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Technological Determinism and Social Relativism

July 21, 2009

In his latest article for Inside Catholic, David Carlin draws a parallel between the influence of Islamic-style iconoclasm on the Christians within their sphere of influence as far back as the 8th century, and the influence of secular sexual mores on Catholics in the present day. He writes,

Likewise, those Catholics who today live close to the culture of secularism — and who doesn’t live close to it? — come to believe that Catholicism is wrong, either entirely so or partially so, in its condemnation of all manner of sex-connected sins: fornication, unmarried cohabitation, abortion, homosexuality, and so on.

I acknowledge the truth of this observation, and I have sought to develop it myself on different occasions. There are of course many Catholics who remain faithful to the teaching of the Church on sexual matters, but it is also true that there are a large number – perhaps even a majority – that dissent, as Carlin says, “either entirely or partially so” from the Church’s sexual teaching.

I remember not long ago I was watching Real Time with Bill Maher, and one of the guests claimed to be a Catholic. He then proceeded to list all of the teachings of the Church he rejected out of hand. As he rattled them off – the prohibitions on abortion, gay marriage, contraception, women priests, and so on – the audience burst into rancorous applause. He may call himself a Catholic, and that might have sent up an initial red-flag, but by the end of his rebellious litany the crowd clearly embraced him as “one of us”. How fortunate for him.

That Catholics have been influenced by secular culture is obvious. Even those of us who remain true to the teachings of the Church have been made to feel ashamed and ostracized for any defense of traditional values. I know my share of conservatives and traditionalists who take pride in being the last of a dying generation, of being the chosen or the elect, sometimes to the point where one wonders how they would really feel about a miraculous conversion of society overnight that no longer allowed them to be unique in the world.

I am proud of the values I hold, to the traditional teachings of the Church and to the traditional liturgy, which I believe reinforces those values and increases our awareness and appreciation for the sacred. But I do not relish being in a cultural minority that inches closer to extinction every year. It would be easy to blame liberalism – both its left social and right economic variants – for the erosion of traditional values. But liberalism itself is only a manifestation of deeper social transformations.

When I look honestly and objectively at the institutions of marriage and family, I can’t deny that they have lost a great deal of their immediate objective necessity. I firmly believe that their disappearance from society will eventually result in an absolute catastrophe. But the vast majority of people do not think in terms of distant eventualities. Even those who do are hard-pressed to make changes in their life to alter or avoid them. Instead humanity shambles from one historical episode to the next.

In my view, the fact that individual self-sufficiency is possible today in a way it has not been before is at the bottom of this erosion. It is not always optimal; single people may struggle more than married people, and single parents will struggle especially hard. But it can be done with much greater ease than ever before. And sometimes it is optimal at least from one point of view, especially when career or educational opportunities beckon.

This is what proponents of sexual liberalism and certain brands of feminism tell us, and what they defend. The ideology they sell may be about any number of things, but ultimately it is about the notion that a woman does not need a man, or children, to survive or prosper in the world, and vice-versa. What disturbs me is that this only appears to express in ideological terms what is already a truth in economic terms.

Marriage and family were once about dependency. Husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles all once formed a cohesive economic unit. In his Politics Aristotle rejects the notion that anyone can survive on their own. He writes in Book I that “[T]he proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole.” Between the individual and the state is the family, the basis of the ancient and medieval economy. Even the word “economy” comes from the Greek word for “household management.”

Prior to the Industrial Revolution most of the efforts of most of the people on the planet were geared towards immediate or long-term survival. Most of the tasks required for daily, monthly, or yearly survival required the efforts of the entire family working together, and several families cooperating in a village. City life was barely a shadow of what it is today; I recall my fascination with the fact that during the Middle Ages, the largest city in the world was Constantinople, with its sprawling population of 1 million people. Most other cities came nowhere close.

In the 21st century, for all but perhaps the bottom fifth of Americans and whatever fractions for other industrialized society, an individual’s survival is secured before their lunch-break, if we consider how much is made by the minute at work and how much it costs to live per day. Their comfort is assured by the end of the day. We all face economic problems at some point so this does not hold good for all people at all times. Car troubles, health problems, home repairs – the list of expenses that can rapidly deteriorate a household budget could go on for some time. But most of us are unlikely to die because of these things.

Thus we get the sense that, at least for the security of our daily physical existence, we no longer need one another. Most of humanity, I speculate, took that need for granted. Religious duty, romantic love, social obligation – each of these reasons for the maintenance of the family structure, true or valid as they may be in themselves, have only partially survived the disappearance of this physical necessity.

We now see the development of the ‘post-modern’ family: single parent homes, divorced parents, and now gay and lesbian couples adopting children. And each of these, we are told, is ‘just as good’ as any other, provided the individuals involved are decent people. Equally valid, we are told, are those who wish to enter into heterosexual or homosexual relationships that are closed to the possibility of procreation or caring for developing lives. Finally we are told that the state, making use of our tax dollars, must not only tolerate but lend positive support to these distorted social formations.

It is the absence of necessity that has made this social relativism so palpable to the modern secular pragmatist. In an earlier time a ‘post-modern family’ would have subtracted from the ability of a community to survive; in modern times, it may do so in a long-term moral sense, but not nearly as much in a short-term economic sense. That being the case, the secular pragmatist says, “why not?” With physical necessity taken care of, what is left but for us to find “happiness”, regardless of how distorted, perverted, or self-indulgent it may be, provided it doesn’t cause direct physical harm to anyone (who isn’t an unborn child, terminally ill, mentally handicapped, or otherwise deemed unworthy of life by the high priests of materialism-hedonism) or emotional harm to a minority group?

This is the future foreseen, at least in terms of its basic idea, by the Marxists of the 19th and early 20th century. As early as 1846 Marx and Engels were arguing that the Industrial Revolution, having enabled man to conquer nature and the struggle for daily existence, would eventually enable him to achieve “total” liberation from all of the ideological trappings of the past, none more stifling and oppressive in their view than religion, which subordinated man to something higher than himself – an idea the two revolutionaries hated far more than capitalism.

Liberal capitalism also had its vision of progress, if not as grand in historical scope, just as rooted in materialism. It did not attack the family or religion directly as the Marxists did, but it promoted an idea of self-satisfaction and “happiness” that did not depend on anything transcendent, or upon adherence to any particular moral order or even to the virtues thought necessary in ancient societies. Consumerism became an official policy of the United States after World War II, and the first generation to be raised under that policy and the culture it fostered gave us the Sexual Revolution. I do not believe that this was a mere coincidence.

Are new technologies and economic development compatible at all with traditional values?  I not only say that they are compatible, but that they are indispensable. That does not mean, however, that they will ever become widespread again. I fear that humanity will more likely continue its descent into the regime of madness unleashed by the French Revolution, though it won’t be the Jacobin madness passed down through Marxism, but rather that of the Marquis de Sade, arguably the first post-modernist philosopher, relativist, and sexual revolutionary that will overtake us.

That is, unless we are meant to triumph over the madness with the “Christian Humanism” his Holiness has summoned us to in his latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. It is something toward which every Catholic, Christian, and person of good will is obliged to work, regardless of the outcome. One thing is for certain; the coming years will see the last stand of authentic humanity against the perverted insanity of materialist-hedonist world views.

  1. July 21, 2009 8:27 am

    I’d still say our society is structured around dependency, but today it is largely different institutions to which we are dependent. The family no longer seems necessary for daily physical existence, but our employers would seem to be, and the State definitely is. The push for universal healthcare implies a sense of interdependency, for example. The family, for a lot of people, no longer has the role it once did, but its functions haven’t disappeared so much as they’ve been incorporated into different institutions. The question is: can our society long survive in this restructured form? Proponents of what you call “post-modern” families would probably answer affirmatively. Defenders of the traditional family answer negatively. It’s a difficult case to make either way, and so I wonder if it’s just something we have to go through as a society in order to see its effects and consequences clearly.

  2. July 21, 2009 10:03 am

    Most of humanity, I speculate, took that need for granted. Religious duty, romantic love, social obligation – each of these reasons for the maintenance of the family structure, true or valid as they may be in themselves, have only partially survived the disappearance of this physical necessity.

    I think this is an absolutely key point.

    Even amoung people who consider themselves to put a very high value on family institutions, the lack of social stigma and economic catastrophy associated with divorce and unconventional family arrangment make it easier for people to tell themselves, “I share these ideals, but of course, this is a special case.”

    There’s a trade off, of course. In the past, the extreme difficulty of surviving with an unconventional family arrangement made it very hard for widows and women whose husbands had abandoned them to survive without falling into absolute poverty. Orphans also found themselves in nearly impossible situations. And women who never married (unless they entered the religious life) often found themselves having to live as virtual servants for their extended family.

    So there are a lot of sources of suffering which our development has eased — and yet the fact that almost any individual adult person can now support himself or herself alone removes much of the immediately self interested incentive for social cohesion. And fallen humanity being what it is, Adam Smith’s observation that we may much better rely on another’s self interest than on his beneficence tends to adhere.

  3. jonathanjones02 permalink
    July 21, 2009 11:41 am

    Robert Nisbet, a genius IMO, has pointed to many of the problems you rightly raise, Joe.

    I love this essay:

  4. Joe Hargrave permalink
    July 21, 2009 1:12 pm

    Nisbet’s work sounds fascinating. I look forward to reading ‘Quest for Community’ as soon as I can find it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention 🙂

  5. jonathanjones02 permalink
    July 21, 2009 2:15 pm

    One of the best minds in the history of American sociology, without a question, and a worthy heir of Durkheim. Don’t forget about The Social Philosophers, Prejudices, and The Twilight of Authority 🙂

  6. Dale Price permalink
    July 22, 2009 12:53 pm

    Good post.

  7. July 22, 2009 2:12 pm

    “This is what proponents of sexual liberalism and certain brands of feminism tell us, and what they defend. The ideology they sell may be about any number of things, but ultimately it is about the notion that a woman does not need a man, or children, to survive or prosper in the world, and vice-versa. What disturbs me is that this only appears to express in ideological terms what is already a truth in economic terms.”

    I think little has changed in regard to the actual dependency that is required for human life. The difference is in how we conceive of it. In the family, the goal, the “vocation” as Benedict has put it was not primarily about me. There is true gift of self in this sense, true gratuity as he has also pointed out, since I’m not the first intention of my acts philosophically speaking. Something beyond me is intended in the family, a true “common good.” In a corporation, while we’re still working together, I have become the primary intention of my actions with the good of the company being secondary. The common good in that sense is just an aggregate of personal preferences.

    The question as to whether the world of globalization will be a post-modern family or a traditional one at heart seems to be the driving concern that Benedict wants to impart to us.


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