June 19, 2005


Human Dignity, Human Rights and Moral Responsibility (Cardinal George Pell, Paper presented to the John Cardinal Krol Chair of Moral Theology Symposium on Catholic Moral Teaching in the Pontificate of John Paul II, St Charles Borromeo Seminary, Archdiocese of Philadelphia, 4 October 2003)

Naturally I accept the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and Veritatis Splendor on the crucial role of conscience for us all. However for some years I have spoken and written against the so-called “doctrine of the primacy of conscience”, arguing that this is incompatible with traditional Catholic teaching. Not surprisingly this has in turn provoked a number of hostile public refutations and quite a number of letters from friends and acquaintances attempting to persuade me of the error of my ways.

My basic object is twofold: a) to explain that increasingly, even in Catholic circles, the appeal to the primacy of conscience is being used to justify what we would like to do rather than to discover what God wants us to do; and b) to claim that conscience does not have primacy. One should say that the word of God has primacy or that truth has primacy, and that a person uses his conscience to discern the truth in particular cases. Individual conscience cannot confer the right to reject or distort New Testament morality as affirmed or developed by the Church. To use the language of Veritatis Splendor, conscience is “the proximate norm of personal morality” whose authority in its voice and judgement “derives from the truth about moral good and evil”.

Whatever the pressures for conformity produced by public opinion and the mass media today, there is a healthy rhetoric about respect for the rights of the individual, including the right to private judgement, in the English-speaking democracies. Today we value our freedom of speech, however much it might have been constrained in the distant past. We take it for granted that all citizens have a freedom to choose their career, their home and all adults presume unreflectingly the right to choose a spouse – or now, increasingly in Australia, a temporary partner. Just as people have the right in a democracy to choose their religion so too some Catholics feel they should be able to choose the type of morality they follow and remain “good” Catholics.

Unless all kinds of implicit Christian assumptions are made explicit, the claim to the primacy of individual conscience easily becomes in our cultural context the same as a claim to personal moral autonomy. Indeed most Western moral philosophers since the eighteenth century, with the exceptions of the Marxists and the Christians, have followed Kant in advocating some form of moral self-legislation and government (autonomy), as distinct from heteronomy or rule by others. Even Kant would be appalled by contemporary autonomy liberalism. He believed in objective morality (“practical reason”) which autonomy gives us the means and opportunity to follow, never a self-made morality of private preference.

When a person is autonomous, or independent, or at liberty to follow his will in moral matters, this implies that other persons have some kind of obligation to respect this person’s freedom of judgement and action. What is the nature of the obligation of other people towards the agent? We might look at this from another perspective and ask: what is the extent of the agent’s freedom to follow his own will? In response one can usefully give two versions of moral autonomy. The first emphasises the person’s right to choose in the areas of life generally open to moral evaluation, leaving the limits outside which the agent might curtail his right generally unspecified.

John Rawls has defined the extreme of this version of autonomy with characteristic lucidity. It is “the complete freedom to form our moral opinions so that the conscientious judgement of every moral agent ought absolutely to be respected” . The realities of social life and public order constrain us into recognising the impracticalities of such a principle as a basis for our personal conduct. In any society the only two alternatives are unanimity or the exercise of authority. The second version of autonomy, the more practical version, always spells out in some way the constraints necessary for social life. The principle of autonomy which informs Rawls’ own work, his alternative and more practical meaning, defines acting autonomously as “acting from principles that we would consent to as free and equal rational beings”. I am not arguing this account is adequate; merely that it is one example of the limitations and precisions required.

Those Catholics who appeal to the primacy of conscience cite a number of classical references. The first comes from the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom” (Dignitatis Humanae), which states that religious freedom “has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society”; “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth”. However these advocates often leave unsaid the conciliar teaching from the same paragraph that religious freedom “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men in society towards the true religion and towards the one Church of Christ”. So while the Declaration explains that in matters religious “no man is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs . . . within due limits”, it also goes on to say that all men are “bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth”.

The American Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., who had such a profound influence in the production of the Declaration wrote in his introduction to the English translation: “The conciliar affirmation of the principle of freedom was narrowly limited – in the text. But the text itself was flung into a pool whose shores are wide as the Universal Church. The ripples will run far. Inevitably, a great second argument will be set afoot – now on the theological meaning of Christian freedom”. In other words Dignitatis Humanae speaks of relationships between state and Church, and between the state and individual. It does not deal with the relationship between the magisterium and the baptised.

A second reference frequently quoted, and indeed cited by the Holy Father himself in Crossing the Threshold of Hope comes from St. Thomas Aquinas, who explains that if a man is admonished by his conscience, even when it is erroneous he must always listen to it and follow it. The supporters of primacy of conscience do not go on to explain, as Aquinas does and John Paul II has done over a life-time of writing, that the binding force of conscience, even mistaken conscience, comes from the person’s belief that the conscientious decision is in accord with the law of God. I also believe that a person following Aquinas’ advice might not only err in an objective sense, but could be guilty for his mistaken views. But more on this later.

A final passage, also frequently cited, is Cardinal Newman’s famous declaration at the end of his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk: “Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please – still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards”. Newman was concerned about the Ultramontane claims of extreme infallibilists, facetiously explaining that if the Pope told the English bishops to order their priests to work for teetotalism or to hold a lottery in each mission, they would not be obliged to do so. But there is no doubt also that his understanding of conscience is very specifically Christocentric and God-centred, within the Catholic tradition.

Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church should cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.

In all Newman’s examples, conscience is not left as an unfenced equivalent of secular autonomy but is closely defined and linked with a proper understanding of Christian and indeed Catholic teaching.

In strictly theological language the claim to primacy of conscience is a cliché, which only requires preliminary examination for us to conclude that it needs to be refined and developed to have any plausible meaning at all. I do not even favour the substitution of the primacy of informed conscience, because it is also possible that with good will and conscientious study a devout Catholic could fail to recognise some moral truth and act upon this failure. It is truth, or the word of God, which has primacy, and we have to use our personal capacity to reason practically, that is, exercise our conscience, to try to recognise these particular truths.

While occasionally at the theological level I feel that all I am doing is forcing my way through an open door, it is at the pastoral level that this espousal of the primacy of conscience has disastrous effect. Let me give you a crass but actual example, recounted to me by a friend who witnessed this encounter. A man asked this question; suppose I have been regularly “sleeping with my girlfriend”. Would it be wrong for me to be receiving Holy Communion? Without hesitation the theologian replied, “Vatican II has taught that in answering any moral question, you must obey your conscience. Just do that”. Such a teaching is insufficient and misleading. Does it mean there are no moral absolutes or authorities? Is it sufficient to follow one’s feelings? Or was Charlie Brown correct forty years ago to claim that “it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere”?

In many places, even in the Catholic world, the category of mortal or death-bearing sin is now an endangered species, because the unthinking presumption is that everyone is honestly doing his or her “own thing”. Obviously public opinion places limits to this world of easy options, often coterminous with the limits of political correctness, but many areas of sexual conduct and activities such as contraception, abortion, euthanasia, the number of children are “free go” areas, where one opinion is held to be as good as another.

This reflects the fact that there has been a dramatic shift in the tectonic plates of public moral discourse within the Catholic Church, and certainly within the ranks of the other Christian churches. The public disarray in the Anglican churches on the suitability of ordaining active homosexual men and women to the Anglican ministry is one spectacular example of this.

Once upon a time it was pastorally useful, sometimes necessary to explain the possibility of invincible ignorance among those who differed from us, because of the temptation to presume bad faith in opponents. Now for many, tolerance is the first and most important Commandment. Now it is necessary and important for us to argue for the possibility of culpable ignorance, indeed the possibility of culpable ignorance, that usually has been built up through years of sin and is psychologically invincible, short of a miracle. The idea of culpable moral blindness is discussed as infrequently as the pains of hell.

Jesus knew human nature very well and Veritatis Splendor quotes that marvellous saying of Our Lord from St. Matthews gospel: “the eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

Christian writers at different times have expounded wonderfully on the concept of culpable moral blindness. St. Thomas More wrote his Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation in the final year of his imprisonment in the Tower, speaking there of conscience’s susceptibility to corruption whether by the cynicism and self-love of Father Renard (Father Fox) and Master Wolf, or by conscientious blindness through the stupidity of poor scrupulous Master Ass.

Even earlier, in 1377-78, St. Catherine of Sienna in her Dialogue spoke of the consequences of pride, sensuality, impatience and the consequent lack of discernment. These four chief vices constitute a tree of death. “Within these trees a worm of conscience nibbles. But as long as a person lives in deadly sin the worm is blinded and is so little felt”. [...]

The analogue to the primacy of conscience in the private domain is found in what might be called “the primacy of rights” in the public domain. Just as conscience is claimed to have primacy over truth, rights are claimed to have primacy over justice – in the full sense of that word as it understood in the Catholic tradition. In both cases there is an assertion of the self against truth and against other people, to the detriment of both conscience and rights. In Evangelium Vitae John Paul II warned that the threat posed by human rights turning against themselves in this way particularly endangers the rights of the weakest; and is capable “in the end, of jeopardizing the very meaning of democratic coexistence”. This concern is foreshadowed in Veritatis Splendor when the Holy Father reminds us that “only a morality which acknowledges certain norms as valid always and for everyone, with no exception, can guarantee the ethical foundation of social coexistence,” nationally and internationally. A culture of rights needs to be soundly based on justice. It is doubtful that the relativist and positivist concepts of justice that predominate today can provide this.

Veritatis Splendor emphasises “the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level, make the acknowledgement of truth impossible”. It repeats the words of Centesimus Annus (1991) tracing the violation of human rights to “the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person” and warning against “a democracy without values” which easily becomes “open or thinly disguised totalitarianism”. The Pope observes that in the face of “fundamental human rights [being] trampled upon and held in contempt” there is a “widespread and acute sense of the need for a radical personal and social renewal capable of ensuring justice, solidarity, honesty and openness”. The basis for this renewal, and “the unshakeable foundation and essential condition of morality”, human rights, justice and “the personal dignity of man” can only be found in the truth: “the truth of God, the Creator and Redeemer, and the truth of man, created and redeemed by him”.

“What is truth?” Pilate’s derisive question to Our Lord was regarded by Nietzsche as the only insight of any value in the whole New Testament. In the post-modern world of the West which Nietzsche did so much to bring about, Pilate’s question is increasingly thrown in the face of the Church as well, sometimes searchingly but more often than not with cynicism and condescension. This incident in the Passion reflects our own situation too, where power sits in judgement on truth and finds it worthy only of condemnation. The arguments against truth take the form of a cascade designed to ensure that it is ruled out of consideration one way or another: there is no such thing as truth; or if there is, we cannot know it with certainty; or if we can, we cannot agree about it. Best then to forget about this problem. Our purported inability to know and live the truth places only one demand before us, that we be tolerant of the views of others. But in the absence of any genuine knowledge about what is intrinsically good or right, tolerance becomes merely one value among many, of equal dignity in fact with intolerance. This helps to explain why what is sometimes described as liberal tolerance so often serves as “a seminary of intolerance” (in Leo Strauss’s apt phrase), especially when it is confronted by values or claims which might impede “the uninhibited cultivation of individuality”.

In the absence of truth, on what basis do we give preference to upholding human rights over trampling them underfoot? There is no basis, of course. We simply have to make a decision one way or the other. For some theorists this is sufficient. At one extreme there is the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt who argued that the essential thing is the decision: it does not matter what you decide for, as long as a decision is made and adhered to resolutely until the end. At the other extreme there is the American philosopher Richard Rorty, who argues that not only is there no truth to guide us in the consideration of equally valid choices, but that the “truth” of a choice adds nothing to it. Truth is not needed, for once a decision has been made, we live it out in any case “as if” it were true. It is decision that animates action, not truth, and while Rorty would prefer that we make our decision in favour of his own secular liberal values, this applies irrespective of whether we decide to respect or violate human rights.

This idea of “decisionism” (as others have called it) is drawn upon in different guises as a way of showing how political and social action might be sustained in a situation of radical ethical relativism. In a democracy Rorty is likely to have greater appeal on this score than Schmitt with his particular historical associations, but Schmitt is perhaps the more instructive case for understanding where this approach can lead. The crucial question is whether a mere decision, even a deadly serious decision, in favour of human rights is sufficient to sustain the commitment and action necessary to ensure that rights are consistently respected. Leo Strauss, for one, suggests that a decision is not enough. “Once we realize that the principles of our actions have no other support than blind choice, we really do not believe in them any more. We cannot wholeheartedly act upon them any more. We cannot live any more as responsible beings. In order to live, we have to silence the easily silenced voice of reason, which tells us that our principles are in themselves as good or bad as any other principles.” If we are unable to find a foundation for the defence of conscience and human rights in reason and truth, our commitment to both can only be based on “fanatical obscurantism” - although obviously we are unlikely to call it by this name.

The denial of truth makes an enduring concept of justice that genuinely serves human life and love impossible. It makes, in short, for nihilism. The practical meaning of this can be seen in the contradiction the Holy Father identifies between a growing awareness of human rights and a repudiation of the fundamental rights of some of the most vulnerable members of the human family. We are so familiar with talk of the “right” to an abortion that it can be difficult for us to recall what a shocking and absurd debasement of the language of rights this is. And now, as medical science continually pushes back the age at which premature babies can be saved, including babies who have survived abortion, abortion activists are beginning to insist that abortion is not just the “right” to terminate a pregnancy, but the “right” to “the extinction of the foetus”. When upholding human rights entails the assertion of the self against others, the entire culture of rights central to democracy is, as the Pope says, directly threatened. And it strongly suggests that without a firm foundation in the transcendent dignity of the human person and the existence of moral absolutes which place limits on the human will, it becomes harder and harder for people to believe in, and maintain a wholehearted commitment to human rights in all their fullness.

To refuse to use the language of rights and conscience in a situation where the secular understanding of rights is beginning to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, would only deny the Church an opportunity to claw back some ground for an authentic understanding of the person, human freedom and the common good. It is not too farfetched to suggest that the collapse of the secular understanding of human rights raises the prospect of the whole idea of rights disappearing, especially as ideas which are more and more frankly Nietzschean push liberal presuppositions aside.

For the Church to do nothing to salvage and redeem the language of rights, precisely when the assertion of the self against others is becoming more brutal and the confrontation between power and truth is becoming more clear, would not only be counter-productive. It would also be a betrayal of the transcendent dignity and destiny of the person which John Paul II has so powerfully recommitted the Church to defend.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 19, 2005 9:33 AM

I have to agree with much of what Cardinal Pell says here. While I think that an individual can best serve society by obeying their conscience, it does not mean that society is beholden to withhold judgment on that individual's choice. Indeed, it is through such judgments by society that the individual must examine the consequences of his moral decisions and further educate his conscience.

The alternatives are a) a society where individual conscience is suprememe, aka anarchy, and b) a society where religious authority is suporeme and individuals are taught never to examine their conscience but to obey authority in all circumstances, aka totalitarianism.

Pell's mistake, and the mistake of most Christians, is to assume that the conscience can be guided and directed by the Word. The Word, as represented by the text of the Bible, has been shown to be so semantically malleable as to represent a mirror through which the reader merely gains confirmation of his previously determined moral opinion. Even when referring to such explicit commandments as "thou shall not kill", the individual's previously determined justifications for killing convicted felons, or enemy combatants, or fetuses, or to refrain from such actions, is usally merely confirmed and not challenged.

It is important, as the Cardinal says, to use the conscience in order to determine objective moral truth. My biggest problem with the religious tradition of equating objective moral truth with the will of God is that it subjectivises something that should be objective. What is God but a personal being, a being that can change his mind? Thus his will is subjective. One day he asks a man to sacrifice his son, the next day he rescinds his command. But in each case the "objective" thing to do is to obey the command. Man is reduced to the state of a command processor, a function machine that flawlessly processes input commands and delivers the required output. Conscience in such a device can only be considered a "bug".

Man is either a moral being who reasons and learns, or he is a command processor that does neither. As flawed as man is in his reasoning and learning capacities, I favor the outcome of a society that uses those traits to their fullest over any society that does not.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at June 19, 2005 2:46 PM

God isn't personal--He's what He told us.

Posted by: oj at June 19, 2005 2:52 PM

Apparently, he told a Romanian priest to crucify a poor, insane orphan, which he did over the weekend.

I have finished volume one of my summer reading, 'So It Was True,' by Ross, which examines what Christians thought God was telling them about Jews and Germans in the 1930s and '40s.

Some thought he was telling them the Jews deserved to be excluded from the German polity (Orrin's position, I believe).

Others thought he was telling them that their tribulations signaled the start of end times.

Others -- though very few -- thought he was telling them that Jews were to be treated indifferently to other people, such as, even, themselves.

(This list is not comprehensive.)

So, in the end, it came down to supremacy of conscience, since religion was completely unhelpful in directing behavior. (I'm being kind; religion for the most part directed behavior that any decent person would know was evil. Amusingly, although Ross's book is about the evil that Germans did to the Jews, his very first example of a report of persecution of Jews in the period comes from Poland; and in the 1930s the Protestant religious press in America could not, in general, distinguish between Jew-hatred Polish style and Jew-hatred German style.)

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 19, 2005 3:44 PM


Germany was a simple experiment in Applied Darwinism.

Posted by: oj at June 19, 2005 5:43 PM


And how are you defining reason? If you are using it in its broadest sense of encompassing tradition, experience and a profound understanding of human nature, including its irrational, illogical and unsavoury sides, that is fine, but that kind of reason is part and parcel of almost all modern Christian and Jewish thought and practice. Honestly, do you really come across a lot of religious people taking daily new orders from the Divine as they confront life's myriad choices, and following them unquestioningly. But if you really mean rationalism and logical analysis, then your(pl.)opening ideal of the free, informed and thinking man is going to flounder pretty quickly on an inability to define what the word moral even means and a depressingly predictable aping of the rationalist herd leading you places most humans wouldn't recognize.

Here is Barzun from From Dawn to Decadence:

"A less obvious cultural influence of the Carteian philosophy and its method has been to promote faith in Reason. Mankind has always used reasoning--argument went on in cave, tent or prairie hut--but the Cartesian or scientific reason is of a particular kind. Like geometry, it starts from clear and distinct ideas that are abstract and assumed to be true. Faith in this type of reason is a creed, often passionate, called Rationalism. It differs from the workaday use of our wits by its claim that analytical reasoning is the sole avenue to truth.

This conviction is one that is being questioned today, and not for the first time. Unfortunately the combattabts on both sides keep arguing whether the modern mind is harmed--some say victimized--by "too much reason," the attackers holding that science and numbers are not the only truth; the defenders retorting that if reason is given up, intellectual anarchy and wild superstition will reign. The latter are right about reason as an activity--reasoning; the former are right about Rationalism, the dominance of a particular form of reason and its encroachment where it does not belong. (emphases original)

We've had two good examples of secular rationalism trampling reason here of late. A couple of months ago, Harry took a break from his nightly rant to share his view that marriage should be based on ongoing consent, renewed daily, and that spouses should be free to walk at anytime without any sanction, guilt or other bother. Then there is Jeff's bald assertion that a marriage licence should accord absolute power to decide to terminate a mentally non-responsive spouse's life--living will or no living will. Now, both of these positions can be said to flow logically from certain opening premises ( a) spouses seek only each other's freedom and happiness, together or apart, and no spouse would want to oblige another in any way; and, b) spouses are motivated solely by care and love, understand each other's deepest desires and convictions, and will always do right by each other selflessly.) The problem of course, is that these two opening premises are both demonstrably crazy and in direct conflict with what we know about human nature. We know full well they would lead to much pain, abuse and tragedy, but hey, what can they do, that's where their rationalism takes them.

So, where do you start? A hundred years ago, intellectual rationalists, especially in Germany, bought the whole "survival of the fittest" bumph and applied it to morality, and we know the consequences. Today, they are more likely to use scientific principles to deduce a moral framework that amazingly resembles the political program of the ACLU. Either way, they don't resemble your independent free-thinker very much.

The errors and excesses of religion are well-documented, but you shouldn't use them to make a strawman argument that religion and reason are incompatilbe or that religious thinking just produces moral slaves and automatons. The religious use reason to comprehend human nature far better than most irreligious, which is why they understand the need to submit to objective moral codes, which is very much an act of reason, as much as the codes themselves may have their source in revelation.

Posted by: Peter B at June 19, 2005 9:05 PM

I hope there have been dozens of forwards of this to one A. Sullivan

Posted by: Mike Daley at June 19, 2005 9:59 PM


As I recall, Barzun said in that same passage that the ancient Chinese symbols for mind and body were the same, because the Chinese understood that the urge to reason was an emotion as much as any other. Barzun figured that this explains why Rationalists are frequently such fanatics. Makes sense to me.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 19, 2005 10:46 PM

What was Poland an experiment in?

And what about the Romanian crucifixtion?

I assume Orrin applauds it, as elimination of another dangerous witch.

It would, in fact, be difficult, if not impossible, to craft a Scriptural moral against doing it; though I suspect that many posters here are sufficiently corrupted by secularism that it would make them uneasy. But perhaps I undervalue their commitment to external morality.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 19, 2005 10:55 PM

The Nazis consider the Poles to be a inferior as Jews--it was all just applied Darwinism.

Posted by: oj at June 19, 2005 11:01 PM

And how are you defining reason? If you are using it in its broadest sense of encompassing tradition, experience and a profound understanding of human nature, including its irrational, illogical and unsavoury sides, that is fine, but that kind of reason is part and parcel of almost all modern Christian and Jewish thought and practice.

Yes, that is how I am defining reason, and I am not saying that Christian and Jewish thought is absent this. My point is that while they develop their moral values by way of examining their conscience as guided by this kind of moral reasoning, they claim to be objectively obeying commandments and instructions directly from the word of God, as in my example of the command processor. The claim is that revealed religion is required to accomplish what men are incapable of acheiving without it, but in fact they are. This is what I believe religion, and religious "revelation" provides for people, a way to justify their own moral reasoning by reference to an external, divine source. Man does not trust himself to get it right, so God is invoked to give the imprimatur of authority to man's decisions.

I don't begrudge the religious this psychological prop, except when they use it against secular people to say that since the secular do not acknowledge this source of objective truth, then they are incapable of making moral decisions, but instead only follow the whims of their feelings.

I think that the example you give about reasoning vs rationalism is somewhat overstated, in that I don't think that following scientific principles per se will lead a person into error when applying them to moral questions. But all reasoning must be based on values and first principles, such as that life is sacred, and that one should treat others as one wishes to be treated, etc. These are not scientific principles, but basic human impulses embodied in the conscience. When these core values are superceded by abstract "scientific" values, then rationalism becomes not a way to truth, but a fetish and, to borrow a religious concept, an idolatry. You get people like Peter Singer.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at June 20, 2005 2:12 AM


I don't think that following scientific principles per se will lead a person into error when applying them to moral questions.

In theory, not necessarily, but as you point out, it all depends where you start and whether the logic is applied to man as he is or some abstract ideal, which is almost always the case when secularists approach moral questions. It is a bit of a mug's game to apply deductive logic to predict the behaviour of, or guide, irrational beings.

Let's take adultery as an example. There is no logical reason why a man's life should fall apart because he discovers his wife is having an affair with his best friend, but we know as a fact that it almost always does. As Yul Brynner would say: "tis a puzzlement." Many modern moral gurus, and many tempted spouses, have convinced themselves that sex can be separated from the rest of life and that a dalliance should and need not destroy love, a marriage and family. That is simply irrational and quite beneath such a noble creature as man. Indeed, such thinking informs a lot of contemporary public morality (as long as it isn't applied to them). A hundred years ago, liberals approached these issues from the perspective of the trade-off's between political freedom and policing sin, but today most of them start from the assumption that man is good, knows his own mind better than anyone else and must be free to decide what is right for him. The purview of sin has been reined in and is still shrinking fast. There is no objective, logical way to condemn adultery, either generally before the event or specifically after. Unless you start from the quite unscientific assumption that it is wrong per se

And so, we sit by and watch the drearily predictable results, the broken families, fatherless children, emotional dislocation etc., and we really have no idea what to say. The golden rule? Not much help here. If we are to treat the husband as we would like to be treated in his situation, we would rally around him, condemn the wife, give him the kids and publically vindicate him. With the wife, we would hold our counsel, muse on the complexity of it all and resolve to stay neutral and good friends with everyone.

Most modernists try to get out of this dilemna by assuming the reaction of the husband is some archaic hangover from early times when survival of the tribe or dynastic questions were paramount, and that we will all relax and be rational and logical with time and modern education. Until it happens to them. Ha ha, gotcha!

You can see similar wilful blindless born of rationalism in other aspects of life, mainly those dealing with vice, family life and sex. In a post below, Bart is opening his pro-porn arguments with the ab initio assumption that porn is private and harmless, even though that would make any knowledgable cop (or any wife who discovers her husband has a porn fetish)laugh bitterly. He wants it all to be nice and logical and rationally contained, so he simply declares it is. Neat trick.

And how about Europe. We all believe that the decisions whether to marry and have children and how many is a completely private choice to be determined solely by an individual's assessment of his own needs and desires, and that only old-fashioned, irrational grandmothers would pressure anyone on this score. But when we suddenly are confronted with the fact that a whole continent that has really come to believe this and ordered itself around that belief simply stops breeding, we are struck hard with the reality that our scientific, logical approach was based upon the quite unscientific assumption that most people would choose to have several at least. Why wouldn't they, Robert?

So, if you want to criticize those religious people who abandon reason all together, be my guest and save me a spot, but, I repeat, you shouldn't use them as straw men to hide the fact that logical analysis applied to morality has been a complete bust that has got us into a lot of trouble we really don't know how to get out of.

Posted by: Peter B at June 20, 2005 7:12 AM

Peter, reasoning is not a new thing, it is a function of the human brain that goes back millenia, before we even had a word for it or before it's methods were formally described by the Greeks. And there are plenty of rational arguments that can be made, as long as one is willing to accept the facts as they are and not be in denial of them.

The man who denies his own capacity for jealousy is not acting rationally, but is lying to himself. Same with the impact of personal decisions on society as a whole. Anyone can logically deduct the impact to society if everyone were to forego having children. The problem is not with rationality but with whether one cares about the outcome or is willing to examine and be honest with one's true motives and values.

Unfortunately you are describing the effects of the fetishization of rationalism, or the application of a scientific veneer to excuse-making. People get a crash course in science through the public schools, and then say "hey, this is a great tool, we don't have to worry about monogamy anymore". A great deal of baby was thrown out with the bath-water of ancient superstitions.

But you don't get off that easily. Rationalism as you describe it is not an invention of secular minds out to destroy religion. Religious minds were complicit in the rise of science ever since they rediscovered the Greek philosophers in the Middle Ages. Those people you describe rationalizing away their societal duties are as likely to be good churchgoing believers as not. Western Christian civilization rose on the scientific wave of discoveries spawned by the Renaissance. Religious people were not chased out of their traditional pre-industrial village communities by athiests cracking whips, but bought into the program all the way along. The people viewing pornography at home via cable pay-per-view or over the internet are as likely as not to be religious believers. It is too late to plead ignorance of logic and reason, you are too well-versed in its methods to get away with that.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at June 20, 2005 10:52 AM


What was new was the patently absurd claim that Reason was superior to Faith.

Posted by: oj at June 20, 2005 10:55 AM

But you don't get off that easily.

I never really expected I would. :-)

Look, I think rationalism is just peachy in its place. It works great in science class, even better in math class, and can be very useful in planning a domestic budget or designing a garden. But it is woefully inadequate in explaining or prescribing solutions to the conundrums of human affairs, especially interpersonal relationships, family, sexual relations, child-rearing and education and more general things like fighting terrorism and making international law. Man is simply not a selfless, rational animal and there is so much about him that defies logic. Animals are positively Euclidian in comparison. It is destructive and dangerous to pretend otherwise. Now, I agree you can go very far in wisdom through applying reason in its broadest sense. I also agree that you don't need religion to do so and that a kind of noble, self-denying and gloomy stoicism will more or less do. But that philosophy is notoriously difficult to persuade others to accept or pass on to one's decendents.

I have great impatience with your idea that religion is just a kind of psychological crutch or sleight-of-hand that weak people need and that stouted-hearted, courageous types can see is just a projection. In the first place, those who hold such a theory, and there are many, fail to notice that seriously religious people tend to be busting their butts attending to family, kids and community while many of the clever, sophisiticated secular sages are holding forth on their existential courage in Starbucks or a Paris cafe. You would think the religious types would figure out how much fun they are missing. Secondly, that conclusion does not flow from reason writ large but from a narrow scientific rationalism gifted to us from psychology, the very kind of rationalism you claim to recognize as inadequate and that I think you do. Doctrinaire rationalists never doubt. Men of reason do.

Posted by: Peter B at June 20, 2005 2:29 PM

Peter, you miss the point of what I am saying. It isn't a matter of courage vs lack of it. I am not trying to draw a great distinction between believers vs rationalists. Indeed, I am trying to erase a difference that those who proclaim the importance of revelation have drawn, and say that in the end we are all relying on our conscience.

You can prove to me that you truly rely on revelation by answering one simple question. Tell me one matter of morality where you follow the instructions of revealed scripture over the objections of your conscience (it has to be of significant moral consequence, not something trivial). If you can convince me of this, then I will withdraw my objection.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at June 21, 2005 3:19 PM

But Robert, if a conscience is informed by revealed morality, how can your question have much meaning?

Suppose someone refuses to tell a lie in order to benefit one he feels is much more worthy or needy than the one the truth benefits. If you tell me that is just conscience, rather than revealed morality, and I say it isn't, how do we avoid an "is...isn't...is...isn't" repartee? Your distinction just begs the question, doesn't it?

Posted by: Peter B at June 21, 2005 6:57 PM

I was talking about the Polish persecution of the Jews.

Was that applied darwinism?

Or just plain old Catholicism?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 21, 2005 7:20 PM

Persecution? Catholicism.

Extermination? Darwinism.

Posted by: oj at June 21, 2005 7:24 PM