Zhou Enlai, the long-time Premier of Communist China (1949-1976), was once asked whether the French Revolution had been a good or a bad thing. He replied, “It’s too soon to tell.”
We might give the same answer if asked a similar question about the Protestant Reformation (which would better be labeled the Protestant Revolution), which is 500 years old this year. It was on the last Sunday of October 1517 that Father Martin Luther, Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the small local university, nailed his famous Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg.
This is conventionally recognized as the first moment of the Reformation – though it might be more correct to say that this religious revolution began more than a century earlier with the unorthodox ideas of another priest-professor, Father John Wycliffe of Oxford, often called “the morning star” of the Reformation. If Wycliffe was the morning star, Luther was the blazing sun. What had been a murmur with Wycliffe became a big bang with Luther.
Jeremy Bentham and his Utilitarian followers held that the goodness or badness of any event had to be measured in terms of its consequences. If the good results outweighed the bad, then it was a good event; if the bad outweighed the good, then it was a bad event.
The trouble with this way of evaluating events is that it requires us to be able to look into the distant future, the very distant future, the impossible-to-see distant future. Take, for example, two Austrian peasants who married about the year AD 1000. The farmer and his bride that I have in mind were the ancestors of Adolf Hitler. Measured by its results – that is, the birth of Hitler, the rise of the Nazi Party, World War II, the Holocaust, and many other unpleasant consequences – their wedding was a very bad thing. It was wrong of them to marry and have children. But this kind of judgment is absurd.
While it makes sense to evaluate events on the basis of their direct and immediate results (e.g., it was a bad thing that I went swimming in shark-infested waters since it caused me to get attacked by a shark), it is absurd to evaluate events on the basis of all their historical consequences, even those that happen thousands of years down the road.
Somebody who evaluates things in this way is former President Barack Obama, who often thinks in terms of being “on the right side of history.” He appears to believe two things: (1) that we can see what will prevail in the historical long run, and (2) that whatever prevails will be good. And so we know that, say, same-sex marriage is good, because we know it will prevail, we know it is on the right side of history.
Of course, President Obama is not the first person to think in these terms. The philosopher Hegel and certain other German thinkers from two centuries ago believed this. They believed that Weltgeschicte ist Weltgerichte – “world history is world justice.” Hegel can be forgiven for thinking this since his conclusion was based not simply on the study of history (though he had studied history), but on his conviction that he had found the metaphysical key that unlocks the mysteries and the meaning of history.
Karl Marx, a somewhat unorthodox disciple of Hegel, also believed we can predict the future, as did his homicidal followers Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and others. If you honestly believe that the Communist Party is “on the right side of history,” then why don’t you have a right, indeed why don’t you have a duty, to murder millions today to bring about the happiness of countless billions tomorrow?
President Obama, of course, isn’t a Communist (although many on the fringe of the conservative movement believe he is), and he isn’t a Hegelian holding the metaphysical key to the meaning of history. But he imagines – and many imagine with him – that he can see untold thousands of years into the future, and that this remote future tells him that same-sex marriage will prevail and will, therefore, be a good thing.
All this is nonsense. Nobody can see that far into the human future. Astronomers are good at predicting the future since the sun, the moon, and the stars are very predictable. Humans are not very predictable. To predict the human future, you would have to be able to predict all the new political, religious, philosophical, moral, scientific, and technological ideas that will be invented in the future; and if you could predict these ideas, you yourself would be inventing those ideas right now.
Some people who are confident they can predict the human future are harmless cranks; others (e.g., Marx and his followers) are very dangerous. Important and influential people who, like President Obama, believe they can make ethical judgments based on what customs will prevail in the long run, are also dangerous. On the basis of a future they only imagine, but cannot see, they pronounce this to be morally right and that to be morally wrong; and if they are mistaken in these moral pronouncements, they can have a corrupting influence on the moral judgments of others.
If we are to know what’s right and what’s wrong, our knowledge will have to be based either on Divine Revelation or on an inborn faculty of moral knowledge (conscience). We cannot rely on a capacity to predict the future, especially the long-term future. Nobody can do that. And if that’s the way we intend to tell right from wrong, then nobody can tell right from wrong.