By: Doron Levine  | 

I Want the Truth

Dolores Umbridge was correct. Writing allows us to share our beliefs with others, but it is also intensely introspective. Even as we carefully scrawl ink onto paper, we inscribe the words onto our very flesh.

As Harry learned the painful way, writing can involve blood. Nothing ignites the passions more than a struggle for the truth, and, as anyone who follows current events in our community and beyond knows, written battles are often bloody. Modern ideological battlegrounds regularly host fiery verbal jousts peppered with explosive exchanges and belligerent rhetoric.

Take the issue of homosexuality. The debate over whether the normalization of homosexuality is a positive or negative development for society is positively volcanic. But notice how the argument plays out. Each side appeals to basic principles that its opponents simply reject. Those on the left recommend tolerance, trumpeting their governing principle of “live and let live.” If an action doesn’t hurt anyone, then there is nothing wrong with it.

But many social conservatives simply dismiss this premise. They argue that some activities are inherently immoral even if they affect nobody but the perpetrator. So here we have a deadlock. This dynamitic debate revolves around fundamental moral premises and neither side is likely to budge.

Recently, I found myself involved in a discussion with someone who repeatedly asked me why I felt a certain way about a certain moral question. Whenever I would offer an explanation, he would follow up by asking, “well, why is that principle true?” Eventually, I pointed out to him that all moral principles and, indeed, all principles of reasoning must ultimately appeal to axioms with no further explanation.

These axioms are what modern epistemology calls foundational beliefs. Though theoretically revisable, and, like all other propositions, either true or false, foundational beliefs tend to be deeply rooted and difficult to reconsider. They are the pillars that support all other beliefs; people practically worship them and defend them with fanatic loyalty.

So naturally, when two belief systems based on entirely different premises collide, sparks fly. The ensuing heated exchange rarely changes opinions, but it is testament to the deeply rooted beliefs on either side and, hopefully, the recognition on both sides that the debate is about more than sociology.

I say “hopefully” because all too often the discussion devolves into a bizarre sort of chronological criticism. Last year, in response to an article in The Commentator, one commenter rhetorically wrote, “what is this, the 1950s?” More recently, a professor countered an argument of mine by noting that the position I held was “a dated idea.”

This sort of rhetoric is commonplace and most peculiar. Plainly put, it says that we should avoid beliefs that were popular at an earlier point in history. Needless to say, this distaste for the dated, this antipathy to the antiquated, produces no convincing arguments. It merely appeals to our smug satisfaction with the present and our vague and unsubstantiated sense that humanity today is morally better than ever before. Why not consider the possibility that the people in the 1950s got it right? We surely would not like to be similarly dismissed by our great-grandchildren.

This trend also appears in polemical use of metaphor. Perturbed by a piece I published last year, one petulant fellow noted that the ideas I expressed are easily criticized, since “creaky and outdated modes of thought break easily under the slightest consideration.”

This got me thinking about the use of imagery in political arguments. Metaphors can easily obscure the truth. Take the example of my disgruntled commenter. As far as I can tell, the point that he was trying to make is the following: The ideas in the article are old ideas that have been believed by many for thousands of years; old things are creaky and break easily; therefore the ideas in the article are also creaky and break easily.

Thus presented, the argument is exposed as embarrassingly defective. First off, why think that moral truths age in the same way that physical objects do? Mathematical truths surely don’t age; last I checked, the multiplication table was alive and chipper. And if moral systems really do age, then what is their lifespan? Do geriatric wheelchair-bound moral principles spend their dying years populating subtropical retirement communities? The comparison quickly breaks down.

Ok, maybe I’m not being fair. Our hapless commenter was not offering a rigorous argument, but rather a soft comparison between two rather elderly things. And some things do indeed weaken with age. Couches become dusty and threadbare, air conditioners begin to sputter, and the human body slowly deteriorates.

But other things improve with time. Whisky grows increasingly smooth and rich with the passing of years; aged cheese sprouts delectable mold. Most of our beautiful natural landmarks have taken eons to form: California’s giant sequoias are thousands of years old and the Grand Canyon was slowly carved out of solid rock over millennia. The mind often mentally matures with age – venerable elders tap into wellsprings of wisdom even as their bodies decay. Whether age weakens or strengthens depends on which metaphor you choose.

This misappropriation of metaphor feeds into the larger modern trend we observed earlier. People generally seem to be preoccupied with the future. Traditional religions are encouraged to “get with the times” since universalism and social equality are the “wave of the future.” People who opposes same-sex marriage are often accused of being “on the wrong side of history,” as if an ideology should be endorsed because of its growing popularity. But historical facts alone cannot vindicate or falsify an ideology.

The word “progress” also plays into this trend. In contemporary parlance, the word “progressive” is practically a synonym for “morally good.” But to describe an ideology as “progressive” is only to say that it is going somewhere. G.K. Chesterton put it nicely: “The modern man says…, ‘Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.’ This, logically stated, means, ‘Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.’” Progress depends on where you started and where you’re heading. The improving righteous man is progressive, but so is the motivated madman.

In short, the notion that old ideologies are obsolete bespeaks a self-righteous overconfidence in our slim slice of history. Age can lead to obsolescence or wisdom. The world may be steadily progressing towards universal eudaimonia, or progressing in a deeper and deeper descent into the depths of depravity. The truth is likely somewhere in between, but amidst this muddled confusion one thing is certain. Civilizations age, people age, sneakers age, and even cheese can eventually become too aged, but ideas do not age. The truth is timeless.