Thursday 23 February 2012

False Gods

It seems to me that modern Western societies have made false Gods out of (inter alia):
  • Equality
  • Autonomy
  • Democracy
  • Choice
  • Tolerance

That is not to say that these are not goods, but that they are not ultimate goods.  When they are elevated to absolute status, they are not only destructive, they are self-destructive.

C S Lewis (of course) identified the problem accurately in First and Second Things
The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping. 
The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication. 
It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman—glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens? 
Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made. 
. . . You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.

So if we pursue equality, say, as an ultimate good, we end up not just doing a great deal of harm, but also undermining equality itself.

How does that work?  Well, consider the issue of equality for women: a laudable aim, in many ways.  But when pushed to the extreme, we find that it includes the right of women to kill their unborn children - for being female.  See the comments under Madeleine Teahan’s Guardian Online article for a very stark demonstration of that simple truth.

With very little effort one can see the same principle at work when any of these other secondary goods is elevated to the status of an absolute good.

What we are called to do, of course, is to acknowledge that God is the top of the hierarchy.  These secondary goods (equality and the rest) are often useful indicators of where something has gone wrong; if they are being abused, it is a clue, worthy of investigation.  Even democracy (eg when operated in a corrupted society) is not sovereign.  It is (normally) a safeguard; it is not an absolute good.

Even in terms of a scale of values, these principles are not ultimate.  According to Catholic tradition, we should always start with Faith, Hope and Charity, and then consider Justice, Fortitude, Temperance and Prudence.  Apply those to the abortion debate and, not surprisingly, you get a completely different, and far more humane, set of priorities for both mother and child.

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