Friday, February 28, 2014

The Outside System

It was around the age of four or five that our children began to speak to me and my wife on the topic of “fairness”.  The normal emphasis would be on the things they deemed unfair. As they explained themselves, I noted an astonishing correlation. All that they disagreed with also happened to be “unfair”. As we questioned them further, a second amazing correlation revealed itself; all which they agreed with also happened to be “fair”.

I’m afraid our children, if left alone, would determine right vs. wrong on their own via their own internal passions as opposed to any outside system. By the way, if you doubt the existence of original sin, spend some time with toddlers or small children. You will note that there is no need to teach them how to be “bad”. It just comes naturally.
Unless guided, children will not use an outside system to judge things and adults are not much different, other than perhaps they will more readily yield to the majority. For many, cultural consensus has become the guarantee of truth. If enough people told you that up is down and right is wrong, you’ll cave unless you have an outside system to refer to.

If this seems ridiculous, ponder the insanity of abortion. If educated people can actually be made to believe that an unborn baby is a “non-person” with no right to be alive, what else can they be convinced of? If said persons were to ask, “When did we become persons?” They would accept subjective thresholds of viability or conscience as dictated by the majority, instead of the observable and scientific point of conception. We often fail to live up to the edicts of the obvious.
Reflect on the unintelligibility of same-sex marriage as well. Too many have been easily duped into thinking that marriage has no rational basis in procreation; that marriage having been defined the way humans reproduce is somehow a trivial coincidence. If humans did not reproduce the way they do, marriage would never have been defined the way it has (male-female) around the world and throughout history…but back to outside systems.

Consider a Compass:
Allegories to a moral compass are just about perfect for describing a moral outside system. The compass uses the earth’s magnetic field to determine which way is north. It does not matter what direction a group of travelers believes is north. The way the magnetic field and the compass needle react to each other is completely independent of the minds of the travelers.

What happens if a large group of symbiotic travelers refuse to use the compass? They will go “somewhere” based on their beliefs and experience about traveling.  They may split up into smaller groups, but even the smaller groups need to decide what to do. The strongest will rule eventually, whether by physical force or via other kinds of peer-pressure, coaxing or bullying. It’s the same in societies. Even for the most stubborn and independent of individuals, the strongest will rule eventually, whether it’s a dictator by physical force or just a majority via lawyers and laws.

Consider Industry:
If a customer complains that a product or system is not working right, one of the first questions the vendors support team should ask (internally) is… “Is there a deviation?” In other words, is the product/system working within its normal operating limits or not? There are many situations in which a product is working within in its established parameters, but the customer still doesn’t like it. Here we have a situation where the customer is saying “it’s wrong” and the vendor says “it’s right”. So what should they do? Is the customer ALWAYS right?

Many times they will refer to industry standards as the outside system (like ISO). The data comes via an outside body of industry experts. They establish widely accepted benchmarks which are independent of the opinions of both the customer and the vendor.

What of morality then?
If you’re a true a relativist, then this post is not really for you, since pure relativism cannot plant a stake in the ground for anything to be truly right or wrong; there are only opinions. For those of us who think right and wrong actually exist objectively, where do we look to? Should moral standards be left to some “body of experts” like in industry? If humans look to other humans to know what is moral for humans, I would say it is still an internal system, like the travelers looking to other travelers instead of a compass to find which way is north. Humans would need to look outside of humanity, but also higher than humanity, so animals would not suffice.

Bonobo chimps are most similar to humans genetically and are known for their sexual promiscuity. They do not seem to discriminate in their sexual behavior by sex or age. In addition, communal sex seems to decrease tension and keeps the peace. I’ve heard it argued that if we could be more like the bonobos, we would all be happier. Wanting to use animals as our outside system for sexual morality shows just how far the human intellect has fallen.


Many believe that God is the outside system for human morality. God would act as the unchanging magnetic field in the compass allegory, but what would act as the compass itself, the visible and universal thing that points the way?  Some may point to sacred writings like the Bible as a kind of travelers guide or map, but written words do not “interact” with people the way a compass interacts between the earth’s magnetic field and the travelers. A map would be an irreplaceable tool, but maps will not orientate you in the right direction like a compass will.

If God really does exist and really does care that we know “The Way”, it seems reasonable that He would provide a reliable compass that was visible and universal for each new generation of travelers to navigate life with. We call this “compass” the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The idea of this kind of outside system is not new; the earliest Christian writers understood its importance…"For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." (2 Tim 4:3)

Life without an outside system...
Stanford Nutting


  1. I'm scripture based so I'm against gay acts and gay marriage. I would not argue from the analogy of magnetic north as being parallel to marriage being procreation based. The Church allows the marriage of the infertile and of the elderly because children are a purpose of marriage but are not of the essence of marriage because that which is of the essence of marriage cannot be taken away from the essence. That's why Joseph and Mary really had a real marriage even though they had no mutual children. Despite Bill Donohue of the Catholic League recently telling CNN that marriage is not about is about love in the deep sense of committment to each other's salvation ( Donohue is divorced...he should be praying for that wife's salvation everyday til death if she is the one who filed).
    Relativism? I'm hoping Catholics drop that word of Benedict's because historically the Vatican has been relativist in spades as had my friend Aquinas who influenced the Vatican. His rigorism deriving from Aristotle on money is non fertile...conflicted with God permitting interest taking by the Jews vis a vis foreigners. Aquinas stuck with Aristotle and his system is found as late as 1746 in Vix Pervenit by Pope Benedict XIV but is completely overturned in the 1830's when the Vatican in answer to dubia allows the taking of moderate interest on non commercial loans. Usury was like the current heated debate on English versus Latin Mass in that Catholics argued for centuries about usury and saints denounced whole cities of laymen on it though that part is more like birth control. Now the heated topic of usury is nowhere to be found. Ask 20 different Bishops what percent is immoderate and you're likely to get 20 different answers. Relativism anyone?

    1. Hi Bill,
      The marriage reference in the post has more to do secular logic and denying the obvious. Take a non-JudeoChristian culture like China or Japan for example. Why would their societies get formally involved in human relationships that are ONLY between non-familial men and women? The logic points to procreation, but many would have us believe that procreation is not relevant to marriage as a secular institution.

      In terms of usury:
      “Lending money at interest gives us the opportunity to exploit the passions or necessities of other men by compelling them to submit to ruinous conditions; men are robbed and left destitute under the pretext of charity. Such is the usury against which the Fathers of the Church have always protested, and which is universally condemned at the present day.”
      Click HERE.

      In short, charging interest can be just as sinful today as it was long ago.

  2. Yes....but from the 13th to the 19th century, it permitted of no parvity of matter and Vix Pervenit notes that the smallest amount is sin just like Aquinas. In 1830, we basically took the position that Calvinists took in 1545 ie that moderate interest could be charged to the middle class. The issue is present in the catechism as all issues must be but the issue is not preached by far with the centrality it held for centuries.

    1. Bill,

      Usury needs to be understood within an economic context. That context has changed since the Middle Ages.

      Understanding the interplay between inerrant moral statements and the application thereof within a particular context is well-summed up here:

      The error concerning the charging of interest is an example of correct moral principles (against economic exploitation and so forth) mistakenly applied on account of the inadequacies of early economic theory. When better economic theory became available (along with the lessons of practical experience), the Church could change its position because the fundamental form of her judgment was: "If W is the economic function involved in the charging of interest, then the charging of interest is immoral, because economic activities must adhere to rule X (or rules X, Y, & Z)." Changes under these circumstances do not threaten the claims of the magisterium of the Church in any way. The discovery that the charging of interest does not (necessarily) involve exploitation, but represents instead legitimate payment for the time-value of money and for the risk factors endured by the lender, denies the antecedent of the hypothetical.[11] Anti-usury laws (as well as anti-loan-sharking laws) which prohibit excessive interest rates—at least on certain types of loans—reflect the wide-spread public recognition of the correctness of the Church's moral judgment in this area—albeit the Church's judgment as modified by improving economic expertise.

      See this and this

  3. Then how did Calvin have our 1830 answer in 1545?

    1. I am not an expert on Calvin or Calvinism, but it seems clear that he was on the forefront of seeing money in this way. He created a society in Geneva that did just that and ushered in the economic state that made the difference. Calvinism was seen as a religious institution and fledgling nations WANTED to profit on money and so were attracted to the new Protestantism that would allow what the Catholic Church still called "usury."

      In any case, the Catholic Church is always careful to not innovate. It can only respond to external changes through the lens of Scripture and Tradition via the Magisterium. The changing underlying economic assumptions about money made complex what was previously a simpler issue.

      In short, Calvin was among those who made it happen and the Church responded to its arrival.

  4. Joe,
    Very honest answer which is not typical of the apologetics world. Check with your pastor on your belief that morals are inerrant in Catholicism. The Holy Spirit protects against the deeply noxious but not from damaging mistakes. For example if you go right now to section 80 of Splendor of the Truth, slavery is listed as an intrinsic evil which means evil despite historical context. That is a mistake on John Paul II's part because scripture which actually is inerrant has God giving perpetual chattel slavery to the Jews over foreigners in Leviticus 25:46. Slavery is necessary wherever you have no prisons as in nomadic cultures who without slavery would execute criminals for petty crimes. Such cultures still exist in the Amazon and in the Sahara etc. Slavery in such cultures processes criminals, hopeless debtors, and captured warriors from tribal wars. Slavery saves all of them from execution. Check with your pastor on this inerrancy problem which I've seen on the net for years. Most morals come from the Bible which is inerrant but not all morals come from there. Aquinas was overstrict on interest on money and on the question of white lies while he affirmed slavery in his non nomadic context in the supplement to the ST on the marriage of a slave within the essay on Matrimony and the old canons agreed with him which he cites. Check moral inerrancy with your padtor or a nearby theology prof at a Catholic seminary.