Smuggling Value into a Value-less World
What in the past in a deficient terminology was called proof for the existence of God, is the expression of the inescapable dialectic of finite and infinite…”Proving” God entails making explicit what we are: finite spirit.
—-Ludwig Heyde, The Weight of Finitude, p. 133
The Issue At Hand
The claim that we live in an increasingly secularized society is hardly new or novel. No one is surprised that the last place we can expect to find acts based on religious belief are in our business or government systems. One must look long and hard to find any policy maker or business manager suggesting that we resolve societal and business problems through a religious value system and those that make such suggestions are likely to be targets of criticism and ridicule.
So thoroughly imbued in our society is the assumption of a secular, value-free system that Scott Adams can build a career on lampooning our attempts to create meaning ex nihilo. A character in a recent edition of Dilbert says, “A deep understanding of reality is exactly the same thing as laziness”. This cynical declaration of meaning and values expressing only the temporal needs of its mortal creator was so popular and so closely aligned with personal experience that it was clipped, pasted and passed along on the web nearly 300,000 times. 
Examples in Cultural Institutions
We can turn to other cultural institutions and find this same sense of finite beings weighed down by the responsibility to create meaning. Modern philosophy is thoroughly secular. The philosopher Richard Rorty aggressively articulates a value-less world. His world is thoroughly utilitarian.
He suggests that no unconditional moral obligation exists in human existence. Truth is what wins out in the free market of ideas. There are no appeals to a larger truth, to an ontology of human existence. There is no ground for ideals other than a grinding reality. An overarching universal truth guiding human decisions consists of nothing more than hope. There is nowhere to turn for succor. For everywhere around one are objects to be named and assessed for their utility.[i]
Such a stark depiction of a reality upon which we scaffold meaning is reflected in our literature and in our movies. In William Trevor’s short story Of the Cloth a Catholic parish abuts another served by the Church of Ireland. They are both deep in the Irish countryside where congregations have declined and the residents are shedding church traditions. Both parish priests, remembering a time of closer social connections and a church that served the daily needs of its congregants, feel unconnected to their community and adrift in a changing world.
In the towns marriage was not always bothered with, confessions and absolutions passed by. “A different culture”, the two priests called it, “in which restraint and prayer were not the way, as once they had been. Crime spread in the different culture,” they said, “and drugs taken by children…A plague it was and it would reach the country too, was reaching it already.” [ii] As in Rorty’s world of individual negotiators in a free market of values and ideals, the two priests are alone and unable to turn to a community for understanding. What they thought was their life’s purpose was a cruel illusion, an example of Rorty’s criticism of religious faith as an insubstantial hope of something large and powerful to be working on our side.
Cinema provides no succor. The Coen Brothers film, No Country for Old Men tells the story of a starkly brutal world populated by thieves, murderers, self-seekers, and a few characters attempting but failing to combat evil. In an unimaginably violent part of south Texas a sheriff attempts to find purpose by searching out and stopping evil men. He cannot and is unable to find even a vocabulary to describe what he sees around him. The sheriff, like the priests in the Trevor short story, has lost meaning and purpose. He struggles to find the source of this increasingly chaotic and meaningless world. “I think once you stop hearin’ ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ the rest is soon to follow….I used to think I could at least some way put things right. I don’t feel that way no more.”[iii] In this post-Enlightenment world he has only his own vocabulary, his own creation of what the world means as an aid.
This sense of isolation and burden of creating meaning is made explicit in a conversation late in the movie where the sheriff confronts his failed attempt to fix what was wrong. He had tried to turn to God but did not have the knowledge or the support of institutions or tradition to help him. He says, “…I always thought when I got older God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him I’d have the same opinion about me that he does.”[iv] His helplessness turns to despair. His despair turns to the diminution of self. His self-worth collapses under the burden of the responsibility to make sense of the world by himself. The desperation of such an overwhelming responsibility leads to a sense of fatalism and utter helplessness. His companion concludes, “[y]ou can’t stop what’s comin. Ain’t all waitin on you.” [v]
The Coen Brothers’ sheriff tried to find God but possessed no framework to approach Him. He had no guides to help him and nothing in culture around him could help. Bereft in a world he neither recognized nor understood he gave up his authority to the Fates. The same fate awaits Trevor’s two priests. Their own religious training seems unhelpful and irrelevant. They have no influence and are adrift. “They” say bad cultural practices will soon penetrate their rural stronghold and, actually, already has arrived. Coen & Coen and Trevor see a similar world. People are not connected to each other; individualism prevails and so hobbles any attempt to establish a moral communitarianism. Unrestrained violence and alarming behavior threaten to intrude or already have intruded on their increasingly diminished world. The protagonists in both examples fail to cope or even understand what is before them. Because God is not allowed into this post-Enlightenment world they have only themselves to prevail against the threat of chaos and diminution. In both examples the protagonists fail.
If what we see in Richard Rorty, William Trevor and the Coen Brothers accurately describes contemporary society then how have we managed to keep a civil society alive? How does civil society make sound decisions if we have no vocabulary to adequately describe moral decision-making, philosophers suggest a values-free competitive market of ideas to guide society, and our cultural explicators create a vision of despair and isolation? Steven Smith believes we smuggle pre-modern values into modern discourse. 
Our modern commitment to a secular and rational vocabulary has impoverished rational discourse, leaving us without a language to describe our normative commitments. Just as the characters in our example are unable to articulate their needs or describe how their world had changed, our resources now are too meager. Thus we smuggle in normative contraband from the outside.[vi] Our public discussions focused on our most fundamental civic concerns are composed of a secular vocabulary freighted with an underlying, deeper meaning
The means of transport are words so loosely defined they lose any specific meaning and so are ideal carriers. Smith identifies two families of words: the autonomy-liberty-freedom family and the equality-neutrality-reciprocity family. Invoke either of these two families of words and one will find little resistance. Who objects to liberty and freedom? No one. Family words often are interchangeable. When liberty is inappropriate in a particular conversation, freedom or autonomy can substitute with little loss of utility.
However, how far does a word such as “equality” take us? Not far at all. Equality is entirely “circular”. It tells us to treat like people alike; but when we ask who “like people” are, we are told they are “people who should be treated alike.” Equality is an empty vessel with no substantive moral content of its own.[vii]
Without moral standards, equality is meaningless. With moral standards the word merely stands for what we already know. The word “equality” does not carry any argument forward. If one employs “equality” as the discursive focus of, say, the legalization of same-sex marriage then the discussion is merely a distraction. Another value lies underneath this discussion in which “equality” is the vessel. The discussion does not probe how same-sex marriage is like traditional marriage. It provides no standard upon which to decide the legitimacy of the argument. Invoking the word “equality” and its unarticulated assumptions of positive values is sufficient to carry the argument.
Smuggling Value into Assisted Suicide Court Case Discussions
The 1997 Supreme Court decisions in Washington v Glucksberg and Vacco v Quill outlawing physician-assisted suicide in Washington state and New York, respectively, are good examples of values “smuggling”. Since the Constitution says nothing about physician-assisted suicide the judges’ discussions ranged far beyond legal issues.
Both cases drew intense interest, of course, including an august group of philosophers defending the right to assisted suicide. [viii] For all the commentary and legal discussion, something was missing. The conversation was too arid. Something seemed to be held back by discussants.
Washington and New York allowed voluntary withdrawal of medical treatment but did not allow physicians to administer a drug overdose. But both protocols lead to the patient’s death. Why was one allowed and the other disallowed? The distinction seems arbitrary and incongruous.
The Supreme Court attempted to distinguish between “killing” and “letting die”. Withholding treatment lets the patient die but is not the cause of death. Rather, some other natural cause – starvation or dehydration, for instance – led to death rather than termination of treatment. On the other hand, assisting in a death is actually killing the patient. The distinction was justified through “double effect”, a concept that isolates “foreseen” from “intended” consequences of actions.
These arguments seem arbitrary and superficial, completely inadequate for the deliberation undertaken by the court. Smith argues that in such a case we find normative values smuggling.
In the courts’ discussions a distinction was made between terminally ill patients seeking assisted suicide and those who simply did not wish to continue their lives in pain or discomfort or helplessly connected to medical devices. For those judges distinguishing between killing and letting die often talked about withholding treatment and “letting nature take its course.” They appeared to be invoking a standard by which to judge the appropriateness of withdrawing treatment: “actions are distinguishable by whether they artificially interfere with that natural course or instead respect and defer to it”. [ix]
Judges made a distinction between those who were at the end of a natural course of life, a natural life span, and those who wanted to end their life before the natural course had taken them to the end. For this group an early termination of life was “a cosmic shame.”[x] Behind these assumptions is a definition of “nature” and what complements and what contradicts it. For all the focus on intent and causation and other discussions on autonomous decision-making and liberty, an unspoken set of norms at work was unexplored: what is the character of “nature’s course”. To short-circuit this course evokes shame.
At the bottom of the various judge’s discussion were unspoken normative values of at what point in a person’s life is assisted suicide appropriate. The nonsensical distinctions of intention and causation, the casuistry of double effect, allowed the invocation of an “intrinsic normative order” of what was assumed, perhaps subconsciously, of a natural course of life.[xi] At some level these elusive notions of autonomy, causation, and intention were the vessels.
We are not the infinite gods of antiquity, creating order, meaning and values on a value-less earth. We bend and snap under the weight of this terrible responsibility. Just as the characters in Trevor’s short story and the Coen Brothers’ film, words cannot encompass what is before them. They are powerless to change what lies before them. The vocabulary open to the participants in these assisted suicide court cases also suffered an inadequate vocabulary to describe the normative values underlying the discussions. They were able to smuggle in meaning through the empty vessels of the two word families, a resource unavailable to our fictional characters.
Pope Benedict XVI suggests that “secularity” means freedom from religious strictures and the exclusion of Christian values from public life. [xii] Certainly our cultural artifacts seem to show that exclusion and the devastating impact this exclusion has on man’s actual freedom. However, if values smuggling is an actual activity to deepen an otherwise inadequate vocabulary for solving complex issues then the most fundamental impulses of humankind restore in some form these fundamental values regimes. The examples offered in this paper show an inchoate, unsatisfactory methodology to utilize these pre-modern values. Restoring religious values to public life could bring order and reason to what seems to be an unrestrained and perhaps unconscious impulse to invoke a values-driven order on decision-making
Benedict XVI, Pope. “Letter to Marcello Pera.” Benedict XVI, Pope and Marcello Pera. Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam. New York: Basic Books, 2006. 107-136.
Coen, Joel and Coen, Ethan. “No Country for Old Men Script.” 28 November 2005. The Movies of Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. September 22 2010 <http://www.youknowforkids.com/nocountryforoldmen.txt>.
Dworkin, Ronald, et al. “Assisted Suicide: The Philosophers’ Brief.” 27 March 1997. The New York Review of Books. 1 March 2011 <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1997/mar/27/assisted-suicide-the-philosophers-brief/>.
Heyde, Ludwig. The Weight of Finitude: On the Philosophical Question of God. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.
Rorty, Richard. An Ethics for Today:Finding Common Ground Between Philosophy and Religion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
Smith, Steven D. The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.
Trevor, William. “Of The Cloth.” Trevor, William. Selected Stories. New York: Viking, 2010. 167-177.
Westen, Peter. “The Empty Idea of Equality.” Harvard Law Review 95.3 (1982): 537-596.
 Google count of pages created with cartoon text.
 The “smuggling” argument generally follows Smith, pp. 42-69 and 211-226.
[ii] Trevor, 176
[iii] Coen and Coen, 106
[iv] ibid, 114
[v] ibid, 116
[vi] Smith, 215.
[vii] Westen, quoted in Smith, 30.
[viii] Dworkin, et. al.
[ix] Smith, 54.
[x] Dworkin, et. al.
[xi] Smith, 68.
[xii] Pope Benedict XVI, 116