Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Pascal Lecture: Dr. Charles Rice

I attended this year's Pascal Lectures on Christianity and the University.  It was delivered by Dr. Charles Rice, a Professor Emeritus of the Notre Dame School of Law.

Dr. Rice promotes "the natural law".  The thesis of his talk was that without objective moral truth (ie. God), the world would be a bad place. Object moral truths are basically moral laws that are handed down to us by a higher power. These morals are not negotiable, but dictated. He outlined a few arguments for why one should believe in objective morals, and then talked about how scary and sad our lives would be without objective morals.

I won't bore you with a point-by-point rebuttal of his talk, but I'd like to share a few points.

First of all, he spent about the first 10 or 15 minutes of his talk addressing the elephant in the room... the crowd of protestors outside the building.
Rice made no bones about his stance on Catholic doctrines... he said he believes in them all. In case you're not sure, that means he thinks being gay is an abomination. Hence, the protest. Dr. Rice said he admires the protestors for standing up for what they believe in. Fair 'nuf. In fact, I thought Rice was very charismatic as he spoke.

Of course, that doesn't mean I believe in his worldview. I don't.

He started out trying to convince us that objective morals are intuitively obvious. I had trouble following his logic. He held a pen and asked someone what it was. "A pen." He said he could dig a small hole with it, so it's a shovel. Or he could throw it, so it's a missile. Then he dropped this one... "It can't be a pen and not be a pen". Ummm... OK... but it can be a pen AND be a shovel. Clearly, I didn't get the point of that one.

He criticized moral relativism, the notion that there are NO objective moral truths. He says that without objective morals, people are free to choose their own morals. In that framework, laws are decided by majority vote, and there is no such thing as an unjust law. So the holocaust could not be considered unjust. He says there's no way to decide good actions from bad actions. For example, someone could murder someone else and then claim that it was the right thing to do according to their moral code.

Yes, I agree with all of those points. But I don't see why believing in an ideology makes things any better.

His main point seemed to be fear-mongering. That a fully secular society would be totalitarian. He claims that if there are no objective morals, then the only way to keep the peace would be by force.

Actually, that's totally opposite to how I see it. People generally want to be good, both secular and religious people. There are good reasons for that, stemming from evolutionary theory. Despite our do-good drive, the use of force will always be helpful to dissuade people from taking advantage of each other. However, when you want people to do things and believe things they don't want to, now that takes real force - brutal dictatorial force. Like shoving your religion down someone's throat, or suppressing other ideologies that inconveniently contradict yours - serious deadly force.

I found it interesting that he brought up Rosa Parks as an example at one point. Doesn't he see that the church's condemnation of gays is pretty much the same thing as racial persecution?

The question period was rather short, but interesting. One guy asked Dr. Rice what could be done about the fact that many universities are liberal, left-leaning, and secular. They seemed to agree that was a problem. Rice mentioned homeschooling.

Though I didn't get a chance to, I wanted to ask, "There are many, MANY different religions, and many of those contradict each other. Given that "Follow Christ" probably won't resonate with most other religions, how do you propose we establish what the real objective moral truths are? Which holy book should we take them from? ... Is there some mechanism by which we can agree on a common reality?"

Of course, I already have an answer. Can you guess what it is?


  1. OOH I have a guess. I beleive it's something along the lines of "Use your heart" and "listen to what I say because." [period for emphasis].

    1. Yah, that's exactly it. At least, that works for ME. :-P