Monday, December 9, 2013

Moral Intuitions and the Catholic Worldview

Today I've found myself thinking about the idea of moral intuitions, of what it is natural (I refuse to use inverted commas there) for a person to feel and what may be culturally conditioned.

My concern in this post is not to defend the most controversial, counter-cultural and supposedly anti-liberal beliefs of traditional Christian morality. It is rather to defend the notion that these beliefs are moral intuitions rather than prejudices, and that there is nothing wrong with holding them as moral intuitions-- for instance, not being able to give an explanation for holding them, offhand.

A widespread assumption in the liberal West is that traditional Catholic (and Christian) morality, at least insofar as it touches on contentious issues, either results from indoctrination, or from some kind of repression or pathology. It is a symptom of something or other-- a kink.

A concern for modesty in dress, for instance, is seen as being a sexual hang-up.

Or an adherence to dogma is seen as stemming from a deep need for authority-- perhaps the dogmatist is suffering from "the authoritarian personality" as analysed by Theodor Adorno.

Please understand that, when I suggest that when Western liberals (meaning most Westerners) assume that Catholic morality is based upon irrationalities and psychological complexes, I don't mean that this is a theory they have developed and dwelt upon. Many, indeed, have done just that. But mostly, this is simply an assumption, a received idea that nobody thinks about all that much because it's so ingrained.

The assumption is that it's not natural for somebody to disapprove of abortion, or euthanasia, or homosexual behavior, or masturbation, or divorce, or embryonic stem cell research, unless something is "eating" that person.

The implication is that such a person has to "work through their issues" in order to stop thinking like this. They need to get rid of their bitterness, or their anger, or their fear, or their daddy issues, or their mother issues, or some other irrational motive.

A good example of this is the movie V for Vendetta. This was a good movie-- I saw it three times in the cinema-- but the dystopian future it conjured was the most preposterous farrago imaginable. In this movie, Britain in the near future is ruled by a dictatorship that is like every student radical's fevered fantasy of the evil right-- militaristic, homophobic, theocratic, prejudiced in every way imaginable.

Perhaps the most ridiculous element is that a Church of England bishop (who also happens to be a practicing paedophile) is a tool of the regime. Now, there are many faults I could find with the Church of England, but it's downright barmy to paint it as fascistic, even in a dystopian fantasy. If you wanted to caricature the C of E, it would be much fairer to caricature it as a haven of anarchists and left-wing radicals.

In another scene, we learn that homosexuals are being imprisoned and tortured and executed by these Anglican totalitarians. One murdered lesbian leaves this poignant note, which the heroine of the movie finds and reads:

It was at school that I met my first girlfriend, her name was Sara....I thought we would love each other forever...I remember our teacher telling us that it was an adolescent phase people outgrew. Sarah did, I didn't....That year I came out to my parents...My father wouldn't look at me, he told me to go and never come back. My mother said nothing. But I had only told them the truth, was that so selfish?...I remember how different became dangerous. I still don't understand it, why they hate us so much.

So here we have a dystopia where the Anglican church is a pillar of a fascist regime that hunts down and murder homosexuals.

But in the real world, who is the aggressor, insofar as there is one? Who is the persecutor, insofar as there is one? Where are the Anglicans seeking out hapless gays and lesbians to torment? It would be much easier to find Christian bed and breakfast owners being sued by gay couples, or gay activists interrupting Anglican services, or Christian social workers being fired from their jobs for refusing to discard their traditional views of sexual morality. In other words, the film is a completely reversed vision of reality. A lie.

Now, you may say that V for Vendetta portrays a fictional fascist state, and fascist states have indeed persecuted and murdered homosexuals, and that Christian churches (though not the Catholic Church) have cooperated with fascist states. All that is true. But what is the point of making a dystopian fantasy that takes as its target Nazi Germany? If the story is to have any contemporary relevance, it has to paint a true (even if exaggerated) picture of contemporary dangers. V for Vendetta goes for easy targets and cheap swipes. It can't even be called caricature, since it doesn't even bear a caricature's relation to reality.

And the point of my post is that it's not alone in this. The prevailing ideologies in Western society seek to persuade us-- most effectively by nonchalant asides, and by the use of objective-sounding phrases like "reproductive rights", "marriage equality", and "the right to die"-- that a certain view of the world (which I am reluctant to call the "liberal" view) is natural, and that anyone who dissents from it is not just aberrant, but screwed-up-- probably someone harbouring secret perversions, or a nasty sadistic streak. Or maybe someone seeking revenge on the world, or someone who is sexually frustrated.

The implication of V for Vendetta is that, if you are screwed-up enough to be a totalitarian, you will also probably want to persecute homosexuals and you will also probably hate foreigners and you may well be more likely to be a paedophile. The entire check-list of supposed "right-wing" pathologies go together.

As someone once put it: 'Who can refute a sneer'? How do you disprove the implication that you must be all twisted up inside, given your beliefs?

All I can really do is argue from my own experience of my own mind.

I am as inclined to the "consensus view of reality" as anybody else. When I read about psychological experiments where subjects claim to see a dot moving because everybody else does, or who laugh at a joke that isn't a joke because everybody else laughs, not realising that the "everybody else" in the experiment are all stooges, I squirm. I squirm because I imagine I might have done the same.

Despite having a contrarian nature, I am far from immune to peer pressure. (After all, everyone can't be a contrarian about everything.) Sometimes I find myself fretting because I resemble, in some manner that may be trivial, a character in a movie or a book who is portrayed as being contemptible. I once felt crestfallen because I admitted to liking Waylon Jennings and I was told, by a country music fan, that Waylon Jennings was commercial, middle-of-the-road country music rather than serious country music.

And yet, despite this, all the bombardment of "liberal" propaganda that goes on all day, on television shows and in rock songs and in newspapers and even in ordinary conversation, simply doesn't touch me, or make me think for a moment that my traditional Christian morality might be wrong. I know that it's not wrong. I know it's not wrong as steadfastly as the murdered lesbian in V for Vendetta held onto her sense of self and truth in the fascist regime's prison.

Whenever I am lectured on the moral legitimacy of abortion or euthanasia, or any of the other sins I've mentioned, I feel like I'm being told that up is down, or that dry is wet, or that blue is red. The plurality of people telling me so, or the tone of voice in which they say it-- frustrated, scientific, pitying, disdainful, weary, contemptuous-- doesn't make any difference.

It's like being told that some daub on a massive canvas in the modern art section of a gallery is a work of genius. I don't believe it, no matter how many "experts" testify to it. I don't believe it even if they accuse me of philistinism, or narrow-mindedness, or not having a soul for not being able to see what they claim to see. I won't believe the daub is a work of genius, even if you mention the Nazi Party's hatred of modernist art, and imply that I must have Nazi tendencies myself. I think the Nazis were right about modernist art. Wrong about racial purity and anti-semitism, but right about modernist art.

It's not a work of genius. It's a daub. In the same way, there is no such thing as "the right to die". There is no such thing as "same-sex marriage".

Whenever people are accused of harbouring certain views because of a phobia, or a hatred, or a repression, it's standard for them to claim: "I don't hate anyone". I won't claim that. I'm not an angel, or (more's the pity) a saint. I struggle with hatred, and anger, and inferiority complexes, and all the other baggage of fallen humanity. There are times when I feel angry at those who are trying to push their view of the world upon me. There are times I do get angry at my ideological opposites and feel like lashing out at them.

But I don't feel like this all the time, and I do believe in traditional Christian morality all the time. I believe it when I'm angry and frustrated and bitter at the world. I believe it when I'm in a good mood-- perhaps in the glow after a good meal or a cathartic conversation, or the sentimental end to a feel-good movie. I believe it when I'm full of self-confidence and arrogance. I believe it when I'm full of self-doubt and guilt, and distrust of my own judgement and intelligence.

My beliefs regarding euthanasia etc. are not prejudices. They are moral intuitions. Nobody is obliged to agree with them simply because they are intuitions, and the case for Christian morality can't be made simply by appealing to intuition. It must be made by moral and philosophical and social reasoning.

But that is not to say that I am not permitted to announce, "That just seems wrong to me" without being accused of prejudice. The fact that my reaction to euthanasia etc. is visceral does not mean it is a prejudice or irrational, any more than a visceral reaction to slavery would prove the same.

I believe in Christian morality regardless of circumstances. To take an example-- I believe that suicide is wrong. Always wrong, and gravely wrong. But if I hear about a schoolchild who hangs herself because of bullying-- what do I feel? Anger at the child? Disgust at her choice? No, I feel a sense of impotent fury towards her bullies, and nothing but compassion and grief for the poor soul. I feel, as everyone must feel, that the culpability of the act has been radically diminished because of the circumstances, and because of the child's immaturity. But does it make the act of suicide, in itself, any less morally wrong? No, it doesn't.

If I hear about a young man who considers himself to be a woman and suffers acute distress if he is not treated as one-- do I feel disgust and contempt for him? Not at all. I feel sympathy for him. If I were to meet him, I might well play along with his fantasy, to avoid upsetting him. But will I agree to disregard my moral intuition by pretending sex is something we can, or indeed should wish to, change? No. Even if a hundred parliaments, a thousand judges, and a hundred thousand social scientists tell me I am mistaken, I will not do this.

And even if I were somehow forced to profess that a man could decide to be a woman, I would continue to believe otherwise in the inner sanctum of my soul-- not out of defiance, but simply out of moral intuition.

Nor do I think moral intuitions are worse for being intuitions, rather than principles arrived upon through a process of reason. Isn't it better to have a moral intuition that exploitation is evil, rather than having to be argued into this belief?

I did not understand the Church's position on artifical contraception until relatively recently. If natural family planning was OK, I thought, and if it was permissible to make love without the intention of also making children, what difference did artifical methods make? I failed to see the enormous moral consequences of definitively closing the marital act to procreation. I see it now-- loud and clear, to indulge in an Irish bull.

So I think Christians should wonder how the Christian moral intuitions can be transmitted and preserved through future generations, as intuitions rather than as moral arguments. Because if every new Christian convert has to do the spiritual work of learning to understand (and, more importantly, to feel) why abortion, euthanasia, suicide, contraception, sex change operations, and so forth, are morally wrong, then the Faith (and, incidentally, civilization) is fighting that much more of an uphill battle.


  1. An honest and open post, M. I wonder if the thought-police of tolerance would appreciate your right to hold such views?

  2. Well, we know for a fact that at least some of them-- and a very powerful and vocal faction-- do not appreciate anyone's right to hold such views, and are willing to agitate and prosecute to stop them from expressing them.

  3. You liked V for Vendetta? I thought the film was awful. Aside from the pathetic role reversal the film villains weren't even consistent throughout. Near the end one of the agents shoots a girl for wearing a mask, yet when he is surrounded by a mob of angry people he never thinks to defend himself. The end of the film really made no sense. If the army are so brutal then why don't they shoot the masked protesters as they climb over the fence and walk right through the soldiers? The idea was that the communications were severed, but if the army was so bad then they would have opened fire then and there.

    Some things I would find it hard to argue with people over - without ever really forsaking what is right - but other things like transsexuality I have no shame in attacking. I'm sorry for anyone who suffers such problems, but I won't tolerate their nonsense either.

  4. Well, I think the idea was that the regime was dastardly but the army itself was not necessarily so. But the problem with all these dystopias is that the Brutal Regime is always, like, really really horrible, and really really powerful, and in the end they are beaten by a ten-year-old boy and his pet squirrel, or something like that, and an inspiring speech about the power of the human spirit.

    But you know, I thought it was good on its own terms, if you looked past all the ideological nonsense. I thought the end was rousing. But I haven't seen it in a long time-- it hasn't really stood the test of time, in terms of my wanting to revisit it.