Escape Egalitarian Tyranny with Socratic Questioning

Last month I discussed how the assumptions and language of public life today, which are based on commercial and bureaucratic concerns, are biased against Catholics. To make matters worse, the all-pervasive electronic media, increasing reliance on commerce and bureaucracy in everyday affairs, and changes in the purposes of formal education, along with its radical expansion, mean that the same assumptions and language have come to pervade the whole of life.

That means trouble. For example, it means that natural theology and the idea of natural functioning, which arise from everyday happenings that haven’t been put into commercial, industrial, or bureaucratic form, have become less and less understandable. More and more aspects of life are viewed as intentional social constructions, with the result that people have come to think that papal authority is superstition, “banning gay marriage” and “denying the priesthood to women” are arbitrary, and belief in God as a knowable reality is an absurdity, like belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Further, those views can be backed with arguments that can seem impressive. For objective validity, a supporter might say, knowledge must be based on publicly repeatable observation and measurement; otherwise it is a matter of individual taste or opinion. It follows that almost nothing can be taken seriously for purposes of public discussion that can’t be dealt with scientifically or technologically. So physical objects and actual human preferences can be taken seriously, but not much else. Realities that are more complex, subtle, and hard to nail down are denied or confined to the private realm. To take them into account in public life, it is thought, would impose on everyone the private mythologies of some. How could that be right?

It can’t, not on a view that rejects higher goods and natural moral law in favor of the physical and demonstrable. On such a view value becomes a matter of subjective desire, and reason a matter of finding the most efficient way to achieve our goals, so that the point of politics and morality becomes giving everyone his preferences, as much and as equally as possible, consistent with the coherence, stability, and efficiency of the system. Egalitarian technocracy, which is rule by commerce and bureaucracy, comes to seem indisputably correct as a way of organizing social life.

How should Catholics respond to such a situation? In the past we might have appealed to tradition, common sense, and natural human feeling, but such things are now increasingly rejected as social prejudices and stereotypes that stand in the way of needed reforms. And in any case, hedonistic materialism has itself become a tradition that to many seems entirely commonsensical. So “you gotta be kidding” isn’t enough, at least not without a great deal of preparation. It can just as easily be turned against us. That means we have to go to basic principles, and we have to do so in a sound-bite world that considers itself vastly superior to everything that came before.

As I suggested in my previous column, we won’t be able to do any of that if we accept the language and assumptions of present-day public discussion, which define what is real in such a narrow way that basic moral, philosophical, and religious issues can’t be recognized. We need not do so, however, because there is a split between public assumptions and everyday experience that we can take advantage of to reach people, change minds, and ultimately transform the way life is talked about.

The view now dominant has important strengths, notably its association with modern science and technology, and its still closer association with modern techniques of social control like regulatory bureaucracy and various forms of propaganda. It also has very serious weaknesses. It tends toward decisive action that ignores important realities, because it has a strong preference for simple principles that translate directly into policy. (Consider, for example, the various campaigns to eradicate sex differences.) More basically, it takes a false view of man. It treats him as an isolated individual, when what we are and want depends on other people and the world of which we are part. It therefore follows from our nature that the good life cannot be simply a matter of choice but must involve cooperation with social roles and patterns, and with the overall nature of things.

The greatest deficiency of the view currently dominant is that it gives us no adequate way to evaluate goals. It makes individual preferences the source of value, and puts them all on the same level, leaving no room for thoughtful understanding of what is good. We are indeed guided by preferences, but we are also guided by reason and by aspiration toward what is good, beautiful, and true. The good life must satisfy us in all our dimensions, so it can’t be simply a matter of what’s wanted. We don’t simply want what we want, we want it as something that is right to want, that is part of an overall scheme of life worth aiming at. That is why hedonism is no fun, and preference satisfaction so unsatisfactory as an overall moral and political standard.

Since the dominant understanding of man and rational action is wrong, so is that of politics. Dealing with human life is an art, not a matter of organizational design and management. Our answers to basic questions necessarily determine how we try to live together, so there is no way to avoid the question of the highest good, of what it makes most sense to aim at. In any event, the dominant liberal view that makes politics a matter of organizing freedom and equality is self-defeating on its own terms. Experience shows that in the absence of a standard of human nature and what is good making those things ultimate goals leads to a pervasive system of control to keep people from oppressing each other. Since the system lacks the balancing principle that an understanding of human nature would provide, it expands without limit and becomes a new form of tyranny.

In a world that tries to immunize itself against concerns other than efficiency, equality, and preference satisfaction, Catholics need to circumvent the public discussion and restart it on a different footing. Saint Ambrose noted that God does not normally save his people through rational argumentation (“non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum”). Man is nonetheless a creature of reason, at least in part, and if we don’t deal with that side of him we’ll have problems. The obvious way to start, since we live in a world in which well-paid sophists have supplanted traditional authorities, is to do what Socrates did in a similar setting: ask pointed questions that are hard to get rid of because they go to the heart of how people live. For example:

• How should we live?

• If we choose a way of life, is it possible to be wrong?

• If we want the right to choose, do we want choice for its own sake or something more definite?

• If we just want choice, and what’s chosen doesn’t matter, what’s the point? If we want something more definite, isn’t that thing the real concern?

• How much fun is fun? How free is freedom? How successful is success? Does equality make us equally happy? Don’t we need something other than those things to make sense of life and find it satisfying?

• Is marriage a foundation for a good life, or an add-on?

• Do men and women want the other to be just like themselves? Or do they look for something definite and distinct from each other?

• What is love? What makes it so important? Does it just hang there among the atoms and gamma rays that otherwise constitute the world? What does the world have to be like for it to matter so much?

And so on, for all the basic aspects of life on which the Church has something to say and the technological outlook does not. The questions will meet with dodges, but like Socrates we must expose the dodges as futile. To make serious progress we don’t need to persuade everyone: we just need to reach enough people to put in question basic issues now treated as settled. Until we do that, we will never stop losing badly.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared May 5, 2014 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • ForChristAlone

    Excellent piece.

    Peter Kreeft has produced a plethora of talks and written materials on the topic of modern man meeting Socrates. One that I’d highly recommend is entitled “What Would Socrates Do? The History of Moral Thought and Ethics” – talks available on CD.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Our basic difficulty was identified over half-a-century ago now, by Miss Anscombe in her 1958 paper, Modern Moral Philosophy: “In present-day philosophy an explanation is required how an unjust man is a bad man, or an unjust action a bad one; to give such an explanation belongs to ethics; but it cannot even be begun until we are equipped with a sound philosophy of psychology. For the proof that an unjust man is a bad man would require a positive account of justice as a “virtue.” This part of the subject-matter of ethics, is however, completely closed to us until we have an account of what type of characteristic a virtue is – a problem, not of ethics, but of conceptual analysis – and how it relates to the actions in which it is instanced: a matter which I think Aristotle did not succeed in really making clear.”

    We do not appear to have made much progress.

    • Is the basic problem failure really to make everything clear, or the habit of demanding more clarity than the subject seems to admit, and when it’s not delivered going to default assumptions that are hard to distinguish as a practical matter from mindless dogma?

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Prof Kalb

        You ask, “Is the basic problem failure really to make everything clear, or the habit of demanding more clarity than the subject seems to admit.”

        Any sort of natural law or virtue ethics nowadays has to overcome Hume’s contention that we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” But is Hume right? Miss Anscombe thought not.

        Thus, she says, “The terms “should” or “ought” or “needs” relate to good and bad: e.g. machinery needs oil, or should or ought to be oiled, in that running without oil is bad for it, or it runs badly without oil.” This is a promising start.

        “Certainly in the case of what the plant needs, the thought of a need will only affect action if you want the plant to flourish. Here, then, there is no necessary connection between what you can judge the plant “needs” and what you want. But, there is some sort of necessary connection between what you think you need, and what you want. The connection is a complicated one; it is possible not to want something that you judge you need. But, e.g., it is not possible never to want anything that you judge you need. This, however, is not a fact about the meaning of the word “to need,” but about the phenomenon of wanting. Hume’s reasoning, we might say, in effect, leads one to think it must be about the word “to need,” or “to be good for.”” Even better, but the implications need to be worked out and this, I would suggest, is what has not been done so far, Finnis notwithstanding.

        Apologetics must meet people where they are and we live in a deeply critical and analytical age.

        • BM

          For a detailed look at this issue, see Dr. Peter Simpson’s “Goodness and Nature”, which he kindly puts online for free download.

        • Oh, I agree clarity is good, and we should try to achieve it as much as possible. But perfect clarity isn’t possible on all issues we must deal with, so the demand for it should itself be criticized. We necessarily decide certain issues, like how to live, and demonstrative certainty is unavailable, so we always make do with something less. That was Pascal’s point.

        • michael susce

          So, according to Hume, we OUGHT to avoid deriving an ought from an is? One might consider reading Thomas Reid.

          • Michael Paterson-Seymour

            No, Hume’s argument is that an imperative cannot be derived from a statement in the indicative

            Miss Anscombe has a charming illustration, in which a follower of Hume addresses her greengrocer: “Truth consists in either relations of ideas, as that 20/- = £1, or matters of fact, as that I ordered potatoes, you supplied them, and you sent me a bill. So it doesn’t apply to such a proposition as that I owe you such-and-such a sum.””

            The leads to an interesting (and rather complicated) analysis. As she says, “The features of Hume’s philosophy which I have mentioned, like many other features of it, would incline me to think that Hume was a mere – brilliant – sophist; and his procedures are certainly sophistical. But I am forced, not to reverse, but to add to, this judgment by a peculiarity of Hume’s philosophizing: namely that although he reaches his conclusions – with which he is in love – by sophistical methods, his considerations constantly open up very deep and important problems. It is often the case that in the act of exhibiting the sophistry one finds oneself noticing matters which deserve a lot of exploring: the obvious stands in need of investigations as a result of the points that Hume pretends to have made…. hence he is a very profound and great philosopher, in spite of his sophistry.”

  • For the most part there is never an agreement even on the terms before a conversation starts. What faith, belief, choice, decision and dozens of other terms mean changes everything. The belief that people agree to common terms is false. Just ask people what profit means to them… or faith… and then pick up a dictionary.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein argues that it is impossible to devise some definition of “game” that includes everything that we call games, but excludes everything that we do not. However, we are all familiar (i.e. socially) with enough things that are games and enough things that are not games that we can categorize new activities as either games or not.

      A word need not have an essential core meaning that is, therefore, common to all uses of that word. We should, instead, travel with the word’s uses through “a complicated network of similarities, overlapping and criss-crossing.” We have to see how it functions in a specific social situation.

      Of course, meaning is not simply arbitrary. If I said, “I do not know whether what I am feeling is a pain, or something else,” I would be showing that I do not know how the word “pain” is used in English. No definition is needed to know that I am talking nonsense.

  • To the above list of essential questions I would add this one: “Who do you say Jesus is?” (cf. Matthew 16:15)

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  • hombre111

    A really good essay. As a liberal, I would be very comfortable with these questions. I read the article twice, searching for that most important word in Catholic social thinking, the Common Good. But it wasn’t there. The closest: “What we are and want depends on other people and the world we live in.” In my mind, the great weakness of the modern conservative is his individualism, and in his tendency to let a conservativism leaning more and more to the extreme right define his religious values. I don’t remember this kind of article in Crisis: Can a member of the Tea Party be a Christian?

    • It seems to me that the thing missing from public discussion is less the common good than the good. And it seems to me the contemporary left is at least as individualistic with respect to ultimate standards as the contemporary right.

      • hombre111

        Thanks. I would certainly agree when it comes to abortion. Again and again, I see the Left accuse the Right of trying to control women’s bodies. If I can, I point out that, for the Right, it is a matter of respect for the weakest of all human beings, the ultimate human rights issue.