Though there are many problems one might point out in present day progressive American politics, I want to point out three particularly deep-seated intellectual vices. The misunderstandings are with respect to the following: the order of charity, experience and knowledge, and the terminus a quo/ad quem paradigm. They correspond to three key issues… the mode and structure of government, the value of so-called diversity in rational discourse, and the purpose of social institutions and roles especially in relation to sex and gender.
First, the order of charity. One of the great principles of Catholic social teaching is subsidiarity, which is the preference to defer to the more local government to provide for a constituent’s needs. The chain goes something like this: individual – family – town – county – state – nation – world. To know the needs of many individuals belongs to the governor of the family, to know the needs of many families belongs to the governor of the town, and so on. It is easy to see that as we ascend the ladder the task of governance becomes increasingly complicated, as it involves increasingly many parts. This proves the need for an order of governance in the first place, as it would be unthinkable for the king of a large country to govern each town directly, not only because of the amount of time and energy such micromanagement would take but also because of the diverse needs and situations of each town which are understood best by those who actually live there. The king is only in a position to know the affairs which affect the whole country, where its largest parts are concerned in their relations with each other. Thus, subsidiarity. The more that can be delegated to smaller governments, the better. The value of this principle is taught by some of the harshest lessons of world history… When the emperor gets too powerful there is trouble ahead both for him and for his empire.
But what about the relationships as they go up the chain rather than down it, or even those relationships at the same level? For example, what should characterize the individual’s actions vis-a-vis the family, or the state, or the world? How should families or counties or nations interact with each other? Of course, the lower owes care and respect to the higher and ought to be willing to make appropriate sacrifices for the good of the whole of which he is a part, with a greater kind of love given according to the dignity of the political body. However, this good will, or charity (ideally), follows an order, just like the governance to which it relates. Because we are creatures, we can only love in concrete practice up to a certain point, and our acts of love therefore should be patterned on our proximity – physical or otherwise – to the object of that love. Just as good parents care for their own children more than their next door neighbors’ children, they would also care more about their own town than a different town, because it is their own town which is most immediately able to care for them. Furthermore, they would be more ready to sacrifice for their town than for their county, state, or nation, not because they don’t have a greater kind of love for the larger body (i.e. the nation) according to its dignity but because that body is more remote. Finally, they will exercise more diligence and care toward families in their own town or neighborhood, as they have more interest in common with each other and are more able to look out for each other precisely because they are parts of the same small community. Such care is a legitimate application of the principle of solidarity… To be in real solidarity involves real proximity, of geography, blood ties, virtues, or even goals, and that proximity also tends to give a better understanding of the situation. This is why voluntourism is generally bad, or at least not as good as it feels: it ignores the needs of one’s close neighbors to go save people far away, and it does little to no help in the end, possibly even making things worse. The Western obsession with “saving Africa” is one example of this.
This should reveal at least one major problem with two key progressive agenda items: socialism and globalism. It is simply not possible to take care of everyone by centralizing government more and making it bigger (including by weakening or removing borders). We have a duty to look after those who are more closely united with us – and so long as we are flesh and blood, occupying physical space and belonging naturally to families, there will exist this natural order of government – and charity. We are bound to love our neighbor, but we are certainly bound to love some neighbors more than others. (See Gal. 6:10, 1 Tim. 5:8, etc.)
Second, experience and knowledge. It has become an all-too-familiar rhetorical move: you don’t share my experience, therefore your position is automatically irrelevant. “How can you, a man, dictate sensible policy on abortion? You don’t know what pregnancy is like!” This kind of thinking pervades public discourse in debates on race, gender-theory, guns… It even exists in the Church. How much do we really need to “discern with” and “listen to” various people or groups in order to understand the moral and doctrinal issues at stake? Certainly, nobody is saying that acquiring knowledge of particulars is bad or even unhelpful for dealing with those particulars themselves – indeed, it is vital, as Gregory speaks about at length in the Pastoral Rule – but once the general principles are known, especially through the authority of revelation, there is no need to go on studying particulars to learn those principles. If some people want to be “accompanied” a certain way, at odds with right morals or doctrine, then it is they who need reform, not the principles. It is they who need to work to build the bridge. Thus, the first public words of the Lord were not “what do you think” or “how are you feeling,” but rather, “repent” and “believe.”
What, then, is the value of experience? It is the collection of memories which can be applied to work for a desired end through abstracting the universal principles at work. Experience can contribute to making a person more prudent if he pays attention and has a good memory, but it does not necessarily give someone all the knowledge required to make a good decision about how to reach the goal, nor does it necessarily tell a person what ends are best to seek at all. Likewise, empathy with suffering groups, which provides a kind of substitute-experience, does not give the right means or ends either. It can actually be quite blinding. For example, perhaps you feel terribly for victims of drunk driving – but you have to look at whether outlawing alcohol would result in damage far worse than the damage avoided. Everyone you govern must be considered fairly. (See above about subsidiarity!) The wisdom that comes from suffering borne well is a spiritual kind of wisdom, a sort of perspective on one’s own life and meaning, and typically that is its limit. Being a resident of a war-torn country does not make a person an expert on foreign policy, it makes him an expert at hiding from bombs and bullets. If the same person also studied international politics at university and served for decades in his nation’s diplomatic corps, these would be of greater value for prudential decision-making about foreign policy, as they both communicate more information about the relevant matters. Perhaps his experience of hiding from air raids helps to contextualize what he is learning, or helps to remind him of how important certain consequences are, but simply having experienced the wrong end of a war does not make him a good politician.
Knowledge can be gained without experience of the things learned about. This principle is easily proven by the very existence of education: we believe that we can give people information through communicating information. It is left to the individual to organize that information and make a judgment, right or wrong. Thus, a priest who has studied the Pastoral Rule, for instance, is in a much better position to preach and rule well than if he had not studied it, ceteris paribus. If experience is the sole criterion for knowledge, we would face epistemic anarchy: no two people have the exact same experience of anything, and therefore there could never be any common body of knowledge. To rectify this, there is a theory of group-based experience, codified in the doctrine of “intersectionality.” Because minorities (and women) are necessarily victims, and the victim-narrative must always be believed, the number of victim-classes to which one belongs gives greater primacy to their claims and demands. So goes the theory. But if intersectionality defines knowledge, then we should only need to find the few Black, homosexual, transgender-woman, overweight, Muslim immigrants and let them run our lives, since they are practically demigods given their high intersectionality. And even within such an elite group, there would be divisions – some grew up poor, others did not. Some have genetic diseases, some do not. Etc. And so intersectionality is also a kind of compartmentalization which tends toward epistemic anarchy. The truth is that we are not only animals, we are rational animals; we are capable of learning without experiencing, and therefore we can generally see what is good and right in public policy without having been in the exact circumstance of those to whom any given piece of legislation applies, provided we are actually informed of how that policy will affect people and be enforced (subsidiarity!)… But we don’t need to take subsidiarity so far that we actually must be part of the racial, gender, “whatever” group over which we exercise authority.
Third, the terminus a quo/ad quem paradigm. The terminus a quo is the “point from which” one goes. It stands in relation to the “terminus ad quem,” the “point to which” one goes. It behooves a person who wants “progress” to say exactly where that progress leads to, and where it stops. Not only has there been deep confusion about where exactly some kinds of “progress” are heading, but also no principled way to determine when that progress ought to stop and be conserved. Some slopes are slippery indeed.
Today’s conservatives are yesterday’s liberals, especially with regard to gender-theory and its related issues. If you need proof, well, there is an endless supply, but try this one on for size. (Yes, really, click the link. If that doesn’t drop your jaw, nothing will.) What is the endgame? What is it really all about? How far can we “progress”? Of course, the goalposts keep moving. First, mere social tolerance is the only request. Then, once acquired, it is a small legal concession here or there, nothing big. Then, the redefinition of a social institution protected by law – but surely, this is the last step… Except then it becomes domination in schools, in the workplace, in the culture at large: indoctrination of the youth, forced service to same-sex weddings, and constant positive portrayal and exposure in the media. And now that the homosexual lobby is quickly running out of room, the momentum has carried into transgender rights.
But at this point I want to ask about these intermediate steps, which, for some basically sincere people, really are seen as the “end,” the terminus ad quem. That step is the the redefinition of social institutions or roles, such as same-sex marriage on the homosexual agenda and right around “bathroom bills” on the transgender front. There is a distinct problem of intentionality for each with regard to their understanding of their terminus ad quem as such.
Everyone has heard the comparison between the civil rights battle of the 1950’s and the present-day struggle for so-called “gay rights.” There is an oppressed group which only wants equal treatment and protection under the law. Just like Blacks couldn’t use the White schools or water fountains or any number of products and services, so gays don’t (didn’t) have access to marriage, because it is limited to the heterosexuals. Because marriage is so important in public life and personally desirable for so many reasons, it is equivalent to the desire for education, transportation, etc., wherein Blacks were discriminated against. Therefore, the two movements are basically analogous.
The problem with this argument is with regard to the terminus a quo/ad quem relationship. Under Jim Crow, goods and services that were equally desirable to both Whites and Blacks were apportioned unequally and unfairly. It was unfair because it put Blacks and Whites on fundamentally different levels of human dignity, when the reality is that race does not determine basic human nature. In other words, Blacks and Whites share the same terminus a quo, since they are fundamentally equal as human beings with the same desires and therefore deserve basic equality of opportunity, but they were treated as having different termini a quo. Because they share identical desires, such as good schools, a seat on the bus, and so on, their desires themselves have an identical terminus ad quem. To sum up, Blacks were given a different terminus ad quem because it was thought they had a different terminus a quo when in reality they did not. The civil rights movement sought the right to the same terminus ad quem by trying to show the Black terminus a quo was the same as the White terminus a quo.
This is (was) not the case with the push for same-sex marriage. Here, the terminus a quo is assumed to be the same by the government, and the terminus ad quem (marriage) is available to all. There is already equality of opportunity – it’s just that the desire of homosexuals is not the terminus ad quem which was equally available. Instead of pushing to be able to use the White water fountain, this was a push to create a Black water fountain because the water from the White fountain tastes bad to some.
Consider again: in no country ever in world history were homosexuals categorically barred from marriage. It is that they typically don’t desire the “kind” of marriage available. Instead, a new kind of marriage needs to be created to suit their desires – a different terminus ad quem altogether, just with the same name. The terminus a quo is different too, not because homosexuals and heterosexuals differ in fundamental human dignity, but because the desires which define these two categories are unequally useful to the commonwealth in which they seek to be fulfilled. Unlike schools or water fountains, marriage has not historically been treated as a good or service consumed, it has been treated as an office from which services and goods are provided to the community, namely, children and care for children. Even if same-sex couples were generally able to provide equally well for adopted or surrogate children as a child’s natural parents, which seems quite obviously incorrect for several reasons, they would still be at an unequal public dignity because they need help bringing children into existence. A man and a woman do not, generally speaking, need help procreating. And because of the clear good of parents staying together, having kids, and treating those kids well, the government is right to incentivize a lifelong commitment to a monogamous heterosexual relationship with certain public benefits which are not due to even the most committed homosexual relationships. The tendency to produce children is why there is such a thing as marriage in the first place (to protect, educate, and nurture children in a balanced and stable environment), and kids are also the primary reason the government should be interested in marriage at all, as they are the future of the commonwealth. It is especially dangerous when many fatherless young men are gathered together – this is how and why gangs form in cities… the kingpin is the replacement for the father.
We could map this same twist of the terminus a quo/ad quem dynamic onto some other public function or office of nature, such as the military. Just as every society needs marriage, it also needs a military, and so there should be certain incentives or “perks” that come with taking up arms as a soldier. But what if I want those same benefits, but without joining the current version of the military? Suppose I too am patriotic, own a gun, dislike terrorists, and sometimes wear camouflage. Shouldn’t I too have equal access to the military? I do, of course – I could go sign up at any moment – but I want to do it my own way, because I don’t desire to go to the desert or live on a base. Shouldn’t military rights be extended to me, too?
Anyone can see that this is the same line of reasoning as the same-sex marriage argument, and anyone can see also that it is a patently absurd argument.
But there is a different kind of absurdity at work in the transgender activism of today… What is the terminus ad quem of a gender transition – or even of the activism in general? If gender is a social construct, as it is so often claimed today, what is the value of changing the body? Cross-dressing or surgery would make sense if one’s real gender were something inherent to the person. So is the terminus ad quem simply to be treated a certain way by other people according to the superficial notions of male and female? If gender is a social construct, then there is no “noumenal” change, it is only a “phenomenon” which changes – that is, there is only and can only ever be a change in perception rather than any objective reality in the person or the body called “gender.” This seems contradicted by the advent of the big step in transgender activism, which is, like the gay agenda, compulsion. In this case it is even worse, because it is more arbitrary. If gender were only a social construct, looking and acting sufficiently “male” or “female” would suffice, but because the meaning of those terms is sliding away into oblivion, like “marriage,” the “appropriate” way to treat a person is based solely on that person’s desire to be treated a certain way. Because there is no objective reality “male” or “female,” and either it is consistently impossible or irrelevant for transgender people to look and act sufficiently like the paragon for “male” or “female” because of their biological sex, before or after surgery, it may be necessary simply to force people to use certain pronouns that they would not normally use.
Not to do so would be “violence,” because it causes depression and social isolation which can lead to self-harm or harassment. Therefore, speech at odds with my own desire to be called “he” “she” “zhe” or whatever, to refuse me the use of any bathroom or locker room I want, to disallow me to put on my official documents whichever of an ever-growing list of genders I determine, is punishable by law… Bad, right? It’s happening in Canada already with the infamous Bill C-16. Except we are not looking at all the harm this can cause, we are looking at the terminus ad quem. What has a trans-man or trans-woman actually become? Surely, they would say a “man” or “woman,” full stop. (Never mind that this is already causing problems – for example, does a trans-woman count as a man or as a woman for the purposes of any kind of affirmative action slanted towards women? Or take the example in the link above about the “transphobia” of RuPaul!) If gender is a social construct, a gender transition is to create a perception of a person as a member of a certain gender category. But since that category is completely based on perception, in what does the transition actually consist? What is actually being changed? And if it is all about my desires anyway, wouldn’t it be easier to change my desire to match with people’s seemingly entirely empty and baseless perception rather than the other way around? If “man” and “woman” don’t really mean anything objective anyway, then why would one even want to be called or treated as one or the other? What is the motivation to depart from the terminus a quo? It seems to be a comically extreme exercise in vanity…
Hopefully I have hammered home the point. The terminus ad quem of gender transitions and the activism surrounding it is unclear at best. And where the movement in general will end is anyone’s guess, but compelled speech is likely involved. After that point, my guess is trans-humanism will be next, especially given the rapid advances being made with the ongoing development of CRISPR.
Of course, the truth is that gender dysphoria and its accompanying behavior constitute a tragic mental illness and symptoms of that illness. The desire to “become a man” or to “become a woman” is based on a fetish with the biological reality of the opposite sex and the social realities based upon it, or some similar unfortunate disposition of the mind. Something approximately the same could be said of same-sex attraction.
These three points understood rightly – the order of charity, experience in relation to knowledge, and the terminus a quo/ad quem paradigm – give us a fitting lens through which to look at mainstream American (and broader Western) politics. The ideas are firmly rooted in the Christian intellectual tradition and help to make very useful distinctions. Hopefully they can assist you in forming your own opinions and in having your own discussions. Let me know what you think in the comments – but play nice!