Graduating seniors, my message to you is simple: do not try to make the world a better place.
We got some good answers in the comments. I will try to be brief in my own notes.
Conservative readers were expecting the author to condemn attachments based on biology and to propose his scheme as a way to overcome them. In fact, his scheme requires that people continue to especially value their biological progeny; the goal, stated plainly, is to get parents to love their children less, to shift focus from the children they are raising to a more diffuse concern for people in general. Parents are to be deliberately alienated from the children under their care so that attention shifts from those whom they are in a position to help greatly and who require from them an enormous personal investment toward strangers for whom they can do little for good or ill. The suggestion that his scheme would improve prenatal care is similar: take away a huge incentive from the person who most determines prenatal care; replace it with an insignificant, diffuse incentive on people with essentially no control over the care of the fetus; expect good results. The insanity of socialism in a nutshell.
Other unargued assumptions that should be contested:
- Even if this were a good thing to do, who is this “we” who has the authority to do it?
- Although the argument does not require that intense partiality (love) is bad, it does assume that it is not so valuable that it can’t be sacrificed to the presumed good of racial equality.
- The idea that cultural continuity can persist without biological continuity presumes that culture may not concern itself with biological continuity. In fact, we know many do, and no argument is given why this is illegitimate.
Conservatives are those who have taken on the task of defending common sense against insane ideologues. This can be harder than it sounds, since the ideologue merely needs to invoke some generally accepted but ultimately insane principle and draw out one if its insane conclusions, while the conservative must take things back to first principles; he must articulate and defend the tacit background assumptions of mankind.
It is a commonplace of education research that we learn by doing, by constructing (with guidance) our own knowledge. Therefore, I provide a homework assignment for readers.
- Read the excerpt at Steve Sailer’s blog from Howard Rachlin’s thought experiment / argument that babies should be randomly reassigned to mothers at birth, with the exception that each mother will know that it definitely won’t be her baby she’ll be coming home with. The argument is that this should be done in the interests of equality and eliminating racism. See link for details. (Or you can read the source, which is not much longer.)
- Explain in 150 words or less why this idea is evil, crazy, and stupid. (Okay, I won’t count words, but please strive to maintain normal comment length.)
- Solutions to be posted tomorrow.
I’ve just finished reading The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death by Andrew Stark. I enjoyed the book, but instead of reviewing it, I prefer to give some thoughts it prompted in me. The author’s goal is to find a way to reconcile people like himself to their own mortality, people like himself being those who do not believe in an afterlife and see life as a good thing rather than a vale of tears best escaped. Life has been good to me, and I do have trouble believing in a life after this one, so the book appealed to me. Still, one might sense a contradiction in the whole project. The search for consolation–arguments to justify a desired emotional state rather than a search for truth irrespective of how it might make one feel–is an invitation to dishonesty, and yet Professor Stark seems to be a very honest man, so that much of the book involves him probing suggested reasons not to fear death and finding that they fail to hold up upon examination.
Liberalism claims to rest on reason alone and not on any disputable metaphysical or historical claim. It poses as a neutral arbiter between rival comprehensive ethical systems. Because it is not one of them, it can claim rightful authority over all of them–and without even being required to argue the truth of its beliefs against that of its rivals. It has no disputable beliefs. It has no rivals. To maintain this pretense, it is insufficient to claim that the reasoning of nonliberals is flawed or based on dubious premises; liberals must claim that nonliberals have no reasons at all, that what appear to be reasons are in fact expressions of subrational animus. Hence the hierophants of the Supreme Court could find same-sex marriage in the Constitution because they could assert it as certain that rivals to liberalism (e.g. proponents of normative gender roles) act only out of ignorance, hatred, or insanity. The Court does not inject itself into a debate. Debates require two reasoning sides, and the liberal knows a priori that he has a monopoly on reason.
Maintaining this illusion requires an ever-more-thorough ignorance of the past and of other civilizations. Thus, the list of “offensive” books from which students must be shielded rapidly grows. It would be wrong to see in this a character flaw inherent in liberals. Liberals are no more innately lacking in curiosity and open-mindedness than anyone else. It is liberalism itself that demands such an attitude of militant stupidity.
With this contrast in mind, one can appreciate the importance of the Christian taking his beliefs on faith. To claim that something is a matter of faith is to acknowledge that doubt is reasonable. Of course, Christians are told to be ready to give reasons for their faith. There are arguments in favor of Christianity, and naturally the Christian thinks them superior to their contraries, but these reasons do not add up to a proof. Christians have reasons, but they don’t claim a monopoly on reasons. Rival faiths have reasons too. Christianity is reasonable, but it is not certain. Faith is a personal matter in a sense that the acknowledgement of a proof is not. One must decide which reasons, which insights, seem more cogent, and in this decision one’s personality cannot entirely recede into the background.
In fact, everyone is forced to proceed on faith. Mathematical certainty is not to be had in this life outside of mathematics. The difference is that the Christian is forced to be conscious of his act of faith. His faith is a gift. If certainty could be had, there would be no need for a supernatural gift of faith. It is not religion but liberalism that manifests a discomfort with doubt, discomfort to the extent that the liberal must shield himself from acknowledging the questionability of his beliefs.
How could there have been an “Age of Faith”? What could have kept men so honest with themselves for so long? We moderns find our doubts so difficult to bear. Why didn’t medieval Europeans do what we have done and declare their religion not a faith but a certainty? In fact, I suspect that this discomfort with doubt (for which scientism claims to be the cure although it is actually a symptom) is actually not a universal human trait. Generally speaking, humans aren’t troubled by the thought that their beliefs, even foundational ones, might be wrong. So long as beliefs are socially promoted, the possibility of error feels academic. What we face today in an age of hegemonic liberalism is the difficulty of people struggling to privately maintain belief in a religion or other comprehensive ethical system which receives no public sanction, to maintain belief when the price of participation in the public sphere is acting as if that belief were not true. This is liberalism’s ideal, but it doesn’t work. A person can believe in the face of uncertainty. He cannot long believe a truth which he cannot treat as public, as actionable. Thus we struggle to hold faith in a way our ancestors didn’t, until one by one we come to find our private beliefs so unreal that we give them up.
Ultimately, liberalism has room only for itself.
It’s not terrorism, crime, or wage depression. We don’t have nearly enough of them for those to be major issues (yet). The real reason many don’t like Muslim immigration is this:
This is an excellent propaganda piece for our side. It’s easy for people to say that our country isn’t defined by religion, race, or culture, but to see that picture is to behold the abyss behind those thoughts. “We the people”, it says, meaning this is a picture of us, a picture of Americans. And yet, the first thing you think when seeing that woman is that she is foreign. Not only does she belong to a religion alien to our civilization, she maintains the style of dress and standard of modesty of an alien culture. To notice this is not to criticize. There is nothing wrong with the hijab, but it is not how we traditionally cover our women. Islam is a false religion, but so is Unitarianism, and we easily recognize the former but not the latter as foreign. This woman is probably not a terrorist. She might be able to recite the Constitution from memory, and her political philosophy might be identical to that of James Madison. According to liberalism, according to the First Amendment, she is as American as any one of us, because to be American means nothing more than to be committed to a certain set of procedures of government. If in a hundred years, all Americans were to look like this, liberalism demands you accept that nothing fundamental would have changed.
And yet we immediately sense that the woman in the picture is foreign–her image was chosen precisely for this reason, to show us the implications of our tolerance. If she is “we the people”, than what are we, the people belonging to America’s traditional culture? We are nothing; no such “we” is allowed to exist. No region of the country, no profession, and no association can admit that this woman is foreign to it. People say that Islam is the dog that pisses on every tree; where it comes, it owns. But even if our Muslim American harbors no such designs for supremacy, she delegitimizes our culture just by the fact that we cannot admit her foreignness. A Muslim America wouldn’t necessarily be a bad place. It might have any number of virtues. But would it really still be our country, the same country that exists right now?
Conservatism is, ironically, the one political philosophy that has failed to convert itself into a tradition. Each generation, it must be discovered anew, as a new voice arises to remind us that the job of the Right is not just to be a bit more practical than the Left in how we demand freedom and equality. Roger Scruton was that voice in the late 1970s, and his great work The Meaning of Conservatism reminded us that conservatism is not about freedom but about authority, the authority not only of the state but of a host of autonomous institutions. As he describes in his new book How to be a Conservative, Scruton’s work behind the Iron Curtain softened his attitudes toward Western liberalism shortly after he wrote The Meaning of Conservatism. The experience of socialist totalitarianism inclined him more positively to classical liberalism, if not to its Lockean justifications. In How to be a Conservative, Scruton again attempts to explain his understanding of conservatism. Again it has very much to do with his horror at seeing the institutions of civil society treated as means to an extrinsic end (now no longer called socialism, but social justice). It is a conservatism in the moderate British style, with all the good and bad that come with this approach. He generously tries to see the valid insight driving each ideology of the day; the chapters are named “The Truth in Nationalism”, “The Truth in Internationalism”, “The Truth in Socialism”, etc. (The last-named chapter, though, is mostly about the falsity of socialism.) Finally he comes to conservatism, which supposedly incorporates the truth in these other beliefs while rejecting their excesses. Scruton’s conservatism does, I think, succeed in this goal. It also fails to conserve anything.
The top branches of the other trees of the forest now peeped through the clouds; they, too, were growing, lifting themselves up to the sky, toward the sun. Bushes and flowers followed; some of them had freed themselves from the earth and were flying…
“But where are the little blue flowers from the pond?” shouted the oak tree. “And the red harebell and the little primrose?” The old oak did not want anyone to be forgotten.
“We are here, we are here!” sang voices all around it.
“But the woodruff from last summer and all the lilies of the valley from the summer before that, where are they? I remember the year when the wild apples bloomed so beautifully. Oh, so much beauty do I recall through all the years of my life! If it only were all alive now and could be with us!”
“We are, we are,” came cries from somewhere higher up; they must have flown there earlier.
“That is the most marvelous of all,” rejoiced the old oak tree. “Everything that I have known is here. Nothing has been forgotten, not the tiniest flower or the smallest bird. How is such joy possible? Where is such happiness conceivable?”
“In heaven it is possible,” sang the voices.
And the tree felt its roots loosen their grasp on the earth.
— from “The Old Oak Tree’s Last Dream” by Hans Christian Andersen
Modern readers are bound to be surprised at the prominence of heaven in so many of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories. “The Little Match Girl” has a vision of being reunited with her grandmother in heaven, and this adds some hope to an otherwise harrowing story of a little girl slowly freezing to death. “The Dead Child” comforts his grieving mother before returning to God in heaven. “The Little Mermaid” wants to become a human because she is in love with a prince, but most of all so she can have an immortal soul and spend eternity with God.
Modern Christians are clearly embarrassed by the idea of eternal beatitude, but this was not the case for our ancestors. Saint Augustine and his dying mother famously speculated on the joys of heaven. Pascal in Pensee 427 expresses astonishment that anyone could fail to find our fate after death the most important of topics. In contrast, the 20th century’s best-known apologetic work, C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, mostly confines discussion of heaven to a small chapter near the end on the virtue of hope. Lewis’ understanding of the desire for heaven is based on a rare sort of aesthetic experience, one I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced. Anglican theologian N. T. Wright wrote a book attacking the idea of heaven in popular piety. By the end of the 20th century, Christianity had returned to an Old Testament-style reticence about the afterlife.
Of the great twentieth-century dystopian novels, Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2023 has certainly proved the most prescient. Probably the best measure that a dystopia has come to pass is that readers start having trouble understanding why the author disapproved of his imagined society; we’re not far enough gone for readers to stop finding the future in Brave New World unattractive, but “meritocracy” has come to be regarded by most as something to which we should aspire. After all, isn’t having the most able people in the top positions a good thing? Michael Young was a socialist who, like Hillaire Belloc, had the insight that egalitarian programs might have extremely inegalitarian results. Before uniform mass education, end of hereditary privilege, equality of opportunity, and the like, smart and enterprising people could be found in all social classes. In the “fair” meritocratic system, high IQ people will all migrate to the upper classes and intermarry. Since intelligence is largely heritable, this new merit-based upper class will soon form a closed caste in a society more stratified than the old feudal one. The new aristocracy will feel confident that they have “merited” their privileged place. The more objective the exams, the more inequality will be legitimized. Nor could one hope that the lower orders might effectively organize in their own collective interests like the labour movement of old; anyone with the cleverness and organizational skill to lead such a movement will have been whisked into the upper class while still a child.