Dogmatism Rightly Understood

Last weekend I got to spend some time with a bunch of impressive students that the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) rounded up for one of their periodic leadership conferences, this time in Casper, Wyoming. One of the things I shared with the assembled students (who were really really bright) was my short list of indispensable essays or parts of classic books that everyone should re-read at least annually.

My list isn’t actually fixed, and it is not uniform, as it depends on the interests of the person or general topic area. I have slightly different recommendations for economics, literature, philosophy, history, etc.  But there are a few I recommend to just about everyone, starting first with Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”  Always useful to have on hand when, for example, the Obama Administration describes the Ft. Hood shooting as “workplace violence,” or the Libya bombing campaign as a “kinetic activity” rather than hostile military action. Beyond Orwell’s takedown of political euphemisms, his essay is a decent guide to clear writing.

Another important essay is F.A. Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” (Or click here for a PDF file of the original AER version.)  First published in 1945, Hayek spells out his basic cognitive critique of the limits of political control over social phenomena, which he later boiled down to a single sentence: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” (His 1974 Nobel Prize lecture, “The Pretense of Knowledge,” works well, too.) You could consider this Hayek’s own modern restatement of Socratic ignorance and therefore the beginning of wisdom: I know that I know nothing.  You rather wish the architects of Obamacare, or Dodd-Frank, or just about any piece of contemporary legislation, would be made to study this essay every morning.  (Worth noting, incidentally, that Hayek’s classic essay was just selected as one of the 20 most significant articles to have appeared in the 100-year history of the American Economic Review.)

There are several others on my list, but one short book that I discussed at some length the other night: C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. It is short enough to read in one sitting.  First published in 1947, it is astoundingly prescient about what we’ve come to call “post-modernism,” or at least the widespread view that there are no rational foundations for moral principles, or no moral truths. I first read it as a high school senior in 1976, and still go back to it regularly today, appreciating it more and more every time. Lewis foresaw the implications of the spreading nihilism of the 20th century, along with Leo Strauss (Natural Right and History), Eric Voegelin (The New Science of Politics), and Richard Weaver (Ideas Have Consequences), among others.

Lewis’s elegant critique of the consequences of what we’ve come to call, somewhat oversimply, “relativism” culminates in this ringing sentence:

“A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not a tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.”

One the surface this statement might seem contradictory, if not in a sense shocking.  Why dogmatic?  If moral truths have an objective basis in reason (that is, natural law), why any need for dogmatism?

To give an answer to that question, let’s turn for a moment to a similar “dogmatic” declaration from the canon: Leo Strauss’s remark in his essay “Liberal Education and Responsibility” that “wisdom requires unhesitating loyalty to a decent constitution and even to the cause of constitutionalism.”  So it’s loyalty oaths and dogmatism?

Explaining the reasons why these two seemingly shocking statements are not shocking at all but highly necessary in our time could require a whole book (or a semester in the classroom), though a short version might be found, oddly enough, in an unlikely place: Federalist Paper #31, which is ostensibly just about the taxing power.  But Number 31 begins with a long preface of moral philosophy that boils down to this central point: the objective basis of moral truth is like proofs in geometry: they are grasped intuitively by “antecedent evidence” in Hamilton’s words, and if someone “doesn’t get it,” no amount of rational argument can establish the existence of moral truths.  “Where it produces not this effect,” Hamilton writes, “it must proceed either from some defect or disorder in the organs of perception, or from the influence of some strong interest, passion, or prejudice.” Today the “strong interest, passion, and prejudice” of the liberal mind is the unlimited autonomy or will of the Self, which cannot abide any constraint rooted in human nature. It is but a step from this unarticulated premise to a philosophy of unlimited government.

The trick of democratic politics, Federalist #51 explained, was enabling the government to be powerful enough to control the governed, but able to control (or limit) itself—that is, not so powerful that it threatens the natural rights of the people.  For liberals, rights today aren’t based in nature, but on will: anything you want becomes a “right” that government must secure by taxing and/or coercing your fellow citizens. It is a formula for tyranny; just ask Christian-owned bakeries right now. This is why Lewis says belief in objective value is necessary; the need for it to be “dogmatic” arises from the corruption of the liberal mind that more and more often today rejects reason and objectivity tout court. Against this highly trained incapacity to think, dogmatism is necessary, lest civilization itself slip inexorably away beneath the waves of nihilism.

Likewise in the second half of Lewis’s sentence, the idea of objective value is the only basis on which to answer the first question of political obligation: why should you obey the law? Post-modern liberals cannot answer the “why” of this question, and openly say that law is based only on force. Most of the time I am tempted to respond by saying: “Fine—how many of you are members of the NRA?” That’s how I let my dogma run over their (smart)-karma.