Thursday, May 21, 2009

Are we too dumb for the natural law?

I've been thinking about this for a while. Humans seem to be immune to moral argument. This was occasioned by Barack Obama's speech ostensibly asking for dialogue on the issue of abortion. There will be no dialogue, of course, since he himself said that the differences are irreconcilable. They certainly appear to be. But why?

It is puzzling for pro-life people why there has been so little movement. Why don't people change their minds? The science is clear. Ethically, it seems obvious that if man is ever worth protecting under the law, he must be worth it in the womb, since there is no substantial change. If humans acquire dignity as a result of some power of reasoning, then we never acquire dignity at all. I've been over this before, but no one ever seems to be convinced.


Because humans are not entirely rational. We make decisions on the basis of desires and pleasures, and our desires and pleasures and intellect have been disordered by sin. We have trouble thinking clearly, especially when the res is something close to us. We are fallen, and can't think our way up.

But don't just take my word for it. Look at what Plato does in the Republic. He wants to talk about justice, but can't do it, because his audience is not ready. The common wisdom about justice is so faulty that any attempt to reach justice itself is doomed to failure. It is only after the soil is prepared over the whole book that the interlocutors can attempt the ascent out of the cave.

Look at what Aristotle does in the Nichomachean Ethics: he attempts to determine the nature of happiness, and decides that it is good rational activity. Then, he avoids talking about what kind of activity it is, rather spending much time speaking of virtues. But how can one speak of virtues without knowing what they are virtues for? It doesn't make sense, unless he was tailoring the discussion to the audience, only presenting contemplation as true happiness at the end, when presumably they would be more ready to hear it.

But we don't argue that way any more. We don't even argue. There will be no debate on abortion, only soundbites and caricatures. Given the limits of our attention span, how could we convince anyone else of anything important?

I need to think about this more.


Throwback said...

If the question starts with "Are we too dumb for . . .," the answer is always "Yes."

flap said...

But we don't argue that way any more. We don't even argue. Who is this "we?" I think this plays in directly to Hesburgh's previous quote.
"It's like a common place where people who disagree can get together, instead of throwing bricks at one another, they can discuss the problem and they can see different solutions to difficult problems and those solutions are going to come out of people from universities. They aren't going to come from people running around with signs," he (Hesburgh) said.

Ethically, it seems obvious that if man is ever worth protecting under the law, he must be worth it in the womb, since there is no substantial change.The bolded area begs the question. Can you not understand how a person can have a disagreement (not driven out of convinence)?

I appreciate your passion. Thanks for sharing your frustrations. However, claiming that Earthlings are too dumb to make the right choice doesn't seem to promote the truth.

Karl said...


What if earthlings are too dumb?

For "dumb" read "given to acting non-rationally."

This has been a perennial problem in human history. It's probably the case that we generally don't act in our own true interest. The Church calls it original sin.

It may not promote dialogue, but it could still be the case.

Was Plato wrong? Was it obvious what justice is, all along?

Karl said...

Oh, and I need to add:

the point of the post is not to say that communicating truth is impossible, or to put obstacles in its way. Rather, the point is to understand how arguments work, and how the ground must be tilled before the seed will grow.

Sorry for the farming metaphor, but consider even the evidence of the gospels: Jesus tells the disciples exactly what is going to happen, but they just don't get it. They constantly misunderstand him, insisting on understanding the Messiah as a military leader. Most of them flee the crucifixion. They needed to be prepared to receive the gospel, and weren't really able to do it until they received the Holy Spirit.

My point, which I'll try to make better in a later post, is that _grace_ is necessary for clear thinking, and that we have neglected that dimension, thus making our arguments largely fruitless.

Let me do it in math:

arguments + listener = 0

arguments + grace + listener = transformation!