Freedom and the laws of life, Part 1

By understanding the law of gravity and working with it, we can make real progress toward accomplishing our purposes.

The modern world has confused the relationship between law and freedom because moderns have turned freedom into a fantasy of infinite choice. Anything that inhibits our free choice is felt as a limit on our freedom. To realize such a daydream, they have found it necessary that all facts give way their commands, that language has the power to dissolve everything that interferes with absolute choice.

This is why so many political and social conflicts today turn on the meanings of words. What is “marriage,” really? What does being “male” or “female” mean? Those who favor change often claim that what is true is what they say is true. Our power of choice, when we are fully empowered, is godlike in the way it recreates the world according to our desires, they believe.

Laws, in this understanding, have to limit freedom. Therefore, there are no laws but those we invent. Reality is personally- or socially-constructed.

The god of the philosophers is sometimes presented as an abstract and impersonal vastness, beyond human powers of comprehension, an unmoved mover. The God of the Bible is more familiar. He acts in the world with passion and purpose, seeking always to serve and redeem the people. He speaks of his love, of his wrath, and he creates and he judges what he has created. He responds constantly to the actions of free people. He always takes a next step. He is never passive or dispassionate. He is the Most High but he also in deep ways recognizably like us. We are those he made in his own image. We, too, are to act and to judge, constantly serving and seeking to redeem those we encounter.The Biblical God lives and works amid laws and principles that are as eternal as he is. Neither matter nor the laws of matter can be created or destroyed. Creation is a matter of organizing what has always existed

This understanding of Creation helps us see law as a force that guarantees freedom. This isn’t hard to see. Consider the way a water wheel harnesses gravity to our purposes. As we have come to better understand nature’s laws and sought to accomplish our work by using those laws, our freedom has increased in wondrous ways. In obedience to the laws of nature, we are now free to visit other continents with only a few hours of travel, to prevent or cure many once-dread diseases, to provide sufficient food for our needs with an ease and reliability that would be miraculous to hundreds of generations that went before us. We are rich beyond comprehension.

Laws also operate in the realm of human nature. These have been called the laws of life—or simply “morality.” Wendell Berry defined morality as “long-term practicality” because following traditional morality–don’t lie, don’t steal, be faithful–leads most reliably to enduring happiness and peace. It is the wicked who flee where no one pursues.

It is more practical to understand gravity and to work with it than it is to rebel against and try to fantasize it away. We can willfully leap off a cliff while holding the fantasy that we can fly, but as we recuperate from a broken leg we may conclude that it’s more useful and wise to understand laws honestly than to rebel against them.

While it was still on the bestseller lists, I read David Brooks’ The Road to Character with a class of senior AP students. Some of them couldn’t quite get their mind around the distinction between “moral realism” and “moral relativism” which lay at the heart of that book. Brooks argues in favor of moral realism and against moral relativism (both individual moral relativism, where each person creates his or her own morality and cultural moral relativism, where what is right and wrong is thought to depend on whatever culture one is in). In various ways, he makes the point that living well requires us to respond to what’s out there–that some ways of life work better than others because they are better fitted to reality–to things as they are.

Moral relativism claims that what’s most important is that a person “be true to the self,” that we find the right way to act by consulting our passions and feelings.  Being “authentic” replaces being “good.” Brooks claims that it’s important that we restrain and control our passions and feelings. In this he follows ancient traditions–most notably Aristotle.

Aristotle, a student of Plato’s, may be the most intelligent of all philosophers. Certainly, he’s the most respectful of common sense. He noted that it’s possible to judge some societies as better than others because it’s possible to grasp the principles by which societies can be judged. Aristotle posed such questions as: Does the government serve the common good or does it serve the interests of the powerful? Does power rest on the ruler’s whims and desires or does it rest on laws agreed to by those who are ruled? Does the government do the work of justice?

Such judgments make no sense if whatever a culture deems to be right is right, so that if Southerners thought slavery was moral, then it was okay “for them.” A preference for nonjudgmentalism is central to the modern world’s ongoing collapse into chaos. I think most sophisticated advocates of moral relativism know that it’s not true. It’s incoherence is too obvious and too near to the surface for a thoughtful person to take it seriously. But I think they find it a convenient fiction, hoping that if we agree there are no absolute truths then we needn’t fight about them. I think the “nonjudgementalism” is not intended as anything very true; it’s just a social convention meant to keep the peace.

But one generation’s polite fiction may be taken very seriously by young people who grow up hearing it so often it’s almost impossible to question. It’s also flattering and gives a false sense of power to be told that pursuing personal desire is the only genuine purpose in life, and one’s feelings is all we know of morality. But it isn’t true, and living by lies does not lead to enduring happiness not just for the self but for the community, which includes our loved ones.

Aristotle defined the pursuit of truth as the attempt to align one’s thinking and acting with what’s really “out there.” Morality is real, independent of people’s opinions. If everyone in a culture thinks it’s okay to abuse women and mistreat slaves, they are simply wrong. Their beliefs are not true. The world remains round even when everyone believes it is flat. Opinions can be true or false.

Someone can hold the opinion that lying to get what you want is okay, but reality dictates that if you keep doing that others will figure it out and stop trusting you, which will reduce your power–your ability to get what you want. So “honesty is the best policy” is not just something some societies teach. It’s a moral truth that nobody can change.

Some students kept drifting back to the idea that morality changes as society changes; therefore, there are no universals. So they didn’t really follow the points Brooks was making. It’s okay to disagree with him, of course, but an educated person should be able to understand what they disagree with and then to make reasonable arguments that address that understanding. Otherwise, the conversation takes the form of childhood disputes: “Yes it does.” “No it doesn’t.” “Yes it does.” And so on, ad infinitum.

The wisdom of moral realism can be glimpsed in the traditional insights encoded in proverbs and folk sayings around the world. They are time-tested insights into how things are, perceptions of what John Templeton called the “Laws of Life.” The “law of the harvest” is one example: you reap what you sow. This insight has also been expressed as “what goes around comes around,” and it was summarized by Jesus’s teaching that “as ye judge ye shall be judged.”

Humanity has collected thousands of such rules of living well:

  • It is better to love than to be loved.
  • Success is a journey, not a destination.
  • Enthusiasm is contagious (and nothing important is achieved without enthusiasm).
  • The borrower is a servant to the lender.
  • We find what we look for (good or evil).
  • Every ending is a beginning.
  • The way to fix bad things is to create good things.
  • Love is stronger than everything else.
  • You can’t solve a problem at the same level as the problem. You need to get above it.
  • The truth will make you free.
  • To find gold you need to search where the gold is.
  • Habit is the best servant, the worst master.
  • People are punished by their sins not for them.
  • Make yourself necessary and the world will feed you.
  • Luck favors the prepared.
  • Defeat isn’t bitter if you don’t swallow it.

Notice that they are simply descriptions of how things are rather than moral laws. This way of seeing things is familiar to people who have contemplated the Bible. That book makes little distinction between wisdom and righteousness.  As Theologican Frederick Buechner said,

…the Bible is not first of all a book of moral truth. I would call it instead a book of truth about the way life is. Those strange old scriptures present life as having been ordered in a certain way, with certain laws as inextricably built into it as the law of gravity is built into the physical universe. When Jesus says that whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life will save it, surely he is not making a statement about how, morally speaking, life ought to be. Rather, he is making a statement about how life is. [Quoted by Alvin Plantinga]

Moral realism suggests simply that nature, including human nature, is governed by patterns that the perceptive observer can discern. To discern these patterns and to live in accordance with them is wisdom, according to Brooks and Aristotle. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga said, “Wisdom is a reality-based phenomenon. To be wise is to know reality, to discern it. A discerning person notices things, attends to things, picks up on things. He notices the difference between tolerance and forgiveness, pleasure and joy, sentimentality and compassion.”

Such people “accommodate themselves to reality,” said Plantinga. “They go with the flow. They tear along the perforated line. They attempt their harvests in season.” Plantinga suggests we may pick up such truths from Proverbs or from paying attention to the world around us or possibly from a wise grandparent. Ordinary people proceed with such a program no matter “whether they have derived their wisdom from scripture or from more general revelation.” But, he says, wherever we get them, the wise do what Brooks is suggesting–they adjust to reality, changing their own character to be more effective in the world as it actually is. The trouble we encounter provides most of the curriculum on “the road to character.” The  historical characters whose life stories Brooks tells have learned to live by truths such as these:

  • The more you talk, the less people listen.
  • If your word is no good, people will not trust you and it is then useless to protest this fact.
  • Trying to cure distress with the same thing that caused it only makes matters worse.
  • If you refuse to work hard and take pains, you are unlikely to do much of any consequence.
  • Boasting of your accomplishments does not make people admire them. Boasting is vain in both senses of the word.
  • Envy of fat cats does not make them slimmer, and will anyhow rot your bones.
  • If you scratch certain itches, they just itch more.
  • Many valuable things, including happiness and deep sleep, come to us only if we do not try hard for them.

If you are fortunate, such wisdom was taught to you by parents and older members of your community. Such homey wisdom seems obvious, a second nature that is your blessing because you grew up in an intelligent culture. Unfortunately, not everyone has been so lucky, and misfortune becomes more common as more people, and even institutions such as schools, turn away from the wisdom of the ages to assert that the self and its feelings make up the only important morality. Lots of schools today rely on manipulation through rewards and punishments to get students to act reasonably well. It would be better if the emphasis were on showing by example and by teaching–direct instruction in the principles of wise living.

Our experiment with the new morality, which often has the same content as the old immorality, is now far enough advanced that we can easily see that it isn’t working very well. We sense this in the rising levels of unhappiness and loneliness, the increasing numbers of suicides, a growing reliance on counselors and pharmaceuticals that change brain chemistry help sad people make it through the week.  Though our lives have something of the enchanted about them–at the flick of a high-tech device  speakers body forth the best music ever made, exotic fruits from every clime are piled high in brightly lit markets, family members across the globe arrive in our chambers via Skype, the best words ever written can be summoned from online archives for free, and the most beautiful people on the planet compete for our approval from screens in every building–-we are not satisfied. We think we want more.

Probably we want something completely different.

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