For freethinkers, atheists seem awfully fond of catchphrases. In response you may fairly say that atheists are not necessarily freethinkers, but in so saying you affirm what I have already said. In any case, despite insisting that they have no dogma they do share a great number of high-fivin’ bon mots stripped of context. In most of these we can see a strong pattern, even aside from the mobbish iconoclasm that seems to think breaking the symbols of a thing breaks the thing.
One of the favorites comes from John Stuart Mill:
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.
Is it possible to say such a thing without smirking? I congratulate anyone who avoids that gaping trap without conscious effort, for on the face of things it seems this taken in and of itself can only be said by a man who believes human beings are pigs and he is something more even than that.
This takes a peculiar turn if said by a former Christian. He means to say he was formerly a pig. This would mean that he became not-pig from pig, this despite there being no natural progression between the two. He might as well believe that a thing may come from nothing, and he does.
He probably believes, instead, that he has not changed in substance, that he has changed only in behavior. Surely, then, it is better to say:
It is better to be a pig on two legs than a pig on four.
Any man who loves truth must balk at this diminution. It is absurd to say that it is better for pigs to be on two legs — that is against their nature. It is better for pigs to be pigs and it is best for pigs to be very good pigs. Likewise, it is better for men to be men and best men to smile at weddings. As for what this now says, consider that Nietzsche thought he was a superman — is your highest cynical aspiration to be a superpig? If we take the other tack and deny that anything has nature then there is no use but pejorative to call fellow men pigs. Another watering down is, eventually, in order, at least involving the image of pigs.
I do not doubt that he who will blandly repeat John Stuart Mill’s words and not John Stuart Mill’s meaning, who know him for this one riposte, means merely that piggishness is true metaphysically, whatever he thinks about metaphysics. He would no doubt affirm that all human beings for some hazy reason are worthy of respect if only when confronted with the fact that the similar Marxist attitude makes genocide against pigs. I know very little about the utilitarians except that they’d likely affirm that a person’s value is determined by his utility. Such concessions again transform our original statement:
It is better to stand on two legs than to wallow on four.
It is better to act with our nature than to cruelly and for our own selfish end twist humanity into some sad — especially literal — chimera. If we remove the smirking and the posturing and the elements which would justify a genocide, we are left with a central nugget of truth. Unsurprisingly, as we have throughout today’s post tempered distortion with truth, we end up with something which might as well be John Paul the Great, the opposite of a utilitarian. Use is the opposite of love, remember. We see common-sense human exceptionalism, and from that we posit personalism and perhaps even the mutual exceptionalism of the sexes. Too tangential a thought for now, let’s look instead at what we must believe if we believe that standing is better than wallowing.
Such a thought denies moral relativism because it affirms moral superiority. If we say at all “it is better,” we posit that things exist and are knowable, that better exists and is knowable, and that it is better being better than being worse. From the rest of our distilled truth we see, if we are to make any sense of it at all, that it is knowable whether we are standing or wallowing, that one is better than the other and that there is something unnatural on walking on four legs. If you say as many materialists do that we are nothing but animals, then the message with which you likely agree becomes, properly speaking, entirely nonsensical.
We can know what is morally true, or at least which of the options we see is most morally true. If there is moral superiority among men, and if it is possible for a Christian to abandon the moral precepts of Christianity, then this means that there exists morality and moral progression, both of which mean there exists a best morality towards which we progress. We know that being moral is not immediately comfortable. We have many examples of the opposite motion and therefore have evidence of the possibility of moral regress. We therefore deny that progress ticks forward as a clock does, affirming that Chesterton was right in saying, “I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.” We may begin as smirking iconoclasts but if we think carefully we end up as moral absolutists. As a moral absolutist, I consider this the pattern.
We are left at a point where we have to consider who does the wallowing and who does the standing, who, in the words of Mill, “knows both sides.” We are left to ask the question of Christianity whether it twists humanity into what humanity is not or whether it untwists humanity into what it was and yet should be. This is a much fairer and a more interesting question, as most questions are when you remove the presumption. I may already know how I will answer, but I will also enjoy grappling with such a question. It is solider than accusations of piggishness. One might say this question stands on its hind legs.