Three Moral Fallacies
Fr. Patrick Reardon · March 17, 2014
Fr. Pat discusses three moral fallacies that corrupt the conscience.
Lent is a time of moral renewal. It is a compliment the Church pays to us every year, reminding us that we are moral beings. And the protection of the moral conscience is one of the highest responsibilities imposed upon us by the Gospel. Every age sees its attacks on the moral ideal, but ours, appears to me, is most insidious in this respect. Modern philosophy, in fact, hardly considers us subjects at all. Modern scientism, a brand-new philosophy by the way, never known before, (scientism: the endeavor to explain everything by scientific objective laws, physical laws, mathematical laws) strives for total objectivity. The conscience, my brothers and sisters, is an exercise in subjectivity. There’s just no way modern education, with this overriding scientific preoccupation, can even address the conscience. It is astounding to me to see how the ideals from the chemistry lab is now being applied in literature classes. The things taken out of physics now being applied to musicology. Art itself is subjected to the study of pixels.
I want to identify for you this morning three moral fallacies which I believe corrupt the conscience.
First there is a moral fallacy based on considerations of time. Morality is said to be tied to certain periods of historic maturity. I’ll give you an example. I will begin with an example from antiquity then take up a more recent example. Early in the second century the Emperor Trajan sent a letter to Pliny, the Roman governor in Pontus and Bithynia. Pliny had enquired what he should do with this new group called Christians, and Trajan answered that enquiry. For several reasons, some of them obvious, this letter is famous in Christian history. I’m only going to take one part of that letter this morning and comment on it.
Trajan instructs Pliny that Christians should not be punished on the strength of an anonymous accusation. He goes on to say Christians should not be punished unless they plead guilty. The accusation that you are a Christian is not sufficient to be punished! They ask if you are a Christian, and if you plead guilty, then you’re punished. A perfectly reasonable arrangement, I believe! But that’s not what I’m talking about. It was not enough, said Trajan, that some of us merely denounced. Why not? Because, said Trajan, “We don’t do that kind of thing anymore”. To do that is to be on the wrong side of history. That sort of behavior is out-of-date. It does not pertain to the present age, nec nostri saeculi est, it is not behavior for the present age. Therefore, to punish someone on the strength of a mere accusation is wrong. And why is it wrong? Because it’s anachronistic, it’s out-of-date! Pliny was persuaded that his was a new and enlightened age. It was not like the old days with people like Caligula or Nero. This is an enlightened age! The world has entered a time of moral maturity. Whatever went before was simply preparation for the present period, this period of an enlightened moral sense. This is the new epoch, Trajan proclaims, We know better now. The word Trajan uses is saeculum, perhaps best translated in context is epoch or era.
It’s worth observing that this word appears on the back of the Great Seal of the United States, and therefore, on the back of the American dollar bill. I didn’t bring any visual help this morning but I’m suspecting that some of you have, on occasion, actually looked at a dollar bill. Turn it on the back and look to the left-hand side and there is a pyramid with an eye, and underneath that pyramid with an eye you read the inscription novus ordo seclorum, a new order of the ages. It’s almost an American claim with a new order of the ages. The United States is the new order of the ages. We represent enlightenment. We represent progress. The men who voted to put that on there on the dollar bill, some of them owned slaves—new order of the ages. It proclaims that we are now living in a new order of time. All that went before was the mere preparation for the present age. Things are right now as they should be because we’ve matured! You know, American seem to be especially disposed to this illusion—this illusion—of privileged time. According to this illusion there can be no turning back the clock—I kind of wish there could because today we advanced it! Time has no reverse gear, we’re told. The moral order is so tied to the movement of time that the present age a saeculum is not bound by the moral standards of any earlier age. I have heard expressions of this persuasion pretty much every day of my life.
I was fourteen years old the first time that an adult told me that I was out-of-date, that I represented an anachronism. Think about that, saying that to a kid. I just barely got here, I’ve only been here fourteen years (laughs)! And now somebody who’s been in this world forty years is telling me I’m out-of-date! My last parish back in Pennsylvania, I had to deal with a moral problem in the parish. An older man and older woman were living together without benefit of sacrament. I think it was somewhat shocking to their grandparents, and had to bring this to their attention and tell them what the Law of God says. I was taking Holy Communion to another old lady in the parish, ninety-three years old. She says, I want to talk to you about so and so. I said, I can’t discuss that, it’s not really… we don’t trust that. She said, Well, I know why you won’t give them Communion. You know, Father Pat, you’re really out-of-age, you’re past your time—this is somebody ninety-three telling me this! (laughs) I’ve a fear, I don’t know, I’m just speculating that the day I was born the doctor helped me out of the womb, held me up at the ankles, gave me a slap, got me crying and turned to the nurse and said, You know, this kid’s really out-of-age! (laughs) He’s an anachronism.
During the ensuing years I’ve become very accustomed to this. I don’t take it personally because if they weren’t saying it me they’d be saying it to somebody else, but it’s perfectly ridiculous. It’s never bothered me. I’ve come to expect this comment. The very interesting philosopher in history José Ortega y Gasset writes of these “imaginary periods of plenitude.” The popular sentiment in these periods is convinced that history has arrived at a moral fullness when right and wrong are finally recognized for what they are. Such periods establish a cultural applause meter by way of providing moral norms. This is dangerous, it’s very dangerous. I’m afraid the danger sometimes is disguised because it’s sometimes so dreadfully amusing, I mean extremely amusing.
For instance, quite recently, when Mr Putin sent thirty-thousand armed troops into the Crimean Peninsula, world leaders rushed to accuse him of being, what? Anachronistic. They declared, and this is a direct quote from the Secretary of State that declared, “We don’t do things like that in the twenty-first century.” Direct quote. I have lost track of the occasions within the past two weeks when Mr Putin was said to be on the wrong side of history. What he did was immoral, these critics declare, because its achronistic invasion of other countries is not done anymore, it isn’t fashionable. Invasion is a thing of the past. History has declared it so.
I have nothing to say this morning about Mr Putin and the situation over in Ukraine. That’s a political question and I’m not going to deal with it. I have my views on that but I’m not going to share them with you, it would be a distraction from the Gospel. I would admit that it may be the case that what Mr Putin did was wrong. Maybe Mr Putin should not have done it. Maybe he offended God by doing it, but if that is the case, hypothetically, Mr Putin is offending God. If he has sinned by invading Crimea, it’s not because he is on the wrong side of history, but because he is on the wrong side of the moral law, and these are not the same thing.
Being on the right side of history has always been the philosophy of scoundrels. These people believe they represent progress. Being on the right side of history has always been the motto of tyrants and oppressors. For myself, I express today no personal judgment about Mr Putin or the invasion of Crimea. I remain strictly silent on this point today because it would be a distraction for you to hear my opinion in a place where I’m suppose to be preaching the Word of God. I insist on only one thing here this morning, namely, that the moral law is not tied to the alleged superiority of certain historical periods. To join these two things is a form of moral illusion.
My brothers and sisters, what is just has nothing to do with what is fashionable. Right and wrong, true and false, these things are not determined by an applause meter. For this reason, probably the most harmless thing you can say about anybody is that he is out-of-date, and to say something like that carries no moral force. And I do believe that what we need to hear in the contemporary world, when three-quarters of the human race goes to bed hungry every night, we need to hear a strict moral voice, not something as weak-wristed and limp-wristed as “on the wrong side of history.” That’s enough for point one.
Point two. There’s a moral fallacy, based on considerations of space or place. There’s a saying, we are right if we belong the right crowd. Now, if Americans are particularly prone to the moral fallacy of time, it’s perhaps the case that Orthodox Christians are prone to the fallacy of place. They assure themselves, after all, that they belong to the true church, which gives them a moral pinnacle from which to judge other people. This adherence to the true church, they seem to infer, justifies their passing judgment on everybody else, alas, even members of the true church! This is a very old problem.
What I’m talking about here was described by St. Gregory the Theologian back in the middle of the fourth century. Remember, that was a period of great doctrinal strife which followed the Council of Nicaea. For a long time, in fact, St. Gregory declined to be a pastor in the church because he could not endure the continuing strife among those who invoked the name of Christ. Here’s a direct quotation from St. Gregory explaining why he fled from Pontus—a powerful text:
All fear has been banished from souls. Shamelessness has taken its place. We all become pious simply because others are impious. We observe each other’s sins, not to bewail them, but to make them the subject of reproach. Not to heal them, but to aggravate them. And we excuse the evil in us by the evil in our neighbors.
Gregory asks, “Who would want to be a pastor of Christians who lived this way?” Now, this is St. Gregory the Theologian whom we remember all the time in every Divine Liturgy, or at least in the preparation of the Divine Liturgy. This is St. Gregory the Theologian! His description of his own time is vivid. Let me read it for you:
It’s like a battle of night, of the faint light of the moon when none can discern the faces of friends of foes, or like a sea battle on the surge with the driving winds, the boiling foam, the dashing waves and crashing vessels, with a thrust of poles and the pipes of bosuns, the groans of the fallen, while we make our voices heard above the din and, not knowing what to do and having a last new opportunity for showing our valor, we attack one another and fall by one another’s hands.
You know, what surprises me the most about St. Gregory’s description is that the Orthodox Christians of the fourth century were able to do of this evil without the benefit of the internet! (laughs) I confess that I have never in my life seen such rancor, personal insult or stark incivility ever before I joined the Orthodox Church. It is a source of absolute scandal the way Orthodox Christians treat one another, especially in various Orthodox blog-sites. Insults hurled in every direction, fights, strifes, and we’re supposed to be proclaiming the true faith and the true church. What kind of example do we give? If we really want to win America for the Orthodox faith a first good step would be to close down all of the Orthodox blog-sites. Any outsider coming into the sites is justified in concluding, These Orthodox, how they hate one another!
Now, all of this I insist, my brothers and sisters, is based on a great moral illusion. Membership of the true church compels a person to adopt a higher morality, not a lower one. The animosity I have seen in the Church would never be tolerated at a hairdressers or a local grocery store. During my three-quarters of a century in this earth I have never heard anyone insulted in a barbershop, and yet, such behavior is tolerated in our churches. Indeed, such behavior would not be tolerated in a prize-fight, in fact, St. Gregory makes that very point! Let me quote once again:
Wrestling or any other athletic contest is conducted only with certain established laws, and a man will be shouted down in disgrace and lose the victory if he breaks the rules laid down for the competition.
And shall someone contend for Christ in an un-Christ-like way? You see, beloved, we do not become righteous by denouncing the unrighteousness of others. We do not become righteous by our choice of what news channel to watch. None of us becomes a friend of God by denouncing someone else. Adherence to the true faith does not confer moral superiority. The true faith is not justified behavior that insults the true faith, and Christ is often dishonored by those who proclaim His name.
The third moral fallacy I want to speak about today is what I’ll call morality by chemistry. I have in mind a destructive appeal to neuroscience as a moral font. In part one of today’s sermon I was very much indebted to a modern philosopher of history José Ortega y Gasset. In point two I confess to my debt to St. Gregory the Theologian. In this third point I especially profited from the philosopher Roger Scruton especially in an article published not long ago in the New Atlantis. Moral consciousness is currently treated as a branch of neuroscience. It’s quite common, anyone who’s listened to a university lecturer in the last thirty years has heard it, moral science is now a branch of neuroscience. Judgments of right and wrong are regarded by the activities of chemistry. Indeed, the very notion of subjectivity must disappear in the face of the objectivity sought by science. So, the conscience is a function of our biochemistry. Moral freedom judged from the objectivity sought by science cannot exist. It cannot exist if everything in human experience is a product of biochemistry. Let me quote Roger Scruton:
Our behavior towards others is founded on a belief in freedom, in self-hood, in the knowledge that I am I and you are you, and that each of us is a center of free, responsible thought and action. Out of these beliefs arises the whole world of inter-personal responses, and it’s from the relations established between us that our own self-conception derives. It would seem to follow that we have an existential need to clarify the concepts of self, a free choice of responsibility and the rest if we are to have a clear conception of what we are, and no amount of neuroscience is going to help us clarity these concepts.
Each of us, my beloved, is a moral being. We’re made in God’s image and likeness, and the freedom that’s conferred upon us is a reflection of the freedom of God. Our moral sense does not depend on being fashionable. Our moral sense must not be obscured by an impression but spiritual and theological maturity. Our moral sense is not determined by chemistry. All of these fallacies are simply forms of escape from the moral responsibility we have in the sight of God.
John the Baptist stands here all the time, constantly in the Church, and he’s always saying the same thing, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Amen.