Defending Ourselves against the Absolute
by Dr. Jeff Mirus
September 19, 2008
During a significant election year, CatholicCulture.org naturally includes increased political news and commentary. Political correspondence from users also increases. Unfortunately, so does the irrationality of the views expressed. The more irrational communications, though often quite detailed, are almost all argued from sheer emotion. The writers clearly have a psychological vested interest in their point of view, and they frequently seem to be trying to cling to an apparently elusive feeling of moral superiority.
For example, I receive regular messages purporting to prove that this or that pro-life candidate is totally deceitful and immoral. Sometimes these messages run on at length, citing all kinds of minutiae to justify a sweeping judgment. Only a few hours passed after I raised the issue of integrity with respect to Sarah Palin before I started getting emails that “proved” that Sarah Palin was the most despicable, two-faced, secretive, and mendacious you-know-what on the face of the earth. Moreover, in the correspondence I receive there is a very strong correlation between this kind of message and pro-choice writers, especially pro-choice Catholic writers. Perhaps my strong pro-life statements simply attract a disproportionate amount of emotional mail from folks on the other side, but I strongly suspect that there are at least two other factors at work.
First, by definition those Catholics who are pro-choice (which can only mean that they are in favor of legal abortion) must come to their positions on many critical public issues through emotion rather than reason. Abortion cannot be justified rationally, at least not within a consistent Christian worldview. As I said recently in this space, proponents of the right to choose abortion invariably form their position based on emotion. Since they cannot bond with an unborn child, that child carries no moral weight, and so the cause of the unborn is trumped by anything—yes, anything—to which they are emotionally attached. It is as simple as that.
I am aware that it is very risky to generalize, as I must do throughout this essay in order to put my authorial finger on the deeper points at issue. As soon as one generalizes, readers will insist on exceptions, and sometimes rightly. Nonetheless, I am convinced there is a deep truth here. One recent correspondent let the cat out of the bag by remarking that while abortion was most unfortunate, at least it wasn’t something being done to mature people who can really think and feel. This is a statement completely devoid of moral logic but fraught with emotion. Similar feelings underlie much of the pro-choice movement. For example, they underlie Barack Obama’s insistence that he would encourage his daughter to abort if she were unwed and pregnant. But it is moral logic marshaled specifically against personal emotion that underlies Sarah Palin’s emphasis that her own unwed and pregnant daughter will carry her child to term.
Another correspondent argued that the one issue proportionate to abortion—one that I had overlooked in my recent column on this subject—was global warming. I am not joking. To this writer, the lack of due attention by the opposition to global warming—a highly disputed concern about which we know almost nothing, can predict even less, and may not even be able to control if we decide we want to do so—is to be our reason for voting for candidates who wish to support and expand the murder of unborn children. But the emotions that underlie this colossal failure of moral reasoning are less easy to discern because there is a second factor—something more deeply psychological—at work, not only in this argument but in the scores of others that are nearly identical to it. In fact, the large number of such arguments suggests again that, for some people, anything—yes, anything at all—will ultimately trump abortion.
If you don’t believe me, consider again the email I receive. A mere sampling produces messages advocating the following proportionate reasons for voting pro-choice: (1) The pro-choice candidate will have a more beneficial impact on poor people throughout the world; (2) The pro-life candidate has proposed tax cuts for the rich; (3) The pro-choice candidate and the pro-life candidate differ on animal rights; (4) The pro-life candidate is less likely to improve health care benefits; (5) The party which has a pro-life platform is made up of selfish money-grubbers who care about nobody but themselves.
Intellectually speaking, this is quite astonishing, so let’s consider this second phenomenon more deeply. It arises from what I call a psychological vested interest, and it derives from the fact that everyone who ignores the natural law is to some extent in flight from reality, while at the same time reality persists in its annoying habit of intruding on their consciousness. This is even more true of Catholics, who have been taught not only naturally but supernaturally to measure morality by something outside themselves. For this fundamental and inescapable reason, most people (but especially Catholics) who are pro-choice face conscience problems. They must live with a pervasive uneasiness which gives them a huge psychological vested interest in adopting convenient “moral” positions while at the same time tarring anyone on the other side with the blackest possible brush. It eases their conscience to convince themselves that they are supporting a pro-abortion candidate politically only because the pro-life candidates are so unremittingly evil in all their works.
A Universal Problem
It is important to pause mid-stride to note that this problem is not restricted to those who are pro-abortion. It is something we all experience whenever we refuse to acknowledge and face our own vices. You’ll notice that ex-Catholics are often among the most vitriolic critics of the Church, and if you’ve ever finally broken free of any vice, you’ll now realize how hard you formerly worked (largely through pure instinct) to resist the knowledge that you were in the wrong, to rationalize your behavior, and to shift blame elsewhere. Attachment to vice—to the world, the flesh and the devil—is a great determinant of our positions on just about everything. This is a classic spiritual problem, and it is the reason special graces are always necessary to precipitate change.
These vested interests work psychologically much the way gaining weight works physically. The body establishes a baseline for itself in terms of weight. If you try to lose weight, it will be relatively easy for awhile, but soon you’ll start feeling tired and it will be hard to keep up your diet and exercise. The body recognizes the weight loss as a threat to itself, and does its best to conserve itself by shutting down whatever bodily functions it can to prevent burning calories. Unfortunately, when you gain weight, the body accepts the gain very quickly and begins using the new, higher weight as its baseline. As with the body, so with the mind (and with that combination of factors we call human psychology). Any step down the road to laxity becomes the new baseline. Any qualm of conscience or criticism by others is perceived instinctively as a threat, and the mind and heart shut down however they can (darkening and hardening themselves) in order to keep the person feeling good.
Of course we also instinctively align ourselves with those who make us feel comfortable with our emotional attachments, illicit desires, lack of charity, laziness or error. We attach ourselves to a particular group and become determined to justify their particular programs. We eagerly latch on to information and opinions that uphold this group and these program. Because such information assuages our consciences, it seems to us reliable. Meanwhile, we just as eagerly dismiss as unreliable and ill-motivated those who suggest that we are wrong. In the end we build our lives around a set of myths which we instinctively want to preserve. We increasingly adopt and express opinions that are based not on reason but on what we so desperately want to be true. Sometimes we even write long and irrational emails.
Whom Do We Trust?
It goes without saying that we can never outgrow completely the need to rely on others in the formation of our opinions. Because we cannot be expert in all things, we have no choice but to look for sources of information and advice we can trust. But whom we trust—and whom we align ourselves with—is very much determined by the state of our spiritual life, our own weaknesses, our vices, indeed, our own personal flight from reality. Not only do we feel most comfortable with those persons and ideas which do not challenge the weaknesses we refuse to acknowledge; we also have a psychological need to prove that those who do challenge us morally and spiritually are very much worse than we are. We love to ferret out the ways in which our opponents have fallen, so we can denounce them as hypocrites (as if being human is not explanation enough). How adept we become at closing our eyes to the truths they try to make us see!
Anyone seriously concerned about truth will, through experience, gradually become more accurate about who is trustworthy and who is not, and more self-reflective in forming his own opinions. But if we are essentially in denial, we will always find ourselves less concerned with truth than with protecting our position. This problem is very difficult to address because of our psychological defense mechanisms. Someone who disagrees with us can argue about various particular issues until he is blue in the face. But if we are in denial, where is the hook he can use to get us to take a step back, begin questioning our instinctive alignments, and start looking for a more objective way to assess our role in the world? It is this question that we face, politically and on a pandemic scale, with those who are pro-choice (and, again, especially pro-choice Catholics), because such persons are necessarily in very deep denial, and they constitute a formidable socio-political class in our contemporary culture wars.
Getting out of denial always requires a conversion of sorts, and since the combination of grace and experience required for conversion is unique to each person, it is beyond the scope of this essay. But as a matter of intellectual principle, I have one suggestion to make: We need to harp incessantly on the priority of absolute judgments over prudential judgments. We need to recognize that the people who get the absolutes right are likely to be trustworthy, whereas those who get the absolutes wrong cannot ultimately be trustworthy no matter how sincere they may be.
The Priority of the Absolute
I am fond of making this distinction, which applies especially well to politics. The vast majority of our political issues are concerned with prudential judgments. We all want a better world in this or that respect, and there are inevitable disagreements about the best way to achieve our goals. But a few of the issues we face are not prudential; they are absolute. For example, abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, in vitro fertilization, child molestation, homosexual activity, and gay marriage are intrinsically evil. We rightly argue prudentially about how best to limit these evils, but we do not rightly argue that they are good, that people should be able to freely choose whatever they think best in these areas, or that people must have a legally-protected right to engage in actions involving other persons which are intrinsically evil according to the natural law.
Why is it reasonable in spiritual, moral, political and public matters to confine our trust to those who agree with the natural law and Catholic teaching about what is intrinsically evil? It is reasonable because such persons possess a respect for truth and a determination to judge rationally between good and evil. Therefore, we may logically expect them to make a sincere effort to present facts and opinions which are consonant with reality. By contrast, someone who cannot see the distinction between absolute and prudential judgments, or who is wrong about absolute matters, must inevitably have a serious problem with reality, and with the mind’s grasp of reality (which we call truth). Such a person will be very prone to accept and twist “facts” or endorse opinions that support his own terribly confused priorities. In any case, whatever his skills, he cannot be expected to lead in constructive directions because he has little understanding of the Good. Despite his best intentions, he cannot help but be a blind guide.
What characterizes many of the morally ludicrous emails I receive is a consistent reliance on information and opinions their authors have picked up from precisely that group in our society which is wrong, again and again, about absolutes. Turning to such persons with any sort of trust is madness; one almost comic result is that those who do so are constantly pulled into artificial moral causes which enable them to feel good about themselves while clinging obstinately to their errors. The most obvious manifestation of this tendency is the succession of save-the-world hysterias which have flourished for as long as they can keep their proponents in the public eye and reassure their followers that they have once again seized the moral high ground. Think over the past fifty years about global cooling, global warming, population control, zero-sum environmentalism, and animal rights, to name just a few. All of these movements embrace concerns that are worthy of study and consideration, but is it reasonable to suppose that any of them has been driven primarily by people who understand moral absolutes?
This tendency to gravitate toward dubious people and their dubious causes is directly connected with our own flight from moral reality, just as the tendency to blacken and dismiss the other side is connected to the psychological vested interest we have in keeping our precious blinders closed to the light. Again, the problem is especially obvious in Catholics who constantly find ways to justify voting for pro-abortion candidates. They instinctively trust all the wrong people. The reasons are all too obvious, and very sad. True, we must all be wary. We must check ourselves carefully to make sure we are not guilty of the same reflexes in other areas. Beyond that, I offer this essay’s argument for the priority of the absolute. At the same time, not wanting to appear irrational myself, I offer it in the full knowledge that it will do very little good unless accompanied by prayer.