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.
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 are 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.
(This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in July 2013.)
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Argument in the Library” by Johann Hamza (1850-1927), and is in the public domain.