Saturday, May 30, 2015

Repost: "Dogmatism Rightly Understood"

[...] Lewis’s elegant critique of the consequences of what we’ve come to call, somewhat oversimply, “relativism” culminates in this ringing sentence:
“A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not a tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.”
One the surface this statement might seem contradictory, if not in a sense shocking.  Why dogmatic?  If moral truths have an objective basis in reason (that is, natural law), why any need for dogmatism?
To give an answer to that question, let’s turn for a moment to a similar “dogmatic” declaration from the canon: Leo Strauss’s remark in his essay “Liberal Education and Responsibility” that “wisdom requires unhesitating loyalty to a decent constitution and even to the cause of constitutionalism.”  So it’s loyalty oaths and dogmatism?

Explaining the reasons why these two seemingly shocking statements are not shocking at all but highly necessary in our time could require a whole book (or a semester in the classroom), though a short version might be found, oddly enough, in an unlikely place: Federalist Paper #31, which is ostensibly just about the taxing power.  But Number 31 begins with a long preface of moral philosophy that boils down to this central point: the objective basis of moral truth is like proofs in geometry: they are grasped intuitively by “antecedent evidence” in Hamilton’s words, and if someone “doesn’t get it,” no amount of rational argument can establish the existence of moral truths.  “Where it produces not this effect,” Hamilton writes, “it must proceed either from some defect or disorder in the organs of perception, or from the influence of some strong interest, passion, or prejudice.” Today the “strong interest, passion, and prejudice” of the liberal mind is the unlimited autonomy or will of the Self, which cannot abide any constraint rooted in human nature. It is but a step from this unarticulated premise to a philosophy of unlimited government.

The trick of democratic politics, Federalist #51 explained, was enabling the government to be powerful enough to control the governed, but able to control (or limit) itself—that is, not so powerful that it threatens the natural rights of the people.  For liberals, rights today aren’t based in nature, but on will: anything you want becomes a “right” that government must secure by taxing and/or coercing your fellow citizens. It is a formula for tyranny; just ask Christian-owned bakeries right now. This is why Lewis says belief in objective value is necessary; the need for it to be “dogmatic” arises from the corruption of the liberal mind that more and more often today rejects reason and objectivity tout court. Against this highly trained incapacity to think, dogmatism is necessary, lest civilization itself slip inexorably away beneath the waves of nihilism.

Likewise in the second half of Lewis’s sentence, the idea of objective value is the only basis on which to answer the first question of political obligation: why should you obey the law? Post-modern liberals cannot answer the “why” of this question, and openly say that law is based only on force. Most of the time I am tempted to respond by saying: “Fine—how many of you are members of the NRA?” That’s how I let my dogma run over their (smart)-karma.


Source: Steven Hayward, "Dogmatism Rightly Understood," Powerline blog, May 1, 2015, accessed May 30, 2015,

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