Culture of Vice
Robert R. Reilly
As society justifies personal moral disorders, it threatens its own survival. In The Ethics Aristotle wrote, “men start revolutionary changes for reasons connected with their private lives.” This is also true when revolutionary changes are cultural.
Bob Dole’s attack on Hollywood, Bill Clinton’s defense of partial-birth abortions, and Congress’s deliberations on the Defense of Marriage Act all clearly indicate that the culture war is alive and well. But why is there a culture war and what is at stake in it?
In The Ethics Aristotle wrote, “men start revolutionary changes for reasons connected with their private lives.” This is also true when revolutionary changes are cultural. What might these “private” reasons be, and why do they become public in the form of revolutionary changes? The answer to these questions lies in the intimate psychology of moral failure.
For any individual, moral failure is hard to live with because of the rebuke of conscience. Habitual moral failure, what used to be called vice, can be lived with only by obliterating conscience through rationalization. When we rationalize, we convince ourselves that heretofore forbidden desires are permissible. We advance the reality of the desires over the reality of the moral order to which the desires should be subordinated. In our minds we replace the reality of moral order with something more congenial to the activity we are excusing. In short, we assert that bad is good.
It is often difficult to detect rationalizations when one is living directly under their influence, and so historical examples are useful. One of the clearest was offered at the Nuremberg trials by Dr. Karl Brandt, who had been in charge of the Nazi regime’s Aktion T-4 euthanasia program. He said in his defense: “…when I said ‘yes’ to euthanasia I did so with the deepest conviction, just as it is my conviction today, that it was right. Death can mean deliverance. Death is life.”
Unlike Dr. Brandt, most people recover from their rationalizations when remorse and reality set back in. But when morally disordered acts become the defining centerpiece of one’s life, vice can permanently pervert reason. Entrenched moral aberrations then impel people to rationalize vice not only to themselves but to others as well. Thus rationalizations become an engine for revolutionary change that will affect society as a whole.
The power of rationalization drives the culture war, gives it its particular revolutionary character, and makes its advocates indefatigable. It may draw its energy from desperation, but it is all the more powerful for that. Since failed rationalization means self-recrimination, it must be avoided at all cost. For this reason, the differences over which the culture war is being fought are not subject to reasoned discourse. Persons protecting themselves by rationalizing are interested not in finding the truth, but in maintaining the illusion that allows them to continue their behavior. For them to succeed in this, everyone must accede to their rationalization. This is why revolutionary change is required. The necessity for self-justification requires the complicity of the whole culture. Holdouts cannot be tolerated because they are potential rebukes. The self-hatred, anger, and guilt that a person possessed of a functioning conscience would normally feel from doing wrong are redirected by the rationalization and projected upon society as a whole (if the society is healthy), or upon those in society who do not accept the rationalization.
According to Dr. Jack Kevorkian, for example, all those reluctant to participate in his rationalization for killing people (including, it turns out, some who are not even ill) are the real problem; the judicial system is “corrupt,” the medical profession is “insane,” and the press is “meretricious.” Of the coroner who found nothing medically wrong with several of his victims, Dr. Kevorkian said that he is a “liar and a fanatical religious nut.”
The homosexual movement’s rationalization is far more widely advanced in its claims. According to Jeffrey Levi, former executive director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, “We (homosexuals) are no longer seeking just a right to privacy and a right to protection from wrong. We have a right — as heterosexuals have already — to see government and society affirm our lives.” Since only the act of sodomy differentiates an active homosexual from a heterosexual, homosexuals want “government and society” to affirm that sodomy is morally equivalent to the marital act. “Coming out of the closet” can only mean an assent on the level of moral principle to what would otherwise be considered morally disordered.
And so it must be. If you are going to center your public life on the private act of sodomy, you had better transform sodomy into a highly moral act. If sodomy is a moral disorder, it cannot be legitimately advanced on the legal or civil level. On the other hand, if it is a highly moral act, it should serve as the basis for marriage, family (adoption), and community. As a moral act, sodomy should be normative. If it is normative, it should be taught in our schools as a standard. In fact, homosexuality should be hieratic: active homosexuals should be ordained as priests. All of this is happening. It was predictable. The homosexual cause moved naturally from a plea for tolerance to cultural conquest. How successful that conquest has been can be seen in the poverty of the rhetoric of its opponents. In supporting the Defense of Marriage Act, the best one congressman could do was to say, “America is not yet ready for homosexual marriage,” as if we simply need a decent interval to adjust ourselves to its inevitable arrival.
The homosexual rationalization is so successful that even the campaign against AIDS is part of it, with its message that “everyone is at risk.” If everyone is at risk, the disease cannot be related to specific behavior. Yet homosexual acts are the single greatest risk factor in catching AIDS. This unpleasant fact invites unwelcome attention to the nature of homosexual acts, so it must be ignored.
The movement for abortion is equally expansive in its claims upon society. The internal logic of abortion requires the spread of death from the unborn to the nearly born, and then to the infirm and otherwise burdensome individuals. The very psychology of rationalization also pushes those involved with abortion to spread the application of its principles in order to multiply the sources of support for it.
If you are going to kill innocent persons you had better convince yourself and others that is “right,” that you do it out of compassion. Thus, Beverly Harrison, a professor of Christian ethics at Union Theological Seminary, contends that abortion is a “positive good,” and even a “loving choice.” Jungian analyst Ginette Paris thinks it is even more. In her book, The Sacrament of Abortion, she calls for “new rituals as well as laws to restore to abortion its sacred dimension.” Defending the right to partial-birth abortions during the recent U.S. Senate debate, Senator Barbara Boxer assure her colleagues that mothers who have aborted their children by this means “buried those babies with love.” If abortion is love, then, indeed, as Dr. Brandt said, “Death is life.”
Abortion is the ultimate in the larger rationalization of the sexual revolution: if sex is only a form or amusement or self-realization (as it must be when divorced from the moral order), why should the generation of a child stand in the way of it, or penalize its fulfillment? The life of the child is a physical and moral rebuke to this proposition. But the child is too weak to overcome the power of the rationalization. The virtual reality of the rationalization is stronger than the actual reality of the child. The child succumbs to the rationalization and is killed in a new “sacrament.”
With over 35 million abortions performed since 1973, the investment in the denial of the evil of abortion has become tremendous. Anyone who has witnessed the eruption of grief and horror (often coming many years after the event) in a woman confronting for the first time the nature of what she has done in an abortion knows the lengths to which people must go to prevent its occurrence.
Thus the changing attitudes toward abortion can be directly traced to the growing number of people, including fathers, doctors, and nurses, with the need to justify it. As reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the number of people who think abortion should be illegal in all circumstances has declined from 21 per cent in 1975 to only 15 per cent in 1995. The proportion who support abortion in all circumstances has increased from 21 per cent to 33 per cent in the same period. This change has taken place not because pro-abortionists are winning arguments, but because of the enormous increase in the number of those with a personal, psychological need to deny what abortion is.
Controversies about life, generation, and death are decisive for the fate of any civilization. A society can withstand any number of persons who try to advance their own moral disorders as public policy. But it cannot survive once it adopts the justification for those moral disorders as its own. This is what is at stake in the culture war.
Reilly, Robert R. “Culture of Vice.” National Review (November 25, 1996): 60-61.