Dear Mom and Dad,
We rarely find time to talk anymore. I guess that’s what happens when you have eight kids and your son has three more. Rushed, oft-interrupted, and emotionally-charged bursts of conversation are not conducive to mutual understanding, and I understand you are too busy to read and understand everything I write. While considering this reality, I’ve decided to address my confusion over our philosophical disagreements and consolidate my ruminations into the most direct and concise letter I can write for your to read at your leisure. Depending on how the letter turns out, I may publish it as an open letter on my blog, for others to better understand as well.
Really, the heart of my confusion is centered on mom’s disparaging and dismissive attitude towards my ideas and understanding of the world. I have arrived at this stage of my understanding primarily due to your influence. Dad’s perennial pragmatism and skepticism gave me a high standard and difficult challenge for rational methodology and mom’s example for action has given me a healthy respect for intuition and substantial consideration regarding virtuous and moral action. In a way, I guess I’m concerned that I may have put you on a pedestal and now require more form you than you can provide, but I am extremely reluctant to admit that possibility. So, here I will write the things I feel you have taught me and how they have led me to the conclusions I have reached; hopefully, it will give us somewhere to begin understanding each other.
If an idea or approach is discovered to be false or does not work, eschew it for what is and does:
When I was a little kid, I often had great ideas or plans which were poorly engineered. Clubhouses which required far more than the few pieces of scrap wood I had available, for instance. While he may not have had the greatest method of explaining why, dad was very good at pointing out why the idea was impossible and providing a more realistic, comparable plan. After the school system had demonstrated that it wasn’t working, mom pulled me out and attempted home schooling. At which point, you perpetually modified and refined the curricula and methods of schooling. Trying different methods for allowance, chores, discipline, and personal liberties, keeping what worked and dropping what didn’t was a constant state of affairs growing up. It seems that ethos is still in full force today.
It shouldn’t take too much explanation to see how this ethos has had an effect on my journey thus far. Primarily, identifying and learning from mistakes. Whether it be my approach to studies, finances, personal life choices, whatever, I’m not afraid to admit error and strive to rectify it, and to rectify the subsequent mistakes made in the attempt to rectify, ad infinitum. Philosophically, I have always had a set of needs. I’ve applied this ethos to fulfilling those needs, moving through pursuits such as paleontology, vulcanology, meteorology, astronomy/ology, cryptozoology, theology, astrophysics and demonology, ultimately settling on philosophy. Along this path, I’ve found what fulfills this need and what doesn’t
This process has served as a useful tool for self-awareness, but I will save that for later. For now, I will move to the things you have shown me which have been consistently shown to work.
Deontological maxims supersede practical considerations:
This is a truth that was a long and hard task to learn. For a long period of time, possibly due to the environment in my early childhood, it was hard to critically assess the position that, “The ends justify the means.” “If my goal is noble enough and attainable, the most direct course of action to get there must be taken, regardless of how undesirable the course of action may be.” This claim, in it’s myriad forms, consistently saw resistance from you. “Murder is still murder, even if it’s for a good cause,” was a common response I would get.
As I warmed up to the idea, for example, that the ten commandments are non-negotiable, I explored the real world and hypothetical ethical dilemmas which would test such a deonotological maxim; trying to expose inconsistencies and contradictions with such an approach became a daily exercise. So far, after trying to break deontology, all I have found is that a clearly-defined and concise set of maxims are the most resilient and reliable basis for moral action. Sometimes, these maxims set a standard too difficult to achieve; this is due to human failings, though, not the mind of God to which we ascribe these maxims.
It is infinitely more honorable to set a moral standard, strive to meet it, and fail than to set a low standard or otherwise make no effort:
These moral maxims, such as “Thou shalt honor the LORD above all else,” “Thou shalt not murder, steal, or covet,” and their necessary conclusions, “Love your neighbor as I have loved you,” and “Uphold the dignity of the human person,” can be more demanding that one can manage at times. This is not an indictment of these maxims, but instead an empirical fact of the human condition. When faces with this fact, one may choose to dissemble and rationalize or justify their failures and accept them or, worse, to simply give up altogether. I’ve lost too many friends and seen too mane others loose friends to this temptation. Seeing you strive to more consistently meet that standard, and succeed, has demonstrated the honor in doing so.
Rather than striving to meet such a standard, I would often attempt to reinterpret these maxims or rationalize my status. You dissuaded me for doing so, mostly by example. It helped that, as I explored limit cases of these maxims, you made an effort to resolve issues or directed me to resources wherein others made the effort. Often, neither you nor the sources could provide a compelling resolution, but instead gave me the tools needed to do so for myself. The important trend through this process was the need for integrity: if someone abandons honesty to themselves and their standards, it is tantamount to lying.
Acting justly is more important than comfort:
Between the maxims mentioned above, the need to act in accordance with those maxims, and the need for integrity, one has a duty to accept responsibility for their situation. Again, this is something I learned from your example, first, and be exploring the philosophy behind it later. Simply assessing your circumstances and making what is ostensibly the best choice available, even when it will be difficult or uncomfortable. Those instances when we would move, switch to hippie food/medicine, move to homeschooling, etc. seemed to demonstrate that duty and the discomfort associated with it. Discussing my situations concerning college, marriage, kids, work, etc. with you also followed that trend.
To engage in or directly benefit from immoral action is to be complicit in that act:
Part of acting justly despite discomfort is to avoid immoral action. When I was younger, I had a hard time understanding why you would discourage ideas of what would be a clearly profitable venture: varying from things like selling vices or running (relatively) harmless scams. The recent example would not be wanting Tommy to be a security guard for a pot shop. While I may disagree with you on specific questions of morality, I think we all agree now that selling one’s morals for profit is unacceptable.
That which is immediate and actionable supersedes, distant, future, or theoretical concerns:
Even though it may pay the bills to sell cocaine out of the Church garage, and may make enough to be comfortable on top of paying the bills, but the ends do not justify the means. There’s a story stuck in my head that I think dad told me, but even if it was someone else it sounds like all the other stories about poop brownies and the like. There was a olympic rowing team that lived together and whenever someone wanted to do something, the team would ask them, “Will it make the boat go faster?” At face value, it would seem to justify the idea that the sole justification of the means is in fact the end.
That interpretation is incredibly naive, though. The olympic rowers found themselves in the circumstance that they were olympic rowers; the olympics was upon them and they had a demonstrable and immediate goal of making the boat go the fastest. In their case, the olympics is as distant or theoretical as getting shot is when on a battlefield or being corralled onto a train in 1939 Poland. That is to say, not very abstract. When faced with a choice, as one is thousands of times a day, the primary consideration of that choice ought to be, “is this option just, in and of itself?” and then whether the demonstrable outcome of the action will “make the boat go faster”. After that analysis, the “what if?” and big picture enter into the equation.
This is how I was coached with regards to Boy Scouts, college prep, financial issues… Dave Ramsey‘s version of this is “debt is bad, mmk? Avoid selling your future for unnecessary gains (like one does with a car loan). Use what is on-hand to solve the problem.”
It is impossible to judge the heart of another, for your sake you must give them the benefit of the doubt even when judging their actions:
The way I have best seen this expressed is Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Dad has consistently stated and re-stated this claim in some form or another at every occasion I have judged another person. It took an embarrassingly long time to come around to the idea. Philosophically, I call it the “phenomenological/epistemic barrier”. That is, one is privy only to one’s own internal experience, it is impossible to directly apprehend the outside world, especially the internal experiences of others. One has an indirect access to others’ behavior (the same way they have access to the behavior of a rock, tree, or beast) but not to the internal experience corresponding to the behavior.
One can, with varying degrees of ease, judge the behavior. For example, dismembering an infant with scissors can easily be identified as the crime of murder, regardless of whether the murderer’s internal experience reflects that behavior. The CIA could have slipped the murderer some crazy drugs, he could be indoctrinated by the medical school system to do so, or he could simply have dementia. I can’t judge his internal experience and call him evil or insist that he is going to hell, but I can say that he has murdered a baby. However, some cases are not so clear-cut and it would not be unjustified to err on the side of caution.
Question the auspices of authority (the only authority is epistemic):
This is something that I think I watched you learn which, of course, is what taught me. My early life experiences like my appendicitis ordeal and elementary school career demonstrated the need for skepticism when interacting with an individual or institution, even if they have the credentials (like an M.D., 100-ish years of history to back them up, or a teaching certificate). The authority of the doctor, teacher, administrator, or priest is not some metaphysical or divine attribute, but instead an epistemic one. The doctor is an authority in medicine insofar as his knowledge of the field is accurate. Not all doctors, teachers, etc. are created equal. Hearkening back to how those who have no standards tend to dissemble and rationalize, those that lack authority tend to lean on their credentials and auspices of authority and, subject to skepticism, are therefore not to be trusted.
Independent research and conceptual reasoning countermand the status quo:
Alongside authority, the status quo is also subject to skepticism. Your rejection (or partial rejection) of vaccines, standard education models, debt-oriented finances, moral/legal equivalence, and the “2.4 kids and a puppy” paradigm is the logical extension of the skeptical approach to the auspices of authority. Independent research can be anything from getting a second opinion from another authority to actually doing the requisite work oneself. Very little on the internet is true, of course. For that matter, very little outside the internet is true, either. This makes independent research incredibly difficult; by extension, that difficulty makes finding an actual authority equally difficult.
What, then, can one rely on when searching for factual or true knowledge? Conceptual reasoning can guide the process, at least. The application of careful deduction, induction, and abduction is ultimately the only tool one has in discernment between different claims, authorities, or options. Of course, like a hammer and nails, reason is useless without experience. All epistemic crises aside, the facts one is able to discern as immediate and actionable often come into conflict with and overcome the status quo. That’s because the status quo is an emergent property of human nature.
The human condition is such that utopia and systematization is impossible:
Back in my Marxist days, dad frequently said things like “people don’t work that way”, “You can’t program society like a computer”, and “who is going to program the computer you put in charge?” Meanwhile, mom was vocally denouncing standardization, especially in education but also in medicine and just about everything else. That, coupled with the Scriptural education you provided, paints a pretty clear picture about the relationship between the human condition and utopia. Utopia being the Greek word St. Thomas More made up which means “no-place”.
Namely, that relationship is radically irreconcilable. In spite of rejecting gnosticism, I am certain that corporeal paradise as we can conceive it, is fundamentally opposed to the human condition. This is not a failing of the human condition, but instead one of utopia. Utopia, in all of its implementations, requires humans to be standardizable, equal, replaceable, and incapable of growth or change. Humans are none of those things; attempts to make them such are doomed to failure.
Coercion doesn’t work, neither does rules:
Coercion is essentially any engagement which can be reduced to, “Do/don’t do X, or else.” In hindsight, almost every moral crisis I had faced until recent years was a result of being coerced. Sometimes, the coercion was an explicit statement as above. Other times, the coercion was inferred from consistent exposure to the above statement or the behavioral equivalent. I don’t want to air dirty laundry, new or old, especially as everything is essentially forgiven and forgotten or is still a secret and not yet beyond the statute of limitations. Having been on both the giving and receiving end of coercion, even in the form of rules that are “for your own good”, I have seen how such behavior does infinitely more harm than good and, on a long enough timeline, ultimately fails to accomplish its intended end. Besides, the ends do not justify the means and coercion undermines the human dignity of the victim in every instance.
Contracts are bullshit:
This is something I have to pin on dad, so you can skip this portion, mom. This comes primarily from our discussions on social contract theory. I unknowingly, used to place undue metaphysical belief on the social contract. You brought this to my attention be demonstrating how the social contract has no effect on the physical world. In a world such as Hobbes’ state of nature, there is no difference between two people backstabbing each other over a limited resource and the leviathan’s people/leaders backstabbing each other over other issues. The social contract has no more effect in the real world than any other metaphysical fairy-tale. I can believe in ghosts all I want, but that will not change your behavior. The same is true for “real” contracts. Ultimately, any contract signed is nothing more than a promise which alludes to the integrity and ability of the signers to uphold that promise, a-la the social contract. Admittedly, there is a difference between the social contract and a “real” contract. That is, a social contract attempts to coerce its “signers” with the boogeyman of anarchy and a “real” contract attempts to coerce its signers with the threat of government violence. But we’ve already had this discussion.
The dignity of the human person:
More important than the practical issues concerning coercion, there is a moral issue. Being created in the image of their creator and being given a special moral quality which is at the center of salvation history, there is a certain revealed dignity to human persons. Even “natural man”, a.k.a. Pagans, are aware of this dignity, expressed in our reason, will, and relationship to each other and the divine. Actual catechesis aside, you taught me this be way of debate, example, and counter example, just like all the other items in this letter.
I’m going to circumvent the whole Plato vs. Aristotle, “human being” vs. “human doing” debate and just assent to people possessing their own dignity by virtue of being human. Ultimately, that’s the only available underpinning for individuals’ duties and rights, but I’m trying to avoid getting too philosophical and lengthy in this letter. I’m just going to stick to the duty (or right) to life, in the interest of time. Simply by virtue of our relationship with out creator, humans have inalienable rights. Chief among those, that from which they are all derived, is the duty to life.
Simply put, it means murder is wrong. By extension, coercion (the threat of murder) and theft (depriving one of their resources used for living) are wrong. Accidental murder, that is, killing someone through avoidable circumstance is still murder. For example “If I leave this toxic waste near the well, people may get poisoned and die. Oh, well, I’m will do it anyway.” So, abortion, murder proper, the death penalty, and war are necessarily a violation of human dignity. Additionally, abdication of one’s humanity and person-hood is an offense against human dignity. I imagine this is the basis of mom’s paranoia concerning drugs, but I’m not sure. I am sure, though, that intentionally allowing oneself to be objectified, abased, or to lose one’s free will/discipline is a violation of human dignity as if they had done the same to someone else.
I guess this is as good a place as any to ask why you changed your mind with regards to the American proxy war in the Middle East. When Bush Jr. wanted to re-invade Afghanistan and Iraq, I fell for the propaganda. You were quick to try and dissuade me from that position. A decade later, I came to your earlier position by a different avenue, that is, by way of the dignity of the human person. I was surprised, then, that mom is so anxious to continue that war and the slaughter of millions of innocents that she tried to dissuade me from supporting. Dad is a bit more coy on the subject, but I think he agrees with mom.
Find what you love and pursue it; make it a tool for survival:
I have a million interests and desires, but the all grow from a root desire which is a love affair I have with Truth and my family. Unfortunately, there is a very limited market for these things in a world rife with lies and captivated with misanthropy. That’s not an excuse, but an assessment of my situation. Why does it matter though? I mean, the aspect of the “american dream” you preached to me the most was entrepreneurship and the ability to turn one’s loves into a tool for living. So, then, I ought to determine how I and my family are called to live and do what we can to fulfill that vocation.
“If you’re not growing, you’re dead.” Another nice soundbite from dad that I now totally agree with. In each aspect of one’s person, if they are not growing, they are dead. Spiritual, mental, and physical growth, at a minimum, is required for one to uphold one’s dignity and pursuit of Truth/flourishing/perfection/“the good”/whatever. Mental growth is clearly the aspect of person-hood I am most disposed towards, with a constant pursuit of numerous “-logy”s and “-ism”s and such, seeking to ground my rational faculties in Truth. Mental growth alone has it’s limits. To pursue mental growth, spiritual and physical growth are required. People and action are required.
I am confident in a great many beliefs I have as to what my own vocation has in store for me, and only slightly less confident in what I feel my family’s vocation is. Of course, to come to such conclusions, I have to constantly work together with them; I know only myself, and must rely on them to know themselves.
Exit Strategy. Have a concrete goal with demonstrable success/failure criteria and have a contingency plan:
There is so much I have to write on this and the preceding subject, as the main initiative for this letter is to try to figure out where our misunderstandings lie in general, but most especially concerning moving to New Hampshire and later fleeing the american empire. Unfortunately, I’m running out of steam for writing this letter, so I’m sure you’ve run out of steam and time to read it.
One of the many books dad is never going to write inspired this one. I know I took his treatise on eschatology and turned it into a practical tool, but you grab truth where you can find it. I don’t know how much I need to expound on the heading, it seems straightforward enough.
This collection of beliefs and lessons has obviously influenced my worldview at large. I think I’ve spent far too much space and time exploring these ideas, so I will try to wrap this up quickly. Really, I can’t understand why you would be so dismissive and crude about the things I have come to understand and what I intend to do. I totally understand disagreeing, as we have always had disagreements, but those disagreements were (generally) calm and rational. Yelling, name-calling, and repeating fallacies is unproductive and neither calm nor rational. It certainly won’t change my mind as previous discussions have.
I don’t find the beliefs I have to be too extreme. Due to the dignity of the human person, no one has the right to murder, coerce, or steal from another. One has a duty to life, in the fullest philosophical sense of the words. One has an obligation to uphold whatever responsibilities and obligations one takes one. One must have rational justification for one’s actions, derived from these first principles.
I find myself in a position where I have taken on the responsibility for the well-being of four other people whom I love dearly. I have this responsibility in the midst of a disturbing situation. This situation is one where I live in a culture centered on misanthropy and death. A society where myself and my children are treated as livestock, coerced into various behaviors by the perpetual threat of murder, routinely stolen from, and ridiculed for pointing these things out. A brief study of history demonstrates an unavoidable cycle of imperialism, where we are currently in one of those cycles, and the fates of those unable to predict such historical cycles. Most importantly, the situation is such that a murderous gang of kidnappers with no accountability, far more firepower than I possess, and a predilection for kidnapping children from those who have beliefs such as mine operates in my neighborhood (funded by the money stolen from me, no less).
A simple cost/benefit analysis revels a clear course of action, especially when the well-being of my children, all the way down to the state of their immortal souls, hangs in the balance. We must assess what fundamental needs we have, what desires we have, and how to change our environment to best fulfill those needs. In order to achieve the flourishing we seek, we must be able to avoid or counter the coercion, murder, and theft we may encounter. That is categorically impossible where we currently live, therefore we must go somewhere else. We must go somewhere where we will either not encounter such things or have more of a fair fight against them. The simple matter of fact is that it is too late in this place to fight back and I don’t want myself or my children to face the circumstances that naive Catholics have been faced with in first-century Rome, 18th century Prussia, 20th Century Poland/Germany/France, and at least a dozen other places and times.
I am fully aware that I am to be a martyr, but martyrdom comes in all shapes and sizes. I would like to be a martyr worth emulation, even if never recognized by historians. I would not hesitate to kill or die for my children, so why should I hesitate to forego creature comforts and worldly status? If the status quo is such that I could take advantage of criminal activity, imperial decadence, and misanthropic agendas if only I would forego my conscience or “move to Somalia”, I would side with morality, reason, and my conscience. Not for my sake, but for my kids, so that they will not have this dilemma foisted on them because I didn’t feel like addressing it.
I don’t need you to understand. I don’t need you to agree or condone my ideas or actions. What I need is to understand you, your actions, and help giving you a chance to prove me wrong. I wrote this down so you could read it at leisure and approach the discussion more calmly and rationally and so that you could see that I still value our relationship and your opinions, even if they are wrong.