Two Plus Two is Four

Three people – a mathematician, an engineer and a lawyer – were asked a question: “What is two plus two?”

The mathematician answered, “Four. It is exactly four.”

The engineer answered, “Well, it’s approximately four. It depends on the precision of your measurements, but it’s pretty close to four.”

The lawyer responded, “What do you want it to be?”

The question “What is two plus two?” is a proxy for a more basic question: “What is truth?” Our culture has adopted the lawyer’s relativistic view, one that is self-centered and self-serving. Truth has become a matter of perspective. My truth is as good as yours, and yours is as good as anyone else’s. Any contention that there is objective truth – that two plus two is four or something very close to it – is viewed as narrow, quaint, outdated, inconvenient, intolerant and perhaps even discriminatory because it rejects the “values” of those who would like the answer to be nine.

A couple of weeks ago, a messed-up kid with bad hair made some relativistic calculations about two plus two, and his obscene answer was to – well, let’s just say his answer stole Christmas from a little New England town.

Now (but not beforehand) they’ve labeled him “mentally ill,” as if that explains everything. In view of what he did, it’s hard to argue he wasn’t. But the reasoning is circular – he’s mentally ill because he did something heinous, and he did something heinous because he’s mentally ill.

Let’s look beyond labels and circular analysis. Consider what we as a society taught this kid and others. If Hollywood and the video-game industry don’t teach them to kill (and arguably they do), we do teach them that there is no such thing as truth. There is no such thing as right or wrong. There is no such thing as good or bad. There is no such thing as evil or grace. In short, we might not teach them to kill, but we do remove all the moral obstacles to it.

Those obstacles, we’ve decided, are simplistic, unsophisticated and insensitive. It’s bad form to go around imposing them on others – or even speaking them aloud in public. If you must be one or those people who insist that two plus two is four, then for the sake of good manners, you’re required to engage in your dirty little habit in the privacy of your church or bathroom.

It wasn’t always this way. Examples abound, from the skyrocketing incidence of illegitimate births to the frequency of mass murder. According to a University of Alabama study, there were 18 cases of attempted mass murder in the 1980s. There were 54 in the 1990s. And there were 87 in the 2000s. Don’t blame the mass-murder explosion on the gun laws. During this time, the gun-control laws grew stricter. And don’t blame it on “mental illness.” No one seriously contends that mental illness, however you choose to define it, has quintupled in the past 30 years.

No, the reason we are teetering on the edge of anarchy lies not in our insufficient gun laws and not in our insufficient mental-health treatments, but in ourselves. There was a time when people acknowledged the existence of good and evil and did so in public. There was a time when they knew what was right or wrong. And they taught their children to know it, too. Such teachings became embodied in religion. But religion did not have a monopoly on it. Secular humanists were uncomfortable with the religious connotations to the word “evil,” but they, too, taught that there was such a thing as morality and ethics and that some behavior was unacceptable.

No more. In a world where religion has become godless and the secular humanists have become simply secularists, anything goes. You’re just as good as anyone else – without regard to your behavior.

What’s important, we tell our children, is not that they pursue grace and avoid evil – that they live their lives as if two plus two is four – but that they express their “feelings,” all of which are deemed precious.

And so this kid did. Did he ever.

We are on the edge of the abyss. A first step back from it would be to admit the existence of the objective evil that has driven us there and threatens to hurl us over. The answer to the question – “What is good and what is evil?” – is not “What do you want it to be?”

Published in The Aspen Times on Dec. 27 at