On Redefining Reality: A Dialogue

“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” —Oscar Wilde

As I walked down the street, I noticed in the window of a shop a decal advertising the so-called “Human Rights Campaign,” the organization agitating for a redefinition of marriage to include homosexual unions. I was a little shocked somebody would be proud of that association, for I had heard the news that the founder of the Human Rights Campaign (and a major financial backer of President Obama), Terry Bean, was recently arrested in Oregon for sexually abusing a 15 year-old boy. Maybe that story was not broadcast as widely as it should have been—I can only guess why; if the president of the NRA had shot someone, certainly that would make the news.

Regardless, it also struck me how utterly debased the notion of human rights had become if an entire genus of moral claims could be reduced to a grotesque assertion made on behalf of one-percent of the population. Yet, I also saw that it is the epitome of the contemporary zeitgeist in which a “right” is nothing other than a sentimental imperative, as Alasdair MacIntyre has put it: on the one hand, it is nothing other than a bold and impulsive desire; yet, this is compounded with the tyrannical demand that others submit to your insistence that that desire be satisfied. This meretricious notion of rights debases them by placing individual desire ahead of objective value, a move which ineluctably reduces to nonsense any and all claims to have rights. I thought I might make a test to determine just how dedicated the shop owner really was to this notion of human rights: did he in fact agree that subjective desire implied the sort of right he seemed to claim for himself? In other words, would he allow me to redefine reality to conform to my own desires?

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The store was a tidy gift shop full of knick-knacks of no intrinsic value, but it was presided over by a tall, thin man with a penciled beard running the ridge of his jaw line and an imperious aquiline nose. I quickly found a small plaster dog, and presented it to the register for purchase by commenting approvingly, “This looks just like my son!”

Not given to suffering fools—or customers deemed unworthy—gladly, the proprietor grasped the dog with his spidery fingers and superciliously replied, “Your son? Really?”

“Well, I consider him my son. I am planning on being able to claim a child tax credit for him next year—or soon at least. The government has no right to tell me who my child is. After all, I love him like a son! That’s all that matters.”

Not knowing what to make of me, the owner quickly rang up the item without comment, and announced, “That will be $20.”

I pulled out a $10, and giving it to him, reached for the bag. “I am sorry, sir,” he said. “That’s a $10 bill.”

With this, of course, he unintentionally got to the heart of the issue. I protested, “That’s okay—I see this as being worth $20. What I mean is that, to me, that is the same as a $20 bill is to you.” Seeing him hesitate, I insisted, “Please don’t impose your values on me: I have the right to judge the value of things in relation to my money, and you judge it in relation to yours. I consider this to be $20, though you may call it what you will.”

“But you cannot just change the worth of a $10 bill! These prices are meant to be for everyone—changing them according to your whim ruins the whole system.”

“As I said, I am not changing the price. I consider the money I am handing you to be worth $20. You are getting exactly what you ask for.”

Slowly, as if here were explaining this to a child, he retorted, “Sir, you cannot redefine reality. It is an obvious fact that a $10 note is not the same as a $20 note—that would be a contradiction in terms! Simply calling a $10 a $20 does not make it so. Regardless of what you call them, they are not the same. You cannot simply go around changing the value of money. It is a fact that $10 is worth $10, and $20 is worth $20.”

“How can you be so unsophisticated?” I replied. “Isn’t the value of money just a convention anyway? I mean, there is no objective foundation for how much one piece of paper is worth against another—they are all just pieces of paper. If it is all just a convention, I should not be bound by your arbitrary traditions.”

“Price is a number, is not a ‘convention,’ sir. It is what the thing is really worth. $20 is just what $20 is, period. You can’t change that. So you do have to pay what I say.”

“So you think these prices indicate a value independent of what people want to pay?”

“Of course! The value of money is not arbitrary! If that were the case, you could give me a penny in place of $100—if you did that, you would debase even the most valuable things. Why, money would have no meaning at all if we had to redefine it anytime someone wanted to! Sir, get real: you can’t have everything you want unless you can afford it.”

Next Line of Inquiry: “Consumer Equality”
I was glad to see him admit that to redefine reality according to ephemeral opinion would deprive things of meaning and significance. Indeed, the notion of rights itself would be nullified if the very first right entails the ability to redefine reality. Nevertheless, I also sensed that he was not going to pick up on the irony of his own position, so I moved to a second line of inquiry. If I could not simply redefine reality to fit my desires, I could nevertheless insist on being treated “equally.” “But look. People are gifted with different financial wherewithal. We are just different that way, it is not something most of us can control, and so it is unfair to treat us differently based on that. Don’t you believe in consumer equality—all consumers should be treated the same, so everyone should be able to buy whatever they want, they should be able to get whatever they’d truly love to buy.”

“Of course you should be able to buy what you want,” he replied with some exasperation. “However, you should have the money to be able to afford it.”

“Wait—I can buy it as long as I meet certain conditions? That is the most blatant form of bigotry I can imagine,” I pressed. “You will deny me what I want simply because my paper has the wrong face on it? I can’t help what sort of money I have…. It should not matter whose face is on my money, or how much of it I have, because we should all be treated as equal and be given the right to buy what we want.”

“I am not saying you cannot buy it, only that you must be able to afford it!”

“Why are you treating me as a second class citizen? You are denying my freedom to have this—simply because you oppose consumer equality. You should not be allowed to prohibit me from owning this.”

“I am not prohibiting anything. But it is a simple fact that you cannot buy something if you do not have the money to buy it. I would like to help you, but I cannot simply change the price of things or give things away. Products have value, and we charge according to that value. To ignore that value—as if all products cost the same—would destroy the economy. There really is a difference in the value of things—you can’t just cover that up by invoking ‘equality.’ If all products were of equal value, why, the entire system would collapse—there would be no way to distinguish truly valuable things from cheap imitations.” He then repeated, condescendingly, “Prices are how we distinguish the real value of things in this world.”

He clearly saw the larger implications of my equality gambit, so I tried to redirect his attention to the personal nature of our transaction. “I do not mean to involve the whole economy here. This is simply between you and me—a personal trade contracted just between the two of us. No one else has to be involved. It is not like taking my $10 will bring down the whole nation. In fact, I cannot see how this would hurt anybody else.”

“Well, if I let you do it, then I should let everyone pay me what they want. I might even have to take foreign money not worth anything at all! It would destroy my business. But not only me, because if people think they can change the prices of things, then the very meaning of money as an instrument of trade is undermined. It would destroy our trust in the system, since we would have no way of knowing what anything it worth at all. This is not simply about you and me, since trade is a social phenomenon. Your idea of equality demands that I ignore the very idea of value in society; but this would destroy all commerce, since commerce is based on distinction of value. By your lights, equality means that nothing can ever be more valuable than anything else, since everything must be the same.”

I thought he was missing that I intended this only for myself, so I repeated, “But this is just between you and me.”

“No, sir. There are all sorts of rules about supply and demand that determine what I must charge. If I revalue something, then that will affect everyone I buy from and everyone I owe to, in a chain reaction. This act would, as I said, erode the entire system of social relations.”

“It’s not like I am stealing, I am paying for it. Plus, I have a right to own this—I have a right to happiness, and you cannot stand in the way of that right.”

“Yes, you have a right to happiness, but that does not include a right to own this without paying for it. There is no right to have things without earning them. If you want to have this, you have to follow the rules. If not, I cannot do business with you.”

“But I do not have the money, and I can’t see why that should matter. If you respected my freedom and equality, you would let me have it.”

At this point, the owner simply proclaimed, “Oh, someone should let you have it!” Gaining composure, he continued, “Equality does not mean that all things cost the same, or that you can define prices for yourself. Equality means that like things are treated similarly; but to say equality means I have to treat completely different things in the same way is insane!”

“Well, even if you don’t like it, you better be ready, because most people will support my idea of consumer equality—”

“It’s idiotic—everyone who understands the fact that money must represent some standard of value will reject it.”

“Ah, but that’s the beauty. I don’t have to convince everyone, just one judge who will decree that I am within my rights. That should not be too hard, given that most judges have already shrouded themselves in the veil of ignorance about the true nature of rights. They will let me get whatever I want.”

I left the shop with a small smirk but without my purchase. I was, nevertheless, satisfied, for if I succeeded in redefining values, my success would have been at the cost of civilization itself. It is edifying to know that even those who aim to redefine reality to fit their desire recognize that such a thing is preposterous even with respect to something as trivial as price; one hopes they would see how utterly cynical it is when applied to marriage. It is obvious that even the prices of things cannot be arbitrarily redefined, and that equality does not imply the obliteration of distinction among consumers.

It ought to be even more obvious that it is self-destructive vanity to think we can change the meaning of marriage, the foundation of all human society, and it is irrational folly to allow an abstraction like “equality” delude us into thinking that incommensurable realities must somehow be taken to be the same. The claim to “marriage equality,” therefore, is predicated on a failure to understand either the true meaning of marriage, or the objective nature of equality, or both; and it is critical that we realize those objective truths cannot be capriciously redefined lest they lose all meaning whatsoever.


  • James Jacobs

    James Jacobs is Professor of Philosophy and Assistant Academic Dean at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, LA. His major area of research is Thomistic natural law theory, and more generally the need for a philosophical realism as a response to modern nominalism and skepticism. Professor Jacobs earned his doctorate in philosophy from Fordham University.

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