The Underground Thomist
Should Government Get Out of the Marriage Business?
It seems to me that the only way we can safeguard the view of marriage as a procreative bond between one man and one woman is to take the government completely out of the business of marriage. In this way the government can't use the coercive arm of the state to enforce its fallacious views on those who don't accept it. The Church already has a robust system for recording marriages in its own community, with its own canon laws regulating it. Perhaps, by observing the Church, the general public may gradually learn from it -- since no other robust system will exist. That's why I think that under current circumstances, the government should not be involved in marriage at all. Do you consider this position sound?
I sympathize with your dismay. If the issues were purely spiritual, I would agree with you, because the state is not our spiritual guide. But Samuel Johnson exaggerated only slightly when he wrote, “Almost all the miseries of life, almost all the wickedness that infects society, and almost all the distresses that afflict mankind, are the consequences of some defect in private duties. Likewise, all the joys of this world may be attributable to the happiness of hearth and home.” The integrity of marriage is so important to ordinary human well-being – and yet so vulnerable because of ordinary human failings – that it needs to be shored up in every possible way: Not only by the discipline of the Church, but also by custom and law.
Even when the state is confused about the common good’s requirements (as it is), civil regulations concerning marriage remain necessary for the common good’s protection. After all, marriage and family law do much more than register who is married and who is not. In ways that canon law cannot do, they enforce the duties of spouses toward each other as well as toward their children. Moreover, in cases of desertion or marital dissolution, they provide for continuing support not only for the children of the union, but also for the most vulnerable party to the marriage, who is almost always the woman.
Yes, I understand that the contemporary state labels things that are not marriages as marriages. Yet so far, this fact has not prevented the law from serving these functions with respect to true marriages. For all these reasons, I would expect enormous confusion to result from the complete withdrawal of the state from all matters marital, and the harm would fall primarily on those in most need of protection.
Conceivably, matters could become worse. Already the state is behaving oppressively toward those who do not share its views of marriage. One can imagine a future in which marriage and family law have become so depraved that they systematically undermine the duties of mothers and fathers toward each other and their children. But we are not there yet.
So Called Self-Ownership
Some political theorists think we own ourselves. The idea is especially prominent among libertarians, who often claim to find it in John Locke, the English social contract thinker who so powerfully influenced the American founders. Just for these reasons, some readers might be interested in the following after-the-bell conversation.
I’m sorry to say that it was interrupted, because my student had to go to his next class and I had to go to mine. But it stopped at an interesting point. I’ve cleaned up the ums and ahs and made the transitions cleaner.
“Prof, I thought you said during class today that you disagreed with people who say that John Locke based rights on self-ownership. Would you please go over that again?”
“Sure,” I said. “Early in his book, Locke says we have rights because we don’t own ourselves. He says that ultimately, each of us belongs to God. You have rights against me because I’m not to treat you as though I own you. I have rights against you because you’re not to treat me as though you own me.”
“But doesn’t he say later that we do own ourselves? I mean in his big chapter about acquiring property. I’m reading that in another course.”
“I don’t think so. As I read him, what he actually says in the chapter about property is that we own the fruits of our own labor because God authorizes us to appropriate things from the common stock of nature.”
“But saying that we own our own labor seems like saying that we own ourselves. What if he really does think we own ourselves?”
“Well,” I answered, “in that case he would hold two conflicting theories of rights at the same time, wouldn’t he? And they can’t both be right. One, in the earlier part of the book, says I have rights because I belong to God -- He’s sovereign. The other, in the chapter on property, says I have rights because I belong to myself – I’m sovereign.”
“So which theory do you think he really believes in?”
“I can’t read his long-deceased mind, but I would like to think he believes in the first one.”
“Why would you like to think that?”
“Just because it’s a better one.”
My student seemed surprised.
“Really? Why would you say it’s a better one?”
“Because if each of us is sovereign, then each of us can do whatever he can get away with. That wouldn’t be an explanation of how we have rights, but of how we don’t have rights. No matter what the other fellow is doing to you, you haven’t any moral claim that he not do it. All you can do is try to stop him -- and he’ll try to stop you from stopping him.”
“I see that. Hmm. It does look like maybe the first theory would make more sense.”
He considered a moment further.
“But so what if it’s a better theory?”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that people today aren’t going to be comfortable with having God in the picture.”
“Maybe some people won’t be,” I said. “But what if He’s already in the picture?”
“I don’t follow you.”
“I mean that what to do if people are uncomfortable with God is an important question – but it’s a different one than the one we’ve been asking. Who we really belong to doesn’t depend on whether God makes us uncomfortable. Does it?”
Like every conversation, this one is presumably
To Be Continued
Demystify the Demystifiers
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
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 …
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
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
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.