In a recent piece published in Crisis I commented on the features of our public life that led the Supreme Court to assert that support for the natural definition of marriage is simply an attempt to harm people.
One reader wrote to say he found the piece both convincing and horrific. He noted that it attributed the Supreme Court decision to “a rationalization of society [that is] radically irrational at a meta-level of which the ruling class is unaware … the goal [of which] is a ‘self-contained system.’” That goal, he said, “is madness … [Justice] Kennedy’s statement [regarding opposition to same-sex marriage] is made from inside such a world. He sounds psychotic.” But given such a situation, the reader asked, how can sanity be restored?
My correspondent was right that the piece presented a bleak picture of public life today. The basic idea is that modern technocratic thought attempts to make reason and knowledge ever more rigorous, perspicuous, and oriented toward control. The result has been abolition of an overarching concept of an ordered and directed cosmos, and with it the possibility of understanding the ultimate meaning of anything. Under such circumstances truth eventually evaporates, since thought and language become more and more arbitrary, and what’s left is a battle of wills.
The obvious question such a picture presents, assuming its general accuracy, is whether there are influences that moderate how far the process and its effects can go.
On that point there are grounds for concern. Institutions like global markets and expert bureaucracies play a larger and larger role in social life today, and technocracy lines up with the interests of those who run them, because it’s all about running things in a clear and effective way. And once technocratic attitudes are established it becomes hard to appeal to anything else. They are based on stripped-down assumptions that everyone agrees on, like the reliability of the modern natural sciences, and people complain if you say other assumptions are also needed. If you appeal to natural law, for example, they say you’re trying to pass off prejudice as objective reality.
People who act in a public capacity feel called upon to act in accordance with principles that are publicly accepted as authoritative. That’s why Supreme Court justices and philosophy professors say the things they do: they want to speak and act in a way that is publicly supportable. The result, when public principles are technocratic, is that discussion loses its connection to objective goods and meanings. It bases itself either on will or on purely technical considerations, and public life becomes nihilistic.
The trend, then, is for technocratic tendencies to dominate the public sphere more and more completely and for public life to become ever more empty of truth and meaning. The system of public life that results will no doubt eventually stop functioning because of its intrinsic irrationality, but it’s not obvious how to get out of the hole we’re falling into short of general social collapse.
Nonetheless, the situation is complicated and unpredictable, so there’s no reason for despair or paralysis. Current thought may emphasize the distinction between public and private, and identify the public sphere with what is true and the private sphere with what is meaningful, but the separation of truth from meaning is at odds with natural inclinations, so people resist it. It is very difficult to view choice as a pure expression of arbitrary will and preference. We can’t live without making choices, and to make choices is to view some possibilities as better than others. Moral objectivity, the thought that some choices really are better than others and we can sometimes recognize the better ones, keeps creeping back in.
The effect is that we always recognize a world larger than ourselves that we share with others and includes not only atoms in space but real goods. It is very unlikely that Justice Kennedy applies nihilistic principles consistently to all aspect of his life, or even all aspects of his public activity. That’s one reason for all the propaganda, and for the abuse, ridicule, and outrage when someone deviates from public orthodoxy. They’re attempts to enforce an insupportable view that on some level is recognized as incoherent.
So there is a basic conflict in liberal society between explicit public principle and things people can’t help but know. Basic conflict means intrinsic instability, so it’s always possible the system could come unstuck and reconfigure. Its ideals could lose their grip on people, its principles could be rethought, and other ideals could arise to guide and organize thought. Our recognition of natural law may be confused, for example, and bad education may have confused it still more and made us think of it as irrational prejudice, but time, hard knocks, and attention to how things actually work could still show us its necessity, help us bring our understanding of it more into order, and lead us to accept its reality.
What conditions could cause that to happen we can’t say for sure, but lunacy doesn’t last forever. Our public life will no doubt reconfigure when it becomes altogether dysfunctional, but a social system is complex, dynamic, and unpredictable, so it could happen much sooner and quite unexpectedly. We can’t know the timing in advance any more than we can predict when a stock market bubble will burst.
In the meantime we should do what we can to provoke the collapse of the bubble, and build for whatever the future may hold. To do that we need a point of resistance to rally around, and the obvious point of resistance is the Church, which in principle is a universal institution that claims public authority and stands for an understanding of the world more adequate than the one now accepted as authoritative in public life. In more ways than one, extra ecclesiam nulla salus.
At a more abstract level, we need to reject technocracy. That means making ultimate reality our basic principle for understanding the world, rather than what we experience and how to satisfy our wants. The latter approach sounds hard-headed and practical, but we can’t treat it as basic. If we want our approach to be grounded, stable, and fruitful we must deal with the world as it is, so knowledge must be contemplative before it is practical. Man isn’t the measure, and ultimate reality comes first.
At the intellectual level that means paying attention to writers who fought free of the attitude toward knowledge that has led to technocracy, like Pascal, Newman, and Burke, and to earlier writers who start their thought with being rather than knowledge, like Aristotle and Aquinas. At a more personal and basic level, it means conversion, prayer, and contemplation. Ruthless practicality got us where we are today, and a radically different attitude is needed to get us out of it. Especially today, nothing is more useless than pragmatism, nothing more useful than right understanding.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is U.S. Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy.