Friday, July 1, 2011

Overheard at a Denny's - II

I was going to save this second installment for a little later this month. However, I spent yesterday in the hospital being treated for pneumonia I didn’t know I had, so I’m running a bit behind. Thanks for your patience!

*          *          *

“So anyway, Derek, I was thinking about what we were talking about the other night——”

“Hmm? Oh, yeah.”

“Yeah. Anyway, I’m not entirely convinced. You said we work backwards from the moral wrongness to the psychological illness …”


“… but different cultures have different moralities.”

“Not as much as you think. People cherry-pick the differences and ignore the commonalities, then pretend that the differences mean there’s no intersections. It gets really bad among the college progressives, who tend to split moral sets into ‘white male Christian homophobes’ and ‘everybody else’, really overworking the socialist language of ‘oppressor class’ and ‘oppressed class’.”

“Okay, that I’ll grant you. They oversimplify everything, pretending everybody of Group X thinks y. But that just goes into what I’m saying. Even among us Catholics, you have women who are for abortion and women who are against abortion. So how do you pro-life folks justify imposing your hatred of abortion on the women who are for it? … Not that I’m for it; I’m just saying, why not let them be?”

“Why not let pedophiles and cannibals be?”

“Oh, come on! We went over that last time!”

“Going a different direction. Most people — even the most whole-hearted advocates of tolerance and acceptance — unconsciously grant that evil must be prevented or punished, even when they can’t agree on what evil is or how it should be punished. I mean, think back to college, when Professor Jenkins was practically tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail because he dared to suggest that affirmative action wasn’t a good idea. If all moralities are of equal value, and we should respect everyone’s difference, Prof. Jenkins would still be teaching there today. Instead, we got a stunning display of intolerance and hatred in an institution supposedly dedicated to the free exchange of ideas. He wasn’t just wrong; he was evil and had to be silenced lest he poison all our young minds with his racist ideology.”

“He was a racist.”

“So were three-quarters of the liberal-arts professors on campus; they just knew how to spin stereotypes so they looked good. But you’re missing my point ….”

“No, I got it. You’re saying they’re a bunch of hypocrites.”

“Sorry, that’s not where I was going. No, my point is that we all agree evil should be prevented or punished; if the person who commits the evil is mentally ill, he should be treated and kept away from the rest of us as long as he can do harm. We all really agree to that, even people who claim to be relativists. Now, taking for granted that there is some variation in sensibilities, whose sense of right and wrong do we encode in law? At the same——”

“My point exactly!”

“At the same time, though, we agree that there has to be law, right?”

“Okay, I’ll bite: yeah, there has to be law.”

“So we write our laws through majority rule, so that every moral principle encoded into law has the broadest popular base possible, so it’s self-enforcing as much as possible. We also have some individual rights that we set apart from the law, but the existence of those rights don’t contradict the basic principle: We the people want those rights for ourselves. For the rest of it, the democratic process basically negotiates what we as a community or as a nation are prepared to tolerate, and to what degree we can tolerate it, what we forbid and what we compel.”

“I still don’t——”

“Look, there’re not a lot of options. We can have a king or a dictator impose his sense of morality on us. We can get a self-selecting group of rich men, warlords, priests, imams, scholars or whatever to impose the morality of their class on us. But whatever form of government we go with, somebody’s sense of morality is gonna get trampled on, because it’s different from the dictator’s or the priests’ or whatever group is setting the rules. The only way to respect everybody’s different moral choices is to get rid of all laws and all police powers. Except that there’s one law you can never revoke.”

“Which would be …?”

“The law of the jungle. There are anarchists who honestly believe people would suddenly be generous, kind and caring if we only got rid of all government. You and I are Catholics, though, and we know humans are fallen creatures, drawn to good but prone to evil. In an anarchy, there’s nothing to keep the predators away, save a stockpile of weapons and ammunition.”

“I don’t get it, though. How does this give pro-lifers the right to impose their view on everybody else?”

“What gives pro-choicers that right? Let’s forget Roe v. Wade, and the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, and just look at the logic of the matter. The thing is, it’s not that I have the right to impose my moral code on anyone else. Rather, it’s that I am an American citizen over the age of eighteen, and therefore have as much right as any other citizen to have a voice in the shaping of our laws.”

“But isn’t that establishing religion?”

“Which religion is being established? You yourself said a lot of Catholics are pro-choice; and we’re just twenty to twenty-five percent of the population! And it’s not just Christians, either, some non-Christians — heck, even some atheists are against abortion. No, that’s a fake argument, using the establishment clause to try to deny a growing majority their voice in the democratic process.”

“So the point is …?”

“The point is, it’s not just me, not just my opinion, not just my sense of right and wrong. But even if it were just mine, by the logic of moral relativism, it should be just as good as any other, and therefore just as valid a basis for law, right?”

“Are you gonna eat that?”