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Ideological bullying: a comment on Rob Steiner.

Rob Steiner was the principal speechwriter for Canada's current Prime Minister, Paul Martin, during the 2003 Liberal Party leadership campaign and until the end of that year. In a column in Toronto's Globe & Mail (Feb. 6, '05), he provides us with a textbook example of how to convince people that moral cloudiness is the surest way to achieve moral clarity. This is quite a trick, but Canadian politicians and speechwriters have proven themselves, over the past few years, to be most adept at it.

Steiner begins by proclaiming that morality "is just too large for any single human mind." He maintains that neither the Pope nor the Dalai Lama nor his own rabbi "really know more than any other human about the laws of morality that guide this universe." Such an unpromising beginning, one might think, would pretty much take the winds out of the sails of any moral excursion. But Steiner is hardly calmed in the doldrums. In fact, he is counting on a brisk wind to carry him to the shores of same-sex "marriage."

Since morality is as impenetrable as it is, we need to think, Steiner advises, "more humbly." Given this moral agnosticism, however, his notion of humility seems to be nothing more than the stark recognition that we know nothing about morality. But Steiner can hardly presume to speak for his rabbi, who surely must know something about the Ten Commandments besides being able to name them. Nor is he being fair to John Paul II whose encyclicals on morality, Splendor veritatis and Evangelium vitae, very clearly and convincingly argue that we can all know a great deal about morality. And we do not want to impugn the Dalai Lama on the presumption that he is also morally ignorant.

Humility rests on truth. A person can know a great deal about morality. Yet the mere fact that he has such knowledge carries no implication whatsoever as to whether he will be humble or proud. An ignorant person may be proud; a knowledgeable person may be humble. A person is humble not because he knows very little or nothing at all, but because his assessment of himself is realistic. He sees himself as no more and no less than what he is. We should begin our moral voyage not in the "humble" recognition that we know nothing, but in what we do know without losing sight of humility simply because we do know something.

Sentimentality

In the practical order of things, we are obliged to make moral choices. This is unavoidable. But how do we make moral choices in the absence of moral knowledge? One answer, consistent with Steiner's approach, and one that has been extremely popular throughout the ages, is by recourse to sentimentality.

If it is true, as Steiner implies, that he is devoid of moral knowledge, he should not be boasting of his humility, but exercising prudence in acquiring what he lacks. It is a case of intellectual dereliction of the most egregious kind to accept moral ignorance as a sign of humility. Sentimentality means making moral choices on the basis of one's own feelings, rather than taking into consideration all the important features that are relevant. In other words, it is limiting choices to feeling while excluding the light of reason.

The sentimentalist, consequently, suffers from narrowness. "This is the essence of the sentimentalist," wrote G. K. Chesterton, "that he seeks to enjoy every idea without its sequence, and every pleasure without its consequence." The sentimentalist readily rejects both reason and repercussion.

Unchecked either by "sequence" or "consequence," Steiner asserts: "I know that in the life of a human being--gay, lesbian or straight--marriage has the power to make a person whole."

Dogmatism without a catechism

Astute writers such as Gabriel Marcel, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy have all agreed that if sentimentality is one side of the coin, the other side is brutality. Steiner castigates "those who preach 'morality'" for not being sufficiently moral. And he praises those who are open to same-sex "marriages" for their "moral courage." Steiner is in the peculiar position of preaching a dogmatism that lacks a catechism.

We all know that vice pays tribute to virtue by cloaking itself in virtuous vestments. But Steiner's "humility" is really ignorance in disguise, while his "courage" is closer to timidity. He would convince no one, needless to say, if he argued more candidly that ignorance and timidity provide us with moral enlightenment.

Sentimentality can be a cover for brutality because it permits a reckless attack against anyone who does not share the sentimentalist's narrow feeling. We have witnessed more than enough of this phenomenon in the charge of "homophobia" recklessly directed at anyone who believes that marriage, by nature, requires a man and a woman.

The main moral problem of our time is not morality's presumed impenetrability, but the fact that we are reluctant to recognize its transparent nature and accept its onerous demands.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is a philosopher and Emeritus professor, St. Jerome's College, Univ. of Waterloo.
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Author:DeMarco, Donald
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2005
Words:838
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