What Kind of Progress Does Progressivism Want?

Monday, 03-23-2020


As its name suggests, progressivism wants to make progress.  This would seem to mean that it wants to achieve new things that are good, and leave behind old things that are bad.  Who wouldn’t be for that?

But to know whether you are making progress or not, you need an objective standard of what is good.  In short, you need the natural law.

The problem is that natural law is one of the things progressives want to get rid of.  They consider belief in natural law reactionary, because they think all principles of morality and justice are subject to change.  You do whatever works.

But in this case they are trying to progress beyond the very standard by which progress can be gauged.

For without an objective natural law, progress cannot be distinguished from regress.  You can’t even distinguish what “works” from what doesn’t.  There is only meaningless turbulence and purposeless alternation, according to the whims of the moment.

You might, of course, try to rescue progressivism from incoherence by saying that whatever is, is good and right.  This would imply that whatever change is taking place at this moment is good change, just because it is happening.  And it would imply that whatever you are doing to make it happen, is right to do, just because you are doing it.

But that wouldn’t really rescue the cause of progressivism, because it would also imply that whatever isn’t changing right now, shouldn’t change, just because it isn’t.  And it would imply that whatever your opponents are doing to make a different thing happen, is also good to do, just because they are doing it.

If you really throw out any objective standard of good and evil, then you have no reason to do anything at all – nor have you any reason not to do anything at all.  You have no more reason to feed the poor than to starve them, no more reason to champion justice than tyranny.  You have no reason to live, but you have no reason even to commit suicide.

You might also try another way of rescuing progressivism from incoherence.  You might say that whoever wins is right.  And you might do whatever it takes to win, because then winning would make you right.  That describes a lot of progressivism pretty well.

But in this case, you haven’t escaped from belief in an objective morality after all.  You have merely tumbled into the belief that the one and only thing that is ultimately right and good is power over others.


Bad Reasoning about Hard Choices

Monday, 03-16-2020



A fireman races into a burning medical clinic.  He finds there a flask of frozen embryos, but also a five-year-old child.  He can’t carry them both.  Who should he save?  Most people – including most pro-life people -- would say “the child.”  According to abortion advocates, this proves two things.  First, it is supposed to show that not even pro-life people really consider an unborn child equivalent to a born child.  Second, it is supposed to show why killing unborn children is okay.

Something is wrong here, but I can’t tell what.  Can you help me think this one through?



Sure.  Both inferences are false.  To begin with the second, what is done in this scenario isn’t analogous to an abortion.  In an abortion, you are deliberately killing someone.  In the fire in the clinic situation, you are saving someone, but you can’t save both, so you have to choose which one to save.  So what we think of story of the fire tells us nothing about what we should think about abortion.

As to the first inference, it isn’t even remotely true that if you choose to save the five year old, then you must consider an embryo to have less value than a born child.  To see why not, consider several alternative scenarios.

Scenario 1.  A fireman sacrifices his life to save a five-year-old child from a burning house.  Most people would say he did the right thing.  Does their judgment imply that they think the life of a fireman has less intrinsic value than the life of a five-year-old?  No.

Scenario 2.  A father rushes into a burning house occupied by his little girl.  As he rushes down the hall, he realizes that his daughter’s playmate is in the room next to his daughter’s.  The house is about to collapse, and he cannot save both of them, so he saves his little girl.  Most people would say he did the right thing.  Does their judgment imply that they think the life of his daughter’s playmate has less intrinsic value than the life of his daughter?  No.

Scenario 3.  There has been a battle, and many soldiers are injured.  There is only one doctor, and not enough medicine for everyone.  So the doctor divides the injured into three categories.  In category 1 are those who are so gravely injured that they will probably die no matter what he does.  In category 2 are those who have intermediate degrees of injury, so that they will probably live if he gives them medicine, but not if he doesn’t.  In category 3 are those who have light injuries, so that they will probably live no matter what he does.  The doctor decides to give medicine only to the persons in category 2.  He will try to make the persons in categories 1 and 3 comfortable, but will not give them medicine.  Most people would think he did the right thing.  Does their judgment imply that they think the lives of mortally injured and lightly injured persons have less intrinsic value than the lives of persons who are seriously but not mortally injured?  No.

What did happen was that although in each case, every human life was equally precious, not all could be saved, so in order to make the choice, other factors had to be considered besides the intrinsic value of human life.  In Scenario 1, the additional factor was vocation, for saving life is a fireman’s calling.  In In Scenario 2, the additional factor was relationship, because all other things being equal, our duties to our offspring are greater than our duties to others.  In Scenario 3, the additional factor was who can be helped, because not all of the soldiers were equally injured.  Many such things come into play in hard choices.

And of course none of these cases is like abortion.  In every abortion, innocent life is taken deliberately, something that is intrinsically wrong.  By contrast, in the scenarios I’ve spun, no innocent life is taken whatsoever.  The fireman in Scenario 1 does not commit suicide.  The father in Scenario 2 does not murder his little girl’s playmate.  The doctor in Scenario 3 does not kill any of his patients.

For a clincher, several pro-life writers have pointed out that the original story – the one about the little girl and the flask of embryos -- can be modified so that even the advocates of abortion tend to make the opposite judgment.  Suppose there has been a worldwide super-pandemic, and the flask of embryos is the human race’s only chance of survival.  In this case, wouldn’t most abortion advocates say that the fireman ought to save the flask of the embryos?  Now ask:  Would their making this judgment imply that they think the lives of embryos are intrinsically worth more than the lives of born children?

No.  Just as before, all human lives are equally precious, but when not all can be saved, we have to consider other factors too.  Inequality has nothing to do with it.  I hope I’ve answered your question!



Friday, 03-13-2020


CNN has reported that the president declared that he was not worried after meeting with a Brazilian official who was reported (falsely, as it turned out) to have tested positive for the coronavirus.  However, CNN now has now released the surprising news that the president does not actually want to be infected.

Health officials are urging citizens not to be tested unless there is actual medical need.  The president has said that he will “most likely” be tested, but no decision has yet been made.  The Washington Post has run a story about “What to do about a president who says he won’t be tested for the coronavirus.”

No matter how you look at it, this matter is very serious.

If the president is not tested until there is actual need, then he is carelessly putting himself at risk.

If he is tested immediately, whether he needs to be or not, then he is setting a bad example by ignoring the advice of health officials.

And if he does not want to be infected, then he is guilty of sickism, the discriminatory attitude of not wanting to be like sick people.



Knowledge, Power, and Obsession

Monday, 03-09-2020


I have been reading a famous speech of Robert A. Oppenheimer, given in 1945 to the Association of Los Alamos Scientists.  Oppenheimer had played a central role in the development of nuclear weapons.  His speech is one of the most tortuously reasoned documents of its kind that I have read.  However, it is revealing.

According to Oppenheimer, to understand the “real impact” of the invention of the atomic bomb, “one has to look further back, look, I think, to the times when physical science was growing in the days of the renaissance, and when the threat that science offered was felt so deeply throughout the Christian world.”

There is some bad history here.  Were it not for the vision of a universe ordered by Mind, a Mind that does not work capriciously but makes use of secondary causes, and that made human minds in its image so that they can inquire into its handiwork, it is doubtful whether science could have got started.  Please don’t tell me about Galileo.  The Church’s complaint against the poor man wasn’t that he contradicted the descriptions of the cosmos in Holy Scripture, which the Church knew to be figurative, but that he was doing what we now call “science by press release.”  His theory turned out to be true, but the Church protested that he claimed it was proven before it really was.  I don’t think the Church should have poked its nose into the matter at all, but even so, its complaint was scientific, not theological.

But never mind.  I understand why Oppenheimer speaks as he does, because although Christianity doesn’t regard science per se as a threat, it does regard Oppenheimer’s notion of science as a threat.

What vision is that?  Speaking of the development of the Bomb, Oppenheimer writes, “But when you come right down to it the reason that we did this job is because it was an organic necessity.  If you are a scientist you cannot stop such a thing.  If you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and its values.”

Read carelessly, the passage thrills.   Read carefully, it appalls.  There are two contradictions:  Between the desire for knowledge and the will to power, and between freedom and blind fatality.  What thrills are the parts about freedom and desire for knowledge.  What appalls are the parts about fatality and will to power.

As to the first contradiction, he starts with the idea of wanting to understand the world.  But the reason for understanding it turns out to be merely controlling it, and controlling it not according to transcendent lights and values, but according to “its own” lights and values.  That means “what we want.”

So.  Science is finding out how to do as we desire.

As to the second contradiction, he speaks of the continual growth of the power to control the world as though it were a kind of liberation.  And yet he insists that it is something the scientist cannot stop wanting, cannot stop gaining, and over which he has no control.

So.  Science is the ungovernable obsession with finding out how to do as we desire.

By contrast, the vision of science that Oppenheimer opposes – the vision of the Church -- is seeking knowledge because it glorifies God and adorns the rational mind, with the chastening reminder that not everything is to be done and not everything is to be controlled.

Put this way, the two visions do threaten each other.  I get that.


Free Stuff and Aspirational Rights

Monday, 03-02-2020


Section 11 of John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris declares “We must speak of man's rights.   Man has the right to live.  He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services.  In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.”

I agree.  While reading the encyclical, though, I reflected on the tendency of some Catholic intellectuals to indulge in sloppy thinking about such things.  In particular, most of the rights John XXIII mentions are not claim rights; you may demand that I not murder you, but you may not demand that I buy you a pair of Nikes.  Rather, most of them are aspirational rights.  They mean that we should labor to establish conditions under which every person can best enjoy the sorts of goods that John XXIII mentions.

Yes.  That is right.  That is a moral requirement.  But in thinking of what these conditions might be, it is crucial not to confuse the ends we seek with the means by which we seek them.

Careless thinkers take the idea of a right to food, clothing, shelter, and so on as though it meant a right for the government to give us all these things.  That would be a bad idea.  There are some goods that only the state can provide, such as defending the country and enforcing just laws.  However, the state tends to be a wasteful and shoddy provider of most goods – even the ones that it does have to provide -- and in general, the longer the government has been at something, the more wasteful and shoddy it becomes.  Other goods are generally better provided by other means.

Worse, for the state to supply everything human beings need would require the absorption of the entire economy and every basic social institution into the administration of government.  The price of enforcing a claim right to every human need would be abject tyranny – and we would pay that price for nothing, because the destruction of freedom does not uphold human good but destroys it.  One would think we had learned that by now.

I think John XXIII did understand it.  At the end of the passage he mentioned necessary social services, but you will notice that he did not say that they must all be supplied by the government.

So what are the conditions under which each person can best enjoy the necessary human goods?  I don’t have many answers, and I am short on details.  But though doubtless the state has a role, I am sure that we should think of it last and not first -- and I am sure that before attempting to make things better we should try not to make them worse.

Thinking of the state last rather than first, and trying not to make things worse, probably items like the following would be high on our list.

  • Honoring the customs by which, from time immemorial, neighbors have given mutual assistance.
  • Safeguarding the safety of neighborhoods.  All neighborhoods, not just those of the wealthy.
  • Safeguarding their geographical integrity too.  For example, not breaking them in pieces with badly placed roads just for the convenience of persons who don’t live there.
  • Encouraging voluntary charity, which is demonstrably more effective in achieving its ends than any government.
  • Avoiding “helping” voluntary charitable associations out of existence by taking over their functions.  Trying not to get in their way.
  • Upholding the integrity and stability of marriages and families.
  • Aiding and encouraging those separated from their families to reconnect with them.
  • Promoting the dignity and availability of remunerative work for individuals and heads of households.
  • Punishing fraud and cheating, especially the exploitation of the most vulnerable.
  • Last but not least, respecting the moral law.  Not all poverty is due to vice and sin – far from it.  But vice and sin do impoverish, and the Decalogue, along with its corollaries, is the most powerful antipoverty program known to man.


Beauty and Prose Style

Monday, 02-24-2020


Some of the boldest and most entertaining writers are also some of the most dangerously careless, misleading, or even wicked:  Bacon, Machiavelli, and Nietzsche, for example.  Perhaps this is why St. Paul resolves to forgo the use of “lofty words” or rhetorical tricks and flourishes, depending on God alone to persuade. 

Yet this very saint is eloquent when he is explaining the emptiness of loveless eloquence, as in that famous passage which begins, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”

Though of course we should write with all the grace and energy we can muster, careful reasoning and the making of necessary distinctions do not in themselves help in writing strong, lovely prose, and there is an art to presenting a complex argument clearly, beautifully, and without boring the reader or listener.

I suspect that the insipidity and even brutality of prose in our day is due in large part to the meagerness of our awe for the beauty of truth itself.  The awe of our forebears was more ample.  Thomas Aquinas implores God to instruct his tongue and pour upon his lips the grace of His benediction.  Dante calls upon the Muses.  St. Paul urges the Philippians, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

When I suggest to my students that some things really are more beautiful than others, some always hold out for the view that beauty is in the eye of the beholder -- a view that reduces St. Paul’s counsel to “whatever you want to think about, think about.”  In that way of thinking, loveliness hasn’t a chance.

Perhaps, then, before trying to write with beauty, we should simply learn to admire it.


Beauty and ... Other Things

The Sign of Jonah

Augustine on the Natural Knowledge of God

Obediential Joy


Whither Populism?

Monday, 02-17-2020


Although we speak of rule by the people, the people cannot rule by themselves.  At most, rule by the people means rule by that faction of the elite that enjoys the support of the majority of the people.

True, elites cannot rule without some compliance on the part of the people.  On the other hand, popular compliance can be manipulated.

True, elites are not always able to replace themselves with persons who see things just as they do.  On the other hand, they may be able to keep that up for quite a while.

True, elites are limited by the customs of the people.  On the other hand, although some elites respect the customs of the people instead of trying to change or destroy them, others don’t.

We should hope that ours do. 

Let’s return to the beginning.  The people cannot rule by themselves.

Just because they cannot rule by themselves, the people cannot peacefully dislodge a hostile elite unless they have allies within the elite.  They might – though in our age I doubt it -- dislodge them by rioting and assassination instead, but it is hard to imagine even rioters who don’t also need allies.  Besides, that sort of revolt would only put in place an elite of ex-rioters and assassins.  It hardly seems a good trade.

William F. Buckley famously said “I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”  He explained that he did not hold lightly the brainpower, knowledge, generosity, or even affability of the Harvard faculty, but that he feared intellectual arrogance, a characteristic that distinguishes any university that “refuses to accept any common premise.”

I sympathize.  Whatever their good qualities, most of our present elites have nothing but disdain for the lives, hopes, and common premises of ordinary people – the “deplorables” who “cling to their guns and religion,” as a pair of recent despisers have described them.  But Mr. Buckley was using hyperbole to make a point.  If the first two thousand people in the telephone directory really could govern all by themselves, that might be good.  They can't.  Not in any society.

Whither populism?  Our goal should not be that the first two thousand in the telephone directory would rule, but that our elites would respect and honor the aspirations of that two thousand rather than despising them as yokels.

In times like these, respect of the elites for the aspirations of the people may seem even more utopian than literal rule by the people.  But the times were not always like this.  They will not always be like this.