Exercise and St. Thomas on the Blue Ridge

Greetings from Shenandoah National Park. My dear mom and I have repaired here for 36 hours to take in the wholesome air. Also, I have undertaken to put the finishing touches on my training for the Army Ten-Miler this Sunday. My last-minute-training theory is: If you can run up and down the hills on Skyline Drive, you can do anything.

Actually, biking up and down the Skyline-Drive hills is even more impressive. A few intrepid athletes were out trying to conquer the hills on two wheels (with no motor). I saw a lovely couple on a tandem bike working their way up a dizzyingly steep half-mile incline. Quite a show of force. Excellent teamwork.

I have a class presentation to give on the virtue of docility. In contemporary English, to be called “docile” is not necessarily a compliment. It can imply that you are easily led by the nose, obedient to a fault. Even without this pejorative connotation, “docile” tends to suggest a lack of proper assertiveness or a weak personality. When we hear ‘docile,’ we think either of a trained animal or a Stepford wife.

In the classical terminology of the great philosophers, however, “docility” is a good quality. In St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, docile simply means “teachable.” According to St. Thomas, docility is one of the eight parts of the virtue of prudence. The teachable person is ready to learn from someone who knows more. In other words, the docile person takes counsel, listens to good advice.

Docility makes someone prudent by making him moderate in making decisions and taking action. Someone could be ingenious, knowledgeable, and shrewd, but he runs the risk of acting imprudently if he does not take advice, because no one can know everything about everything. Also, someone could be brave, quick, and thoroughly reasonable, but, again, he will act imprudently out of rashness if he is not willing to listen.

The virtue of docility is the great moderator of minds: Teachableness makes smart people smarter; it makes courageous people patient; it makes slow minds knowledgeable; it makes creative geniuses humble; it makes smooth operators wise.

Skyline Drive
Skyline Drive
Doing right requires knowing the truth. We learn more of the truth when we are humble enough to admit what we don’t know, and when we are meek enough to listen even to people we don’t like. The readier we are to learn from others, the better we will be at making good decisions and doing the right thing.

Don’t get me wrong here: Docility is not the only virtue. It is only one of eight parts of prudence, and prudence is one of four cardinal virtues. Everyone needs to be their own person; everyone needs to follow their own lights. It is not good to be led around by the nose, to be passive or submit to bad advice. But it IS good to be teachable. An all-around excellent person listens to good advice, then makes up his own mind.

Business, Rules, and Reality

I am no expert on finance. As you know, that would be my brother Ben. Nonetheless, I am going to opine on the current situation. I beg you, dear reader, to comment on this and correct all my ignorant and lame statements.

Obviously, the most important ingredient in successful business is confidence. To put it on a small scale: An entrepreneur proposes a plan to benefit people in some way that they will be willing to pay for. For the plan to come to fruition, people who have money have to have confidence in the entrepreneur’s prudence, dedication, and honesty.

Their confidence is ultimately vindicated by two things. First and foremost, if it is vindicated, it is because of good fortune. For the most part, the things that happen to us are out of our control. But something else is also needed: The entrepreneur’s mind must be connected with reality. Leaving bad and good luck aside, money-making schemes tend to work when they are realistic, and they tend to fail when they are unrealistic.

Therefore, a very important question is: Who can judge reality correctly? Someone who possesses two things. A businessman’s correct judgment of reality always begins with this: “My plan is fallible, but God’s plan is infallible. My business will truly profit precisely to the extent that it cultivates the gifts of God. My first duty as a businessman is to receive God’s gift with gratitude. Then I can put them to good use.”

The second thing a businessman needs to perceive reality is: virtue. Reality is correctly perceived by a virtuous person. This is not simply a matter of someone being honest because he or she has no vices to hide (though of course it is a lot easier to tell the truth all the time when you have no serious vices). There is more: Being just, sober, courageous, and honest enables a person to perceive reality. In other words, the virtue of prudence requires all the other virtues. A greedy liar cannot be prudent because he cannot see reality as it is.

Again, I confess my profound ignorance of high finance. My understanding of the problem we have right now is that it is basically the result of home prices that were not realistic. The country will now witness extensive political debates about how to regulate the real-estate market so that this does not happen again. I am sure that experts have good ideas about regulations that will help to keep things more stable.

I would like to propose, however, that ultimately business cannot be successfully regulated in this way. External rules cannot keep pace with entrepreneurial creativity (thank God.) But there is always a sure rule for business, a rule which always applies. If everyone followed this sure rule, we would not have Wall Street meltdowns requiring massive government bailouts. The rule for business is: the virtuous man himself. Church law calls this rule the “steady man.” Reality is the measure for a business scheme. Only a virtuous person can see clearly when a proposal is unrealistic.

Perhaps this reads like a long-winded, moralizing statement of an obvious fact: If more Wall Street bankers were virtuous, we would not have a financial crisis. But this is not exactly my point. My point is that everyone needs to pay more careful attention to the virtuous people we know. God has given us these people to help to guide us; they help us to avoid the mistakes and disasters that inevitably occur when we make decisions without connecting with reality. As soon as a virtuous person starts to get uncomfortable with something, then there is a problem. All of us should have the sense to put the brakes on at such a moment.

PS. And let’s all pray fervently to St. Jude Thaddeus that the bailout plan will work and we won’t have another Great Depression.

How to Make Good Decisions


Is it okay to cut the heart out of a newborn baby with severe brain damage, so that the baby’s heart can be transplanted into a baby who has a bad heart?  Is it okay to perform an abortion on a pregnant teenager, or on a pregnant woman with a serious health problem?  Is it okay to lie to make other people feel better?


There are things that people do, and many smart people approve, but these things do not seem to be right.  I would like to put in my two cents about what exactly is wrong.


When people do bad things, it is almost always because they convince themselves that they are doing something good.  They convince themselves of this by attempting to measure the effects of what they propose to do.  In the case of the two babies, the doctors involved convince themselves that they are doing good because they are saving the life of the baby with a bad heart, and the one with brain damage would die soon anyway.  If the good effects outweigh the bad effects of an action, it must be a good thing to do.

(The question of how to know precisely when someone dies, including a baby with severe brain damage, is a tricky one–let’s acknowledge that.  It is okay to transplant organs from a corpse, provided they will benefit someone else.  Good people disagree about the criteria for establishing when someone is dead.  There are doctors these days, though, who are not concerned with establishing death definitively; they regard it as an unnecessary question.)

Measuring potential outcomes is a good way of making decisions, given one very important proviso:  All the options have to be good.  If I have the choice between giving extra money to charity, or saving it for a rainy day, or giving it to a family member, the best thing for me to do is to weigh the effects of all these options, because they are all perfectly good things to do.


But there is one effect of my acting that outweighs all others, so much so that it makes an option impossible to choose.  That effect is this:  I become someone who has knowingly and deliberately done something evil.  No other effect can make this effect worthwhile, even if the potential effect appears to be very good to me right now.  (Fr. Martin Rhonheimer taught me everything in this paragraph.)


The greatest thing that a person can be by their own devices is a moral person.  Everything else is a matter of fortune or Divine Providence.  I cannot control anything completely—except my own actions.  If my actions are good, then I am moral.  If they are not, then I am immoral.


So it is wise to weigh the potential outcomes of my actions (understanding, of course, that I cannot really know them definitively).  But first and foremost I must consider the act itself.  Is the act itself okay?  Or am I in danger of doing evil with the idea that good may come of it?  If I try to do evil that good may come of it, the following consequences will ensue:  Good things may happen outside of me, or they may not—there are a lot of variables, and I should have the humility to admit that I do not know them all, even if I am very knowledgeable about the matter at hand.  On the other hand, if I do evil, I will have made myself a bad person, an immoral person.


To this argument, some people will say:  How selfish!  How can you worry about something like your own soul when the life and death, or the health and well-being of others is at stake?  Keep your moral scruples to yourself!  At least let us do what we think we ought to do, without trying to force your religion on us!


The problem with this objection is that it is ultimately self-contradictory.  Obviously, it is not a case of crass disingenuousness:  If those who objected to moral scruples were only interested in robbing banks or seducing women, then we would not be in danger of being persuaded by them.  But they claim to be on the side of the angels, on the side of fostering human life and well-being.


This is where the self-contradiction comes in:  You say that you are on the side of human life and well-being.  You say you want to do the things you propose to do to save lives, or make lives more healthy or pleasant.  Why?  What is the point of saving a life, or improving someone’s health, if not for the sake of that person becoming good and not evil?  Isn’t moral success the ultimate goal of life?  What does it mean to thrive as a human being?  To laze around in the basest pleasures?  To pile up the biggest stash of stuff?  To breathe, eat, and sleep?  To thrive as a human being is:  To do good and avoid evil, to be moral, to fulfill the potential we have to make good choices, and to work for the good of those we love.


So it makes no sense to kill the one baby to save the other, so that someday the other can grow up to have the moral insight and self-control to see that this was a bad thing to do.  Instead, just do every good and reasonable thing that can be done now to save them both.  That’s all we can do; we are not the masters of life and death.  We are not here on earth to control everything; we are here to do good and avoid evil.


In order to approach decision-making this way with confidence, we need to trust God.  I will undertake to consider the relationship between faith and morals at some other time.  Stay tuned!