A Million Flies Can't Be Wrong
by Ryan McMaken
Rarely in recent history has the intellectual bankruptcy of the American pundit class been put on display so comprehensively as lately in the savage attacks on the Catholic Church. Such attacks have exposed the utter inability to deal with arguments on their own terms rather than rely on shallow appeals to popular sentiment. As we shall see, these shallow kinds of attacks are not just a danger to the faithful, but to all who look for moral laws and societies based on human nature and natural rights.
While most of the attacks regarding the Catholic Church begin (appropriately) with a discussion of the news-worthy sexual abuse cases popping up in the more liberal diocese of the nation, they quickly degenerate, however, into a call for the end of the Church as we know it — that is, an end to the institution founded on twenty centuries of immutable Tradition — and the creation of a new Church founded on nothing but democratic sentimental nonsense. The argument goes something like this: Everyone knows that women should do everything that men do, and everyone knows that celibacy causes "repression" and that our irrepressible sexual desires must be allowed to run free. Everyone also knows that being expected to live with one spouse for the rest of your life is impossible. It must be true because we can all agree.
Such anemic appeals to emotion are known as the argumentum ad populum fallacy which is just par for the course in a democratic system. Policy issues deserve no logical discussion because all that really matters is the "will of the people." Everything else be damned.
It has become quite clear that those who claim that the need to ordain women or that the foolishness of arguments against artificial contraception are so obvious as to not need discussion have no interest in arguing these issues on their own terms. Not in a single article on the matter in the popular media has anyone bothered to quote Pope Paul VI's encyclical on contraception or Pope John Paul II's encyclical on the ordination of women. Why discuss them if everyone knows they are false? For good measure, they also always throw in an appeal to authority (an even weaker kind of argument) by implying that all intelligent and educated people hate the Church's teachings as well. At times like these I think back to my high school math teacher who when encountering a class unified behind an incorrect answer would declare, "manure must taste great 'cause a million flies can't be wrong."
If you've made it this far, you might be wondering what, if anything, this has to do with secular justice and moral lawmaking. Well, the way the Church is being savagely attacked simply helps to highlight the kind of argumentation we are forced to endure on a daily basis from the self-styled philosopher kings in the news media. It further illustrates that as long as government relies on a popularity-based system of law, it can never hope to reflect laws based on the natural order.
In order to be in congruence with the natural law tradition, the Church must only draw conclusions that can be logically reached from its basic assumptions. This fact prevents the Church from tossing unpopular doctrines in favor of more popular ones. While one may have serious disagreement with the basic assumptions of the Church's arguments, one cannot hope to seriously criticize the arguments without engaging them on their own terms.
This was the same problem the great libertarian Murray Rothbard encountered when writing and defending his work on moral lawmaking, The Ethics of Liberty. Rothbard criticized his mentor, Ludwig von Mises, for relying on a utilitarian ethic as a defense of liberty through the free market. Rothbard did not see how attacks on liberty could be condemned as immoral if everyone agreed it was fine in spite of Mises' brilliant work on true liberalism and the economic benefits of the free market. Rothbard sought to construct a system that was bound not by a mutable utilitarian ethic, but by a moral code constructed in accordance with natural law and human nature. This system turned out to be one centered around the dignity and inviolability of the human body as the property and sovereign domain of the individual. No amount of popular will to the contrary could change this truth. The fact that John Rawls declared that "fairness" was something that everyone could agree was spiffy does not change the truth of self-ownership. That some live in grinding poverty does nothing to relieve agents of the law from preventing aggression against individuals and their property.
In this modern age of mass democracy and war propaganda, we are constantly told that the moral law and the individual doesn't matter. We are told that some innocents must suffer and/or die for the benefit of the state because matters of "national interest" are at stake. (Whether an actual need for the deaths of such innocents can be proven is never addressed.) Fortunately for the architects of such nonsense, the public buys it all out of impatience with the rigors of the moral law. The problem for the allies of the state is that when one relies on coherent philosophies of natural law instead of rank appeals to popular acclaim, one must be constrained by that law at all times. In other words, in a logical system of natural law, the ends do not justify the means. According to the Church, abortion is not justified even if it leads to some greater imagined utility in the future. According to Rothbard, bombing civilians in far away lands, or engaging in nuclear war, cannot be justified because it might lead to "democracy" or "peace" at some theoretical time on the future.
Like the Church's philosophy, few have ever tried to engage Rothbard's philosophy on its own grounds. It is attacked simply as "extreme" or as being incompatible with the realities of modern sentiment. In most cases, this is due to intellectual laziness. Since most people believe the contrary, the rigorous arguments of a Rothbard on government or a Pope on Christian morality can simply be dismissed as unrealistic. Such an attitude is neither honest nor is it virtuous. If the immorality of state-sponsored coercion is a truth, then it should be defended and reiterated time and time again as any other truth must be. And, if it is to be attacked, it must be attacked on its merits and weakness, and not on its popularity. Over the centuries, the Catholic Church has learned this lesson on matters of moral theology. If libertarians really hold the moral high ground (as many of us feel we do), then we must defend the truth of it and not be phased by flippant dismissals and appeals to "conventional wisdom" as substitutes for actual argument.
Sure, there are times when small victories must be accepted in place of large ones, but the truth must never be abandoned, no matter how few people happen to subscribe to it.
May 13, 2002
Copyright 2002 LewRockwell.com