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How we made ‘choice’ a god

When this worthless value is the pre-eminent good, society suffers

By on Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Gay Marriage Amendment

The gay marriage debate rumbles on and on. It generates more heat than light, which is a pity, because there is need for a debate in this country about marriage. Just when same sex couples may get the right to marry, marriage itself is in serious trouble, as the recent census reveals. Marriage is now less popular than it has ever been, and the number of children growing up with a lone parent is increasing. This should come as no surprise to anyone, and no one seriously disputes the waning popularity of marriage, as far as I can see. Opinion divides as to whether the waning of traditional marriage is a good or a bad thing, or something that is to be greeted with indifference. If people choose not to get married, that is their choice, isn’t it, one can almost hear people say.

And here really is the nub of the question. Is choice really the most important thing? Is it the “fount of normativity”, as a theologian might say? Is it what determines whether something is right or wrong? If two people choose to get married, or to live together, or to adopt whatever arrangement suits them, does the exercise of choice make whatever they choose the right thing for them?

This sounds plausible, and God knows, we have heard something along these lines a long time now from all sides, but the overwhelming consensus about choice being the sole determinant of morality masks a failure to get to grips with the underlying questions.

First of all, all serious thinkers would have to admit, choice per se is valueless, unless it is a reasonable and deliberate choice. Every philosopher would agree with this, from Aquinas all the way through to Rawls (though I think Nietzsche might not). To ‘choose’ what is not reasonable has no value, indeed goes against every value. If someone chooses to gorge themselves on junk food, for example, and their health suffers as a result – well, no one could praise that or say that such a “right to choose” was good. But, of course, the junk food addict does not really exercise free choice or rational choice, but is in the grip of a compulsion. But the truth of the matter is that few of us ever exercise completely free choice, as few of our choices are made in ideal choosing conditions. We all act under a series of compulsions, strong or less strong. Anger is one compulsion that informs many contemporary choices. Prevailing opinion too sways the masses, as does advertising. We think we are free, but we are not entirely so.

The next thing we have to note is that choosing per se may be the sine qua non of morality, in that without choice there can be no moral merit in anything; but such moral value depends on the nature of what you choose. Choosing evil is a disaster, and no amount of talk about the value of choice is ever going to redeem the disaster. Suicide is always a bad thing, even if it is freely and deliberately chosen. That is a clear example. But consider this other example (which I may have used before.) You are put down in the featureless landscape of the Sahara desert and told you are free to go anywhere you choose. You will walk in a large circle until you drop. What good is that freedom to you? But if you are put down in the middle of the desert and told you are free and given a compass, then you can walk in a straight line and walk out of the desert eventually. Choice is valueless unless it is a choice oriented to the Good.

So where does this take us with regard to marriage? People who choose to get married today as the law stands do a good thing in so far are they freely choose to get married and in so far as they do so aiming to enjoy the goods of marriage which are the union of the couple and the procreation and upbringing of children. These two are what make marriage good and a worthy object of choice.

What we have heard in the same sex marriage debate generally goes along the lines of “If they want to do so, it is their choice, and they have a right to get married” – an argument about the primacy of choice. But we ought not to give way before all choices presented to us without those choices being backed by reason and without those choices having worthy objects. By reducing marriage to a pure matter of personal choice, long before the question of same sex marriage arose, we have effectively hollowed out the institution and made it meaningless. No wonder so few people nowadays want to get married.

  • Benedict Carter

    All the more reason Father for the Church to return to presenting to the Faithful that which faces each one of us – Death, Judgement, Heaven or hell. 

    This can be justifiably be aimed squarely at those engaged in homosexual practices, but at all of those who either are in thrall to this or that mortal sin or who do not flee the occasion of sin. 

    Father Z. opined recently on his blog that those priests who refuse to present this choice to their flock are destined for hell themselves. 

    We cannot serve two masters: it’s either Christ or Lucifer. 

  • whytheworldisending

    If less people were buying Rolls Royces, that would not mean they were becoming unpopular. It is more likely to mean that less people could afford it. People want what Christian marriage offers them, but they do not have the means to obtain it. No amount of money can buy it. People who have stored up treasure in heaven have riches they can share with one another, and which will last a lifetime.The deification of “Choice” is part of atheistic consumerism. Those who worship money have a vested interest in promoting the idea that the customer is always right. Indeed if every choice is a potential sale, they have a vested interest in getting people to change their minds. It’s called increasing turnover.
    We would not say that cars were becoming less popular if more people were buying new cars more often. If anything, this would show that people were becoming more enamored with cars, but less willing to cherish and care for any one car for too long. Revoking a previous choice is not the ultimate freedom of choice, but evidence that the first choice was a poor choice. The freedom to make bad choices is worthless.
    Sexual promiscuity has nothing to do with love, and yet all people want to be loved. They do not want to be treated as disposable consumer items. The choice is God who respects human freedom, or Consumerism, which deceives and enslaves. Without Wisdom – without knowing the true value of things, choice is worse than useless. Propaganda promoting permissiveness is dumbing down our sense of values, and taking away peoples’ freedom to choose the good life for themselves and their children.

  • chrism

    This too was the argument that Marx used against ‘bourgeois freedom of choice ‘  ; ” Rich and poor are free to sleep under the bridges of Paris.” 

    Relativism is no freedom at all but it has become the predominant ideology derived from Anglo Saxon philosophy , James and John Stewart Mill , ‘On Liberty’. Hence the moral mess of Anglo Saxon societies in particular . 

  • chris

    Epitomised in the hippy ‘Do your own thing man.’ 

  • Kevin

    Who would have thought the picture at the top would ever be subversive?

    In your face, David Cameron.

  • wasonceacatholic

    There have always been gay people since Humans first walked on this earth. I am also pretty sure there are some gay Christians, maybe even gay Catholics out there ! I’d even go so far to say that I bet there are more gay people in this world than Catholics !
    If two people believe in God and want to get married in a church – let them I say. Now I’ll just stand back and wait for the “Gay people will burn for eternity in the fires of hell” and “Heretic !” comments to come in. Ok, rant over.On the point of marriage itself, more people than ever these days people have suffered the divorce of their parents and are too scared to marry thinking there is a possibility that history will repeat itself and they don’t want their kids to suffer like they did. Others marry for their children because the law in the UK means that, if for example, a Mother died in a car accident, then any other member of the family could step forward claiming right to guardianship of her children. However, if the Mother was married, the Father(husband) would automatically become the first choice in the eyes of the law should any other family member claim guardianship. My Sister in Law and her husband got married only for this reason. God and the Church never came into it.Others don’t want to get married these days purely because of the cost. My marriage in 2004 including the Honeymoon cost £6000 and that is seen as cheap ! I was married in Church because I felt  marriage in the eyes of God was spiritual and lawful bonding, not just for my wife and I but for all those who witnessed it. I would’ve popped the question to her 2 years previously if I had the funds. The main reason there are less marriages these days is simply because people can’t be arsed ! Whether they are Christians or not. 

  • hyper444

    In fact it’s not subversive, is it?

    It illustrates a common type of marriage, accepted by everyone. This will still be the case after gay people achieve marriage for themselves.

  • hyper444

    “.. without those choices being backed by reason”
    “…To ‘choose’ what is not reasonable has no value, indeed goes against every value.”

    And what about the Catholic (or any other religious) faith?
    “Belief” in religious dogma and doctrine is not backed by reason, in the sense that the word “reason” is normally understood.

  • teigitur

    If its not subversive now, it will be. Its just a matter of time. You won t be able to show that, it will be discrimination.

  • hyper444

     This is a disgraceful comment which could frighten children (and others) who might read it.

    You are free to believe that you suffer eternal damnation if you eat meat on a Friday or marry a person of the same sex etc, but you have no right to distress other vulnerable people, who might innocently stumble on this website, and read these outrageous suggestions.

    Children and some others are protected today, at least to some degree, from visiting certain websites.
    The CH should offer similar protective options to parents.

  • hyper444

     Quite true. Neither you nor I can predict the future.

  • Recusant

    An interesting glimpse of the tactics that will be used more and more to silence Catholics, a faux concern for the “vulnerable” and a mock outrage in order to shut down debate. In fact, you are the one who neglects the vulnerable. It has been established that societies with a belief in hell have lower crime rates and higher charitable giving than those that do not. 

    (see, for example, this study )

    So Benedict Carter is quite right that a proper formation of young (indeed, all) people is a necessary and healthy social act, whereas you in your non-judgemental, non-frightening benevolence are happy to leave others to experience crime in order to keep your mental well-being.

  • Recusant

    It is interesting that you choose junk food as an example. In fact, liberals do not respect people’s choice when it comes to junk food, especially the poor or people who like fatty pleasures. For example, when Jamie Oliver started cooking school dinners, the children were forbidden chips. When the parents tried to provide the food their children liked they were vilified. I am not defending chips (I don’t send them to school for my children), I am merely saying that food is an area in which people are as judgemental as any Catholic ever has been, and take their judgements to override the choice of people with whom they disagree.

    It seems that taboo is preserved in a society, and converted from one situation to another : food used to be something of zero moral value that you did as you chose, in private, at home, but sex was something that had rules and social pressures to ensure correct behaviour. Now sex is something of zero moral value that you do as you choose, in private, at home, but food has rules and social pressures to ensure correct behaviour. I do not thing the modern dispensation is an improvement.

  • Rizzo The Bear

    Oh, get a grip!

  • Stevgoldsmith

    ‘”we have effectively hollowed out the institution and made it meaningless”

    I would agree. But I rather think that by following neo-conservative economic policies we’ve  destroyed steady jobs and peoples’ability to earn decent wages.

     It’s hard to maintain any kind of  relationship and bring up children when you’re out of your mind with worry about where the next pay check is coming from. I also think the religious “right” has been a cheerleader in this process.

    “in so far as they do so aiming to enjoy the goods of marriage which are the union of the couple and the procreation and upbringing of children”

    I’m unsure as to the position of the (Catholic) church in this – would the church refuse the rite of marriage to people over child-bearing age? or a couple who happen to be infertile? 

  • Matthew_Roth

    Really? This was one of his most frank and accurate but least-hyperbolic and scary comments…

  • U.S. Catholic

    “How we made ‘choice’ a god”

    I actually have been wondering about the relationship between God and his gift of human freedom of choice.  Even God chooses to respect people’s choices — we can choose Heaven or Hell.  Not being a theologian, I keep asking — what is so important and powerful about the capacity of the human will to act or not to act, or to act in certain ways, that even God “must” obey it ?  So in a sense, God has made “choice” a God, no ?  Theologians please explain.

  • Benedict Carter

    Do you peep out of your lace curtain every morning before going to work to see if there are any dangerous old ladies in the road walking their poodles, then duck out of your front door when they have passed?

    You are rather “hyper”, aren’t you?

  • whytheworldisending

    You don’t have to be a theologian. We make “rational” choices on the basis of how we value expected outcomes, that is on weighing up the perceived risk of success versus perceived risk of failure. What we consider success and failure depends on what we perceive to be of value. All of our choices are blighted by the fact that we cannot see into the future, or into people’s hearts, and cannot grasp the true value of things. We are in darkness, but 1 John 1:5 states, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all,” and we can choose to follow the light, as Jesus says in John 9:5, “While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.” When we prefer human reasoning to the Gospel of Christ, we choose darkness, and suffer the consequences.

  • Jonathan West

    Is choice really the most important thing? Is it the “fount of normativity”, as a theologian might say? Is it what determines whether something is right or wrong? If two people choose to get married, or to live together, or to adopt whatever arrangement suits them, does the exercise of choice make whatever they choose the right thing for them?

    In order to be able to consider the question properly, I would have ask what alternative to choice you propose. Coercion? By whom and to what degree? On what basis can the person applying the coercion claim to know better what is good for the person being coerced? Is the decision to apply coercion in this or that direction not itself a choice?

  • whytheworldisending

    There is no evidence for the statement, “There have always been gay people since Humans first walked on this earth.”

    Since homosexuality is a corruption of the sexual nature, and since there has to be something good to corrupt, sexually uncorrupted human beings must have existed first and so when humans first walked the earth there were no homosexuals.

    As to christians, Jesus proposed – in Matthew 9:12 – that a life of celibacy should be followed where possible. That means anyone proposing permissiveness is pointing people in the opposite direction from Christ. Such people cannot logically be described as christian.

    Some people get married in order to commit murder and claim the insurance, but that doesn’t make marriage any less good. For evil to exist, there has to be something good to corrupt. Lapsed Catholics for example are just corrupted versions of themselves. That’s why we have the sacrament of reconciliation.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    False dichotomy. The choice is between choice as such and deliberate rational choice. Aristotle or Nietszche, as MacIntyre put it.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    God wants us to choose the good, he never coerces. A coerced good would not in fcat have any moral merit. Christ siuffered for us of his own free will. It is people like the commentator above (Jonathan West) who imply faith is coercive. It can’t be – if it were it would not be faith. Their implication is a way of defaming the Catholic Church and millions of Christains round the world, while at the same time showing their ignoranbce of the nost basic tenet of faith.

  • Jonathan West

    So how would you propose to get people to do your preferred type of choice?

  • Jonathan West

    I did not imply faith is coercive. You have chosen to interpret my words that way, which I must say speaks volumes for what you really think your faith is about.

    I just asked what alternative to choice you proposed, and suggested that if choice is not good it follows that some degree of coercion to limit choice must therefore be better, and I asked how you would justify that.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    By getting them to think!

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Aquinas makes it clear that the rights of a mistaken conscience are to be respected.

  • Jonathan West

    People are doing that, and are increasingly deciding that your prescriptions are not for them.

    If, to take the example you gave, two people decide that living together in a same-sex marriage is not sinful and is not harmful, and that they have thought about it, from where do you claim the right to prevent them?

  • Jonathan West

    So, following that line of reasoning, even if you think that same-sex marriage is an abomination, and even if you think that those who wish to engage in a same sex marriage have mistaken consciences, Aquinas requires that you respect their right to have a same sex marriage and that you respect the right of the legislators to provide legal recognition to such unions.

    Glad we have cleared that up.

    Now, what is all this business then about Catholic opposition to the legal recognition of same sex marriage?

  • whytheworldisending

    Fear is there to protect us. It is the role of parents to teach children what and who to fear. Matthew Ch10 states,”Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; fear him rather who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”
     Of course if, as sinners and evil doers like to believe, there’s no hell, then you may have a point – but what if that’s just wishful thinking, and you are wrong?

  • Guglielmo Marinaro

    There is no evidence for the statements that “homosexuality is a corruption of the sexual nature” and “when humans first walked the earth there were no homosexuals”. 

  • Geert

    Mr Carter does NOT demand a proper formation of young (nay, all) people, he advocates in favour of bullying people into place with the threat of “or else…!” How can true moral behaviour be a result of such an upbringing? People may well be doing the “right thing” – but for the wrong reasons, with the wrong mindset (fear, not an understanding of right and wrong).

    Hence, this is no upbringing at all. This is clearly oppression. And why violence on the street may be lower (*), people’s minds are being violated. In order to keep the mindset of the true flock ?

    (*) check your PlosOne paper again, and read the commentaries; one has a whole list of citations which point at the contrary.

  • Benedict Carter

    Don’t second guess please what I advocate. In any case, you haven’t got a clue what you are talking about. 

  • athelstane

    “People are doing that, and are increasingly deciding that your prescriptions are not for them.”
    And the children are suffering for it.

    But obviously, no one cares about them. “Children are tough,” you know. What’s important is mum and dad’s happiness.

  • Jonathan West

    Your evidence?

  • savvy

    You are arguing against a fixed biological reality in men and women.

  • whytheworldisending

    Biology shows that sexual attraction has evolved to ensure survival of the species by encouraging the transmission of genetic material between male ands female human beings. If you accept this then you must accept that homosexual attraction is dysfunctional. It is therefore obvious that it is a corruption of what is good and which preceded it. Then you must accept that there was a moment when the corruption happened. Prior to that moment there was no corruption – there was only good. Therefore heterosexuality preceded homosexuality. This is so obvious that nobody has bothered to write a scientific paper on it. It is nonetheless, evidence.

  • whytheworldisending

    If you are in darkness you have no real choice as you don’t know what you are doing. God has given us a light to guide us in our choices, but if we choose to do evil, we will not follow the light. Nobody can coerce us into desiring evil, but they can seduce us into thinking that we can get away with evil. To do this, they have to lie and groom us into believing that there is no judgement.

  • whytheworldisending

    It is the brainwashing or more accurately the grooming of a generation that can not be respected. Same-sex marriage puts children in moral, spiritual and physical danger from homosexuals paedophiles.

  • Clivecopus

    If we are simply the product of random evolutionary processes, it makes it very difficult to argue that any activity – sexual or otherwise – is a corruption of the good. Can there be objective moral ‘good’ in such a world?

    According to the Catechism, God made us in His image and likeness. That means, inter alia, that he wanted us to be co-creators with Him through the use of the proceative/marital act, and that He wanted the love of husband and wife to reflect both Christ’s love for His Church and the mutual love of the Persons of the Trinity. In short, sexual attraction is all part of God’s plan for His creation – and that’s the basis on which we should be arguing the case against same-sex marriage.     

  • Marcella Carmen C.

    hyper444 has to be a troll, or a poor person of limited reasoning power.  Also, dishonest. Since when has a Catholic been taught he goes to Hell if he eats meat on a Friday? That is not part of Church doctrine.  I hope many children will stumble upon this article and the pro-Church teachings some of the commentators are correctly making!!  The children will be hearing the truth, and that is a beneficial thing to every child!  Jesus called adultery a sin, when he let off the woman caught in adultery but commanded her to “go and sin no more”.  Nowhere does he or do the writers of the New Testament suggest that homosexual behaviour is not sinful! 

  • whytheworldisending

    Respect does not equal passive acquiescence. In the USA everybody respects everybodys’ right to carry guns, but if someone decides to wave it around in a public space, they are likely to get shot. Its the same with homosexuality. The law respects the private right to sin and go to hell. We just don’t want it in public or front of the children. That’s just the free choice of the majority – which must be respected too surely?

  • whytheworldisending

    Its not the only argument by any means, and acceptance of evolutionary theory is not incompatible with belief in objective moral good. Limiting the campaign against same sex marriage to the argument which you outline would seriously undermine its chances of success. We are fighting atheism, and, if you are going to persuade anyone, you have to start where they are – not where we are.

  • Jonathan West

    If you are against same-sex marriage, then don’t marry somebody of the same sex, 

    But there is no justification in trying to prevent anybody else from following their conscience and deciding to have a same sex marriage, unless there is evidence that they or others are harmed as a result.

    So produce some evidence.

  • whytheworldisending

    Why do you use the word “random? and why do you use the word “simply?” I agree with your use of the word “if,” and I agree that God made us in his image and likeness. I don’t think that is incompatible with the theory (and I agree that it is only a theory) of evolution. If evolution is part of God’s plan – what of it? We are trying to stop the indoctrination of future generations into evil by the legitimisation of homosexual practices through “Gay Marriage,” and so the more arguments we employ the better. If at least one works, we will have succeeded: I don’t mind which one succeeds: 34 million deaths from AIDS; the increase in STD’s generally, the increase in family breakdown, increased social disorder and crime, the undemocratic way Cameron and Clegg are going about it and consequent danger of a far right backlash against homosexuals; increased homosexual abuse of children by liberalised adoption procedures. Take your pick, but I don’t think we should divide and let them conquer.

  • JabbaPapa

    The alternative to choice ?

    Wisdom, obviously.

    I’ve no idea why you insist on viewing this question with such dismal passivity BTW…

  • JabbaPapa

    I did not imply faith is coercive

    Choice is coercive ; freedom is not.

    Faith is something else entirely.

  • JabbaPapa

    Yours ?