Sunday, July 19, 2009

On delays, morality, and other ponderables...

Okay, this time I truly do have a few excuses for waiting so long to update this blog (yet again):

1) The following events happened, in order:
a) phone service went out for 1.5 days
b) computer #1 (of 2) crashed (still picking up the pieces)
c) computer #2 (of 2) crashed (through my own bone-headedness--it's not fixed)
d) 3 day silent retreat with the Cistercians (excellent, and badly needed!)
e) currently immersed in a "Calculus refresher course" online (long story)

2) I'm trying to be better at helping my wife around the house, and not putting things off until she gets disgusted enough to do it for me. (For moral relativists out there: this is a *bad* thing to do, and I've since repented... though it took a Cistercian monk to kick me in the back-end [graciously and charitably] and get me to repent of it! Lesson: you don't have to be perfect to be a Christian; you just have to refuse to be stupid enough to persist in a sin when it's conclusively pointed out to you.) As such, my oft-neglected blog has been bumped even further down the priority list. :) Them's the breaks.

3) As a general rule, I'm just naturally bad at updating my blog on a regular basis.

Now, that confession time is out of the way... back to the (long-delayed) topic at hand: discerning good from evil. How, exactly, is that done reliably and correctly? How can we separate true "good" or "evil" from our mere opinions, feelings, sentiments, or other such will-o-wisps? I can feel horrid about going in to get a tooth drilled, though I know it's a good thing to do; and someone else can feel quite fine about using someone else as a sexual "object", though that's gravely evil. (Other examples abound.) So an objective standard is rather important. How does one find it? When faced with a choice to do [x] or not to do [x], how is one to decide the moral gradient of that choice (and to discern which of the two choices, if any, are in harmony with "goodness")?

There are several candidates for the "discernment assistant" job:

1) If your feelings are correctly calibrated to reality, they're one of the fastest and most energetic ways to discern good from evil; but again, that requires a correct calibration of those feelings, and that sort of calibration is hard to acquire... especially in this day and age, where we're conditioned (by advertisements and other social pressures) to calibrate our feelings toward the gratification of our bodily and emotional passions.

2) If you belong to an organization whose laws are unanimous in their derivation from reality (i.e. the objective moral law), then following and studying such laws is a good way to discern whether particular cases are good or evil; but that would also require that the laws' "derivation from truth" is verifiable--which can be a challenge, even if you find a candidate for an "all-good laws" group.

3) If you're under the authority of someone whose character is unimpeachable (and itself calibrated to the objective moral law), then you can follow the directions of that person--but this has the same caveat as does #2 (i.e. how do you know that your spiritual guide's character is unimpeachable?).

You may notice that all of the above (three) candidates share the same weakness: they all beg the question of, "How can we know that this 'guide' is a true and sure guide toward goodness?" Feelings can be askew, corrupt laws can be enacted, and vicious people can ascend to positions of [ersatz] moral authority. How can we diagnose such "diseases" in our potential leaders?

The answer, though wearying to many (especially nowadays), is one I've mentioned many times: our first resort must be right (or "sane") reason. We know the following:

  • No true thing will contain a true contradiction within itself.

  • No real thing will be completely vacuous and useless (i.e. a tautology, like "x = x").

Beyond this, there are several good "rules of thumb" which, though not infallible, can be used as good day-to-day guides:

1) If a moral principle is self-defeating by its very nature, it cannot be good.

Example: "Sex without producing children is more desirable than sex that produces children." (a.k.a. the "contraceptive mentality") This idea, if allowed to progress without bound, will tend to destroy the very population which seeks to enact it--"I'll have sex without having kids; let the *other* people have the kids, and pay the bills, change the diapers, etc.". Any tendency toward pervasive selfishness must necessarily be corrosive to any civilization (which must have laws restricting the selfishness of its members, in order to survive).

2) If a moral principle is designed to work only under artificial restrictions (e.g. only a privileged few are exempt from it), it cannot be good.

Example: "Let the government manage the details of all families, and make the decisions about how many children to have, how they are to be schooled, what religions are good to adopt, etc." Perhaps modern times have forgotten Huxley's "Brave New World", but it's obvious (to anyone with sense) that the ones doing the managing will get to choose the rules of management... and the question of "How/where did the managers get their formation, and from where/whom did they claim to get the god-like authority by which they micromanage the lives of countless people who are no less human than they?" really get lost in the shuffle. Appeals to expediency (e.g. "Well, *somebody* has to run their lives, because they're doing things we find abhorrent!") are horribly ill-suited as a defense, since nothing could stop such an oligarchy from ruling the people on the basis of their personal tastes (e.g. "we need to euthanize the handicapped, since I find them troublesome to behold!", "we need to mandate abortion for poverty-stricken families, since I find the idea of low-income children repugnant", etc.), rather than by right principles.

N.B. If someone raises a defense of, "But we can be sure that the ruling class will abide by their own rules, too!", I will reply with:

a) "Oh really? And how would you enforce that, save but through the agreement of the ruling class?" What if the ruling class decides that it's in 'the country's best interests' for the "privileged caste" to be free of the "restraints of the common folk"? Look to the former Soviet Union, to China, to North Korea, to Cuba, and to any totalitarian regime which claimed to "bring about equality and prosperity to all, by governmental fiat", if you'd like real-life results of that idea.

b) the very idea (of the "ruling class") being bound by its own governance is self-contradictory; if you try to imagine "a ruling class making rules--quite apart from its own opinions and preferences--to govern itself", I think you'll find that you're imagining nothing at all. It's a bit like asking someone to choose to disobey every choice they themselves make; in disobeying, they're also obeying!

3) If a moral principle does not acknowledge that the individual person is of greater value than any organization, governmental structure, or civil institution, then it cannot be good.

My father is very fond of deriding the oft-repeated saying, "Our [county, town, city, etc.] and our people have paid enough; let the state [of Illinois, etc.] and the federal governments pay their fair share!" He usually replies with something like: "Let the state pay its share? Are you talking about some other state? Because if you're talking about our state, then you're talking about US! The "state" doesn't have one thin dime; the *people* of the state have all the money!" This is just one problem with the "promote the state over the individual" idea; since the only possible reason to promote the "state" is in ORDER to promote the welfare of the individuals WITHIN that state, yes? What other abstract "state" could possibly benefit? Will the hills of Missouri smile with appreciation with each tax increase? Will the sands of Nevada shed a tear of gratitude with each revenue increase? Perhaps the map-border of Massachusetts will re-sculpt itself into a grin when its governor signs another tax increase into law? Come, now. Strip away all the titles and the artificial structures, and you have people, under the God Who created them... and that's it.

Given the above, perhaps you can see how many of the principles advanced by our current regim... ahm... "administration"... cannot be good. Mandatory taxpayer support of abortion (in D.C. and/or elsewhere), a legal system which can mandate the deaths (by dehydration, so as to allow cover for the executioners who can disingenuously say, "We didn't kill her! No bullets or knives or injections here, thank you! We just 'let her die', you see!") of the disabled when they're judged to be too burdensome, and other person-denigrating policies and actions are immoral at their core, and the only right choice is to flee from them with all speed.

As for personal discernments about right and wrong--well--next time, I think. :) (Browse the earlier articles on "cooperation in evil", for tid-bits about it, if you're anxious until then.)