Books I read in 2016

Last year was my lowest year in ten years for amount of books read.  To be honest, I was working through textbooks and FreeCodeCamp learning to code, which took away from my reading time.  Still, there were a lot of interesting books on this year’s list!
January
1.) 4th Generation Warfare Handbook – William S. Lind and Gregory A. Thiele

 

February
4.) Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft – by Elizabeth Bear and Greg Bear et al.

 

March
11.) Gorilla Mindset – Mike Cernovich

 

April

 

May
15.) The Circle – Dave Eggers
16.) Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War – P. W. Singer and August Cole

 

June
17.) The Cartel Hit (Mack Bolan the Executioner #438) – Mike Linaker, Don Pendleton (Series Creator)
19.) The Tournament – Matthew Reilly
21.) Scarecrow Returns – Matthew Reilly
22.) Progression – Sebastian Marshall

 

July
23.) Abyss Deep (Star Corpsman #2) – by Ian Douglas
26.) Bitcoin for the Befuddled – Conrad Barski and Chris Wilmer

 

August
28.) Star Wars: The Rise of the Empire – John Jackson Miller et al.
29.) Re-read GIS for Dummies – Michael N. DeMers
30.) The Blood of Gods (Emperor #5) –  Conn Iggulden

 

September

 

October
32.) Head First Mobile Web – Lyza Danger Gardner and Jason Grigsby
33.) The Water Knife – Paolo Bacigalupi

 

November
34.) Public Health 101: Healthy People – Healthy Populations – Richard Riegelman, Brenda Kirkwood
37.) Planet of Slums – Mike Davis
38.) Proxima – Stephen Baxter

 

December
39.) There Will Be War Volume X – Jerry Pournelle, Editor
40.) JavaScript: The Good Parts – Douglas Crockford

What I’m Reading – October 2016

The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb by Neal Bascomb. So when I was a kid, Where Eagles Dare by Alistair MacLean was one of my favorite books (still is).  This is kind of like the real life version.  A commando team went into Norway during the War and took out the Nazi facilities that were racing to make their own Atomic bomb.  It doesn’t get more high-stakes than that and the fact that it’s all a true story makes it even more interesting.
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Head First Mobile Web by Lyza Danger Gardner, Jason Grigsby.  I am continuing to work on my programming skills.  Mobile is an area I haven’t explored much so this is more of a way to let me see what’s involved.  It seems just figuring out what device the user has is tough, much less tailoring the experience for their specific needs!  Still, more people in the world have cell phones than working toilets, so mobile is the wave of the future.
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The Rift: A New Africa Breaks Free by Alex Perry.  Speaking of those billions of cell phone users, Africa is one area where the usage of cell phones has exploeded due to the lack of infrastructure.  Most of what we see on the news is famine, war, and pestilence and yet, there is another Africa, wired and high-tech, out there.  This book tries to show both sides, using the Great Rift Valley as a metaphor of the two Africas.
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What I’m Reading – July 2016

Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money by Nathaniel Popper. Anybody who hasn’t heard of Bitcoin by now must be living on Mars.  Although I know a little about it, I wanted to get a better handle on how it works, why it works, and whether or not it really has a future.  This book seemed like a good place to start, especially since it was at my local library for free.  I look forward to exploring this subject in more depth over the coming months.

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Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande. I read Gawande’s book on checklists – The Checklist Manifesto –  and found that it was easy-to-read, interesting, and had practical applications.  I decided to read this one and see if that was again the case.  So far, it seems to be.  In the first chapter, Gawande talks about how hard it is to implement simple things like just having a doctor wash their hands frequently, which cuts the infection rates in hospitals significantly.  But humans are humans, and behavioral change is hard.

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Abyss Deep (Star Corpsman: Book Two) by Ian Douglas.  Ian Douglas has written many novels involving the Marines in space.  They are well researched hard science fiction with excellent combat scenes and enough techno-geekery that even an engineer can love them.  I think he’s one of the best military sci-fi writers out there.  the fact that he’s from Greensburg, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles from my hometown of Pittsburgh, makes me happy too!

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Theology 101: A Little Aquinas, Part 5

This is the last of the series on Aquinas.  I hope this was helpful; I found it fascinating and I learned a lot about everything from logic to God to how my faith can be applied to many areas of life.  Any requests for the next theologian?

Let’s get started.  Today we’ll cover politics and Renick’s summary.

 

Chapter 9: Politics

Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, wrote,  “How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

The question is, “Can it ever be right to disobey the laws of the state? Is breaking the law permissible if the laws themselves are unjust?”   Based on Paul’s thoughts in Romans 13 as well as Augustine’s in The City of God, until Aquinas, most Christians said no.  Indeed, Augustine wrote, “Thus it happens, but not without God’s providence, that some are endowed with kingdoms and others made subject to kings.”  Since God made them king, your are disobeying God if you disobey the king.  If this wwere the case, revolution and civil disobedience would be morally wrong.

However, Aquinas, in his book On Princely Government, says that just as all people do, kings and rulers have the end of pursuing the good – God.  If they don’t, by definition they are no longer the king or state since the definition of these is to pursue justice and the good.

Referencing Aristotle, Aquinas discusses six different forms of government.  They are ranked by how closely they achieve the end of pursuing the good and justice.

At the top and best, to Aquinas, is Monarchy.  Monarchy is “rule by a single leader, a king, who in his actions pursues the just end of the common good, or God…It is both good in intent and efficient in practice,” when the ruler is dedicated to God.  He is similar, says Renick, to the captain of a ship.

Second is aristocracy, which is “rule by a few individuals who all are seeking the common good – God.”  This is second because it is not as efficient as a monarchy – each of the individuals may have different goals in mind for the common good and so debate and compromise lower efficiency.

Next is polity – “rule by the many.”  Here again, all have the best for society in mind, but since there are many of them, it is even more inefficient than aristocracy.

Fourth is democracy, which is “the least unjust of the unjust forms of government.”  Why unjust?  Because unlike a polity, instead of having the common good as a goal, the many seek self-gain instead.  They are voting in their own self-interest rather than society’s.  Democracy is the least bad, though, because the endless debate and compromise mean very little bad gets done.  Aquinas was not far from the truth – the American government was set up with checks and balances to help prevent moving too quickly toward unjust ends.

Next on the list is Oligarchy, or rule by a few individuals with selfish motives.  It is worse than democracy because it is more efficient at pursuing unjust ends.

Finally, the worst form of government is tyranny.  This is basically a king that pursues selfish ends.  It is very efficient at pursuing the bad, which is why it is the worst of all.

This seems contradictory – rule by a single individual is both the best and worst form of government!  Aquinas believes in taking the chance because he feels that humans are basically “good enough to rule justly,” and most people are good, so most of the time the ruler will be good.  also, Good is stronger than evil – there “is only one ultimate good (God) yet as many evils as there are individual goals and ends.  God and its supporters are unified; evil tends to divide.”  So, good usually beats evil.  This, he reasons, is why it is best to support government by one person and take the chance they could be a tyrant.  He would later qualify this view in Summa Theologica,” saying that a mixed form of government, with an elected monarch, an elected aristocracy, and a polity that would check them and elect them, is best.  The Founding Fathers, of course, used Aquinas as one of their inspirations when drafting the Constitution, using checks and balances on each branch of government.  Regarding a tri-partite government, Aquinas writes, “Such is the best government, formed by a good mixture of kingship, in the sense that one person is the chief, and aristocracy, in the sense that many men rule according to virtue, and polity (that is, the power of the people), in the sense that leaders can be elected from among the populace, and further, the choice of the rule belongs to the people.”

This idea of Aquinas’s is not that of divine right of kings.  The king in Aquinas’s system gets the right to govern from the people and must be obeyed only if he pursues God.  If not, he’s not really a king anyway; instead, he’s a tyrant.  A tyrant need not be obeyed, nor an oligarchy, nor a democracy – when they are unjust.  You must do what is right, even if the government says to do something wrong.  However, there are times an unjust government should receive obedience, because “rebellion is often more costly than bearing up under tyranny.”

You will naturally obey a just government if you are a just person – it comes, wait for it, naturally.  And only unjust laws will be hard for you to obey because you are naturally just.  An unjust law is not a law because the essence of a law, Aquinas writes,  is to be “an ordinance of reason directed to the common good.”  It is morally required to disobey an unjust law.

This, Renick says, was an extraordinary thing for Aquinas to write, because at that time, with belief in the divine right of kings, he stated that the people needed to use their reason and intellect to decide if the ruler was right or wrong.  Indeed, he wrote, “Nor should the community be accused of disloyalty for deposing a tyrant, even after a previous promise of constant fealty, for the tyrant lays himself open to such treatment by his failure to discharge the duties of his office as governor of the community, and in consequence his subjects are no longer bound by their oath to him.”

Thus it was that Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, wrote, “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of [its] ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government,” and King wrote, “We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything…the freedom fighters did…was ‘illegal.”  For these two and Aquinas, “the ‘law ‘ is by definition that which is just.  An unjust law is no law at all.  The concept,” Renick concludes, “is a simple one; the implications are, quite literally, revolutionary.”

Chapter 10:  Reading Aquinas

Aquinas’s ideas have become mainstream, but their attribution has been lost.  Renick points out that exalting reason, questioning authority, human rights, natural law, war codes, intentionality in crimes, and double effect are all Thomist ideas.  Reading Aquinas, though is difficult because his works are usually quite long, and there are over 60 of them.  In the Summa itself, there are 38 treatises, divided into 3.120 articles – nearly 10,000 objections posed and answered (the Summa is written in a question and answer format).

Aquinas starts each case “with a series of objections to the answer he will eventually adopt to the question.”  The objections are  not Aquinas’s beliefs.  Next comes a series of “on the contraries”, where Aquinas “cites authors who have taken up the opposite position on the same question.”  Finally, Aquinas’s answer begins with “I answer that…” where he states his own beliefs.  He then concludes with “replies to objections,” where he deals with each of the objections brought up one by one.

He quoted a wide range of people; he dealt with a wide range of issues, including “the nature of the incarnation and the significance of baptism…the centrality of the virtues and the problem with lying…what constitutes a habit and when does fear cause human decisions to become less than voluntary,” and many more.

 

Aquinas writes, “The human mind can understand truth only by thinking.”  God made us thinkers, it is a sin to not use this ability.  Renick concludes, “The concept is simple; the implications are extraordinary.”

The Circle: Mass Survelliance and the Slippery Slope

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

Alfred A. Knopf, NY NY 2013

This was easily one of the most frightening books I’ve ever read.  There were no monsters, and no really bad people.  Just idealists, driven to make the world a better place…through total and complete transparency.  The protagonist, Mae Holland, is a good person who gets hired by the Circle, which is kind of the worst parts of Google and Facebook combined.  Slowly but surely she gets drawn into the overall goals of the company, rarely questioning – and squashing doubts when she does – to make every bit of information known to every single person on the planet at will.  No secrets, from anyone, ever, anywhere.  No matter who it hurts, because it’s all in the name of the greater good.

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The scary part about this book is this:  It could be done.  From the miniaturized cameras to the bio-monitors to the always-on social networks, we already have most of the technologies.  Now, granted, the main character is not really that realistic – I mean, everyone is going to have second thoughts – but the key point of the book is that she does what she does because she believes it is for the better.  The need to constantly be watching your social rank – that’s not to far off people constantly looking for likes (it’s been shown that we get a hit of endorphins when we get a comment or a like) on their posts on Facebook and Instagram.  And we can find out quite a bit of information on most people via Google – I’ve surprised interviewers by knowing more about them than they do about me.

 

It progresses one step at a time until all individual privacy is gone, and the worst part is, by the time it happens, by the time the line is crossed, it seems so…normal, so inevitable.  This book, to me, is a warning.  The panopticon could happen, is slowly coming, and rather than trying to stop it, we are eagerly accepting its technologies – Facebook, for always-on feedback; Instagram, for showing what we’re doing and eating all the time; drones – that can film us anywhere; and things like the Fitbit, that record our health state 24 hours 7 days a week.

Is privacy going to disappear?  Are we willingly going to give it up?  Maybe not now, but ten years from now – I”d say it’s a good possibility.

Theology 101: A Little Aquinas, Part 4

Last time we looked at Aquinas’ thoughts on law and morality, as well as sex.  Today, we’re going to look at War, including Jus ad Bellum and Jus ad Bello, and how Aquinas looked at women, as well as what he night have though of some of today’s controversial issues.

Chapter 7: Just War and Double Effect

In this chapter, Renick discusses Jus ad Bellum, Jus in Bello, and double effect.  He notes that  in 1991, before Gulf War I, George Bush (41) stated the reasons for going to war against Iraq (which at the time had occupied Kuwait).  These reasons described why he felt it was a just war.  For it to be so, it needed a just cause, to be declared by a legitimate authority, to be a last resort, and to have a just intent.  Bush listed reasons why each of these criteria was satisfied.

A war, while seemingly as far from moral as it can get, can be just according to international law, if it follows the rules Bush cited in his speech.  If this is thought to be an oxymoron, it can be compared to the actions the Nazis in World War II, or perhaps the Khmer Rouge, among others.  No, “morality,” Renick writes, “places important restraints on actions even during the heat of combat.” Aquinas played a major role in codifying this.

 

Christians have had to reason about just war since the 4th Century, when they went from being a persecuted group to the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Before that, they considered themselves pacifists.  After, they asked themselves if standing by while innocent people were slaughtered was in line with loving your neighbor – obviously, history shows they decided that intervening was the right thing to do.

Augustine was one of the first to give an affirmative and “taught that it was acceptable, even mandatory, for Christians to use violence – if they did so in a limited fashion and in order to protect the innocent.”  As a matter of fact it was Augustine that first coined the term “Just war”.  Eight centuries later, Aquinas developed this concept to the form we see today.

He deals first with Jus ad bellum – Latin for “right or justice (at the time of) war.”  This describes the “criteria that must be met before one can rightfully go to war.”  There are three, all of which must be met in order to begin hostilities:

  1. Just cause – Aquinas: “A just war is…one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished for refusing to make amends for wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.”
  2. Just authority – referring to the leaders of countries, he writes, “Just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending the common weal against internal disturbances…so too it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies.”
  3. Just intent – restoring justice is the correct reason, not, as Aquinas wrote, “the passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance…the lust of power, and such like things.”

Next, he dealt with jus in bello, or “right/justice in war” – what you can do during conflicts.  It is here that Aquinas introduces the concept of “double effect”.  Renick writes, “Double effect is a moral concept that has found its way into our contemporary civil and criminal legal codes, has emerged as a cornerstone of medical ethics, and has become a sticking point in the modern abortion debate.  It also establishes the basic standard for determining how one must treat noncombatants in times of war.”

Writes Aquinas: “Nothing hinders one act from having two effects.”   One effect can be good and the other bad – what does one do in this situation?  A simple example in going to the dentist.  To fix your bad tooth she must cause you pain in the short term.  A bigger example is saving the baby or saving the pregnant mother, or bombing a chemical factory next to a school.

Historically, there are Christians that followed the principle of do no harm.  This Aquinas found to be impractical – consider the dentist case.  If she does no harm and refuses to pull your tooth, you will end up worse off than if she in the short term causes you pain.  Aquinas then says, if one effect is intended “while the other is beside the intention…Moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental.”  The dentist intends good – fixing your tooth – and not evil (the pain of the drilling).  However, if she is sadistic and causes you pain on purpose, then her intent is wrong, and the act is wrong.  The result does not justify the intent.  This can also be seen in our modern concept of accidental manslaughter – your intent was not to kill anyone, versus 1st degree murder, where your intent certainly was to kill someone.

This is also applied to jus in bello – soldiers should never intend to kill civilians or innocents.  They may die by accident, but this is not the same as targeting them.  The example of the munitions factory by the school shows that if you bomb the factory and the school is destroyed, your intent was to stop the enemiy’s war production, not to kill children.  This is euphemistically termed collateral damage.  However, if you bomb the school to demoralize the enemy, your intent is wrong.

But, there is another dimension to double effect – the good effect must outweigh the accidental effect.  Aquinas: “And yet, proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end.”  If you kill hundreds of schoolchildren just to take out an enemy tank, for example, your intent was good, but the bad side was way out of proportion to what you achieved.  So, you must ask:

  1. “Do you intend the good (and not the evil) end?”
  2. “Does the good end outweigh one?”

The answer to both must be yes.

Chapter 8: Abortion, the Role of Women, and Other Noncontroversial Issues

Catholics (macengr – and most of the rest of us) see abortion as not meeting the standards of the double effect philosophy.  The end is evil – an innocent person dies, and the intent is evil – the mother doesn’t want to bear the child.  Renick then attempts to justify a certain case of abortion using Aquinas’s arguments.

This case is when the mother’s life is threatened, for example when the egg implants in the fallopian tube.  He feels that Aquinas would have said that it is morally permissible to remove the baby.  The good end is saving the mother’s life; the bad end is that the baby dies.  But here, says Renick, the intent is good – to save the mother’s life, and not to kill the baby.  The death of the baby, per the discussion above, is accidental, not intentional, and who knows, by some miracle the baby could live…Also, if nothing is done, both the mother and baby die, and if you remove the baby, only one dies, so the result is better than choosing not to do anything at all (the result is proportionate to the harm done).  Thus, Aquinas, Renick thinks, would “approve” of this abortion.

(macengr – I totally do not agree with this argument, especially because Renick uses zygote instead of baby to make his argument more convincing to the reader.)

So Aquinas, Renick thinks, is very much a modern thinker and was ahead of his time.  But there is always a catch, and Renick points out that Aquinas’ view on women were very much a product of the times, and illustrates, to Renick, a drawback of the natural law approach.

Here, Aquinas felt that women are men’s helpers by nature, and that their primary usefulness is that of childbearing.  He writes, “It was necessary for woman to be made as a helper to man; not, indeed, helpmate in other works, as some say, since man can be more efficiently helped by another man in other works; but as a helper in generation.”  Men are therefore more useful when it comes to intellectual conversation or building things, and women are bad at these by nature.  Women, Renick claims that Aquinas says, are a pale imitation of a man.  Although both genders are needed to reproduce – here Renick quotes Aquinas again: “man is yet further ordered to a still nobler vital action, and that is intellectual operation.”

Thus, Aquinas says, there is a natural hierarchy between men and women, and the male should always be in charge.  He writes, “For good order would have been wanting if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves.  So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates.”  This inequality between men and women was the reason for Eve’s sin, not the result.  Aquinas is arguing that the essence of woman is to be subject to man – it’s part of God’s plan.  The sin in the garden was not only humans disobeying God’s command not to eat the fruit, but also of woman usurping the man’s authority.

Women are also, Aquinas says, only the container that human life is born in and do not contribute to their characteristics (no genetic material from the mother).  Aquinas’s views on women would go on to become very influential; although they were really a reflection of his times.  However, that men were superior to women was seen, after Aquinas, as a cornerstone of the natural law and science and it was felt to be a rational fact, even apart from the religious context.

So, Renick says, we must be careful when we use natural law, because there is a “need to distinguish between what is and what should be.”  Aquinas lived in a monastery and avoided women and had little experience with them throughout his life, spending his time in primarily male environments from the time he was five years old.  At the time he lived (the 1200s) women were seen as inferior, were subject to men, and were rarely educated.  Of course, Renick says, Aquinas would think this was the natural order of things.

However, Renick says, “using the natural law demands that we do more than report on the way things are.” Just because murder occurs all the time – and scientists believes violence may have a genetic component – doesn’t mean it is natural.  “What is is not always what should be.”  (macengr – normative vs. positive). So just because women were subject to men at the time, doesn’t mean they were supposed to be that way.  Renick feels that “Aquinas should have known better.”  Still, this is a common mistake and it is very difficult to know the difference.  Thus we must be very careful in thinking about it.

One can, Renick writes, use the natural law approach “to overcome the shackles of tradition…Aquinas’s theories can be the source of liberating justice.  They allow one to say, ‘Sure, things have always been done this way, but nature (and God) demand that we do otherwise.'” And often Aquinas did use natural law to prove this and make “great strides in human justice.”  But the danger is this: “Rather than catching a glimpse of the ways of God and nature, we may be holding a mirror up to ourselves.  We may be confusing what is natural for what is familiar and comfortable” – and the latter may be unjust.

That’s enough for today.  See you next time!

Theology 101: A Little Aquinas, Part 3

Last time we looked at Aquinas’ explanation of the problem of evil, Free Will, and Metaphysics.  Continuing on, today we’ll see his thoughts on law and morality, as well as… sex (eek!).

Chapter 5: Law and Morality

Men can fashion patterns of thought, but God himself arranged the natural order.
                          –Aquinas

 

As noted, God has a plan for everything – every single thing – in creation.  Aquinas wrote, “The whole community of the Universe is governed by divine reason.”  This plan, the ends that all things are created for, Aquinas calls “the eternal law.”  This definition contains not only the moral law (the 10 commandments, etc.) but the physical law as well (physics, thermodynamics, and so on) as well as others.  Only God can know the whole of the eternal law.  A law is “only binding on an entity when the law is made known to that object.”  Aquinas defines the portion of the eternal law that can be known by reason (and is binding on humans) as the “natural law.”

We can’t know the rest of the eternal law (the non-natural part) so there is no point in spending time on it.  It is believed that God bestows this knowledge on blessed humans when they die – the beatific vision – but this is by revelation and not by reason.  The natural law, however, is something we can know and should work to uncover, such as through science and through the moral law (for example, by theologians and philosophers).  We must discover the essence of morality.  Aquinas notes that “since God is the source of the essence of all things, one morally must pursue those actions that promote and avoid those actions that oppose an entity’s essence.” Examples are destroying an animals habitat so it cannot pursue its place in God’s plan or refusing to allow others to eat properly.  “The moral good becomes, quite simply, that which is in accord with the order created by God (and hence in accord with reason); the moral evil becomes that which opposes this order.”

 

Aquinas notes that yes, moral truths are in the Bible – but one can also find these moral truths by using reason. “If one, by means of reason, taps into and conforms to the moral law of God, one is morally in the right. If one acts contrary to reason and hence against the natural law of God, one is morally wrong.”

To find the moral good, both intellect and reason are needed. Intellect, “the intuitive faculty drawn to non-empirical truths, discovers the proper end in a given situation.” It establishes first principles like good should be done and evil avoided (In math, the axioms).  Reason tells us how to get to that proper end by using practical experiences.  For example, looking at lying and seeing it is harmful, you can see that not lying leads to doing good and avoiding evil.

Aquinas uses the example of community.  “Human beings only fully flourish when they live in community and…such flourishing is a good thing that should be pursued.” Both reason and intellect prove this conclusion – intellect notes that interacting with others leads to a better life than just being a hermit, and reason finds the means – treat others well, don’t be a jerk, etc.  the fact that this method seems like something we always do is evidence of how influential Aquinas was on Western tradition.  Aquinas also notes that the Bible is flawless and will never be contradicted by reason.

Aquinas is an optimist about human nature – we are programmed to seek the good, and we have reason and intellect to help us find it.  This is contrary to Augustine and many Christians today, who feel that we are corrupt and will always pursue sin.  Aquinas, though, says that even though “original sin corrupts our once pure reason so that at times we choose the wrong means to the good…the good is still the thing we seek.”  Even bad people want peace and security, they just do bad things to get them.  “That humans are good, that they can usually be trusted, and the ability to find the truth are all ideas put forth by Aquinas that would later become hallmarks of the Enlightenment.”

Another important consequence of this argument is that it provides a “common basis” for everyone to discuss moral issues. The Bible has no meaning to atheists, Jews, Muslims, and so on.  Aquinas writes, “It follows therefore that natural law in its first common principles is the same among all men, both as to validity and recognition.  It is “written on the hearts” of all people and is a way for everyone to agree on ethics no matter what their religion or belief.  This later became the basis of international law.

Finally, this gives us a way to discuss issues not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, such as nuclear weapons or cloning.  Sola Scriptura doesn’t help here.  Roman Catholics, drawing on Aquinas’ tradition, use reason and the natural law to discuss these topics.  The author uses environmental issues as an example.  Yes, animals serve a purpose as food, and it’s okay to hunt for that purpose – but not for sport.  Destroying an animal’s habitat so that it cannot pursue its role in God’s plan is morally wrong as well.  Instead, it is our job to protect and even encourage them to be able to pursue their role in creation.  (Scott note: This is what stewardship of creation really means)  Aquinas did not address this, but his framework of the natural law is flexible enough to be used for these types of issues.

This applies to human rights as well.  It is the natural law, not written laws (the positive law), that Jefferson referred to in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  Other moral documents such as UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Nuremburg War-Crimes Codes, and the Geneva Convention, are also based on the natural law.

 

Chapter 6: The Ins and Outs of Sex

Aquinas’ views on sexuality are very influential even today – and this despite the fact that he was a lifelong celibate.

He starts, as above, by asking what is the ultimate end of sex?  In addition to procreation, Aquinas identifies two other essential purposes: To strengthen the marriage bond, and for pleasure.  He noted that man and woman seem to be designed to “fit” together physically, as well.  This was surely not an accident, he reasoned, but instead meant that it must be part of the essence of sex.

Augustine, writing earlier, had stated that before the Fall, sex was a purely rational act that brought no pleasure and was just matter of fact.  Due to original sin, passion and pleasure were introduced and sex became an act of self-love, because one did it for pleasure.  Sex is then the way original sin was passed from generation to generation – and this is why Jesus was born of a virgin (no semen involved).

Aquinas disagreed.  To not take pleasure, to him, was a sin, and is part of God’s plan for sex.  He wrote, “The exceeding pleasure experienced in the sex act, so long as it is in harmony with reason, does not destroy the balance of virtue.”  Note, however, that the other purposes of sex must be satisfied – procreation and unity with one’s spouse.  These three purposes form the basis of Catholic belief and many other Christians’ beliefs as well.

So, per Aquinas, anytime we deviate from one of these three ends of sex, we have sinned.  The seriousness of the sin depends on how far we have deviated from those ends.  The ends are ranked by Aquinas thus:

  1. Conception
  2. Marriage bond
  3. 3. Pleasure

First, the “sins against right reason”: Fornication is the least serious sexual sin.  His reasoning:  Pleasure and conception are both possible, but it doesn’t strengthen the marital bond since they are not married.  Adultery is next; it too allows pleasure and could result in conception, but it is worse than fornication in that it damages a marital bond.    Rape is worse; while it allows for conception it does not strengthen a marital bond and it does not allow for pleasure for at least one partner (note that it also commits the sin of violence).

Worse than these are the “sins against nature,” namely masturbation, sodomy, and homosexuality.  Masturbation is the least severe of these three – It cannot produce offspring, and it does not strengthen a marital bond, but at least it allows for pleasure.  (Note that though this is considered to be a more serious sexual sin than rape, rape is the worse sin because of the sin of violence it includes).  This, also, is why Catholics consider masturbation to be such a serious sin.  Because masturbation is needed for artificial insemination, Catholics are often opposed to that as well.  Cloning will be a case that will affect this belief, most likely.

Sodomy is the next worst – and not just for homosexuals, but for a man with a woman as well.  This is because it involves two people (not just one, like masturbation) both avoiding conception.  Also, Aquinas found it questionable whether or not it strengthened the marital bond.  Birth control is also considered a sin by the Catholic church because it deliberately avoids conception, one of the three Divine ends of sex. Naturally, this is a huge reason Catholics condemn homosexuality – not only because conception in not possible, but (until recently) it didn’t strengthen a marital bond because gays couldn’t marry.

Recently, though, people have used Aquinas to defend homosexuality.  Robert Wood: if homosexuality is genetic, then wouldn’t that mean it was part of God’s plan and therefore natural?  Wood argues that it may have been a built-in form of population control.

 

The fact that they cannot conceive is another reason, though, and this is also a challenge – can couples no longer able to conceive have sex?  They cannot meet one of the basic purposes (conception), so should they abstain?

 

In the 1930s, Pope Pius ruled that these couples could have sex – they can have a pro-creative intent and hope for a miracle.  As long as they want to have children, they have met the pro-creative intent.  So, Renick asks, can the same not apply to homosexuals?  Can they hope for a miracle too, and thus meet the intent and not sin?

 

Pope Paul, in Humanae Vitae, 1968, stated that the rhythm method was allowed to be used – and thus a procreative intent is not always necessary in every sexual act in marriage (they are using a natural method of birth control rather than a man-made form of it).  This ruling is, of course, still controversial.

So, Aquinas’ arguments continue to be influential here as well. Beyond the Bible, the laws of nature apply to sex, and thus should be obeyed.