"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, November 5, 2018

Vote Your Conscience–What An Irrelevant Idea

“Vote your conscience’, Harry Benoit was told before the election; but that aspirational note had no ring for him, voting as he did on principle not emotion.

The comment had come from a committed progressive for whom everything had a moral tone.  it was not enough to advocate for an end to global warming on practical grounds – New York and Miami underwater, ecological disruption, tropical diseases in northern latitudes – because there was existential principle involved.   Humanity was the last and most perfect expression of God’s creation. There was a moral imperative to preserving human life and the environment in which life is sustained.  If one denies that uniqueness and assumes that humanity is only a stopover on an infinite evolutionary path, then “all things are permitted”. 

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The same is true for other reformist goals.  Equality is not simply a matter of creating a smoothly-functioning socio-economic machine – one without the inequalities that tend to disrupt progress, sow mistrust and suspicion, and interrupt the business of the marketplace – but a moral one.  It is simply unconscionable to think of a fragmented, squabbling, and inconsistent human race.  There is a higher value to community, cooperation, love, and peaceful enterprise.

Despite thousands of years of human history – a rather amoral and ragged story – Harry’s friend could simply not let go of his idealism.  Without a belief in progress, a profound belief in the innate goodness of mankind, and the establishment of a society which reflected it, life would be nothing more than a senseless, random, and inconsequential game of bad pool. 

No, Harry would not vote his conscience.  Not because he didn’t have one; for, educated by the Jesuits, he had a fine sense of right and wrong, Thomistic logic, and an appreciation of moral principles as foundations for human society.  He was honest, prudent, temperate, and respectful.  His life had been one of rectitude and good behavior.  While he had strayed far from the religious belief of his days at Georgetown, he had never lost his finely-attuned sense of righteousness.  Honesty, truth, courage, and compassion were the foundational blocks of his conscience. 

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A man has enough to do to keep his own house in order, Harry told his friend, without having to extend conscience and conscientiousness farther afield.  Moreover, he went on, where was it ever written that there is a moral stake in political choice?  There may or may not be global warming.  Human society may or may not continue to be organized around liberal democratic principles.  Sexuality may or may not be continued to be ordered on a fluid gender spectrum; and war may or may not be used as a a means of geopolitical influence.  History has shown ‘may not’ to be the operative term.   ‘Nothing is permanent except change’ is even better.

Jean-Paul Sartre grappled with the conundrum of virtue in a meaningless world.  His existentialism was based on the notion of individuality and individual responsibility.  There was, he argued, despite the irrelevance of the world and its history, an opportunity to find personal validation.  Acting according to one’s conscience, regardless of the context, made ultimate sense.  It didn’t matter to Sartre whether one acted on principle in matters of faith, family, or politics.  It only mattered that one did something.

Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer saw no reason to try to decipher a random world.  It was enough to realize that randomness was the only permanence in the universe, much like the Buddhist understanding of change.  Nietzsche like Sartre looked for and found meaning – the expression of pure will was the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world.

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Remembering his Jesuit days and the arguments of Aquinas and Augustine, Harry Benoit wondered how political progressives had wandered so far from the central point.  Whether in the epistles of Paul, the gospel of John,  or the teachings of Ignatius, Clement, and Tertullian, the lesson was clear.  The only relationship that mattered was that with the divine.  Jesus’ many parables were not so much lessons in compassion per se but instruction in belief.  He was the lesson.  His divinity was all that mattered.  The rest was all vehicular traffic.

A belief in the goodness of mankind, the inevitability of social progress, and the absolute right of modern conventions (equality, democratic justice, community) came from somewhere else, a place very American. 
The desire to reform and even to perfect society is as American as apple pie. From the Puritans’ determination to create "a city upon a hill," to the utopian communities of the early nineteenth century, to the communes created by twentieth-century "hippies," the goal has been to establish a new social order that will improve upon the status quo. Sometimes this reform impulse is an isolated one; sometimes it defines an entire era. Historians point to two such eras with roots in the nineteenth century: the age of reform in the 1830s and 1840s and the Progressive era that spans the Gilded Age and the pre–World War I years of the twentieth century. (Carol Berkin, Institute of American History)
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The philosophical principles on which such reform was based were first expressed in the early decades of the 19th century.  Scholar Philip Gura suggested an "Oversoul" shared by all humanity but perceived only by those who transcended the cares and concerns of the material world. Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Margaret Fuller developed an American ideology of spiritual equality.

This romantic idealism seems to have come from the New World itself – a land of opportunity, freedom from serfdom and religious oppression.  It must have seemed eminently logical to believe in anointment – divine purpose in reform – given the life that new Americans had fled only a few generations before.  It was a historical legacy more than a religious or spiritual imperative. 

Let it be, said Harry.  Political evangelism was very American indeed, came from a historically legitimate if not philosophically sound place.  His votes – if cast at all – would be on up-or-down political principles despite his friends’ sermons on conscience and moral responsibility. 

None of these principles - small government, individualism, religious liberty, low taxes, strong international presence - had anything to do with conscience.  They were fundamental, but not moral. They were historically sound, culturally universal, inspired by European Enlightenment and codified by the Founding Fathers.  Endorsing them, voting for candidates who insisted upon them, and using them as a measure of political intelligence was reasonable, rational, and made good sense.

Yet, as universal and historically legitimate as they are, they too must be subject to the inevitable shifting values of culture.  Since they ipso facto must be temporal, they should never be treated as absolute wisdom, Biblical, or inspired.  They are relative values which happen to have a surprisingly long life.  The tendency will always be to believe that such longevity implies permanence, higher value, greater good. 

This tendency must always be resisted.

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