Why liberal assumptions don’t do us justice

The Damned Old Man has provided us with an excellent illustration of the inability of the liberal mind when confronted with nonliberal thoughts to deal with them fairly.  I hate to pick on someone whose done me the courtesy of reading my material and sharing his thoughts; we should all be humbled to think of how difficult it is to intellectually navigate on unfamiliar territory (and how seldom we do it).  Still, I think we and our moral code are not quite so contemptible as TDOM imagines, and it would be useful to consider the source of his error.

With regard to my recent post on suicide, he writes:

Damned liberals. Leave it to them to ruin the good Christian enjoyment of the sins of others. It’s not like growing old, sickly, and burdensome on others could ever lead to despair or the wish to end one’s life. We’re human beings after all, not horses and should be spared the mercy of death and forced to suffer to the bitter end. It’s the Christian thing to do.

I think this was more meant as an expression of hostility rather than a reasoned attack on my post (which itself was not a reasoned defense of my opposition to suicide/euthanasia, but rather presupposed it).  It has more in common with the liberals’ instinctive bullying, self-righteous “HOW DAAARRRE YOU!!!!” pose.   TDOM can certainly reason well with those he thinks deserve it, a group that obviously doesn’t include me or other Christians.  (As we’ll see below, he does in a later comment get to the heart of the matter.)  Still, the assumptions and tropes that come out when liberals are in sputtering condemnation mode are revealing.  Let’s look at them:

  1. It’s impossible, or somehow inconsistent, to sympathize with someone and yet not endorse their behavior, to say that you don’t approve of something but that you understand what drove someone to it.  This means you don’t really sympathize.  The liberal reads life through a rigid ideological lens, so normal human empathy without an ideology of permissiveness is inexplicable to him.
  2. If you prevent someone from using an illicit means to avoid suffering, you are causing their suffering.  Consequentialism is simply assumed to be true, with no argument for it deemed necessary.
  3. If you disapprove of someone avoiding suffering through what you regard as evil means, that means you are cruel and have no compassion.
  4. Dependency is degrading.
  5. There’s something perverse in condemning an evil act and yet appreciating literature where such an act is used as a plot devise.  As if people of all ideological persuasions don’t do this, and entirely legitimately!  Even before liberalism, there wouldn’t have been much literature without imagined sin.
  6. Appreciating fiction that contains depictions of immoral acts is a perverse “enjoyment of the sins of others”.
  7. All appreciation of literature is “enjoyment”.  Note how the Benthamite flattening of human experience has reduced everything to pleasure vs. pain.  Was the excerpt from Ovid above “pleasant” as opposed to “painful”?  Wouldn’t it be better to describe it as sad or touching, either beautiful or sentimental as its merits warrant?
  8. Because I don’t approve of suicide, I must not see how someone could be tempted to it because of suffering or degradation–even though my whole fucking post was about how I can appreciate this.
  9. The word “Christian” functions vaguely as a curse among liberals, the way “Freemason”, “communist”, or “Jacobin” do for conservatives.

I don’t think TDOM or my other liberal commenters actually believe these statements in the form I’ve written them.  But without them, they have failed to prove that I’m a heartless monster.

Later, TDOM does outline his position:

I see no one forcing anyone to commit suicide. I do see it as an acceptable option for those who choose it. Your religious beliefs should have no bearing on my choice and should not be forced upon me. My life is my own.

First, two quibbles:  by definition, no one can force anyone to commit suicide.  What people are doing in hospices right now is murder.  And who’s talking about religion?  I’m making my stand on natural law.  I oppose suicide for purely Kantian reasons.  TDOM certainly didn’t invent the idea, but somehow it’s become common wisdom that any ethics other than Benthamite utilitarianism is “religion”, therefore irrational, therefore unsuitable as a public motive.  When the hell did utilitarianism become the State’s established religion, so that only it gets to decide what’s forced on people?

We must credit TDOM with coming to the real issue, the central issue, in the end.  “My life is my own.”  That’s precisely where we disagree.  I say that our lives are not our own, and everything follows from that.  I expect that over the next decade, starting soon, he and I and everybody else will be arguing till we’re blue in the face about whether we do or do not own our own lives.

Whether there should be a preferential option for the poor

Donald Scott has asked me if I accept the claim that public policy should show a “preferential option for the poor”.  To amuse myself, I will answer in disputation form.

Objection 1:

It would seem not, because favoring some people over others over legally irrelevant criteria like wealth is unjust.  We would certainly regard a preferential option for the rich as unjust.  In particular, taking more money in taxes from the rich while providing the same government services is unjust.

Objection 2:

It would seem not, because virtuous activity must be voluntary, but wealth redistribution is coercive charity, a contradiction.

Objection 3:

It would seem not, because such an option will inevitably lead to socialism, which is a godless tyranny.

Objection 4:

It would seem not, because God, Who is completely just, shows no such preference.

On the contrary, Pope Leo XIII says:

 37. Rights must be religiously respected wherever they exist, and it is the duty of the public authority to prevent and to punish injury, and to protect every one in the possession of his own. Still, when there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and badly off have a claim to especial consideration. The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.

, which is actually a stronger statement than the one I will defend.

I answer that

The duties of the state can be divided into two:  establishing justice, and promoting the good.

The first duty, establishing justice, means punishing wrongdoing, rewarding public service, and enforcing legal rights.  Pope Leo says there should be preference even here, but I think this preference should be small:  the rights of the rich should be defended with nearly the same vigilance as the rights of the poor.  Note, however, that property is not an absolute right; it is only inviolable to the extent that it is needed for a person’s social roles (a father’s provider role, an aristocrat’s public roles, etc).

With regard to the second role, the good may be divided as follows:  the particular goods of poor people, the particular goods of rich people, and the goods that are irreducibly common.  Irreducibly common goods are those things—like public order, communal consensus, or a healthy physical or spiritual environment—that necessarily belong to the community as a whole, rather than its individual members.  Among these goods, the state should first promote the common good, since it is the institution especially ordered to the promotion of these goods.  If forced to choose, common goods should be given preference over individual goods (but not individual justice, which itself is the supreme common good).  Next, the state should promote the particular good of the poor, if necessary at the expense of the rich.  This seems apparent, because the poor are in greater need, have less ability to secure their own interests, and will suffer more greatly from the lack of a public advocate.  Economic policies in particular should be designed primarily if not exclusively with the interests of the lower classes in mind.  For while to rise out of poverty is an undoubted good, rising from wealth to even greater wealth is not necessarily good at all.  In this sense, there should be a preferential option for the poor.

Reply to Objection 1:

With regard to the establishment of justice, no partiality should be shown.  However, with regard to assessing one’s financial duty toward the state, one’s ability to pay is not an irrelevant consideration.  Also, when assessing the state’s duty to promote one’s material interests, one’s current material situation is a relevant consideration.  This is not really a form of partiality, any more than the state sending a policeman to protect a home under attack from thieves while not sending the police to homes not suffering invasion with no need of defense shows partiality.  The state is impartial in providing a service to whichever of its citizens need it.  Poor relief can be considered similarly.

Reply to Objection 2:

The state’s goal in progressive taxation is not to coerce the virtue of charity, but only to secure a material effect.  Because the state should only relieve extreme need (and only when other social organs fail to meet these needs), there will always remain plenty of opportunity for the rich to practice charity.  In any event, alms to strangers is not the primary way this virtue is meant to be exercised.

Reply to Objection 3:

So long as the independent authority of the fathers over their families and clergy over the Church are recognized, and the property needed to discharge their duties is recognized as inviolable, there is no danger of socialism.  What is objectionable in socialism is not forcible wealth distribution, but the attack on nongovernmental authority.

Reply to Objection 4:

To God we are all poor, and He shows no wealth-based preferences.  Mortals, however, are often called to show partiality (e.g. toward our children) where God shows none.

Freedom = sterility?

I hate to keep picking on The Spearhead–those poor dears are so sensitive!–but they do show better than anywhere else why the singleminded pursuit of male autonomy is something to avoid.  My colleague Alan Roebuck reminds me of a recent article of theirs giving men advice on how to “empower men to define their own lives however they see fit”.  (Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven!)  First, get a vasectomy because it “gives a man a degree of reproductive self-determination that a woman cannot influence.”  Get that?  The way to have “reproductive self-determination” is to surgically render oneself sterile.  One might call it “planned parenthood”, but that name has been taken.  Both expressions are unintentionally funny for the same reason:  neither “reproduction” nor “parenthood” is involved, but rather their absence.  It takes a peculiar form of ideological blindness to see something iniquitous in a man’s reproductive activity being connected to a woman.  “Freedom” makes a poor ultimate value.  It is fundamentally negative; “freedom” always means “absence of” something, and perfect freedom would be an empty world, one without any meaningful interpersonal bonds.  The other idea is to replace marriage with temporary contracts for sex, what the Muslims call “sigheh”.  We Westerners have another word for it.

As Alan says

When the buildings of a great city are crumbling a citizen (as opposed to a vandal) has two options: Attempt, at some danger to himself, to repair the damage, or ransack the debris in order to construct for himself a temporary hovel. By ransacking he is, of course, hastening the destruction, but at least he may gain a temporary roof over his head.

So it is with the advice presented here. The man who chooses to associate with women in the way presented here is ransacking our Civilization in order to obtain a temporary spiritual hovel. Being a looter rather than a builder, he gains some temporary relief for himself even as he participates in demolishing the structure that is the foundation of society: the family.

(See also this article at Oz Conservative, which I have already discussed.)

Howard Dean on the Progressive creed

R. S. McCain copies an email from Howard Dean to the Democracy for America mailing list.  As McCain notes, the much-vaunted civility of the Left isn’t much in display.  Here’s what jumped out at me, though:

We know what we believe.  We believe in community. We care about our neighbors and we help each other. We can provide a bright future to our children with a quality education and we can provide a secure retirement free from poverty and dependence for our grandparents….We believe in liberty. We respect every American’s right to practice their own religion and to live a life free from bigotry, abuse, and harassment. We will fight discrimination and deliver on the promise of equality for all Americans.

So, we believe in “community”, but this community can’t have any moral or spiritual consensus, or it can only have one so vacuous that it doesn’t interfere with anyone’s “liberty”.  The community’s sense of identity must be so weak that no preference is given to its members; that would be “discrimination” and would violate the “promise of equality”.  “Community” can have neither its horizontal nor its vertical completion.  I must say that I have no idea what Mr. Dean means by “community”, and I wonder if he knows.  Does he mean local communities, or some abstract national community?  it must be the second, because his program seems quite incompatible with decentralization.  Nor do I know what he could mean by “dependency”, since the dependence of the elderly on the young is surely a fixed part of the human condition.  I’m sure he has know plan to eliminate it.  What I think he means is that the elderly should be dependent on the government and the market rather than on their children–impersonal rather than personal dependency.

The really baffling thing here is that Dean and his readers should be so confident in their contradictory passions.  Its as if it never occured to them that there might be a conflict between community and individualism or between freedom and equality.  Hence, they can’t realize that the Republicans are just as liberal as they are; it’s just that they weight liberalism’s incompatible goods differently.  What a strange mental world they live in.

What subsidiarity doesn’t mean

I assume everyone in the world regularly reads my blog, so I should only have to say this once.  My particular targets today are Deal Hudson and George Weigel.   Here goes:  the principle of subsidiarity has nothing to do with personal freedom, private property, or the free enterprise system.  It only means favoring small over big; it is utterly indifferent to public vs. private.  On the subsidiarist scale, city governments rank higher than Wal Mart, Microsoft, Verizon, or other massive corporations.  In a true subsidiarist order, the market would be much more regulated than it is now–because it would be hemmed in by kinship, guild, and ecclesiastic authorities as well as government ones.

By the way, this argument between Hudson and a Msgr. Pope is a good illustration of why “solidarity” and “subsidiarity” are worthless as bases of a political philosophy.  As these term are (mis)understood by both sides, they flatly contradict each other, and so any position at all can be justified by the appropriate mix of the two principles.  “Subsidiarity” is taken to mean “smash the state”, while “solidarity” is taken to mean “the central government shall wipe every tear from our eyes”.  Even if one understood the terms correctly, they wouldn’t be of much use, because both a extremely vague “all other things being equal, try to lean this way” sort of principles.

In fact, as I have argued earlier, the true basis of Catholic social teaching is precise, unitary, and coherent:  it is the principle of patriarchy.

Human nature is obsolete

News media throughout America are gleefully trumpetting the result that “40% of Americans think marriage is obsolete” (see, e.g. here or here).  It certainly seems like their moment of truimph.  If, like America’s newsmen and entertainers, I had spent decades promoting fornication and divorce, I would certainly feel a thrill of victory in this find.  However, on closer inspection, we realize that, in these stories, the media is not objectively reporting its victory.  These stories are themselves part of their campaign.

First of all, how did Pew get this result?  Did they just ask a bunch of people to give words they thought described marriage, and 40% said something equivalent to “obsolete”?  Of course not.  At the Pew website, their survey results are described in more detail, and it is pretty clear that survey participants were directly asked the question “Is marriage obsolete?”  But asking this question is itself a form of propaganda for fornication.  The question presupposes that marriage is a form of technology, a morally neutral means used for ends not intrinsically connected to it.  This, however, is exactly the point of contention.  In Pew’s Newspeak, though, it is not possible to question utilitarianism itself–this is affirmed whether one answers “yes” or “no”.

Let us imagine the spiritual effects of being asked the question “Is marriage obsolete?” The typical person will have (rightly) never thought of marriage in these terms before, so the question will seem strange. He has been taught to be open-minded, though, so he ponders the question. The question of obsolescence only makes sense if one is talking about a tool, so he begins to think of marriage as a tool. A tool to what, though? Things like chastity, fidelity, and filial piety are out, because they presuppose that family can be not only a means to, but an integral part of, the good life. So he turns to things like money and subjective happiness. Perhaps he gives some thought to the raising of children (the true telos of marriage), but even here his insights will be colored by the utilitarian framework he has been given. The question will be whether children raised by parents do better in the workforce than children raised in government or private kennels. The answer is not obvious: I would not be surprised if impersonal institutions do a better job of shrinking souls to fit into the capitalist machine. Perhaps he comes down for marriage, perhaps against. Either way, he has been introduced to a new and pernicious way of thinking. If he has been raised well, some part of his soul will rebel against the thought of advocating universal fornication; it will see such an arrangement as obscene, no matter how “efficient” it is. But Pew has taught our man to disregard that little voice in his head as mere “superstition” or “prejudice”. Now he has a more “scientific” way of looking at things. Most men enjoy the thought of being smarter than their fellows, and now he has found an effort-free path to intellectual snobbishness in keeping an “open mind” toward sin.

I propose we ask Americans a new question:  “Is freedom of speech obsolete?”  Surely our journalistic overlords would want us to keep an open mind on everything, even the mechanism whereby their dominion over society is guaranteed?  If the conjugal bond should not be regarded as good in itself, surely there’s no need to regard unrestricted media brainwashing as good in itself?  If our masters are as benevolent as they imagine, surely there’s no need to fear such a question?  Here, though, I think journalists would have not trouble seeing how demeaning the quesion is.

Quebec outlaws kinship groups

I expect that most of my readers are Thinking Housewife readers and have already seen this, but here are the links anyway concerning Quebec and Spain.  In Quebec, it is illegal for mother and child to take on the father’s name.  Thus, patriclans have no way to continue themselves, and the extended family–after long centuries of weakening–is effectively abolished.  Usually the war on “mediating institutions” isn’t quite so blatant.

I often hear the word “tribal” used as a term of abuse, but I would encourage my readers to think twice before using it this way.  Would it be so bad if being part of an extended family carried real rights and responsibilities?  Isn’t there rather something odd about us that I have no duties whatsoever towards my cousins, my uncles, my grandparents?  If we’re not going to have extended families in any real sense, why bother having last names at all?  Is dependence on the state and the market necessarily better than dependence on kin?

Inheritance–the way of deciding who belongs to what kinship group–is a central feature of all historic societies.  There are reasons, I think, why every great civilization has grown out of a patrilineal culture.