There is an element of the concept of fraud that some people seem to be tripping on in recent days that I want to explain. The problem can be found in PZ Myers’ recent comments in the Minnesota Independent.
"Myers: There's a subtle difference there -- maybe an important difference. I don't favor the idea of going to somebody's home or to something they own and possess and consider very important, like a graveyard . . . and desecrating that. Because what you're doing is doing harm to something unique and something that is rightfully part of somebody else -- it's somebody else's ownership. The cracker is completely different. This is something that's freely handed out."
It is false to say that the cracker is freely handed out. It is conditionally handed out – in the sense that, “I will give you this cracker, but you must promise to use it in a way prescribed by this ritual.” The fraud element comes from the fact that the person who enters into the ritual is making the false claim that he is there to participate in the ritual, and will perform all of the elements in the ritual. In the types of cases we are concerned with here, this is a lie being used to trick the priest into handing over a wafer. This makes the act of acquiring the wafer theft.
The issue that I want to focus on here is the claim that, in stepping up to receive mass, the agent is, in effect, binding himself to go through with the ritual and eat the wafer. “If the priest wants to take the fact that I am kneeling down before him to take a wafer as a promise to eat the wafer then and there, that is his problem. I’m making no such promise.”
But actually, you are.
Every speech act can be reduced to a set of movements that, in themselves, completely lack any meaning or significance. We could deny that kneeling to receive communion is a speech act that communicates a promise to complete the ritual. We could, at the same time, reduce the signing of a contract to a simple act of doodling on the bottom of the page of a document.
Some speech acts involve moving the parts of one’s mouth while activating the vocal cords. Some involve scribbling characters on a piece of paper. Some involve using sign language. In just the same way that delivering a promise in sign language counts as communication, stepping up to receive communion also counts as a statement delivered in sign language. Everybody present knows exactly what it means – that the agent has agreed to participate in the ritual of communion. If you make that statement under conditions hen it is not true, you are guilty of acquiring property through deception.
You can see an example of this principle at work at the all-you-can-eat buffet. In exactly the same way that we can say the priest is “freely handing out crackers”, we can also say that the server at the all-you-can-eat buffet line. You can take the food, and you can eat it, but you may not walk out of the restaurant with it. Walking out the door with food handed to you in an all-you-can-eat buffet is theft. It violates the terms and conditions that one agrees to once one buys a ticket to the buffet.
Communication takes place whenever you say or do anything that transmits ideas within a particular language culture. Spoken and written words are just a part of our language culture. Sign language has meaning within a language culture. Red lights, signs with images of men and women, a flashing arrow, are also a part of a language culture. Traditions and rituals, such as catholic mass or a military salute, can become a part of the language culture.
These are all parts of communication. So, when we look at whether a person has committed fraud or not – look at whether a person has lied or not – we need to look at the whole of a language culture to determine what was being communicated.
Step up to receive communion and, within that language culture, you have engaged in communication. Take the wafer and leave, and you have lied – and you have acquired possession of another person’s property through deception.
This trick of artificially limiting the scope of communication – of talking about ‘literal truth’ and ‘explicit claims,’ is a trick that people use when they try to convince themselves that something they want is not really wrong. They artificially and unjustifiably limit the concept of ‘communication’ so that they can convince themselves (or others), “I am not telling a lie.” By denying the communication that takes place, one can deny that an act of deception has taken place.
However, what a person believes, and what is true in fact, are not necessarily the same thing. Communication takes place whenever one says or does something in a language culture that transmit particular ideas to others. If those ideas being communicated are not true, the agent needs to make it clear to others, “I am not taking part in the language culture right now, so don’t make any inferences from what I say or do as if I am participating in that culture.”
While I am here, I would like to speak a bit about another trick that people use to convince themselves that something they want to do is not really wrong – it is the trick of minimizing.
The rapist convinces himself that his victims like to be raped. The person guilty of insurance fraud convinces himself that the insurance companies have enough money and has been ripping him off for years with their high rates. The bully insults others and covers it up by saying, “I was just kidding. Sheesh, can’t anybody take a joke any more?”
All of these are mental tricks that people pull when they want to do something wrong to get it to appear more legitimate.
In this case, “It is just a cracker” is used to minimize the nature of the offense and make the theft seem insignificant.
This doesn’t work. The offense is not written in terms of the value of the object stolen. It is written in terms of the wrong of taking illicit possession of somebody.
If I was invited into your house for any reason, it would not be legitimate for me to start looking around for things that I can interpret as having low value that I can try to walk away with. The fact that I can describe something in low-value terms does not imply that it has low value to the owner of the house.
More importantly, theft itself is wrong – something which we have strong reason to cause people to form an aversion. Otherwise, none of us will be able to keep our property safe.
One of the problems with Myers’ call is that it creates a legitimate concern among Catholics, “How are we going to prevent people from walking away with our property?” Forget about the fact that they think that this property is the body of Christ. That is not important. Keeping our property safe means creating (and enforcing) an aversion to people walking in and using fraud or deception to take that property from us.
We have those institutions – we promote those attitudes – to keep our property safe. If we threaten those institutions, we have to fear for our property, just as we make others fear for theirs.
We secure our property by enforcing the prohibitions on the three major types of theft – fraud (theft by deception), burglary (theft by stealth), and robbery (theft by force). We need these institutions if we are to keep the peace. So, we should make sure to respect these institutions, and not to give license to those who would violate them.