Pandemic Letter 40: Whatever It Takes!

Whatever It Takes! Ride Over the Bastards!
“Whatever it takes!” say certain persons from politics, business, the media, the universities-even, sadly, from law and medicine.  This is the idea that if one has a goal, perhaps attainment of political power, whether for oneself, or for one’s group, one ought pursue that goal single-mindedly, remorselessly, with determination, dismissively as regards any other consideration, no matter what.  

Ride Over the Bastards 
As the late Bob Askin, former NSW Premier, said: “Ride over the bastards!”
Many proponents of this approach end up shunned by friends and colleagues, in gaol, before ICAC, guilt-ridden, ill, disappointed, bankrupt, lonely, and sad- but many, perhaps most, are showered with honours, power, wealth, having achieved what they sought by a certain worldly wisdom, a certain shrewdness, a certain cunning, a certain pragmatism.

The Florentine bureaucrat Nicolo Macchiavelli (1469-1527), author of The Prince, intellectual founder of modern political theory, is a proponent of the “Whatever it takes” approach to politics:
Therefore, it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them.  And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and to always observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appearmerciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.  

And you have to observe this, that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to faith, friendship, humanity and religion.  Therefore, it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the wind and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but if compelled, to know how to set about it. 

 Machiavelli provides an example of the “Whatever it takes” approach to be emulated by aspiring princes:
When the duke occupied the Romagna, he found it under the rule of weak masters, who rather plundered their subjects than rule them, and gave them more cause for disunion than for union, so that the country was full of robbery, quarrels, and every kind of violence, and so, wishing to bring back peace and obedience to authority, he considered it necessary to give it a good governor.  Thereupon he promoted Messer Ramiro d’Orco [de Lorqua], a swift and cruel man, to whom he gave the fullest power.  This man in a short time restored peace and unity with the greatest success…And because he knew that the past severity had caused some hatred against himself, so, to clear himself in the minds of the people, and gain them entirely to himself, he desired to show that, if any cruelty had been practised, it had not originated with him, but in the natural sternness of the minister.  Under this pretence, he took Ramiro, and one morning caused him to be executed and left on the piazza at Cesena with a block and a bloody knife at his side.  The barbarity of this spectacle caused the people to be at once satisfied and dismayed.

Second Vatican Council 
Inconsistent with Machiavelli’s “Whatever it takes” approach, is the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (1965):

Everyone must consider his every neighbour without exception as another self, taking into account first of all his life and the means necessary to living it with dignity, so as not to imitate the rich man who had no concern for the poor man Lazarus.

In our times a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbour of every personwithout exception, actively helping him when he comes across our path, whether he be an old person abandoned by all, a foreign labourer unjustly looked down upon, a refugee, a child born of an unlawful union and wrongly suffering for a sin he did not commit, or a hungry person who disturbs our conscience by recalling the voice of the Lord, “As long as you did it for one of these the least of my brethren, you did it for me” (Matt. 25:40).

Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditionsarbitrary imprisonmentdeportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury.

There is a final judgment which we all have to face.

Life of Service 
The vocation to politics, if lived well, as lived by St Thomas More, as a life of service, is noble.  The vocation to politics involves doing one’s duty, in the context of an overarching ethical framework founded on respect for the human person, and respect for the common good; in the context of adherence to exceptionless moral norms which ensure respect for each and every person; and in the context of the pursuit of virtue in everyday life.

Opinionable Matters 
There are many political judgments which are opinionable, about which good persons can reasonably form varying views, based on empirical matters, involving prudential considerations, on which there are reasonably different perspectives.  Persons who claim they represent the only possible viewpoint fail to understand human freedom, and the complexity of human decision-making.  Most political decisions are arguable in the sense that reasonable persons can take different views.

In politics, the “Whatever it takes” view is inconsistent with the Christian view. A statement of the Church’s position is to be found in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Doctrinal Note on the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (2002):

When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation…Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person. This is the case with laws concerning abortion and euthanasia (not to be confused with the decision to forgo extraordinary treatments, which is morally legitimate). Such laws must defend the basic right to life from conception to natural death. In the same way, it is necessary to recall the duty to respect and protect the rights of the human embryo. Analogously, the family needs to be safeguarded and promoted, based on monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, and protected in its unity and stability in the face of modern laws on divorce: in no way can other forms of cohabitation be placed on the same level as marriage, nor can they receive legal recognition as such. The same is true for the freedom of parents regarding the education of their children; it is an inalienable right recognized also by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. In the same way, one must consider society’s protection of minors and freedom from modern forms of slavery (drug abuse and prostitution, for example). In addition, there is the right to religious freedomand the development of an economy that is at the service of the human person and of the common good, with respect to social justice, the principles of human solidarity and subsidiarity…Finally, the question of peace must be mentioned.. Peace is always the work of justice and the effect of charity.  It demands the absolute and radical rejection of violence and terrorism and requires a constant and vigilant commitment on the part of all political leaders.

Consistency requires respect for the human person, respect for justice, in all respects, at all times, and in all circumstances – and hence certain actions (aggressive warfare, deliberate killing of civilians in warfare, deliberate destruction of the homes and livelihoods of civilians, torture), are contrary to respect for human dignity.

Good Persons On Both Sides of Politics 
In the debate in New South Wales as to voluntary assisted dying, there are good persons on both sides of politics who uphold respect for human life.  The deliberately intended killing of others is always wrong.  The deliberately intended close cooperation with the killing of others is always wrong.  We must acknowledge those who respect human life, regardless of their political allegiance.  Whoever is not against us in respect of basic human goods, such as life, is for us.

Exceptionless Moral Norms 
In 1991, the South Australian lawyer, Oxford Rhodes scholar turned philosopher, proponent of the New Natural Law Theory, John Finnis wrote a little book, Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision and Truth in which he makes the case for exceptionless moral norms.

Amongst other things, Finnis points out we make ourself the person we are by our choices.  So, the tribunal decision-maker who, because he or she is in a hurry to go to lunch, or too lazy to write an adequate judgement, or wants to be reappointed to a statutory position, denies adequate compensation to an injured worker, is not simply impacting the exterior world.  He or she is creating a self who is indifferent, or even hostile, to the good of another, He or she is constituting himself as a person who “rides over the bastards”.

Finnis points out the relevance of feelings of partiality or egoism or hostility which give rise to rationalisations of wrongful acts.

Finnis picks up on Plato’s observation in the Gorgias attributed to Socrates, the Athenian philosopher forced to drink the fatal hemlock:

…to do injustice is more to be avoided than to suffer injustice…the reality, and not the appearance of virtue is to be followed above all things, as well in public as in private life.

Invasion of Ukraine 
Multiple examples of transgression of exceptionless moral norms are provided by President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the deliberate killing of civilians, the destruction of the homes of ordinary Ukrainians, and the constant lying which is a feature of President Putin’s public statements.

Mechelen, Belgium – January 31, 2015: Stained Glass window depicting Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274)

Catholic Moral Theology 
Catholic moral theology has been restated in contemporary terms by Pope St John Paul II in three documents – the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), the encyclical Veritatis Splendor: on Certain Fundamental Questions of the Church’s Moral Teaching (1993), and the encyclical, Evangelium Vitae: on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life (1995).  

Catholic Social Teaching 
A fourth document, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004), draws together Catholic Social Teaching.  Catholic Social Teaching has greatly developed since Pope Leo XIII published Rerum Novarum in 1891, both in response to changing society, but also with deeper insights. The Compendium should be bedside reading for any politician or lawyer.  The Compendium needs to be supplemented with Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate:  Integral Development in Charity and Truth 2009.  Similarly, Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato si:  On Care for our Common Home

These documents of the Church invite us to an examination of conscience as to whether we have ingrained prejudices, thoughtless attitudes, indifferent, indeed, hostile, to the good of others, indifferent, indeed, hostile, to the common good.  Pope Francis has developed the Church’s social teaching in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation: Querida Amazonia, which is not merely applicable to the indigenous people of the Amazon, but to indigenous peoples generally, for instance, Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.  Indifference to Australia’s Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, or mere platitudes, is not sufficient.  There must be an “authentic option for the poor…motivating us to liberate them from material poverty and to defend their rights” – though that alone, as Pope Francis says, is insufficient. 

Catechism of the Catholic Church 
In 1992, St Pope John Paul II published the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There had not been such a comprehensive and authoritative statement of Catholic belief and practice since the Roman Catechism (the Catechism of the Council of Trent) was published in 1566.

Some key propositions outlined in the Catechism are:

  • The dignity of the human person is rooted in creation in the image and likeness of God, and fulfilled in the vocation to divine beatitude.
  • Christ makes the human person fully manifest to himself and brings to light his exalted vocation.
  • The human person is obliged to follow the moral law which urges him to do what is good and avoid what is evil.
  • The moral law makes itself heard in conscience.
  • Freedom is the power to act or not to act, and so to perform deliberative acts of one’s own.
  • Freedom attains perfection in its acts when directed to God, the sovereign good.

Sources of Morality 
The morality of human acts depends on:

  • the object chosen.  The object chosen is the good towards which the will deliberately directs itself.
  • the end in view or intention. In contrast to the object, the intention resides in the acting subject.  A good intention (for example, helping one’s neighbour) does not make behaviour that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, just.  The end does not justify the means. An added bad intention (such as vainglory) makes an act evil that, in and of itself, can be good (such as almsgiving).
  • the circumstances of the action.  The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral action. Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves. They can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil.

A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the intention, and of the circumstances, all together.  An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting “in order to be seen by men”).  The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a moral evil.  It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency etc) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object-acts such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.

In this context, one should read the Catechism‘s understanding of conscience. Conscience is a judgment of reason by which a human person recognises the moral quality of a concrete act.  For the person who has committed evil, the verdict of conscience remains a pledge of conversion and hope.

A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful.  It formulates judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator.  Everyone must avail himself of the means to form his conscience.  Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgement in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgement.

A human being must always obey the judgement of conscience. Conscience can remain in ignorance or make erroneous judgements. Such ignorance and errors are not always free of guilt. The Word of God is a light for our path. We must assimilate it in faith and put it into practice. This is how moral conscience is formed.   This understanding of “conscience” to be found in the Catechism is far from use of the term on social media, on TV, in the newspapers, and far from the notion of a “conscience vote”-which commonly means arbitrariness, subjectivity, disregard for reality, egoism, narcissism, hubris.

Veritatis Splendor 
In 1993 Pope St John Paul II released his encyclical, Veritatis Splendor.  This great work of Christian writing, of perennial significance, stopped dead the revisionist moral theology of the late 1960’s.  Revisionist moral theology had aspects drawn from utilitarianism, the idea that one might somehow “weigh up” basic goods, that there are no exceptionless moral norms.  Revisionist moral theology provides some-but far from all- explanation for the sexual abuse scandal which continues to rock the Church.  Pope St John Paul II’s approach to ethics as expressed in Veritatis Splendor, is scriptural, specifically Christocentric.  It is not a mere legalistic list of dos and don’ts. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides examples of evil in economic relations.  In particular, the Catechism condemns:

  • deliberate retention of goods lent or of objects lost;
  • business fraud;
  • paying unjust wages;
  • forcing up prices by taking advantage of the ignorance or hardship of another.
  • speculation in which one contrives to manipulate the price of goods artificially in order to gain an advantage to the detriment of others; 
  • corruption in which one influences the judgment of decision-makers; 
  • appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise
  • work poorly done
  • tax evasion
  • forgery of cheques and invoices; 
  • excessive expenses; 
  • waste; and 
  • wilfully damaging private or public property 

Pope St John Paul II, in Veritatis Splendor, engages in a similar discussion as regards politics:
In the political sphere, it must be noted that truthfulness in the relations between those governing and those governed, openness in public administration, impartiality in the service of the body politic, respect for the rights of political adversariessafeguarding the rights of the accused against summary trials and convictions, the just and honest use of public funds, the rejection of equivocal or illicit means in order to gain, preserve or increase power at any cost — all these are principles which are primarily rooted in, and in fact derive their singular urgency from, the transcendent value of the person and the objective moral demands of the functioning of states.

Ethical Relativism 
Pope St John Paul II proceeds to discuss ethical relativism:

…This is the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgement of truth impossible. Indeed, “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism”.

Evangelium Vitae 
The third element of Pope St John Paul II’s restatement of Catholic moral theology is the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (1995). Pope St John Paul II highlights the obligation to oppose laws which legalise both abortion and euthanasia.

Reforming Our Consciences 
The Catholic Church is a Church of sinners.  We delude ourselves if we think we are immune to the worldly perspectives of the environment in which we live.  So, we confront the constant need to reform our consciences, to reform our actions.

For those who are involved in politics or law, indeed for all who are engaged in any human activity, we need to examine our conscience, to consider whether we have, possibly unwittingly, uncritically absorbed the “Whatever it takes” ideology, the “Ride over the bastards” way of doing things.  We need to change our ways.

The “Whatever it takes”, the “Ride over the bastards”, way of doing things, should be rejected.  Political debate should be respectful of others, including political opponents, respectful of the common good. There are some things one should never say, never do.  There is no room for lying, for personal abuse, for detraction, nor calumny.

Sometimes, like St Thomas More, one should say nothing.  Other times, like St Thomas More, one should speak.  At all times one should live honourably, act justly, and do harm to no one, treat others as they would wish to be treated.