One of the aphorisms attributed to Martin Luther in German folklore states that after a man falls off his horse on the left side, the next time he falls off it will be on the right side.

In his gracious reply to what was, I admit, a provocatively worded critique of his post on engineering in modernity, Jace Yarbrough asks me for my thoughts on this question:


To begin, I think modern engineering is not, by degrees, more morally confused than other professions, but that it’s morally confused in a way that most other profession aren’t, being utterly preoccupied with the material. For whatever reason (and I’d be interested to hear Mr. Forster’s thoughts on this), other disciplines can’t ignore the unseen as the standard engineering curriculum does (though not for lack of trying, e.g. materialism in philosophy). Imagine the fine arts without Sophocles’ Antigone or Handel’s Messiah , political science without Aquinas’s Summa , medicine without the Hippocratic Oath, mathematics without Pythagoras , or even economics without Marx .

Let’s take these points one at a time:

1) Yarbrough says he thinks engineering is not more morally disordered than other disciplines, but is disordered in a different way. The difference is one of kind, not degree. However, the whole argument of his original post was that one reason more students don’t choose engineering when selecting a profession (despite decades of frenetic attempts to recruit them) is “their humanity” (his words). He claims engineering is at a comparative disadvantage relative to other fields in recruiting students because of its moral disorder. It seems to me that this necessarily entails the claim that engineering is (on the relevant metric) “more” morally disordered than other fields. I’d be grateful if Yarbrough could explain how he reconciles his claim that engineering is at a comparative disadvantage in recruiting students due to its moral disorder with his claim that engineering is not “more” morally disordered than other disciplines.

2) The other disciplines cited by Yarbrough are in fact much more morally disordered than he gives them credit for, and his examples prove it. For the moment let me stick to my own discipline, because I know it best. As it happens, outside the Christian academic ghetto, almost no one in the discipline of political science has actually read any amount of Thomas Aquinas. The combined impact of all the classical Christian political thinkers on the mainstream of the discipline of political science today is indistinguishable from zero. In fact, almost no one in the specific subfield of political philosophy has read any Thomas Aquinas. I myself - a rather likely fellow to gravitate toward that kind of reading material - graduated summa cum laude with a degree in “political and social thought” from one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, and got a Ph.D. in political science with a concentration in political philosophy from another of the nation’s most prestigious universities, without ever reading one word of Thomas Aquinas . (I have done some catching up since then.) And I believe that experience is not just typical, but nearly universal.

If your response is that the political scientists inside the Christian ghetto have read Aquinas, and that should count for something, my reply is that there are also a lot of engineers - the vast majority, in my own experience - who don’t partake of the mindset Yarbrough is attacking, and that should count for something, too. I feel very highly confident that if you put all the engineers who have read The Abolition of Man in one side of the scale, and all the political scientists who have read any Aquinas on the other side of the scale, the engineers would outweigh the political scientists so drastically that the downward acceleration of that side of the scale would exceed the gravitational constant. (Ha! STEM humor!)

3) But there’s a more important point I’d actually rather stress. By definition, dualism is a two-way street. You can be dualistic by stressing the material at the expense of the spiritual, but you can also be dualistic by stressing the spiritual at the expense of the material. The problem in modernity is not exclusively with the former approach. The two are actually mutually reinforcing. People embrace one error because they’re overreacting to the opposite error, or sometimes - even worse - the people on the two ends will actually make common cause with each other in order to further their mutual hostility to those troublesome people in the middle who insist on integrating the two.

I admit you’d have a hard time arguing that the literary disciplines elevate the material as much as the scientific ones. But there are two ways to be a dualist. An inordinate veneration of aesthetic experience is as dualistic as an inordinate veneration of science. And once we look at things from that perspective, it seems obvious to me that moral disorder is pretty evenly spread across the disciplines, both in terms of degree and in terms of kind.

In light of the German aphorism cited above, I’d ask Yarbrough to consider whether he hasn’t overreacted against what he sees as inordinate veneration of the material by falling into an inordinate denegration of the material, as evidenced by his first post arguing that students’ “humanity” will tend to lead them away from the material professions, and also in the romanticized depiction of the humanities and social sciences in his second post.

blog comments powered by Disqus