I Know How You Should Live

Non-progressive.— If I began compiling a list of all the personal and societal changes — practical and spiritual — that I firmly believe would greatly enhance human life in general if actualized, each item expressed in one sentence or less, it would likely result in the longest post in the five-plus-year history of this website. And yet, as certain as I am that each of the changes I would recommend, if adopted by any given individual or by a community at large, would substantially improve that individual’s or community’s life, I nevertheless remain equally certain that no one, not even I, ought to have the authority to impose these changes on anyone else. Being human means, ultimately, being an adult, and being an adult human being means, in large measure, being free to assume responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences. Making poor personal choices is not the goal of freedom (libertarians take note), but, as thinkers as diverse as Aquinas and Voltaire have maintained, it is an unavoidable risk of freedom, the testing ground of growth, and thus an inevitable element of living (personally or societally) in accordance with our nature, such that to deny another that risk is to deny him his birthright, as surely as if one had stolen his inherited family land.

Indignation vs. Thought.— Pope Francis, whom I dislike immensely, made an uncharacteristically reasonable and properly Catholic statement the other day, criticizing the nihilistic late-modern trend of married couples choosing to raise pets instead of having children. In a public response, boring British comedian Ricky Gervais — why do comedians think they ought to be taken seriously as public commentators now? — suggested the pope’s remarks were “stupid,” and asserted (hilariously and with great understated power) that, “I think what he believes is ridiculous.” 

Gervais, as the Daily Mail article linked above notes, “is vocal about his atheism,” you see — which is the kneejerk (read “daring and shocking”) celebrity wisdom in this era of rampant nihilistic materialism and near-universal dismissal of religious people as anti-science morons. In light of the comedian’s (enlightened and intellectually challenging) irreligiosity, it is hardly surprising that he was deeply offended by the following papal remark: “Today…we see a form of selfishness. We see that some people do not want to have children. Sometimes they have one, and that’s it, but they have dogs and cats that take the place of children.”

Gervais’ (trenchant and blisteringly satirical) response:

It’s a stupid thing to say, isn’t it? How can not having children be selfish? How can it be selfish not to bring something into the world that doesn’t exist on any level? 

It’s not like there’s a big line or cage of unborn foetuses going: “We want to be born”. It doesn’t make any sense.

If Gervais had been slightly less brilliant and hilarious, he might have noticed that the pope’s accusation of “selfishness” makes perfect sense from a theological point of view, since it is a Christian tenet that procreation is a natural aim of the species, and that human society benefits from being replenished, and from being repopulated with children raised by responsible married couples — which is the primary reason human civilization invented marriage customs in the first place. He might also, had he not been so frightfully witty, have noticed that in the advanced world (and conspicuously in Italy, where the pope made his remarks) birthrates are so low that aging populations will soon be left without anyone but government robots to care for them (or about them) in their final years. Hence, from the Catholic Church’s position, which in this case is a fairly humane position even from a non-religious angle, it is selfish to marry without the intention of producing and raising children, since today’s adults ought to feel some responsibility for the long-term well-being of their communities, and not merely for their own short-term pleasure and convenience.

Not surprisingly, the Daily Mail article also notes that “The After Life star explained he and his partner Jane Fallon don’t have children of their own for a number of reasons, but he’s happy with his pets.” There it is: Gervais felt compelled to respond to the pope’s comments simply because they struck a nerve in his personal life. He was lashing out in the name of his vanity and in defense of his personal lifestyle choices — which are indeed his business, and would be much better off confined to precisely that sphere.

In other words, Gervais’ flippant, ignorant, and frankly stupid response to the pope’s words — as if anyone ought to care what a comic thinks about a religious leader’s position on the value of procreation — was in fact a textbook example of indignation, and of why that particular all-too-human emotion is antithetical to honest rational thought. There is nothing enlightened, courageous, or even particularly interesting about unreasoned outbursts in defense of one’s emotional soft spots or vested interests.

As a point of contrast, I myself am married and childless by choice, in spite of having been raised Catholic, but I nevertheless understood and appreciated the point Pope Francis was trying to make perfectly well. I know why I live as I do, and why I have chosen as I have, but I am also quite capable of understanding that some of my specific choices could not, and should not, be universalized. In this I agree with Nietzsche’s objection to the pettiness of modern moralists — and that includes our postmodern anti-moralists in the preach-o-tainment industry — who in order to shield themselves from the weakness of self-doubt make it their mission to “prove” that everyone ought to do as they do. It is revealing, as Nietzsche observes, that they lack the courage to live by their choices without demanding that everyone else ought to accept and replicate those choices. On the other hand, I have never been an overrated professional comic, so I suppose it is easier for one in my humble station to allow my judgment to be led by my rational mind rather than by my fragile ego. Indignant cries make good melodrama, and occasionally good comedy, but they do not add much to the discussion of the human good.

And “vocal atheists,” in my experience, do indeed tend to be funny, but rarely by intention.

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