Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Fraud and the Extent of Communication

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.


dbonfitto said...

From the original article, linked in Part 1: Cook claims he planned to consume it, but first wanted to show it to a fellow student senator he brought to Mass who was curious about the Catholic faith.

"When I received the Eucharist, my intention was to bring it back to my seat to show him," Cook said. "

So instead of waiting until Mass was over and knocking on the priest's door with his buddy in tow, he decides to take matters into his own hands. Instead of consulting a consecrated cracker expert who would probably be chuffed to chat about the intricacies of his faith, this guy pretty much picked that path that thwarted the most desires short of a daring commando raid on the sacristy.

There is a really simple, moral way to gather basic information about most religions: the internet. Wait, I meant to say: go ask a priest/rabbi/imam/minister. You probably get more detailed information and fulfill desires instead of thwarting them. You also fulfill a large part of the atheist community's desire to not be painted as "cracker grabbers."

If you start your quest for knowledge by swiping a holy relic, you are guilty of committing bad anthropology. Yes, that first scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark was awesome, but do you remember who got his desires fulfilled? Belloq, not Dr. Jones.

Is everybody on the death threats and physical coercion side acting in a moral way? No. Obviously not, but that's where the old saw, "Two wrongs don't make a right," cuts just fine enough.

Oh yeah, mad props and felicitous congratulations to Alonzo on, as the Romans would have carved, M posts.

Burt Likko said...

Further to your point about the implied contract to use the communion wafer in a particular way: As a boy, I was taught that I was to refuse the offer of the host I knew I was in a state of mortal sin at the time of the Mass, and I was to seek reconciliation (by going to Confession) before accepting the Eucharist. I was taught sign language (crossing my hands over my chest) to communicate this to the priest dispensing the hosts.

So it's not like the celebrant is passing these things out like invitations to bingo night. Only particular kinds of people are supposed to get these things, and the ritual relies on the honesty of its participants to self-filter into those who will do what the celebrant wants with the host and those who will not.

If I were to offer a critique of your analysis, it would be that the gravity of the theft by fraud we're discussing here is very, very low. It's only a frackin' cracker, after all.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Well, actually, it is not just a cracker.

Even to PZ Myers, it is not 'just a cracker'. We know this because we cannot substitute the consecrated communion wafer with any other cracker. This cracker has special properties that no other cracker has.

It is a symbol of the absurd Catholic beliefs.

Granted, it is not the body of Christ - that's the absurd belief the cracker is a symbol of.

But that does not change the fact that the cracker is a symbol and, as such, the claim that it is just a cracker is false.

Ron in Houston said...


You go guy. Why atheists can't seem to see the ethical bankruptcy of his position just boggles me.

I think he's just too consumed with his ego and the attention to try to look clearly at this matter.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Ron in Houston

I think the phrase 'ethical bankruptcy' is stronger than is deserved. Myers is doing something that is so common that it is hard to realize one is doing it.

He wants to believe a certain conclusion, and he is using his emotion to evaluate the arguments.

Everybody does it. (Actually, according to empirical research, philosophy majors are the only group that bucks this trend.)

Let's see what happens.

Anonymous said...

>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.”

I reply: Speaking as a Catholic YOU GET IT! Bravo! I hope to see more of this among thoughtful Atheist (of which Myers must exclude himself).

Thank you.


BTW Cook is blowing smoke this guy has the scoop.



Burt Likko said...

Perhaps your rebuttal is right, Alonzo. But if so, that assigns an unreasonably high value to the cracker, not because of any objective, measurable quality of the cracker, but rather because of someone else's subjective reaction to it.

This seems incompatible with the point you made that things like death threats and the use of violence to secure the return of the cracker were "insanely disproportionate" to the gravity of the theft of the cracker, or your eminently correct insistence "I am not, in any way, going to treat seriously the proposition that this cracker is, was, or ever will become the body of Christ. It is just a cracker."

While I agree with your basic point that yes, we are talking about theft here, and I further think that Myers is being needlessly provocative, I will not assign a high degree of moral blame to Myers. Absent highly unusual circumstances, stealing a cracker is a less morally grave act than stealing (for instance) a car.

Let's say you're having a party at your house. You set out some food and a pile of paper napkins which you set out and invite your guests to use while they eat. I am an invited guest, but instead of using one of the napkins while eating (as you have invited me to), I instead put it in my pocket and take it with me when I leave. I have stolen the napkin from you.

But do you really care?

Here, we can agree that the paper napkin is of minimal value. It's only confusing in the case of the communion wafer because like the napkin, the wafer is objectively a nearly valueless cracker. It is only a Catholic's subjective and unreasonable inflation of the value of the cracker that makes the issue confusing.

So we can't have it both ways. Either it's a cracker or it's something more than a cracker. That object is the same for me as it is for a practicing Catholic. And I say it's just a cracker, and to say it's something else is to give credit to the unreasonable belief of the Catholics that it has transubstantiated into the body of Christ.

The theft of the cracker is the theft of something of negligible value. The symbolic act, however, is of great significance as a gesture of contempt to Catholics, precisely because the gesture is only contemptuous if one understands the unreasonably high value that Catholics assign to it.

So if we're going to condemn Catholics for overreacting to cracker desecration, then that means we're obliged to give Prof. Myers the benefit of acknowledging that the moral gravity of his suggestion is quite low. Yes, it's stealing. But it's not stealing very much.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Transplanted Lawyer

I have reconsidered the statement that 'it is just a cracker'.

Consider the case from PZ Myers' point of view. If the consecrated wafer was, in fact, 'just a cracker' - having the same value as any other cracker - than PZ Myers should be willing to accept another cracker for the consecrated communion wafer. That is to say, if they had the same value, he should be indifferent as to which cracker he received.

He is not indifferent.

So the phrase, "It is just a cracker" turns out to be false.

All value is 'subjective' in the sense that reflects relationships between states of affairs and desires. There is no value independent of want.

The cracker is not the body of Christ. Any assertion that it has value in virtue of the fact that it is the body of Christ is false.

However, the napkin analogy does not work either. After all, what you are stealing is something that you wish to use to ridicule me. Of course, I have no right not to be ridiculed. However, it is reasonable for me to assign value to property of mine that would be used to ridicule me that it would otherwise not have.

The cracker, as the body of Jesus, has no value. The cracker, as a tool of ridicule, has value - and provides the owner with additional reason not to see it in the hands of those who would do the ridiculing.

Furthermore, it does not matter if my reasons for not wanting you to take the napkin are irrational. It's my napkin!

You have no right to walk into my house, pick up something that has no real value but which I irrationally assign great value to - something I have stressed that I want nobody to take - and take it, merely because the value I place in it is ill founded.

It's not your napkin.

It's mine.

If I say, "Don't take the napkins with you," then don't take the napkins.

If I do not want you to take the napkin and I clearly make that known I should not need to worry whether you judge my reasons to be rational or not. When it comes to my property, your obligation is to respect my wishes.

Burt Likko said...

Like I said before, I agree with your analysis that we are talking about theft -- whether it be of cars, napkins, or crackers -- and that theft is wrong. Let's move beyond that threshold issue; it is a morally bad, not a morally neutral, thing to do.

My question is, aren't we ignoring the question of proportion in our rush to identify the taking of the communion cracker as theft?

The degree of moral condemnation of a wrongful act should be proportional to the degree of wrongfulness of that act. If I steal your napkin, certainly I've done you wrong and I ought not have done that. But stealing your napkin is not nearly as morally bad a thing to have done as, say, murdering you.

If I steal your napkin, I certainly deserve to be condemned, but not to the degree that I would deserve had I had murdered you. In my profession, judges look at the degree of moral culpability when sentencing criminals; a napkin thief would and should get less prison time than a murderer. I suggest that a similar process must take place even at the purely ethical level.

Which raises an interesting question -- in determining the degree of moral culpability for stealing a communion wafer, so we use the objective value of the wafer, or its subjective value to its owner? Or maybe it subjective value to the thief? I think we don't need to answer that question in this case, though. Here's why:

You raise a good point that because Myers assigns a higher value to a consecrated host than one that has not been through the ritual, we can infer that the use of the cracker as an object of ridicule increases its value after it has been used in a manner other than its intended purpose.

That means we've moved beyond the theft of the cracker and we're really focusing on its use as a tool of ridicule. That is what escalates the issue from a de minimis ethical lapse to a significant ethical problem. If Myers stole the cracker for the purpose of private contemplation, it would still be theft, but that seems to carry less moral weight than it does if he uses it to ridicule Catholics. By that way of looking at things, the moral weight of the theft pales by comparison to the ridicule.

So isn't what we're really getting at here by condemning Myers the fact that he's ridiculing Catholics, rather than the fact that he wants to steal something of questionable value?

(This is a most enjoyable dialogue, by the way. Thank you for that.)

dbonfitto said...

Regarding assigning special value:

Consider three baseballs:
One is in mint condition.
One has been signed by Babe Ruth.
One has been signed by me.

They're all just crackers, right?

Arguing the intrinsic value angle is the wrong way to get anything out of this problem.

Burt Likko said...

Yes, Dan, those baseballs are unequal to one another. And that supports my point about proportion. Stealing the mint condition baseball should earn a different degree of moral approbation than stealing the Babe Ruth ball.

If I steal your baseball (any of them), you don't particularly care why I have stolen it and you likely don't care what I do with it so long as you can get it back. But the degree to which you have been harmed by my theft, and therefore the degree to which I earn moral approbation, increases as the baseball that I steal increases in value.

Alonzo does well to point out that the consecrated wafer is also unequal to the unconsecrated one -- even to Myers, an atheist. The reason why they are unequal to Myers, though, is what interests me. And that is where the baseball is not like the cracker.

We can easily understand why stealing the Babe Ruth ball is worse than stealing the unaltered ball -- the Babe Ruth ball is both much more rare and much more valuable, so the loss is greater. It is easy to render the loss of such an object tangible -- ask a collector of sports memorabilia for the market value of a Babe Ruth autographed baseball and you'll get a number. That same collector will give you a much lower number for a ball signed by a more obscure player, and a lower number yet for an unsigned ball.

The equivalent of a sports memorabilia collector in the communion wafer scenario is a faithful Catholic, who insists that the consecrated wafer is the body of Christ. That person will tell you that the consecrated wafer is infinitely more valuable than the unconsecrated one. We atheists have agreed amongst ourselves that this insistence is unreasonable and indeed false, but nevertheless the faithful Catholic person will always insist to the contrary.

What's interesting to me is that first of all, we seem to be losing the ability to keep proportion in our ethical evaluation of the incident, and secondly, we seem to be misunderstanding the source of the moral outrage. I'm exploring the idea that those two things are related. Consider these scenarios:

1. Myers steals a consecrated wafer and broadcasts video of himself destroying the wafer while delivering a diatribe against Catholicism.
2. Myers steals an unconsecrated wafer and broadcasts video of himself destroying the wafer while delivering a diatribe against Catholicism.
3. Myers steals a consecrated wafer and mounts it on a plaque in his office that reads "The Body of Christ."
4. Myers steals an unconsecrated wafer and mounts it on a plaque in his officethat reads "The Body of Christ."

I accept as a given that stealing a wafer, whether consecrated or not, is wrong.

However, I also submit that it is unreasonable to get particularly worked up about the theft of a wafer because we should recognize that the wafer lacks any significant objective value.

I further submit that because the degree of theft is so minimal, the real reason we find Myers' conduct unsettling is not the theft of the wafer but rather the subsequent use of the wafer.

Certainly a practicing Catholic would object to any of the above four scenarios. But I submit that a practicing Catholic would object most to scenario #1. I don't know if the Catholic would object next most to scenario #2 or scenario #3, but I'm pretty sure the Catholic would object least to scenario #4.

How, then, should an ethical atheist rank these scenarios in degree of moral condemnation? Is the fact that in all four scenarios, the wafer is the product of theft, of such overpowering moral significance that the use put to the wafer later is functionally irrelevant?

dbonfitto said...

The way I see it, market value is just an assigned special value that is agreed upon by a large number of people.
You can get $20K for a grilled cheese sandwich on eBay if the right portion of the market bids on it. The Roman Catholic church is a pretty big market for assigning value to objects.

Myers places value on wafers in direct relation to the rise he'll get out of theists. I'm pretty sure he's aware of it. The only moral condemnation he deserves, barring the receipt and solicitation of stolen petty goods, is the same he'd receive for being a jerk and taunting others. He's playing "I've got your nose" with a baby and won't stop when the baby starts bawling.