A series of short videos, all drawn from interviews with philosophy professor Stephen Kershnar of SUNY-Fredonia, has gone viral—because he has the shocking temerity (and I use that phrase totally unironically) to defend pedophilia. This is nothing new, by the way. I’ve been aware of his 2015 book, which I will not link, which defends pedophilia. If his contemptible attempts to change the culture to legalize sex with children will finally be subjected to the Internet’s wrath, I say: excellent.
I do not have time to respond in depth to his philosophical work, and I am not sure it would, in the end, be a very good idea for me to do so. But I thought I would comment on the puerile and shockingly ridiculous things I heard come out of his mouth in the following short clips shared by the @libsoftiktok Twitter account. Here goes, then.
Should a defense of adult-child sex be taboo? Suppose, Kershnar says, an adult man wants to have sex with a 12-year-old girl, and she is a “willing participant.” “It’s not obvious to me that it’s in fact wrong,” Kershnar intones.
My immediate response to this is, “It’s obvious to me that it is in fact wrong. What’s wrong with him?”
Philosophers often put absurd views on the table, saying “It’s not obvious to me that not-p,” and this is regarded as a more or less legitimate move to create some space to argue that p (any philosophical position at all). Others tolerate this move more or less out of respect for the wide-open perspective that philosophy as a discipline requires. If not-pwere obvious, then the argument for p could not begin.
There are in fact very few instances in philosophy where you could respond, “It’s obvious to everyone else that that not-p—so what are you talking about, dude? What’s wrong with you?” But the present case strikes me as one; other strongly-held moral principles make other cases. Imagine he had said, “It’s not obvious to me that murdering absolutely innocent people is wrong.” Or, “It’s not obvious to me that raping any woman I want to is wrong.” Or, “It’s not obvious to me that I should not take out a knife and slit your throat.” Would we allow him to proceed?
When he says it’s not obvious to him that engaging in statutory rape of a 12-year-old girl is wrong, he’s declaring the issue to be an “open question,” or in other words, it is not absolutely out of bounds to debate it seriously. And yet it seems to me it is and should remain a closed question. I certainly would never want to take a course from a professor with such views, nor would I want my child taking a course from him, nor would I want to hire him if I were in a position to do so.
This is especially the case because Kershnar goes on to declare that believing sex with 12-year-olds to be wrong is actually “a mistake.” In other words, he’s not just saying it’s not obvious that it’s wrong, he appears to come right right out and say that sex with 12-year-olds is in fact morally permissible (not wrong). Incredible.
Now, this is not to say we could not explain why statutory rape of a 12-year-old is indeed so wrong as to be quite rightly regarded as a taboo (which is what I think). In fact, I have written an essay doing exactly that; it is called “Why Pedophilia Is Evil.” But seriously taking the contrary position strikes me as something that ought to be ruled out of bounds, period.
Anyway, let’s go on.
A question-begging “threshold” argument. Next, he says that we might want to imagine a threshold below which all sex with children is wrong: “I’m making this number up here, let’s say it’s age 8.” What follows? Kershnar says, “Still, that tells you some adult-child sex is permissible.” Really. He says that: watch the video.
Now, obviously Kershnar could be going over some more complex arguments quickly, but the way he puts it here in this clip would be laughable, if it were not seriously outrageous. His argument appears to be:
(1) Sex with children age 8 and below is not permissible; sex above that age might be permissible.
It follows logically that
(2) Therefore, sex with some (older) children is permissible.
Yes, this conclusion follows from this premise, but the premise is obviously false. So the argument begs the question.
What is fascinating is not the argument so much as the fact that he actually thinks it is acceptable to make such a terrible argument, and that he continues to hold a position in the SUNY university system.
The wrongness of sex with a baby is not quite obvious to Kershnar. Yes, that is what he says. On what grounds does he motivate remaining open to such an unspeakably evil act? I kid you not, he says:
There are reports in some cultures of grandmothers fellating their baby boys to calm them down when they’re collicky. Now I don’t know if this is true, but this is just, sort of, widely reported as occurring in at least one culture. …and the grandmothers believe the sex works. … If this were to be true, it’s hard to see what would be wrong with it. … I don’t think it’s a blanket wrong at any age.
He says this as if it were a good argument. But it is hard to imagine even a green freshman philosophy student making such a terrible argument.
What this shows about Kershnar is what is interesting to me, as an anthropological point. He seems to think that one can believe what one likes on an issue, even sex with babies, if it is permitted in “at least one culture.” He seems to be trading on multiculturalist, cultural relativist assumptions. Because it is permitted in some culture where grandmothers think fellating babies “works,” and because Kershnar can’t see what is wrong with it, it is (or might be?) permissible.
That he arrives at such a ridiculous conclusion, it seems to me, is a very strong argument against, what philosophers call a reductio ad absurdum of, Kershnar’s ridiculous cultural relativist assumptions.
Kershnar says those wanting to ban “adult-child sex” (i.e., child rape) “bear the burden” to justify such bans. Think molesting children should remain illegal? The burden is on you to justify those laws! Bet you can’t convince Kershnar!
The ridiculous assumptions he seems to be making here are:
(a) There exist no good reasons to ban child rape. (A contemptible assumption. Again, see my essay.)
(b) If no one has produced a careful analysis of such reasons, then child rape should not be outlawed. (One wonders if any analysis could possibly satisfy his twisted, evil principles.)
(c) The vast, strong, long-standing set of taboos against sex with children—regardless of some minor qualifications and some exceptions in some decadent and backward cultures—is not itself a strong prima facie argument against it, meaning the burden rests on the monster who wants to dismantle the taboo. (Of course the taboo is a strong prima facie argument against the practice. Things are and remain taboos for typically good reasons. You don’t get rid of taboos lightly.)
No further comment here seems necessary. His claim about where the burden lies seems just obviously false.
There are evolutionary advantages to adult-child sex. Ugh. This is particularly disgusting. I just can’t.
I’m done. This pair are like movie villains. They’re beyond parody. Chances are, both of them were molested as children themselves.
Not all ways of changing the world are good. Some edges you don’t go over, ever. Some edgelords are the enemy. Some rebellion is shockingly evil. Sometimes, wearing the clothes of the devil means you’re the goddamn Devil.
Some actions and people are objectively evil—the enemy. Not everything in life is a game. Some appalling outrages are dead serious. We do not laugh. If the trappings of evil are fun and “cool,” then some fun and cool things are evil. Evil people are often smiling, charismatic liars who love nothing so much as fun and cool.
The face of evil is seductive. Many good people can easily be taken in. If only they saw into the minds of their seducers. They would be shocked—outraged—appalled—sickened. Power corrupts because the powerful wield corruption with a smile. It looks fun and innocent—at first.
The innocent, especially rebellious youth, are most easily taken in by the games the corrupt play. They can’t conceive of how utterly monstrous the hearts of their smiling “friends” can be. They think evil in front of their eyes is impossible; it is only a childhood fairy tale.
Evil people—they exist—hide their evil often even from themselves. They are enlightened, not evil. They are beyond good and evil. They are winners at life, the better sort—not corrupt. Don’t be so naive, they say. All life is a joyous struggle, and I—I am merely winning the fight.
Come join me, I will show you how to win, they say. It’s fun. It’s cool. I’ll take you places where the rich people and cool kids are. Don’t be shocked, you baby. That’s how the world works. Money and sex are what make the world go around. Ha! You didn’t know—now you do, they say.
Yeah, who knows what will really happen? But here are my predictions (i.e., wild guesses).
The Jeffrey Epstein estate and Ghislaine Maxwell cases, as well as the Biden Ukraine case, and some as-yet-lesser-known cases, will rock the entire Western world for several years. Donald Trump will not be among those indicted, but he will continue to be smack dab in the middle of it all. The Clintons and the Bidens will be among those indicted. We will discover that the world has largely been run by literal, not figurative, criminal cartels of one kind or another.
Several of the people ultimately punished in these cases will be Democratic politicians and celebrities, as well as once-respected Establishment Republicans. This will cause a crisis in American politics as we find that “Americanism” was maligned as “populism” and that we actually like Americanism. But exactly how that will play out remains to be seen. The country will not break up. Democracy and what has been called the “American civil religion” will be renewed, as we will look back on 1992-2020 (at least) with horror and as a near-miss at a second civil war.
As more and more people learn about the utter decadence of certain of our “elites,” and that our mass media has been systematically manipulated by cultural architects (so to speak) for decades, there will be a massive exodus away from traditional media and a massive resurgence of traditional Christianity in the West.
Donald Trump will be re-elected in 2020. Sorry. Hard to see past 2020, because the political situation in the country will probably look very different by 2024.
The massive recent revelations about Facebook, Google, and others are a slow-moving avalanche threatening to bury these companies. A few will not survive the decade. Even bigger revelations (not least of which are the associations with Epstein and Epstein-style networks) and massive new movements will overwhelm their economic power base.
New Internet companies, more committed to privacy and free speech, will offer open source solutions integrated tightly with old-fashioned decentralized networks and open data standards. We will see, just for example, a massive new decentralized encyclopedia network that connects all existing encyclopedias in a centerless, leaderless way, and makes it easy for people to go head-to-head with existing offerings via their own blogs.
The popularity of personal servers (like my Synology NAS) will grow steadily, until even grandma knows about them as a better alternative to Dropbox. The software these servers run will become every bit as good as cloud-based apps offered by, e.g., Google (such as Docs, Sheets, and Drive). “Rolling your own” will happen a lot more by the decade’s end, because the software for doing so will be much more powerful.
We will probably not see general AI this decade, unless this has been developed secretly—i.e., unless giant corporations and, more likely, military programs have made much more progress than we knew about. We will likely see some massive new technological breakthrough on the order of the invention of the personal compute. Possibly a medical breakthrough. Of course, some technologies that are already well-developed but not in mass use will come into mass use, such as commercial space travel and ever-more integrated “smart” devices (that will be run via your own NAS rather than via a cloud server).
We will all get ten years older. Both of my boys will become adults. I will start enjoying more free time. I might actually publish a book sometime this decade, but don’t hold your breath.
Last summer, Adolfo Martinez, 30, of Ames, Iowa, stole the LGBTQ pride flag hung above the entrance to the Ames United Church of Christ, and burned it in front of the nearby Dangerous Curves Gentleman’s Club. He pled guilty to the crime—for which he was sentenced to 16 years in the state penitentiary.
This surprising sentence will be infamously controversial. Of course, stealing and destroying property is very wrong. But when the property is a flag, 16 years in prison is ridiculously and obviously excessive.
The Facts and Disposition of the Case
By his own admission, as you can see in a video, Martinez tore down the flag from the church, took it in front of a local dive, and burned it. That was the whole extent of the crime.
Aggravating circumstances made it worse than just that. Martinez is not a pleasant character, to hear Cmdr. Jason Tuttle of the Ames Police tell it. Martinez was a “regular patron” of the bar—where he had been kicked out, after causing a disturbance—in front of which he burned the flag:
He came back [to the bar] at some point and told the bar, the people in the bar, that he was going to burn the place [presumably, the church, not the bar] down, and at that point made a reference to burning “their flag.”
The case files1 indicate that the charges against Martinez were: arson in the third degree (by itself, in Iowa, an aggravated misdemeanor), considered by the court a hate crime; harassment in the third degree (a simple misdemeanor); and reckless use of fire.
Martinez represented himself. Clearly, that was a bad idea.
Story County Attorney Jessica Reynolds said Judge Steve Van Marel “agreed to the 17-year sentence because Martinez has a long history of harassment and is a habitual offender and never showed any remorse.” Maybe he has a long history of serious crime elsewhere, but not in Iowa. According to Iowa court records, the worst he has done in the last four years in Iowa is one count of drunk driving.
Reynolds, the prosecuting attorney, also claimed, “The defendant stated that there was nothing the judge could [do] to stop him from continuing this behavior and that he would continue to do this no matter what.”
Not Actually a Nice Guy, But…
Martinez is shamelessly outspoken against the pieties of the Ames United Church of Christ. “It was an honor to [burn the LGBTQ flag]. It was a blessing from the Lord,” Martinez declared to a KCCI reporter on camera. My view is that this sentence is an official state repudiation of that religious view, and so it violates Martinez’ First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion.
“But given the threatening things he has said, why think so?” you might ask. “Surely it’s not so clear-cut.” That is true. Let me spend some time explaining why it is not, in fact, quite as clear cut as it might appear at first.
Martinez stole and burned a symbolic piece of cloth. He was clearly making a statement that was doubtless obnoxious to everyone in the courtroom. The statement itself is not the crime, but stealing and burning someone else’s property is. He was charged with arson, but of course it was only misdemeanor arson since the burned property was just a flag. Still, his crime was aggravated since it was a hate crime, and as the law is written, this label seems credible.
It is credible, in fairness, maybe not just because of the flag burning but especially because of what he said after the flag burning. See Iowa Code sect. 729A.2: “…committed against a person’s…property because of the person’s…sexual orientation…” He did say some pretty threatening things about the church. Not only did he reportedly (though this is hearsay) threaten to burn the church down, he said on camera: “It is a judgment and is written, to execute vengeance on a heathen and punishments upon the people.” You can easily imagine how ominous such Biblical-sounding language would sound to the worshipers at the Ames United Church of Christ.
So if we are going to be quite fair, we must admit that Martinez’s own statements make it clear that he lacked remorse, and he no doubt continues to believe that the church—and its LGBTQ community—deserved what he gave them. Moreover, if you can credit the prosecutor (I would need to see a direct quote), Martinez threatened to do the crime again.
But let us look even more closely.
The Sentence Represents a Violation of Martinez’s Free Speech
Martinez was not prosecuted or convicted for a barroom threat or invocations of divine justice. That was not his crime. Presumably, if he were imprisoned for a while, that might make him think twice about carrying out any such threats; prevention is a prime purpose of punishment, after all. But it is decidedly not a principle of Anglo-American jurisprudence that criminals should be punished in order to prevent them from committing crimes they have notcommitted, even if they have threatened to do so. Yet if we take the prosecutor, Reynolds, at her word, that seems to be what she and the judge did.
This is, however, not even why Martinez was punished. It is a fig leaf covering a shameful sentence. Let us concede that Martinez stole and burned a flag, was a reckless and drunk driver who smoked pot, issued barroom arson threats, and was wholly unrepentant—and he even implied that he might do it again.
Even if all that is the case, does it deserve 16 years? Of course not. If he were to do the same crime two or three more times, surely he still wouldn’t deserve 16 years, regardless of any sentencing guidelines. In this case, the maximum sentence for third degree arson as a hate crime was five years. Martinez was given 16 years in total just because he had priors. But what was his worst prior in Iowa? Drunk driving. Did you know that the average sentence for rape was about 12 years (in 2006)? So this man, who burned a flag—a gay pride flag—had a more severe sentence than most rapists receive.
Clearly, the real explanation for Martinez’s excessive sentence must be that he expressed something deeply offensive and hateful to the LGBTQ community, period.
Moreover, and importantly, the defendant’s right to free expression by the burning of a flag, upheld by the Supreme Court in Texas v. Johnson, seems not to have been considered in sentencing. After all, national origin is a protected class. But if someone were to steal and burn an American flag, making imprecations and calling for divine vengeance against (say) the outrageously immoral American way of life, would that be a hate crime? Of course not.
Martinez was certainly expressing his religious point of view by burning the flag. He is not free to burn other people’s things; I do not deny that, of course. But neither was the judge free to pretend that the presence of a “hate crime” made it possible to punish the content of Martinez’s speech, and to ignore his freedoms of speech and religion.
Stealing the flag and burning it are punishable misdemeanors, certainly. We can even concede that they should be punished harshly, because Martinez expressed no remorse and made threatening statements. But none of that removes the fact that expressing a religious statement by burning somebody else’s flag is protected free speech. The question is not whether you have a right to burn someone’s property to express your opinion. You absolutely do not. The question is whether the court has the right to mete out more severe punishments for offensive opinions. It absolutely does not, and yet that is precisely what happened in this case. Just because Martinez committed a misdemeanor, it does not follow that the court can regulate the content of Martinez’s speech by sentencing him more harshly for what he had to say.
When hate crime legislation was first introduced, I remember being disturbed and worried about the implications for free speech. This case perfectly illustrates that worry. What can we expect next? Doubtless, certain speech being outlawed on grounds of being the hate crime of harassment directed at a protected class.
Punishing the misdemeanor of third degree arson (flag burning) more severely than a serious felony, like rape, means the court had essentially treated a minor hate crime as hate speech—which, no matter how obnoxious it might have been to the court, is protected by the First Amendment.
Again, it was obnoxious, wrong, and deserving of punishment to steal and destroy the church’s flag. A fine was certainly warranted, and perhaps a bit of jail time. But 16 years for this misdemeanor is such an outrageously imbalanced response that the sentence itself should be made an example of.
– fin –
To access the case files, click here, then input (exactly) “Martinez” for “Last/Firm Name”, “Adolfo” (with an “f”) for “First Name”, set County to Story.[↩]
First posted Aug. 16, 2019. Revised and reposted Nov. 4.Good to read alongside “Why Be Moral.”
For a long time, the nature of evil eluded me. But dark contemplation of the Jeffrey Epstein case and of the very existence of pedophile rings has clarified the nature of evil for me. Here, then, is a brief and provisional theory.
Evil is contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others.
Evil is contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others. I will explain what I mean by this, but first let me clarify what, on this theory, evil is not.
First, evil is not contempt for this or that person; contempt can be deserved. Epstein himself richly deserves our contempt. But evil is something more far-reaching: it is contempt for the humanity of others. That qualifier is very important, as we will see.
Another thing evil is not is mere old-fashioned, curmudgeonly misanthropy. Misanthropes might claim to “hate everybody,” and they are very much distrusting, but they aren’t necessarily bad just for that. Most self-described misanthropes do not hate human life as such; they’re just deeply, profoundly disappointed with everyone. They have ideals that we fall far short of, and it is actually their unyielding principles that make them misanthropes. They are impressed with the idea that we are all sinners, so they have not given up the idea of sin. They do not reject the principle that we should value all human beings; they just believe that, due to the inevitable foibles of humanity, we cannot justify admiring or trusting anyone. Distrust and disappointment are not evil at all.
I have come to the conclusion that a proper understanding of evil—i.e., understanding the very idea of contempt for the humanity of some others—is profoundly important if you are to have a mature, clear-sighted view of your own life and of the world and its history. We might define naïveté as the failure to accept that anyone has such contempt. I have been rather naïve, in this sense, all my life. I have always liked Will Rogers’ charming sentiment that he never met a man he didn’t like. I have become increasingly impressed, over the years, by the Christian elevation of love, or agape, as a virtue—love for one’s fellow man. I thought it was something of a failing in myself that I disliked some people. One of the fictional characters I rather admired was Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, Prince Myshkin; his trusting nature, his unwillingness to accept the existence of evil, was his problem, too. I am coming to the conclusion that I myself have been rather idiotic about evil, and that has to end.
An evil person looks at another person and says: this is a non-person; this is a piece of trash; this is an obstacle or tool to be used and then discarded. Psychiatrists call such people sociopaths. A Kantian would say they treat others as mere means to their selfish ends, not as ends in themselves. That formulation is close, perhaps, but limited. After all, there is also a kind of nihilistic evil, which seeks to destroy pointlessly, due to the deepest contempt for a person, and hatred of their humanity as such—not to advance any further goal. Such dark, twisted, broken souls exist in real life, not just in horror stories.
With that long preamble finished, let me now explain what I mean by the key phrase “contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others.” How do I distinguish this from mere contempt of some disagreeable human feature? If the big bad boss sees that an employee does poor work, the big bad boss might look down on, or have contempt, for the employee, but it might be due only to poor work. The stereotypical mean girl in high school has contempt for “ugly girls” and “nerds,” but that might only be contempt for ugliness and nerdiness.
However nasty they can be, I don’t propose to call the boss or the mean girl positively evil unless they demonstrate contempt for something deeper: their target’s humanity.
So, what is that? I add “human life” as a clue: I mean contempt for the very life or existence of a person, not just for perceived weaknesses, faults, sins, or mistakes. This could entail careless disregard for a person’s mind or body, or both; it could entail active desire to harm without regard to ultimate consequences. Certainly this comes in degrees. Perhaps a bully who relentlessly teases is on the road to something like evil, if over time it becomes clear that the bully thinks of the person as merely a plaything for pleasurable torture. But most bullies have some regard for their victims: killing, for example, is out of the question. An accidental killing would inspire deep guilt in most of the world’s bullies, who are merely bad, not evil. Lack of a sense of guilt indicates positive evil.
But clearly, evil is not an all-or-nothing affair. There are degrees of evil because there are degrees not just in the scope of one’s contempt for humanity (as I will explain shortly), but also in the amount or strength of one’s contempt.
I take the latter to be a truism: some people are merely bad, some are inconsistently evil (for example, reformed), and some are “pieces of work.” The concept of a “piece of work” has long interested me. Perhaps it can be understood as a person who consistently has a mild amount of contempt for the interests of those who surround him, but who hides this contempt well. In any event, bad sorts have contempt for the basic humanity of others, contempt that waxes and wanes with their moods, their society, substances imbibed, and even their philosophy or religion.
But generally, I think that for us to call a person evil requires strong and consistent contempt for the humanity of others. By the way, whether a person actually acts on their contempt seems unimportant. An evil monster, locked away with no opportunity to work evil, is still an evil monster.
How should we understand the other key term, “contempt”? A brief gloss is “considering someone to be inferior or worthless.” It is typically regarded as an emotion, but there is a distinguishable attitude of contempt as well, one that could be cold and unfeeling, insofar as it merely involves a low evaluation of others. The attitude of contempt would be the contemplation of another person as being unimportant. Someone who regards some others with “nothing but contempt” will not credit them with rights, interests, or consideration typically accorded to (respected) peers.
But contempt for the humanity of others is a special sort of contempt. Note that we sometimes speak of dignity as a sort of “baseline value” that people have, in virtue simply of their being human. Contempt for the humanity of others, then, is the denial of their basic dignity. One who has such contempt denies his victim—deemed “scum” or “trash”—any rights, interests, or consideration.
Contempt for the humanity of others, then, is the denial of their basic dignity. One who has such contempt denies his victim—deemed “scum” or “trash”—any rights, interests, or consideration.
Evil is essentially dehumanization. If love of money is the root of all evil, that would be because it reduces human beings to commodities—which is to dehumanize them.
So far I have omitted to mention the varying scope, or target, of evil. Sometimes, the scope is quite narrow. A person obsessed with just one other person can have quite evil feelings and motives toward just that person. Perhaps this is how we should understand certain relationships that go terribly wrong. In addition, some criminals who are prone to outright evil may experience that type of contempt—for the humanity of their victims—on an individual basis. Two particularly evil crimes often directed at individuals are murder and child rape.
If evil can be manifested toward single individuals, can it be manifested toward families and small groups? Certainly it can. The motive of revenge may be understood as the utter rejection of the humanity of a person, well beyond a righteous demand for justice. When the revenge motive occurs to an extreme degree across families, clans, and gangs, we have a blood feud, which is sometimes regarded as a particularly dark sort of evil: members of opposing tribes regard each other as worthless vermin in need of extermination.
Widening the scope even further, racism is revealed as one of the varieties of evil: it involves the very destructive notion that there is no difference among all members of a race, that they are all equally undeserving of respect. It can be horrifically evil in its more extreme forms, in which contempt rises from lack of respect as a peer to positive desire to harm or exterminate some dehumanized vermin.
War crimes are a tremendous evil: they reveal profound contempt for the humanity of the enemy. War is a terrible plague, because success at the endeavor often seems to require that one dehumanize, or lose all respect for the humanity of, one’s enemy. By contrast, noble warriors have respect for their foes and refuse to treat their humanity with contempt. Perhaps that is an old-fashioned notion of war, but it seems the only defensible one. Good soldiers may have to participate in terrible, destructive battles, but they never sink to the level of war crimes because they retain a basic respect for the enemy’s humanity. I wonder: Is war psychologically devastating for very good people, unusually so, because it requires they kill people they respect?
Child rapists would have to have contempt for the minds and bodies of the most vulnerable human beings, for their basic humanity, to mistreat them so appallingly.
One very broad possible scope (21% of the U.S. population) is children. There are some people in the world—believe it or not—who have contempt for the humanity of children. They are the child rapists. They would have to have contempt for the minds and bodies of the most vulnerable human beings, for their basic humanity, to mistreat them so appallingly.
In the broadest scope, there is an evil, if thankfully small, movement afoot in the world. It appears to be hostile to human life as such, wherever it occurs. In lieu of a better word, which I couldn’t find, I invented one: antivitism (anti-life-ism). This is, I want to suggest, an evil movement, however organized or disorganized it might be. “After birth” abortion and active euthanasia of teens for depression are two examples: only those contemptuous of the value of human life as such could champion such things. Again, pedophilia advocacy is another example: the harm to children is so horrible and so obvious that it seems only contempt for humanity as such can explain the defense of it.
One strand of this movement does have a name: antinatalism. As a dictionary definition has it, this is “a philosophical position that opposes human procreation, holding it to be morally wrong.” More generally, antinatalists hold that human life is itself a tremendously bad thing, as they never tire of telling you.
Now, let me be fair: I don’t claim that antinatalists feel contempt toward their fellow humans. They certainly sympathize with human pain, which of course suggests decency. But anyone who takes such a theory seriously enough to act on it, I think, would have to be among the most inhuman monsters conceivable. If human life is on balance so awful, then the antinatalists would seem to be doing us all a favor by literally putting us out of our misery. This does raise an interesting theoretical challenge to my definition of evil: if antinatalists have contempt (as in, a very low estimation) for human life, but they do not in any obvious way have contempt for people, are they evil according to my definition?
My response to this is not to revise my definition of evil but to accuse antinatalists of incoherence. If they value human pain, then as a matter of fact they do value human life over human death, regardless of their protestations. Please, though, antinatalists, remain incoherent if you must remain antinatalists; please don’t start taking your contempt for human life to heart.
I accuse no one of evil of the broadest possible scope, for the simple reason that the accusation would be absolutely extraordinary, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Perhaps some of history’s worst murderers were that evil—perhaps many. I would not rule that out.
So much for this brief discussion of the scope of evil. Next I want to maintain that it is of the utmost importance that we accept that evil actually exists. Naïve people have had too little experience with extreme evil to accept that it exists. They react with horror and incomprehension when confronted with it. I myself have willingly used the concept of evil (as in essays I linked to above about murder and child rape) but with some incredulity. I suppose I used it as shorthand for “extremely bad.” That’s not wrong, but it fails as a definition because it leaves out the essential feature of contempt for humanity.
The existence of evil is simply hard for some people to accept, and that is precisely because they can’t imagine anyone having such contempt for innocent life. It was only after wrestling with the Epstein case—only after confronting the increasing evidence from this case from my own lifetime, of monsters callously, deliberately, joyously violating innocence, demonstrating extreme contempt for the human life in their sway—that I was really able to believe it.
A modern impulse, which looks naïve, is to be highly suspicious of the concept of evil. Old-fashioned ideas of evil strike “sophisticated” people, sometimes, as mean, stupid, and insensitive. So they try to sympathetically “understand” evil, to explain it reductively in terms of vague, impersonal root causes rather than the unambiguous attitudes of specific, real people.
This modern notion that the concept of evil is somehow insensitive is highly pernicious, I believe. If we are not willing to name evil as such, we will understand evil motives badly, we will judge evil actions improperly, and we will punish evil crimes leniently. To deny that evil exists is to make it easier to be evil.
Indeed, in the last few generations—since in the mid-20th century—clinical, merely descriptive, sympathetic, and even celebratory depictions of evil have become the norm in Western culture. I will not here speculate on why this has been the case. I will say, however, that I believe this attitude to explain why crime rose in the same time period (until mass incarceration began), and why horrifically evil crimes seem to have proliferated and to have become ever more popular to this day.
This is a result of the moral abyss we find ourselves in—an echo from its depths, so to speak. If we fail to credit evil people fully with their inhuman motives, if we fail to contemplate head-on the tremendous destructive force of their contempt for humanity, then we allow evil to thrive. That is a fact, a very awful one. It should give us all pause.
If we fail to credit evil people fully with their inhuman motives, if we fail to contemplate head-on the tremendous destructive force of their contempt for humanity, then we allow evil to thrive.
We have been allowing evil to thrive. A good first step to stopping it is to re-examine the notion of evil and begin, once again, to name it for the unspeakable, but very real, horror that it is.
I leave you with a related thought.
What makes humanity loveable, and what inspires the most devotion toward heroes and leaders, is the capacity for creation, the ability to invent, build, preserve, and restore whatever is good, i.e., that which supports and delights flourishing, well-ordered life. What makes evil individuals worthy of our righteous anger is their capacity for destruction of the good, due to their contempt for human life as such.
If so, then the love for God may be understood as a perfectly natural love of the supremely creative force in the universe. For what could be greater than the creator of the universe, and what could be more loveable? And then it certainly makes sense that they would regard Satan as a force most worthy of our hatred and condemnation, since Satan is held to be an essentially destructive entity, the one most contemptuous of human life as such.
I posted a Twitter poll recently, by way of unburdening myself of the following opinion about Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, the book about a middle aged man who has a love affair with a 12-year-old girl. Here is the question:
How many of you, like me, always found it bizarre and even a little hard to believe that a book about a pedophile and his victim—Lolita—should wind up being a classic for the ages? Never could read the damned thing. Just ugh. Can I finally say that now?
In another tweet I elaborated slightly:
Supposedly highfalutin “art” that sympathetically portrays monsters of all sorts always struck me as deeply pathological. Natural Born Killers, The Collector, Pan’s Labyrinth…and Lolita…all trash. All pretentious and pernicious garbage.
How does it improve us? Not at all.
While most of my followers agreed with me (maybe not surprising), I thought I would explain my view on this a little less briefly, for the sake of those literature lovers who think it is weird and surprising—if not positively philistine of me—that I would judge a book without reading it. So here goes.
I am not totally ignorant about the book. I watched the 1997 movie adaptation. I read the first chapter or so, and flipped through the rest at various times over the years, trying and every time failing to persuade myself to read it. It has always left me sick to my stomach. A great deal of this has to do not just with the subject of the book, but the sort of glowing praise people give it, people who, it is perfectly obvious, would never dare to judge the book on its moral content, because that sort of things is just not done. Not anymore.
I’ve read much more about the book, over the years. I’m passingly familiar with what is said about it. Moreover, I have consumed my fair share of clinical and mostly nonjudgmental portrayal of criminals, monsters, and twisted characters of various kinds. John Fowles’ book The Collector was one I read as a graduate student. It’s a book about a young man who kidnaps and holds an art student in his basement; she eventually dies of illness, and he gets away with his crime and learns nothing. I read it to the end and I simply could not believe that it was a popular or well-regarded book. I regarded it as wholly without merit.
I wholly reject the notion that art is a self-contained, closed system, that we must simply accept the latest ejaculations of a morally corrupt art world as being profound and worthy of contemplation. I think the dictum “art for art’s sake” is a canard that serves as cover for an art world mired in corruption.
If depictions of evil are thought to have any merit at all, it will be for one of three reasons: stylistic excellence, profound insight into human nature, and the tendency to edify or uplift us—to improve us.
Now, it is common (but completely puzzling to me) to suppose that stylistic excellence is enough to make some work of art noteworthy. But to my mind it clearly is not enough. Graduate schools are full of all sorts of brilliant wordsmiths whose work is immediately forgotten because they just don’t have anything interesting to say.
But Lolita,we’re told, isn’t just beautifully written—an assessment I’m afraid I don’t share, by the way, based on what I’ve read. It is also supposed to give us dark but necessary psychological insight into the mind of a pedophile. That may be so; I’m not going to gainsay such claims, because I haven’t read the book and I wouldn’t be able to say for sure without reading it. Let’s stipulate that Nabokov has plumbed those depths.
But what I will say is that mere clinical insight, as opposed to moral perspective, into some dark corner of human nature does not make for great or classic art. It might be useful for law enforcements and psychologists, perhaps, if it is a faithful portrayal of this sort of evil. It is a bizarre quirk of cultural life in the modern period that otherwise intelligent, sober people have thought such psychological perspective was enough to justify us taking some art seriously. On my view, it isn’t enough; it never has been. There is no classic art that does not take an essentially moral (not to say moralistic; that’s different) perspective on any evil it portrays. Perhaps Fowles, for example, laid bare the soul of a kidnapping madman (I couldn’t say), but what he didn’t have was an interesting moral perspective on such a madman.
It would be revolting enough if such clinical depictions of evil were characterized as important art. But lift the curtain back just a bit and you will find all sorts of appalling admissions that people find such art thrilling or titillating. For example, one not infrequently sees the comment (as, for example, here) that readers sympathize with Humbert Humbert, the antihero of Lolita.
Hence it really looks as though this kind of art is basically degrading to its more enthusiastic consumers. They like the degradation. Maybe it is comforting to them, or exciting; I wouldn’t be able to say. All I can say is that I want absolutely nothing to do with it.
For me the sine qua non of good art, the one absolutely necessary (if not sufficient) requirement, is the tendency to uplift or improve us effectively. We are made better people for having seen it. But in the case of Lolita, and in the other examples I cited, it actually does the opposite of what good art is supposed to do, on my view. A merely clinical or sympathetic portrait of evil—if that’s really all it is—tends to deaden the soul of its audience. It’s a bad influence. I actually wonder if it can really appeal only to people who actually like such bad influences, or who believe them not really to be so bad.
It is not that I think all art should be “moralistic,” like parables, fables, Sunday School lessons, and 19th century children’s literature. That is not the point at all. There is a profound difference between being really uplifting or edifying, on the one hand, and merely didactically inculcating (through obvious example to emulate) various moral or religious principles. I am a big fan of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which do lay bare the evil in man’s soul, but which also edify the reader or audience by indicating, in what is ultimately an exquisitely beautiful and satisfying way, that such evil will be justly repaid, why it is indeed evil, and how the world can move on in spite of it. Those are important lessons, too; we need not just to understand evil, we need the tools, moral and emotional, to fight it. Good art provides us some of those tools in a very basic and necessary way.
The reason we do and should assign our children to read classics is to teach them by inspiring example many moral principles that our lives might be too humdrum to illustrate. For example, I’ve been reading David Copperfield to my son lately. He, as as American middle-class boy, has no way of knowing what it might be like to live through a period of absolute poverty and bereavement (as David does when working for Murdstone and Grinby) and yet retain a sense of dignity and decency. Having read those pages, however, he will begin to have some inkling of that sort of life, sympathy for those going through it, and admiration for those who stay basically decent as David does.
If a modernist writer took up the same subject, the book would not be appropriate for children, because David would be shown helpless in the face of molestation by Grinby and violence by Murdstone, and he would ultimately become a nasty piece of work with no way out. Also, Little Em’ly would become a whore and the Micawbers would die in the gutter; and nobody would learn any lessons. And it would be hailed as a great work of literature because it provides such an unflinching, realistic look at the life of the poor.
That is, of course, just one example. Great literature is absolutely full of examples. It is why most of us read it. Most of us have no interest whatsoever in reading literature and consuming other art as mere psychologists or clinicians. We love a good story because we care about characters we relate to, showing what we, too, might want to do in their interesting or exciting situations.
More generally, we consume art as a way to appeal to and develop our sense of what life is really like, what it ought to be like, on the best view. What the purveyors of modern art do is substitute “sophisticated” or “edgy” for “best” and then proceed to convince themselves that art that essentially celebrates monstrous behavior is fine art.
So that’s why I haven’t read Lolita. I don’t care if hoity-toity people tell me Nabokov was a brilliant stylist, or that he had insight into the criminal mind, or the modern mind. I regard criminality and twisted modernism as things to avoid, fight, or repair—certainly not to examine clinically or lovingly.
There is a global conflict underway. A good way to understand it is by looking at the different interests that are coming into conflict. And a good place to begin is, of course, with:
The immigrants. People from the “global south” are immigrating north, inspired by the images of prosperity they see on television and the Internet and drawn by ever easier and cheaper transportation and lax immigration policies. In some cases, they are actually escaping real oppression. In most, however, they are merely running from poor, backward, relatively lawless, and restrictive systems. In any case, there is certainly mass immigration, mostly northward.
The conservatives. Conservatives view the demographic and cultural changes that this mass immigration brings with alarm. They have many different concerns:
If demographic trends continue, it is easy to see how Christianity (or more precisely a slightly Christian secularism) might well be replaced in Europe by Islam within a few generations.
Already, the presence of Islam in Europe is changing some legal processes, and Sharia law could well be instituted in some places before that much longer, if the Muslim population continues to grow.
In the United States, immigration from the global south means more Democratic voters and more enthusiasm for socialism. Conservatives don’t like that.
In general, Western civilization (religion, languages, tastes, mores), maybe especially in Europe, are weakened as non-Westerners move in.
In Europe, places that have been largely free of crime for generations are suddenly dangerous. In America, a talking point (I’m not sure how well supported it is by statistics) is that there is more crime if we have more illegal immigrants.
And yes, for some there is surely a racial element to their concern: they don’t want Europe, or America, to become less white.
The nationalists. I make a separate category for the Japanese, Hungarians, and others who are broadly opposed to immigration, period. They may be distinguished from Western conservatives who are often perfectly happy with a fair bit of immigration, just not unregulated, indiscriminate, and too much immigration. The Japanese, Hungarians, and quite a few others simply don’t want to change the character of their societies, as immigration might well do. They look at the effects of immigration on Europe and America and say, “No thank you.”
The progressives. On the other side, there are many progressives and liberals, as well as many libertarians, who essentially want there to be open borders. As with progressives’ demands for censorship, their increasing moral fervor for open borders is evident, but they don’t often want to admit it in so many words. But the reasons for the stance are clear:
These are disadvantaged brown people who need our help. Why not give it to them? To exclude them from sharing in our prosperity is racist.
Indeed, the conservative position is easily dismissed as racist, which by contrast gives progressivism a brighter moral luster. (That isn’t an argument progressives make, but it certainly seems to inspire them.)
We can expect greater support for socialist, globalist projects from immigrants, who are more left-leaning. We can do more for them, and they will be grateful to and supportive of our programs.
If the “Western” or “white” character of European and American civilization are in decline, let it decline. If there are people reproducing more, who can support social programs arriving from other places, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.
The elites. Closely overlapping with, but distinguishable from, the rank-and-file progressive viewpoint is what I will call the elite viewpoint. Their concerns are perhaps hidden and cynical but no less real and influential:
We need cheap laborers and “guest workers.” These immigrants do jobs our own people are not willing to do. Few will actually admit to thinking so, but a view aptly described “elitist” is that society actually needs an underclass and European and American societies need to replenish theirs.
Immigration is shaping into a massive left-right fight, and that’s a good thing—it justifies concentrating power in the hands of the more enlightened power centers of Brussels and Washington, D.C., as well as justifying the seizure of new powers that, formerly, liberals would never have agreed to (such as control of speech and mass surveillance).
This conflict has come to a head recently—why? It seems to be a combination of factors. There has been lax immigration enforcement for generations; this has led to a growing flow (and now a flood) of immigration, including illegal immigration especially recently; there is again especially recently widespread pro-immigrant sentiment on the left and among elites, which has given political cover and support for expanded bases of social support; in recent years, tolerance of illegal immigration has become de rigueur, with signals everywhere in mass media indicating that complaints about illegal immigration is politically incorrect; meanwhile, some of the ill effects of illegal immigration, especially crime in Europe and political chaos in the U.S., have made immigration in general an important hot-button issue; and, finally, the urgency of the issue has radicalized some, who are all but declaring that they are in favor of open borders.
In other words, things are coming to a head especially because our elites and progressives seem increasingly openly in favor of open borders, and the borders really have been opening up. This would seem to entail an enormous change in global civilization; and it makes an adjudication of all of the issues listed above (and below) incredibly important to settle.
In a blog post last March, I asked whether Western civilization is collapsing. In the end, I didn’t find the question all that fruitful. Conservatives say yes, progressives say no or who cares, but it doesn’t seem that anything is going to be settled by discussing that question. I think it might be more enlightening to ask another: What do we want the world to look like?
The main options of immigration policy seem to bear directly on this question: open borders (as many progressives and libertarians want); the status quo (which nobody seems to want, but which seems very difficult to escape); traditional regulated immigration (which we all say we want, except for the explicitly open border radicals, but which the Establishment resists tooth and nail); and very little or no immigration (a la Japan).
The question is what we want the world to look like. It is difficult to clarify exactly what this important question even means.
But perhaps “What immigration policy do we want?” is not the question I want to ask. I’m asking a philosophical question that is, perhaps, prior to or in any event seems logically bound up with questions about immigration policy. The question is what we want the world to look like. It is difficult to clarify exactly what this important question even means.
It is tempting to place before the reader a few choices:
Traditional pluralism. We want a smorgasbord of different nations, each having a different language and culture, a national religion, etc. In other words, more or less how the world was before the advent of globalism…and colonialism.
Monoculturalism. We want a single global monoculture, everyone speaking the same language, having the same secular beliefs, democratic socialist politics, a vibrant culture of entrepreneurship, globally regulated Internet, etc. Eventually, a single world government.
A midway position. Something in between these, more or less like what we have now. Maybe there will be a lingua franca like English and “best practices” for business and technology, and plenty of intermixing, but most countries (there will always be exceptions like the United States and Canada) will retain a national identity, even if they are members of superstates.
Then we might ask on what grounds we can adjudicate among these—and then proceed to the debate.
But this is also not quite an honest sort of debate to have. It is not unlike imagining what your ideal state would be like, and then telling an elaborate story about Utopia. This is fairly useless because unless Utopia is possible, then you’re simply telling a story. If you can’t rationally expect to be able to bring about your Utopia—if there is no clear way to get from here to there—then taking half-steps in that direction might well prove to be disastrous. For example, you might say you want a global secular monoculture, but if you expect to get one by advocating for open borders in the E.U. and the U.S., don’t expect to usher one in anytime soon. How are you going to get the rest of the world on board? And wait a moment—do you want the rest of the world on board? Or is it only the Western world that you want to lose any cultural distinctiveness? Would you prefer to have that (or to tolerate that) in Japan, Indonesia, Somalia, and Argentina?
So I don’t want to invite speculation on what your Globutopia would look like. It seems to me that the question really is “Do we want open borders—and if not, what sort of immigration policy?” after all. This is the relevant question in the sense that it is essentially the question we disagree on.
That is not to say there are not more fundamental questions than that. For example:
Is it preferable that all or the vast majority of people in a country share the same culture—language, religion, traditions, mores, broad political culture (in the U.S., our “civic religion”), etc.?
Is it preferable—if it is possible—that all the world share the same culture?
Is it preferable—if it is possible—that all the world have roughly the same amounts and types of cultural difference among different countries? So it’s not a global monoculture, but global multiculturalism spread out everywhere.
Is it possible for human beings with radically different cultures to get along very well in the same country? If it’s a problem, how much of a problem is it? What is the best solution to that problem?
These are essential, fundamental questions. If we don’t know our answers to these questions, it seems unlikely we will be able to defend our answers to “Do we want open borders?”
I would love to make advance tentative answers to those questions, but they are very difficult and I don’t want to go on for much longer. Probably many of you would be uncomfortable if I were to put these questions to you; that is probably why we don’t talk about these essential questions very much. They are deeply uncomfortable questions. They are politically fraught. But they are still important.
Here are a few notes on the four questions above:
Suppose I say, thinking of a country like Ireland or Japan with a fairly distinctive culture that seems charming in various ways—that seems to benefit in various ways from being homogeneous—that it is a grand thing for everyone to share the same culture. Well, what does that say about the United States or India, countries with large minorities or various distinctive cultures? “Diversity is our strength,” we are told. Is it sometimes a strength and sometimes a weakness? Or what?
Suppose I say, thinking of various dystopias and the morass that is global entertainment culture as interpreted by Hollywood (and its imitators elsewhere), that a global monoculture would be a massive mistake? On the other hand, I’ve observed many college educated people around the world going to similar hotels, restaurants, conferences, entertainment venues, riding in similar cars and trams, using similar tech, starting similar startups, etc., in New York, Paris, Dubai, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. They seem to like it. Everybody is nice and speaks English at their conferences. Is that so bad?
The idea of global multiculturalism (like, Christians and Buddhists in equal numbers everywhere) strikes me as interesting but deeply implausible. Only educated cynics, mostly but not only Westerners, view religion as a smorgasbord that you can pick and choose from. That approach seems insincere and glib. Most of us think there are differences here that really matter. Surely the idea of “global multiculturalism” is not really possible. Is it?
Then there’s the big question: Can people with radically different cultures be expected to get along in the same countries? Well, they certainly have to, that’s for sure. I don’t support religious wars, for example, or race riots, or (as in the U.S. lately) political skirmishes that resemble nothing so much as brawls between fans of opposing sports teams. But if it’s a problem, what’s really the solution? In the U.S., political differences have gotten so bad that some suggest we split the country in two—because we can’t get along. Terrible idea, I’m inclined to think.
I haven’t even mentioned another essential question to our current problem: Do we in the West have any special obligations to the people of the global south, either because their countries were formerly colonized, or because the West is more privileged? That’s a question we might want to answer separately even if we think we have the other ones figured out.
There are, in fact, other crucial and fundamental questions. Here’s another one: Are all cultures of equal value? Should some religions, for example, be stamped out? Don’t act all shocked, now. Some atheists think Christianity should be stamped out. Some conservative Christians want Islam in Europe and America stamped out. Muslims seem to want all other religions stamped out (but maybe especially Judaism). We’re probably all glad that human-sacrificing religions are gone.
What the hell do we want?
We should be talking about all of these issues and not letting them be settled by default by our elites.
Maybe I’ll hazard some answers later, but I’ll give you the floor now, if you’re brave enough.
Recent events have suggested that there is a trend afoot in the West: that life is overrated and that death is not so bad. Call it, for lack of a better term, antivitism (from Latin vita, life). People who are aware of their own commitment to this view call it, rather funnily, efilism, which is like lifeism spelled backward, but which makes me think of evilism—which is extremely apt. In any event, I am going with antivitism, mainly because I am talking about a rather broader trend revealed in ways beyond those who declare they support efilism.
I’m not saying there’s a “death cult.” But there is evidence of a rather odd trend that seems to celebrates death or at least that greatly undervalues life. By the end of this post I’ll have a fuller account of the attitude in hand. This attitude may be seen most often among certain young but world-weary activists. I don’t mean just the young and activist, but one less often sees this view among older people, with healthy children, and the politically apathetic.
“All right, what are you on about, Sanger?” you ask.
Well, I’ll tell you.
First let’s consider euthanasia. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that euthanasia advocates are a “death cult.” Insofar as euthanasia is strictly an end-of-life “palliative care” decision and it is passive euthanasia (i.e., the doctor doesn’t actually flip the switch), this doesn’t seem to valorize death or devalue life. It is euthanasia for depression—especially active euthanasia, and even more especially for the young—that would essentially encourage the most fragile among us to give up, to stop living, and to entertain the strange fantasy that dying is OK. Death is preferable, such people say, pretending that they are being sensitive (because all their views are driven by a desire to be sensitive) because it is merciful. Never mind that we’re talking about killing; it’s sensitive killing, and if you aren’t on board, you just don’t understand. The suggestion is that life couldn’t improve, so killing yourself (even if you’re quite young) can be preferable—if that’s what you decide.
The appalling recent case of Noa Pothoven is illustrative. Noa, a 17-year-old victim of repeated sexual assault, killed herself slowly, by not eating or drinking, while her parents and doctors stood by idly. That this was allowed to happen might be written off as a weird Dutch excess. But while people around the world were wringing their hands over the horror, another surprisingly large or at least loud group of people, also quite international, complained bitterly that people were calling this “euthanasia,” as if this label particularly mattered. This semantic dispute went proxy for the real issue: should minors be allowed to kill themselves just because they’re depressed? The answer should be obvious, but for that strange coterie of “antivitists,” death was a sad, tragic, but very welcome blessing for Noa. Her parents and doctors did, the antivitists affirm, just what they should have done: stand by idly while she killed herself.
Only a failure to properly value life and its possibilities, and by comparison to positively value death, could lead one to such a position.
So now perhaps you have an idea of what I mean. Some might immediately want to add abortion to the list of antivitist positions. I’m not so sure. Perhaps it isn’t fair to call all abortion advocates “antivitists.” The pro-life (or anti-abortion) argument here is that a newly-gestating life in the womb is a human life, though not a sentient one, and all human life has a right to live, and snuffing that life out is murder. The killing of a fetus for the convenience of the mother strikes some with great horror.
My view on this, which I don’t hold to very strongly, is that abortion in the first few months is easier to dismiss because the fetus cannot even feel pain. However that might be, abortion after viability is very problematic for me, and for most people. After that point, you must twist yourself in logical knots if you wish the deny the obvious fact that there is a baby that with as much ease could be born into the world as killed (though at much greater expense afterward, if allowed to live). Such “late-term” or “third trimester” abortions show considerable contempt for that little life, particularly when the mother’s life is not at risk. Late-term abortions make up a very small percentage, just 1.3%, of all abortions in the U.S.; but if they should be considered murder, that would still be 35 murders per day in the U.S., of the most innocent and defenseless of all human beings.
However that might be, I certainly think favoring genuine infanticide can qualify you as an antivitist. Even in this case there are exceptions: there are certain cases of babies born brain dead, who will never be sentient or who, for medical reasons, can never know anything but intense physical pain. Killing them is more uncontroversially a mercy when—though it is horribly tragic—there is nothing worth calling a human life that could have been preserved. Peter Singer highlights these sorts of cases. But on my view, obviously, not all birth defects qualify, and certainly the convenience of the mother does not qualify.
But has anyone maintained that outright infanticide of healthy infants, just because the mother doesn’t want a baby, is acceptable? Well, it’s 2020, so I suspect you won’t be surprised when I tell you the answer is, “Yes, of course.” It’s not just campus dudebros who apparently think so. If you want to do a more serious search for answers to this question that don’t take the form of Republicans trash-talking Democrats for favoring late-term abortion, don’t call it “infanticide.” Call it “neonaticide”; the Chicago Tribunereported that “a conservative estimate puts the incidence of neonaticide in the U.S. at 150 to 300 annually.” It so happens that this crime was defended by two freshly-minted Ph.D. ethicists back in 2012; their term for it was the chillingly clinical-sounding “after-birth abortion.” Aren’t you glad that your mother didn’t decide to have an “after-birth abortion”? Anyway that newborns should be permitted to be killed if their mothers don’t want them.
Fortunately, the view never really caught on—unless youwanted to count the aforementioned people who support the killing of viable babies who were extracted from the uterus in order to be killed (i.e., they would survive if they weren’t killed). There would seem to be quite a few of such people, though such people disagree with the “infanticide” epithet.
Clearly, it seems to matter what you call the killing of babies.
Now, I am aware that I keep using a formulation that must sound uncharitable and paradoxical, if not absurd: that some positively prefer, celebrate, or valorize…death. Is that just rhetorical excess on my part? Maybe. But it certainly isn’t excess in the case of the very best example of antivitists: antinatalists. As the Collins Dictionary has it, antinatalism is “a philosophical position that opposes human procreation, holding it to be morally wrong.” They really do dislike life, or at least new life. They think that to be born is to be harmed. Look at how philosopher David Benatar’s book title has it: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.
As interesting as this might be, I’m not going to discuss it in great depth, partly because it isn’t really a massive movement and partly because I don’t feel like debunking easily-debunked philosophical nonsense. The point is that there really is a small minority of people—mostly young and sad people (on Reddit, 80% are under 26 and 59% depressed or suicidal)—who take the position that life is simply a bad thing, and that death would be better, or as Benatar puts it, it would be better never to have been born. These people must really dislike It’s a Wonderful Life (one of my very favorite movies). In it, the angel Clarence disabuses the hapless George of his belief that it would be better if he had never been born.
Along these lines, I would be remiss not to mention those who do not want to procreate; I refer to the childfree movement. Their Reddit group is much larger than the antinatalist one, though they are philosophically largely in alignment. In fairness, most of these people simply want society (especially their own parents) to stop bothering them with expectations to procreate. Of course they’re not necessarily antivitists, let alone part of a “death cult.”
But a sizeable number of people in the movement do believe it is positively wrong to procreate; and they take this seriously, going so far as to declare quite unashamedly that they hate children. This is the populist side of antinatalism. I imagine most people already know that this isn’t some wild-eyed scare-mongering; The New Yorker saw fit to give a platform to the view (quoting Benatar, again, among others). These more passionate childfree antinatalists have dismissive epithets for those who do choose to have children: “breeders.” These people value their own lives, presumably, if they aren’t among the many miserable antinatalists, but not so much the lives of children, i.e., of new people on the face of the earth. Obviously, people who are angered by the addition of new human beings need not valorize death; but it seems fair to say that they do not place a premium on life per se, beyond their own lives and perhaps those of people who are already here (as long as they aren’t children, I guess; one can only wonder at what age they stop being abhorrent).
So there are some views that strike me as being, prima facie, “antivitist” views.
Here’s a problem for my view. People who favor extreme abortion rights, euthanasia rights, antinatalism, and the childfree lifestyle tend to be on the left or libertarian—and the left and libertarians alike are generally opposed to capital punishment. So a challenge to me would go, “Hey Sanger, you said these people favor death. [Well, maybe in the case of some post-viability abortion advocates and antinatalists.] If they were some kind of ‘death cult,’ wouldn’t they be in favor of capital punishment? But they hate capital punishment! So there! These people care about quality of life, of course!”
I can’t disagree. This suggests, then, that there is something more subtle at work than that they simply “celebrate death or greatly undervalue life.” Clearly, we need to draw a distinction. It isn’t a desire for death per se, I think, that characterizes antivitism; it is one’s own death, or that of those one is responsible for, or would be responsible if one did not oppose creating new life. That seems more reasonable, if still rather deranged.
Also, let me concede something before I’m accused of a really gross error. Of course, you wouldn’t have to accept a general principle that human life is not terribly valuable in itself, or that death or never having been born is preferable to life, in order to accept most of the above views. I mean, logic may be chopped in various ways, and I don’t wish to imply that people are part of anything remotely resembling a “death cult” simply because they embrace one of the views described above. Of course that would be wrong.
So what am I saying?
In frank discussions of these topics, one does frequently comes across deeply pessimistic remarks: life is hell; the terminally depressed can’t change; death would be a blessing; it would be better never to have been; new lives are little more than bloodsucking parasites; people who create new life are mere contemptible “breeders.” All of these are, I maintain, undercurrents of ultra-sophisticated, world-weary nihilism that pop up in discussions of late-term abortion rights, euthanasia rights, antinatalism, and the childfree lifestyle. It seems that some wish to impose their own hatred of their own lives on the rest of the world, and that this manifests in support for the positions mentioned. That strikes me as coming from a profoundly misanthropic place, although that word strikes me as not quite right. After all these people don’t just dislike other people, they positively deny the value of their lives. That’s something much darker than old-fashioned, curmudgeonly misanthropy.
Another pessimistic modern sentiment, not discussed above—existentialism—falls under the same umbrella. Our lives are meaningless and absurd; there’s no escape from the nausea induced by our radical freedom in a postmodern world. This isn’t so much misanthropy, either, as more straightforward pessimism that is part and parcel of the rejection (as “false consciousness”) of any religion-based or naturalistic values that might give life meaning.
If there is an antivitist trend, whether rooted in nasty misanthropy or nihilistic pessimism, and if it continues to grow as it has in recent decades, then I suppose the next things to expect would be:
Growing demands for euthanasia rights in more countries, younger ages, and for more trivial reasons.
Antinatalism becomes mainstream. People killing themselves in larger and larger groups, as the Jim Jones cult did at Jonestown.
Maybe I’m onto something. I’m not saying this post clinches the matter. But if I’m right, this would tend to explain why various kinds of morbid and deeply depressing entertainment have become so popular in recent decades.
Is letting a 17-year-old die morally equivalent to killing her?
A spate of news articles appeared yesterday, reporting that Dutch 17-year-old mental patient Noa Pothoven was euthanized. This formulation—she was euthanized—caused outrage in certain circles. This is factually incorrect, they say. She was not euthanized. She took her own life.
What are the facts of the case? She was sexually attacked and assaulted three times, beginning at age 11, which led to severe depression and anorexia. She wrote an autobiographical account of her troubles. At age 17, she decided she had had enough. With her parents’ acquiescence, she refused food and drink, and last Sunday, she died.
So why do people like Politico correspondent Naomi O’Leary and Reason writer Elizabeth Nolan Brown insist that she was not euthanized? Because Noa’s problems, as the latter writer puts it, “did not come to an end with the state permitting a doctor to kill her.” She chose to commit suicide, while her parents and doctors stood by and did nothing, respecting her wish to die. That’s not euthanasia, O’Leary and Brown say. O’Leary found this to be infuriating “misinformation.”
To this, many others respond: of course it’s euthanasia. What else do you call it when a doctor stands by and allows a patient to starve herself to death—all the more tragic in this case because the patient is just 17 years old?
The question looks like an unresolvable semantic one. But logic-chopping ethicists come to the rescue with a distinction: Noa was subjected to passive, not active euthanasia. The difference, as the BBC explains, lies in the difference between killing and letting die. Nobody killed Noa (in fact, she asked for help, and was rightly refused); but they did let her die.
If you leave it at that, no one is the wiser, because the real questions, clearly, are: (1) Is there a moral difference between active and passive euthanasia in this case? And: (2) Did Noa’s parents and doctors do right or wrong?
Given a case that sounds so outrageous to some, it is easy to glibly declare that there is no difference. But there are plenty of cases in which there certainly seems to be a difference between killing and letting die. Changing the case makes this rather clearer. Suppose a 50-year-old man like me is severely depressed and wants to die. Is there a difference between you shooting him through the head, and his doing the same thing while you stand by idly? (Let’s assume it’s you could easily and safely take the gun away; perhaps the gun is on the table, closer to you, I say I will kill myself in ten minutes, and I have already made clear that I will not fight you for the gun.) Clearly there is a difference between killing and permitting suicide, in this case. But wherein lies the difference?
There are a couple differences, actually. First, in the case of active euthanasia, you are taking action. We can ask the question, “Why did you pull the trigger?” We can ask a similar question in the second case, “Why didn’t you stop him?” but the questions are actually quite different.
Second, more to the point and more importantly, to permit active euthanasia requires that we adopt policies, moral and legal, that distinguish between murder and euthanasia. But there is no such requirement if we permit only passive euthanasia: here we need only adopt policies to distinguish between suicide and passive euthanasia. (For one thing, it’s not passive euthanasia if nobody knows you’re committing suicide.)
Active euthanasia is more morally fraught because it resembles murder, and murder is rightly regarded as one of the very worst crimes it is possible to commit. But allowing someone to commit suicide looks very different indeed from murder, because the motives are deeply different. If you stand by while your 50-year-old friend commits suicide, you might very well feel guilty later, and people might well blame you for doing something wrong (or rather, for not doing what you should have done); but nobody can sensibly accuse you of murder.
Ultimately—as is the case with most ethical questions—it is ultimately about the policies, the rules, the principles. Do we want to be a society that approves of people committing suicide? Should that be regarded as a real possibility for people? Should it figure into their calculations as an option, sometimes? And then, if so—do we want to take the morally fraught step of helping people to carry out this dreadful choice?
Let’s briefly consider both sides here.
The more conservative approach points to the impact that the choice has on others, that the policy has on society at large, and whether we even have the right to throw away a gift given to us by the divine. No man is an island, and the official approval of suicide causes trauma far beyond that experienced by a person suffering in bodily pain or depression. The trauma is compounded when others participate in carrying out the decision. In the case of Noa, consider the lifelong trauma her dramatic act will have on her parents, family, friends—and now also the broader society in which other 17-year-olds might be tempted to solve their problems this way.
The reason that liberals and libertarians are typically in favor of euthanasia (passive at least, and often active as well) is that this respects the choice of the individual. Whether to go on living is a deeply personal decision, they say. Hence society’s rules should permit a negative outcome if that is our choice. If this encourages others (or rather, alerts them to the possibility) to do the same, perhaps that’s for the best. Why should people be forced to live if they don’t want to? Even if there are some awful consequences, this is the price we pay for freedom.
This is not an easy question, and you’re frankly an idiot if you pretend that it is. But there’s a complicating factor in Noa’s case. She was young, just a few years older than my son. I can’t imagine “permitting” him to commit suicide as I stood by. The idea fills me with horror.
The admitted fact is that she lacked a mature mental capacity. Moreover, while I don’t really approve of the clinical language, one might say she was ill in addition to being young. Now, typically, as in the case of the 50-year-old, we might credit the person’s choice as being mature and considered, and therefore free and worthy of the respect of a person with dignity. Do we owe a mentally ill young person the duty to dignify her choice as also one that is free? I’m not so sure. She was unformed, and she was not thinking straight. Had she been my daughter, I would have had her committed to an asylum that would help her get better. I would not have respected her choice, being one made by an immature and ill person.
I pity Noa’s parents and doctors. But I also accuse them of doing something very wrong indeed—by not taking action when they clearly should have.
By the way, it’s not lost on me that one might argue that anybody,regardless of age, with severe depression might be thought to be sufficiently impaired that we should not credit his decision to end his life as being free, and hence we should always work against it and instead institutionalize the person. But I’m not making that argument, as it raises further, hard questions. Noa’s case strikes me as being rather clearer. The combination of her youth and her mental incapacity mean that her caregivers had absolutely no obligation to credit her choice.
As a drug-legalization libertarian, watching this video wasn’t easy:
It’s a highly opinionated piece of propaganda; but it is also extremely persuasive. Thinking about this might make me moderate my position on drug legalization. I bear a few things in mind, which I will list simply:
Cities like San Francisco and Seattle are being garbage dumps full of drug addicts.
This is portrayed as a “homelessness problem,” when the vast majority of the “homeless” are in fact drug addicts.
Most can’t escape addiction without help.
Meanwhile, it has become fashionable for many big city and state government politicians to essentially permit all the bad behavior that enables the homelessness-due-to-drugs problem: not just vagrancy, of course, but also public drug abuse and selling, stealing, and even robbery and worse. This is all, apparently, in the name of sensitivity and compassion.
If that’s true, it doesn’t seem very compassionate to me.
Is this problem the consequence of legalizing drugs? Because if so, I’m not sure I’m in favor of that after all. I mean, good lord.
Maybe the problem can be solved by jailing for drugs only when a person commits even a relatively petty crime (such as vagrancy on private property).
Watch the video all the way to the end, when it starts talking about the Rhode Island drug rehabilitation program. I can’t say that I’m totally convinced it works as well as they say it does (this is a very biased piece of propaganda, after all), but if it does, this should be implemented nationwide.
New York cleaned up its act after Rudy Giuliani started enforcing the little quality-of-life laws. We should start thinking that way about the homelessness and drug addiction problems.
I have a great deal of pity for the drug addicts. Past a certain point, you can’t blame them for how they are. They really do need help. If this is what more or less free-and-legal drug addiction looks like, their lack of control becomes a problem for all of us, if it results in conditions like those San Francisco and Seattle are facing. And then it makes a lot of sense to get those people help as part of how society responds to their crimes.
Which of these claims is wrong? I’m not committed to them; but if they’re true, they’re a very serious indictment of our current systems.