Down the Ladder of Depravity

Shall we allow sharp dealing, or not?  That’s one of the questions that Cicero takes up in his wise and noble work, De officiis (On Moral Duties).  One side, represented by the philosopher Antipater, holds that you are in the clear so long as you don’t actually tell a lie about what you are selling.  Caveat emptor: it’s the buyer’s business to look into these things.  If you are selling a house that you know is structurally compromised, you needn’t say anything about that, unless the prospective buyer inquires.  But Cicero holds with the other side, represented by the Stoic, Panaetius.  To fail to tell the buyer of something which you know quite well concerns him is to sever the bond between men; it is to strike at the brotherhood of all human beings.  Therefore you are obligated to be candid and forthright.

Yet there’s another reason why you should be candid, and it opens up what moral philosophy is really about: the development of those habits that distinguish a virtuous person.  Cicero observes that nobody, not even thieves, actually likes to deal with people who are sly, underhand, and full of plots.  Even people who are not forthright do not want the reputation of a double-dealer.  If it were not for candor, hypocrisy itself would be to no effect.  We come to a quick answer to our question, not when we ask, “Is this action permissible?” but “Do I want to be known as the sort of person who behaves in this way?”

And make no doubt about it, the evil action strikes first and most keenly at the agent.  The knife turns back upon the mugger.  The trap snatches the trapper.  The engineer is hoist with his own petard.  We cannot make our beds in corruption and rise from them as white as snow.  Instead the evil will grow like a cancer and spread its tendrils about the rest of our moral lives.

I suppose we can construct a ladder of moral descent, thus.  Let stealing be the evil in question:

 

Stealing is wicked, and those who engage in it destroy themselves within.

Stealing is wrong.  (That’s one step below the fullness of moral vision.  It is detached from the drama of personal being.)

Stealing is impermissible.  (Another step down.  The claim is a weak negative, and is open to further question.)

Stealing is bad, but I am not really stealing.  (A tip-toeing refusal to examine one’s actions with frank honesty.)

Stealing is bad, but there are circumstances in my case that overrule the moral law.  (A rationalization, an excuse.)

Stealing is bad, and I know it, but I am going to do it anyway.  (Over the threshold of grave sin.)

Stealing is bad for other people, but it is good for me.  (Adding idolatry now to the theft.)

Stealing is not necessarily bad, because nobody can tell what is bad.  (The intellect itself has begun to collapse.)

Stealing is sometimes bad but sometimes good.  (The threshold of depravity.)

Stealing is good.  (Over the threshold.  The person who believes such a thing is bent: depraved.)

The man who says, “Stealing is good,” and who believes it and acts upon it, is ravaged with a moral disease.  Just as we see the effects of a dreadful cancer in sick organs scattered throughout the body, so moral depravity soils almost everything that the sufferer touches.  We can sometimes judge the evil of one act by noticing the other evils to which its proponents fall.  We won’t be surprised to find that the man who would rob you blind will also lie under oath, will break a promise, or will forge a signature.  If stealing someone’s property is fine, why not burn it down and have done with it?  Or if it is good and praiseworthy to steal from a man, why not gain all the glory and steal from a nation, or steal a nation itself?

Change the sin from theft to fornication or sodomy or abortion.  Go all the way down the ladder.  We are not now saying, “I know it is wrong to do the child-making thing outside of marriage, but there are special circumstances in my case.”  We are saying, “It is good, it is praiseworthy, it is a blessing, to fornicate.  Everyone should, as often as they can.”  What other evils will we find such people promoting?  What other organs will be shot through with cancer?

Here’s an example of that form of depravity.  It’s from a recent article, by a self-styled libertarian, on three methods for persuading a woman to abort the child you’ve begotten in her womb (boldface and asterisks mine):

Let’s face it: sexually active people have accidents.  S*** happens, that’s life. But we know that men have no reproductive rights in opting out of a being a parent.  With only two birth control options available to men (a condom and a vasectomy) the words you use to get your girl off the fence about having an abortion must be well thought out.  If you are not ready to be a father, the following arguments may help you convince a girl to get an abortion.  The first two methods I describe below have worked for me in separate instances for the two abortions I have paid for.  I know other guys who simply did not say the right things or trusted her to “make the right decision.”  Well, now they are stuck paying child support for children they barely see.

The first method is most applicable for a girl who is a long term booty call or girlfriend; basically, a girl who believes there is an emotional element to your sexual relationship.  For these situations I recommend the “Hail Mary,” a term referring to the end of an American football game when a team attempts a difficult play in a last ditch effort to win.

You need to bring up the subject of abortion with every ounce of verbal finesse and situation-appropriate sensitivity.  You should sound as sincere as possible and tell her that you want her to be the mother of your children one day, but that now is not the right time to start a family.  Explain [sic] you want to wait until you are further along in your career/life goals and you can afford to give your future family all the comforts of life you cannot deliver today.  Finally, explain [sic] if she has the abortion now, you will be able to plan your lives together so that everything is [sic] perfect.  Then, after she agrees and has the abortion, dump her.  It’s called a “hail mary” [sic] in part because of its difficulty to execute, so if you stay with her post-abortion and she becomes pregnant again you’re really f*****.

Where to begin?  Or why begin at all?  The writer recommends shameless lying.  Is that a surprise?  Isn’t fornication itself, even for the mildest of people, all tangled up in evasions, demurrals, half-promises, and lies?  The writer uses girls for his pleasure, but despises them.  They are his toys, and when you’re sick of a toy, you throw it away.  Is that a surprise?  And if the perfectly predictable result of the child-making thing occurs, and they make a child, his one thought is how to persuade her to throw it away, too.  Why not?  It is an accident (a piano falling upon your head from the tenth story of a tenement, that is an accident; begetting a child by the child-making thing is not), or it is s*** (which must be disposed of).  No care for her sorrow or her health; no care for the child; no moral qualms at all.

When we find someone loudly affirming the goodness of something wicked, our first step should not be to try to persuade him otherwise.  That would be to aim at but one tentacle of the cancer.  The treatment must reach much farther down to the roots.  But for the sake of everyone else within earshot, and for our own sanity, we should look to the nearby organs.  You defend pornography, do you?  Then be honest.  Do you not also defend legal prostitution?  Group sex, or any sexual escapades among consenting adults?  Polygamy, for those who want it?  Sexual experimentation among teenagers, so long as it makes a pretense of epidermal hygiene?  Easy divorce?  Abortion?

Jack Kevorkian did not only affirm the goodness of suicide.  He was himself a murderer.  His paintings were sufficient to lead any sane person to conclude that he was profoundly evil, or mentally deranged, or both—for evil is itself a derangement.  The media could have sunk him into the public’s contempt if they had only publicized those paintings, or probed the other cancerous organs in that man’s moral psyche.  They did not.  They chose instead to bracket the one cause, assisted suicide, and ignore everything else.  That plays into the devil’s hands.

We must not do so.

Anthony Esolen

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Anthony Esolen is Professor and Writer in Residence at Northeast Catholic College in Warner, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan Books, 2016); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); and Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018).

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