Wednesday, 24 November 2010

More on the Pope's Condom Turnaround: Dance of the Imbeciles

Just the other day, I offered my analysis of the Pope's apparent turnaround on the morality of using of condoms for preventing HIV infection. Most other readings made by people who are supposed to know a bit of ethics I have seen have made a similar interpretation (see, e.g. this comment and the ensuing discussion): The Pope is using the Doctrine of the Double Effect, according to which the good intention of trying to avoid the transmission of HIV (slightly) whitewashes the otherwise (according to past dogma) sinful act of having safe sex. Although the Pope, in the interview where he was reported to state his new opinion, was reported to use only the example of a male prostitute, obviously, the argument from the DDE is applicable no matter the gender of the person having safe sex or in what relationship they stand to each other. Indeed, this was confirmed by the Vatican spokesman Father Lombardi at a press conference yesterday, reported at the website Catholic Culture (emphasis added by me):

Father Lombardi explained that the Pope did not attach great significance to his choice of a male rather than female prostitute to illustrate his point. The basic point, he said, is “the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk to the life of another.”

According to the Catholic News Agency, Lombardi even added:

“Whether a man or a woman or a transsexual does this, we’re at the same point,”

At the same time, several other high representatives of Catholicism have been very active, some (reported at the Catholic Culture website) pointing out what us secular ethics guys saw immediately - that reasoning from the DDE is old news in Catholic ethics - others, rather desperately, doing their very best to push the toothpaste back into the tube. Some in this last crowd makes for a splendid illustration of what an oxymoron the notion of combining dogmatic religious faith and well-reasoned ethical analysis is. Catholic Culture thus reports (my emphasis added):

In response to questions about whether the Pope’s statement applied to married couples in which one partner is HIV-positive—which it clearly did not—the Catholic bishops’ conference of South Africa issued a statement emphasizing “the primacy of an informed conscience.” Going far beyond the Pope’s statement, the South African bishops said: “Where one spouse is infected with HIV/AIDS they must listen to their consciences. They are the only ones who can choose the appropriate means.” 

Wonderful! So, according to the South African version of Catholic moral dogma, there is nothing(!) to be said for having safe sex with your spouse if you are infected by HIV rather than having unsafe sex. If it is not a question of spouse but girl-/boy-friend, a fiancee, a one night stand or - indeed - a prostitute, however, then protecting the life of your sexual partner immediately becomes morally significant. In some mysterious way, however, consulting one's conscience is not of importance in the latter case, but (apparently) highly so in the former. And, by the way, as to the the reference to the (marital?) ethical importance of conscience: How very Lutheran!

Another example regards the expansion of the DDE reasoning to situations where we are not only talking about two people, but a society. I argued, in my analysis, that a logical expansion of the Pope's argument implies that there are (Catholic) moral reasons for states to employ condoms to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic: Handing them out freely or subsidizing them, educating people about how HIV is transmitted and how condoms might prevent it, et cetera. From a Catholic point of view, obviously, such actions are second best to having the population resort to abstinence, but that does not take away the moral reason, especially when the state knows that abstinence is not to be expected no matter what political measures are employed (and, for that matter, that any democratic government taking such measures would be out of office by the next election). This, however, is obviously viewed with some horror by the Catholic Culture reporter:

Secular journalists have routinely interpreted the Pope’s statement as an admission that condom use can be justified, although the Pope’s full statement, in context, clearly makes no such claim. Many reports have suggested that the Pope was backing away from earlier statements, in which he said that condom-distribution campaigns are the wrong way to fight AIDS. In fact, in his interview with Seewald, the Pope was defending those earlier statements when he made the remarks that have prompted so many headlines. 

So, is the point here that the intention of protecting the life of others is morally worthy when directed at one person, but not at several? If the ideas of the South African bishops looked a bit over the top, this one seems to be right in the center of the madhouse. But, obviously, this can hardly be what the Pope meant, or what is the present standing on the dignity, sanctity and value of human life within Catholic ethics. Neither can the point be that a good intention makes no difference, since that would imply that the Pope is wrong altogether in everything that he says on this matter (which I, actually, can't imagine being a view that the Catholic Culture is representing). My suspicion is that the reporter has been missing out on what I claimed to be a bit of a novelty as regard ethical analysis in official Catholic moral teaching in the Pope's pattern of reasoning: an idea of degrees of wrong and right. So, just as with the case with two people having sex, the condom solution is not claimed by the Pope as being the morally best one. But neither is it the worst one! If you have HIV and is going to have sex (which, as a good Catholic, you really shouldn't), better use a condom than not. Similarly, if you're going to shape a policy to stop HIV and can't or won't have people to practice abstinence, better use condoms than not. Clear enough?!

But the most hilarious example of desperation and confusion comes from a person who is supposed to be a highly proficient and sharp mind when it comes to ethical analysis, US moral theologian John Haas – head of the National Center for Catholic Bioethics. As reported by the Catholic News Agency. Dr. Haas' object of complaint is not the statement of the Pope, but the interpretation related above that the DDE argument for condom use applies no matter the gender of the person (my emphasis added):

“The gender of the prostitute is indeed relevant to the point the Pope wanted to make with regard to the use of condoms,” Haas said. [...] the “presumption is that the male prostitute has AIDS. His decision to use a condom perhaps might mean some expression of concern and regard for the other person.” Haas pointed out that female prostitutes do not use condoms. If a female prostitute does use condoms, he said, that act would likely reflect a selfish concern – to protect herself from disease.
"She would want to protect herself from being infected and in no way would be expressing the concern for the 'other' that the Pope said might be the first step toward 'moralization' if it were being done by a male prostitute. This is why the example of a female prostitute doesn't work,” Haas said.

First of all, note that Haas seems to clear transgender people. Fine, but what is he doing next??? Primo, it seems, making false assertions and contradicting himself better than in any textbook example you might want to use in A-level logic or argumentation class. Female prostitutes don't use condoms (false!), but, then again, they do. Or what? Secundo, he seems to be suggesting that the value of a human life is not very important when that life is one's own. That is, the value of human life is, in fact, not the sort of absolute that I would have thought would be the last conviction of a Catholic ethicist to be sacred on the altar of dogmatism. Anyhow, splendid news for all Catholics who are contemplating suicide: keeping yourself alive is a mere "selfish concern" that is in no way to be seen as being a step towards "moralization" - just ask Dr. Haas! Tertio, and most startling, considering that Haas is supposed to be a prominent bioethicist, he demonstrates what must either be lack of willingness to learn some basic facts about the case he is commenting on, or a conscious refusal to apply those facts known to him. For, considering that we are talking about a lethal pandemic, the assumption about the woman's motive can only involve herself and her client is clearly faulty. This is an infectious disease we are talking about, and one that is spreading rapidly. The woman's concern may therefore be about herself, her present family, her forthcoming children, people who may become infected in a secondary stage, should she herself be infected, and so on and so forth up to a concern for the entire population.

Back to school, Dr. Haas!