The Underground Thomist
The Other Face of Child Neglect
Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring – Revelations 12:17.
Some of the lesson plans for Pride Week in my public school district this year included Coming Out and Pronouns Days for students in middle school, and promoting the idea of being non-binary to children as young as five.
Although the district lies, this is not even particularly secret. The district ignored warnings from state officials that instructing children about controversial matters of sexuality without parental consent is a violation of state law.
On one occasion, one of the public schools in the district invited a male transvestite performer who had been arrested for prostitution to mingle with the children for five hours in the school library.
A friend whose children attend public school in the school district next door to mine tells me that more than half of his pre-teen daughters’ school friends say that they are transgender, and pressure his girls into being “trans” too.
Here are some of the reasons people close to me give for exposing the souls of their little ones to mortal danger. They reveal an interesting hierarchy of values.
“Yes, but if we send her to a new school she might lose her old friends.”
“Yes, but I didn’t like the art teacher at the charter school.”
“Yes, but I didn’t like the playground at the Christian school.”
“Yes, but she has to get used to this stuff sometime.”
“Yes, but the public school is in our neighborhood.”
“Yes, but the charter school is too new.”
“Yes, but all our friends send their children to the public school.”
“Yes, but the teacher seemed nice and told us not to worry.”
“Yes, but if we home schooled, one of us would have to teach.”
"Yes, but we didn't want to accept our parents' offer to help with teaching or tuition."
“Nothing is going to happen.”
“That’s Just Your Subjective Opinion”
The following inquiry came from a young man in prison. I get the same one from students.
This may seem a stupid question, but it comes up often when I talk with people. If I say we should be try to be good people or good friends or whatever, I’m often told “What you call a good person or good friend is only your idea of what’s good. It’s just your subjective opinion.” So, how do we know that what we say is good is anything other a subjective feeling with no real reality behind it? I need help responding to this argument.
The subjectivist thinks that when we say something like “It’s not good to cheat our friends,” all we are really saying is “When I consider cheating friends, I have bad feelings.” They say someone else might not have those feelings, and they take the silly pose that feelings are neither right nor wrong.
Well, it isn’t mistaken to think that most people have bad feelings about cheating friends. But if you ask them why they have bad feelings about it, they don’t say I just do. They say because it’s wrong. And that’s exactly right. Bad feelings are the appropriate response to cheating among people who are supposed to be friends. So we need to cultivate appropriate emotional responses in ourselves. This is difficult, but it isn’t any more difficult than developing good judgment and appropriate habits about other things.
Trying to prove that there is a difference between appropriate and inappropriate feelings is a little like trying to prove that down is different than up. I don’t think people are really unaware of the difference. They are merely in a state of highly motivated confusion; they don’t get it, because they are trying not to get it. Subjectivism is just too convenient for excusing what we’ve done.
So the aim of the discussion has to be calling attention to the obvious. The best way to do this is usually to turn the tables. Your subjectivist opponent has no clothes; point this out to him. Put him on the defensive.
Suppose you’ve just said that good friends don’t lie to each other, and someone says “That’s just your view of being a good friend.” Turn it around! There are a lot of ways this might go. Here’s an example.
You: Okay. So in your view good friends do lie to each other? Do you lie to your good friends?
Him: Well, no.
You: Then it isn’t just my view. It’s yours too.
That may be enough; maybe not --
Him: That’s not the point. I’m saying that if someone did think good friends lie to each other, his view would be just as valid.
You: So you think everyone’s views are equally valid?
You: How much is two plus two?
You: If I thought two plus two is five, would my view be equally valid?
Now that may be enough, but still it may not --
Him: This isn’t arithmetic. It’s friendship.
You: Sure. But why should different views about friendship be equally valid when different views of arithmetic aren’t?
Him: Because people disagree about friendship.
You: Don’t they disagree about arithmetic?
Perhaps the other fellow still wants to argue --
Him: I don’t know what to say to you if you don’t see that values are subjective!
You: I can think of something you can say to me.
You: You might ask me why I think good friends don’t lie to each other.
Him: There aren’t any answers to that. It’s just one person’s opinion against another’s.
You: Try me. Ask me why I hold that opinion.
Maybe he still isn’t finished --
Him: Why should I do that?
You: Who knows, maybe I’m wrong! Help me find out! But we won’t know what’s right unless we ask.
Him: All right. Why do you think good friends don’t lie to each other?
You: Because the best kind of friendship is a partnership in a good life. It can’t be a partnership if they’re cheating.
Him: Best how? Maybe I prefer some other kind.
You: Best for the same reason that for hungry man, a full meal is better than a half meal. It’s more complete.
The other fellow might still be stubborn, but you can turn the tables --
Him: That’s just your subjective opinion again.
You: Okay, then. My turn. Why do you think good friends do lie to each other?
Him: I told you. I’m not saying it’s my opinion. I’m saying it might be somebody’s opinion.
You: Okay, what reason might somebody who did hold that opinion give for it? Maybe we can compare reasons and see which ones are more convincing.
And if all else fails, there is always this. It won’t magically change the other fellow’s mind, but it might plant a question in it --
Him: I’m not going to play that game. It’s all subjective. That’s the end of it.
You: Wouldn’t that make “it’s all subjective” just your subjective opinion?
See how this can go?
Why NOT Persecute?
I am drastically shortening the following letter from a reader.
My email may seem absurd, but I feel that things have reached such a low point in this country that the worst thing to do is nothing. It seems to me that to do what is right, America needs to change the First Amendment, and I have written a possible alternative. The Constitution would publicly affirm the existence and attributes of God as they can be known by natural reason. Any religion which affirmed them would be allowed free expression. Any religion which did not affirm them would be liable to being suppressed, prohibited, and criminalized.
I emphasize what can be known about God by reasoning. I don’t exclude people from governing who affirm God but reject revelation. That would be throwing away some of the nation’s human capital.
What do you think?
I understand your despondency about the moral and spiritual condition of the country. Although I strongly disagree with your proposal, it deserves a serious reply. Let’s see what I can do.
As a matter of history, it seems likely that what the Founders meant by the term “religion,” in the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses, wasn’t any old thing, but moralistic monotheism, with a Ten Commandments view of morality, a providential view of God, and a high view of the dignity of the human person. This outlook is plainly on display in the Declaration of Independence, and yes, the Founders endorsed it because they thought it could be confirmed by natural reason, even apart from revelation. So I think it is already implicit in the Religion Clauses, however obscured it may have become by subsequent judicial interpretation.
I will go further still: It would been helpful, and saved a great deal of confusion, if the ringing affirmations about God which we find in the Declaration of Independence had been placed in the Preamble to the Constitution too. He is our Creator and Protector, the author of natural law, and the source of our rights and our duties.
Up to this point, I am with you, but now our paths part sharply.
For, also as a matter of history, the Founders didn’t intend to open the dark gate to official suppression of other sorts of creeds and cults -- and they were right not to open it. It is one thing to say that moralistic monotheism should enjoy some special recognition or privilege over and above the protections that all systems of belief receive through the Free Speech and Assembly Clauses. It is quite another to say that systems of belief outside of it should be denied freedom of speech and assembly, or that we should round up their adherents and put them in jail.
We insist on religious liberty not only so that those who know God can worship Him, but also so that those who do not know Him can discover Him. Without freedom to seek Him, it is much less likely that they would find Him. Let us punish people for actual crimes, not thought crimes. We don’t need to imitate the persecutors.
Besides, faith, by its nature, cannot be coerced. I like to quote St. Hilary of Poitiers, who wrote, “God does not want an unwilling obedience.” What coercion actually accomplishes is simulated faith. The early Puritan writer Roger Williams put it tersely: “The sword breeds a nation of hypocrites.” You can convert, or you can coerce; you can’t convert by coercion.
Consider too how the highly detailed list of proscribed sects in your proposal (I’ve omitted them from this post) encourages gaming the system. Adherents of the sects that you want to prohibit could evade proscription simply by changing their names.
Finally, I think that your proposal would come at the worst possible time (not that I think there is a right time). After two generations of hostility to faith, a hostility disguised as “neutrality,” the Supreme Court has recently begun inching back toward a saner view of the Religion Clauses, one closer to that of the Constitutional draftsman. This development needs to continue. Why risk derailing it? For even if I agreed with your suggestion in other respects, so sweeping a proposal would be less likely to produce a Constitutional amendment than a civil war. There is no telling which side would win -- but the tendency of civil war is to unhinge the consciences of both sides. So it might be almost as bad to win as to lose.
As James Madison wrote, “The danger of disturbing the public tranquility by interesting too strongly the public passions, is a still more serious objection against a frequent reference of constitutional questions to the decision of the whole society …. the experiments are of too ticklish a nature to be unnecessarily multiplied.”
I hope I’ve persuaded you.
The Strange Second Life of Confessional States
I have been wondering about self-evident first principles. They can’t be proven, because you can’t deduce them from other truths. So what makes them true and self-evident?
Good question. Although self-evident first principles aren’t demonstrable, they don’t have to be, because they aren’t deniable either. Willy nilly, we make use of them even in the attempt to deny them, so we haven’t succeeded in denying them after all.
For suppose someone suggested that the proposition “A statement can be both true and false in the same sense at the same time” is true (as some people do!) By the very act of claiming that it is true, he would also be claiming that it is not false. So he would still be relying on the fact that it couldn’t be both at once. And it would be equally silly to argue that it is good to pursue evil, and evil to pursue good, because he would still be assuming that good is to be done and evil isn’t.
Another problem is what logicians call “explosion”: From any contradiction whatsoever, every conclusion follows. So if, for example, you say that the proposition “abortion is wrong” is both true and false – I’ve seen that one claimed – then it would follow there are fairies. And that water flows uphill. And that it doesn’t flow uphill -- whatever you want! Logical reasoning would be kaput.
What makes first principles evident in themselves is that their predicates are “contained” or implicit in their subjects -- they merely draw out what their subjects mean already. That’s how it works with all self-evident propositions. For example, since man is a rational animal, of course he has a mind and a body. Now the good is that which we naturally seek, so to know that something is good just is to know that it is to be sought and its opposite avoided. And the truth is how things really are, so to know that something is true just is to know that it corresponds to what is and excludes what is not.
Notice then that each first principle has two forms:
I. The ontological form of the first principle of theoretical reason is that nothing can both be and not be in the same sense at the same time.
II. Its propositional form is that nothing can be both affirmed and denied in the same sense at the same time.
1. The ontological form of the first principle of practical reason is that good is that which all things naturally seek.
2. Its preceptive form is that good is to be done and pursued, and its contrary avoided. This is also the first precept of natural law.
Just as statement (II) expresses (I) in a form adapted to demonstration, so statement (2) expresses (1) in a form adapted to deliberation.
I’m sure you’ll agree that from a certain point of view, all this becomes obvious. Our minds are, so to speak, magnetized toward being and good. These are the compass points that draw all thinking about what is and what ought to be done. But if we don’t restate the obvious, we can get into a lot of trouble, so I’m glad you asked.
Once Saved …
The sense that I might die really has me questioning my faith and my certainty of heaven.
I wasn’t afraid when I was a Protestant, believing that “once saved always saved.” I remember the freedom and peace I felt knowing that it was a done deal.
Now, as a Catholic, intellectually I agree that “once saved always saved” isn’t true, but I’m really struggling with anxiety about where I will go when I die. I miss the certainty about meeting Jesus that came with being Protestant.
What am I missing here?
I sympathize, but I think you worry about your feelings too much.
You feel anxiety about where you will be after death, and so you blame the Catholic teaching that it is possible to fall from grace.
But think: Only those who turn their backs on God through unrepentant sin die as exiles from grace. So it is unreasonable for you to obsess about where you will be after death unless you are planning to turn your back on Him!
It is also unreasonable to believe in a God who brings those who turn their backs on Him into His eternal presence. And even if He did, how could they want to be there? He is the very thing they are avoiding; they refuse to recognize their greatest good.
You imagine that your anxiety results from Catholic teaching, and that Protestant teaching would make you feel better. Far be it from me to say that feelings are the test of truth – but do you know that I get letters like yours more often from Protestants than from Catholics? People who do believe “once saved, always saved,” can also suffer tormenting worry about where they will be after death.
You think that can’t happen to Protestants. Certainly it can. Commonly it happens when they find themselves returning to sins that they had thought they had repented and abandoned. So they worry that perhaps they didn’t really repent -- and then they worry that if they didn’t really repent, then perhaps they never really had faith.
You see, you are anxious because you think, “Maybe I will lose my salvation! How can I know that I won’t?” But they are anxious because they think “Maybe I was never saved in the first place! How can I know that I was?” No doctrine, whether Protestant or Catholic, or for that matter atheist or pagan, guarantees that you will always feel bouncy.
And would it be good if you always did? As St. Augustine writes, those who love God learn from His correction “that their rejoicing on the right path ought to be with trembling, and that they should not arrogantly rely on their own strength to stay on it, nor say in their prosperity, ‘We shall not be disturbed.’”
So trust Christ, who is “mighty to save,” strong to preserve you in His grace, and then cooperate obediently with that strength. Salvation doesn’t depend on you, but on Him. That means, among other things, that it doesn’t depend on your feelings, but on grace. And that should make you feel better.
The “Uselessness” of the Liberal Arts
The author of a book on why most kids don’t need to go to college was on television explaining that “most students don't need things like liberal arts or gender studies.”
There he lost me.
You wouldn’t think so. For in the first place, I don’t think the majority of kids need to go to college either – and I’d say so even if it were less expensive. They aren’t interested, they don’t get it, and they are too young to benefit from the experience; fruits picked too soon don’t ripen, but only spoil. Youth is for planting roots, getting married, and starting families. Let them grow up a little, and then, perhaps, come back. Some of my best students have been older, returning students.
And nobody needs gender studies. It’s not a scholarly discipline, but an ideology. You can get all that and save the tuition by reading Twitter.
But as to the liberal arts.
The author was assuming that the only purpose of studying something is its usefulness, in this case, for getting a job. I’m all for getting a job, and I’m all for learning what you need to know to get one – in college, if that’s the only place you can learn it. But the purpose of the liberal arts isn’t that they’re useful. It’s that they’re useless.
By which I mean: They aren’t a means to some other end, but are worthwhile in themselves. Skill in accountancy is admirable and important, but you don’t read Dante’s Comedy to be better at accountancy. You do it for its own sake. It enriches your life.
Therein lies the difference between a slave and a free man. The free man has the privilege of doing at least some things for their own sake. The slave does nothing for its own sake. He does everything as a means to other ends.
In fact, that’s how the liberal arts got their name. It comes from the Latin word liber, which means “free.” The things we do because they are civilized, worthwhile in themselves, fit uses of the powers that make us human -- those are the liberal arts.
The things we do just to keep meat on our bones, serve our masters, escape their notice, or pump up the Gross National Product -- those, however important, are the servile arts.
Though it isn’t often recognized, even some chattel slaves can be free in the sense I have in mind, because everything we do for sheer love is free rather than servile. The friendship of sharing in a good life is free. Cherishing our children is free. Worshipping for the sheer love of God is the freest of all. My masters may be more truly enslaved without bonds than I am in bonds, because they are in bondage to their appetites. St. Paul urges bondservants to find freedom by doing whatever they must do as though they were doing it for Christ.
Yet even Paul does not think shoveling dung is free in itself, and he tells them “if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.”
One of the blessings of modern Western life is that today, we do not have bond slavery, and those who must work for a living (that’s almost all of us) have greater scope for free pursuits too. We can choose our own spouses, raise children without fear that they will be sold away from us, and worship God as our hearts direct. We also have more time. A nurse can sing in a scholum, a welder can practice contemplation, and yes, that accountant can read Dante.
One of the disappointments of modern life is that we twitter and fritter this blessing away, filling up our time with meaningless things, imagining that we are free because we fasten our own fetters.
And one of the banes of modern life is that colleges of liberal arts are among the chief fritterers.
I grant that they are industrious fritterers. They snag big budgets, crank out publications, hoodwink donors, propagandize legions of students, pull in impressive grants, flatter those whose approval they crave, and wage endless battles for honor and preeminence – yes, they excel at the servile arts. But they have less and less to do with the liberal arts.
That brings me back to the fellow on television. I don’t agree with him that unless you want a job in the liberal arts, you don’t “need” the liberal arts. That misses the point. Their worth doesn’t lie in their usefulness; their point doesn’t lie in a job. If we think that only the useful has value, we are slaves.
But if he were to say that fewer and fewer students who major in the liberal arts are learning about liberal pursuits – why, of course he would be right.
If there is to be a rebirth of the liberal arts, it may have to take place entirely outside of the universities.
Perhaps then there might be a rebirth of the universities.
Why Do We Always Hit a Wall?
Last week, in writing about whether an atheist can be a moral realist, I commented that although, by our own efforts, we can make some progress toward virtue, eventually we always hit a wall. This is a very Christian view of our weakness, but many of the great moral thinkers would have rejected it. Aristotle, for example, seems to think that only the weak and incontinent hit a wall; gentlemen like himself can do better.
I think everyone faces that wall. But why? There is more than one reason for it. Allow me to explain just one of them. But it is a big one.
We less-than-perfect people are not merely more-or-less-close approximations of perfect people. Typically, our more-or-less good qualities and our clearly bad qualities are mutually dependent on each other. The paradoxical result is that, as in the parable of the man possessed by a devil, expelling one vice may open the door to seven others, each worse than the first. A few stories will show why.
Story one. A scrupulously upright man, devoted to the true and the good, is put in power. He uses this power, however, to persecute others in the name of virtue. What we have in the man of my story is an out-and-out vice – self-righteousness – drawing strength from a badly flawed version of a genuine virtue -- zeal. The apparent moral is that the man is simply not virtuous enough: Keep the virtue but get rid of the vice, and he will be all right. But is it that simple? The next story raises doubts.
Story two. A precocious child, considered peculiar by his classmates, is relentlessly ridiculed. Fearing rejection, he unconsciously cultivates feelings of personal superiority and contempt for others as a defense. So it goes for years. Then, in maturity, he gains enough self-understanding to recognize contemptuous pride as a vice. Strenuously attempting the unfamiliar virtue of humility, he meets with some success. But his contemptuousness had always protected him. As that fence goes down, his insecurity invades all over again; the unresolved childhood fear of rejection returns. Fear of rejection, in turn, makes him even more uncharitable than his contemptuousness did before. What we have here is not a vice making use of a virtue, as in the previous story, but a vice protecting what little virtue there is against other vices that are even worse.
This sort of thing operates not only at the level of the individual but also at the level of whole societies. Permit me to add two more stories.
Story three. As Augustine of Hippo noticed, what the Romans called virtue was really a vicious craving for glory, for the approval of others who think well of one. This vice helped prop up the Roman republic, because the political class could win glory by performing deeds of conspicuous benefit to the commonwealth. In this way, the vice of glory protected against other vices that were even worse. The problem was twofold. First, this strategy worked only because some little bit of real virtue remained; otherwise, one might pursue glory by foul means rather than fair. Second, indulging the itch for glory gradually undermined that little bit of real virtue, so that one did use foul means, for example buying votes. At that point the entire motivational structure begins to collapse, as the political class comes to lust not after simple glory, but after wealth and power. The curtain fell on the republic.
Story four. Our society has a version of the Roman strategy too, but in our case the vice that protects against still worse vices is the lust for wealth itself. As Adam Smith noticed, the sheer desire for acquisition, as though by an invisible hand, can motivate people to benefit others, not because they love them but because that is how they earn a profit. Just as in the Roman case, this strategy works only if there a little bit of virtue remains; otherwise, one might pursue wealth by fraud and by governmental favors rather instead of by making a better and cheaper product. Just as in the Roman case, indulging the itch for wealth eventually undermines that little bit of virtue; today our corporations compete by gaming the system of regulations and subsidies. And just as in the Roman case, at this point the whole motivational structure begins to collapse, and the elite classes begin to scratch far baser itches than simple desire for honest profit.
But let’s get back to individual souls. It looks now as though the apparent moral we drew from the first story needs revision. “Keeping the virtue but getting rid of the vice” will reliably make a person “all right” only if the vice he gets rid of is the only one he has, which is very unlikely. If it isn't the only one, then it may be -- I venture to say that it probably is – merely a single part of a strategy for maintaining a kind of equilibrium among his out-and-out vices and his badly flawed virtues. Upsetting the equilibrium will trigger a sort of inner rockslide at the end of which he has merely reached a new equilibrium, one which may even be worse.
If you don’t like the metaphor of rockslides, then think of a bicycle tire. The moral virtues are like spokes. Beginning with a perfect round, bending one spoke will soon bend all the others, too, but straightening one spoke of a crushed wheel will not simply pull the others back in true. In fact it may cause some spokes to bend even more. With damaged bicycle wheels, there are three alternatives. We can replace the wheel; we can take it apart, straighten each part separately, and put it back together; or we can leave it in one piece and straighten every part at once. With a soul, the first two alternatives are out of the question because we can neither replace it nor take it apart. The only alternative is to leave it in one piece and straighten every part at once.
If all this is true, we may draw two main conclusions.
First. Because moral imperfection is a matter not merely of missing virtues, but of mutual dependence between out-and-out vices and badly flawed virtues, the linear, accumulative picture of moral development, in which more and more virtues are added while more and more vices are shed, is misleading. It isn’t enough to add the former and shed the latter. An entire dynamical system – an entire moral economy – must be replaced by another. Even if the change takes place gradually, we are not talking about mere improvement. We are talking about conversion. And we are not very good at converting ourselves.
Second. Suppose that because we disbelieve in the possibility of divine assistance, we reject the possibility of conversion. Then we will have to “settle” for an equilibrium between our out-and-out vices and our badly flawed virtues. But all such equilibria are structurally unstable. As we have seen, typically they employ a leading vice to check even worse vices. The ability of the leading vice to do this depends on a residuum of virtue, and reliance on the leading vice undermines this residuum. So if we refuse to be converted -- to be made not a little bit better but radically better – then in the long run we are likely to become worse.
The only way to get over the wall is to be lifted over, and the only way to be lifted over is by the grace of God.
The Lower Is Not the More Solid