Dummett on Humanae vitae
In another thread, Ann Olivier drew attention to the article published in the February 11 issue of Commonweal, excerpted from Michael Dummett’s book The Nature and Future of Philosophy. I confess to being less impressed than Ann is, for three reasons. I write, of course, as minus sapiens in these matters, and welcome comments and discussion.
First, Dummett does not engage the actual argument offered by Pope Paul VI in Humanae vitae, which is not based simply on the physical integrity of the marriage act, as Dummett implies.
Second, while speaking of the relation between religion and morality, Dummett makes the statement: “It is a mistake to believe that there is a universal morality shared among all human beings, or all civilized human beings.” This is true, of course, as an empirical matter. But it would seem that for Dummett philosophy somehow escapes this fate, as when he asserts, “Moral philosophy cannot accommodate such a prohibition,” that is, the kind offered in the papal encyclical. Are we to believe that there is a universal moral philosophy shared among all philosophers? Dummett surely knows that there are philosophers who have defended the teaching of Humanae vitae on grounds proper to moral philosophy, Elizabeth Anscome being one from Dummett’s own philosophical tradition. You can find her famous essay here.
Third, in explaining the meaning of an “intrinsically wrong” act–an act that can never be justified by any ulterior purpose–, Dummett offers as an example, poisoning someone in order to prevent his massacring a whole family. He bases this on the unargued premise that “to give someone a fatal dose of poison must in all circumstances be wrong.” Is this premise correct? Why could one not use force, even deadly force, to prevent the massacre? Or is it something about poison that makes it different from, say, a gun? If the attempt to assassinate a Hitler could be morally justified, would poisoning him have to be ruled out as the means?
Now it may be that in his book Dummett has made fuller and more careful cases for these positions than those found in the Commonweal excerpts, but, as published there, I don’t think his essay contributes a great deal to the discussion.