Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Chronological Snobbery

A mother was speaking with her son and his girlfriend. The latter two were living together, and the mother was expressing concern about what the grandmother might think of two unmarried people “shacking up.” The girlfriend smiled condescendingly, patted the mother on the arm, and said, “It’s 2012, dear.”

What an odd response. What does the year have to do with the morality of the action in question? Did I miss the announcement at the beginning of the year saying, “With the advent of the new year, the following actions are now permissible…”?

I know what she was getting at: “People don’t think that way anymore. Times have changed. We’ve moved on.”

C.S. Lewis and his friend Owen Barfield had a term for this way of thinking: chronological snobbery,

“the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also "a period," and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them” (Surprised by Joy, chapter 13).

It would be an argument something like this: “People used to believe in a geocentric universe. People also used to believe that fornication was morally wrong. People no longer believe in a geocentric universe. Therefore, people should no longer believe that fornication is morally wrong.” That’s a bit silly, isn’t it? What’s the causal connection between those two things? Is it that simply because times have changed, that means they should have? Where does this sort of thinking come from?

It’s my theory that people are getting their disciplines mixed up. They’re taking what they find to be true in science and applying it to the realm of ethics, which is a bit like trying to play baseball according to the rules of football: “That’s ball four, so it’ll be first and goal for the Giants.” Allow me to explain.

In empirical science, knowledge progresses through a process of formulating hypotheses, gathering data, analyzing that data, and extrapolating to general theories based on the outcome. When new data is gathered, previously held theories may be discarded if they no longer fit the data. Most people have neither the time nor the educational background to personally verify each new scientific discovery, and assume that this mechanism of advancement in knowledge is working as it should; they assume that science progresses. If an old theory isn’t held anymore, it’s because it’s been disproved. People used to believe the universe was held together by ether, or that the sun went around the earth, or that the universe was eternal; but they don’t believe those things anymore, so the scientific method must have eliminated them.

It may be the case that people, consciously or unconsciously, assume that this same sort of process takes place within philosophy, and especially morality. Perhaps they think that each generation of philosophy is a disputation with the previous generation in which the present group logically contradicts the ideas of the old guard, thus advancing our knowledge of the nature of being, or of ethics, or of the very logic being used to argue. If people used to believe in objective truth, or the real correspondence between language and reality, or the immorality of certain acts, but don’t anymore, it must be because these notions have been demonstrated to be false. If people don’t hold an idea anymore, it must have been disproved. …Right?

Really? Can you tell me when and how this occurred? Can you give me the name of the thinker who made this discovery? Can you demonstrate these new philosophical conclusions to me through valid argumentation? If you think you can, by all means, let’s proceed with the discussion; at least then, we’re investigating the matter and thinking about it, and not making the absurd move of pointing to the calendar and proclaiming “QED.” (* “QED” = quod erat demonstrandum, “That which was to be proved,” traditionally used in math and logic at the end of an argument when the conclusion has successfully been demonstrated.) You cannot simply assume that an idea has been reasonably disproved because it has fallen out of favor with “people” (a slippery term itself: Which people? Where? When?).

A person is quite prone to abandoning moral truths if it’s convenient; we need only look at our own lives to see that demonstrated. If enough people find it convenient to abandon the same moral truth for convenience, suddenly “people don’t believe that anymore.” Then if you were to ask someone why they didn’t believe that, say, “shacking up” was immoral, they’d respond with something like, “What? This isn’t the Middle Ages. It’s 2012.” They assume that, because either the mysterious “they” or “people” no longer hold that idea to be true, it must be because someone, somewhere at some time has shown that moral notion to be false, even if they can’t tell you how. “I can’t detail why Einstein’s model replaced Newton’s, but I trust that ‘they’ got it right; I can’t tell you why society has accepted X, Y, and Z that it used to reject, but I trust ‘they’ got it right.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this phenomenon of chronological snobbery as our country has been engaged in a discussion over whether to re-define the institution of marriage. Well, actually, I wish there were a discussion: then we might actually get somewhere. A discussion would involve stating principles, reviewing arguments and lines of reasoning, considering what the good of the human person and human society is, and the like. But what we seem to get instead is a lot of name-calling (“bigot,” “homophobe,” “Nazi,” etc.); a whole lot of appeals to popular opinion, or rather, the opinions of the popular (“Well, Brad Pitt is in favor of same-sex marriage, shouldn’t you be? I don’t see your name on any Oscar nomination lists”); and an awful lot of chronological snobbery: “That’s so backward. This isn’t the Dark Ages. Be on the right side of history.”

As G.K. Chesterton said, “Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.” Just because an idea suddenly becomes popular does not mean that its contrary has been demonstrated false. But if you think it has, present your reasoning. Let’s examine your premises to see if they’re true. Let’s see if they lead to your conclusion. Let’s have a discussion. Let’s not just say, “It’s 2012.” After all, there are only 40 days left in 2012; if you think you’re right simply because “it’s 2012,” maybe in 2013 you’ll be wrong.


  1. You know, Nick, it had been a seriously long while since I avidly awaited the "next installment" of my education (from any source). But such is the case now. You are such a gifted teacher (and still in the making, so even more "oohs and aahs" to look forward to) that I think when you eventually emerge into the university classroom, I just might have to enroll in a few classes. Thank you, Dear grandson.
    Grandpa Jake