Debating With Liberals: Why This Is Often A Treadmill To Nowhere

Debating with liberals can be an intense experience and most frustrating indeed. We might turn red-faced, increase the tone of our voice, and repeat or rephrase a point in order to make evident that which to us seems to be common sense. “Perhaps we are not clearly expressing our thoughts,” we say to ourselves. “Reshuffling our words might help. If we are more specific, and give examples, our adversary will surely understand and be convinced to change his or her thinking and behavior.” We keep trying, believing that right reasoning will win the day. But despite our best efforts, our explanations are met with a blank stare, stonewalling, or a tangential response, circumventing the issue at hand. What is going on, we ask? Why is this happening?

In order to attempt to answer these questions, let me go back forty years, when I first began to take the study of psychology seriously. I was a graduate student back then. I recall studying operant conditioning, a theoretical approach postulating that the consequences following one’s behavior determined whether or not that behavior would be repeated. Without getting too technical, operant conditioning works like this. If the consequences following a behavior are positive, that behavior will increase and continue. For example, Joe goes to work each day. At the end of the week, he receives a paycheck. The paycheck is the reward that motivates Joe to continue working. If Joe did not receive a pay check, his work related behavior and all the activities surrounding this would cease.

As the preceding indicates, Joe goes to work and is productive because he is rewarded for doing so. While positive consequences motivate Joe, negative consequences, such as punishment, impact on his behavior as well. Punishment is painful. When applied, undesirable behavior stops. For example, Joe parks his car in a no parking zone. His car is towed away and he has to pay a large sum of money to have it released. Joe has learned his lesson. His illegal parking stops. Joe now only parks in legitimate parking areas. As a result, he no longer has to fear being ticketed or towed away. Note how Joe’s lawful parking has now replaced illegal parking, which has ceased altogether. Even negative consequences can produce positive behavior if applied properly.

I recall another approach for modifying behavior that was popular in the 1960s. In 1965, David Praemack published what he called the Praemack Principle. This was also referred to as “Grandma’s Law — if you eat the peas, you get the ice cream.” In academic terms, this meant that a highly preferred activity (e.g. eating the ice cream) is used to reinforce a less preferred activity (e.g. eating the peas). The Praemack Principle made sense. What child is going to eat their peas if they are first allowed to eat the ice cream?

To me, operant conditioning and the Praemack Principle provided reasonable explanations of those motives driving our behavioral engines. The application of these principles in my clinical work with adults and children worked well, and there was ample research evidence to support their efficacy. There were other psychological theories, explaining those factors impacting on human behavior. But none of these were as well researched, specifically designed, and precisely applied as the above.

What do operant conditioning and the Praemack Principle have to do with the rise in blood pressure that one experiences in arguing with liberals you might ask?

For me, these provided a sensible framework for identifying the cause and effect connection between how one acts and the reason(s) for one’s behavior. An example of how this might be applied is as follows: Illegal immigration has become a major problem facing our nation. How this should be addressed continues to be hotly debated by liberals and conservatives alike. One thing is for sure. There must be some very powerful incentives, motivating these unfortunates to risk life and limb to enter the United States in violation of our immigration laws. Unless we identify those incentives and remove them, there would be little motivation for illegal immigrants to change their behavior. Liberals often argue that we have a moral obligation to provide them with free medical care, a public school education, drivers’ licenses, food stamps, and other welfare benefits. While this may appear to be humane, these benefits (rewards) would only encourage the recipients to continue in further violation of the law. Scamming the system, financial waste, false feelings of entitlement, and eventual chaos soon follows. How are these humane?

Like it or not, the use of punishment should also be factored into this equation. Fines, incarceration, and deportation need to be severe enough so that illegal immigration stops. Again, the argument would be that such punishments are mean spirited and inhumane. However, the research evidence and common sense indicate otherwise. Properly administered punishment not only stops undesirable behavior, but the fear of being punished makes it far more likely that laws will be obeyed. A society, in which laws are not only just but fairly enforced, is far more likely to be composed of members who behave civilly toward each other.

The preceding provides a simple, straight forward, and reasonable model for both understanding why people act as they do and what steps need to be taken if we want to bring about real behavioral change. Many will argue that this model is too simplistic and treats people like mechanical robots rather than flesh and blood human beings with thoughts, feelings, and aspirations. I would argue otherwise. If we arrange our environment so that positive and negative consequences follow desirable and undesirable behavior, then people should be able to live more well ordered, productive, and happier lives. The obvious problem is determining what constitutes desirable and undesirable behavior and what rewards and penalties should be attached to each. This is where liberals and conservatives get into a screaming match, which I described as a treadmill to nowhere.

In the final analysis, those who have the most votes, the most money, and occupy the seats of power win the day. While compromises are sometimes made, these leave a bitter-sweet taste in the mouth of those who made them and core principles have to be bent in the process. “A half a loaf of bread is better than nothing at all,” the compromisers would argue. I wonder how Christ the King would respond to this rationalization, especially if the compromise involved violating His laws and the laws of His Church. Jesus put it bluntly in the Apocalypse in His admonition to the Church of Laodicea, “I know your works, you are neither hot nor cold. Would you were hot nor cold! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew (vomit) you out of my mouth” (Chapter 3:15-16). So much for those who take a moderate stance on the key issues of the day.

God not only created the world, but He is the author of those natural laws that govern the behavior of the creatures that populate it. Those principles that facilitate human learning were created by Him. Our Lord gave us free will, allowing us to apply these principles rightly or wrongly. If we choose the former, positive consequences will follow. Negative consequences, on the other hand, will befall us if we choose the latter. Our Lord didn’t leave us in the dark concerning His teachings on how He expects us to act and the rewards or penalties that would be attached to our choice. If we became members of His Church and followed His commandments, He promised that we would spend eternity in Paradise with Him. If we denied Him and His Church, however, our souls would be condemned to the fires of Hell. Our Lord made good use of the principles governing human behavior, which He created. He is the Supreme Behavior Modifier. He made it clear that if we wanted to eat the ice cream, we would first have to eat the peas — “Grandma’s law.” Moreover, Our Lord stressed that if we wanted to avoid being condemned to Hell fire, then we had better behave as He intended — remember why Joe stopped parking illegally and decided to obey the law?

Some, if they believe in God, would argue that this is too harsh. God would never condemn His creatures to a place like Hell. Again, I would argue otherwise. God, as just indicated, made laws the following of which would enable us to save our souls. To make such laws without intending to enforce them would be devious and capricious on His part. This would be contradictory — an imperfection in His nature, making Him more human than divine and unworthy of our worship and love. Like the gods of Rome, who resided in the Pantheon, Jesus Christ would be just another so called deity among many, whose behavior was no better than those who worshipped them.

In order to even begin building a utopia here on earth, a belief in a perfect God Who is all-knowing, all-merciful, all-just, all-loving, and all-powerful — a God without a single blemish — would have to be the cornerstone, upon which such a society is to be founded. Because God created man and those laws that govern his behavior, it would be essential that we not only strive to know and love Him, but that we follow His teachings. This is the only way that true happiness can be achieved. Rewarding vice, ignoring and punishing virtue, and pandering to our concupiscence are responsible for the evils overwhelming us today. In 1925, Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King (Quas Primas) in an attempt to reverse this downward spiral. Pius XI stressed that Jesus Christ needed to be placed at the center of both our spiritual and temporal life here on earth. He stated that Christ the King should have absolute sovereignty and rule over persons, families, human society, the state, and the whole universe. The Pope did not affirm that the separation of Church and state would deter our decline. Rather, such a separation would only exacerbate the problem.

As a university professor and psychologist, I have found that the overriding number of persons in my field are liberal in their orientation. Most would support the notion that there should be a separation between the Church and state and that Christ the King has no right to rule over the state and society. While many liberals acknowledge the existence of God, the general consensus is that He is uninvolved in the lives of men. He has left it up to us to craft out a purpose for our existence. Human nature, in the eyes of most liberals, is good, not flawed by original sin inherited from our first parents.

Although there is evil in the world, the existence of a devil trying to lure us to commit mortal sin, leading us into Hell is, for the liberal, a myth. Man, through his own initiative and reason, can create a utopia on earth. Whether we have an immortal soul and a life after death is mere speculation, left to religious sects to speculate about. No one religion has a monopoly on the truth, they say, therefore one religion is just as good as another. In summation, man is in and God is out.

The results of removing God from his rightful authority over us and closing Him behind church doors has led to disastrous consequences. The divorce rate has risen significantly, uprooting and destroying families. Divorce attorneys have profited considerably as a result. It is unlikely that this will change in the future, even though children and the larger society suffer greatly from this worsening evil. And what about same-sex marriage? This is fast becoming the law of the land. Instead of a perversion, it has become a civil right. When a celebrity openly proclaims that he or she is “gay,” a phone call from the White House, praising his or her “courage,” along with prime time television coverage, follows. On the other hand, persons who condemn same-sex unions are harassed and punished for standing up for their convictions. Politicians who are caught lying, stealing, and behaving promiscuously are mildly reprimanded, but seldom severely punished for violating the public trust. The rewards for behaving badly outweigh the chances of being caught and punished for their violations. So they march on fearlessly, without concern for their family or the public who has voted them into office. The reader could add substantially to the preceding chronicle of morally bankrupt changes occurring over the past several decades. The right to abortion, the legalization of dangerous drugs, and the “normalization” of cohabitation are just a few.

As an aside, many of us will now have to hire specialists to prepare and file tax forms, which will then be forwarded to the Internal Revenue Service. The public and some of their representatives will call for a simpler tax code so that this process will be more convenient and less expensive. Given the large number of lawyers, accountants, and other professionals who profit from unraveling this complexity, change is not likely to occur in the near or distant future. Why you might ask? As the old saying goes, “Just follow the money trail.”

If you are a true Catholic, who believes that Christ the King should have dominion and absolute rule over all the kingdoms on earth, then there will be an increasingly wide gap between yourself and those liberals (and conservatives as well) who advocate for the separation of church and state. You will be an opponent of abortion, sodomy, cohabitation, pornography, and other sinful acts that violate the laws of nature and the teachings of Christ’s Church. You will contend that there is a God Who is all-knowing and loving and is deeply involved in the affairs of men and wants them to be happy — not on their terms however, but on His terms. Because our nature is a rebellious one, the preceding will likely raise the ire of those who minimize the importance of God and the worship that we, His creatures, owe to Him. The rebels will forcefully declare, “I will not serve, but do as I please.” Perverted legislation will be passed, in which positive consequences become attached to what was once sinful behavior, and punishment becomes attached to acts that were once considered virtuous.

The wider the philosophical division between pro-God and no-God adversaries, the less likely it is that they will come to an agreement on what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior and the appropriate rewards and penalties attached to each. Christ said, “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew: 6:24). Over the past five decades, it has been increasingly more attractive to serve mammon and to ignore God. As a result, reasonable debate has deteriorated. Rhetorical trickery, sophistry, and spinning the truth are lauded and words are used as weapons to sullen and even destroy an opponent’s reputation. “Mistakes in judgment” and “misspeaking” are the new labels excusing sinful behavior and lying to cover this up — meaningless talk, talk, talk lubricating a mindless treadmill leading us to nowhere.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor” of the Catholic Church, guide us in our quest for truth and right reasoning. Protect us from becoming so intellectually and morally dulled that we continue to confuse good and evil and elect representatives who pass evil laws, laws that lead those who support them to eternal damnation.

Read more about Liberalism from a recommended title, “Liberalism is a Sin.”

  • GeneDe

    I like Dr. Lavin’s style of writing; it is easy to read — conversational — and understand. He makes good points here, and hits the nail on the head: eject God out of the public sphere, and we have chaos. And in our country, this has become self-evident.

  • Claudia

    I had a liberal, non-Catholic co-worker and we often debated to exhaustion and then I just stopped debating and would just exhale(silently in my head) and ask a question and then fall silent. One day he said “Socialism is good and we should be happy illegal immigrants want to come here” To which I responded ” MSNBC reminds us daily we have failed to meet the promises of the 60’s to the poor, to blacks, to those in prison, to single mothers…will many more of them have their promise escape them?
    Joe( that’s my co-worker) did not answer. Months later he said to me Catholics are wrong “Mary is not the mother of God she is the mother of Jesus. I responded “as a Catholic can I say “Mary is the mother of Jesus who is God”? or are you”Joe who is married to Amanda and the father of Ben? So Joe..are you the father of Ben?. Joe did not respond.but many months later in a conversation about prayer Joe did call Our Lady “The Mother of God”.

  • GeneDe

    Thanks, Claudia; you stood your ground, but I know how difficult it can be when revealing a truth or a fact, then have a response that skirts or outright denies that very same truth or fact. One of the problems is that “the other side” has read or listened to far too many half-truths or outright lies regarding the Catholic Church and Faith. It is very difficult for such persons to accept what counters their perceptions as real and factual, stubbornly clinging to the slanders as the basis of their belief (or unbelief?) system. God bless your efforts.