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 Volume 1.14  This View’s Column May 13, 2002 

Black is Gray is Yes is Maybe is Left is Up is Down is Across

The Dearth of Necessary Distinctions

The making of necessary distinctions is crucial, in thought as in practical life. In contemporary disputes about public policy, many people neglect to make necessary distinctions. This failure is doubly bad: it stems from confusion, and it foments more confusion. How can individuals or societies chose aright when their thinking is thus confused?

Necessary Distinctions: Crucial in Practical Life and in Thought

Examples from Catholic Debate

From time to time, I have engaged in discussions with non-Catholics, and even with disgruntled Catholics, who commonly fall into very sloppy thinking about the Catholic faith. A typical objection might go something like this: “Catholic apologists say the Catholic faith is consistent and has never contradicted itself. But eating meat on Fridays used to be a sin, now it’s not: that is a contradiction. And priests who have vowed to be celibate for life can leave the priesthood and get married, but married individuals who have vowed to be together for life can’t get divorced and remarried: that is not consistent. But they can get an ‘annulment’ and marry again, which is another inconsistency.”

True, these cases are factual. But the conclusions drawn from them are incorrect, for the objections fail to take note of necessary distinctions.

Catholic theology distinguishes between (1) doctrine and (2) discipline: that is, between (1) teachings concerning faith and morality that come from divine revelation, which no human authority can tamper with, and (2) traditions and customs that are sanctioned by the authority of the Church, which can be added, modified, or dropped, at the discretion of competent authorities.

Requiring abstinence from meat on Friday, as an act of penance and mortification in remembrance of the crucifixion of Christ, has been a discipline of the Catholic Church for many centuries: disobedience of this requirement is sinful because it is disobedience, not because eating meat on Friday is wrong in itself. Since no divine precept requires abstinence from meat on Friday, the Church is able to drop the requirement without involving contradiction. (Whether the requirement, or the lack thereof, is prudent at any given time is another matter.)

Similarly, requiring life-long celibacy of a priest has been a discipline of the Catholic Church for many centuries — but it is not required by divine law. So, a priest may be excused by the Church from his vow of celibacy, so long as he also gives up sacred ministry. Life-long fidelity in marriage, however, is a matter of divine law, as the New Testament indicates in many places, so the Church has no authority to release anybody from his marriage vows to divorce and marry again.

But the Church recognizes that certain conditions are necessary, by the very nature of things, for a Christian marriage to exist at all: for instance, the individuals must enter the union freely and with the intention of life-long fidelity. If either of these conditions is lacking, the union may be declared null and void: that is, a marriage never really existed in the first place, despite outward appearances. Once this has been determined, both parties are free to marry. (This distinction is not a Catholic one: any society, of whatever kind, that recognizes marriage must also have some means of determining whether a couple is really married according to its own rules. For instance, a civil judge might declare a marriage to be null and void because one of the parties was underage, according to state law, and had forged parental consent.)

Examples from Other Areas of Life

Necessary distinctions are crucial in all areas of life and thought, from the simple and trivial to the complex and important. Here are a few hypothetical examples.

  • Susie accidentally bought two different shades of pink nail polish (out of the 487 different shades of pink available). Her friends are going to think she looks silly after she finishes one bottle on her left hand and begins another on her right. Unless they think she is starting a new kewl fad.
  • Susie’s dad accidentally bought a slightly different shade of green latex paint (out of the 314 shades of green latex paint available) than had been used on the rec room’s walls three years earlier. Susie’s mom is going to be very upset when the touch-up paint job makes the rec room look even worse.
  • Susie’s older brother Harry has both a credit card and a debit card. Using an automated teller machine, he unwittingly makes a cash withdrawal using his credit card rather than his debit card. He is going to be perturbed when he finally realizes he will have to pay that money back.

We don’t need only hypothetical goof-ups. Real life is chock full of situations where experience has taught us that making necessary distinctions is crucial to accomplishing our purposes.

  • Though young children often have difficulty with them, the directions left and right are basic concepts. But they are relative to one’s position. For instance, from the audience’s viewpoint, the left side of a stage is the right side of the stage from the ballerina’s viewpoint, when she is facing the audience. So, folks in the theatre use the term “stage left” to refer to that part of the stage to one’s left when one is on stage and facing the audience. So stage left refers to one side of the stage, and not the other, no matter where one is nor what direction one is facing.
  • Many highways have several lanes going in the same direction. There may be two or more lanes to the right, and two or more lanes to the left, on the very same side of the highway. Being in the correct lane at the correct place to take, say, the correct branch where the highway divides, or to make an exit, is critical to avoiding accidents and traffic jams. We spend an awful lot of money, I should think, constructing and erecting and lighting highway signs to make sure drivers have plenty of warnings about what lane to be in at what place to get to where they want to go, safely.

Failing to make necessary distinctions can result in some pretty big blunders — like this one:

  • In September 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter entered Mar’s atmosphere and was frizzled crispy. The MCO had cost $125 million. It was not supposed to crispy frizzle in Mar’s atmosphere: it was, as its name indicates, supposed to enter orbit and investigate climate on the Red Planet. What went wrong? For an operation critical to maneuvering the spacecraft into orbit, one team of engineers had worked with metric units of measurement (centimeters, meters, etc.) and another had worked with imperial, or US standard, units (inches, feet, etc.).


A Dearth of Necessary Distinctions

Am I belaboring the obvious? Maybe. But it seems to be necessary: lately, public discourse — and, consequently, sometimes public policy — is often marked by the absence of necessary distinctions.

Zero-Tolerance Policies

So-called zero-tolerance policies — whether they be about sexual abuse, drugs, alcohol, or weapons — seem more notable for “zero intelligence” than for anything else. This is often because they fail to make necessary distinctions.

For instance, a senior at Lee County High School in Georgia was expelled from school three weeks before graduation this year because school officials found a couple of steak knives in his vehicle. Chet Maine had taken the knives on a weekend camping trip, and accidentally left them in the bed of his pickup truck. He then took them, unwittingly, onto school property.

For centuries, Anglo-American jurisprudence has distinguished between intentional crimes and accidental infractions. The penalty for premeditated murder, for instance, is a great deal more severe than the penalty for involuntary manslaughter. Because of lack of necessary distinctions, however, the penalty for involuntary weaponry in one Georgia county high school is the same as for a deliberate violation. (I hope Maine sues Georgia good.)

Homosexuality and Religion

An omniscient Canadian judge ordered, via an interim ruling, that a Catholic school in Oshawa, Ontario, must allow a homosexual student to bring his boyfriend to the prom this year. The Toronto Star ran an article, May 10, in which a theology professor conveyed his observations:

Roger Hutchinson, a professor emeritus of theology at the University of Toronto, said he didn’t think the decision would “open the floodgates” and make way for concrete change. But he said it would send a strong message that gay people have basic human rights that must be protected by public institutions. “It will make all Catholic schools think twice before they make anti-gay decisions.”

Hutchinson said that since the 1960s the church has been faced with the question of whether homosexuals deserve the full rights afforded to people of different races and genders. “The church wouldn’t dream of banning a Jewish date from the prom, and the public outcry would likely be greater if they did,” Hutchinson said.

Were I Jewish, I would find Hutchinson’s remark highly offensive: he puts Jews, as Jews, in the same kind of category as individuals engaging in behavior that has been considered grossly immoral from time immemorial among the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Had he compared pedophilia with being a Muslim, per se, Hutchinson is the one against whom would come a public outcry.

Is being Jewish an “orientation”? Are Jewish rites the perversion of other religious rites? Has being Jewish been accounted traditionally as a mental disorder?

Though I suppose one could argue that some homosexual activists have made their sexual orientation and behaviors into their religion, or practically so, one must obliterate necessary distinctions to put sexual inclinations into the same category as religion.

One Result: Moral Equivalence

“Moral equivalence” is a phrase one sees often nowadays in news articles, but especially in opinion pieces, mostly concerning the war on terrorism and the war — we might as well call it what it is — in Palestine. The term became current, I understand, during the Cold War when some folks started asking if there was really, really any difference that made a difference between the international policies of the United States and of the Soviet Union. Those who answered the question “No” were said to be claiming moral equivalence between the two superpowers. (They were said to be pinko commies and anti-American subversives, too.)

False claims of moral equivalence arise when necessary distinctions are neglected.

Late last year, moral equivalence was claimed, by some, between the American military attack on Afghanistan and the Massacre of September 11, 2001. Innocent civilians are being killed, it was naturally said, so what’s the difference between the two actions?

The very purpose of the attack on the World Trade Center towers was to kill innocent civilians in an attempt to destabilize an entire nation. The purposes of the attack on Afghanistan were to kill terrorists and to destroy their infrastructure in an attempt prevent future terrorist attacks on innocent civilians. Though innocent civilians would undoubtedly be killed accidentally, equating the latter action with the former boggles the mind. As if, not “the end justifies the means” but “the end nullifies the means”. As if ending up with dead bodies of innocent non-combatants is all that matters.

Good grief. A man who goes to the dentist to prepare for getting full dentures ends up the same as the man who is tortured by having all his teeth pulled out: neither has any of his own teeth left. Thinking that the dentist ought to be punished at all, let alone as if he were a torturer, would brand anybody as being cuckoo. Wouldn’t it?

One of the more remarkable attempts at asserting moral equivalence was published in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 8. One theme of the article is... hold on... that Saddam Hussein and Iraq are, in certain respects, morally equivalent to... get ready... George Bush and the USA:

.... Iraq may be making doomsday chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. But wouldn’t the United States make a more persuasive case if it would publicly lay out whatever evidence it has, such as satellite photos? Assuming that Iraq has those weapons, it is not alone. There are many nations, including the United States, that have nuclear arsenals....

If Iraq continues to stiff the United Nations on weapons inspections, it will be up to the member states to impose penalties, not the United States acting unilaterally. Ironically, the United States itself has refused to accept weapons inspectors from countries it considers hostile. Furthermore, this nation chooses the sites that inspectors who are allowed in the country may inspect. Under special legislation, the president can block unannounced inspections and ban inspectors from removing samples of its chemical stockpiles. But, hey, who said we had to be fair?...

Oh, what on earth difference could there be between Iraq and the USA each having nuclear weapons? Nuclear arsenals are nuclear arsenals are nuclear arsenals — no? And how, O how, can we demand that Iraq allow weapons inspections when the USA sometimes does not? Do we not have to be fair?

Must we be fair? Certainly! But it is the very opposite of fairness that is being suggested there. What would be fair is to treat a murderous, tyrannical, lunatic thug as if he is a murderous, tyrannical, lunatic thug. And to not so treat those who are not.

The article quoted is remarkable, not just for its blatant stupidity and inchoate anti-American bias, but also for its author: Helen Thomas, the Grand Old Dame of the (liberal) mainstream press for the past four decades.

Will the Dearth of Necessary Distinctions Mean the Death of Freedom?

Thomas could hardly walk into a room with more than two journalists present, I’m sure, without being greeted with genuine acclaim — despite her views above, it is to be hoped, not because of them.

Yet, I must worry that, indeed, she would be acclaimed because... bluntly... she cannot think straight because she neglects necessary distinctions. Necessary, obvious, manifest, indisputable distinctions.

Is this thought not frightening?

How long can a nation last, that is built upon and must be continually sustained by, individuals who participate in public life — be it by holding public office, by involvement in political campaigns, by membership in civic organizations, by writing to influence public opinion, or by no more than voting in every election — how long can that nation last when public discourse and policy-making is influenced, if not dominated, by people who cannot think straight because they will not — cannot? — make necessary distinctions?

ELC 2002


 Volume 1.14 This View’s Column May 13, 2002 

The View from the Core, and all original material, © E. L. Core 2002. All rights reserved.

Cor ad cor loquitur J. H. Newman — “Heart speaks to heart”