Saturday, July 30, 2011

GKC, Liberal Toleration, and the FLDS

A serious political ideology, at least as held by sophisticated supporters, is a complicated set of ideas. But an ideology also has a sort of sketch version seen by both supporters and critics as outlining, in simplified form, its essential nature. One part of the sketch version of modern liberalism is tolerance of cultural diversity, sometimes put as moral relativism. We would not want to put our grandparents on an ice floe and shove them out to sea, but if that is how  Inuit deal with the problems of their society, who are we to object? It is not as if we have some proof that our values are right and theirs are wrong.

The best critique of this position I have come across, from a psychological more than a philosophical point of view, is one of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, "The Chief Mourner of Marne." Readers who would prefer to read it themselves without spoilers from me should do so now.

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The story centers on James and Maurice, cousins, close friends, almost brothers. Maurice dies, supposedly of a chill caught at the seaside, and James is so afflicted by his death that he becomes a sort of hermit, unwilling to meet even with past friends, encouraged by "the priests" in a sort of religious melancholia.

As the story continues, Father Brown succeeds in getting from an eye witness a more plausible version of the story. Maurice did not die of a chill. The two men became rivals in love, fought a duel,  and James killed his best friend and has mourned him ever since. 

The response of  a friend of the woman both men were in love with:

"You mean to leave him to this living death of moping and going mad in a ruin!" cried Lady Outram, in a voice that shook a little. "And all because he had the bad luck to shoot a man in a duel more than a quarter of a century ago. Is that what you call Christian charity."

"Yes," answered the priest stolidly, "that is what I call Christian charity."

"It's about all the Christian charity you'll ever get out of these priests," cried Cockspur bitterly. "That's their only idea of pardoning a poor fellow for a piece of folly; to wall him up alive and starve him to death with fasts and penances and pictures of hell-fire. And all because a bullet went wrong."

"Really, Father brown," said General Outram, "do you honestly think he deserves this? Is that your Christianity?"

"Surely the true Christianity," pleaded his wife more gently, is that which knows all and pardons all; the love that can remember—and forget."

And then we discover what really happened—and why the winner of the duel fled the country for years and then went into seclusion. 


The surviving cousin is not  James but Maurice. Knowing his friend was the better shot, he dropped to the ground just before James fired. James, struck with remorse, ran over to his fallen cousin, who shot him dead. Not a duel but cold blooded murder. 

"Are you sure of this?" asked Sir John at last, in a thick voice.

"I am sure of it," said Father Brown, "and now I leave Maurice Mair, the present Marquis of Marne, to your Christian charity. You have told me something today about Christian charity. You seemed to me to give it almost too large a place; but how fortunate it is for poor sinners like this man that you err so much on the side of mercy, and are ready to be reconciled to all mankind."

"Hang it all," exploded the general; "if you think I’m going to be reconciled to a filthy viper like that, I tell you I wouldn’t say a word to save him from hell. I said I could pardon a regular decent duel, but of all the treacherous assassins——"

"He ought to be lynched," cried Cockspur excitedly. "He ought to burn alive like a nigger in the States. And if there is such a thing as burning for ever, he jolly well——"

"I wouldn’t touch him with a barge - pole myself," said Mallow.

"There is a limit to human charity," said Lady Outram, trembling all over.

"There is," said Father Brown dryly; "and that is the real difference between human charity and Christian charity. You must forgive me if I was not altogether crushed by your contempt for my uncharitableness today; or by the lectures you read me about pardon for every sinner. For it seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions. So you tolerate a conventional duel, just as you tolerate a conventional divorce. You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven."

"But, hang it all," cried Mallow, "you don’t expect us to be able to pardon a vile thing like this?"

"No," said the priest; "but we have to be able to pardon it."

Which brings us back to moral relativism and the FLDS. What Warren Jeffs is charged with was normal and acceptable behavior in a society, Old Testament Judaism, a great deal closer to ours than the Inuit. It remained accepted throughout the diaspora until, if I remember correctly, about a thousand years ago. It remained accepted in parts of the diaspora, North African and Arabic Jewish communities, up until modern times. 

When the Israeli rabbis decided to raise the age of consent from twelve and a half to something more in tune with modern views, their justification was the claim that early pregnancy was more dangerous in the 20th century than it had been two thousand years earlier, a factual claim it is difficult to imagine anyone taking seriously, given the medical progress over the intervening interval.

I have yet to see  commentary by anyone identifying himself as a liberal defending Jeffs, or the FLDS more generally, on grounds of moral relativism. As Chesterton points out, it is easy to forgive people for doing things you don't really disapprove of. 

Harder when you do.

To be fair, what I am criticizing is the sketch version of liberalism. No doubt someone holding a more detailed and sophisticated version could come up with a justification for making and enforcing the laws that the FLDS is accused of breaking. Making such as a justification consistent with the rhetoric of moral relativism might be a more difficult project.

[I should probably add, to avoid any possible confusion, that I am an atheist not a Catholic. That does not prevent me from admiring Chesterton's writing, including his sometimes brilliant defenses of his religious views.]


Alan said...

I don't know about western Jews, but marriage at age 12 was still acceptable in the United States into the 20th century, and in many parts of the world to this day.

Some conservatives even remember this. The question of arranged marriages at this age is certainly worthy of concern, but I can't help but notice that progressives deny agency to anyone under the age of 18, which is just as bad in its way as a forced marriage. It's just a question of who gets to be the master.

Tsunami said...

Thanks, Mr. Friedman, for a very informative post! I always love Chesterton references, and that is one of my own favorites as well.

It also draws attention to a problem which has been, I think, perennial since Aquinas and further: if, in fact, political approbation or censure requires some kind of moral objectivity to be adopted by the populace generally, by what basis can the American populace or government disapprove of anything aside from, perhaps, very general censures of "murder", never well defined, and certain others of the Ten Commandments?

Most Catholic thinkers, certainly, and many Protestants will agree that the moral law is in a strong sense natural, and that one needn't have faith to see its truth; this was the foundation of jurisprudence in pre-modern judicial practice, before logical positivism came into vogue. It still is that foundation, in some sense or another. But if asked about it many judges will repudiate conceptions of "nature" entirely, especially on contested issues like gay marriage and abortion, usually based on some variation of the relativist "argument". So there's a bit of judicial schizophrenia there.

Lee Kelly said...

Relativism (both moral and epistemological) is what I call an "objective dogma." Despite presenting itself as the epitome of scepticism and tolerance, it actually provides a one-size-fits-all way to deflect any and all criticism. Its effect is to make each and every position impenetrable to argument, "stronger than diamond and thoroughly encasing the content." In particular, the unconscious presuppositions of the relativist become locked in place, amenable only by caprice.

The relativist, despite their sceptical attitude, becomes as impervious to criticism as the most committed theist. This is why I consider relativism an objective dogma; its dogmatic character does not depend on the feelings or attitudes of the relativist, but rather on the logical structure of relativism itself.

Here is more on objective dogmas:

Randall Parker said...

Great analysis. Enjoyed the Chesterton excerpt too. I'll add him to my long term reading list.

My short take on polygamy: It seems it would undermine a high trust and high social capital society. Since we have enough forces arrayed against such a society I do not want to allow any more changes in the name of freedom that will further undermine it.

But I'm not a liberal.

Anonymous said...

I think most of the self-identified liberals I know would be pretty surprised to hear that liberalism, whether a sketch version or not, includes moral relativism. But then, I haven't asked them. Is this something you've heard from actual liberals?

Andrew said...

Agree with anonymous. You're sketching out some imaginary version of a "liberal" when the reality is far more complex.

"Moral relativism" isn't absolute.

And the American version of "liberal" is far more complex as it spans millions of people of varying backgrounds, opinions and priority.