G. K. C. on grandmothers

A commenter on another blog recently wrote two comments, which I here telescope together, as the second was explicitly written as a correction to the first:

If we are to have a stable, functional society, women can have equal rights and political participation, or they can have a functional exemption from moral consequences. They cannot have both.

The disjunction is true and logical, and not only of women, but of human beings generally. But ‘a stable, functional society’ has nothing to do with the case. It is a red herring, and a red herring of a particularly insidious type, because it amounts to denying that the question is one of morals at all. Chesterton made the point very neatly a century ago:

But the whole modern world, or at any rate the whole modern Press, has a perpetual and consuming terror of plain morals. Men always attempt to avoid condemning a thing upon merely moral grounds. If I beat my grandmother to death to-morrow in the middle of Battersea Park, you may be perfectly certain that people will say everything about it except the simple and fairly obvious fact that it is wrong. Some will call it insane; that is, will accuse it of a deficiency of intelligence. This is not necessarily true at all. You could not tell whether the act was unintelligent or not unless you knew my grandmother. Some will call it vulgar, disgusting, and the rest of it; that is, they will accuse it of a lack of manners. Perhaps it does show a lack of manners; but this is scarcely its most serious disadvantage. Others will talk about the loathsome spectacle and the revolting scene; that is, they will accuse it of a deficiency of art, or æsthetic beauty. This again depends on the circumstances: in order to be quite certain that the appearance of the old lady has definitely deteriorated under the process of being beaten to death, it is necessary for the philosophical critic to be quite certain how ugly she was before. Another school of thinkers will say that the action is lacking in efficiency: that it is an uneconomic waste of a good grandmother. But that could only depend on the value, which is again an individual matter. The only real point that is worth mentioning is that the action is wicked, because your grandmother has a right not to be beaten to death. But of this simple moral explanation modern journalism has, as I say, a standing fear. It will call the action anything else – mad, bestial, vulgar, idiotic, rather than call it sinful.

—G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Boy’ (in All Things Considered)

The only real point worth mentioning about ‘functional exemptions from moral consequences’ is that it is morally wrong to exempt anyone from moral standards, which, in so far as they are moral, must be universal if they are not meaningless. Stable and functional societies have been built upon chattel slavery, helotry, human sacrifice, and any number of other wicked and revolting practices. That does not mean that it was either wise or right to do so, or to exempt those societies from the particular moral standards that were outraged by their customs.

Dr. Samuel Johnson observed, as a good Tory opposed to the American war of independence, that the people who yapped the loudest about liberty were the slaveholding planters of Virginia. The inconsistency had to be paid for; and it was, within a century, when the accounts were squared with a million gallons of blood. Yet those slaveholders were paragons of the moral law compared to a good many of our modern opinion-makers and cultural leaders. They should be opposed because they are wrong, for they are wrong; not because they cannot succeed, for they manifestly do succeed.


  1. antares says

    Feels unfinished.

  2. L Jagi Lamplighter (Wright) says

    I am beginning to think that he is entirely right about women and politics vs. moral compass.

    Poor Grandmother!

  3. Stephen K says

    Well said.

  4. pouncer says

    With all due respect to Dr. Johnson, and without actually counting the documents or attempting to measure the stridency of the verbiage contained in such documents, I suspect the loudest yappers were the smugglers of Boston — Sam Adams, John Hancock, etc. The (I think, deservedly) famed speech on liberty delivered to the Virginia House of (some slave holding) Burgesses by Patrick Henry alluded to the battles of Lexington and Concord — “already in the fields” before going to set terms of the bargain: “Liberty, or Death”.

    A year or two before the British peace keepers stationed in Boston decided to march to the armory in Lexington and collect up all the weapons of war the subjects of the King had (so they thought) no need for, a similar effort was made near Williamsburg, in Virginia. This provoked among the Virginians reactions violently similar to those of their northern cousins. However, a gifted attorney, Peyton Randolph, negotiated a stand down from the stand off, allowing the Brits to preserve face and the Colonials to preserve their weapons. Randolph shortly thereafter was, arguably, the First President of the United States. This, if you allow that the Continental Congress in Philadelphia constituted the first government of the “united” colonies, and that the “president” of that congress was president of the government and of the new nation. Had the diplomatic Virginian Randolph not been replaced by the revolutionary Massachussettsian Hancock, the united colonies might have found grounds to reconcile with the King and Parliament. Or not. But in any case Virginians and Carolianians and other slave holding Southerners were NOT quite the revolutionary libertarians that Adams, Morris, Sherman, and the Northerners appear to have been.

  5. The inconsistency was NOT paid for by those millions of gallons of blood; we still owe the full amount, with interest, for the way our society treats American citizens whose forebears were slaves. As if they had been an inconvenience, their fault.

    • Really? The full amount? You are claiming, then, that nothing has been accomplished? You are, in fact, saying that black Americans are so badly off today that they might as well still be slaves?

      You’re going to have a pretty hard job selling that one.

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