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




The Other Face of Child Neglect

Monday, 10-24-2022


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."

And finally,

“Nothing is going to happen.”



“That’s Just Your Subjective Opinion”

Monday, 10-17-2022


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?

Him:  Yes.

You:  How much is two plus two?

Him:  Four.

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.

Him:  What?

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?

Monday, 10-10-2022


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