Wednesday, July 20, 2016

On Moral Dilemmas and Not Giving Up the Ship

"Oil on Troubled Waters" by Frank Mason 
A friend of mine put this quote up on my Facebook page today:

"You must not abandon the ship in a storm because you cannot control the winds… What you cannot turn to good, you must at least make as little bad as you can."
— St. Thomas More

This is SO apropos for our current political situation; don't you think? What do we do when there are no good options?

There are really two parts to this quote and while they are not completely unrelated, I want to address them separately. Let's start with the back piece first: "What you cannot turn to good, you must at least make as little bad as possible," and that will lead us to the Ship.

Having recently spent a semester pondering the question of moral dilemmas*, this quote struck me as an endorsement of Gratian's exhortation in the Decretum that when hemmed in by two obviously bad choices, one must always choose the lesser of two evils because it leads you closer to virtue in the end. That would seem to be in line with St. Thomas More’s quote.

But, in later centuries, as Gratian's writings were used to train future generations, there were later thinkers who argued with Gratian. They are called the Glossators because they wrote "glosses" (or notes, or marginalia) on the original text.

The Glossators hold that "The Master (that's Gratian) errs gravely" when he counsels taking the lesser of two evils. They hold, instead, that God would never put us into a situation where there would ever be no good option. To hold that there are moral dilemmas in which there are no good choices, is to hold that God is not merciful. The Glossators go on to say that since we know that God is all-good and all-loving, he would never put us into a situation where we would have to jeopardize our immortal souls.

Okay, so quick recap:
Gratian: Moral dilemmas exist and if you encounter one, you should choose the lesser of two evils.
Glossators: Moral dilemmas do not exist, so if you encounter one, it's not really a moral dilemma, there is another choice you haven't come up with.
Aquinas does some thinking about this idea of moral dilemmas, too. In De Malo (On Evil,) he suggests that there are moral dilemmas, but he breaks them down into two types: simpliciter and secundum quid.
Dilemmas Simpliciter are stiuations where an agent, through no fault of their own, must choose between two equally bad options. Aquinas thinks that if these exist, they are very rare.
Secundum Quid Dilemmas are moral dilemmas that come about because of the agent's past actions. These actions can be decisions that were made years previous, but still come back to bite you in the end. Aquinas thinks that these are much more common.

Another quick recap:
Aquinas believes that there are moral dilemmas—situations where there is no good choice –but these are dilemmas of our own making (secundum quid). In line with Aquinas' very Aristotelian thought, there is, in fact, a cause for everything!

“Don’t give up the Ship!”

Many of my friends and relatives have chosen to support Mr. Trump. They see him as the lesser of two evils. My friends and relatives insist that I should not “give up the ship just because I cannot control the winds.” But I say that there must be a way to reset the sails and capture those winds for the benefit of all.

For 30 years, I have been a committed and active Republican. I even convinced my husband, a committed and active Democrat, to vote for Republican candidates because I believed that they were the better option. They said, and did, the right things where the question of abortion was concerned. Given this framework, the problems with supporting Hillary Clinton as a candidate are obvious. Donald Trump says all the right things - of course he does; he's a salesman - but I see no real evidence of his commitment to the Truth. What has he done to back these claims of pro-life commitment?

Sure, he says that he has accepted Christ and is now a committed Christian. A friend even likened him to Saul of Tarsus at one point, but even Saul had to prove his commitment to Peter. Saul had been wounded and had to be healed, and in order to do that, he had to be humble before Peter and the other apostles. I see no evidence in Donald Trump’s swaggering braggadocio that he has been knocked to the ground by his wounds. In addition, the rhetoric he employs in terms of who can be in America, who can move about freely – essentially determinations of personhood –are so far beyond the scope of Catholic Teaching as to be terrifying.

I do not believe that he is pro-life.

So what do we have here between Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump?  In our two-party system, there seems to be an overall sense that this is an either/or choice. Even if we broaden our choices our to include Mr. Johnson (the Libertarian candidate) and Ms. Klein (the Green candidate), we still find no support for a pro-life stance.

If, as Catholics of good conscience, we are bound not to vote for someone who has stated that they support abortion rights, in that sense, I believe that we have a moral dilemma. But, I think that what we have here is a Secundum Quid dilemma. We, as a society, have allowed this to happen with our choices.

Rather than Catholics standing together and saying, “there must be another way,” we have acquiesced to the two-party argument that to choose a third way is to throw our votes away. By always choosing the lesser of two evils, as Gratian suggests, we have not moved toward virtue, we have moved further away from it.

We believed that the Republicans would change the federal laws governing abortion, but when they had control of the House, Senate, White House and Supreme Court, they did nothing. Nothing.

We have allowed the political powers-that-be to steal our voices and use them to bring forth ideas and laws that we, as Catholics, do not support. Since when does a stranger in a strange land get told, “Sorry, no room in the inn”? This is a reaction born out of Fear. Aquinas addresses this in another spot: “Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts.”

We have allowed Fear to rule us, not Love and not Wisdom, and it has led us to this moral dilemma.

In a democratic republic, it is true, not every single vote counts, but a large enough groundswell can change the course of the river. We must stand against that tide as Catholics. We must stand up for our principles and we must vote with our consciences. My conscience tells me that Donald Trump, and the Republicans who support him are erring gravely and are leading us to worse places in the very near future.

I read a book during my Junior year of college that changed my life: Plato's Republic. In it, Plato lays out all of the different types of people and political systems we have in the world. He details the decay of civilization and predicts with stunning accuracy how we will get to each stage – from Monarchy to Aristocracy to Oligarchy to Democracy to Tyranny.

As I read, I realized that we have passed through all of them in human history and we are just a breath away from Tyranny in this country. Plato actually names Tolerance as one of the forerunners of Tyranny. To put it succinctly, he predicts that we will be so open-minded that our brains will fall out. But Tolerance is meant in many senses here. We buck against toleration of ideas that go against our own, especially when we see that they are damaging to the society at large. And that is as it should be. We should stand up for wise governance.

But, if we are willing to tolerate someone who admires leaders and people who lie and kill to get what they want (or who actually are leaders who lie and kill to get what they want), and who are so hungry for power that they will say or do anything to get it, then we are just as bad as those who tolerate other sins against the Father.

I cannot in good conscience vote for a person who has no record of being a decent and wise human being in the name of "winning". If we Catholics, as a group, do not rise up and say "no more!" this situation will continue to degrade and we will find ourselves prisoners of our own choices.

In fact, Plato addresses that, too. One of the hallmarks of tyranny is the lack of freedom --not just for the governed, but for the individual tyrant. He is a prisoner of his own desires, always wanting more. He constantly worries about how he will keep his power and who is coming to take it from him. He fears for his life. 

We might already be there. When you have to ask what is the lesser of two evils, that means you are trapped.

There are those who have advocated standing back and letting it all play out --the so-called Amish-Option. Even if we choose to exercise that option this time, we should never stand quietly. Moving forward, we should choose our champions wisely. It is, perhaps, time to consider that the two-party system does not serve us well. The either/or fallacy that this system sets up can be broken by a significant enough shock --but we MUST find the third way.

Fortunately, Aquinas gives us one more piece of advice for dealing with secundum quid dilemmas: he tells us that the only way out is through confession, penance and amendment. I don't think it's any accident that Jesus tells us, quite plainly, that He is the Way and the place that we can find him is in the Sacraments.

*Apologies to Michael V. Dougherty, PhD (my excellent professor at Ohio Dominican University, who wrote an excellent book on the subject of moral dilemmas) - I'm doing this from memory because my notes are in storage.

Just a note: the idea of moral dilemmas is not a settled question. The debate is still going on today. This is just the information I am working with and what I hold to be true. You may disagree. You may believe Gratian. I believe Aquinas.


  1. I don't know where a Trump presidency will lead the country and I'm fine with that. I do know where a Clinton presidency will lead us and there I have no desire to go.

    I don't believe Trump to be a practicing Christian, but neither was Constantine (until his death bed) and yet the emperor' reign was good for the Church.

    I don't expect Trump will do anything to roll back abortion and the sodomite agenda, but at least he's not suggested that my religious beliefs are in need of change. It was after all'practicing Catholics' like the Kennedys and the Cuomos who were instrumental in entrenching the culture of death in our country, so overtly religious politicians don't get a free pass on the social issues. Not from me, anyway.

    I'm not supporting Trump the man but the change of orientation (from globalist to nationalist) that he represents for our nation's domestic and foreign policy.

  2. To be honest, Carlos, I wonder what his foreign policy is. I don't think he has a clear idea of what that might look like globally, nor do I believe he has thought about it much, other than to delegate it. Indeed, I don't know that he has put much thought into domestic policy past the building of his (now infamous) wall. But maybe you know something I don't.

  3. I've been thinking along these same lines for the last few months. One thing it's important to understand is that as Catholics we can never vote for the lesser of two evils -- because supporting evil is evil. As Katie points out in the quote from Gratian, you can use your vote to lessen evil but never vote *for* evil.

    I'm tired of feeling dirty every time I go into the voting booth because I've been told to "toe the party line" and vote for someone who supports policies that don't even meet the bare minimum standard of the Catholic faith -- just because the candidate mouths some platitude about being "pro-life". I know this will be read as heresy from some conservatives, but I'm honestly wondering if a Hillary presidency would be one that would lessen evil in our country over the next 4 years.

  4. Pope Benedict XVI commented on the issue of voting for the lesser of two a realist, he had to. Neither Mr. Trump nor Mrs. Clinton will or can change the "legal right" to an abortion. So, here we are with the culture of death staring us right smack in the face everywhere we turn around. Our first pope guides us today. "Lord, where do we go? You have the words of eternal life," and "always have an explanation ready for what you believe, given in charity." (Paraphrasing, here.) Toasts to the New Evangelization, fellow Catholics. It's our only hope.

  5. I think Dr. Dougherty would be proud of your succinct summary of his semester long class!