Earlier this year, Dennis Danielson gave the 22nd annual Weston Lecture at Augustine College in Ottawa, entitled Against the Ongoing Abolition of Man (video here).
Dennis Danielson is an intellectual historian who has written about literature, religion, and the history of science. He studied English Literature at Oxford and Stanford before teaching at the University of Ottawa and at UBC from 1986 to 2017.
His most recent book is entitled The Tao of Right and Wrong, of course invoking C.S. Lewis’ use of the Tao in the Abolition of Man. This book is a rejection of moral nihilism, and a recognition of the life-affirming moral realism founded in the Tao.
I will offer some thoughts on the lecture; as is always the case with videos, I will likely not capture exact statements, but hopefully I stay true to intent.
Danielson has done a form of a re-write of Lewis’s classic work, offering what he calls a case for moral realism. He writes of the trans-cultural or super cultural meanings of right and wrong. By this he means, right and wrongs as recognized across most major cultural traditions around the world. This idea conforms nicely with Lewis’s work – as Lewis identifies in the Appendix of his book. It also is seen in the Golden Rule, versions of which are to be found throughout history and in many traditions.
What is the proposition that we must oppose? Lewis called it subjectivism, others describe it as relativism or even more broadly, naturalism. Danielson cites a book by Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology: The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. Danielson notes that this is exactly the kind of thing we must fight against.
Carroll declares that meaning, morality and purpose are not built into the architecture of the universe; they emerge as ways of talking about our human scale environment. Science doesn’t care how we ought to behave, because the source of these values isn’t the outside world; it is inside us. Carroll uses the term “science” as he must: artificially limited to physical science – hence providing the necessary presupposition for “proving” naturalism.
Carroll rejects what he calls “folk ontology” – according to which meaning might be given by God. In its stead, Carroll offers “poetic naturalism,” rejecting all other possibilities and asks us to view meaning in the same way human beings view other concepts that we invent.
When it comes to deep meaning and principles of right and wrong, such philosophical naturalism demands a search for something social, psychological, physical, etc. In other words, it treats moral principles not truly as principles. But principles are things that, by definition, come first.
One is reminded here of C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man:
You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see though’ all things is the same as not to see.
Danielson cites another such book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. Much of it is quite similar to the arguments presented by Carroll. But one thing of note: per Harari, there is no such thing as a human soul because scientists have examined the human body and found no such thing.
This lack of scientific support is based on premises and presuppositions that guarantee a lack of scientific support; it is not based on evidence and a careful chain of reasoning. Naturalists deny and cannot explain ends or purposes inherent in human beings, yet every single one of us – including physicists and anthropologists – have aims and goals. The very fabric of our lives is teleological – purpose driven. Therefore, a failure to account for the strong sense of purpose driven lives undermines the naturalists.
Why is it that humans carry a different ethical compass than do apes or lions? Much of what occurs as normal behavior in the (non-human) animal kingdom, we look at as sins if done by humans (or just immoral to you atheists). What can explain this? Random atom smashing that benefitted (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) humans? But then why are similar views held among virtually all of humanity? This doesn’t seem random.
Lions and geladas. Danielson notes that there is a lot of infanticide going on in such species, especially when the king is taken down, as his children go with him. Why is it, when we see such behaviors in non-human animals, we don’t think in terms of good or bad and we accept that this is just the way it is? Why do we not accept the same for humans? Clearly the “is” of nature is quite different than the “ought” that humans accept. (Then again, with abortion as acceptable as it is today in the human world…well, never mind.)
Thomas Henry Huxley was known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his advocacy of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Regarding human origins as coming out of what he called “the cosmic process,” Huxley had some thoughts on this matter. At some point in this evolutionary process, the conscience of man revolted against the moral indifference of nature. Thus, there is a sharp clash between the “is” of nature and the “ought” that we apply to human beings.
Given such a clash, it seems somewhat futile to regard that “ought” as arising from the somewhat empirical “is.” As Huxley observes, cosmic nature is no school of virtue. Huxley notes that evolution alone is incompetent to furnish any adequate reason to offer why what we consider “good” is preferable to what we call “evil.”
It isn’t empirical science that is to blame for not being able to explain this gap – albeit those experts in empirical science are the ones drawing attention to their own shortcomings on the matter; it is the false assumption that if empirical science cannot explain it, then nothing else can.
Danielson goes on to describe the standard curricula in even elementary schools, teaching children that moral judgements are relativistic. This is done subtly. For example, students are prompted to distinguish fact from opinion. A fact is a statement that can be proven.
Opinions are statements that can’t be proven. Anything hinting at a moral judgement is considered opinion, as “good,” “bad”, and “should” can’t be proven. But the curricula is not so blunt and direct. Instead, it offers statements like “dogs make better pets than cats,” or “chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla.” These are opinions.
Thus, children are being educated via comparative statements of pets and ice cream to unconsciously accept one side of a controversy that they have never been taught to even consider as a controversy at all. Hence, they accept principles that are inherently toxic to human flourishing and even a human future.
Thus far, Danielson has not at all appealed to Christianity – just as Lewis does not in his Abolition of Man. Yet toward the end of the lecture, he offers a homework assignment: re-read Romans chapters 1 – 3. In the absence of moral realism, what sense do those chapters make? What do they say to a culture, to a society, to youth soaked in a philosophical materialism and naturalism that today dominate the public square and choke off both Christians and non-Christians, or to treat good and evil as nothing more than biologically, culturally, and socially constructed entities?
What is found in these chapters? Here is a sampling from chapter 1:
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.
As is evident throughout all the major cultures and traditions of the world, throughout history at least since the Axial Age, man has been searching for God and man has come to accept some version of the Golden Rule. It has been made plain to all men.
28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice.
Absent God – or, for the atheists and agnostics in the audience, absent a transcendent and objective moral order – there is no basis upon which to label something wicked, evil, greedy or depraved. We apply no such labels to the non-human animals; there is no reason to apply these to human animals. Evolution, as Huxley offers, cannot explain it.
32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
It is certainly true in Western society today: we know the good, yet do the evil and approve of those who do the evil. And Western society is suffering a meaning crisis because of this.
Why is an assertion of moral realism necessary? Or as Lewis put it, a preparation for the Gospel? Danielson asks: Without an assumption of moral realism, what is the Gospel? Danielson says that he thinks he knows what the Gospel is, and he is convinced that naturalism and relativism are not Good News.
I will suggest: without moral realism – or objective moral values – we are left with the whims of society. And as we look around us today, tell me: what makes “anything goes” a lie when it comes to acceptable behavior?
I say nothing. Every day we are confronted with more depravities, which by tomorrow we come to accept as normal. Every day we are stepped on further by the boot of the state, with no argument available to us from Natural Law or any other solid philosophical foundation.
When every evil becomes acceptable and when the state’s boot has no hindrance to your face…tell me: what chance do we have to move toward liberty?