Friendship and the Intellectual Life

December 14, 2022

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After high school, I left Seattle in search of adventure. Why not try moving all the way across the country? As a freshman in college, I entered the Honors Program of Boston College and discovered the adventure of the intellectual life. We read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Aristophanes’ Frogs and Clouds, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and Augustine’s Confessions. I loved the roundtable discussion with about twelve other students in a gorgeous room lined with books and stained glass windows, discussing some of the most influential texts ever written and debating about the most important questions people have ever asked. Is there a God? Is there really a right and a wrong way to live? Can we know the truth? What is really good and really bad or are such things merely a matter of subjective opinion? 

My college roommate Chad was also in the Honors Program, and I spent more time arguing with Chad than anyone else in college. We focused on ultimate issues. Does God exist? Chad argued as an atheist sometimes. Is the Eucharist the Body of Christ or a mere symbol? Chad argued as a Protestant sometimes. Is abortion right and should it be legal? We again fell on opposite sides. Is clean laundry always good? We finally agreed. Debating with Chad taught me that friendship can coexist with disagreement, that you do not need to be cruel, mean, or confrontational with those who answer religious, political, and metaphysical questions differently than you do. He taught me to listen for the truth in what an interlocutor had to say. Chad became the best man in my wedding, and I was the best man at his. With Chad, I learned to disagree and express disagreement with reason and even with charity. Because of our friendship, I learned to listen better to what someone on the “other side” has to say, and I learned how to better talk with someone who disagrees. We are still friends today.

In helping us to gain greater insight, our intellectual opponents help us to grow . . .

Finding intellectual interlocutors with whom you disagree is an important part of the vocation of the Catholic intellectual. The rotund Catholic G.K. Chesterton profited from his friendship with the atheistic rail-thin George Bernard Shaw. “To look at you,” Chesterton said to Shaw, “anyone would think that famine had struck England.” Shaw responded, “And to look at you, Chesterton, anyone would think that you have caused it.” Throughout my life, it has been helpful to be able to exchange ideas in a respectful and productive way with those who see things differently. Princeton Professor Robert P. George puts the point as follows:

Do not demonize thoughtful people—you will find there are many—who arrive at conclusions different from yours on important questions. It is possible that they are right, or partially right, and your view should be abandoned or revised. Avoid wrapping your emotions so tightly around your convictions that you become a dogmatist. Try your best to avoid looking at things through an ideological lens or some particular narrative. Otherwise you will interpret everything you “see” as reinforcing what you already believe. Examine things from different angles and perspectives. Don’t allow yourself to grow so deeply attached to your opinions that you favor them over truth itself.

Every Catholic intellectual can find invaluable aid in their vocation by the friendship of those who challenge them, contradict them, and love them anyway. As St. Thomas Aquinas noted, “We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject, for both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in finding it.” In helping us to gain greater insight, our intellectual opponents help us to grow, and we can also help them to grow.

The more I discussed the pro-life issue with Chad, the more I came to believe that before or after birth every human being deserves to be welcomed in life and protected by law. A decisive step in my intellectual journey came when I first wrote a letter to the editor in a student newspaper The Heights of Boston College. I wrote a few paragraphs defending the pro-life position as if responding to Chad. I remember being quite nervous about taking a public stand. Would I be ridiculed? Ostracized? Attacked? My fears were unfounded. Absolutely nothing adverse happened to me after publication. I started to write for and quickly became the editor-in-chief of The Observer of Boston College, another student newspaper. 

Abortion was then and is now a hotly disputed issue, but as I discussed the issue with Chad it became more and more clear to me that it is not an issue that requires faith to decide. Any person of good will can come to the insight that every human being, including human beings in utero, deserve to be protected in law and welcomed in life. The atheist philosopher Don Marquis pointed to a reason. What makes killing you or me wrong? If someone kills us today, we don’t lose our past. But if someone kills you or me, then we lose our chance to enjoy all the goods that we would have enjoyed in the future if we had not been killed. If we get killed, we are deprived of the chance to make new friends, gain new insights, and enjoy the beauties of nature and art. Killing a human being in the zygote stage of development or in the fetal stage of development or in the newborn stage of development is wrong for the same reason. Killing takes away their chance for a valuable future. Individuals who die are deprived of their chance to meet new friends, learn new ideas, and appreciate the beauty of the world.

As I argue in my book (just out now in its third edition) The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice, reason alone without faith can guide us to the conclusion that abortion is an ethical violation. Although my friend Chad may not yet agree with what I’ve written, I’m grateful to him for the conversations that made that book possible, conversations which continue still.

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