Who is to say?

Monday, 05-13-2019


In debates about right and wrong, selective relativists – I mean people who are relativists when it suits them – often use the question “Who is to say?” as a conversation-stopper.  For example, we might be talking about whether some enactment violates the natural law.  Eventually the other fellow asks “Who is to say?”  In most cases the question functions as an implied statement.  “No one is to say.”  Or as an implied imperative.  “Shut up.”

When I hear people shut up other people by asking who is to say, I sometimes riposte with another question.  “You wouldn’t ask who is to say if the topic were whether people should be allowed to steal from you.  If it’s a good question to ask in some cases, then why not in all of them?”  My point is that it isn’t good in any of them.  Shut up with the shutting up.

On the other hand, the question “Who is to say?” is not always used in this belligerent and obstructive fashion.  It also has a perfectly good and honest use.  If someone asks whether the legislature has violated the natural law, the person who asks “Who is to say?” may mean merely “I agree that this should be discussed.  But who should have the authority to settle whether the legislature has done so?  Only the legislature itself, or should courts also be able to weight in?”  Taking the question this way, it isn’t skeptical but jurisdictional.

And it has an answer, if we are patient enough to find it.  The answer is tough because it depends on experience and prudence.  On the whole, does our body of laws conform to the natural law more closely if we let legislatures decide for themselves whether their enactments conform to the natural law, or if we divide the authority to decide this question between legislatures and courts?  And if dividing the authority does work better, then when does it work best to let courts get into the act, and when not?

Unfortunately, the helpful, jurisdictional sense of the question and the unhelpful, conversation-stopping sense of the question are often confused.  Like this --

Speaker one:  “Do you think courts should be allowed to invoke natural law in explaining why their decisions are right?”

Speaker two:  “Of course not.  Who is to say what conforms to the natural law?”

Speaker two means that courts should not invoke natural law because no one knows what conforms to it.  But if no one knows what conforms to it, then the question is bumped back to the legislature.  And why are the legislature’s decisions about what conforms to it any better?

There are plenty of non-skeptical reasons for courts to defer to legislatures.  For example, court are required to confine their judgment to the cases at hand, but a legislature can consider all sorts of hypothetical cases.  Probably this doesn’t make legislatures any better at recognizing the general principles of natural law, such as “Punish only the guilty.”  Everybody knows them.  But probably it does make legislatures better at recognizing the remote implications of natural law, and that is what most legislative decisions are about.

But if we favor judicial deference for this reason, then we are not saying that courts should defer because who is to say, but because legislatures are better qualified to say.  What we ought to be talking about, then, is when legislators are better qualified to say -- and when they are not.



How to View Loving as Hating

Monday, 05-06-2019


Christianity, the religion of love, is condemned for being hateful; in the meantime, those who hurl this accusation are wholeheartedly embracing hatred, not least for Christianity.  What is going on?

Well, many things.  But one of them is that the Christian understanding of hatred, based on charity, is being replaced with another understanding of hatred, based on identity.  For the Christian, to hate someone is to desire ill to him.  That is wrong.  One must desire good for him – which may in some cases require that he change his ways.

But for the person caught up in the ideology of identity, to think that someone needs to change his ways simply is to hate him, because it is a rejection of who he thinks he is.  A person who holds this ideology may will all sorts of ill to those who do not celebrate the unchanged ways of others.  Because they are haters, you see.



Monday, 04-29-2019


From a reader in Israel:

I read with interest your article on the early Christian teachings on tolerance.   Unfortunately most of these words were not heeded.  Nor were the primary teachings of Christianity -- “Love thy neighbor” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”  One thousand years of Christian antisemitism in Europe prepared the way for Hitler's Final Solution.  Indeed I must agree with one Spanish Christian writer that Jesus died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.  All the best and much future success.


Thank you for writing.  I mourn desecrations of Christ’s love among some who have laid claim to His name, as I hate the abominations of the beasts of Auschwitz who despised the very thought of that love.  In my house we remember the words of God to Abraham:  “I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”  Peace be with you and your family.


Western Rite

Monday, 04-22-2019


You must remember that this is Texas.

On Easter morning, the children were going downstairs, ready to hunt for their Easter baskets before going to church.  They are well instructed in the liturgy.

Spontaneously, their father said “Alleluia!”

Their mother replied, “The Lord is risen!”

The children replied, “He is risen indeed!”

Except for one little man, who added “Yeee-haw!”

Yes, the same one


The Sexual Revolution in One Lesson

Wednesday, 04-17-2019


If I twittered, this would be a tweet, because Jennifer Roback Morse has produced the best short definition of the sexual revolution that I have seen.  She accurately describes it as three interacting elements:  The separation of sex from babies, the separation of both of them from marriage, and the attempt to eradicate differences between men and women.

Some readers are thinking, “What’s wrong with that?”

On the same topic:

The Feminine Form of Mysogyny


What Makes Men Men?

The Feminine Form of Misogyny

Monday, 04-15-2019


The times are strange and getting stranger.  Not least of its ideological brutalities is that according to the fashion of the day, a certain form of contempt for women is called feminism.

For consider:  Men who despise women think that to be worthy of respect, one must be like a man.  They deny respect to women, because they are not like men.  Some women respond that they are worthy of respect because they are like men.  The curious thing about this response is that it concedes the misogynists’ premise:  That to be worthy of respect, one must be like a man.  Call it what you will, this is merely a feminine variation on the contempt some men have for women.

It is a little different than the older variation, in which women dislike other women because they are competitors, or because only male opinion matters to them.  However, one cannot help wondering whether the two variations are connected.

Someone might ask, “How could feminists want to be like men?  Don’t many of them hate men?”  Certainly, but anyone who hasn’t noticed that envy is a motive for hatred must have had very little experience of life.  “But don’t they also demand that men be more like women?”  Yes, but that isn’t counter-evidence; it is part of the same pattern.  For the more men resemble women, the easier it is for women to be like them.

A true feminism would refuse to concede that to be worthy of respect, one must be like a man.  Instead of demanding that women be respected for what they are not, it would require that they be respected for what they are.

How wonderful that there are two kinds of us!  Why is it so hard to be delighted?


Burning Minds, Thoughtful Feelings

Monday, 04-08-2019



Greetings from Jerusalem (yes – you also have readers from the holy land).

In many cases, people who tend to provide rational arguments are perceived by others as people who are “anti-feelings.”  I personally tend to talk to many people about all the big issues -- the existence of God, the absolute distinction between man and woman, the objectivity of morality, etc. -- and almost every time, I feel that when I suggest a rational “winning” argument, the fact that I provided an argument has turned into a reason not to listen to me, since I was targeting the intellect and not the feeling.

The funny thing is that I personally feel that feelings are very important, and although I don’t think that they can override true statements – they are still important. The problem is that I only feel that feelings are important, and I don’t fully understand why this is so.

So my question is this:  What is in your opinion the true role of feelings so that when you understand them correctly you can also create an optimal synthesis between the feelings and the intellect?



I’m delighted to have readers in Israel, and I’ve enjoyed thinking about your puzzle.

Rather than tackling your puzzle by itself, let me put it in the context of a larger one, for even apart from emotionalism, there are a variety of possible reasons why people might sometimes reject good arguments.  Since some of these might be motives for emotionalism, or might be mistaken for emotionalism, it would be good to consider them first.

Of these reasons, some have to do with the speaker, and some have to do with the listener.  But some have to do with the nature of reasoning, and this will bring us back to your question.

Reasons concerning the speaker:

Needless to say, I might fail to convince simply because I am wrong!  At present, though, we may set this possibility aside – we are not considering why I might fall into error, but why people might not even wish to listen to valid arguments from true premises.

Here, the biggest problem probably lies in my attitude -- I don’t say you have this problem.  Suppose I am trying to persuade someone, and I am too intense.  To the listener it may seem as though I am interested in the conclusion of the argument not so much because it is true, as because I want to win, or even because I want to put the listener down.  The listener may well conclude that he has better ways to spend his time than listening to me.

I may give the impression of viewing the discussion as combat to the death because I really do.  But even if this is not at all my attitude, it is an easy impression to give.  For example,

●  I may frown with the intensity of concentration, and my frown may come across as hostile.

●  I may be so quick to answer objections that the listener thinks I am not really listening.

●  I may seem to be an opponent – “you’re wrong” -- rather than a partner in a shared search for truth – “I see what you mean, but let me present another possibility.”

What I need to do is present my arguments in such a way that I am winsome rather than threatening, and in such a way that my desire for the truth and my respect for the listener come across clearly.

Reasons concerning the listener:

Some people might not listen even when the speaker is doing everything right.  For example,

●  The listener may so insecure that he thinks I am out for his blood no matter how winsome I am.

●  He may be lazy, resisting the work of reasoning logically because it is so much easier not to question anything.  People who are like this tend to consider their condition normal, so that if someone does try to reason carefully with them, they suspect that there is something not quite right in his emotional balance.

●  He may have reason to fear what the argument would show him, because the truth itself might be threatening -- and it may be threatening in all sorts of ways.  Perhaps he does not want to be convinced that men and women are different because his friends would consider him unenlightened.  He may be afraid to believe that God exists because he is afraid of divine punishment.  Or he may be unable to bear the possibility that abortion is wrong because he has been involved in one.

●  He may be simply uninterested in the truth.  He wants to win.  Period.

Such obstacles are very difficult to overcome, but there is always hope --

●  In dealing with someone who is insecure, I must not only be gentle and patient, but also be content with small gains.

●  Although a person who is lazy might never be willing to reason with me, there may come a time when the pain and burden of his mistaken beliefs has finally become so great that he is willing to go to the trouble of thinking clearly.

●  Someone who resists argument because he fears what its outcome might be is already half-convinced – otherwise he would not be afraid!  But the price of self-deception is eternal vigilance, because there are so many things he must not allow himself to think about.  Too many.  Even the most self-deceived persons have moments when they see clearly, just because they cannot suppress the awareness of every aspect of reality at once.

●  Someone who just wants to win is not someone you need to be talking with – unless, perhaps, other people are listening.  Then you must try to reach them, not him.  However, sometimes a person who is debating you rather than conversing with you may be willing to have a real conversation if other people are not listening in, because then he can be honest without losing face.

●  A great deal depends on timing.  The funeral of a young man who has committed suicide is probably not the right time to persuade the grieving parents that taking one’s own life is a mortal sin.

Reasons concerning the nature of reasoning:

Whenever we are presented with a valid argument from true premises, we ought to accept it.  But it is far from true to say that whenever we are presented with an apparently valid argument from apparently true premises, we ought to accept it.  A certain degree of rational stubbornness, a certain suspicion about the premises or about the inferences, a certain reluctance to be convinced – this might be entirely proper.  Isn’t it true, after all, that even experts can be mistaken about the facts?  In fact they often are; people who know a great deal about a given field may be unduly swayed by dominant theories so that they cannot see things that are staring them in the face.  And isn’t it true that people who are more expert in debate than ourselves can be highly persuasive, even when they are arguing nonsense?

Now turn that around.  Not every instance of resistance to our own arguments, however good they may be, is necessarily irrational.  Sometimes it is even reasonable for someone to say, “I don’t see how what you say can be mistaken, but I’m not willing to be convinced so quickly.”  Our response should be, “I understand, and I will always be willing to discuss your doubts.”

Already I think it should be clear that not everything that looks like preferring emotions to intellect necessarily is.  In fact, I would go further.  The very idea of thinking that we can choose between feelings and reasoning is mistaken, because these two things are never separate.  The only question is how they should be integrated.  Emotionalists aren’t people who feel and don’t think, but people who allow feelings to play the wrong role in thinking.

You’re right, of course, that a feeling can never override a true statement:  If I don’t like it that the statement is true, that doesn’t make it untrue.  But feelings are important to thinking itself, in a variety of ways.

●  One way is that feelings are sometimes data for the intellectIf I feel uncomfortable about doing something, the feeling may be mistaken, but I ought to do it the courtesy of asking why.  Perhaps I ought to feel uncomfortable.  Perhaps my conscience is working on me, and things have not become clear yet.

●  Another way is that feelings are sometimes modes of operation of the intellect.  For example, to be angry is to be aroused to the defense of an endangered good.  In order to think clearly and quickly about what is endangered and about what must be done for its defense, I may need to be angry – not excessively, but in due measure.  Or consider the infliction of the sentence for a crime.  Yes, of course I should carefully consider all of the relevant factors, and my mind should not be blurred with passion.  But if I feel nothing at all – if I am completely cold, unable to feel moral indignation about the crime, commiseration for the victims, or compassion for the mess that the criminal has made of his life – it is difficult to see how I can do justice without sacrificing mercy.

●  Still another way is that certain feelings are native to the intellect itself.  Hunger is native to the belly, but the hunger to understand, which is keener still, has its proper home in the mind.

The Stoics thought that the passions were morbid, something like infections of the intellect, so that the wise and virtuous man would cleanse his mind of them.  Marcus Aurelius bid himself not even to grieve for the death of his daughter, for death is the way of things, and he should not be an abscess on the universe.  But it is not the passions that are morbid, but this way of thinking.

Aristotle’s insight was better:  Wisdom and virtue lie not in having no feelings, or in refusing to allow them any place in our thoughts, but in the discipline by which we feel the right things, toward the right persons, at the right times, in the right ways, and for the right reasons.

So was St. Augustine’s insight:  “In our ethics, we do not so much inquire whether a pious soul is angry, as why he is angry; not whether he is sad, but what is the cause of his sadness; not whether he fears, but what he fears.  For I am not aware that any right thinking person would find fault with anger at a wrongdoer which seeks his amendment, or with sadness which intends relief to the suffering, or with fear lest one in danger be destroyed.”

Also on the topic:

“I Can’t Help How I Feel”

Feeling Moral