Blog Archives

A Theological Critique of Philosophy

Many thanks to Ben Myers for pointing out that John Milbank’s 2011 Stanton Lectures, “Philosophy: A Theological Critique,” will be made available on the ABC Religion & Ethics site.

This should be a fascinating lecture series worth following. As, Milbank explains:

This series of lectures will not be concerned with either the philosophy of religion or philosophical theology. Instead, they will be about the relationship between philosophy and theology.

Here’s the outline (I’ll try to remember to update this as each lecture becomes available):

19 January: The Return of Metaphysics in the 21st century

26 January: Immanence and Life

2 February: Immanence and Number

9 February: Transcendence without Participation

16 February: Participated Transcendence Reconceived

23 February: The Habit of Reason

2 March: The Realism of Feeling

9 March: The Surprise of the Imagined

Derrida and Christian theology

For the last couple of days we’ve been discussing Jacques Derrida and his significance for biblical interpretation and Christian theology. And, I wanted to make sure you were aware of a series of posts that Brian LePort has been doing on the same subject. Make sure you check them out:

And, he’s also posted a short review of James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmondernsim.

The Pope, condoms, and the principle of double effect

While I was at ETS, some of our ThM students were discussing theological ethics and the principle of double effect (PDE), a way of thinking through complex moral situations in which a single act has both a negative and a positive consequence. (See Chris Smith’s post on Double Effect and the Ethical Dilemma.) Since I was not able to participate in the discussion, and since I don’t want to look stupid in front of my students, I thought it would be a good idea for me to work on my own understanding of this principle. So, it was with interest that I dug into a recent post by Katie over at the Women in Theology, arguing that the Pope’s recent statements about condom use can be analyzed using PDE.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the upcoming book in which Pope Benedict XVI apparently condones the use of condoms in certain situations, particularly when used to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS among prostitutes. At first glance, this seems rather surprising given that for Catholic theologians, condom use necessarily results in the bad effect of separating the the sexual act from its unitive and procreative act. Although this is an unpopular position in modern culture, this view underlies the traditional Catholic rejection of contraception in general. But, as the Pope has pointed out, condom use also has the intrinsically good effect of preventing the spread of a deadly disease. Thus, we have a situation in which a single act (condom use) will result in both a good effect (preventing disease spread) and a bad effect (separating the sexual act from its divinely intended purposes).

To determine whether PDE applies to this scenario, we must see if the scenario meets the following conditions:

  1. The Nature of the Act: The act in question must be at least a morally neutral act (i.e. it cannot be an intrinsically bad act).
  2. Means-End: The bad effect  cannot be the means by which the good effect is accomplished.
  3. Right-Intention: The bad effect cannot be that which is intended by the actor.
  4. Proportionality: The good effect must be equivalent to or greater than the corresponding bad effect.

And, as I see it, the condom-use scenario meets all four conditions.

  1. The Nature of the Act: It seems to me that even for Catholic theologians, condom use is a morally neutral act. In and of itself, using a condom has no moral consequences (e.g. using it as a water balloon). It is one  particular result of using a condom (preventing conception and, consequently, separating the sexual act from its procreative function) that is instrinsically wrong.
  2. Means-End: As in most PDE scenarios the good effect and bad effect are inseparable. Wearing a condom during the sexual act (assuming that the condom does not malfunction) necessarily results in both consequences. But, it seems clear that the bad effect in this situation is not the means for accomplishing the good effect – i.e., a person does not seek to separate the sexual act from its intended purposes as a means to preventing the spread of a deadly disease. The two consequences are inseparable, but the one is not the means for accomplishing the other.
  3. Right-Intention: This is critical. For this situation to come under PDE, the actor must intend the good effect and not the bad one. So, in this scenario, the person using the condom must intend to stop the spread of a deadly disease and not to prevent procreation.
  4. Proportionality: The benefit of preventing the spread of a deadly disease must outweigh the drawback of separating the sexual act from its procreative function. As with most PDE scenarios, there is a strong element of subjectivity in this final step. But, it is certainly not obvious that this scenario violates this condition.

So, it would seem to me that this scenario is amenable to analysis using PDE. And, the Pope’s conclusion seems warranted, assuming that you agree with the application of condition 4 and the use of PDE in general.

That is my best attempt to explain how PDE works and how it applies to a situation that most Protestants would not necessarily see as involving a significant moral quandry. But, it demonstrates how PDE might be applied to other scenarios with more existential angst for us. And, it also highlights some of the weaknesses of the approach: the often opaque appeal to intentions, an ambiguous understanding of what qualifies as an “act”, and the necessarily subjective judgment required by the proportionality condition. At the same time, though, I like the way that PDE forces us to acknowledge how difficult it can be to make moral judgments in the midst of a broken world in which sometimes there are no “right” answers.

    Morning links (9/23)

    A hole in the Calvinist logic regarding free will?

    According to Roger Olson, there’s a glaring hole in the Calvinist logic regarding free will. And, it’s a hole that Calvinist’s generally refuse to acknowledge.

    To see why, Olson points out that many Calvinists contend that incompatibilism as a view of free will is simply incoherent. (There are many different kinds of incompatibilism, but in a nutshell it’s the idea that my having true free will in a given instance is not compatible with the idea that my action in that instance could be caused by some prior event or state of affairs.) The Calvinist contends that if an actually is truly “uncaused,” then it is irrational or random. And, if our actions are irrational and/or random, then they do not come from our choices and they they are not the kinds of actions for which we can be held responsible – i.e. they are not “free.” Consequently, there is no such thing as incompatibilist free will. For the Calvinist, according to Olson, that is an oxymoron; it is incoherent.

    But, Olson goes on to argue that this raises a problem for our understanding of God’s free will. If the very notion of incompatibilist free will is incoherent, then God himself cannot have incompatibilist free will. This, in turn, would mean that God’s own actions are caused by some event or state of affairs. And, many Calvinists will agree here, contending that God’s actions are “caused” by his nature. He does the things that he does because he is perfectly the kind of God that he is. But, and here is the real nexus of Olson’s argument, this would seem to mean that all of God’s actions are necessary. He created the universe because he had to; it was an expression of his perfect and immutable character. There’s really nothing else he could have done.

    And the problem for Olson is that this account of God’s creative act was clearly rejected and declared heretical by quite a number of early theologians. Most of these thinkers insisted that God’s creative act had to be understood as a free act of his will. God was free to do otherwise, though it was perfectly fitting for him to choose to create.

    So, the tension that Olson sets up is this. If you are going to claim that incompatibilist free will is incoherent, then you must also affirm that God’s actions are all necessary consequences of his character. Conversely, if you are going to claim that God has incompatibilist free will, then you cannot also claim that incompatibilist free will is incoherent.

    I’m sure that Olson is perfectly aware that none of this actually serves as an argument for maintaining that humans actually have incompatibilistically free wills. But, he maintains that it does place the Calvinist in quite the quandry, and he argues that most Calvinists are unwilling to face it head on.

    What do you think? Is this truly a hole in the Calvinist logic regarding free will?