Thursday, 29 August 2013

Concrete Vices vs Abstract Virtues

There's a video in the MUAMTS (Man Up and Marry The Sluts) genre which I watched because Dalrock mentioned it and I had nothing better to do. A guy called Mark Driscoll, who is some kind of big-name pastor (which is what Protestant vicars are called in the USA because they can't be vicars, because that's a C of E thing, and there is no Church of America, so they are freelancers, which means that their first responsibility is to bring in the money, but I digress...) and he says amongst many other loaded things...

"You've got guys who are...consumers, not producers, so it's food and it's sex and it's drugs and it's alcohol and it's video games and it's entertainment and there's no production, there's no life and growth and help and hope and healing for others." 

And my jaw dropped open. Read that again. Slowly. 

Didn't see it? All the bad things are described concretely: sex, drugs, alcohol, video games. Short of mentioning actual brands, he couldn't be more concrete. But when it comes to the good stuff, it's all abstract nouns: "production", "life", "growth", "help", "hope" and "healing for others". I'm guessing those are code words where Pastor Driscoll comes from but I don't speak the code.

This happens every time someone wants to diss the way a bunch of guys live: they describe in concrete terms what they want the guys to stop doing, but when it comes to what the guys should be doing, they use more abstract nouns than a bad passage of Hegel. "Life". For frack's sake. I'm not even going to guess what that's code for. It's as dumb as those people who say "you should be out there living". Yeah. Let's see. Living. That would be the thing that if you're not doing it, you're dead. Right? And since I'm not dead, I must be alive, and that means I'm living. So I tick that box. Or did you mean something specific? You did? Like what? Uh-huh, you call that "living"? Jeez.

The good Pastor can't get to specifics, because then everyone can have a discussion about just how desirable, possible, affordable and otherwise do-able those specifics are. And because in modern consumer society, most of the things we can do are pretty darn pointless and can, depending on exactly how much you squint and tilt your head, be seen as self-indulgence, then the good Pastor can be seen as substituting one bunch of worthless crap for another. (I'm willing to bet that more than once Paster Driscoll has suggested that all those nouns can be made concrete by, oh, raising money for his ministry? D'ya think?) 

This is partly Pastor Driscoll being sneaky, and it's partly a problem with the way evaluative language works. Most concepts in the English language are piebald: slightly descriptive and slightly evaluative. Even if the evaluations are your own personal views. Brands have value exactly to the degree that people have warm fuzzy feelings towards them: "Coca-Cola" is the name of a drink and a company, but it's also something towards which you have feelings (I'm a Coke man, do they even still make Pepsi?). "Pornography" is a concept with descriptive content and examples, but there's also some evaluation in there, even if it does vary from person to person. "Life", as the good Pastor uses it, is not what we all do or we'd be dead, but something ineffable and Good. Lots of evaluative weight, but almost zero descriptive content. And the moment he gives it any specific descriptive content, the evaluative weight drops off, because we can say "Whoa there Nelly! What's so freaking great about that ?". Words like "good" or "bad" are purely evaluative, and don't mean much more than "I you do that, I will un-Friend you" or something along those lines. The Pastoral trick is to use words that look like they mean something specific - like "production", "life", "growth", "help", "hope" and "healing for others" - and indeed do mean something, just different things to different audiences. As opposed to real descriptive words, which mean much of the same thing to almost everyone.

It's not about any asymmetry between virtues and vices. Vices are naturally concrete. Galatians (via Wikipedia lists):  adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings. All of those have pretty clear descriptive and even legal meaning. The virtues according to the Catholic Church - faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude - are also pretty specific, and very far from wishy-washy stuff like "life, growth and healing for others" - even if prudence (which in Catholic theology means a sound situational judgement of what should be done) is a little vague in practice.  

Concrete Vices and Abstract Virtues is a rhetorical trick used by people whose main aim is condemning rather than offering a positive vision of right behaviour. Just like Pastor Driscoll.

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