Friday, April 17, 2009

On Civic Virtue

Sorry I haven't posted here today; I've been a bit busy over at Crunchy Cons.

Rod Dreher put up a post about the torture memos. It was followed by heartening comments from left and right (a crunchy coalition, of sorts), saying that torture is bad, the US shouldn't do it, and generally condemning torture on a strictly bipartisan basis.

So I raised a bit of an objection--oh, not defending torture; nobody sic Mark on me. I was just pointing out the irony: it's okay in our secular society, apparently, to say that torture is wrong, immoral, and that it should not be done for those reasons--but the minute you say that abortion or gay marriage is wrong or immoral and shouldn't be done for those reasons suddenly you're a religious bigot, trying to impose your morality on others who don't share that morality.

It's been interesting, to say the least, to read the responses.

What I'm trying to say, what I'm not skilled enough in philosophy to say properly, is that either a society has some notion of civic virtue, or it doesn't. If it does have some notion of civic virtue there have to be some discernible standards for that virtue, or else what is virtue is really just a sort of dressed-up pragmatism or emotionalism: e.g., we condemn torture because we say it is "wrong," but what we really mean by "wrong" is that it doesn't fit with some concept we have of ourselves and some vague idea of our goodness, not that it violates some specific standard of rightness or wrongness that have developed out of a long-standing philosophical tradition. In other words, torture is wrong because it feels wrong, on some emotional level.

One person over at Rod's made the "intrinsic human dignity" argument--but then explained that he didn't think the unborn were covered by this argument, and that the intrinsic dignity of same-sex attracted people meant that they should get to marry each other. All I can say is that I don't think "intrinsic" means what he thinks it means.

But that, again, is one of the problems of engaging in arguments with postmodern thinkers. Words don't seem to have fixed meanings. One day "marriage" means one man and one woman, and the next day "marriage" means one man and one woman, two men, two women, numbers greater than two, and so on. But it's funny how this, too, is an extremely arbitrary concept; most people refuse to call torture "enhanced interrogation" or to define torture in such a way that waterboarding and similar acts are excluded from the definition.

It's easy for traditional Christians--Catholic, Orthodox, and others--to say "These things are wrong, because they all violate the natural law, the natural order of things." There are some traditional people who are not Christian who can agree with us, because they've taken the time to think deeply about these topics and to discover the natural law on their own. This is why it is possible to find very rational people from all religious traditions, and even from none at all, who have discovered moral truths very much like what the Church teaches in all sorts of areas, and can defend these ideas using reason and logic, not mere emotions.

It's much harder for the postmodern secularist. What is "right" and what is "wrong" is a purely arbitrary, purely personal decision. There are no philosophical underpinnings, because people's philosophies differ, and pluralism means that all philosophies must be treated as equal. There are no truths, no absolute ones, anyway, from which abstract discussions about virtue, about good and evil, may flow. If the secularist says that human life has intrinsic value, he must immediately start adding the footnotes: except for the unborn, the elderly who want to commit suicide, people like Terri Schiavo who are in the way, and so on. What he really means is that the lives of prisoners or torture victims are valuable because he feels that they are, but the lives of children ripped apart in their mothers' wombs are not, because he feels that they aren't. There is no thinking behind it; the conversations and arguments circle round and round like dingy bathwater down a sluggish drain, with no agreement on first principles ("The unborn may be human, but they're not people! The mother's right to remove them from her body is absolute, and it wouldn't matter if they were people anyway!" etc. ad infinitum).

But if truth is unknown and unknowable, and if feelings are all that matter, then why is it so important to the secularist to crush the opposition to such things as abortion and gay marriage on the grounds that these are only private religious opinions, but welcome the opposition to torture on the grounds that while these may be religious opinions, they happen to coincide with the feelings the secularists have on these matters and are therefore valuable?

One possible explanation is that the secularists don't realize how much their opposition to torture is drawing from the natural law, from the natural order of things--in other words, from God Himself. There has never been some kind of "human consensus" on the morality of torture--far from it. It is no more possible to prove empirically that torture is wrong than it is to prove empirically that love is a many-splendored thing. There can be no purely secular opposition to torture on moral grounds; there can only be opposition on pragmatic grounds, such as that torture might not work, or that torture might eventually be used against us by our own government.

But those kinds of pragmatic grounds are rejected every time they are used to oppose abortion or gay marriage. The secularist insists that all arguments against either must not be religious, but then they reject pragmatic arguments out of hand, saying that unless anyone can show, in the case of abortion, how outlawing it would stop all abortions, for instance, or in the case of gay marriage, how a person's gay "marriage" causes specific, immediate, known harm to those who oppose it. When those opposing either on philosophical grounds can't answer these questions to the satisfaction of their secular opponents (who will never be satisfied), the secularist rejects the pragmatic arguments too, and claims victory on the grounds of inevitability, the perceived coolness of his side's position, or some such thing.

The poor secularists don't seem to realize that they've opened the door for the "irreligious right" to come along and approve torture and other things they don't like, in exactly the same way, and using exactly the same arguments, they have used to support abortion or gay marriage. The demand to couch an anti-torture argument in purely secular terms, the rejection of the notion of "right" and "wrong" as having anything to do with torture, and the dismissal of any pragmatic arguments the "irreligious right" arbitrarily decides are valueless is going to put the secularists in the position of knowing that torture is wrong, but being completely unable to articulate why according to the parameters of the conversation. But when your expression of civic virtue finds its fullest voice in the saying "If it feels good, do it," it's pretty hard to imagine any other outcome.


LarryD said...

My Personal Pet Theory on this? People like you, me and those commenters will never (most likely) be in a situation where torture becomes personal - it will always be a reality we view from a distant hill. Thus, making a judgment about it is easy, using a secularist filter, because it won't dirty their hands; or they won't be in a situation where they will find themselves on the "wrong" side of the issue.

Birth control, abortion and so-called gay marriage, however, are deeply personal issues - and rather than be forced to defend their indefensible positions when challenged by people like you, or me, they resort to the name-calling and epithets in order to squash the debate. Rather than examine the issue from a right vs wrong, they view it as you-are-imposing-your-religious-views-on-me-and-society - a variation of the Flight v. Fight. Thus, they opt to spew intellectual backwash and run away from the issue.

Red Cardigan said...

A very interesting insight, Larry. It fits with the tendency of the modernist religions to spend a lot of time talking about the "sin" of industrial pollution, but almost no time about the sin of, say, lying or of fornication.

j. christian said...

Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue does a very good job of describing the recent history and decline of moral "utterance" (as he calls it). Talk of right and wrong has been reduced to arbitrary preference because we no longer have virtue ethics; instead we have emotivism running the show. I highly recommend the book.