Friday, July 03, 2015

Chesterton's Fence

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” – Gilbert Keith Chesterton

I think I know why the fence was put there. It is explained rather clearly by Ibn Khaldun in the Muqaddimat, and the reasons that it is there make a great deal of sense in historical context. 

 But underpopulation is not a serious threat to the human species today. Few women die in childbirth in the developed world. And given that much more morally dubious forms are birth control are rife everywhere nowadays, is there still any reason for the fence to be there? I don’t know. Is there another subtler reason than Ibn Khaldun’s, a reason I don’t quite grasp? I am still reluctant to take the fence down. Is it only ingrained Catholicism, or ingrained contrariness? Or is it not so much that this particular fence is a problem, but that the spirit of fence removal blows so fast and hard in these times? The mob has become a tyrant, ruthlessly attacking freedom of speech and freedom of association, and I am (in principle) dedicated to casting down tyrants from their thrones. That is just a fancier way of expressing ingrained contrariness, I suppose. Anyhow, I am resigned to the fact that sooner or later I will incur the wrath of the mob for saying the wrong thing, refuse to apologise, and be sacked.

I should add, while I am here – and I speak as someone who has been very happily married for more than twenty years – that marriage is in its essence a punitive institution. It is not in the interests of any society not described by Aldous Huxley in ‘Brave New World’ for its members to go trolloping off like flibbertigibbets all the time, abandoning offspring and dividing collective property. It is all dressed up very prettily, of course, but in essence its historical function is to force people to stay together when they would rather not. When you are lobbying for the ‘right to marry’, you are really lobbying to be ostracised should you fail to be monogamous.   

People should be free to declare their love for each other in whichever way they like; but if governments are not going to hold them to the terms of the contracts they’ve made with penalties with real teeth, they have no business being involved. I would vote happily for legislation to abolish civil marriage. Whatever legal benefits and responsibilities it has have already been extended piecemeal to de facto relationships, and ‘no fault’ divorce has made it a contractual agreement uniquely lacking in legal penalties.


“Among the things that corrupt sedentary culture, there is the disposition toward pleasures and indulgence in them, because of the great luxury (that prevails). It leads to diversification of the desires of the belly for pleasurable food and drink. This is followed by diversification of the pleasures of sex through various ways of sexual intercourse, such as adultery and homosexuality. This leads to destruction of the (human) species. It may come about indirectly, through the confusion concerning one's descent caused by adultery. Nobody knows his own son, since he is illegitimate and since the sperm (of different men) got mixed up in the womb. The natural compassion a man feels for his children and his feeling of responsibility for them is lost. Thus, they perish, and this leads to the end of the (human) species. Or, the destruction of the (human) species may come about directly, as is the case with homosexuality, which leads directly to the non-existence of offspring. It contributes more to the destruction of the (human) species (than adultery), since it leads to (the result) that no human beings are brought into existence, while adultery only leads to the (social) non-existence of those who are in existence.” - Abd-ar-Rahman bin Muhammad ibn Khaldun

Update March 28th 2016: The Catholicism has turned out to be ingrained closer to the surface than I thought when I wrote this. And I can now confidently assert that the fence ought to remain, on the basis of  'A Canticle for Leibowitz'. These conditions of overpopulation and contraception are novel and contingent and likely to be temporary, and a society or ideology that is in the game for the long term ought to reject innovations that rely upon them.