Arguments of convenience

I posted a while back about “merely practical arguments”, for instance in opposition to the death penalty, that don’t express the essential grounds of the conviction they buttress. The importance of Classics is another example; it may be true that studying Latin helps you learn French or even write better English, but the heart of the matter is fostering a link with our classical tradition, precisely as a value more humane than mere utility (“… it is written, Man shall not live by bread alone”, Luke 4:4 = Deut. 8:3). Or take gay rights. It is frequently argued that because people cannot control their sexual orientation, it is unfair to persecute them for it, but wouldn’t it be unfair even if they could? Further, the discomfort aroused by sexual deviance (I use the word in its sociological sense) is an indication that homosexuality or other non-heterosexual preferences really do subvert norms guiding gender roles; however, maybe that is no bad thing. “Normality” can be crushing, and homophobia (what a crowbar of a word) is at least as much the result of anxiety about maintaining the prevailing order without illuminating its darker corners as it is a matter of active, prurient intolerance. A fourth example: the euthanasia debate is full of “hard cases”, but its core is the notion of human dignity and its meaning. However, there is an inherent connection between the shift in this notion and the advances in medicine that cause the kind of suffering we wouldn’t submit our pets to: materialism in a metaphysical sense has engendered a vulgar, fetishistic cultivation of the body, with mere health as the summum bonum; the practical problem expresses a tension between health conceived, technologically, as bare, skeletal survival, and the glistening, radiant ideal of the aerobics class. Verweile doch, du bist so schön! In all these cases, I suggest that what appear at first sight to be extrinsic, rhetorical arguments may well have a subterranean connection with the heart of the matter, even in cases where more clarity of thought is needed. And that must be a sign that the principles at stake are a good reflection of the concrete reality they abstract from — in other words, you would expect the principles to be embodied in real, practical instances. To return to the death penalty, the conviction of the innocent may only be part of its inhumanity, but it is a large one and not different in kind from that of the execution of the guilty. Once convinced of the unacceptability of the former, most people are likely in time to reject the latter. That is, they will already oppose all executions because it is impossible to tell the difference; the priority given to the sanctity of life over the need for retribution is based on the same principle in both cases, and once admitted at all, it will probably take root and flourish.

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