Virtue and authority are back in fashion, as Bruce Wayne and Harry Potter can attest.
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In the last culture war, relativism’s influence was evident in the stock arguments that kept appearing in magazines and op-ed pages: Breaking taboos is valuable for its own sake; people have a right to make their own choices and not be judged for it; what you call a social evil is really just a cultural difference; et cetera.But those articles are no longer seen so often. Now, the most annoyingly ubiquitous genre in journalism is the social-scientific analysis, as if a person can’t speak with authority without citing economics or sociology.This is bad enough in political conversation, but it has begun to affect people’s ethical thinking. Under the new cultural rules, moral condemnation is a legitimate thing to express, but only if you can demonstrate that the sin you want to condemn makes someone twice as likely to take antidepressants or 40 percent less likely to be promoted at work. Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomics guys have more moral authority than the archbishop of New York. Great artists are producing movies, TV shows, and songs about tough moral dilemmas, but although liberals buy the tickets and the albums, they don’t take the art they consume very seriously. When moral questions arise, they forget The Wire and The Hold Steady and ask what the studies show.
An excellently ludicrous example of this mindset was offered by an article on weight loss I read earlier this summer. It opened by citing a handful of studies showing obesity to be correlated not just with heart disease but also with slower career advancement and a greater likelihood of developing mental-health problems. Let’s leave aside the fact that the author didn’t feel he could take the undesirability of being fat as a given. The bigger problem is that this sort of argument tries to have it both ways—to have all the benefits of authority without the burden of being answerable to people who disagree. On one hand, the author isn’t saying obesity is bad, science is, which makes it a fact and not an opinion. Your personal experience or common sense might tell you that a few extra pounds aren’t always such a disaster; but that just means you’re in the statistical minority for whom these bad outcomes do not eventuate. In other words: My moral claim is objectively correct, but that doesn’t mean it has to be true in your case. The same evasive maneuver can be seen in the argument that there’s nothing wrong with pornography because its prevalence isn’t correlated with higher crime rates, or that there’s nothing wrong with gay marriage as long as children of same-sex couples aren’t more likely to receive reduced-price lunches at school. The idea that something might be spiritually harmful (or beneficial) in a way that can’t be demonstrated statistically has been written out of the conversation.
The columnist Theodore Dalrymple believes that this new form of moral abdication, like the last one, was born on college campuses:
The vast expansion of tertiary education has increased by orders of magnitude the numbers of people who think in sociological abstractions rather than in concrete moral terms. Statistical generalizations are more real to them, and certainly more important, than the trifling moral dilemmas of their own lives.
Now that Shakespeare is out of the dead-white-guy doghouse, perhaps colleges could reverse some of the damage they’ve done by teaching All’s Well That Ends Well, which opens with Parolles trying to convince Helena to change her attitude toward sexual continence:
Loss of virginity is rational increase, and there was never virgin got till virginity was first lost.That you were made of is metal to make virgins.Virginity by being once lost may be ten times found; by being ever kept, it is ever lost.
The idea that promiscuity would yield a net increase in virginity makes perfect sense quantitatively but no sense morally. It’s just the sort of thing an economist could prove.It is also self-evidently ridiculous, even to a person accustomed to treating moral questions technocratically.
The great attraction of this new utilitarian mindset is its certainty—the fact that answers to such questions are not just a matter of opinion (and therefore, not relative)—which is why continuing to demonize the old enemy only makes the new one more appealing. Conservatives should be pleased, maybe even a little proud, that Americans are in the market for moral claims they can make with authority, but now it’s time to worry about which authorities they choose to trust. Economics can tell a country how to satisfy its desires efficiently, but not which desires are noble. Sociologists can put out a survey asking whether people are happy or fulfilled, but can’t give them the moral vocabulary they need to make sense of the difference between happiness and mere contentment, or between fulfillment and shallow self-regard. Some social-scientific studies make claims that turn out to be false, and others make claims that are correct on their own terms but not in the messy world of the human soul. The culture war goes on, and probably always will, but constant condemnation of relativism has become a distraction. As long as technocratic amorality keeps trying to turn every cultural question into a matter of optimization, the Right can’t afford any distractions.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?