Anthony Esolen

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The stakes of our moral debates are high. But nobody seems to act as if they are, instead focusing on the irrelevant.


The curious unseriousness of all our moral debates

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I've come to believe that there is something fundamentally unserious these days about moral discussions.

Imagine two farmers, brothers working the same five hundred acres, arguing about whether to take a big chance on the next harvest, by sowing a lucrative crop in fields that are already worn thin in nutrients. Jim wants to do it, thinking that they may as well, since they're in debt and the only way to clear it will be to win big. John thinks that the risk isn't worth it, and that if they sow the usual crops while letting half of their fields lie fallow, they'll go deeper in debt for the coming year, but they'll stand a decent chance to clear things up the year after.

Nobody will say, “John, you must be gentle in addressing the gamblers,” or, “Jim, you are unwelcoming to the cautious.” We would all understand that the tone of the argument is not to the point. The stakes are high. A mistake could mean losing everything.

Or imagine your daughter is being pursued by two young men who want to marry her. One of them is good looking, well spoken, full of life, wealthy, and shiftless. He is unemployed. The other is ordinary looking, slow of speech, solid, of modest means, and absolutely trustworthy. He has not been unemployed since he was sixteen. She has had her head turned by the shiftless man, and you see her as in a car speeding along a mountain road with hairpin turns.

Some people may advise you to be chary of your criticism, because if you push too hard, you may push her right into the arms of the bad man. But not even they would tell you not to take the matter seriously. The stakes are high. Misery threatens on the horizon.

So why do we not view with the same sobriety such questions as now beset what remains of our culture? We wouldn't say to a child, “Each of us has his own opinion regarding whether it's good to eat the strange fruit on that tree, so go ahead and eat it if you like.” We wouldn’t say to someone about to drive a car recently repaired, “Each of us has his own opinion about the steering differential, and whether it will disengage at a high speed, but go ahead and try it out if you like.” That's because we take poison seriously, and cars careening over a guard rail. No one calls the cautious man a toxophobe. No one accuses him of prejudice against unknown berries, or alternative gear styles.

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Now, when a Christian or even a sensible pagan calls an action gravely evil, he is in addition making the same kind of claim as does someone who says, “That fruit is poisonous,” or “That gear will slip.” Granted, it cannot be “proved” by detached chemical or physical analysis. We must rely upon history, common sense, experience, and moral insight into the inner connections among the evil we now admit and the evil we will be led to admit to boot. The point is that to take that claim seriously is to admit the possibility that a mistake would be calamitous. The burden of proof is heavy, and lies upon those who argue for permissibility – you may eat the fruit, you may drive that car.

But far from shouldering that burden, those among us who argue for permissibility shrug it away. Among Christians this is inexplicable. Scripture continually warns us against judging in our own case; against taking the path that seems good to us. For the heart of man is deceitful from his youth – who can fathom it? Has not the last century given us proof of the depths to which man can deceive himself, and bring down upon the world the vengeance of heaven? The Christian must always be wary of errors in permissibility. The broad way leads to destruction. Evil is what it is regardless of what anyone says about it. It will destroy. If the secular man will not believe Jesus, that he who sins is a slave to sin, or John, that the wages of sin is death, let him turn to Plato or Thucydides or Cicero or Tacitus or Epictetus, and hear much the same thing in different words. 

What explains this nonchalance? Someone says that sodomy is all right, and that people who disagree are simply hateful. Well, the person who says, “That fruit is poisonous” may or may not be hateful; he may be filled with such love that he risks mockery or contempt. It is not to the point. Someone says that snuffing out the life you have conceived is all right, and that people who disagree simply want to bind the lives of women. Well, the person who says, “That gear will slip” may or may not hate the mechanic who put it there, may or may not want to make sure that you stay put; or he may be filled with such love that he risks hurting your feelings and losing your friendship. It is not to the point.

Why do people not see that? I'll suggest two reasons. Many more are possible.

One is that academics, whose voices are the loudest in these matters, are insulated from the results of their folly. It is “academic” to them. They need not see the child hardened in resentment as he is shipped from one parent to another. They do not visit slums, police precincts, prisons, and morgues. 

Another is that no one knows any history. We are taught to scorn the hard-won achievements of our ancestors, and to shrug away the terrible lessons of moral degeneracy.

But the fruit on that bush will not oblige us for approving it. Evil is what it is, and does what it does. That is so even in this life, let alone the life to come. 

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Anthony Esolen

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Anthony Esolen is a Fellow at the Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, NH.  He is the translator and editor of Dante's Divine Comedy (Random House), and is the author of more than a dozen other works, including Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery) and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press).  He regularly writes for The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, Touchstone, and Magnificat.