For those who came of age during the postwar era of “movement conservatism,” there was something of a canon of serious books that provided common reference points to the movement and its intellectuals. These included works from the early contributors to National Review, including Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind and Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community.
Rarely was there a serious gathering of conservative intellectuals without someone solemnly intoning, “ideas have consequences.” The title of Richard Weaver’s 1948 essay, it was part of this conservative canon, but his wide-ranging work of criticism was perhaps of too strong a vintage to have major influence, beyond, of course, its catchy title.
Weaver’s central thesis is provocative. Movement conservatives often trace “when things went wrong” to the social revolution of the 1960s, perhaps the 1860s if they hail from the South, or, if they have a continental sensibility, the start of the French Revolution in 1789. Weaver understood that the inflection point was much further in the past. He placed it in the 14th century.
Conservatism, as the word itself suggests, is marked by a cautious attitude towards change, but taken by itself, this can seem rather extreme and unthinking. It was criticism of this kind of conservatism that was the starting point of a mode of thought that today is bearing fruit, William of Occam’s modern philosophy of nominalism.
More famous for his razor, Weaver described his contribution as follows: “It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience. The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of man . . . The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses.”
For nominalists, justice is only a word, a mere creation of the author’s mind, and there can be no real knowledge of it. So too with something like human nature, marriage, gender, and much else. For nominalists, we may know something of gravity and genetics, but the gravity of our choices on how to live our lives are reduced to the realm of mere opinions and preferences. Just words.
The Pro-Choice Movement Denies the Humanity of the Unborn
Consider some recent events. Before being savaged by his own side for the sin of wearing blackface (or perhaps donning a Klansman’s hood) in a 1984 medical school yearbook, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam did something considerably more repulsive. He said the following about very late term (as in after birth) abortion: “If a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired. And then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
While this is extreme, Northam is hardly the first to broach the idea. Slate presented the “pro-choice case for infanticide” some years ago, and it’s been a hobby horse of Princeton philosopher Peter Singer for some time.
In the face of such abominations, however, we lack a common set of reference points to criticize them. It is not enough, though it may be true, that they create intuitive horror in most normal people. The confusion finds other, lesser expressions ranging from the explosion of no fault divorce to treating alien invaders as merely “undocumented.” In all of these cases, the reality of the subject in question—life, marriage, citizenship—is denied, and substituted in is a new definition coming from on-high and the powers-that-be. Reality is what we are told it is.
The deceptive use of language is especially noteworthy in the case of the pro-abortion cause. When an abortion occurs, proponents describe the victim as a mere fetus, a zygote, a clump of cells, or simply part of the mother’s body. On the other hand, as we know from baby showers and the pain of miscarriage, when a woman wants to give birth, it’s “the baby.”
The same objective reality is present in all of these cases, but the pro-choice position allows the desire and intentions of the mother to define the moral import of the underlying reality. The feminist Left recognizes no limitations on the ability of words to define reality, nor that objective reality imposes certain obligations or the lack of them. The denial of objective reality is natural and routine because nominalism has already denied reality’s existence as an objective reference point.
Instead of rights and other obligations flowing from the reality of things, nominalism substitutes an ever-changing canon of “human rights,” but the nominalist has no particularly good reason—other than the faint echo of conscience—for preferring to uphold these rights over denying them.
Thus, human rights are always changing based on the paired logic of eliminating all forms of discrimination and “autonomy”—which means literally to be a law unto oneself. Since limits form the essence of any real law, the corrosive logic of nominalism and its leftist progeny leave us with absolutely everything as potentially permitted. The unfolding of this logic, no matter how regressive, is called “progress.”
Transgenderism Denies the Reality of Sex Differences
Consider also the fashionable issue of “transgenderism.” Rather than recognizing men and women are objective categories, not subject to autonomous choice but rather states of being dictated by nature, nominalism permits mere sentiment and preference to declare that one is, in fact, what one is not.
So-called transgenders have been fighting to get the same positive treatment gays earlier obtained: the right to define who they are and to be accepted in these beliefs by the broader society. But something is peculiar. What does it mean to be transgendered, if all the trappings of femaleness—femininity, attraction to men, psychological and physical characteristics—are nonessential, being subject to the same nominalist crucible? In other words, what does it mean to “feel” female, in a world where femaleness has no intrinsic content? What is to stop a perfectly masculine man from declaring his “femalehood” right before being sentenced to life in prison; after all, on what basis could anyone say his beard, his manner of dress, and his sexual attraction to women are not fully consistent with being a woman?
Other Horrors Are Coming
Normal people, until recently, understood both good sense and psychological health to include conforming one’s beliefs to an extant, objective reality. You called a horse a horse and a tree a tree. One understood, as he matured, finer gradations, such as that zebras are like horses in some ways and different in others. But this is all mere habit, inconsistent with the modern moral and political landscape and its nominalist denial of the reality of things—the humanity of an infant for example.
Nothing is left to stop one from taking this nominalist approach to other socially relevant characteristics. Why could one not say, for example, that a grown man is not a child? Or that a child is not an adult? Indeed, the distinctions between genders appear more tangible by comparison, yet these have now been nearly completely demolished. Where childhood begins and ends varies with different cultures and historical epochs, but men and women are quite different, and rather obviously so. Nonetheless, the distinction between adults and children is highly relevant for the issue of legal consent, whether for contracts or for sexual relations.
Proponents of transgender rights would dismiss such questioning as a cruel exaggeration, noting that the protection of children and the rights of the transgendered are obviously different things. While they are clearly different situations, they are not obviously so to proponents of the nominalism that brought us here and may not be for others for much longer. In both cases, opponents of the new trend can only appeal to objective reality as an important check on the right of an individual to “define himself,” but such an argument is directly at odds with the transgender revolution already underway and runs counter to the left’s revolt against traditional limits on autonomy more generally. As Weaver put it, “The physical world is a complex of imposed conditions; when these thwart immediate expression of his will, [the modern man] becomes angry and asserts that there should be no obstruction of his wishes.”
Nominalism foments other confusion. Just as your right to swing your arm ends at your neighbor’s nose, your right to “define yourself” should end at objective reality. If not, why could some aggressive group not define its enemies as insects or vermin and exterminate them when they become inconvenient. Or, for that matter, and more likely in the near future, what would stop some enterprising progressive from defining child rape of the type promoted by NAMBLA as a fully consensual and beautiful expression of true desire, restrained now only by prejudice. After all, if a child can choose his gender, why could he not choose to have sex partners?
It’s coming, and, having rolled over on the transgender atrocity, our philosophically confused society will be able to do little more than shrug. After all, as the age-old relativist refrain goes, “Who is to say?” Ideas have consequences, indeed.
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