First Things RSS Feed - John Haldane
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60A Tale of Two Cities—And of Two Churcheshttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/10/a-tale-of-two-citiesand-of-two-churches
Fri, 23 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
You will recall the lapidary opening of Dickens’s famous novel of London and Paris in the period of the French Revolution. Headed ‘Book I—Recalled to Life: Chapter I: The Period” it begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . .” For reasons that will quickly become clear, I want to present the full passage with every second line put in emphasis:
Why Scotland and Ireland Went Different Wayshttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/09/when-irish-ayes-werent-smiling
Fri, 26 Sep 2014 00:00:00 -0400 In St. Andrews on Thursday, September 18, I voted in the Scottish referendum and the following morning flew to Ireland to give a lecture in the International Centre for Newman Studies at University College Dublin. The subject was
Religion, Science and Philosophy
, but it was hardly possible not to begin with a few remarks about the previous day’s “No” to Scottish Independence vote (55.3 percent). Whatever the significance for those in Scotland, and whatever the interest across the world, for many politicians and commentators in Ireland this was a surprise and a disappointment.
]]>Scotland on the Eve of the Referendumhttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/09/reflections-on-scotland-on-the-eve-of-the-referendum
Fri, 05 Sep 2014 00:00:00 -0400 The Road to the Present
]]>A New Pope for a New Chapter in an Old Storyhttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2013/03/a-new-pope-for-a-new-chapter-in-an-old-story
Wed, 13 Mar 2013 17:54:00 -0400 The general expectation when the cardinals filed into the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday afternoon was that it was likely to be a long conclave. The assumption was that it would take some time for the various groupings”Italian/non-Italian; European/non-European; Northern/Southern, Western/Eastern hemispheres”to assess the relative scale of support for each, and to order and re-order their priorities.
]]>For Cardinal O’Brien, A Sad Endhttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2013/02/for-cardinal-obrien-a-sad-end
Tue, 26 Feb 2013 00:01:00 -0500 If it were done when tis done, then twere well, it were done quickly. So speaks Macbeth of the murder of the king, but the words might well be self-applied by someone who finds themselves in the situation faced by Cardinal OBrien, when he learned of the news stories reporting accusations against him of inappropriate behavior.
]]>A Tale of Two Thomaseshttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/12/a-tale-of-two-thomases
Sat, 01 Dec 2012 00:00:00 -0500 Consider this description of one of Americas Byways”: Traversing the lush hills and farmlands of southern Indiana, and paralleling the mighty Ohio River, this route marks a timeworn and history-rich corridor linking historic villages and farms through a picturesque landscape. Rock outcroppings, forested hills, caves, scenic waterways, and limestone bluffs will provide beautiful pictures for you to cherish. The hills are said to be lush, the waterways to be scenic, and the landscape picturesque. Absent the human eye and aesthetic sensibility, however, the world is not divided into scenes, picturesque or otherwise. It is the imagined frame of a painting and the positioning of features within it that makes a scene picturesque. Likewise, what counts as a hill is not determined by the science of topography; it is a matter settled in different ways, in different cultures, according to different interests.
From such considerations has developed the belief that every category is an expression of our subjectivity and thus that the belief in an objective reality over and above our descriptions is an illusion. This view comes in a variety of forms, but it is reasonable to gather them under the title antirealism. At the other extreme stands the belief that reality is a single, uniform, and integrated totality constituted independently of human beings. The cosmos is intrinsically objective: Everything could in principle be described without reference to how it looks to any creature. This second position is that of an uncompromising scientific realism.
Whether realism must reject points of view is another matter. Indeed, following the philosopher Thomas Nagel, I shall be maintaining that the human perspective is ineliminable but also that it can be accommodated within a larger transcendent realism. Realism and antirealism, as such, however, cannot be reconciled because they are universalistic or, as each might say of the other, they are imperialistic.
In the advanced Western world, the philosophical debate between them”between the idea of a single, uniform world independent of any observer and the idea of numberless subjective worlds brought into being by the observer”has become increasingly divisive, not only among philosophers and other academics but within educated society more generally and indeed within the minds of individuals. Beyond the metaphysical, it involves ethical and political issues and reflects the broad opposition between progressive liberals and social conservatives.
Conservatives feel that ancient values reflecting enduring features of human nature are being ignored or attacked by nihilists who think that the sovereign value to which everything is subject is the ability to live as one chooses. Liberals feel that we must fashion new principles appropriate to an enlightened understanding of human development and that conservatives are trying to impose long-outmoded values rooted in ignorance and superstition. They reject the idea that there is an existing moral order antecedent to human thought and written into the structure of reality. Values are to be made by humanity for humanity.
The combination of subjectivism and progressivism has long been prominent within cultural, social, and historical studies, and it has received occasional endorsement and even encouragement from some radical philosophers who have acquired a following outside their own discipline. A prominent example was the late Richard Rorty, who was explicit about forging a link between antirealism and liberalism, and eager to challenge what he regarded as the superstition of realism, be it metaphysical or moral. In one of his last publications,
An Ethics for Today
, published two years ago, he makes the link explicit and asks: Is the Church right that there is such a thing as the structure of human existence, which can serve as a moral reference point? Or, do we human beings have no moral obligations except helping one another satisfy our desires, thus achieving the greatest possible amount of happiness?
Defining superstition as the belief that any legitimate ideal must somehow be grounded in something already actual, something transcendent that sets this ideal before us, he claims that what the pope calls the structure of human existence is an example of such a transcendent entity:
]]>Against Erotic Entitlementshttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/04/against-erotic-entitlements
Sun, 01 Apr 2012 00:00:00 -0400 There is a general form of reasoning to which I shall give the name argumentum ad consummationem, which runs as follows. Major premise: Sexual attraction and love are determinants of human happiness and should be consummated where sincerely felt. Minor premise: You cannot choose to whom you are sexually attracted, and you cannot choose with whom you fall in love. Conclusion: Whether or not they are chosen, attraction and love should be consummated where sincerely felt. This simplistic syllogism (uncritical in its use of choice, love, sentiment, and sincerity) provides the rational foundation for a culture of often unrestrained, promiscuous, and unfaithful”yet indulgently sentimental”coupling. And it undergirds the push for same-sex marriage on both sides of the Atlantic.
While the United States faces a heated political contest over the definition of marriage, in England and Scotland all of the main political parties agree on the desirability of introducing same-sex marriage. The Conservative party, far from offering resistance, has become a principal advocate. Addressing his annual party conference, Prime Minister David Cameron said, I dont support gay marriage
being a Conservative. I support gay marriage
Im a Conservative. Opposition to same-sex marriage now typically is characterized as homophobic. This is lazy, and it commits the genetic fallacy by shifting from the rational
to the purported non-rational
Yet critics of homosexual unions overlook the extent to which our societies are addicted to sexualization and sentimentality and are inclined to excuse these factors in the case of heterosexuals. To call gays, lesbians, the transgendered, hermaphrodites, and whoever else fails to be straightforwardly heterosexual to a standard of chastity that has long since been generally abandoned is ridiculous and callous.
Yet those who condemn gays for their sexual immorality also often overlook or excuse heterosexual promiscuity, especially when validated by serial marriage among the rich and the conservative. The very foundation of popular sexual mores invites extension to the homosexual case, and that application is now being made aplenty.
We debate the meaning of marriage in the distinctively modern way that has come to prominence with the rise of liberal individualism: namely, with the language of equality and rights. Opposition to such thinking comes from traditional conservatives”who favor social duties over social claims”and from traditional socialists”who see links between the culture of rights and that of consumerism (with their shared, strident insistence on entitlement, recognition, and self-fulfillment).
There is a related way of thinking about society, one that shaped the founding cultures of Greece and Rome: namely, the morality and politics of the common good (
). In this perspective, institutions such as education, law, and marriage are grounded in human nature and focused on shared life. They are rooted in what joins humans in natural communities, not what separates them into sectional interest groups.
The case for education, for example, is not that children have an entitlement to schooling. Rather, education is a necessity for society and a benefit to be shared within it. Similarly, marriage exists for the sake of making and maintaining family life, the roots of which lie in natural complementarities: in male and female of the species joining together one-to-one, with the intention of creating another.
That other, borne of the fusion of his parents diverse identities, thereby extends a union of two to a community of several. Marriage recognizes, celebrates, and protects this basic source of human society. It is not a commodity to be bought or an entitlement to be claimed, and its meaning and value were understood long before the idea of rights was ever conceived of, and the escalatory contest over them ever begun.
Disconnecting marriage from the union of one male and one female leaves no principled reason to restrict it to couples. If same-sex, what of multi-partner marriage in hetro-, homo-, or bisexual combinations? And what of the emerging claims of incestuous siblings for marriage rights?
Same-sex advocates are inclined to treat the latter questions as rhetorical absurdities, but the evidence for posing them is not hard to find”and, Not surprisingly, it generally conforms to the
argumentum ad consummationem
pattern. The Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association says that it promotes legal, social, government, and institutional acceptance and support of polyamory, and advances the interests of the Canadian polyamorous community generally, adding that Were here because we have a right to live with the people we love.
There is also creeping advocacy of sibling marriage, particularly in northern European countries and in North America where it is an increasing topic of discussion within the GSA (genetic sexual attraction) movement. In 2002, the homosexual, wildly self-promotional, and self-confessedly depressive opinion columnist Johann Hari (later exposed as a plagiarist) published an article in the
headed Forbidden Love and subtitled Can sex between close relatives ever be acceptable?
Haris answer is at best uncertain, and the article ends with what appears to be a rhetorical question: In any case, we must acknowledge that, with the rise of contraception, we have succeeded in separating sex from reproduction. Another unashamed participant in incest discovered in a chatroom, calling herself daddysgirl, insisted: We would never have a baby, it would be all screwed up and wrong. I use the coil. So has a window opened for safe incest? And if so, is our visceral disgust just a remnant from a vanishing age?
So far, so narrowly heterosexual, perhaps because Hari is cognizant of the fact that his liberal readership might not yet be ready for homosexuality plus incest. In the investigation of Haris journalistic felonies, it emerged that he had been operating on the internet under the pseudonym David Rose. From that address in 2006 a narrative was sent with the subject heading How My Little Brother Learned to Be a Whore, in the body of which was a story about how one black teenager sodomizes and pimps his younger brother. Hari was forced to acknowledge the pseudonym and has never countered the allegation of authoring gay incest porn. All this while writing under his own name in a national newspaper inviting readers to consider whether incest might be morally acceptable.
We must acknowledge that if desire and love can take a man to his brother, or a woman to her sister, et cetera, then
argumentum ad consummationem
sets the foundation for incestuous marriage, as it does for polyamorous unions”just as it already has for same-sex unions. Indeed, contributors to polyamory and GSA forums frequently cite gay advances as precedent and inspiration.
The best case against same-sex marriage is a positive argument: for marriage as the cultural formulation of a natural union, one that needs to be protected from the twin distortions of shallow sentimentalism and animal lust. This is an argument from natural law and so connects to the significant documents of both American and Scottish law.
As Viscount Stair, Scotlands greatest jurist, wrote in the
Institutions of the Laws of Scotland
(1681): Obligations arising from voluntary engagement take their rule and substance from the will of man and may be framed and composed at his pleasure . . . but so cannot marriage, wherein it is not in the power of the parties, though of common consent to alter any substantial . . . marriage arises from the law of nature and it is given as the very example of the Natural law. Today, however, we are seeing that in the marketplace of sentimental and erotic entitlement, choice is sovereign and is no respecter of nature or custom.
John Haldane is professor of philosophy at the University of Saint Andrews.
]]>Hume’s Destructive Geniushttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/12/humes-destructive-genius
Thu, 01 Dec 2011 00:00:00 -0500 Recently recognized was the three-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Celebrations were international but focused especially on his native Edinburgh, where the university has been keen both to honor his presence as a student there, and to make recompense for the fact that in 1745 it rejected his application for a professorship in philosophy—as, in 1751, did Glasgow University, preferring to appoint Adam Smith. Ironically, Smith based his own theory of ethics on Hume’s ideas, and they became close friends, with Hume naming Smith to be his literary executor.