The Importance of Distinctions
It has been said that modern man has trouble making distinctions. This difficulty has led us into a lot of fundamental errors in our thinking and has serious consequences for our society and for all individuals.
A distinction is “a difference or contrast between similar things or people” and “the separation of things or people into different groups according to their attributes or characteristics.”
The word “discrimination” is much maligned these days, and unfortunately is often used to dissuade us from making correct and important distinctions. Not all discrimination is bad, and sometimes it is essential for justice. In fact, rather than increase justice in society, this inability to discriminate actually increases injustice in society. While discrimination can be defined as:
“the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex (ex: victims of racial discrimination | discrimination against homosexuals).”
It also means:
“recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another (ex: discrimination between right and wrong | young children have difficulties in making fine discriminations).”
Consider the case of two human beings. One is a child and one is an adult. Would it be just to treat both of these people the same way? Obviously not. And thankfully, most of the time the law recognizes this. It would actually be an injustice to treat a child like an adult or an adult like a child. And yet, too often elementary school children are treated like adults and led out in handcuffs because they got involved in a fight or some other childish activity at school. This is a travesty.
Consider the two halves of humanity: Man and Woman. There is no question that both merit the dignity of human beings, for they are both equally human. But the aggressive and popularized insistence that men and women should be treated in the same way, as if there were no difference, and in spite of different desires, is mind-boggling.
In some areas, local governments have proclaimed that men and women can enter any public bathroom, regardless of their actual sex, depending on what sex they feel they are. This is pure subjectivism. And there are angry cries from some vocal groups that more women should compete professionally in sports like football or boxing. Is it really surprising that a considerably smaller number of women than men are interested in participating in those sports? That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be allowed to. But why the push to change what appears to be a natural difference among the sexes?
Likewise, while some people treat animals as if they were not living, feeling beings, others go the other extreme to anthropomorphize and treat animals as if they were human beings. Both behaviors denote a lack of distinction.
We need not only to make distinctions, but to distinguish between which features are important and which are not in any given situation. To prohibit an individual from being free and owning land based on his race is not reasonable or just. On the other hand, a person’s race may well be a determining factor in his medical diagnosis and treatment, in which case such racial discrimination would be just, moral and necessary.
And to prohibit an individual from being free and owning land based on his behavior may well be reasonable and just. Why is this the case? Because a human being’s race is morally unrelated to his right to be free and own property. However, his violation of others’ rights does impact his own freedom.
To give a more contemporary example, consider that:
Having to submit to credit check in order to rent an apartment to live in is unjust. The landlord has no moral claim to your credit history, because you are not asking for credit. It is unrelated and unreasonable. If you were to apply for a loan, however, that would make sense. Likewise, Insurance companies would have us believe that all their discriminations are perfectly just, under the guise of statistical models. But your age and credit history should have no bearing on the cost of your insurance. While the cost of what you’re insuring is relevant, these other factors are morally unrelated, and simply unjust to consider.
As the inability to properly distinguish and discriminate between one thing and another increases, society and individuals fall into various serious errors. The following “isms” are among these errors:
Indifferentism: “the belief that differences of religious belief are of no importance.”
So it doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or a Buddhist or whatever. It doesn’t really matter what you believe. I’ve heard it said “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe in something” Does that include Satanism or Consumerism? If believing in something is important, how can WHAT you believe not be important? I think what this saying is trying to point out is that it’s important to have a foundation, but it misses the point that a foundation is only as good as it is strong and it is only as strong as it is true, otherwise it’ll fall apart in the light of the truth.
Indifferentism is a failure to identify the importance of truth in religion and discriminate between them and thus actually undermines the religions it’s supposedly open to.
Now, this doesn’t mean we can’t find common ground between those beliefs or that we shouldn’t allow for a variety of beliefs. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that the differences in our beliefs are of no importance either.
Relativism/Subjectivism: The specific lack of distinction that indifferentism calls for is more generally manifested in the doctrine of relativism or subjectivism, another of the errors a lack of distinction leads to. This is the claim that knowledge, truth and morality exist only in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and that they are not absolute. In fact, it claims that all knowledge is subjective and that there is no external or objective truth.
Of course, if this is true, then it really doesn’t matter what you believe, because there is nothing objectively true to believe in anyway. This is really contrary to science, which tells us that there are objective physical truths in the world. This is a really popular thought these days. But if nothing is objectively true, then why should we believe that relativism is true? Maybe its true for you, but not for me? You see, relativism and subjectivism are logically broken from their very premise. That doesn’t stop them from being popular however. This a complete lack of distinction between anything. In fact, the ultimate deciding force of what is true or not is you, regardless of any so-called “facts”- and that smacks a lot of human ego.
Taking this a step further we wind up with nihilism.
Nihilism: “the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.”
Of course, if there is no objective truth, then it doesn’t matter what you believe, but most importantly, there is nothing TO believe- because everything is meaningless. Under this belief there is no purpose or meaning to human life. And there are no moral rules. This is also a very convenient belief. Beware of the nihilist. But those who honestly believe in nihilism as true tend to become very depressed and even suicidal. Because if there is one thing which is most toxic to the human spirit it is a loss of purpose and meaning in the world. A softer form of nihilism is expressed in everyday apathy, which we see a lot of today.
And of course, we have the ever-popular reductionism.
We simply or reduce things all the time. Essentially, this is the process of creating a model. And models are very useful. For example, we might use a map to help us get somewhere. The map is a model of an actual area. We symbolically present streets, unpaved land and bodies of water as colored shapes. We’ve simplified reality- taken out all the extra things we don’t need, in order to better explain or communicate some thing.
Scientific theories are also models. If we want to calculate the position of the Earth at a particular time, we don’t worry about most details. Instead, we model the Earth as a sphere (even though it’s not actually a perfect sphere) and input the numerical figures that pertain specifically to this situation and for this prediction. We take the complicated details out in order to better explain and predict a particular aspect of something.
Obviously, this kind of simplification or reduction is very useful in some ways. But, where reductionism goes wrong is in trying to explain all of reality, including human beings in this fashion. Rather than viewing them simply as models, reductionism says- no, that’s really all there is. Reductionism is a gross over-generalization. Again we have a failure to distinguish importantly different things here. It doesn’t consider the world, or human beings, holistically. And this failure to discriminate has a profound effect on an individual’s view of life. It is not surprising then that reductionists tend to be atheists and materialists.
Indifferentism, Relativism, Nihilism and Reductionism all stem from that inability to distinguish, to make proper and necessary distinctions.
The following passage is from the Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia on Religion and Science, in the entry for reductionism:
“Reality is a multi-layered unity. I can perceive another person as an aggregation of atoms, an open biochemical system in interaction with the environment, a specimen of homo sapiens, an object of beauty, someone whose needs deserve my respect and compassion, a brother for whom Christ died. All are true and all mysteriously cohere in that one person. To deny one of these levels is to diminish both that person and myself, the perceiver; to do less than justice to the richness of reality. part of the case for theism is that in God the Creator, the ground of all that is, these different levels find their lodging and their guarantee. He is the source of connection, the one whose creative act holds in one the world-views of science, aesthetics, ethics and religion, as expression of his reason, joy, will and presence.”
This passage illustrates a holistic, non-reductionistic view of the human being. Rather than reduce a human being to being mere atoms, biology, animal or aesthetic object, several important aspects of the human being are perceived and contemplated. Such a view prevents us from objectifying and dehumanizing ourselves and others and provides the foundation for the respect and justice that the reality of being human demands.
If we do not understand how to properly discriminate and distinguish things, we will not only make society more unjust by falling into the aforementioned errors, but we will ultimately lose the ability to tell right from wrong. Because after all, what’s the difference?