Friday, January 9, 2009

Truth that is Pitiless and Pity that is Untruthful

The recent political elections provided a great opportunity to look into the nature of disagreement and argument in America. Have you ever wondered what is at the root of these differences? Our tendency is to adhere to the opinions we have been given, to live our scripted lives. Those who disagree with us are mysterious at best, and dangerous or threatening at worst. Let's examine the invisible premises that divide us.

Generally speaking, there are two schools of thought in America when it comes down to the ideas of Rights and Liberty.

Actually, "school of thought" is an interesting phrase in itself. In this case, the word "school" comes from scole, the old Dutch word, not from the Greek skhole. In other words, schooling is what fish do when they gather in tight groups and follow each other around. I could also argue that the modern implementation of our other word "school," which is theoretically based on the older Greek word for a place of learning, has come to better represent what fish do than anything remotely academic. But that is a topic for another essay.

What are the two schools of political thought in America?

The first major group of people call themselves conservatives. They believe themselves to be the heirs of a true and ancient legacy, faithful stewards of God's own politics. They are marching toward a glorious and righteous Zion. These are the Religious Americans. To them, God is the author of prosperity, and riches bestowed reflect a measure of God's approval and blessing. We associate these with the political "Right."

The second group consist of the self-styled progressives, or liberals. They identify themselves as intellectuals (just as Eric Hoffer described them) and believe that they are advancing the great work begun in the Age of Reason. They are marching toward a grand and secular Utopia. These are the Licentious Americans. To them, if there is a God, He is a god of tolerance and equality. We associate these with the political "Left."

The Catholic scholar, Dale Ahlquist, wrote the aphorism, "truth that is pitiless and pity that is untruthful"1 to describe the spirit of these two groups. I think it is the best description for them that I have ever read.

Truth that is Pitiless

The religious view of liberty is that action can rightly be constrained by taboo. Divine law, revealed through Holy scripture, teaches unquestionably where Rights begin and where they end.

According to the Religious Americans, the United States Constitution grew out of the Judeo-Christian tradition that is recorded in the Holy Bible, thus America must be a Judeo-Christian nation and her Rights are the God-given Rights of the Bible. Preserving liberty is therefore synonymous with preserving religion and religious freedom.

How is this liberty to be preserved? By incorporating into religion a certain reverence for the soldier. In an ironic twist, the religious will put his faith in the arm of man, in the mighty military with its fearsome guns and bombs; the biggest ever! To the conservative, a strong military is a central plank. Righteous Coercion will be the means of conservativism; it does not itself belong to the tradition.

Perhaps these conservatives forget how General Washington's cruisers sailed under a banner that had the words "Appeal to Heaven" on it, and how the Founding Fathers desired to never have a standing army if it were possible. The mistrust of military power is a central principal of sane living, but that is a topic for another essay.

To the Religious American, proof of freedom can often be found in his bank account. He may admit that his particular view of "economy" is not exactly God's view, but that it is the closest we imperfect mortals are likely to ever get. In a logical equivalence, all property has a monetary value, thus Freedom means having plenty of money.

But this wasn't what George Washington thought, or John Adams. David McCullough tells us how appalled the British and Hessian troops must have felt after landing on colonial soil. "The Americans of 1776 enjoyed a higher standard of living than any people in the world. [...] How people with so much, living on their own land, would ever choose to rebel against the ruler God had put over them and thereby bring down such devastation upon themselves was [...] incomprehensible."2 To the Founding fathers, wealth was more than riches and property more than money.

In argument, the religious' language is full of saccharine glurge, patriotic platitudes, inspirational slogans, and lordly pronouncements. He is wont to cast his pearls before the swine, appealing to authority little respected by his opponents; and so his discourse is met with scorn and derision.

Sadly for the Religious Americans, the original American Theory is more Locke than Moses, more Jefferson than Jesus. Though filled with reference to deity, the Founding Documents encode more of the philosophy of men than of God. How could freedom of religion be truly guaranteed if political philosophy was grounded in a discrete religious tradition? Whose god is not a jealous one?

While the Founding Fathers would likely agree that the Rights of man look very much like a particular set of rights that can be interpreted from holy scripture (John Adams is often quoted for his saying that the U.S. Constitution is best suited for a moral and religious people), they would argue that Providence had revealed these Rights through Nature and Reason.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke more accurately when he recently referred to an America that was formed upon ideas of "positive secularism."3 Unlike our modern secularism, which seeks to establish its own fervent beliefs as the supreme religion of the land, the positive secularism of the founding generation was theoretically friendly to all religion.

Pity that is Untruthful

This brings us to the modern secular, or licentious, view of liberty. The licentious view of liberty is summarized in the ukase that whatever I do, if it does not harm another individual, it is my Right. Individuals are free to behave as they please, so long as the behavior does not infringe on the Right of another person to do the same. Beyond a certain egalitarianism, no morality shall be legislated by anyone anywhere. This creates entire classes of minorities who must now be endorsed and welcomed by all with open arms, in spite of any differences. Tolerance now means acceptance.

Philosophically, this thinking is more Rousseau than Locke; more Robespierre than Jefferson. This has the flavor of the French Revolution, an anti-establishment, anti-corporate, anti-association, acutely individual philosophy. It embraces back-to-nature ideals: the human being, living as an animal, can do no wrong. "Wrong" (according to Rousseau and Hobbes) can only be defined once we get civilized. At the root of this system, there can be few or no intrinsic inalienable Rights at all, only as prescribed by the social contract -- perhaps a necessary evil.

Even so, Licentious Americans tend to incorporate the inalienable rights of the Founding Fathers into their worldview: Rights are an enumeration of instincts. Dignified with the language of Thomas Jefferson, this new philosophy says that the things we feel like doing are natural to us, thus we also have a Right to them.

It is a mistaken interpretation of Jefferson's Natural Law which was distilled from the likes of John Locke and Adam Smith; and, although Rousseau and Hobbes both developed coherent systems, they are not the American system.

Indeed, of the licentious, Adam Smith wrote that "a system of natural philosophy may appear very plausible, and for a long time be very generally received in the world, and yet have no foundation in nature, nor any sort of resemblance to the truth."4

Like Hobbes, the licentious are masters of definition. They are the fathers of "political correctness." The licentious re-cast all of the arguments into their own terms so that their opponents are obliged to hopelessly make a case for their own ideals using newly redefined language. The licentious are sophists.

Licentious Americans further confuse science with reason. They wrongly believe that scientific inquiry is an extension of the practice followed by the Natural Law philosophers. They forget that science merely quantifies objective experience and allows us to make concrete statements of fact (mostly reliable). Science does not give us meaning or reveal value, and it never will.

In general, the licentious make poor philosophers and poor theologians. Their application of science to ethics, politics, and religion is often arrogant and sophomoric. It substitutes psychology for philosophy. All action is deterministic and fatalistic; we are a product of our genes and are therefore absolved from blame or guilt. There is no good or evil -- code words for subversion.

Unfortunately for the licentious, American liberty precedes the social contract. It does not live or die with its definition, codified in legal documents. It comprehends more than just life. Liberty is not an enumeration of instincts. Liberty is not truth made.


The jealousy between the licentious system of the left and the religious system of the right fuels much of the argument in America today. What has been long forgotten is the positive secularism of the American Founding Fathers.

In the next essay, I will write about the concepts of independence, choice, and awareness that I alluded to in the previous essay.

1. Beyond Capitalism & Socialism, Part of this Complete Breakfast, by Dale Ahlquist, 2008. p.33
2. 1776, by David McCullough, published 2005. p.158
3. In-flight interview of Pope Benedecit XVI, by Father Lombardi, April 15, 2008.
4. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, "Of Licentious Systems," by Adam Smith, Barnes & Noble edition, 2004; originally published 1759. p.423.


Unknown said...

"...the human being, living as an animal, can do no wrong" reminds me of biologists discovering that dolphins could act genocidal (killing hundreds of porpoises) when survival had nothing to do with it: they were just murderous. I enjoyed this post (but I still don't agree with the whole good and evil thing).

Peter McCombs said...


I think the existence of good and evil is one of our fundamental disagreements, although we overlap in other areas.

Unknown said...

Here is a long comment for you with a few C. S. Lewis quotes:

"A great many of those who 'debunk' traditional or (as they would say) 'sentimental' values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process. They claim to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that 'real' or 'basic' values may emerge."

"When all that says 'it is good' has been debunked, what says 'I want' remains. It cannot be exploded or 'seen through' because it never had any pretentions. The Conditioners, therefore, must come to be motivated simply by their own pleasure."

"Their rationalism, by 'seeing through' all 'rational' motives, leaves them creatures of wholly irrational behaviour."

"The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the windows should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to 'see through' first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To 'see through' all things is the same as not to see."

Unknown said...

That's an interesting quote. I don't, however, see a transparent world so much as a variable universe. He's also correct that "I want" remains, yet I disagree on what that means. He seems to see it as an evidence of the inherently wicked nature of humanity; for a want to be worthy, it must be validated by a higher authority. That's where the fundamental disagreement is: I contend that the subjective experience of defining for ourselves good and evil is an act of unique creation (as much as it is self-defining) and could possibly have no higher authority on this level of existence. I don't suggest we rid ourselves of "good" and "evil" so much as we acknowledge and take responsibility for our definition of them.

Peter McCombs said...

Jodi's C.S. Lewis quote comes from "The Abolition of Man," by the way. There are some other philosophical arguments in that book that I'd like to review sometime.

What can I say? I prefer the logical positivists to the existentialists. I like to think that we all experience objective reality and that subjectivity has to do with our mode of experiencing and not with the nature of external things. It makes our creations seem much more powerful, if they can "positively" exist as entities having intrinsic properties.

The ontology of existentialism is too paradoxical to me, seeminlgy logically self-contradicting, as illustrated by Herbert Marcuse ("Sartre's Existentialism," It's interesting to think that apparently Existentialism killed the Marxist devil too!) and Roger Scruton ("From Descartes to Wittgenstein").

I maintain that metaphysical things like "good" and "evil" do exist universally, and that most people sense these properties fairly reliably and congruently even without external subversive influences.

My vague suspicion is that Existentialism represents a subtle back-to-nature regression, but existentialists like Dostoevsky subscribed to a morally disciplined form. And why not? The existentialist could theoretically come to all of the same conclusions as the moral positivist.

OK, funny sequence from last night's Red Dwarf episode:

Kryten: Monsieur Jean-Paul Sartre, sir.

Rimmer: Who?

Kryten: He's a philosopher, sir. He's an existentialist.

Rimmer: Well, Sartre! We don't like existentialists around here. And we certainly don't like French philosophers poncing around in their black polo-necks filling everyone's heads with their theories about the bleakness of existence and the absurdity of the cosmos! Clear?

Rimmer: Well, you're quite the worst bunch of famous historical wax droids I've ever had the misfortune to clap my eyes on! You're a total bloody shambles, and if we're going to win this war, someone is gonna have to turn you into soldiers, and that someone, ladies and gentlemen, is ME!


Lister: Rimmer, what's going on out there? Isn't that Mahatma Gandhi? And what's he doing practising hand to hand combat with a nun?

Rimmer: That's not a nun, Listy, that's Lieutenant Colonel Mother Theresa. She's a soldier now.

Cat: What are you doing, buddy?

Rimmer: I'm winning this war, that's what I'm doing, buddy. You won't believe what a ragamuffin bunch of lefty, wishy-washy liberals they were, before I knocked some good old fashinoned death-or-glory bloodlust into them!

Unknown said...

Oh, man, Red Dwarf is hilarious. I need to get all the episodes sometime. So much of my taste in comedy has been formed by British television.

Yes, Existentialism is self-contradictory. It simply seems more honest for me to admit what I don't know. I also agree that people often come to similar conclusions as far as ethics go, but I'm unwilling to make any claim as to why.

When it comes to logical positivists, I find this from Encarta (of all places) enlightening:

"The dialectical materialists assert that the mind is conditioned by and reflects material reality. Therefore, speculations that conceive of constructs of the mind as having any other than material reality are themselves unreal and can result only in delusion. To these assertions metaphysicians reply by denying the adequacy of the verifiability theory of meaning and of material perception as the standard of reality. Both logical positivism and dialectical materialism, they argue, conceal metaphysical assumptions, for example, that everything is observable or at least connected with something observable and that the mind has no distinctive life of its own. In the philosophical movement known as existentialism, thinkers have contended that the questions of the nature of being and of the individual's relationship to it are extremely important and meaningful in terms of human life. The investigation of these questions is therefore considered valid whether or not its results can be verified objectively."

Peter McCombs said...

In stating a preference for positivism, I'm certainly not shutting the gates.

I do not deny the reality of metaphysical being, nor contend that good and evil are material things.

I say that metaphysical properties are universals, such as the Platonic Forms.

The question of universals is at the root of philosophy and will remain a topic of argument for the foreseeable future (I think), because we do not possess adequate objective senses to quantify and settle the matter one way or another. But I believe in subjective senses too, like the spiritual sense and the aesthetic sense. They can't be neglected.

It doesn't bother me at all that there are things we can't know - and I believe that there are such things. Sometimes we have to purposefully choose to accept the "non-thought of received ideas" or just admit that we don't know something. That's why the topic of your blog is a great idea to explore.

Feynman said that it's possible to live and to not know. I think that's my favorite Feynman quote ever.

But I fall on the universal side of the fence. My experience and intuition simply make more sense of it. The premise of "Surviving Phalaris" is that there are general non-academic principles that "humanity" (there is another universal for you) could do well with. And there is an underlying premise that man's current state is an artificial and tortured state because he lost sight of his natural humanity. So it's not a return to nature, but a return to natural humanity.

There are principles like rights and liberty, property, association or community, subsidiarity and self-sufficiency, education, the need for religion, the threat of federalism, the mistrust of military, a sense of history, etc.

If a principle is something discovered instead of invented, then it becomes objectively powerful even if it is abstract.

Unknown said...

When you say "I do not deny the reality of metaphysical being, nor contend that good and evil are material things" I have to admit that I fear the non-reality of metaphysical being -- except, then once I die, how will I be able to fear it? Also, when you say "metaphysical properties are universals, such as the Platonic Forms" I agree: what these universals are, however, I don't know. I guess you're right in saying that's the root of philosophical discussion. When it comes to a principle being discovered versus invented, I don't see a lot of difference. I think the universals, whatever they may be, might be transcendent of time: so as a man, part of God, invents a principle and makes it real, he is also discovering what has always been there.