The Myth of Moral Neutrality

Western liberal democracy has been the most successful political system the world has produced, but what began with Magna Carta and progressed to elections by all the adult electorate has also developed new features. In particular, the tolerance for the rights of others that was necessary to limit the power of the king has been replaced by a demanded tolerance legitimizing any libertine desire of the ruling elite. This elite panders to every marginal group and demands that Christianity must never show its face in the public square. This is hardly tolerance and a long way from Milton’s understanding when he wrote: “Where there is a great desire to know, there of necessity must be much argument because argument in good men is but knowledge in the making.” Now tolerance has become a means of social control.

As Mark Steyn put it, The United States has not just a ruling class, but a ruling monoculture. Its “truth” and “facts” and “science” permeate not just government but the culture, the media, the institutions in which we educate our children, the language of public discourse, the very societal air we breathe. (p57, After America) That air we breathe no longer welcomes vigorous discussion.

This is why we must begin the process of reversal at ground level within our families, within our own early education environment. We must also recognize where our principles differ from political culture’s and teach our children to understand what is at stake and be able to deconstruct the position of the current elite, replacing it with the richer culture that is under attack. It is no
use to waste all our energies on the outcomes – abortion, euthanasia, the legitimization of every form of sexuality. We must go for the root of the tree. Classical education, at its best, does that, especially in its Christian development, but far too often we have allowed the enemy to establish an outpost in our heads. We think in his terms and necessarily he wins.

Classical education recognizes that the foundationa requirement for a child is that he “inhabit” the story that underpins Western society and that is, of course, the Bible. This initial step is primarily built upon the extra-ordinary powers of memory which God gives to children. They memorize with ease and they love doing it. In Deuteronomy 6 Moses commands the Israelites to build their society around the family activities, especially “the dining room table,” and to make it the place where all the Bible stories are told. I do not believe explanation of the stories is necessary at this stage because what is happening is that the child’s mind is being furnished with morally consequential narratives that will be stored and called upon later when the moral challenges and choices confront us in our schools and adult lives. At that point the necessary principles will be drawn from the stories. What I have briefly described is the grammar stage of the Trivium.

The next stage is teaching Classical logic so that a child can recognize the errors in sentences such as:

You must be morally neutral.
You must not be judgmental.
All truth is relative.
Either you agree with me or you are a bigot.

My primary list of issues that every student must be clear about before they enter the State-funded, social engineering project called school or college is: reductionism, relativism, tolerance, moral neutrality, multiculturalism, the sanctity of life and sexual ethics.

Learning to recognize these things is best achieved not so much by formal teaching but by sitting at the feet of great writers, from whom they learn both the logic and rhetoric necessary to defend their souls and also how to carry an audience with them on a journey of intellectual engagement.

Let us first of all examine the tacit belief that moral neutrality is possible. You must not impose your views on others. Of course not, we all agree. So you must live from a non-judgmental, morally neutral stance. Now here is a wild extrapolation. Judgment is at the heart of life and it is increasingly a moral judgment that is required to decide that certain habits are not good for our health. Only a world devoid of logic would think itself capable of forming a functional society without any foundations, without any agreement about basic moral issues. The phrase “morally neutral” could be out of Alice in Wonderland; it might have been coined by Humpty Dumpty or the Red Queen. In reality it is like a square circle – not dead on delivery, but inconceivable.

When I lecture on the myth of moral neutrality, most audiences have to be persuaded of the intrinsic idiocy of the concept of moral neutrality; it does after all sound very nice, very tolerant, very Canadian. One group of students was unanimous that everyone’s ethical opinions are equally valid! Hence this paper might be called remedial thinking for those temporarily overwhelmed by the nonsense in the media. Thus I use the word “myth” in the sense of something accepted, almost reflexively, as true when it is false, not in the sense of fairy tales which are false but overflowing with truth.

One has only to ask the question, “Why should I practice neutral values?” to expose the fallacy. The question can only be answered by proposing some far from neutral proposition such as, “To do otherwise would be insensitive or intolerant”. This is merely a debased form of morality in which truth and justice are trumped by sensitivity and tolerance. At the very least such a radical re-ordering of moral priorities needs some justification.

The idea of the good.

All societies share some fundamental ideas about what constitutes good and evil, at least until they are in the terminal stages of social decay. A healthy society prefers truth to lies, love to hatred, honour to dishonour and justice to injustice. It is true that we all have considerable difficulties in the translation of these ideas into the ethics of daily life, but we are in need of them. Different societies may view the same behaviours quite oppositely, as with suicide in the East and the West. Nevertheless, the underlying principle of honour is present in both; the difference is in how honour ought to be expressed. Here is where Milton’s vigourous argument comes in.

Such vigorous intellectual activity is essential to a healthy society, but those who espouse the concept of neutral values, which demands that no-one’s beliefs can be challenged, necessarily suppress free speech. They frequently talk of zero tolerance for particular ideas, apparently unconcerned with the inconsistency of their pronouncements. To assume that human discourse can be conducted from a value-neutral stance certainly presupposes that metaphysical truth is either unimportant or non-existent and would logically disallow the idea of political correctness. The inconsistencies must be challenged before they are accepted.

One of the most common arguments for ethical relativity and hence for the denial of objective moral truth is to point to the dramatically different ethical codes found around the world. These are undeniable phenomena extremely well documented by anthropologists, but the essential question is to establish how we should distinguish between these different ethical practices to determine which best represent the underlying ethical principles. Over some issues we respond intuitively, reflecting our own cultural history. For example, in parts of the Sahel girls are subjected, by older women, to extensive and painful circumcision to signal their passage into womanhood and to preserve theirs and their family’s honour. In Canada we call this practice child abuse and it is forbidden. In other words, over this issue, we are prepared to say that our understanding of how the concept of honour should be translated into the ethics of everyday life is better than that of the Sahelians. Who is right and on what basis do we judge?

Different ways of judging metaphysical truth.

At issue is the question of metaphysical knowledge and here we are in great danger, because on this point we certainly have no consensus in North America. Nevertheless, some form of consensus is necessary and the form we achieve will determine the society we live in. I wish to touch upon three major approaches to this question.

The first is found in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses speaking to the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 4:5-8 told them that the law which they had been given was better than that of the nations around them and that those nations would recognize that reality. The essence of the Jewish position is in the concept of the “givenness” of the law. They did not create their own values but received the law from God and they believed, that precisely for that reason, it was better than natural human responses. The Jewish law’s treatment of the underprivileged, widows and strangers was in fact uniquely different from their neighbours in ways that we now consider enlightened. Moses simply said that the other nations would recognize the wisdom in the Jewish way. He didn’t say that their laws were more just, but that is how many nations came to see them in due course. Why did other nations change their views?


Just as we have criteria for deciding between alternative scientific theories, we have criteria for deciding between ethical theories. The kinds of questions that help us are similar: which theories have the greatest explanatory power for observed human behaviour, which view is nearer to the truth which we can observe, more just to all, more loving, more likely to build a stable community, more ethically beautiful and satisfying? Ethical relativity is a result of human fallibility in relating actions to the eternal principles of truth, justice, honour, and love. Because we cannot definitively describe these principles does not mean they do not exist; rather, it is their transcendence which makes them the stuff of poetry and story.

The second approach is the Greek alternative. For the Greeks truth, justice, and honour were to be approached not as gifts but as logically demonstrable consequences of rationality. In the Greek view, virtue was a product of right thinking whereas for the Jews it was a product of obedience. The two can, of course, be combined as they are in St. Paul’s injunction “to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” Phil 2:12.

The dominant modern approach stems from our self-absorption. We say we create our own values. This is a seriously flawed theory because truth is made subservient to desire. We cannot, for example, control our desires, particularly our sexual ones; we must therefore rationalize them. This leaves us as prisoners of our own nature. C.S. Lewis expressed it like this in The Abolition of Man:

For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality [God] and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline and virtue. For the modern mind the cardinal problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men and the solution is a technique. The pursuit of happiness in the modern sense is therefore self indulgent. Man’s conquest
of nature must always become man’s conquest of other men using nature as the means. But these powerful people no longer think of God and God’s laws as objective reality so they are controlled not by God’s supernatural ideals but by the natural forces of their own heredity and environment. Thus man’s conquest of nature turns out to be nature’s conquest of man.

Hans Jonas expressed the thought like this: “If the good is a mere creature of the will, it lacks the power to bind the will.”

Creating our own values presumes that we can put ourselves in a kind of moral vacuum, but once there, we have no reason to create moral injunctions except those that satisfy our desires.

Tolerance.

So far we have seen that moral neutrality presupposes the absence of metaphysical truth, that it espouses a moral subjectivity which is easily shown to be unacceptable and unworkable, that it necessarily accepts the equal validity of everyone’s moral choices but, nevertheless, passes legislation outlawing some cultural choices. The primary virtue of the morally neutral is tolerance. The question is, “Can a society be built on the basis of tolerance?”

Tolerance and freedom are not supreme virtues.

No one likes to be called intolerant but it can be demonstrated that intolerance in certain things is essential. Consider the following scenario. There is a society in North America with the declared aim of legalizing sexual activity between adult males and pre-pubertal boys. “Eight is too late” is their slogan. Now imagine yourselves as parents of an eight- year-old boy who find themselves compelled to have one of these men as a house-guest for two weeks. He is charming, witty, intelligent and full of fun, but he does have this quirk. Will you allow him unopposed opportunity to use his charm and sophistication to persuade your eight-year-old that he is being deprived of the rightful experiences of every eight-year-old? I have asked this question of many audiences. No one has said yes. There are activities which all of us will not tolerate and we feel no shame in displaying our intolerance.

What sorts of behaviours do we legitimately attempt to suppress? I would suggest a starting list of four – unloving, unjust, untruthful, dishonourable behaviour. Love, truth, justice and honour cannot even share a sentence with the verb “to tolerate.” You do not tolerate love; you embrace it, you seek it. You do not tolerate truth or justice; you demand them, and honour is admired not tolerated. Tolerance and compromise are not the stuff from which great societies, great stories or even great professions are made. But tolerance is important. It is the oil which lubricates so many human interactions; but often its strength is to overlook error or wrong-doing, to have compassion on the human frailties which beset us all. Unlike truth, love, justice which brook no rivals, the proper use of tolerance involves wise judgement. To lack the necessary skills of prudent judgement will lead the defective into either bigoted narrow-mindedness or libertarian excess.

The necessity for appropriate tolerance.

Neutral values do not exist, but we do need the tolerance they would seek to protect to adjudicate the conflicts which arise in our attempts to translate the unchanging but only imperfectly known truth into the working ethics of daily living. Human judgements on how this should be done are very culturally dependent, as even a brief list of practices considered ethical in different parts of the world in the last century clearly illustrates. Such a list would include: widow burning, ritual prostitution, infanticide, slavery, abortion and euthanasia. Changes in what is considered ethical occur very slowly, but they are dependent on dogma for their foundation. Christians, for example, affirmed that all were one in Christ Jesus, that there was neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free from the time of Paul. But this doctrine did not translate into the practical condemnation of slavery for 18 centuries!

What is desired, and rightly so, is tolerance as a normal virtue in our human interactions, but it is clear that the espousal of neutral values is not the way to create the appropriately tolerant society. Neither is the refusal to accept every opinion as equally valid truly intolerant; rather those who would demand such things are intolerant of logic. It is becoming apparent that the atheistic secularist has no adequate basis for tolerance because if this life is all we get and there are no individual moral consequences,
it is logical to use power to achieve your own ends. The Christian, on the other hand, believes in both his own fallenness and the ultimate unknowableness of God in His entirety and therefore has good reason to be humble in the face of contrary opinions.

The hidden premise.

Those who want a neutral value policy usually say something like, ”You keep your opinions on morals private and I will do the same, and in that way we will both be happy.” This slick piece of sophistry is neither true nor honest. The hidden implication is that there is no objective truth at stake, but, as we have already seen, in order to have justice, objective truth is necessary. We have to have means to judge. But I believe the real motivation behind the “I have my values, you have yours” argument is the objective of a libertarian society and this follows by default without the risk of rigorous debate, if we accept their argument. It is the old hatred of God in modern dress. Pascal in his Pensees expressed it most eloquently:

It is the nature of self-esteem and of the human self to love only oneself and to consider oneself alone. But what can a man do? He wants to be great and finds that he is small; he wants to be happy and finds that he is unhappy; he wants to be perfect and finds that he is riddled with imperfections; he wants to be the object of men’s affection and esteem and sees that his faults deserve only their dislike and contempt. The embarrassing position in which he finds himself produces in him the most unjust and criminal passion that can possibly be imagined; he conceives a mortal hatred of the truth which brings him down to earth and convinces him of his faults. He would like to be able to annihilate it, and, not being able to destroy it in himself, he destroys it in the minds of other people. That is to say, he concentrates all his efforts on concealing his faults both from others and from himself, and cannot stand being made to see them or their being seen by other people.

Throughout history there have always been those who wish, as they put it, to be free. But unless we are good, our freedom always deteriorates to license and usually to the tyranny of the few over the many. The bane of human history is the desire to be God, to be beholden to no one. The old Christian understanding of freedom is contained in: “The Truth shall set you free,” and “Whose service is perfect freedom.” Christian freedom is freedom to be willingly a servant of Christ, whereas secular freedom is freedom from God. Conscience for the one is a gentle nudge towards truth and, for the other, the guilt trip laid on them by society.

Conscience.

The first thing to recognize is that the word itself shows its origins in the idea that conscience is not a feeling but a form of knowing. We all have the experience of being inwardly obligated to do “good” or to eschew “evil”. This is true even when it is to our own immediate hurt, as with passing up an opportunity to cheat. This is not a feeling; indeed it fights against our feelings. This is moral knowledge. In most cases it offers no evolutionary benefit to our genes so that the reductionist is left with an explanatory problem. Whence cometh the moral law within? When one reads a law, it is normal to ask, “Who is the lawgiver?” The objection, of course, is that if we accept this view we accept our creaturely status. A lawgiver, the legitimacy of whose laws we cannot deny, rightly demands our obedience.

Conclusion

So what needs to be done to remove the illusion of moral neutrality from our teaching guidelines and replace it with a more sophisticated understanding of moral truth, including appropriate tolerance of different ethical judgments? First, those who understand the process that has led to the logical nonsense of so-called neutral values must start saying so publicly and doing what they can to redress the damage done. We might also demand that logic be taught to all university students. We must all examine our intolerances and decide whether they are bigoted in the Chestertonian sense of not seriously considering the alternative proposition, or selfishly libertarian and therefore to be decried and removed, or legitimate and therefore to be defended. Judgment is hard, but it must be attempted if we are not to be left with a crude and debased culture. For tolerance to be properly exercised it must be held in tension with all the other virtues. This is what character formation is all about. It requires the development of wisdom which is quite different from the acquisition of knowledge and utterly different from the mere cataloguing of information which currently passes for education. It requires a recognition that metaphysical truth exists even though our knowledge of it is limited. Sincerity is not enough. As Iris Murdoch put it, “Our failure as a society is that we have substituted for the hard idea of truth, the facile idea of sincerity.” Life requires us to answer the age-old key questions or else to spend immense psychological energy in denying their cogency and paying the price for such denial.

Where did I come from?
Why am I here?
Where am I going?
How can I make sense of suffering? How do I come to terms with mortality? How can I believe in justice?

What can I know? What may I believe? What should I do?

The Jews were told that the critical educational environment was the home: the conversations at meals, on journeys,
the practice of giving thanks to God morning and evening and of celebrating the feasts with joy before God. Moses taught the Jews that the reality of their faith in God must be lived out in the everyday environment. For us we have the additional promise: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” For work-ridden professionals framing life in these eternal realities is difficult and needs constant attention, but if our children have only an education that does not have these foundations, then they have only an education that is not worthy of the name.

Birds of a Feather, or The True Meaning of Friendship

“Birds of a feather flock together,” my mother told me over and over again while I was growing up. At first I had no idea what she meant. But gradually it dawned on me that the sorts of people I spent time with somehow had an influence on the sort of man I would become. If I wasted my time with ne’er-do-wells, I would become a ne’er-do- well. If I made friends with the studious and athletic types, I would most likely be both studious and athletic. Who knows? Maybe I could have a good influence on some poor, undirected child who didn’t know whether to listen to the devil on one shoulder or the angel on the other.

My sense is that sayings like these—and there used to be hundreds of them, for most every aspect of childrearing and life in general—have largely passed out of usage, though perhaps the parents who send their children to a classical school are more likely to cling to their grandparents’ old sayings, to say nothing of their guns and their Bibles. I suspect, though, that even in a classical school, teachers find that students are more influenced by the silly mantras of modern culture—at best empty clichés about “respecting others” now that the word respect has lost its original meaning and, above all, respecting others’ ideas, no matter how misguided or base. Modern culture, you see, urges less discrimination and judgment with regard to people’s character since being discriminatory and judgmental is about the only thing you are not allowed to be in the modern world. Yet if my mother’s maxim holds true, the lack of discrimination and judgment leaves children and young people morally vulnerable in a world where precious little moral instruction is offered. In fact, it abandons them to an adolescent ghetto, where the latest thing done or said by a rap star or Lady Gaga passes for the apogee of coolness. It would seem, then, that a classical school, as not only a place where children come to be instructed in the fundamentals of sound learning but also in the first principles of sound morality, should spend some time on the topic of friendship.

To help young people understand and indeed improve their friendships, teachers should, where appropriate in the curriculum, engage students in a Socratic dialogue suited to their capacities. For example, while reading Tom Sawyer (usually in upper elementary or middle school), the teacher might ask, “Are Tom and Huck friends?” “Of course,” will be the answer. Here the teacher might play “stupid” for a moment. “So you all have friends, then? And you recognize that Tom and Huck are friends because you know what friendship looks like?” “Sure.” “And is friendship important, that is, is it important to have friends?” In fact, very little is as important to young people as having friends, and they will say so. “Okay, then, define what a friend is.” Now the plot will thicken a little. Most likely the students will say that a friend is someone you like to be with or to hang out with, or it is someone who has the same interests as you do or who knows you better than others do or someone “you can be yourself around.” The more thoughtful students will say that a friend is someone you can count on.

Then the question becomes whether a friend is a good person and whether friendship is a good thing. The students will answer universally “yes.” “A friend, then, is someone you want to have around and someone who wants the best for you?” “Of course.” “So, then, can bank robbers be friends?” Here the question gets a little tricky. If they say yes, then we must ask whether bank robbers can be good people and remind the students that we said friends are good people. Further, how could wanting your friend to engage in a life of crime and possibly be shot or put in jail for life be wanting the best for you? If the students say no—or come to that conclusion after some further questioning—then we have to figure out the flaw in our logic from the beginning. (Realize that bank robbers hang out together, have the same interests, and rely on each other. Yet bank robbers are not good.)

To solve this conundrum, we should consult the classical authors on friendship. (For younger students, the classical authors are a little hard to read, but students can certainly be told these things.) Cicero in his dialogue De Amicitia (On Friendship), a work that used to be widely read in upper schools, agrees with our own students in saying that friendship is an important human experience.

In fact, he regards it as “the greatest thing in the world.” Nonetheless, he defines friendship more exclusively than our students might. According to Cicero, “friendship can only exist between good men.” He further defines “the good” as “those whose actions and lives leave no question as to their honor, purity, equity, and liberality; who are free from greed, lust, and violence; and who have the courage of their convictions.”

Therefore, according to Cicero’s more exacting definition, bank robbers can never be friends. Cicero furthers says that a true friend will give good advice, even correct a person when he is doing something wrong. In other words, a friend is not just someone you “hang out with” but a person who urges you to do the good and prevents you from doing the bad. And if you were to persist in doing the bad, the friendship would have to cease. In modern parlance, the good person would “fire” you as a friend. The question now is whether the students really have friends or merely acquaintances: peers but by no means true friends.

St. Augustine reminds us in his Confessions that groups of young people do not always pursue the good. As a youth he and some other boys stole pears from a nearby orchard. He did not need the pears because he had plenty of his own. He did not eat the pears but instead threw them to the pigs. When he reflected on this event years later, he concluded that he only stole the pears because he was in the company of other “ruffians.” Had he been alone, he would have never done so. A few years later, Augustine spent his time with youth his age talking about girls. The subject was whether the boys had done such and such with this or that girl. Even when they had not done things, they would make up stories, so ashamed they were of having not done shameful things. That’s right! Locker-room talk in the fifth century, in which a future saint took part. How times don’t change! Were these boys friends? Later reflection led Augustine to the conclusion that they were not, though those attachments and his reputation among the boys meant a great deal to him at the time.

Students might be invited to reflect upon their own conduct. Whenever students break the rules in school or disrupt classes by whispering or note-passing, do they do so as lone individuals or in groups? When they get into trouble or do mischievous things outside of school (toilet- papering a house, for instance), do they do so on their own or as a group of conspirators? In fact, is not planning the conspiracy half the fun? Students must realize these small partnerships in chaos are not groups of friends—at least not at that moment—but rather groups of wrongdoers. The essential question of friendship is whether your friends appeal to your baser or your higher passions, whether to the base or the noble.

Further insight into friendship can be found in Aristotle’s Ethics. In fact, it is worth noting that Aristotle devotes more time in the Ethics to friendship than any other subject, even justice. Aristotle, as we might expect, is a little more practical and offers less of an either/or than the combined force of Cicero and Augustine (though it is actually useful to begin with the clearer distinction). Aristotle classifies friendship into three types: those based on utility, those based on pleasure, and those formed by people “who are good and are alike in virtue.” An example of the first would be a business deal. The second type is very much like “hanging out,” as students put it. In fact, Aristotle states that friendship based on pleasure is most characteristic of young people. “But the friendship of the young seems to be based on pleasure, since they live in accord with feeling, and pursue especially what is pleasant to themselves and present at hand.” Here is the rub. Those kinds of friendships do not last very long. As soon as the friend is gone, that pleasure can be found with someone else. Or, to use the modern term, pleasure friendships are not very “deep.” Friendships between good people, whose purpose is often a mutual pursuit of the good (such as the good to be found in the life of the polis), have this characteristic: they last. Typically this is not the friendship of the young.

Armed with this understanding of friendship, we might return to our original question: Can Tom and Huck be friends? Presumably this question also has some bearing on the students’ own lives. Nevertheless it is a tough question to apply either to Tom Sawyer or to students. Tom and Huck, on our first meeting them, are having a conversation about curing warts with dead cats or with spunk water. Is that a case of utility or pleasure? Or might there be even some virtue in getting rid of “thousands” of warts? Further, young people (what we now call teenagers) are characters in the making. They are not as yet formed; they are serving an apprenticeship in humanity. So they can’t be said to be virtuous—not completely—before they have done anything, just as they cannot be considered citizens until they have voted and paid taxes. Further, most young people do not get together to discuss Plato; nor should they. Even Plato and Aristotle did not think young people should study philosophy.

This question is important since it causes us to reflect on the examples we can give students of the friendships they should long to have one day as well as the friendships they can attain right now. Once we know what friendship is, we cannot fail to realize the tradition of the West provides many examples of friendship in history and great literature: the Founding Fathers, the characters in Jane Austen novels, Henry V, to name a few. Our students should be required to see how important friendship was to these real statesmen or to these compelling characters and how, without friendship—without love—their ventures would have come to naught. At the same time, we must treasure those books (not really found among the ancient classics) that shed light on human beings in the making, the incipient efforts of young people to develop friendships based on virtue, that is, based on a good bigger than themselves. Recently, I wrote a book in which the protagonists (heroes, I would claim) are thirteen years old. I had to struggle with creating dialogue that was both plausible for adolescents and yet somehow aimed at times toward the good. This exercise made me realize how hard a task it is to offer good accounts of young heroes in the making and thus why we should treasure such classics as Tom Sawyer, To Kill a Mockingbird, Franklin’s Autobiography, and Churchill’s My Early Life. Nor are these books to be read and enjoyed only by children. A truly great children’s book should shed light on the whole scope of human life. Further, such books lead students to question whether they are on the right trajectory to do the good and to do the good—as they must—with other people whom they will call friends. The ancients and the Founding Fathers, you see, knew that friendship is about the most powerful force in the world. By the way, if you think Tom and Huck’s friendship ends with curing warts and trading ticks for lost teeth, read on.