Category Archives: philosophy

My Life Among the PABGoos

I have traveled a long road from my Methodist childhood, into my atheist, Marxist radical youth, and into the world.  There I battled through a lifetime of real-world practicality comforted and cushioned by the shreds of an ideology that no longer worked or made real sense of anything.  And I end up here.

I now find myself on the doorstep of a return to the truths of my childhood belief, still unable to cross the threshold.  (Of course, I wonder just how fully I ever really believed back then.  Tolstoy wrote somewhere about his religious beliefs evaporating in an instant when his older brother, seeing him kneeling by his bed, asked “You don’t still pray, do you?”)

Anyway, here I am.  Like Chesterton, I wanted always to be in the vanguard of new thought, always ahead of my time, only to discover that I was 20 centuries behind the truth.

I now find that there are only two consistent philosophical standpoints that are not in serious conflict with the facts of human nature.  Two tenable views.

Either God made us with souls, with a purpose.  Or we exist as accidental results of random materialistic evolution.

If we have souls and a purpose, then morality is a possibility, a choice that our souls can make to be in conformity with our purpose.  If we are evolutionary accidents, then we have no souls, no real purpose, and morality is whatever works.  So real morality, with legitimate authority, becomes impossible.  Moral anarchy is the only possible outcome.

There is of course another, much cheerier world view, one which believes that People Are Basically Good (hence “PABGoo”).  PABGoos believe that all our problems are caused by bad political or economic systems, or not enough social science grants or psychotherapy or public education or whatever.  The fact that it is publicly refuted countless times a day in every city on the globe has not stopped PABGoo from becoming the default feel-good philosophy of our age..  Every time you hear John Lennon singing “Imagine” on a store Muzak system, you are being PABGooed. By now you probably don’t even notice.

Becoming a Political Agnostic

When I graduated from college, I was agnostic on the question of God and religion, and 100% certain about everything else.

This was especially so about politics and economics. “Social science” clearly bore the only real truths.   So I knew that only a selfish, evil, or stupid person could fail to see these plain truths.  I knew that humanity was a malleable object which we, the clever enlightened ones, could mold, shape, and adapt to our higher purpose.  Our purpose was whatever we decided it to be, so I felt no need to search for any purpose higher than my own preference.

And so, I set about building a better world – that is, one more suitable to my tastes and more likely to place a high value on someone like, say, me.

A lot has happened since then, and I have observed and thought about some of it.  I am now a believer in religion and a near-believer in God (more – much, much more – on this later). So it is no surprise that I have grown agnostic on all politics, economics, and virtually everything else I was once so certain about.  (Indeed, I find that “social science” may be the least scientific thing ever thought up. More later.)

In political debates, I see few issues on which I can whole-heartedly take sides. I see few politicians on whom I would comfortably confer even a small amount of power.

But I know with absolute certainty that men will always make themselves miserable in the absence of a legitimate and consistent system of morality.

What else do I know?

I know that men are driven to make themselves the center of as much of the world as possible. The will to power, egotism, libido dominandi, call it what you will.  It makes men selfish, uncaring, and aggressive.  This drive can be described in evolutionary terms as easily as in religious ones (All the great apes display conduct that is chillingly familiar in these terms.)

I know the institutions of our civilizations are all constructed to restrict these urges and to channel them toward positive results.  Family, religion, government, society of peers, all reward good behaviors, punish bad ones, and attempt to channel energies away from destruction.

I may know a few other things too.  But I don’t yet know the big thing, the thing I really want to know.  I’m still searching.  And I’m getting too old to be too casual about the search.

Moral Conversations

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that we have lost the language needed to discuss moral questions, and have thereby nearly lost the capacity even to think of them.

Reading him recently reminded me of several recent conversations I have experienced.

First Conversation:  Talking about problems with big corporations, a friend recounts his own experience with a utility. He was approached by a shady character who offered to “fix” his electric meter so that it would record only half of his actual usage.  He took the offer, and got half-price electricity for eight years.  Then the company, no doubt suspecting something, replaced the meter – but not before he had stolen a fair amount of power from them.  My friend recounted this in a pleasant and amusing narrative, and someone in our group remarked “Good for you,” in a “stick-it-to-the-man” tone.

My friend reacted sharply. “No. No!  It was wrong.  I never should have let that guy talk me into it.  I wish I’d never done it.” He was judging himself, in uncomfortable response to being applauded for his misdeed.   

The conversation paused awkwardly.  No one quite knew what to say, so someone changed the subject.

Second Conversation: A group is discussing movies they have seen.  When a particular movie is mentioned – an absolutely ordinary, mainstream comedy-drama – one friend reacts strongly.  “I am just so tired of movies about miserable families making each other suffer from their abuse of each other and their affairs.  I just don’t want to see any more of them.”

She was articulating her rejection of a culture that normalizes dysfunctional behavior.  We all agreed in a perfunctory way, but didn’t know what else to say.

Third Conversation: A man takes part with some friends in a weekly Trivia Contest at a local bar.  Sometimes they do well, sometimes not.  After another losing night in a long dry spell, the man bemoans his poor performance, saying how stupid he felt for not knowing some answers.  He talks of quitting the team.  Another team member responds “Oh, well.  It is humbling, and that’s not a bad thing.”

Instead of the customary words of locker-room inspiration (“We’ll lick’em next time”), she offered a moral reminder about pride.  It cheered the man, but he didn’t know how to respond, except to say “You’re right.  Thanks.”

In each case, when the conversation reached a moral point, there was an awkward pause, a fumbling for words, and a swift turn to other topics.

We have grown accustomed to the lack of moral consideration in our conversations with others.  But once you notice it, you start to find these absences everywhere.

As MacIntyre says, it is a kind of forgotten language – one we vaguely remember from long ago, but are too uncomfortable to use.  I think of those tales of frontier children abducted by Indians, and raised by them as tribe members.  When later returned to white society, they may remember some of English, but not enough to communicate effectively.  The language must be re-learned.

How, I wonder, will we re-learn the language of morality?