“Well, that’s just your opinion, man. We’ll juts have to agree to disagree.”
Sure. We can agree to disagree on the indisputable fact that mayonnaise has no business being on a hamburger. We can agree to disagree that driving a stick shift makes for a more pleasant experience when outside of major cities. We can even agree to disagree over whether Natalie Portman was more attractive in Attack of the Clones than Carrie Fischer was in The Return of the Jedi.
What we can’t agree to disagree on, however, are fundamental metaphysical assumptions about the world and about man. How tolerable should sexual misbehavior be between two unmarried people? Well, that’s bad enough, but what about the fundamental purpose of certain organs and the misuse of those organs as vehicles of so-called pleasure? And what about the presumption that sexual pleasure can be a basis of love? Are these matters of personal opinion?
It may surprise some to hear, but love for a person has very little to do with a tingling sensation or a quickening of the heartbeat when their image comes into view. Obsessing over this one aspect of love is setting yourself up for an impulsive hell of serial dating and sleeping around.
Let’s cut to the chase: there is no possible world in which sodomy can be both acceptable and reprehensible at the same time. You can’t simply agree to disagree on this. It’s not a matter of opinion. Either those who engage in grievous misuse of their bodies are doing wrong, or those who believe that the functions of bodies imply certain ends are mistaken. These things can be deduced. It’s not mere personal preference.
It’s not my intention here to get into the whys and hows of how sexual misbehavior can be deduced to be not only something that is true, but something that is taught widespread across our culture and something most of us, without even realizing it, are probably guilty of. That’s a topic for another time. The purpose here is to look at how such a misunderstanding can arise in the first place—how, in other words, we can be fooled into believing that basic ontological truths can be assumed to be mere relative opinion and not things grounded in a knowable, tangible reality.
What Is Reality?
In the most basic sense, we can know reality because we can touch it. Yes, you have your Humean skeptics that verge nearly on solipsism, who may claim—contrary to common sense—that our senses are liars and that we can’t ever trust them, but theses same extreme skeptics can be spotted eating when they’re hungry, obeying traffic signals, and uttering exclamations of shock and pain when pricked with a needle, burned by a stove, or more appropriately, punched in the face. What I mean to say is, extreme skepticism of this sort, solipsism, or any of those philosophical positions that rely on denying material, tangible reality can safely be filed under the too academic to matter to anyone in the real world category of thought. Denying even the basic material of the world indicates an absurd lack of confidence in one’s own cognitive capacity to recognize what is real.
So while it is true that our cognitive functions may misinterpret what our senses are telling us, and sometimes our senses themselves can be fooled, it’s far leap to presume that because of this, our senses can’t be trusted at all. On the contrary, our senses can be trusted well enough to determine that what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch are, at the very least, most probably real things (I’d go so far as to say that it’s almost certainly rather than merely “probably”). So what we sense with our exterior perceptions is real.
But there’s another category of real that includes abstracts. The general go-to example of this is mathematics—a particular conceptual reality that makes the tangible world knowable. We can’t touch or see math, but math is made knowable, at least at first, by what is touchable and visible. Basic arithmetic is, after all, often tough to children using various combinations of fruits or blocks. From these basic aspects of arithmetic is derived higher level and more complex math that also has more complicated applications to reality, but is nonetheless real rather than an imaginary aspect of a particular person’s opinion.
Speaking from a more Biblical perspective, reality consists of everything that is not imaginary, or in your head. This includes creation (the universe), of course, but Heaven (where God is) and Hell (everywhere else that isn’t Heaven or creation).
For those less religiously-inclined, there might be a need to extrapolate God into the realm of the objective. Too often we’re informed that religious belief is purely a matter of faith, an ambiguous term that presently seems to be synonymous with opinion. Well, the existence of God isn’t a matter of faith. Aspects of His nature, what He wants for us, and that sort of thing can only be deduced through His revelation, and thus are matters of faith, but recognizing His existence isn’t some silly matter of leaping off a cliff of reason into an abyss of uncertain belief.
The Top of the Hierarchy
A little under a thousand years ago, St. Anselm formulated an ontological argument for the existence of God that touched on this issue. It’s not my intention here to dive too deeply into it, but it goes something like this: given that God is conceived as the greatest possible being, and given that a greatest possible being can be conceived of in thought, and given that beings are are greater or better when they can be both conceived of and known in reality, God must exist purely on the basis that there must be a greatest possible being that can be both conceived of and known externally to ourselves.
We can take several issues with the argument—not all men have the same definition for God, what exactly does ‘greatest’ mean in this context, etcetera—but these are issues for someone else to argue. The basic gist is pretty easy to figure out: there must be a maximally great entity that is both knowable and imaginable. Anselm’s argument is never the most convincing for atheists, and it’s not hard to see why: how is this in any way referring to the God of scripture?
Keeping in mind the existence of a maximally great being, we can go a step further. Would this entity exist within the rules and confines of the observable universe? Is it conceivable that it would not? Is it conceivable that it could instead have caused the universe?
Well, we know that the universe can’t be taken as a single object. It’s a term we use to refer to everything we can see. In older times, we used ‘the world’ to refer to the same idea, but with our more Enlightened minds and more powerful telescopes, the world doesn’t seem to carry the same enormity of space as universe does. The point is that the universe is a word applied to a system—the system, at least of material things.
And here’s the thing about systems: they cannot define themselves. All systems operate according to rules and principles that are, in a sense, higher than their own. Mathematician Kurt Gӧdel’s incompleteness theorem provides pretty definitive reasoning for this within a formalized logic framework. St. Thomas Aquinas’ Five Causes arguments for the existence of God similarly explaining what is, effectively, the same thing.
So we have a being, maximally great, that effectively gives definition to the universe. St. Thomas’ argumentation takes it further and says that not only does it give definition and beginning to the world, it sustains the world at every single moment, and this is made clear in his exegesis on metaphysical causality.
My point of illustrating it is this: in a certain sense, all of the world points upward toward what is greater than itself. This is what is meant by hierarchy; in the modern sense, hierarchy has been contorted to be a sort of rigid authoritarian system of organization by which those at the top oppress those beneath them. We see this definition made manifest in, ironically, every liberal democracy around; the bureaucratic state breeds a desire for power, and any sufficiently advanced bureaucracy will create entire classes of middle managers that exist purely to oppress each other. Those above simply must oppress those beneath because nobody involved actually wants to be there.
But hierarchy properly understood—one in which people actually want to be there, say—is one in which the stream of interaction is two-way. Those beneath look to those above for guidance and moral authority, while those above provide leadership and examples of behavior for those below. Obviously no one is perfect in this world, and error and sin are both not merely prone to happen but in fact likely, but formulating a system with the right ideas in mind is infinitely better than founding it on the wrong ones.
You could consider this a sort of noblesse oblige on the part of those higher in the hierarchy. You might say, wait, this sort of thing doesn’t happen in nature. We know all about the food chain and we don’t tend to see hungry lions choosing to fast out of charity when a group of gazelle trot by. And that’s obviously true, but it’s also just as obviously true that animals lack the agency that human beings have. Animals aren’t tied to a morality, their behavior is governed by instinct and, arguably a rudimentary rationality. Man’s is tied to a morality, and no action he takes can remove the moral dimension from his existence. Sure, he can ignore it, but the embrace of such an attitude happens also to be one of the biggest errors of modernity.
I’ve digressed a little, but this is where the main point comes into focus. From the existence of a natural hierarchy, we can see how the Catholic position on this topic came about. Catholic doctrine orders worldly creatures according to a hierarchy not unlike what I outlined above. At the lowest order of being is that which simply exists, such as rocks or dirt. Up from that encompasses that which exists and has life, such as plants or fungi. Then that which exists, has life, and reason, such as a wide variety of animals. At the top of this hierarchy exists Man, which exists, has life, reason, and agency.
It is not pride that situates Man at the top, but it is Man’s position at the top—possessing reason and being capable of agency—that allows him to be subjected to pride, as well as the rest of the cardinal sins. It is through reason that Man can learn to organize himself, both socially and, to a degree, interiorly, but it is through the indulgence of pride that Man exerts his will to power insomuch as he subjugates those around him. Subjugation of the exterior destabilizes his interior life.
So it comes down to this. We can establish that there is an objective reality that all of us interact with. We can establish that this objective world points toward, or is defined by, an entity that transcends this world—a transcendent, or divine reality. There are a few more dots to connect, and this post hasn’t the time or space to connect them, but let’s pretend they’ve been connected; let’s assume this transcendent reality is in fact the ultimately simple, ultimately being, ultimately actual being that all men call God.
If it can be established that God exists, and that God is the causal entity from which reality springs and by which all of reality is sustained, the matter of any man’s action is suddenly made clear: morality is not a matter of my taste or yours, but of God’s, for morality is the means by which God makes clear the meaning of our actions. Moral agency is what makes life worth living. Our actions are given weight not because of what they gain ourselves in this life, or even our progeny’s. They’re given weight by how much they please God. We reap a reward because we rejoice in God’s glory. It’s not a simple matter of pleasing an arbitrary entity whose whims cannot be predicted. It’s a matter of pleasing the architect, creator, and origin of the world, and we already know how to do that: the practice of virtue.
Reason cannot orient itself. When oriented toward God, reason begins to function the way it was intended. Our intellect is sensible only when our will is properly oriented. And the will can only turn toward God through genuine practice of the cardinal and theological virtues. Then it really is possible to speak clearly on matters of fact without significant interference from pride or opinion.
This includes speaking not merely matters of natural science, but also on matters of morality. The secular psychologists and academics may obfuscate the real with assertions of personal bias and past histories that cast the shade of guilt over the interpretation of data. There’s some truth to this, but the secular man hasn’t the recourse of the sacrament of confession. For the secular man who feels guilt over the transgression of the natural law, he has only two options: tell everyone about it, imitate the confessional by pouring his confession onto the shoulders of those around him, or attempt to bend the world around him into an imitation of a possible reality in which he had committed no sin—to attempt to redefine reality into being an excuse for the transgression so unconsciously registered. The people in the former category, those pathetically penitential, they become rock musicians. The latter become genre fiction writers.
But now imagine an entire society in which competing forms of worldviews are devised to cope with the enormity of personal desires that have no other available outlet. How is it possible for a liberal society to thrive when there’s a veritable ‘marketplace of ideas’ in which ‘conversations’ are deciding what is true and good? Enter relativism. It begins, on some level, with guilt.
Opinion can be discerned clearly from facts only through the practice of virtue. It is pleasing to God to practice virtue and to avoid sin; as such, that which is God’s work becomes more clearly knowable and His love more readily experienced. So when this is turned on its head, and when all facts have been relegated, in the social sphere, to mere opinions—particularly facts on the nature of morality and fundamental moral precepts—what becomes clear is the extent to which the contemporary world has fallen into not merely sin, which all of creation is mired in, but an outright rejection of virtue and an outright rejection of God. Relativism has at its root an abject hatred for the true, the good, and the beautiful, though it masks this hatred with ambivalence.
So when someone tells you “that’s just your opinion, man,” reflect on what really is your opinion. Recognizing intrinsic disorder is not a matter of opinion. Whether goodness should be pursued is not a matter of opinion, although choosing to partake in it is. It’s not up to you. When you’re asked why you’re so intolerant or bigoted, or perhaps just stubborn and old-fashioned, just remind them of this fact. The response is, “it’s not up to me.” Because it isn’t. Surrendering anything of truth over to relativism, to the poisonous liberal appetites of modernism, is suicide.