling through the fog
*: A brief comment on the name. First, we spelled it Sibyl, not Sybil. This is the less common spelling, but it makes more etymological sense; the Greek word is σίβυλλαι, the Latin Sibylla. Sybil came about, I suspect, via analogy with other classical-sounding names like Cynthia, Lydia, Sylvia. Second, though it comes from pagan Greece, the name has picked up myriad Christian resonances. The sibyls, though pagans, were thought to have predicted the coming of Christ–hence the line in the Dies Irae, “Teste David cum Sibylla,” and the Sibyls on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel–and it became a common name for women in the Middle Ages, e.g. Blessed Sibyllina Biscossi, 1287-1367. It went out of fashion with the Reformation, then came back in the 19th and early 20th century. Finally, though I did not learn this until after selecting the name, St. Jerome (fallaciously) derives the word sibyl from “counsel of God,” and the Sibyls are associated iconographically with the “Seat of Wisdom.”