April 23, 2005

Discussing Justice, Rights & Moral Common Sense

Our country deserves a rigorous public debate about some serious and highly important issues raised in several recent postings entitled Pope Benedict XVI: Offering Faith as an Antidote to Relativism and Rediscovering Civility and Purpose in America's Public Discourse. This posting offers some additional perspectives on these issues.

Andrew Busch adds his thoughts:

There has been a great deal of discussion over the past three weeks about the implications for the Catholic Church of the death of Pope John Paul II and the selection of a new Pope, as Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI...

First, for all of their public obsession with "diversity," "multiculturalism," and "tolerance," the liberals who populate (and indeed dominate) the mainstream media have little use for tolerance or diversity when it comes to cultural values...

The message was clear: Diversity is fine, as long as it does not interfere with imposing a moral (or perhaps amoral) conformity on the human race by badgering into submission any remaining resistance to the nihilism that now passes for sophistication in elite circles...

Second, the whole episode exposed the great moral dilemma of modern liberalism, the reason it seems unable to produce heroic figures. Liberals love heroic men, but they dislike it intensely when those men confidently possess a strong moral compass. That is to say, they want most of all to have men of conviction who nevertheless have no convictions...

Diversity without disagreement, heroism without convictions. This is the jumble that remains of post-modernist liberalism in America, and for three weeks in April, it was on full public display.

Steven Hayward offers his thoughts on the 2004 election:

...The lashing out at the voters we have seen since Election Day represents the victory of the strain of liberalism that has long competed with populism for dominance on the left, namely, the Progressive impulse toward expert or elite governance that is at the core of the modern administrative state. More and more functions of government have been removed from the control of the elected, accountable branches of government, and not just by judges. The premise of every independent agency, starting with the Interstate Commerce Commission (now abolished) and the Food and Drug Administration, is that certain kinds of questions (drug approval, environmental protection, and so forth) are beyond the ability of the ordinary workings of democratic government to decide, and must be delegated to expert elites to decide for us, insulated from those grubby people known as our elected representatives. By degrees the government of men is replaced by the administration of things, in the famous phrase of Saint-Simon; in other words, politics is replaced by bureaucracy.

The trouble is that when one party absorbs the premises of this thought too deeply, it comes willy-nilly to view elections not as a means of conveying real political choices but merely a process for ratifying the goodness of liberalism on the march. The tacit message is: Vote for us, we’re smarter than you drooling morons. Why not? It worked that way for almost 50 years. When the voters don’t play along according to the Progressive script, it can only be because of their ignorance or Republican dirty tricks. Hence Garry Wills, Maureen Dowd, Jane Smiley, and the rest of the incredulous chorus...

Hayward then goes on to quote defeated Oklahoma Senate Democratic candidate, Brad Carson, from his article (available for a fee) in the New Republic:

The culture war is real, and it is a conflict not merely about some particular policy or legislative item, but about modernity itself. Banning gay marriage or abortion would not be sufficient to heal the cultural gulf that exists in this nation. The culture war is about matters more fundamental still: whether nationality is, in a globalized world, a random fact of no more significance than what hospital one was born in or whether it is the source of identity and even political legitimacy; whether one’s self is a matter of choice or whether it is predetermined, before birth, by the cultural membership of one’s family; whether an individual is just that—a free-floating atom—or whether the individual is part of a long chain that both predates and continues long after any particular person; whether concepts like honor and shame, which seem so quaint, are still relevant in a world that values only "tolerance." These are questions not for politicians but for philosophers, and, in the end, it is the failure of liberal philosophy that we saw on November 2.

For the vast majority of Oklahomans—and, I would suspect, voters in other red states—these transcendent cultural concerns are more important than universal health care or raising the minimum wage or preserving farm subsidies. Pace Thomas Frank, the voters aren’t deluded or uneducated. They simply reject the notion that material concerns are more real than spiritual or cultural ones. The political left has always had a hard time understanding this, preferring to believe that the masses are enthralled by a "false consciousness" or Fox News or whatever today’s excuse might be. But the truth is quite simple: Most voters in a state like Oklahoma—and I venture to say most other Southern and Midwestern states—reject the general direction of American culture and celebrate the political party that promises to reform or revise it.

Joseph Knippenberg offers additional comments here and here, including these excerpts:

...John DiIulio once referred to some of his former colleagues in the Bush White House as "Mayberry Machiavellis," a description many of the forum participants would certainly apply to Karl Rove. But I would not call the representatives of the religious Left I have recently heard and read "Machiavellian." They are not duplicitous. They do not consciously use language in such a way as to confuse or mislead. No. They are so utterly convinced to the rightness and righteousness of their cause that they cannot imagine how their criticisms of President Bush’s alleged religious abuses could ever apply to them. Bush alone uses religion to divide. Bush alone impugns the faith of his opponents. Bush alone is self-righteous and Manichean. But I wonder. Perhaps it’s time to look in the mirror...

...all the efforts to try to intimidate Bill Frist [regarding judicial nominees], accusing him of fanning the flames of religious bigotry or pandering to religious bigots by appearing on the FRC program, suggest a fear that his appearance, and the program itself, will actually be effective in mobilizing those values voters. Yes, the FRC and Focus on the Family are religious groups. But what they are asking for is an up-or-down vote on judicial nominees, not a religious test for office-holding. Whatever faith or reasons move them, the position they’re actually supporting is consistent with long-standing Senate practice (actually voting on nominees). Yes, there’s a slippery slope somewhere, and the judiciary may be the only remaining bastion of secular liberalism, but the alternative is not theocracy, but rather sober constitutional jurisprudence.

In discussing comments by left-wing commentators following the November 2004 elections, some of which are noted here, Frances Beckwith states:

These unrestrained admissions, these rare utterances of unvarnished candor, are a gift, for they reveal much about the cast of mind and quality of soul of those who issue such judgments. They show that these commentators are woefully ignorant of the literature published by social conservative intellectuals (most of whom are Christians) who have offered nontheological arguments for the array of positions that inspired the rank-and-file to vote in droves in 2004. Consider the three most divisive issues in the U.S. today: same-sex marriage, abortion, and stem cell research.

Concerning the latter two, social conservative thinkers have offered highly sophisticated, secular arguments for why the unborn from the moment of conception are full-fledged members of the human community and ought to be protected by our laws. Works by Robert P. George, J. P. Moreland, Scott B. Rae, Stephen Schwarz, and Patrick Lee come to mind. In fact, George, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics (PCB), authored, as part of the PCB's report, one of the finest defenses of the embryo's personhood, relying exclusively on philosophical arguments that are nontheological. I recently published articles in two peer-reviewed academic journals, Christian Bioethics and American Journal of Jurisprudence in which I make cases consistent with pro-life understandings of personhood and law and proffer reasons and arguments for my cases that do not appeal to Scripture or the deliverances of biblical theology. I offer what some may call "secular" arguments.

The literature on same-sex marriage is even more impressive given the relatively brief time socially conservative intellectuals have had to wrestle with this issue. The works of Lynn Wardle, David Organ Coolidge, Gerard V. Bradley, Robert P. George, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Richard W. Garnett, J. Budziszewski, William Duncan, Hadley Arkes, and Richard Duncan offer first-rate "secular" defenses of traditional marriage and, in many ways, are more sophisticated and compelling than the works of those who defend same-sex marriage.

The Assumptions. Why haven't Wills, Smiley, et al., dealt with these arguments, or at least informed their readers that such arguments exist and that offering such arguments is consistent with an understanding of the public square that is respectful of those with whom social conservatives disagree? Here's my theory: Wills, Smiley, et al., are not informed on these matters. They are relying on inherited stereotypes and widely held bigotry embraced by most of the people in whose circles they run. It's not that they know the truth and are suppressing it. They just don't know the truth because they don't believe it could in principle exist. They are committed to the proposition that if you don't hold to a liberal, materialist view of the state, then you are ignorant, evil, or incurably religious, or any two or all three. Given that commitment, they can't see the point of looking for something they believe can't be there. Social conservatives offer reasons and arguments, while their opponents, Wills, Smiley, et al., offer name-calling rationalized by entrenched prejudices propped up by false stereotypes, the very technique these "enlightened" citizens typically attribute to social conservatives.

Wills, Smiley, et al., need to get out a little more and exercise the understanding and tolerance they claim that social conservatives lack; for even a cursory reading of the relevant literature will quickly reveal to them that social conservatives are far more conversant with and respectful of the arguments of their opponents than vice versa. In what has to be one of the great ironies of our time, the friends of enlightenment turn out to be the enemies of reason. Their case amounts to a type of political gnosticism to which only a privileged few have access and the benighted many cannot comprehend. If Al Sharpton were writing their talking point, it would read: "It's an Enlightenment-secular-liberal thing, you wouldn't understand." If this isn't bigotry, nothing is.

And, the bigotry-laced comments haven't stopped since the election as Howard Dean - again - has shown:

Since taking over as chairman of the Democratic National Committee earlier this year, the former presidential candidate has been quoted in newspapers making unusually caustic remarks about Republicans.

Dean has suggested that they are "evil." That they are "corrupt." He called them "brain-dead" during a stop in Toronto - and while the Terri Schiavo case was still in the news. He has tagged Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) as a "liar." Last week, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that he mimicked a "drug-snorting Rush Limbaugh" at an event there...

Dean's remarks have not attracted much attention in the national media, in part because he has focused largely on local and regional news outlets since taking the party's helm in February.

But his counterparts in the Republican National Committee have noticed. "It's odd that Howard Dean says he wants to earn the respect of those who live in the red states, but chooses to not only attack their views but attack them personally," RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said. "Americans want to hear an agenda, rather than name calling."

Michael Barone adds this perspective:

If you read the headlines, you run the risk of thinking we are headed toward a theocracy...

But whether the United States is on its way to becoming a theocracy is actually a silly question. No religion is going to impose laws on an unwilling Congress or the people of this country…

The real question is whether strong religious belief is on the rise in America and the world. Fifty years ago, secular liberals were confident that education, urbanization and science would lead people to renounce religion. That seems to have happened, if you confine your gaze to Europe, Canada and American university faculty clubs.

But this movement has not been as benign as expected: The secular faiths of fascism and communism destroyed millions of lives before they were extinguished.

America has not moved in the expected direction. In fact, just the opposite. Economist Robert Fogel's The Fourth Great Awakening argues that we've been in the midst of a religious revival since the 1950s, in which, as in previous revivals, "the evangelical churches represented the leading edge of an ideological and political response to accumulated technological and social changes that undermined the received culture."…

Those that accommodate to secular critics and make few demands decline in numbers. The Roman Catholic Church continues to grow in America; the Assemblies of God and the Mormon Church grow even faster. But mainline Protestant denominations, which spend much effort ordaining gay bishops or urging disinvestment in Israel, lose members.

Around the world, we see continuing secularism in Europe but healthy competition among faiths elsewhere. In Latin America, the competitors are Catholicism (even though shorn of liberation theology by John Paul II) and evangelical Protestantism. In Africa, competitors are Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam. In East Asia, Christianity has grown in Korea and, underground, in China. In South Asia, the competition for 500 years has been between Hinduism and Islam.

Who inherits the future? In free societies, each generation makes its own religious choices, but people tend to follow the faith of their parents…

In the United States…birth rates are above replacement level largely because of immigrants. But…religious people have more children than seculars. Those who believe in "family values" are more likely to have families.

This doesn't mean we're headed to a theocracy: America is too diverse and freedom-loving for that. But it does mean that we're probably not headed to the predominantly secular society that liberals predicted half a century ago and that Europe has now embraced.

William Voegeli of the Claremont Institute, once again, offers all of us a thought-provoking editorial on the same issues:

...The more practical problem with the fact-value distinction is that no one, including those who espouse it, actually believes it. No one is really "value-neutral" with respect to his own values, or regards them as values, arbitrary preferences that one just happens to be saddled with. The late Allan Bloom pointed out that the social scientists who embraced the fact-value distinction after 1945 believed that "the war against the Right had been won domestically at the polls and in foreign affairs on the battlefield," so one could safely assume that all decent and sensible people were liberal Democrats. And since all decent and sensible people wanted the same decent and sensible things, the job of social scientists was to discover the means for attaining these goals, not to waste time debating value-judgments about which goals to pursue.

There's an old saying: the problem with socialism is socialism, and the problem with capitalism is capitalists. Meyerson, Linker and Scheiber remind us that the problem with relativism is relativism—and the problem with relativism is relativists. The problem with relativism is its insistence that all moral impulses are created equal—that there are no reasons to choose the standards of the wise and good over those of the deranged and cruel. A world organized according to that principle would be anarchic—uninhabitable. As Leo Strauss wrote, the attempt to "regard nihilism as a minor inconvenience" is untenable.

The problem with relativists is that they always dismiss other people's beliefs, but spare their own moral preferences from their doctrine's scoffing. Meyerson disparages orthodoxy, but praises "economic justice...a global economic order that seeks to enhance, not destroy, workers' rights." Linker deplores absolutism, but is content to settle the question of stem-cell research by relying on "the intuition embedded in moral common sense" that tells him "we should support research that promises to relieve human suffering when doing so inflicts no suffering of its own."

Justice, rights, moral common sense—either these are things we can have intelligent discussions about or they aren't. If they are, then a pope's or a columnist's assertion that justice means this or that may be right or wrong, but we cannot say that simply making such an assertion is an act of intellectual aggression...