The Insanity of Modern Moral Outrage
I sit at my computer, thinking about the incomprehensible evil of yet another mass shooting, this time in Uvalde, Texas, and floods of sadness and uncertainty gripped me.
Even so, while the news coming out of Texas is very disturbing, there is something else I can’t get out of my mind. Recently, my family and I had the opportunity to take in some of the landmarks in our nation’s capital. Little did we know we would encounter thousands of people on the National Mall participating in one of nearly 400 “Bans Off Our Bodies” rallies organized across the country to protest the potential overturn of Roe v. Wade.
How can we (rightly) mourn the loss of “our most vulnerable” one day, and cheer for the death of the unborn, those who are truly our most vulnerable, the next? More to the point, how can we pretend we are sane to hold these utterly contradictory attitudes?
To be frank, we can’t, and we shouldn’t, because such attitudes demonstrate the literal insanity that has taken over modern moral sensibilities and outrage. We can demonstrate this by asking three important questions.
What is a ‘Right’?
We constantly hear about a woman’s right to choose, the right to bear arms, the right to free speech, gay rights, trans rights, equal rights, etc. This language of “rights” gets thrown around all the time, but what exactly is a right? It will be most helpful to first determine what a right is not.
Rights can’t be merely subjective preferences. If that were the case, then no mass shooter, abortionist, protester, Supreme Court Justice, etc. could, in principle, do anything objectively wrong. At most, we could say their behavior is not our preferred behavior, but why should anyone care about your preferred behavior? In this case, we could not say that anything is actually wrong (or right for that matter). That certainly doesn’t seem correct.
Similarly, rights can’t just be a matter of legislation from some government body. Things like slavery used to be perfectly legal, but we concluded, correctly, that such behavior is objectively wrong regardless of its legality.
Governments are tasked with protecting rights, not granting them. This understanding was foundational to the formulation of America’s founding documents (even if it was inconsistently lived out). It was also understood when even governments themselves, like Nazi Germany for example, were charged with “crimes against humanity” despite the legal grounds in Nazi Germany for killing Jews.
Nor can we conclude that rights are the types of things that apply universally to everything. After all, we don’t put lions on trial for killing gazelles or even other lions. Hence, there seems to be something specific to human beings regarding rights.
So rights are the kinds of things that aren’t merely opinions. They are not simply based on what is legal, and they seem to apply specifically to human beings. We’re getting closer to understanding what a right is, but what exactly does it mean to be human, and why do humans have these things we call rights?
Why Do Humans Have Rights?
Classically understood, a thing is what it is according to its nature. In other words, all humans are humans because we “instantiate” (or we are each instances of) a common human nature (in a moderate-realist sense, for those who want to be very careful in defining this). This is makes us a human rather than, say, a dog or a cat. This seems rather obvious, but it has in fact been abandoned in our modern rationale where anyone can “be” anything they want to “be.”
Because we can know the natures of things, we can know what constitutes a thing’s state of “good.” Correctly understood, “good” is that which fulfills the end or purpose of some thing according to that thing’s nature. For example, an eye that doesn’t see well is an objectively bad eye because it does not fulfill its purpose according to its nature as an eye.
Such an understanding turns to moral goodness because humans have a rational nature. We are able both to know what is good for us and choose whether to pursue that good or not. Because the good of our intellects is knowing truth, and the good of our wills is pursuing what the intellect perceives as good, acting contrary to reason is to act immorally.
Notice that this is a completely objective standard of goodness. We discover such truths about reality because of our ability to know the natures of things. We do not invent these truths. This understanding of morality is called natural law (based on the good according to our nature as human beings), and it is broadly the basis for our Declaration of Independence and the civil rights movement.
As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, “I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’ … To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.”
This knowledge of natural law gives us the foundation to discover the objective and unchanging human rights to which we’re all entitled based on our shared objective and unchanging human nature. We are by nature social creatures, thus we rely on each other for our well-being in various ways (both positively and negatively). As Christian philosopher Dr. Edward Feser observes,
… we are all obliged to refrain from interfering with others’ attempts to fulfill the various moral obligations placed on them by the natural law; the most basic natural right is the right to do what is good and not to be coerced into doing evil.
From this understanding we can extrapolate, among other things, the basic rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Of course, this does not mean that we are free to pursue our personal idea of “happiness” without limits. Quite the opposite. We are, after all, naturally directed to pursuing what is actually true and what is actually good. When my children go out to have fun on the playground, they are completely free to play anywhere within the bounds of the playground (their “good,” if you will), but they are not free to play in the street. As Feser goes on to say, “While the very concept of a right entails a certain measure of liberty, that liberty cannot be absolute … there cannot be a natural right to do wrong.”
What Are the Implications of Modern Moral Outrage?
Given the knowledge that human rights are based on the natural law thinking outlined above, we can ask our final question: what are the implications of this understanding for the modern moral outrage we see all around us?
While not all of our social ills can be blamed on any one thing, one issue has contributed to societal downfall more than perhaps any other: sex. Let’s briefly examine this issue in light of our natural law reasoning. We can see that human sexual faculties are directed towards the dual purposes of procreation and emotional bonding with the opposite sex. Intercourse naturally results in children who require the long-term care of a mother and father. Adultery, pornography, promiscuity, homosexual behavior, and many other misdirected sexual behaviors are directly contrary to the good of our sexual faculties. Therefore, such behaviors are necessarily bad for us regardless of someone’s particular feelings or desires.
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Since human rights are based in natural law, and natural law shows the necessarily evil nature of the modern sexual revolution, we can see that no one can rationally argue for sexual vice by claiming her “rights” are being violated. Why? Because no such rights exist. Moreover, if someone wants to simply jettison this natural law reasoning all together, then he or she is also eliminating the very possibility of objective human rights. In that case there is no rational argument remaining for others to keep “bans off our bodies.” You can’t have it both ways.
Feser summarizes the situation well,
Similarly, in a person or society dominated by sexual vice, it isn’t just moral understanding in matters of sex that would be undermined, but moral understanding in general.
We are left with a culture whose moral reasoning is truly insane, having largely been blinded by decades of sexual vice masquerading as sexual freedom. This is how such a culture can in one breath rightly mourn the tragic loss of young lives, and use the next breath to hysterically shout about a “woman’s right to choose” to murder her unborn baby. It truly is a psychosis that must be countered with a generation of well-trained and sober-minded individuals who are prepared to tackle the insanity head-on.
In short, there can be no legitimate moral outrage apart from human rights. And there can be no actual human rights apart from natural law. But natural law shows that things like abortion, homosexual behavior, adultery, pornography, etc. are necessarily bad for us (i.e., evil). Thus, we have no “rights” to such things. These ideas stand or fall together.
The simple fact is, without moral sanity there can be no real social justice.