Demystify the Demystifiers

Monday, 12-05-2022


I enjoy a magic show as much as anyone, but in real life, I dislike illusions.  I want to know things as they are.

Yet at the same time I think we are insufficiently critical of the call to destroy illusions.  The movement for demystification itself needs to be demystified, for those who see illusions everywhere seem to suffer from a lot of illusions themselves, and are missing a great deal of reality.

For example, take the view that the difference between men and women is a mystification, a self-bewitchment, something all made up.  What is the evidence for this view?  There is none.  It is a mystification – it just happens to be one of the mystifications that demystifiers like.  So now we are expected to pretend that we are all the same, even though we all see that we aren’t, and in order to keep the whole creaky structure of nonsense from falling down, we must entangle ourselves in increasingly absurd rationalizations.  Since the difference between men and women is arbitrary, we say, a man should be allowed to “change into” a woman if that is what he thinks he is “inside.”  But if there isn’t any difference inside, then how can he be one or the other? 

Or take the view that belief in God is a mystification.  As the story goes, God is just man writ large.  We just project our fathers, or policemen, or someone, onto the big movie screen of the cosmos.  How many of the demystifiers realize that historically, monotheism has been the ultimate demystification, the ultimate insistence on something real beyond all illusion?  If you demystify theism itself, you are left in a peculiar position, because without a First Cause, it is hard to see how anything at all makes sense.  And if nothing makes sense, then you are really trapped in illusion.



Conscience Is Not a Feeling

Monday, 11-28-2022


We often feel bad about doing wrong.  That’s good; we should.  However, the association of feelings with conscience tempts us to a big mistake:  We fool ourselves into thinking that conscience nothing but a feeling, rather than an announcement -- “I feel bad” rather than “This is not to be done.”

Consequently, if we don’t feel very bad about something wrong, we may tell ourselves that it’s not very wrong.  Placing all sorts of feelings in the same scale, we then tell ourselves that what is wrong may be done if we have other good feelings about doing it which are strong enough to outweigh the bad one.

This view amounts to thinking that what is wrong isn’t really wrong at all, but merely has the disadvantage of giving us distress, which we may have to be suffered for the sake of something else.

I come across this view even in the writings of thinkers who ought to know better.  One political philosopher – it so happens that he was a long-ago former teacher of mine, who changed careers and became a political advisor – preaches the virtue of what some writers call “ruthlessness” but he prefers to call “toughness.”  In his view, sometimes it is right to do wrong so that good will come.  He calls doing evil merely a “moral cost,” the avoidance of which must be weighed against other objectives.  For sufficient benefit, anything may be done.  If we feel bad, we need to get over it.  And that, he thinks, is virtuous.

If we live this way, we have lost ourselves.


Let Us All Give Thanks … No, Thankfulness … Wait a Minute …

Wednesday, 11-23-2022


When I was small, my public elementary school teachers taught us that the first Thanksgiving Day was celebrated by the Pilgrims to thank God for their survival through the first winter, and also to express appreciation to the local Indians, who had generously helped them, and who were invited to share in the feast.  Some things are left out of this account, but so far as it goes, the story is true.

After I had been teaching a number of years, some of my students began telling me that their elementary school teachers taught them that the first Thanksgiving Day was just to give thanks to the Indians.  Apparently God didn’t come into it.

Now some of my students tell me that they weren’t taught that either.  Their elementary school teachers said Thanksgiving Day is just for “feeling thankful.”  Neither God, Indians, nor Pilgrims are in the picture.

Now gratitude, like being in love, is directional; it’s toward someone.  You can feel fortunate without having anyone in mind, but to be thankful is to be thankful toward the person to whom thanks are owed.  There is no such thing as a generalized feeling of thankfulness to no one in particular, and one can’t owe thanks to “the universe” because the universe is not a person capable of generosity.  So to whom were these students supposed to feel thankful?

If what we call our thankfulness isn’t to anyone in particular, then I can think of only two possibilities.

Possibility one:  What we are experiencing isn’t truly thankfulness, but only something like delight over good fortune.  In this case, I wonder why we even call it thankfulness.  Perhaps we should be celebrating a Gee We’ve Been Lucky Day, or, if times have been hard, maybe an It Could Have Been Worse Day.  If a shorter name is needed, we could call it Okayness Day.  I guess it would be something like Happy Hour.

Possibility two:  My attitude really is thankfulness, but I am in denial about its implications.  After all, sometimes we fall into denial concerning other directional attitudes, so why not concerning this one?  People who are in love sometimes try to convince themselves that they aren’t actually in love; the parallel isn’t perfect, but could it be something like that to be thankful but try to convince ourselves that there is no one to thank?

Well, this ingrate and his family are giving thanks to God this Thanksgiving for all of the wonderful things we don’t deserve, including each other.  Anyone care to join us?



Virtues Are in Persons, Not Propositions

Sunday, 11-20-2022



I am trying to figure out what to make of the claim that Christian beliefs are insufficiently humble.  When I was in school my physics teacher, an atheist, said that atheists are more humble than Christians because they affirm that human beings are nothing special.  More recently, in chatting with friends, I hear the opinion that believing in the natural law is proud, apparently because humility would require treating all moral perspectives the same.  I say “apparently” because the argument seems to turn into word salad.

I would like to know your thoughts on the matter.



I would say the solution to the problem is that virtues and vices, such as humility and pride, are character traits.  Unlike truth and falsity, they are properties of persons, not of propositions. 

We rightly associate atheism with pride because atheism provides a person with a motive to put himself in God’s place.  I think a person has to work mighty hard in order to tell himself there is no God – I did.  Even so, pride and humility are in the hearts of those who hold and reject the beliefs, not in the beliefs themselves.  Our ancient Adversary, who is the supreme example of pride, is no atheist.  St. James remarks with ironic praise, “You believe that God is one; you do well.  Even the demons believe -- and shudder.”

In the same way, we rightly associate Christianity with humility because Christianity teaches humility.  Humility wasn’t a pagan virtue; it was from Christianity that your atheist teacher learned of it.  But consider Jesus’ parable about the two men praying in the temple.  The conventionally religious man prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.”  The tax collector stood at a distance.  He wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven.  Instead he beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”  Christ’s comment was “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” 

There may be diverse motives for holding almost any belief.  If someone believes in the natural law because he submits to a moral order that he did not invent, he may be humble --  but if he believes in it because he thinks he lives up to it perfectly, he is proud.  If he tries to treat people respectfully even when their perspectives are mistaken, he may be humble – but if he says “all perspectives are equally valid” because he wants to do just as he pleases, he is proud.  If he says human beings are “nothing special” because he does not want to vaunt himself, he may be may be humble (even though mistaken) -- but if he says it so that he can treat other people as dirt, he is full of pride.

The most important things about beliefs are whether they are true.  The most important thing about motives is whether they are good.  But motives don’t tell us whether beliefs are true. 



Liberating Women to Serve Men

Monday, 11-14-2022


Business headlines prattle that the long range trend of women entering into the labor force is slowing down, and that they aren’t coming back fast enough from the pandemic.  Writers fret about what’s holding them back.  A common claim is that there isn’t enough day care.

Maybe some of those moms don’t want their kids in day care.  Nobody asks them whether they want to enter the labor force.  Maybe they wish they had more choice.

Decades ago, one of the targets of economic policy was that a man should be able to earn a “living wage” – a wage at which he could support his family by his own labor.  The mass entrance of women into the work force and the disappearance of the idea of the living wage have gone hand in hand.  Increasingly, couples find that both mom and dad must work in order to support the family – even if mom would rather stay at home.  Tell me whom this benefits.

For many working class women, this is a real trap.  On the other hand, reasonably well-off people are not pawns of market forces.  My wife and I had a conversation one day with a pleasant couple who were much younger, and much more prosperous, than we were.  Husband and wife were both high-dollar attorneys.  She expressed strong frustration because the kids were in day care, but she wanted to stay with them herself.  “Why don’t you?” we asked.  They answered that they had expenses.  “Like what?” we asked.  Well, they had to keep up the payments on their big, expensive boat and their big, expensive house on the lake.

The difference between her facial expression and his were intriguing.  She became nervous.  He became alarmed.  There was some history here, and he didn’t want his wife going down this road.  She didn’t want to displease him.  We changed the subject.

To one degree or another, almost all husbands and wives divide labor, and they are generally happier doing so.  Obviously, not all women desire an exclusively domestic life, and there is nothing wrong with that.  But there is a great deal wrong with the fact that we force women to act against their domestic inclinations for reasons that have nothing to do with their fulfillment.  We call it being liberated, but it is really about serving the interests of men -- and economic managers.



Motives for Accepting the Chaos at Our Southern Border

Monday, 11-07-2022


I like immigrants and favor generous immigration policies, but also border security.  The arguments against border security escape me.  I have heard that anyone who wants safe borders must hate immigrants, but this certainly doesn’t describe me.

I have also heard that the nation state itself should wither away, because it promotes conflict and hinders the common good.  But what are the alternatives?  In the present condition of the world, there seem to be only three:  (1) Utter disorder, which is what we already have in some places, (2) a world state, which would almost surely be oppressive and from which there would be no escape, and (3) a free-for-all among multinational corporations who would then develop their own paramilitary departments.

The chaos at our southern border is so transparently bad for everyone that I have reluctantly given up cataloguing bad arguments, and begun to enumerate bad motives.  All of these, of course, are speculative.

Desire for cheap labor.  This hardly requires explanation.

Desire for docile voters who will reliably vote Democratic.  Some motive-seekers look no further.  But though this may be a strong motive, it is certainly an odd one, since Hispanics who are already here are not particularly docile and are trending conservative.   Of course those who favor insecure borders may assume what is contrary to fact.

Desire to weaken nation states because they hinder the operation of those multinational corporations I mentioned.  Although one should never underestimate the cynicism of others, this would be a curious motive too, for it is hard to see how a corporate war of all against all would be good even for corporations.

Desire for more people in the pews.  This may be a motivation for some bishops.  Most of the immigrants are Catholic, and church affiliation among people who are already here is trending down.

Money received by private and religious agencies which contract with the government to provide social services for the immigrants.  Follow the money.  Charitable organizations pursue self-interest too.

Fear of upsetting China, which is the source of most of the Fentanyl pouring over the border.  Appeasers are never in short supply (neither are chauvinistic nationalists, but that’s another story).  Besides, a lot of politicians are on the take.

Which possible motives have I missed?



Double Standards

Monday, 10-31-2022

“The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination.  The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.  The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”  -- Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (2019), p. 19.

This view has been digging itself in for two generations, but lately the shovel has been updated.  The old-style defenders of racial double standards still say they aren’t racist.  Since racial double standards are by definition racist, that’s been a hard line to peddle.  The new line is that they are racist, but in a good way:  Because only racism against whites can remedy the effects of past racism against blacks.

Since this view is relentlessly drummed into the ears of the young – and since few of them have ever been taught the ancient doctrine that justice is giving to each person what is due to him, or the sacred principle that we may never do evil for the sake of good results -- perhaps it is not surprising that many of my students find the theory of good racism plausible.

I find that those who do think the only cure for racism is racism tend to hold a number of similar views:  That the only cure for injustice is injustice, that the only cure for violence is violence, and even, sometimes, that the only cure for hatred is hatred.

For the moment, let’s set aside the sheer injustice of discriminating again an entire category of people – whether blacks, whites, or plaids -- just because of the color of their skin.

Instead let us ask:  Do double standards remedy the effect of past racism?  Does discrimination in favor of black people really help black people?  Consider how such policies work in colleges and universities.

The double standard arouses resentment among white students who are held to the higher standard -- resentment which intensifies when they are told they are racist for wanting to be treated fairly.  That’s a good way to make them racists for real.

It generates a presumption that black students may have attained their places because they were held to the lower standard, and therefore are not as well qualified.  The curse of this suspicion will follow them all of their lives.

The rationale which is offered for the double standard invites a black student who does fail to attain his academic goals to blame his disappointment on supposed institutional racism.

Yet it also tempts black students not to study as hard, because for some purposes they don’t have to.

And that insidious presumption I mentioned seduces black students who attain their positions by sheer hard work and intelligence to doubt themselves:  “Maybe I don’t deserve to be here.  Maybe I got here only because the playing field isn’t level.  Maybe I’m not really good enough.”

The first, second, and third effects threaten two generations of growth in good will between the races.  The third and fourth effects undermine advance in black achievement.  And the fifth effect poisons black self-respect.

Since discrimination in favor of black students so obviously hurts black students, why would anyone promote it?  I mean apart from sheer sloppiness in thinking on the part of the promoters.

Among black radicals, the chief motive seems to be an extreme predisposition to disbelieve in the good will most white people today bear toward black people, and therefore a willingness to tread on it.

Among white liberals, the chief motive seems to be a secret suspicion that perhaps black people really aren’t equal, so they need to be treated by different standards -- the very thing they accuse other whites of believing.

And among ordinary people of only middling courage, the chief motive seems to be fear – either turned outward (“Don’t accuse me!  Don’t smear my reputation!  Don’t get me in bad with those who have power over me!”) or turned inward (“I’m not racist, am I?  I’m a good person, aren’t I?  I don’t want to think I’m one of those bad ones!”).

If you want to divide blacks and whites against each other, if you want black kids to think they are inferior, or if you want to hold them back, then go ahead -- patronize them and hold them to lower standards.  That will do it.

But if, as I do, you believe that black kids are equal, you rejoice when they succeed, and you really do want to remedy the effects of past discrimination, then for God’s sake, treat them like everyone else.


Enough with the Praise Already

How to Think about “Institutional” Racism