Political correctness identifies a syndrome we all recognize, but is hard to define. It can be best described as a set of attitudes rather than an ideology, since viewed philosophically it is completely incoherent. It can perhaps be traced back to the French Revolution, in the aftermath of which various slogans became fashionable—mostly involving “Liberty” and “Equality”, sometimes joined with “Fraternity” or “Reason” to make up a memorable threesome. In each case the “value” in question is distorted by extraction from traditional philosophical frameworks in which such ideas had been discussed for many centuries—or perhaps more tellingly, from a concern with truth.

Equality seems to mean treating people as if they were the same. But this is not justice. Justice is giving people their due. Why insist on equality at the expense of difference and diversity? Insisting on equality in that sense is unjust, because it is the differences between people that determine what they may be due. A man who is well fed is not due a food handout, and a blind man is not due an eye-test on the NHS. A child with one leg is not expected or entitled to run in the hundred-yard sprint on Sports Day. The only way in which all human beings are equal is in being human; but the “rights” our humanity implies will depend on what we understand it to amount to (not to mention when it begins and ends)—in other words, it depends on the truth about human beings.

Liberty or Freedom is similarly useless without truth. Popularly understood as the power to choose, freedom makes sense only when linked to the truth about those choices. A man going into a supermarket wearing a blindfold has no real power to choose. He still does not if, when he takes off the blindfold, the packaging on the products is full of lies. Nor does he, if the products are essentially all the same. Choice has to be real choice, in a real world, between realities that essentially differ. Even more importantly, he is not free if he is conditioned or habituated to choose in a certain way. In the case of moral choices, the principle is the same. Truth matters. In order to be truly free we need to know which options are morally good or not, and we need to have the power (the virtue) to choose the good over the evil.

Reason or Rationality was glorified by the Revolutionaries, but at the same time they contrived to replace it with a caricature. Reason is our capacity or faculty for attaining the truth (including the truth about good and evil, and the truth about being human). But modern thinkers gave up the aspiration for truth some while ago. Why is this? They cannot accept that truth lies beyond us—in which case our grasp of truth has to converge with the truth’s grasp of us. The moment we deny transcendent reality, truth becomes something we can manipulate, instead of something we submit to.

“Abandoning the investigation of being, modern philosophical research has concentrated instead on human knowing. Rather than make use of the human capacity to know the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, n. 5).

Fraternity was not always included as part of the triad, and one reason was that it is particularly hard to define. It evolved into our present obsession with “niceness”. This notion can be used to set the limits around the use of free will—so that what we do is limited by the obligation not to do harm to others, or else inspired by the positive duty to do good. But once again any real value in the notion is lost when its connection with truth is destroyed. What does harm to another person (or to oneself) depends on the truth about being human. For example, we need to know, before we encourage gay marriage, whether it is likely to do psychological or spiritual harm to any adopted children. But such questions are these days more likely to be decided a priori, based on assumptions that are no longer open to question, and so the question of truth once again eludes us.

Political correctness is philosophical nonsense. What we need is Justice not just Equality, Moral Responsibility not just Freedom, Intelligence not just Reason, and Charity not just Niceness or Fraternity—even if these don’t sound so good on a banner. We need Caritas in Veritate—love in truth.

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6 replies to this post
  1. The real value of the term “politically correct” is that its perpetuation enables its opponents to imagine themselves as brave souls speaking truth to power via their pose of being deliberately and provocatively “politically incorrect”. As for our “present obsession with ‘niceness'”: Mr. Birzer must not pay much attention to the reigning political discourse, talk radio, or cable news–“niceness” is the least of our problems. Conservatives, it seems, are great proponents of old-fashioned forms of etiquette, gentility, and decorum–except when those are invoked on behalf of causes they don’t happen to like, in which case they denounce such virtues as mere “political correctness”.

  2. Re: Fraternity. Didn’t the Grand Inquisitor say something about how mankind wants to be united in (false) worship? This sort of artificial unity, unity in public displays – goose stepping and all that – that seems to be what “Fraternity” is all about and it seems to be a perennial temptation of fallen man and a continual desire of totalitarianism……

  3. Multiple paragraphs are spent making obvious distinctions are made between simple equality and justice, physical freedom and self-determination, and cheap politeness and heartfelt charity.

    It appears to be done to imply that those who wish to be politically correct cannot make these distinctions though no actual evidence is given. The slogan of the French Revolution is cited, but laughably misinterpreted.

    Then we move to distinction between political correctness and evidence-based thinking. We are told that most supporters of gay adoption have decided ‘a priori’ that it will not harm children. The term “a priori” is not well defined.

    Now I will agree that most people who support gay adoption have never read a scientific study on the matter, but how many supporters of Jewish adoption read a study on whether it negatively impacts children? Is this too a priori?

    I think we infer from our everyday experience that loving parents generally make good parents and little else has seemed to matter. A scientific study is certainly more reliable, but the question becomes who bears the burden of proof?

    Do we not allow gays (or any other category) to adopt until we have evidence (of a high standard) that it will not harm children? Or do we only forbid it after we have such evidence that it does harm children?

    The term “Equality” in the slogan for the French Revolution meant that all humans have the same innate natural rights and that differential treatment must be justified with reference to a set of laws to which we are all subject.

    You can see how it applies here. Whom do we give the benefit of the doubt and who has to prove themselves? We cannot escape making judgment without evidence. The question is: who do these pre-judgments favor?

  4. The origin of PC is rooted in Communist Party discipline, and one of the reasons why it is so diffficult to comabt is that people in free countries have been been convinced by the very authorities who dictate what acceptable beliefs consist of that only paranoids believe that there ever was a threat from Communims in the first palce. The first step in understadning the ways in which Communists wield their power over discourse in both the academy and in the media is to realize that many of the tenets that make up the canon of beliefs and attitudes of PC have nothing to do with directly with Marxism. Certanly the notion that people whose parents fled to this country, say, Kozovo, wihout a dime twetny years ago more automatically more privliged than upper class Black people is not obviously Marist, but it has nonetheless achieved canonicity among many of the enlightened. It is at the risk of expulsion from many covens of the enlightened that one questions that silly notion. It would be alsmot as horrendous as questioning Jimmy Carter’s claim that opposition to President Obama is mostly the result of racism. PC measn being told what to think and say. That is not what most Armericans think of when they use the word “political.” That is the practice of totlitarianism as found in both the Communist Party of the USA or the Supreme Peoples Assembly of North Korea. It is at our great peril as a nation and as a civilization that refuse we to recognize who and what our enemies are.

  5. I like the article and especially because of the subject matter.. political correctness, very clunky sounding, yet you cant give it a real name (more descriptive)or someone would be offended and its off to time out with no IPad. Ennit? Reminds me of watching my mom trying to use Facebook.. the learning curve IS HUGE! She didnt grow up like most of my generation, with email and myspace, etc. Its not that shes having a hard time with it, she is fundamentally lost! In the same way, she could be talking about the black guy that saved her life, someone she absolutely loves and adores, and call them colored.. Its like the folks from my generation and younger( Im 40) have a built-in political-correct mechanism, its in the jargon, we can still say atrocious things, but we know how to say them.. like Facebook, we know how to use it.. I have a few older friends with Facebook and its actually embarrassing the way they use it.. they post super emotional personal stuff, or play the little farm games, trolling for likes, etc. You get it. My point, the older generation has been left out in the cold because they were too old to learn to new tricks. The funny thing is,there is a lot more “uncorrectness” than ever, its just being dressed up as “FREEDOM” And Justin Teague, you are really gay, which is fine, but you gave it away with all the crying and whining about a small point in the article, which is really ironic. Not politically correct enough? How come youre not taking a stand for all the poor kids who get trophys when they don’t deserve them and the shame! o the shame!

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