To my Dad

On Mother’s Day 2012 I wrote this:

Now that I am a parent and really understand how exhausting and scary it is to be responsible for even one other human being, I cannot help but be amazed that my Mom (and Dad, but he will get his turn next month) could have raised four children with such humor and grace.

“Next month” has now turned into “four years later,” but better late than never. In the intervening years I’ve had a chance to reflect on the differences between “fathering” and “mothering.” I think those distinctions help to explain why this appreciation of my father comes later and has a somewhat different emotional inflection.

Mothering is all about protection, nurturing, shelter. This is what I was referring to when I talked about the “vast reservoir of love and acceptance” I felt as a gift from my mother. So what is fathering all about? To be clear, my father is also a great source of love and acceptance, and he has always been supportive and demonstrative in ways that are not necessarily common for men born in the 1930s. But when I think about my relationship with my Dad, I think much more about how he prepared me to engage with the world.

I learned from my father the sheer joy of exploring ideas and constructing arguments (you can’t spell “McHargue” without “argue”) about everything from evolution to civil rights. I watched my father’s face as he sang Bob Dylan songs and saw the power of connecting to music (which I continue to love but can’t make nearly as well as my father or brothers). I sometimes got frustrated with the way my father insisted that I make my own choices rather than telling me what to do. I can draw direct lines from those experiences to the life I live today and to the way I interact with my own son.

Years ago, when Carter was small, we went to a parade, and I lifted him onto my shoulders so he could see. At that moment I had a powerful sense memory of my own father lifting me onto his shoulders. At the time it seemed so far off the ground, and I could see so much more. Parenting is about holding your kids close, yes, but it’s also about holding them up. So to my Dad: Happy Father’s Day, and thanks for the view.


Before preaching or law

As we have awaited the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality, I have thought about this passage from Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road, which has always sounded to me like a wedding vow:

Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

That phrase “before preaching or law” seems to get the order of importance just right. We talk about legal rulings and public opinion and social acceptance and those are vital, but they are not what comes first. What comes first, both chronologically and philosophically, is the love. What comes first is the desire of two people to join their lives together, for whatever mix of romantic of practical reasons; to add their paragraph to the ongoing story of human life; to honor what the poet Philip Larkin called “our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.” Countless people have lived their lives according to that desire for love and connection, whether in the shadows or out in the open. The law has finally caught up. (Preaching, alas, may take a little longer).

But the law is only acknowledging and ratifying what those individuals have built. In this, I find a small area of agreement with Justice Thomas’s deranged and embarrassing dissent: The government has no power to “bestow” dignity on any human being. The government can only, often belatedly, recognize the equal dignity of people living their lives without fear or shame. The love is the flash of lightning; the legal recognition is the thunder that comes later, confirming what we have already seen, sharp and beautiful against the darkened sky.

More on the cake wars

I’ve written before that I don’t think the law should compel people to provide services for same-sex weddings. I’ve recently become even more convinced of that view, because of a very obnoxious stunt by a homophobic activist in Denver who demanded that a bakery decorate his cake with the words “God hates gays.” I felt, not only intellectually but intuitively, that it would be wrong to compel the baker to write that message. That’s not a surprise, because I disagree with the statement on every level (I don’t believe in God, but even if I did I wouldn’t believe in one who indulged such petty hatreds.) But it’s not entirely a matter of disagreeing with the homophobe’s flawed theology. I felt a very visceral reaction at the idea of making someone deliver a message that conflicted with her own beliefs. I feel the same queasiness about compelling someone to provide symbolic support for an event that contradicts her beliefs.

For purposes of this argument, it’s not important to me whether those beliefs are religious in nature. I say this because I don’t want to get into another one of those debates where a bunch of secular liberals sit around and try to declare what the correct theological view of homosexuality is. People are entitled to their own philosophical and metaphysical views, whether they are based on ancient texts or purely secular reasoning. Being able to ponder and decide on such questions for oneself — even if your answers are wrongheaded or repugnant — is part of what it means to be a human being. It’s what the Supreme Court was talking about in the 1993 opinion that declined to overturn Roe v. Wade:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.


To say that a wedding does not implicate these concerns is to deny what a wedding is. Whether explicitly religious or not, a wedding is a deeply meaningful, symbolic ritual that literally creates something new. It is about two people joining themselves in love, and it has elements of sanctity and transcendence whether it’s performed in a cathedral or a chapel in Vegas. No one — whether it’s the minister, the organ player, the florist or the baker — should be required to take part in such a ritual if it conflicts with their beliefs about the deeper meaning of marriage.

In conversations about this, several people have taken the position that being a florist or a baker is not “expressive” and therefore does not implicate these concerns. I disagree. Freedom of expression is not limited to words. We protect purely symbolic speech, from wearing black armbands to burning flags, and we recognize that people have a right to free association, to choose for themselves what beliefs they will publicly support or oppose.

It’s important to recognize that these concerns are raised because of the nature of weddings as symbolic events. Most commercial transactions are not so fraught with meaning, and I don’t think homophobes have any general right to refuse service to gay people, any more than gay people should have a general right to refuse service to Mormons. But I would defend the right of a gay musician to refuse to perform in a Mormon church, and I accept the right of a homophobe to refuse to work at a same-sex wedding.

No, we are not on a slippery slope to polygamy

I understand that it’s somewhat difficult to frame plausible arguments against marriage equality (see this earlier post on why arguments against marriage equality are so difficult to make). But the recent focus on polygamy is just weird.

thxMike Huckabee warned that same-sex marriage would lead to polygamy and called for a defense of “biblical marriage.” Huckabee, an ordained minister, is no doubt aware that the Bible is full of polygamy. By far the most ardent advocates of polygamy in modern America are religious wackos who think God commands them to have multiple wives. Whipping up fears about polygamy as part of your defense of “biblical marriage” is like railing against unleavened bread while defending “biblical food.”

This illustrates a more basic point, which is that a fear of same-sex marriage leading to polygamy reflects a total misunderstanding of how marriage has developed over time. Polygamy is not some crazy new innovation about to be unleashed by the gay agenda. It’s an older, more patriarchal form of marriage that has long since been left behind by Western culture. Indeed, one could argue that the transition toward the modern view of marriage — as a partnership between equals — is part of what has made the logic of marriage equality so compelling today. Worrying that same-sex marriage will lead to polygamy is akin to fearing that women’s suffrage would lead to hereditary monarchy.

Sen. Lindsey Graham actually managed to top Huckabee’s absurdity during today’s confirmation hearing for Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch, asking “What’s the legal difference between a state ban on same-sex marriage being unconstitutional but a ban on polygamy being constitutional?”

Lynch declined to engage in legal analysis on the fly, but I think I can help the Senator with this one. The doctrine of equal protection is all about classifications. The government treats people differently all the time (for example, only people over a certain age qualify for Medicare), but equal protection forbids the government from treating people differently for irrational reasons, such as their race, national origin or gender.

For the most part, distinctions based on gender are invalid. So it makes perfect sense for a court to say the government is not allowed to veto your choice of spouse based on gender without some compelling reason. But the government is perfectly entitled to distinguish between one person and two or more people, because one and two really are different things. Numbers are a genuinely neutral classification. For example, the government can’t forbid women from voting, but it can forbid them from voting more than once.

In contrast to the feeble rationalizations trotted out for the ban on same-sex marriages, it’s fairly simple to articulate a reasonable state interest in not recognizing multiple spouses. It would make administration of the numerous laws regarding marriage — ranging from inheritance to immigration to divorce to debt collection — virtually impossible. Given the role that marriage plays in our laws, it’s perfectly valid to have a rule that says “one to a customer.” That is worlds away from saying that the government should have the authority to prescribe the race, gender or religion of your spouse.

This confusion comes back to some basic points about the fundamentalist worldview. Because they place so much emphasis on tradition and stability, they have never been able to see marriage equality as a matter of individual freedom. They see it only in terms of the challenge to a traditional institution and therefore assume that the next step must be ever more radical changes — polygamy or incest or, in Rick Santorum’s infamous words, “man on dog” relationships. These fantasy scenarios just demonstrate that the hard-core opponents of marriage equality have never really understood what the argument was about.

Update to address related but equally insane fantasy about incest: Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, a perpetual embarrassment to his state and his profession, now fulminates that same-sex marriage will lead not only to polygamy but to “marriages between men and their daughters or women and their sons.”

This is more evidence of the muddled reasoning that animates opponents of marriage equality, the idea that removing unequal treatment based on gender and sexual orientation obligates the government to recognize any configuration of marriage. We actually have a lot of experience with removing legal inequalities, and the process literally never works that way. Extending the right to vote to women did not require extending the right to vote to children or pets. Banning discrimination based on race did not mean everyone was required to hire multiple employees to fill one job. The entire focus of equal protection analysis is not on whether the law treats everyone and everything in exactly the same way (which is never the case) but on whether the differences are based on reasonable categories. As a general rule, race and gender are not legitimate reasons for treating people differently, but the law can and does distinguish between people based on age, income and other variables.

The question is whether an equal protection analysis will allow the law to distinguish between relatives and non-relatives. The answer to that is absolutely yes. Hundreds of legal provisions draw distinctions based on family relationships, ranging from prohibitions on nepotism to restrictions on insider trading to domestic abuse laws that impose enhanced punishments for violence against family members. Nothing in the history of equal protection analysis suggests that the government may not prohibit marriage between close relatives, just as it can prohibit some types of financial transactions involving close relatives. As usual, the slippery slope leads nowhere. Opponents of marriage equality aren’t afraid that it will lead to polygamy or incest or anything else. They are afraid that marriage equality will lead to marriage equality, full stop. And that scares them.


Why I hate arguments about “hypocrisy”

I’ve written before about why accusations of “hypocrisy” are usually dumb and uninteresting, but lately I’ve noticed two other reasons that I find these arguments so tiresome. First of all, I’ve noticed that claims of hypocrisy almost always rest on some vague, superficial or entirely inaccurate description of another person’s philosophy. This makes sense, given that most people don’t want to hold wildly inconsistent views and will go to some trouble to reconcile, or at least rationalize, the contradictions.

This point became clearer to me recently when I found myself having to defend Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (a politician I dislike intensely) from charges of “hypocrisy.” Abbott had declared his belief that state law should override local ordinances on fracking, tree cutting and other issues. Noting that Abbott had staunchly opposed the idea that federal health care mandates should override state law, people were bemoaning his hypocrisy. Notice that, as with most accusations of hypocrisy, the critics are equally inconsistent in the opposite direction: defending the right of local governments to ban fracking while insisting that federal health care laws should take precedence over state laws. As it happens, I think the latter position is correct as a policy matter, but it is no more or less hypocritical than the opposite position.

And the whole argument about hypocrisy seemed to me to rest on a misunderstanding of Abbott’s philosophy. His arguments are not based on the principle that every decision should be made at the local level. His argument is based on ideas about state sovereignty. I think those ideas are flawed and overstated, but they are not inconsistent with Abbott’s overall philosophy. States do in fact have sovereignty (subject, of course, to the supremacy of federal law under the Constitution) while local governments do not. Abbott believes that state governments should be the primary makers of policy, both by overriding local variations and resisting federal encroachment. I don’t agree with that, but it’s a perfectly consistent way of viewing the world. That’s the problem with arguments about hypocrisy. They only work when you already disagree with the person’s position. It’s like taking a vaccine against a disease that only affects plants.

During the course of this particular discussion, I discovered the second reason that I despise hypocrisy arguments. Otherwise decent people will advance the vilest arguments they can muster, without a twinge of shame, in the service of “calling out” hypocrisy. While we were having this discussion about Greg Abbott, a prominent Democratic activist observed that if Abbott had supported local regulations of trees, he might have avoided being in a wheelchair after a tree fell on him. I said that was an unbelievably ugly and mean-spirited comment, and the activist defended it because Abbott was “hypocritical” in opposing regulations that could have prevented his accident.

It’s not worth the time to unpack how illogical and silly that argument it. What I want to note is how the allegation of “hypocrisy” operates as a kind of moral anesthetic, deadening any sense of self-restraint or kindness to one’s opponents. Wendy Davis’s use of a wheelchair in a campaign ad, widely criticized as insensitive, was likewise defended as a blow against “hypocrisy.” The argument was that Abbott, having won a judicial settlement after his injury, should have therefore been more favorable to plaintiffs as a judge and as Attorney General. I disagreed with almost all of Abbott’s decisions on the merits, but his personal experience with the judicial system doesn’t enter into it. And it seems like a weak rationale for that stark and disturbing image of an empty wheelchair as a symbol for Abbott.

We also hear the justification of fighting “hypocrisy” for the practice of spreading rumors about the alleged homosexuality of politicians who pursue homophobic policies. I’m not sure what purpose that serves. Homophobic policies are wrong because they’re irrational and unfair. The sexual orientation of their proponents is beside the point. And I’m not at all sure that these sad closet cases even view their position as “hypocritical.” In their minds, their sexual orientation is some sort of curse to be resisted. From that point of view, their public opposition to homosexuality is perfectly consistent, albeit pathetic.

As far as I can tell, arguments about “hypocrisy” do nothing to alter anyone’s opinion, while eroding any sense of shame about mean-spirited personal attacks. I don’t think our pubic debates would be any poorer if we stopped making them entirely.

(Non)white (Wo)man’s Burden

When I was in law school, I had a professor who explained the “reasonable person” standard, a formulation that runs through most of Anglo-American law. All sorts of rules are formed by asking the question “What would a reasonable person under these cicumstances do (or refrain from doing).” My professor said this: “Just understand that when a judge says ‘reasonable person,’ he means ‘me.'”

Judges are not quite that biased, but there is some truth in what my professor said. One of the reasons people get so worked up about having judges with diverse backgrounds is that sometimes those backgrounds make a difference in what is considered “reasonable.” Conservatives attacked Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor for talking about the need for judges to have “empathy,” but that’s exactly what is needed. Genuinely understanding another person’s circumstances is a prerequisite to treating people fairly.

I’ve been thinking about this recently as courts review cases in two seemingly unrelated areas of law: abortion clinic regulations and voter identification requirements. What they have in common is this: in both areas of the law, a great deal hinges on what is or is not considered an undue “burden” on someone seeking to exercise her right to obtain an abortion or to vote. Not surprisingly, my home state of Texas is seeking to make both of those activities as burdensome as possible, particularly on lower-income people.

The problem is that what seems like a “burden” to a relatively affluent, typically white male judge may be very different from what constitutes a “burden” to those without their advantages. If you have flexible hours and can afford to be away from work, the idea of spending a day getting a photo ID may seem like a hassle but hardly that big a deal. If you are working double shifts, they might as well put the polling places on the moon.  If you aren’t a single mother with three kids who already demand your attention, driving to the next state to obtain an abortion (or just having the child and not making a fuss about it) may seem entirely reasonable. But the burden is real, and it falls most heavily on those least able to cope. (Interestingly, these same judges can be extraordinarily sensitive to even trivial burdens that fall on other groups, like polluters or gun enthusiasts).

In fact, federal judges have to try even harder to develop empathy because federal judges are even more privileged than the typical white-collar affluent person. They enjoy lifetime tenure and can throw people in jail if they don’t like their behavior. Not exactly a recipe for understanding the plight of the common man (or woman).

I think judges should consciously try to view burdens from the perspective of the least advantaged. If you’re stress-testing a product, it doesn’t make any sense to focus on the strongest parts. You want to make sure the weakest parts will hold up to use. And if you’re testing burdens, you should make sure they can reasonably be borne by those with the least resources, which means they can reasonably be borne by everyone else as well. The law should not impose burdens that only the well-off can meet.

Posted in Law

Rated “A” for Ambiguous


I made a joke on Facebook about this story – “Mother wants ‘Breaking Bad’ figures removed from Toys R Us,” mainly because I thought the idea of an “EZ Bake meth oven” was funny. One of my friends commented that he loved the show but thought Toys R Us was “negligent” in putting a toy like that on its shelves. (My friend is not alone; Time magazine referred to the sale of the toys as a “spectacularly bad bit of judgment” by the retailer.)

This reaction intrigued me, because the assumption seems to be that even having the toys (which are stocked in an aisle aimed at adult collectors) in a kids’ toy store is somehow damaging or at least inappropriate. I don’t find that premise very persuasive.

The idea of shielding children from distressing images or themes is itself controversial, and quite a few parents believe that we have gone overboard in trying to banish any dark or disturbing ideas from our children’s worlds. And the opposite is true: many people think that we are inundating our children with violent imagery that they cannot process appropriately, hence the ubiquitous letters – TV-MA, D, L, S, V – that symbolize adult themes, like a periodic table of naughtiness.

I regard myself as a moderate in this debate. We try to be mindful of what Carter is reading and watching and playing, although I will admit I tend to get more worked up about unhealthy social attitudes than violence or sexual innuendo. As squishy as I may be, I obviously would not let my child watch Breaking Bad. But I’m not sure I would have any objection if he wanted a Walter White action figure.

The things that make Breaking Bad inappropriate for children are carried in the show’s imagery and storylines, not in the physical appearance of its characters. luthorStripped of the context of moral entropy and existential dread, Walter White is simply a bald guy with a gun, not unlike Lex Luthor (who has probably killed or tried to kill more people over the years than a platoon of Walter Whites could dream of). The belief, whether conscious or unconscious, seems to be that the adult themes of Breaking Bad must somehow leach into the toys, like the psychic equivalent of lead paint, and that will ultimately harm children at some level.

As I’ve discussed before, ideas about contamination drive our moral reasoning much more than we know, so this idea of cultural contamination probably does drive some of the negative reactions to the Breaking Bad toys. It reminds me somewhat of a viral story earlier this year about how “Turkey in the Straw,” a song that survives in today’s culture mainly as the siren call of ice cream trucks, had its musical roots in extremely racist songs going back to the 1800s. And while I found this bit of cultural history interesting, I don’t think anyone should be worried that the tune is somehow broadcasting some sort of racist Morse code to children as they line up for their Bomb Pops and Choco Tacos. No matter what words are put to it, a tune cannot, in and of itself, be racist (I’m trying to imagine a really bigoted composer trying to write a piano piece with only white keys, but I still don’t think it would have any effect).

Even words steeped in racial injustice can, over time, become divorced from their ugly context. The term “grandfather clause,” which reflects a cornerstone of the monstrous Jim Crow regime, is used in legal and political contexts all the time today, without any thought given to the repressive laws that made such a term necessary. It is what Orwell would probably characterize as a “dying metaphor,” in which a metaphor essentially occupies the role of a literal term, with no real thought given to its origin.

Toys are in fact uniquely suited to resist cultural contamination, because a toy is first and foremost a vehicle for a child’s imagination. I have known many parents devoted to pacifism who have watched their children chew their organic whole-grain toast into the shape of a gun and shoot each other at the breakfast table. In the hands of different children (or even the same child over a few hours), a Walter White action figure could be anything at all: a vampire hunter, an international spy, a scientist who creates robot dinosaurs, or a weekend guest at Barbie’s Dream House. The themes of the show – powerful and haunting to any viewer – don’t have any jurisdiction over the toy box.

When Carter was very small, we got him a small plush toy shaped like the creature that bursts out of John Hurt’s chest in Alien.alien I remember being amazed that this thing, so horrifying onscreen, could be so cuddly. Carter loved it, often hugging it close when taking a nap. He had obviously not seen the movie (I hope to watch it with him one day, perhaps right after our Breaking Bad marathon), so to him it was just a friendly stuffed animal, no different from the stuffed elephants and alligators that littered his room. Even a toy that springs from a massively successful film franchise is still just a toy, ready to be whatever its young owner needs it to be. And if some child somewhere wants to put a Walter White action figure next to his pillow, I don’t have a problem with it.

For those who never saw the day

I have not written a poem in 30 years, and I probably will not write another one for 30 more, but while reading some of the essays on the recent marriage equality decisions (most notably Andrew Sullivan’s, which began “I think of all those who never saw this day”) I’ve been experiencing a combination of joy and grief that I felt I should try to express in some way other than my typical prosaic analysis.

For those who never saw the day

When they could speak their love aloud

Without euphemism or misdirection

When they would not live in fear of pronouns

With their telltale genders


Waiting while ugly doctrines

Are ratified by silence

Or loudly proclaimed by loved ones

Who open wounds they never see

And the wounded don’t complain


Whole lives muffled by shame

Curdled by loathing

Haunted by longing

Ended in despair


For those who never saw the day

And yet knew it could be better

Knew they were not broken

And did not need forgiveness or repair


What is better tribute now? Gratitude for better times

Or rage at past indignities

And what is yet undone


Neither seems adequate to the present task

Anger seems ungrateful

And gratitude seems servile

“Thank you for seeing at long last that we are human too”


We may need to invent a new emotion

Some hopeful indignation,

Some outraged joy

To give the past and the present and the future their due


The necessity of magical thinking

I’ve done a couple of posts now about how religious reasoning is more secular than people think (for example here and here), but the reverse is also true. Secular moral reasoning is much less empirical than people think it is. At its core, it relies on what could be described as magical thinking, although framed without reference to literal supernatural forces. Even those who pride themselves on their devotion to empirical rigor and the scientific method will find themselves thinking in abstract terms, bordering on mysticism, when addressing moral questions.

This should not be a surprise. Moral reasoning is, for the most part, about how we treat other human beings, and human beings are notoriously difficult to study scientifically. They are complicated and sometimes deceptive, and their reactions change dramatically if they know they are being observed or evaluated. Even if we could construct flawless experiments on human nature, we are still faced with what Hume identified as the gap between “is” and “ought.” No amount of empirical rigor can convert an observation about human beings into an ethical principle.

This may sound strange, but I think the only way to derive ethical principles about how we should treat other people is by essentially tricking ourselves. For example, our brains tend to react to observations of pain or pleasure in others by “mirroring,” reacting as if we ourselves were experiencing that pain or pleasure. It’s easy to see that the utility of such an adaptation in enabling individuals to learn more quickly about what to seek out or avoid in their environment. But it’s important to note that our brain is, in a sense, tricking us. We are not really experiencing the same stimulus as the person we are observing, we are simply reacting as if we were. Although it’s not “real,” this “mirroring” reaction is one of the fundamental building blocks of empathy. (The mirroring reaction is often noticeably absent in psychopaths). This empathy can give rise to complex moral judgments, most notably the “Golden Rule,” which exists in some permutation in every moral code ever devised by human beings.

But notice that this powerful engine of moral reasoning is fueled by an illusion. It only works if we suspend our disbelief and embrace the feeling of being in another person’s shoes. If we adopt a rigorously empirical stance, we can only describe the experience as the firing of certain neurons in response to stimulus, with no necessary connection to any broader ideas about behavior. At most, a strictly empirical view might allow that we should avoid harming people in our immediate vicinity, to avoid unpleasant neural reactions. But the idea that we should care about working conditions in a sweatshop on the other side of the world would never even come up.

Empathy is a sort of mental trick, but it’s the best kind of trick. If you examine creation myths from different cultures, one of the recurring themes is that the creation of the world, or of human beings in particular, is often sparked by a trickster. Some crafty deity will steal fire from the sun or make people out of mud, and the world as we know it springs into being. Humans recognize, on a very deep level, that a certain amount of deception is necessary to bridge the gap between what we are and what we can be.

The author Terry Pratchett articulated this idea beautifully in his fantasy novel Hogfather. The novel takes place in Pratchett’s Discworld, and the Hogfather of the title is a more atavistic version of Santa Claus. At the conclusion of the story, the personification of Death and his adopted daughter (it’s a long story) have this exchange about belief in the Hogfather:

Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.

Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—

Yes. As practice. You have to start out learning to believe the little lies.

So we can believe the big ones?

Yes. Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing.

They’re not the same at all!

You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet . . . you act as if there is some ideal order in the world, some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.

When I think about my own attempts at moral reasoning, one of the books that I go back to again and again is C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. It’s written as a series of letters from a senior demon to a junior demon about how to tempt a human being into sin. It’s a very cogent and thoughtful look at the myriad and often petty ways in which humans can make each other miserable. Lewis does something similar in The Great Divorce, which uses the conceit of a group of damned souls from Hell taking a day trip to Heaven and exploring all of the ways in which they are keeping themselves locked out of the rest of the universe.

At the time I first read both of these books, I shared Lewis’s religious beliefs. But although I am no longer a believer, I continue to find both books no less useful in thinking about the psychology of moral behavior. This makes sense when you think about it, since both books are already operating on at least one level of abstraction: Lewis does not literally believe in Screwtape either. Lewis did believe, literally and passionately, in the divinity of Jesus. But, at the risk of sounding dismissive, I don’t find that additional level of abstraction makes any difference in my appreciation of Lewis’s insights. The ideas that Lewis explored through Screwtape, and for that matter through Aslan and the rest of Narnia, inform my moral reasoning as thoroughly as they ever did. I suppose in this way I am like Puddleglum in The Silver Chair:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. . . . I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.

That’s really where moral reasoning should lead us. We can argue with each other about whether our abstract ideas are literally true in some sense, but ultimately we can never know. All we can do is try to imagine the world as it would be if it were wise and loving and just. Then we must continue the messy, imperfect business of moving our world a little closer to that ideal.