Western liberal democracy has been the most successful political system the world has produced, but what began with Magna Carta and progressed to elections by all the adult electorate has also developed new features. In particular, the tolerance for the rights of others that was necessary to limit the power of the king has been replaced by a demanded tolerance legitimizing any libertine desire of the ruling elite. This elite panders to every marginal group and demands that Christianity must never show its face in the public square. This is hardly tolerance and a long way from Milton’s understanding when he wrote: “Where there is a great desire to know, there of necessity must be much argument because argument in good men is but knowledge in the making.” Now tolerance has become a means of social control.
As Mark Steyn put it, The United States has not just a ruling class, but a ruling monoculture. Its “truth” and “facts” and “science” permeate not just government but the culture, the media, the institutions in which we educate our children, the language of public discourse, the very societal air we breathe. (p57, After America) That air we breathe no longer welcomes vigorous discussion.
This is why we must begin the process of reversal at ground level within our families, within our own early education environment. We must also recognize where our principles differ from political culture’s and teach our children to understand what is at stake and be able to deconstruct the position of the current elite, replacing it with the richer culture that is under attack. It is no
use to waste all our energies on the outcomes – abortion, euthanasia, the legitimization of every form of sexuality. We must go for the root of the tree. Classical education, at its best, does that, especially in its Christian development, but far too often we have allowed the enemy to establish an outpost in our heads. We think in his terms and necessarily he wins.
Classical education recognizes that the foundationa requirement for a child is that he “inhabit” the story that underpins Western society and that is, of course, the Bible. This initial step is primarily built upon the extra-ordinary powers of memory which God gives to children. They memorize with ease and they love doing it. In Deuteronomy 6 Moses commands the Israelites to build their society around the family activities, especially “the dining room table,” and to make it the place where all the Bible stories are told. I do not believe explanation of the stories is necessary at this stage because what is happening is that the child’s mind is being furnished with morally consequential narratives that will be stored and called upon later when the moral challenges and choices confront us in our schools and adult lives. At that point the necessary principles will be drawn from the stories. What I have briefly described is the grammar stage of the Trivium.
The next stage is teaching Classical logic so that a child can recognize the errors in sentences such as:
You must be morally neutral.
You must not be judgmental.
All truth is relative.
Either you agree with me or you are a bigot.
My primary list of issues that every student must be clear about before they enter the State-funded, social engineering project called school or college is: reductionism, relativism, tolerance, moral neutrality, multiculturalism, the sanctity of life and sexual ethics.
Learning to recognize these things is best achieved not so much by formal teaching but by sitting at the feet of great writers, from whom they learn both the logic and rhetoric necessary to defend their souls and also how to carry an audience with them on a journey of intellectual engagement.
Let us first of all examine the tacit belief that moral neutrality is possible. You must not impose your views on others. Of course not, we all agree. So you must live from a non-judgmental, morally neutral stance. Now here is a wild extrapolation. Judgment is at the heart of life and it is increasingly a moral judgment that is required to decide that certain habits are not good for our health. Only a world devoid of logic would think itself capable of forming a functional society without any foundations, without any agreement about basic moral issues. The phrase “morally neutral” could be out of Alice in Wonderland; it might have been coined by Humpty Dumpty or the Red Queen. In reality it is like a square circle – not dead on delivery, but inconceivable.
When I lecture on the myth of moral neutrality, most audiences have to be persuaded of the intrinsic idiocy of the concept of moral neutrality; it does after all sound very nice, very tolerant, very Canadian. One group of students was unanimous that everyone’s ethical opinions are equally valid! Hence this paper might be called remedial thinking for those temporarily overwhelmed by the nonsense in the media. Thus I use the word “myth” in the sense of something accepted, almost reflexively, as true when it is false, not in the sense of fairy tales which are false but overflowing with truth.
One has only to ask the question, “Why should I practice neutral values?” to expose the fallacy. The question can only be answered by proposing some far from neutral proposition such as, “To do otherwise would be insensitive or intolerant”. This is merely a debased form of morality in which truth and justice are trumped by sensitivity and tolerance. At the very least such a radical re-ordering of moral priorities needs some justification.
The idea of the good.
All societies share some fundamental ideas about what constitutes good and evil, at least until they are in the terminal stages of social decay. A healthy society prefers truth to lies, love to hatred, honour to dishonour and justice to injustice. It is true that we all have considerable difficulties in the translation of these ideas into the ethics of daily life, but we are in need of them. Different societies may view the same behaviours quite oppositely, as with suicide in the East and the West. Nevertheless, the underlying principle of honour is present in both; the difference is in how honour ought to be expressed. Here is where Milton’s vigourous argument comes in.
Such vigorous intellectual activity is essential to a healthy society, but those who espouse the concept of neutral values, which demands that no-one’s beliefs can be challenged, necessarily suppress free speech. They frequently talk of zero tolerance for particular ideas, apparently unconcerned with the inconsistency of their pronouncements. To assume that human discourse can be conducted from a value-neutral stance certainly presupposes that metaphysical truth is either unimportant or non-existent and would logically disallow the idea of political correctness. The inconsistencies must be challenged before they are accepted.
One of the most common arguments for ethical relativity and hence for the denial of objective moral truth is to point to the dramatically different ethical codes found around the world. These are undeniable phenomena extremely well documented by anthropologists, but the essential question is to establish how we should distinguish between these different ethical practices to determine which best represent the underlying ethical principles. Over some issues we respond intuitively, reflecting our own cultural history. For example, in parts of the Sahel girls are subjected, by older women, to extensive and painful circumcision to signal their passage into womanhood and to preserve theirs and their family’s honour. In Canada we call this practice child abuse and it is forbidden. In other words, over this issue, we are prepared to say that our understanding of how the concept of honour should be translated into the ethics of everyday life is better than that of the Sahelians. Who is right and on what basis do we judge?
Different ways of judging metaphysical truth.
At issue is the question of metaphysical knowledge and here we are in great danger, because on this point we certainly have no consensus in North America. Nevertheless, some form of consensus is necessary and the form we achieve will determine the society we live in. I wish to touch upon three major approaches to this question.
The first is found in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses speaking to the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 4:5-8 told them that the law which they had been given was better than that of the nations around them and that those nations would recognize that reality. The essence of the Jewish position is in the concept of the “givenness” of the law. They did not create their own values but received the law from God and they believed, that precisely for that reason, it was better than natural human responses. The Jewish law’s treatment of the underprivileged, widows and strangers was in fact uniquely different from their neighbours in ways that we now consider enlightened. Moses simply said that the other nations would recognize the wisdom in the Jewish way. He didn’t say that their laws were more just, but that is how many nations came to see them in due course. Why did other nations change their views?
Just as we have criteria for deciding between alternative scientific theories, we have criteria for deciding between ethical theories. The kinds of questions that help us are similar: which theories have the greatest explanatory power for observed human behaviour, which view is nearer to the truth which we can observe, more just to all, more loving, more likely to build a stable community, more ethically beautiful and satisfying? Ethical relativity is a result of human fallibility in relating actions to the eternal principles of truth, justice, honour, and love. Because we cannot definitively describe these principles does not mean they do not exist; rather, it is their transcendence which makes them the stuff of poetry and story.
The second approach is the Greek alternative. For the Greeks truth, justice, and honour were to be approached not as gifts but as logically demonstrable consequences of rationality. In the Greek view, virtue was a product of right thinking whereas for the Jews it was a product of obedience. The two can, of course, be combined as they are in St. Paul’s injunction “to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” Phil 2:12.
The dominant modern approach stems from our self-absorption. We say we create our own values. This is a seriously flawed theory because truth is made subservient to desire. We cannot, for example, control our desires, particularly our sexual ones; we must therefore rationalize them. This leaves us as prisoners of our own nature. C.S. Lewis expressed it like this in The Abolition of Man:
For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality [God] and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline and virtue. For the modern mind the cardinal problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men and the solution is a technique. The pursuit of happiness in the modern sense is therefore self indulgent. Man’s conquest
of nature must always become man’s conquest of other men using nature as the means. But these powerful people no longer think of God and God’s laws as objective reality so they are controlled not by God’s supernatural ideals but by the natural forces of their own heredity and environment. Thus man’s conquest of nature turns out to be nature’s conquest of man.
Hans Jonas expressed the thought like this: “If the good is a mere creature of the will, it lacks the power to bind the will.”
Creating our own values presumes that we can put ourselves in a kind of moral vacuum, but once there, we have no reason to create moral injunctions except those that satisfy our desires.
So far we have seen that moral neutrality presupposes the absence of metaphysical truth, that it espouses a moral subjectivity which is easily shown to be unacceptable and unworkable, that it necessarily accepts the equal validity of everyone’s moral choices but, nevertheless, passes legislation outlawing some cultural choices. The primary virtue of the morally neutral is tolerance. The question is, “Can a society be built on the basis of tolerance?”
Tolerance and freedom are not supreme virtues.
No one likes to be called intolerant but it can be demonstrated that intolerance in certain things is essential. Consider the following scenario. There is a society in North America with the declared aim of legalizing sexual activity between adult males and pre-pubertal boys. “Eight is too late” is their slogan. Now imagine yourselves as parents of an eight- year-old boy who find themselves compelled to have one of these men as a house-guest for two weeks. He is charming, witty, intelligent and full of fun, but he does have this quirk. Will you allow him unopposed opportunity to use his charm and sophistication to persuade your eight-year-old that he is being deprived of the rightful experiences of every eight-year-old? I have asked this question of many audiences. No one has said yes. There are activities which all of us will not tolerate and we feel no shame in displaying our intolerance.
What sorts of behaviours do we legitimately attempt to suppress? I would suggest a starting list of four – unloving, unjust, untruthful, dishonourable behaviour. Love, truth, justice and honour cannot even share a sentence with the verb “to tolerate.” You do not tolerate love; you embrace it, you seek it. You do not tolerate truth or justice; you demand them, and honour is admired not tolerated. Tolerance and compromise are not the stuff from which great societies, great stories or even great professions are made. But tolerance is important. It is the oil which lubricates so many human interactions; but often its strength is to overlook error or wrong-doing, to have compassion on the human frailties which beset us all. Unlike truth, love, justice which brook no rivals, the proper use of tolerance involves wise judgement. To lack the necessary skills of prudent judgement will lead the defective into either bigoted narrow-mindedness or libertarian excess.
The necessity for appropriate tolerance.
Neutral values do not exist, but we do need the tolerance they would seek to protect to adjudicate the conflicts which arise in our attempts to translate the unchanging but only imperfectly known truth into the working ethics of daily living. Human judgements on how this should be done are very culturally dependent, as even a brief list of practices considered ethical in different parts of the world in the last century clearly illustrates. Such a list would include: widow burning, ritual prostitution, infanticide, slavery, abortion and euthanasia. Changes in what is considered ethical occur very slowly, but they are dependent on dogma for their foundation. Christians, for example, affirmed that all were one in Christ Jesus, that there was neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free from the time of Paul. But this doctrine did not translate into the practical condemnation of slavery for 18 centuries!
What is desired, and rightly so, is tolerance as a normal virtue in our human interactions, but it is clear that the espousal of neutral values is not the way to create the appropriately tolerant society. Neither is the refusal to accept every opinion as equally valid truly intolerant; rather those who would demand such things are intolerant of logic. It is becoming apparent that the atheistic secularist has no adequate basis for tolerance because if this life is all we get and there are no individual moral consequences,
it is logical to use power to achieve your own ends. The Christian, on the other hand, believes in both his own fallenness and the ultimate unknowableness of God in His entirety and therefore has good reason to be humble in the face of contrary opinions.
The hidden premise.
Those who want a neutral value policy usually say something like, ”You keep your opinions on morals private and I will do the same, and in that way we will both be happy.” This slick piece of sophistry is neither true nor honest. The hidden implication is that there is no objective truth at stake, but, as we have already seen, in order to have justice, objective truth is necessary. We have to have means to judge. But I believe the real motivation behind the “I have my values, you have yours” argument is the objective of a libertarian society and this follows by default without the risk of rigorous debate, if we accept their argument. It is the old hatred of God in modern dress. Pascal in his Pensees expressed it most eloquently:
It is the nature of self-esteem and of the human self to love only oneself and to consider oneself alone. But what can a man do? He wants to be great and finds that he is small; he wants to be happy and finds that he is unhappy; he wants to be perfect and finds that he is riddled with imperfections; he wants to be the object of men’s affection and esteem and sees that his faults deserve only their dislike and contempt. The embarrassing position in which he finds himself produces in him the most unjust and criminal passion that can possibly be imagined; he conceives a mortal hatred of the truth which brings him down to earth and convinces him of his faults. He would like to be able to annihilate it, and, not being able to destroy it in himself, he destroys it in the minds of other people. That is to say, he concentrates all his efforts on concealing his faults both from others and from himself, and cannot stand being made to see them or their being seen by other people.
Throughout history there have always been those who wish, as they put it, to be free. But unless we are good, our freedom always deteriorates to license and usually to the tyranny of the few over the many. The bane of human history is the desire to be God, to be beholden to no one. The old Christian understanding of freedom is contained in: “The Truth shall set you free,” and “Whose service is perfect freedom.” Christian freedom is freedom to be willingly a servant of Christ, whereas secular freedom is freedom from God. Conscience for the one is a gentle nudge towards truth and, for the other, the guilt trip laid on them by society.
The first thing to recognize is that the word itself shows its origins in the idea that conscience is not a feeling but a form of knowing. We all have the experience of being inwardly obligated to do “good” or to eschew “evil”. This is true even when it is to our own immediate hurt, as with passing up an opportunity to cheat. This is not a feeling; indeed it fights against our feelings. This is moral knowledge. In most cases it offers no evolutionary benefit to our genes so that the reductionist is left with an explanatory problem. Whence cometh the moral law within? When one reads a law, it is normal to ask, “Who is the lawgiver?” The objection, of course, is that if we accept this view we accept our creaturely status. A lawgiver, the legitimacy of whose laws we cannot deny, rightly demands our obedience.
So what needs to be done to remove the illusion of moral neutrality from our teaching guidelines and replace it with a more sophisticated understanding of moral truth, including appropriate tolerance of different ethical judgments? First, those who understand the process that has led to the logical nonsense of so-called neutral values must start saying so publicly and doing what they can to redress the damage done. We might also demand that logic be taught to all university students. We must all examine our intolerances and decide whether they are bigoted in the Chestertonian sense of not seriously considering the alternative proposition, or selfishly libertarian and therefore to be decried and removed, or legitimate and therefore to be defended. Judgment is hard, but it must be attempted if we are not to be left with a crude and debased culture. For tolerance to be properly exercised it must be held in tension with all the other virtues. This is what character formation is all about. It requires the development of wisdom which is quite different from the acquisition of knowledge and utterly different from the mere cataloguing of information which currently passes for education. It requires a recognition that metaphysical truth exists even though our knowledge of it is limited. Sincerity is not enough. As Iris Murdoch put it, “Our failure as a society is that we have substituted for the hard idea of truth, the facile idea of sincerity.” Life requires us to answer the age-old key questions or else to spend immense psychological energy in denying their cogency and paying the price for such denial.
Where did I come from?
Why am I here?
Where am I going?
How can I make sense of suffering? How do I come to terms with mortality? How can I believe in justice?
What can I know? What may I believe? What should I do?
The Jews were told that the critical educational environment was the home: the conversations at meals, on journeys,
the practice of giving thanks to God morning and evening and of celebrating the feasts with joy before God. Moses taught the Jews that the reality of their faith in God must be lived out in the everyday environment. For us we have the additional promise: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” For work-ridden professionals framing life in these eternal realities is difficult and needs constant attention, but if our children have only an education that does not have these foundations, then they have only an education that is not worthy of the name.