By JOHN YOUNG
We are witnessing today, particularly in the Western world, the wholesale destruction of moral values. It is not just that people have gone astray in the application of true principles, while still accepting the principles.
For instance, if I engage in some petty pilfering from my employer this doesn’t necessarily imply that I think stealing is moral. I may be sure that stealing is wrong, but kid myself that I’m not really stealing in this case — perhaps I tell myself the boss is underpaying me, so I’m entitled to make up the difference.
What we are confronted with in modern society is a radical rejection of basic moral principles. And these are rejected because the very nature of reality is questioned or denied. God’s existence, or at least His involvement, is dismissed: which means the world is left unexplained, with no fundamental reason why things should be this way rather than that. All is assumed to be due to blind evolution.
So fixed principles rooted in an intelligible natural order are dissolved into a flow of ever-changing phenomena. There is no such thing, for example, as human nature with fixed laws of behavior. It makes no sense, in this scenario, to speak of marriage as a permanent institution embedded in human nature, or to say that sexual pleasure is only morally good when conformed to an unchanging and unchangeable standard based in the very essence of man, or to insist that abortion or euthanasia is always morally wrong.
From this denial of fixed natures it follows that there may be many “genders,” not just male and female. (Notice that the word gender has largely supplanted the word sex. From being a grammatical term, comprising masculine, feminine, and neuter, it has became a substitute for the word sex. So the message is subtly conveyed that this is a matter of custom and convention. Even many realists with acute awareness of language manipulation have fallen into the trap of speaking in this way.)
With intelligibility abolished, rationality is replaced by feeling and fixity by flux. Tolerance becomes the keynote, for everyone has a right to choose as he pleases.
But then comes the paradox. If you oppose this alleged freedom, its proponents will denounce you for your intolerance. If you claim that homosexual acts are evil, you will be branded a homophobe. If you say the preborn baby has an inalienable right to life, you will be condemned as an enemy of women.
The causes of the present malaise are complex, but I want to glance at its erroneous philosophical underpinnings. The French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) had a vital part, although he certainly didn’t intend what followed. But his methodical skepticism, intended to be a tool in the rebuilding of philosophy from its foundations, resulted in widespread confusion among thinkers who lacked an understanding of the perennial philosophy endorsed by the Catholic Church. After Descartes things went from bad to worse.
A key figure was David Hume (1711-1776), who thought we can’t know anything beyond what our senses convey to us. When we form what we regard as universal principles, this is only because our experience hasn’t found any exceptions. We have no more insight into causes and effects than dogs or cats have.
Morality was seen by Hume as a matter of taste and sentiment, not something objective and independent of our feelings. He defined virtue as: “Whatever mental action or quality gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation”(An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, appendix one). He held the Epicurean belief that pleasure is the highest good. He states: “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” (A Treatise of Human Nature, book II, part 3, section 3).
Alleged proofs of God’s existence are invalid because our knowledge, for Hume, is confined to physical phenomena. He taught a pure phenomenalism: All we know is a stream of sensations and emotions and their further elaborations and combinations within us.
David Hume has had an enormous influence. So we find Bertrand Russell in the 20th century contending that “the difference between mind and matter is merely one of arrangement” (My Philosophical Development, p. 139).
In Europe in the 20th century, John-Paul Sartre fascinated many intellectuals with his atheistic existentialism. He argued that life has no meaning except such meaning as we choose to give it. There are no objective standards, no God from whom we can ask for help.
Today we have postmodernism, which exhibits a confusing variety of forms. In general it is skeptical about our capacity to attain truth. It denies that things have fixed natures and it asserts there are no firm grounds for saying we have a knowledge of the world.
Jacques Derrida, a leading figure in postmodernism, claims that words and ideas have meaning through their relation to other words and ideas, and these through relation to yet others, and the meanings are constantly shifting. We cannot attain a stable underlying reality upon which to ground our views.
The above paragraphs indicate briefly how false principles over the last few centuries have led to dangerous philosophies today. The effect has been to deprive the thinking of many people, especially the university educated, of any foundation in reality.
There’s no God; no objective meaning to the world (or if there is we can’t know it); no fixed moral principles; no permanent institutions such as marriage. All is assumed to be the result of blind evolution.
What is the solution? We must do our part to promote sanity, and an essential project here is the promotion of sound philosophy: the perennial philosophy whose greatest exponent is St Thomas Aquinas.
The very bankruptcy of so much modern thinking will surely bring a reaction — let us hope sooner rather than later. Similarly, as the deadly programs being pushed today are unmasked by their fruits, there is bound to be a revolt against them.
In the 18th century Immanuel Kant (who himself, despite his good intentions, shares some of the blame for the current confusion) was worried about the empiricism of Hume and the skepticism arising from it.
He wrote: “Whether with the terrible overthrow of the chief branches of knowledge, human reason will escape better, and will not rather become irrecoverably involved in this destruction of all knowledge, so that from the same principles a universal skepticism should follow (affecting, indeed, only the learned), this I will leave everyone to judge for himself” (Critique of Practical Reason, first part, book I, chapter 1, section 2).
Kant’s fears have been realized; and with the spread of education it affects all classes.
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(John Young is a graduate of the Aquinas Academy in Sydney, Australia, and has taught philosophy in four seminaries. His book The Scope of Philosophy was published by Gracewing Publishers in England in 2010. He has been a frequent contributor to The Wanderer on theological issues since 1977.)