By Tim Dunkin
In the previous installment of this essay, we saw that the decline of morality in America has been a contributing factor in leading us to where we are today. By rejecting the objective principles governing man’s behavior with God and his fellow man, we have opened ourselves up to a sort of “ethical anarchy” where anything goes if it can be justified, and this anarchy extends to the lawlessness that we now see in our government. Having turned away from both the Bible and the Constitution, our society and our government have opened the door for socialism and the replacement of the rule of law with the rule of bureaucrat and administrator. Concomitant with this turn from morality has been a turn from reason, which will be dealt with below.
The Decline of Reason
Previously, it was noted that this rejection of morality accompanied our culture’s turn from Scottish Common Sense philosophy to the emotionalistic and anti-reason philosophy of the Romantic movement. This is not surprising, since the essence of “common sense” is reason. Reason, as the Founders and those of their generation usually understood it, says that we, as individuals and as a society, are capable of determining ways of ordering both our individual lives and our joint existence together by principles that produce objective benefits. Common sense is basically the distillation of this type of reason. Common sense tells the average man what works and what does not. Common sense tells us, for instance, that working hard and saving your money will help you to have prosperity and freedom in the future, while blowing all your money on lottery tickets is a sure way to the poorhouse and debt slavery. When applied in the realm of politics, common sense generally leads to support for the type of system that our Founders – steeped as they were in the Common Sense of their day – envisioned and set into place when they established our system of government and our Constitution.
Morality is a key component to this common sense. Indeed, one could say that morality and reason go hand in hand. Without one, you don’t really have the other. As seen previously, morality is objective because it is established from biblical standards, rather than from the subjective, mercurial passions of men. God gave us biblical morality, among other reasons, as a way of regulating our interactions with each other. Hence, God simultaneously defined what was both religiously moral and civilly rational.
Through common sense, we can understand that these standards conform to “reason” as it is rightly defined. It is both “moral” and “reasonable” to act on the principle of the Golden Rule, for instance. It is both moral and reasonable not to steal from someone else, not to kill someone else if they aren’t threatening you, not to rail upon someone, and so forth. By refraining from such behaviors, peaceable and civil society is more easily maintained, which allows for prosperity to abound, wealth to be built, families to be strengthened, education to be obtained, and everything else which makes for a healthy civilization. Morality not only informed our relationship with God, individually and as a nation, but also served the public utility of maintaining order and peace in the social system. This connection can be inferred in Paul’s instructions to Titus,
“Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work….” (Titus 3:1)
While there are times when the Christian (as well as anyone else!) may need to disobey the commands of those above them when those commands would violate the injunctions of Scripture, in general, we are instructed to obey those in authority – which includes the government. This means respecting the rule of law, rather than using righteous indignation to make ourselves into a law unto ourselves. The reason for this, we are told, is that we may be “ready to every good work.” Whether for the spiritual purpose of being servants of God, or the civil purpose of being good and law-abiding citizens, we are to respect the rule of law, and to allow our impulses to be harnessed by morality and reason.
Therefore, by assaulting the twin pillars of American society – religion and reason – Romanticism, Transcendentalism, and the rest of the anti-Common Sense movement of the 19th century laid the groundwork for the increasing lawlessness, immorality, crime, and corruption that our nation saw in the 20th century, and continues to see today. When you reject reason and morality and objective standards, the only thing to fall back on is man’s own ideas and abilities – which leads to the “need” for big government, social engineering, etc.
At this point, we should note that reason and rationalism are not the same thing, though these terms are sometimes confused. Reason is rational, while rationalism, ironically, is not. Reason informs a person through a common sense understanding of what “works” and is beneficial in our interactions with the world. Rationalism, which is as much a philosophical approach as anything else, does not. Rationalism, in fact, rests on the foundation of materialism – the rejection of any supernatural realm and any power greater than man himself. While having originated in the Age of “Enlightenment” along with Scottish Common Sense, rationalism – with its attendant rejection of God and its exaltation of man – didn’t really blossom until the rise of Romanticism. Because Romanticism focused so much on subjectivity and personal intuition, it was the natural soil for a philosophy like rationalism that sought to overturn moral standards derived from religion, and to replace them with manmade, and often personal, principles of right and wrong. As we will see below, the fruits of Romanticism and man’s rationalism – based as they are on the rejection of moral standards imposed from above – have been the rejection of right reason and the increasing illogic of so much of what our society says and does.
For instance, you can see the divide between reasonable people and Romantic people in the way our government operates, and the political and economic assumptions made by the two major camps in the American political scene today: conservatives and leftists. The lack of morality in much of today’s public discourse, the proposed ideas, etc. underscores the lack of reason. Much of what passes as “intellectual” today seems tailor made to destroy, rather than strengthen, public and social solidity.
In the economic realm, this reality is readily apparent. To conservatives, it makes no sense whatsoever that, in a time of deep recession, you would trot out prosperity-destroying initiatives like “Cap and Trade”, massive debt-inducing, wealth redistributionary “stimulus” packages, and the like. To the conservative operating from the underlying premise of common sense and reason, the best way to “stimulate” the economy is for the government to engage in behavior that will encourage individual initiative and investment and enterprise – most specifically, by getting out of the way, by cutting taxes, by letting the productive class in our society have more freedom and more resources with which to produce. Loading up trillions of dollars in debt onto future generations and loading higher and higher taxes on today’s generation are understood, by the individual who operates from reason and common sense, to be very bad ideas that won’t do a thing to help generate prosperity and wealth.
Leftists, on the other hand, genuinely think that such ideas are balderdash – and this is because they operate from Romantic notions of “feeling” and emotion and the sense that “we have to help people.” Unfortunately, by “help people” they generally mean playing to their baser emotions like greed, envy, and resentment. Because they operate from a basis of emotional reaction, the leftist automatically assumes that it will produce some benefit to the poor to destroy the wealth and enterprise of the rich and the middle classes. Even though it won’t produce tangible assistance to the poor, it will make them “feel better” knowing that those who had more than they no longer do. The idea of freeing people to exercise individual initiative to better themselves is scoffed at and derided because the rich and the middle classes might benefit from that freedom too, which defeats the whole purpose of playing upon people’s resentment and using it as an emotional palliative to induce the underclasses to vote for and support the Left.
Common sense and reason also define conservative positions on social issues, as well. Take abortion, for example. Conservatives know that abortion is murder, and therefore is immoral. They know that, when you get right down to it, no argument that tries to draw some arbitrary line in the sand saying that before such-and-such a date, the “fetus” is not a “child” is rational. The growth and development of the child in the womb is a continuum – to put it into technology-speak, it is analog, not digital. There is no “switching on” point where the child suddenly becomes “alive” or “human” or “aware” where the moment before it was not. There is no instant anywhere between the moment that the first bicellular zygote comes into being and the point where the child is born that this being in the womb doesn’t possess humanity. To say that there exists one is simply to make an unprovable, nonsensical argument.
Yet, this is exactly the kind of claim that pro-abortionists make. In doing so, they don’t exercise rational argument, but wishful thinking. They want there to be a point at which the child is not “really” a child, so that they can destroy it, if need be, without being troubled by the moral dilemma of having committed murder. In nearly all cases, the reason for this destruction is simply due to the Romantic claims of individual desire – the child would be inconvenient to the mother’s (or, more likely, the father’s) lifestyle. The father doesn’t want to be burdened with possibly having to marry the mother and provide for the child. Thus, wanting is equated with reality, the emotional “felt-need” with what is right and proper and moral and rational. In a sense, abortion is the ultimate expression of the Romantic-era hyper-individualism that said that what you, personally, feel is what matters most.
When it comes to the question of illegal immigration and border security, conservatives understand that things like “the rule of law” and “national sovereignty” are important, that borders exist for a reason, and that it's important to know who is coming into our country and for what reason. Leftists, on the other hand, think all these things are “racist” and “unfair” and value the “feelings” of law-breakers over the good of the country. On environmental matters, conservatives are rightly skeptical of anthropogenic global warming, evaluating the actual facts as we have them, and concluding that there's nothing to warrant the hysteria. Leftists, operating from a starting point of fear and emotion, endlessly run around like Chicken Little, taking each computer-generated armageddon scenario as yet another reason to hyperventilate. The examples of this type of illogic from our government and political system could be elaborated without end. But I will spare you.
The same problem exists in our educational system. Again, there are so many areas that could be discussed that this essay would stretch to book length, so I will address a few issues of general interest to conservatives.
As boring and staid conservatives, we tend to think that education exists for two reasons: to impart to children the knowledge and skills that will enable them to successfully participate in the adult world, and to pass on to them the principles of civic duty, patriotism, and morality that will make them good citizens. As conservatives, we understand that learning to write is more important than learning to recycle, that math is more necessary than “self-esteem building,” and that it’s more essential for kids to learn the fundamentals of our own civilization than it is for them to learn how to worship Allah just like Muslims do, as school kids in California have to do.
Conservatives, operating from the basis of common sense, understand that “sex education” which teaches kids to wait until marriage is going to have a greater effect on teen pregnancy than will instructing them in the use of birth control and encouraging them to experiment. This is because conservatives understand where babies come from, while leftists, apparently, only understand how to terminate those babies should they come. Even in approaches and methodology, conservatives understand vital principles about building character, such as the need for children – especially boys – to learn in a structured and competitive environment. We know that it’s okay, and in fact it is healthy, for little boys to run races and play guns and compete against each other in games where you have winners and losers. We know that the Montessori approach of playing non-competitive musical chairs – you know, where everybody has a seat in the end – produces a society of effeminate men who are weaklings and unable to cope with the realities of a fallen world.
Leftists do not understand any of this. To the leftist, education is about imparting values, to be sure, but that’s just it – it imparts “values,” that catchall phrase that is so broad in scope as to be meaningless in fact. Children are encouraged to build self-esteem instead of knowledge. This goes right back to the Romanticism vs. Common Sense divide. Self-esteem involves, really, the subjection of objective truth and fact to personal intuition. The leftists in our educational establishment are pushing the self-esteem craze off onto our children in the public schools because this is a way to mold these children such that they will perceive the world around them not through the lenses of either objective fact or right and wrong. Rather, our children are being taught to perceive the world in terms of “how does this make me feel?” Because when people compete, there are some winners and some losers, competition is bad. Everybody should “feel” like a winner, even if they’re objectively not.
Facts are bad things, because a “fact” implies right or wrong. Either the sky is blue, or it isn’t. Either 2+2=4, or it doesn’t. Either raising taxes in a recession makes the economy get worse, or it doesn’t. There is no middle ground with facts. Facts, ultimately, rest on the same Common Sense basis of objectivity as does biblically-based morality. Some things are right, while some things are wrong, and the leftist, who wants desperately to “feel” good by never being told he or she is “wrong” wants no part of this. The consequences for our children are things like New Math, Values Exploration, Post-Modern Deconstruction, and the like. All are Romantic efforts to undermine objective truth and replace it with subjective feeling and intuitive, self-guided approaches to what seems right to you. While I realize that not every public school is infected with this trend, many are, and the purpose of the educrats in those schools is to produce a generation of Americans who think everything is relative, and that everything is about them and their perpetual, subjectively understood happiness.
This beings me to my third example of the loss of reason in our society: the adolescentization of American culture.
As Americans, we live in a society that glorifies perpetual, carefree youth. The purpose of much of our consumer product sector is to help people look and feel young again. The net effect of our popular culture – television, popular music, and the like – is to help people think young. The ancient Greeks believed that you weren't fully a man until you reached your fortieth year, until then you were just a young pup who was still wet behind the ears. Today, if your forty, you might as well be in the nursing home, or so our entertainment and popular culture would seem to say. There is an old saying that says that “youth is wasted on the young.” Today, we waste our money and lives on everything from gym memberships to plastic surgery trying to stay young. This trend started as far back as the 1920s and the full-blown internalization on the part of the American public of the Romantic trends that had arose in the previous century, when the Roaring Twenties helped to bring on this perpetual youth syndrome. Today, our entertainment, our advertisements, everything is geared towards appealing to our inner teenager.
Now please don't misunderstand, I don't have anything against young people. But all the same, it isn't healthy, as a society, to make adolescence the apex of our aspirations. There was a time when the teenage years were viewed as preparation for adulthood. In fact, throughout most of history, teenagers were generally considered to be, and treated as, slightly smaller adults. In the Middle Ages, most boys were already farming or apprenticing for a trade by the time kids today get their first iPhone. Yet now, we see the exact opposite. Instead of teenagers acting like little adults, we have ostensible adults trying to be overgrown teenagers. This is especially prevalent among the leftist segment of the Baby Boomer generation, you know the type - the ones with the bald heads and graying ponytails, still trying to return to their glory days of smoking pot and loving freely, just like they did at Woodstock.
The impulse for this adolescentization is thoroughly in the Romantic vein. As a whole, our youth today are both more individualistic and immature - and these go hand in hand. If there is anything that marks the modern American teenager or college student, it is a “Me” attitude that places personal happiness, fulfillment, and self-image above everything else. Again, I realize that this doesn't describe every young person today – I can think of many young people, including some of my own family members – to whom this doesn't apply. Nevertheless, this does describe a good segment of our population between the ages of 13 and 25. It is to this that the popular culture, entertainments, advertisements and the rest apply. These are designed to appeal to that “Me” attitude – to the detriment of things like the value of hard work, delayed gratification, and intellectual application. They are most manifestly not done with the intent of encouraging our youth to commit themselves to hard work, morality, intellectual activity, and preparation for adulthood. Instead, everything's about “Me.”
Further, this state of affairs is encouraged by the subjective “ethics” that have replaced objective morals. Many Americans, young and old alike, harbor the childish desire to be free from all restraints, and especially those that might be self-imposed through discipline and self-government. This is why so many of our young tend to be politically leftist (at least until they start having to support themselves via a paycheck). Leftist politics are the epitomé of feeling good. Once free of restrains like the Bible and the Constitution, it's easy to think that the right way to go is to support “free” national health care or more money for “anti-poverty” programs, since when you're young, you're probably not paying for any of this directly through taxes, and you get to feel good about yourself – you get a self-esteem boost by being “caring” and “compassionate” and “making a difference.”
And let's face it – self-esteem and fitting into the peer group are vitally important to the young in our society. Paradoxically, this desire to conform to peer groups is actually an outflowing of Romantic individualism. They conform to the way the peer group thinks and acts – as directed by the “cool” actors and performance artists and whatnot – because of the desire to gratify the individual desire to be accepted and thought highly of. The self-esteem cult that is inculcated in our public schools feeds into this.
These three areas are just a few of many I could point to that are symptoms of our nation's turn from right reason and morality. Because true morality and true reason both have the same Author and the same end, to reject one is to reject both, and to descend into the morass of subjectively-defined “values.” This is what we have done, and if we want to return our nation to where it ought to be, we must grasp once again that link between morality and reason. We cannot allow the rationalistic, atheistic philosophy of our day to deceive us into believing that morality and reason are necessarily antithetical, as so many foolishly think. Instead, we have to stand up and articulate once again the reasonable moral philosophy that guided our founders and the generations that came after them. Then, we have to work on addressing the specific areas and institutions – some political, but some much more deeply rooted than to be dealt with by a mere election or vote – that this Romantic, rationalistic, subjectivistic spirit of our age has infected. It may take a while, but as conservatives, we ought best to have a sense of historical proportion, and understand the need for patience and fortitude in defending and reinstituting our traditions.