Neal A. Maxwell, “The Prohibitive Costs of a Value-free Society,” Ensign, Oct 1978, 52–55
An address given to Salt Lake City Rotarians, 7 February 1978
One of Rotary’s criteria reads, “Is it the truth?” Note that this very question assumes the existence of a standard by which truth can be tested. Another Rotary standard “Is it fair?” assumes a standard of justice by which certain things can be measured. Not a standard, of course, like metric measurement or yards and feet, but a spiritual standard that is constant even though it may often be applied imperfectly by imperfect people.
Such values involve more than rhetoric. When men and women protest an injustice, they often fail to see either the assumptions or the implications in their protest. C. S. Lewis once wrote to a protesting near-believer as follows:
“You say the materialist universe is ‘ugly.’ I wonder how you discovered that! If you are really a product of a materialistic universe, how is it you don’t feel at home there? Do fish complain of the sea for being wet?” (From Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy, Harper and Row, 1977, p. 93.)
The Rotary motto of “Service above Self” assumes the presence of certain instinctive values attesting that man is more than an animal. It would be ludicrous to have such a standard if it were, in fact, out of our reach. Indeed, our very reaching and stretching tell us much about who we are. Also in your literature is a statement stating how, at one point in the early history of Rotary, it became clear that “camaraderie alone could not sustain the organization; soon service to the community became” your binding strength. You had rediscovered an old truth about human nature: It was said by the Scottish minister, George MacDonald, that love of one’s neighbor is “the only door out of the dungeon of self.” (George MacDonald Anthology, by C. S. Lewis, pub. by Geoffrey Bles, 1970, p. 39.)
I come to you today as one who accepts with most, if not all, of you the existence of certain absolute truths in the universe from which there has been a severe slipping away on the part of many. The slippage has occurred, I fear, without awareness on the part of many as to what happens when we move to a spiritually standardless society. Beliefs or the lack of them do affect behavior.
Lest any here be anxious about whether I will take a theological turn in my remarks today, let me simply say that many of the standards and values in the great religions of the world are held far more in common than some realize. Besides, we cannot fail to notice that we are at one of those hingepoints of history when, as Hermann Hesse said, “a whole generation is caught … between two ages, between two modes of life, and thus loses the feeling for itself, for the self-evident, for all morals, for being safe and innocent.” (Duncan Williams, Trousered Apes, Arlington House, 1971, p. 59.)
For today’s purposes, what I mean by “self-evident morals” and “basic values” are fundamental truths such as the Ten Commandments, which are so much a part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. These values resist rationalization and redefinition, and any amendments to the Ten Commandments would come from the same Source as did those original commandments. We are, of course, free to obey or not to obey those commandments. We are not free to try to amend them to read, for instance, “Thou shalt not commit adultery except between consenting adults.” We may, by legislation and regulation, vainly try to create a zone of private morality. But there is, ultimately, no such thing as private morality; there is not an indoor and an outdoor set of Ten Commandments. Neither is it useful to cite human shortfalls as an excuse to abandon all absolutes, because striving and falling short of accepted standards is very different from having no standards at all.
There is an ecology that pertains to human nature just as there is an interrelatedness pertaining to nature. This spiritual ecology embodies certain laws which, if violated, will produce certain consequences. These laws, though less acknowledged, are as irrevocable and active as the laws of nature. They do not cease to operate simply because we do not recognize them, any more than one is protected from the consequences of eating a poisonous toadstool just because he believes it to be a mushroom.
We had better want the consequences of what we believe or disbelieve, because the consequences will come!
The high costs, indeed the prohibitive costs, of living in a standardless society are also incurred in so many secondary ways. For instance, a society which is uncertain of its basic values will engage in endless and expensive experimentation of both a governmental and a personal variety. The Frenchman, La Rochefoucauld, could have been describing so many of our modern experiments when he said, “There goes another beautiful theory about to be murdered by a brutal gang of facts.”
Few such recent experiments in America have been more costly and counterproductive than some in our schools. Pupil test scores are declining, and the costs of education are increasing. The move to relevancy has produced a curriculum, some of which is irrelevant to such basic skills as reading and writing. Pass-fail courses and the inflating of grades are milder symptoms. Taxpayers are often paying at least twice to teach some pupils how to read, and in many cases, it is still not happening! Our schools and colleges must respond to genuine needs for changes, but there are times when to be fashionable is to fail one’s foremost constituents.
These things are not said simply to scold the schools, as if the failures were located there and there alone. Nonfunctioning families bear much of the blame. The fact is that basic values are interactive and so are the basic institutions which have rested upon these bedrock values. Alter the basic beliefs and you alter the chemistry of society.
In education or elsewhere it is difficult to say which came first—the reluctance to measure or the reluctance to be measured. But in the end the results are the same. In this connection, some have been too slow to see the implications in the conclusion which is reached by many, “If there is no divine reward or punishment related to my personal performance, why should there be any mortal concern with merit?” The assumptions underlying such a conclusion are in gross error, but the logic is relentless!
Functional illiteracy in America is high in certain age groups. This is in addition to a more massive economic illiteracy about how our system works, which is an even more ominous failure. Even though our governments are bigger and more powerful than ever, many in the rising generation know less and less about how we are governed.
Value-free experimentation is extremely costly—both in terms of money and of souls, and it creates what has been called the worst slum of all—the slum of the human spirit, for many students and citizens are starved for earned self-esteem. A standardless society will also find itself deaf to the costly lessons of history. Winston Churchill chose as a stern warning motto for his concluding volume of the history of World War II these words: “How the Great Democracies Triumphed, and so Were able to Resume the Follies Which Had so Nearly Cost Them Their Life.” (Triumph and Tragedy, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1953.) A value-free society focuses upon things like “me” and “now”—it has little sense of history out of which to fashion the future. If nothing lies ahead of men, how vital is memory? A healthy regard for the past is usually accompanied by a healthy regard for the future; and a lack of one usually means the lack of the other.
But how can a society set priorities if there are no basic standards? Are we to make our calculations using only the arithmetic of appetite?
A society not based upon key values like loving our neighbor will inevitably subsidize selfishness and will place a premium upon an apostate form of individualism at the expense of community. Bear in mind, for instance, that if we do not see ourselves as more than temporary, biological brothers, our behavior changes. When we repudiate our traditional relationships with God and man, it is so much easier to repudiate not only debt but to repudiate relatives. If one really has no relatives, to whom do such people belong? Why, to that collective catch-all, society, of course! But as we generalize responsibility for relatives we particularize loneliness and misery.
Yet if self-interest is the final determinant, why should we be inconvenienced by the needs of others?
We have been used to speaking of our political system (as envisioned by the founding fathers) as one in which opinions collide constitutionally, wherein vested interests cancel each other out, or tame each other before a safe majority is formed, or, at least, in which vested interests are brought out into the light by the democratic process. Indeed, this system has served us well. Winners and losers have played out the drama almost always within constitutional constraints, as turns have been taken at the levers of power by different majorities. What was not allowed for fully, however, nor could it be, is what happened when government, instead of remaining a referee, first became a participant and then became a possibly permanent majority itself.
It remains to be seen whether or not our nation can tame big government. There is, frankly, no precedent for dismantling, even partially, a welfare state, especially in a peaceful and constitutional way. Such a Goliath will not go quietly to surgery.
One analyst of political things has observed that in addition to the happy consequences of democracy, the system tends to produce two unwanted side effects—bureaucracy and apathy. These are not inevitable side effects, but they are probable side effects. We are experiencing these symptoms in America. Yet, alas, Thomas Jefferson said our republic’s future rested on the assumption that our citizens would remain attentive and informed.
The shift in values has produced another shift in political point of view. George F. Will, the perceptive Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, noted just one example in the difference between the old liberalism and a new liberalism:
“The old liberalism delivered material advantages that were intended to enable people to live the lives they had chosen. The new liberalism, typified by forced busing and affirmative action and the explosive growth of regulation, administers ‘remedies’ to what society’s supervisors consider defects in the way people live.” (Newsweek, 23 Jan. 1978, p. 88; italics added.)
Decrease the belief in God, and you increase the numbers of those who wish to play at being God by being “society’s supervisors.” Such “supervisors” deny the existence of divine standards, but are very serious about imposing their own standards on society.
It is no accident that the lessening, or loss, of belief in certain absolute truths, such as the existence of God and the reality of immortality, has occurred at the same time there has been a sharp gain in the size and power of governments in many portions of the world.
Once we remove belief in God from the center of our lives, as the Source of truth and as a Determiner of justice, a tremendous vacuum is created into which selfishness surges, a condition which governments delight in managing. Trends become a theology. A religion of regulations emerges in which tens of thousands of regulations seek to replace the Ten Commandments.
And with this secular religion comes a frightening insistence on orthodoxy, enforced by the withdrawal and bestowal of benefits. Such governments inevitably tend to enlarge taxes and to stunt their citizens. John Stuart Mill observed:
“A State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes—will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish. (“On Liberty,” Great Books of the Western World, v. 43, p. 323.)
This dwarfing of the individual is one of the prohibitive costs of a value-free society! The state will never wither away in a spiritually standardless society. It will simply swell and become more strong, more ominous, and more serious. Maxwell Anderson had a line in one of his plays in which a discouraged character asks plaintively why governments can’t be “small and funny” any more.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a martyr in 1945 to a big and serious state, grown impatient with Bonhoeffer’s allegiance to God instead of to the Fuhrer. Of Bonhoeffer’s beliefs, G. Leibholz wrote: “If Christian teaching does not guide us in the use of freedom and God is denied, all obligations and responsibilities that are sacred and binding on man are undermined.” (The Cost of Discipleship.)
The costs of dictatorships are devastating. Even the garden variety versions of totalitarianism are expensive. When “God is denied” all sacred obligations and responsibilities “are undermined.”
Can we really afford a society in which we do not believe in the principle of work? Inflation has several causes, but any lasting cure must include increased productivity. Besides, work is a spiritual necessity, even if it is not an economic necessity, which it is.
Can we really afford a society in which the family, our most basic institution, is further diminished? Most of us revolt at the idea of having children raised by the state, but step by small step we are moving in that direction. If our society’s success depends on having a critical mass of citizens with a sense of fair play and justice, and with love and concern for others, where do citizens usually acquire those crucial virtues, if we acquire them at all? We usually acquire them first and best in the family. The family garden, as has been said, is still the best place to grow happy humans. Society already pays terrible costs for the products of tragically flawed families, but if our nation further undermines the average family, the costs will be catastrophic.
What we do with the family is going to determine what happens to our whole society. The wise Catholic writer, G. K. Chesterton, observed years ago that only men to whom the family is sacred will ever have a standard by which to criticize the State, because “they alone can appeal to something more holy than the gods of the city.” (Everlasting Man, Image Books, 1955, p. 143.)
The basic strands which have bound us together socially have begun to fray, and some of them have snapped. Even more pressure is then placed upon the remaining strands. The fact that the giving way is gradual will not prevent it from becoming total. For instance, schools which fail put even more pressure upon the institution of the family, and vice versa. A lowering of standards or discipline in the one means great difficulty in the maintenance of standards and discipline in the other.
Given the tremendous asset that the family is, we must do all we can within constitutional constraints to protect it from predatory things like homosexuality and pornography. Of pornography Ronald Butt wrote in the London Times:
“The history of the Roman arena instructs in how the appetite of a people can be created by what is fed to it—the upper classes of Rome were systematically addicted by their ruler to the frenzy and titillation of sadistic violence by a steady progression from less to more until the Roman character itself was conditioned to a coarse insensibility to suffering.” (Feb. 1976.)
We need to reflect on how many of our sad trends represent a “steady progression from less to more.”
If the family is not basic, however, and is not something of immense value, why worry about wrecking it?
Our whole republic rests upon the notion of “obedience to the unenforceable,” upon a tremendous emphasis on inner controls through self-discipline. The historians Will and Ariel Durant observed that “if liberty destroys order, the hunger for order will destroy liberty.” But keeping liberty and order in tension balance requires tremendous self-discipline in the citizenry of a nation.
Can we really afford the ultimate costs of governments which, in lieu of self-discipline, impose more and more outer controls?
But if liberty is not basic, why worry over such trends?
If we are immortal, however, we are immensely more important than a government which may only last a moment in the expanse of eternity.
But if there were no God and we were merely transients, then what would be wrong with governments pushing us around? Indeed, what would be really wrong about anything at all?
Our value crisis gathered some of its momentum because at first it produced an artificial sense of new freedom. Morris West warned:
“Without the Faith, one is free, and that is a pleasant feeling at first. There are no questions of conscience, no constraints. … It is only later that the terror comes. One is free—but free in chaos, in an unexplained and unexplainable world. One is free in a desert, from which there is no retreat but inward, toward the hollow core of oneself.” (The Devil’s Advocate, New York: William Morrow Co., 1959.)
Secularism also produced an artificial sense of security. A good example of this is what has happened to our Social Security system in America. Principles gave way to political promises, and the secular theology with its “cast your care upon Social Security” has now exposed its hollowness—like the billboard outside Chicago ten years ago that read, “Borrow enough from us to get completely out of debt.” Sad as it is to say it, the hard choices ahead for the nation regarding our Social Security system could pit the young against the old and the middle class against the poor. The system is scarcely “social” in such a setting; likewise, the financial unsoundness of the system scarcely deserves the word Security. What we have is thus neither social nor security. Ahead of us are additional days of reckoning besides the one noted many times in the Bible.
But those who do not believe in ultimate personal accountability are not as likely to be concerned with the forms of proximate accountability for each of us. Those who lack self-restraint will see little need, for example, for governments to discipline public spending.
We must not dismiss too quickly the importance of believing in the reality of immortality. A friend, Dick Hazelett, wrote perceptively about what happens when life is “continually dampened by the thought of its own continuous annihilation. Then only fleeting pleasures remain, unconnected in time. … When pleasures become disconnected, the intense ones stand out … like branches stripped of leaves. … Raw experience as such becomes the goal. Work becomes drudgery, nature becomes boring, … children are nuisances (which they then become), sympathy and affection are perceived as ‘sticky,’ … chastity is no longer worth the sacrifice, and freedom isn’t worth a fight.”
Different beliefs do make for different behaviors; what we think does affect our actions; concepts do have consequences. As Christopher Booker said:
“When men cease to aspire to the ideal, the good, to self-restraint—whether in their hearts or in their lives—they do not just stand still, but actually turn the other way, finding self-fulfillment in self-indulgence, and in … those three ultimate expressions of the totally self-centered life: sex, violence, and insanity.” (Trousered Apes, pp. 14–15.)
We must bear in mind that while there are obvious differences as to what all the basic truths and values are, having such tactical differences is very unlike the sad conclusion that there are no such basic truths at all. When these basic divine truths do not play a significant role in our lives, it creates much ambivalence over issues such as the relationship of personal property and political majorities. Few things are more frightening to see than envy when it is politicized.
If we are not committed to certain truths, ambiguity will replace absolutes, tentativeness will replace truth, regulations measured by the pound instead of by principles will replace liberty, a tenured bureacracy will replace democracy, and hesitancy will replace heroism.
Once society loses its capacity to declare that some things are wrong per se, then it finds itself forever building temporary defenses, revising rationales, drawing new lines—but forever falling back and losing its nerve. A society which permits anything will eventually lose everything!
Take away a consciousness of eternity and see how differently time is spent.
Take away an acknowledgment of divine design in the structure of life and then watch the mindless scurrying to redesign human systems to make life pain-free and pleasure-filled.
Take away regard for the divinity in one’s neighbor, and watch the drop in our regard for his property.
Take away basic moral standards and observe how quickly tolerance changes into permissiveness.
Take away the sacred sense of belonging to a family or community, and observe how quickly citizens cease to care for big cities.
Those of us who are business-oriented are quick to look for the bottom line in our endeavors. In the case of a value-free society, the bottom line is clear—the costs are prohibitive!
A value-free society eventually imprisons its inhabitants. It also ends up doing indirectly what most of its inhabitants would never have agreed to do directly—at least initially.
Can we turn such trends around? There is still a wealth of wisdom in the people of this good land, even though such wisdom is often mute and in search of leadership. People can often feel in their bones the wrongness of things, long before pollsters pick up such attitudes or before such attitudes are expressed in the ballot box. But it will take leadership and articulate assertion of basic values in all places and in personal behavior to back up such assertions.
Even then, time and the tides are against us, so that courage will be a key ingredient. It will take the same kind of spunk the Spartans displayed at Thermopylae when they tenaciously held a small mountain pass against overwhelming numbers of Persians. The Persians could not dislodge the Spartans and sent emissaries forward to threaten what would happen if the Spartans did not surrender. The Spartans were told that if they did not give up, the Persians had so many archers in their army that they would darken the skies with their arrows. The Spartans said simply: “So much the better, we will fight in the shade!”