Why Be Moral

This essay represents my basic approach to ethics rather well, so although I do not feel quite certain about everything here, I feel comfortable enough to post this theory here on my blog. It is rather long for a blog post (well over 7,000 words), but different sections are often reasonably self-contained, so you could skip through it to parts that are of interest to you.

Philosophers often study the question, "Why be moral?"—one of the very most important topics in philosophy. If you do not understand it, or if you fall prey to false beliefs about it, those beliefs can quite literally ruin your life. That well exemplifies how important philosophy can be, come to think of it: having true beliefs about life's most important questions can turn your life around, while having false beliefs can ultimately prove deadly. In philosophy, it simply does not get more important than this.

Philosophy classes, taking up this question, sometimes end up discussing what are only side-issues, such as, "Should I steal if I can get away with it?" Or: "If I had a ring of invisibility, should I murder and otherwise do whatever I wanted in order to get ahead in life?" It always struck me with a kind of horror that there was always a sizable minority of students who openly declared that, in the absence of law and order, they would run amok and commit all sorts of moral crimes. The fact that they were capable of saying such things only made me realize how impoverished our moral understanding and education had become, in an age that is both anti-intellectual and irreligious.

Questions such as "Should I commit selfish crimes if I can get away with them?" are barren. You see, the reasons we should be moral are deep, profound, and even sublime; to plumb these depths, we much examine the fundamental problem of ethics. And this cannot be reduced to explanations of the wrongness of thievery or cleverly deciding what you would do with magic rings.

I think I know why we should be moral. I have a plausible theory, anyway. I invite you to critically evaluate it.

But unlike most philosophers, I do not stop at theorizing. Ethics does, after all, have both theoretical and practical parts. I will tell you, as I have told people for many years, that philosophy has consequences and that we should be living according to principle. If you accept this answer, then you bear a burden to put it into practice in whatever way you know how. For this, mere rational deliberation can certainly help, but is rarely sufficient on its own. This is why so many turn to religion, i.e., as a guide to right living. Perhaps conscience, in its various incarnations—humbly reflecting as you best know how and listening to the "still, small" voice within—is the universal guide.

But first, such guides should be informed by a correct answer to this question: "Why be moral?"

I say that the question requires that we tackle the fundamental problem of ethics. What is that? It is, in short, the problem of value: What is good? What things ultimately have value? You can explain the value of money in terms of what it will buy, but what is the thing that has value in itself, not as a means to anything else?

This problem exercises philosophers a great deal. It is famously thorny. Variants on hedonism—the view that the ultimately valuable thing is pleasure—is one common answer. One main problem with that answer is that there are things that seem extremely valuable but which do not, on first glance, have anything to do with pleasure. One such thing is human lives—or do we stay alive merely for pleasure? Another thing is knowledge. A third is happiness or well-being. Do we seek such broad things as happiness, well-being, or flourishing, merely in order to maximize our pleasure? I would think it would be the other way around. Pleasure has just one role to play, that is all.

There is a commonly-cited problem with hedonism that, I think, is particularly fruitful to examine: Whose pleasure is it that matters? Your own? Taken quite consistently, such a view could have disastrous consequences. Suppose mass murder is what gives you the greatest joy in life. But if it is not only personal pleasure that matters, how wide should our circle of concern be? Our family, our acquaintances, our countrymen, all of humanity, all sentient beings, or all living organisms? We will get to these questions further down.

Enough preliminaries. Let me give you my theory. See what you think.

The thing that has ultimate value, for anything that is alive, is life itself. There is an excellent reason why this should be so and even, on reflection, inevitable: only living things are capable of having interests, i.e., of having anything that it is good for them. Mountains and lakes do have not have interests. A mountain becomes neither better nor worse off if it wears away, nor is it better for the lake if it evaporates or grows. You might say that certain transformations become less beautiful or useful to us, or to plants and animals, but then we are talking about the interests of living things, not of mountains and lakes. The mountains and lakes do not care. Inanimate objects have no interests.

So far, I have established only that living things have interests, not that life is itself the thing of ultimate value. But all in good time.

We can say that there are various systems that keep an organism alive, such as the circulatory system, the respiratory system, and the digestive system. For each system, we can speak of something the organism needs: circulation requires warmth (among other things), respiration requires air, and digestion requires food. Those in turn are all needs of living bodies such as ours.

The fulfillment of those needs quite naturally causes us pleasure, and their deprivation, pain; a warm blanket, or gulp of fresh air or food, can give us great pleasure, especially when greatly needed. Pleasure and pain are the natural mechanisms whereby we are driven to meet our needs.

Corresponding to each need, and to each natural source of pleasure and pain, is what we might call a natural desire or want; we naturally desire warmth, air, and food.

We can even define biological flourishing or the well-being of an organism as the abundant fulfillment of all of its biological needs. The deep reverence, by some, of all things "natural" can be understood as simply trying to flourish naturally, to live in tune with the needs of the organism.

I mention all of these concepts because they are essential to several theories of value or goodness that come up in one way or another when people (philosophers and others) discuss value or goodness: systems, needs, pleasure and pain, desires or wants, flourishing, and nature. Each of these features has been proposed by somebody or other as a theory of value, but when one lays them out in their conceptual relations like this, singling one of them out looks rather silly. We should consider them all together. And what ties them together? The answer is clear: life itself.

Now, admittedly, this is a rather vague theory so far. "Life itself?" you say. "And this includes pleasure, needs, desires, and the rest? What am I supposed to do with that?" Fair question, and my answer is: nothing quite yet. I am still doing groundwork.

But you can understand my point, I hope. If you want to know what is ultimately valuable to a tree, or a dog, or a person, it is: those things that keep it alive. When I put it in that way, it seems almost tautological, I think; do you agree? That certainly seems to be the common scientific approach as well. A farmer, veterinarian, or doctor studies the needs of the things in their care and quite naturally considers what is good for the organism as what is life-preserving (or life-enhancing).

At this point you might have an objection. "But I thought values were basically subjective. I can have different values from you, of course, and there does not seem to be any basis on which we can tell which of us is right. I do not think you are even considering the same concept of value as I do."

This is incorrect. I am considering the same concept of value as you do, just at a more basic level. The fact that there is much that is objectively good for you only goes to show that subjectivism is not just wrong, but pernicious and positively harmful. That said, let me concede that we can certainly differ in our opinions about what things are valuable. A child declares a bag of candy is "good" even if it turns out to be unhealthy, and that is an instance of a (rather simple or primitive) value system in action. But when it comes to diet, there is a fact of the matter about what is best for our organism, what will satisfy our needs without having any deleterious effects such as being overweight or underweight, having stomach problems, or having rotting teeth. So let us distinguish a person's sense of value, or subjective value, from what is factually best for us, or objective value. That is, I think, a perfectly useful distinction.

As strange as it might sound to some of us, in our cynical and miseducated age, there are indeed objectively value things for us. Simply reflecting on the obvious fact that adequate heat, clean air, and healthy food are determined by the human organism in relation to its environment, we can easily acknowledge that those things are objectively valuable. They are, really or in fact, good for us. Other species have other and sometimes differing objective values, by the way: what is good for you is not necessarily good for trees or for deep-sea fish.

I imagine that some readers will be puzzled at this point. I announced that I was going to talk about value theory, and I did not mention such basic ethical concepts as right and wrong, principles, and virtues, all of which are loosely described as "values." I also did not mention religion, politics, and art, approaches to which essentially differ based on different "values." Well, these are values in a different, broader sense, the sense in which "values" is more or less the entire scope of ethics (and beyond). I will indeed broaden my scope some more, and talk about some ethical concepts: right and wrong. This will be necessary to understand at a basic level, if we are to understand why we should be moral, or why we should care about doing the right thing. But first, I want to get more flesh on the bare-bones theory of value I have articulated so far. After all, what is good for us qua human beings is not just that which is good for our bodies.

So far, I have not spoken of any unique features of human beings. I have spoken of us by analogy with all different sorts of organisms. But ethics tells us how to live as human beings; moral rules, or ethical principles, depend very crucially indeed on human nature. I say that life itself is what is valuable; but now I will qualify that by saying that, for us humans, it is human life that is valuable for us, not mere biological flourishing.

The effect of adding the qualifier is to acknowledge that human beings have additional features, the flourishing of which is particularly valuable to us. We are not just vegetables or dumb brutes; we do not merely want to survive; we place the highest value in that which allows us to exercise our very human capacities.

While philosophers disagree about a lot, a perennial observation throughout the history of philosophy is that human beings are essentially rational. As Aristotle put it, man is, by definition, the "rational animal." Over and over one finds philosophers dwelling on this basic idea; so now it is my turn. But come to think of it, you might notice, if you are familiar with Aristotle, that my theory here is broadly speaking Aristotelian.

Aristotle's dictum does not mean that we are always quite logical, like Mr. Spock, or that we like, prefer, or are good at reasoning. As cognitive scientists enjoy reminding us, most of us are pretty bad at it. Aristotle meant that we have the capacity for reason, and "reason" here means not reasoning but something much more modest: we have the ability to mull things over, consider options, follow a train of thought, make up our minds, or, as philosophers sometimes put it, to deliberate. We might be better or worse at it, but we all have the capacity (at least—whether we exercise it is another matter) to deliberate.

This means we have a mind, and while a horse might also have a mind, the human mind involves the capacity for such complex and far-sighted deliberations that, we say, we have free will. That at least is my view on what free will is; see my essay on the topic. As long as this capacity for deliberation and our bodily movements are unencumbered, we are free to act. And this freedom of action is what explains why we are morally responsible. I maintain that it is our unencumbered capacity for deliberation that indeed makes us morally responsible.

Ask yourself if this makes sense: The thing that makes it appropriate to credit us with good actions and to blame us for bad ones is precisely the fact that we had the ability, and the opportunity, to think our actions through and to act on the results. If you were an unthinking zombie, under the influence of mind-altering drugs, or literally insane, then your rational, deliberative capacity would not be in charge; then nothing would really be your fault, which is what the courts do generally say.

Now let us return to the results of the previous section. Good food is good for us, again, because it satisfies the operation of digestion; so it plays a role in "living well" or good biological flourishing. Why not take the human capacity for action as a whole, and say that it serves as another biological function? When we make big decisions in life—concerning career, marriage, family, and much more—we do better if we act out of at least some deliberation.

Very well, then: a wise decision would be one that best satisfies our capacity for deliberation. But of course, that is vague and not very useful. It is a pat but useless formula, because it leaves totally mysterious what "best satisfies our capacity for deliberation."

"Creature comforts" like warmth, food, drink, sex, and their accompanying pleasures, might be called lower values. We have these in common with dumb animals. Just as the lower values are associated with the satisfaction and good functioning of our bodies, the higher values would be those associated with the satisfaction and good functioning of our minds (such as emotion, cogitation, and yes, deliberation).

Two of the most important higher values are truth and beauty (or, perhaps, appreciation or knowledge of these). They are not the only two, but they are two of the more fundamental, in the sense that you might have difficulty giving an adequate theory of the veritable cornucopia of things we human value without them. It seems to me you can better explain the value of the sense of your own worth (as in self-righteousness or pride), just to take an example, if you can first explain the value of any knowledge whatsoever. Similarly, there are countless varieties of aesthetic reactions to the world and to human creations—delight, excitement, profundity, etc.—but what they have at bottom is the sense of beauty. And truth and beauty satisfy a fundamental capacity that we all have: judgment.

Let me take a step back, though, because I imagine this is going by very fast and becoming off-putting. Of course there is more to life than an abstract list of the variants of "truth and beauty." What about love? Family? Country? Peace? Freedom?

I agree. These things are all deeply important. But want to explain why they are part of the good life by actually taking up the topic my essay, "Why be moral?" So let me, finally, turn to the main event.

Why be moral? This question is meant as a challenge to justify other-regarding behavior. But the fact is that we, like all living beings, are built for moral action, which we might briefly gloss as life-affirming action. That is just how people and, indeed, animals are. To do what we ought, to do what is right, is to take that action that preserves and secures life. That is what organisms just do.

So I want to say that, as a general question, "Why be moral?" strikes me as rather pointless. We are naturally moral; it is not unlike asking "why breathe?" The answer is that, short of killing ourselves, we have no choice and that we are built that way.

I know this will sound glib, especially to philosophers, so I want to develop the point enough so that it becomes at least minimally plausible. The point is that right action is, in a certain way, simply normal. When confronted with the extremely wicked, we do not merely say, "That is wrong." That does not capture our usual and natural reaction adequately. If we are decent ourselves, we look upon evil with incomprehension. We say such things as, "That's messed up" or "That's insane" and often shake our heads in disbelief, saying, "How is that possible? How could he (or she)?"

But this could be due to internalization what are mere societal taboos. But I claim to the contrary that morality is part of the normal and natural order. To explain why I mean by this perhaps puzzling claim, look at the many remarkable instances of inter-species altruism. The latter words are linked to a rather heartwarming video of animals of one species helping and rescuing animals of other species; I recommend watching. Such instances give me pause. Why do the animals do this? Well, it seems obvious to a child: it is the nice thing to do. So should we agree with the childish view that animals just naturally want to be nice? Surely it is not that simple?

Ethologists (biologists who study animal behavior) and ethicists (philosophers who study right human behavior) alike are quite aware of and much taken with animal altruism. One biological theory has it that this behavior constitutes reciprocal altruism, i.e., one animal undertakes some costs or risks in helping other animals in anticipation of benefiting from such behavior in return. Reciprocal altruism, then, is supposed to be an evolutionarily adaptive behavior, despite the plethora of evidence of cross-species concern. Ethicists, too, when they take up the question of the justification of altruism, often look for explanations in terms of some benefit to oneself. That is, in fact, how the question "Why be moral?" is often couched: "Of what benefit is it to me not to steal when I can get away with it?"

I reject this framing of human and animal motivations as small-minded and ultimately bankrupt. We need not seek for selfish motives for other-regarding behavior. I think we animals generally and naturally value life where we find it; we are built to be life-preservers. Those helping animals do not seem to love only their own kind. They seem to care and have deep concern for friends of all species. The simplest explanation of this is that animals, and human beings must be included here, quite naturally care about life, period.

But what, for example, about all the vicious people and animals in the world? Rest assured, I will address that. But first I have another point to make, which should clarify out my view even further.

A perennial theory in philosophy and religion, and in cultures throughout the world, is the notion that we can simply reflect on a situation and then "know" what is right or wrong. This is perhaps most often called conscience, but philosophers sometimes call this the moral sense, sentiment, or intuition. Many and sometimes quite elaborate theories and concepts explore this general idea; in Christianity, there is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that "still, small voice" that, if we listen to it, will tell right from wrong. Even Socrates believed in what he called his daemon, the sole function of which was to restrain him from wrong action. But again, this need not be anything particularly "out there," especially "woo." Very sober, science-minded ethicists simply acknowledge that we have what they call "pre-theoretical moral intuitions" about specific cases, and they generally leave aside where these intuitions come from.

Do we all have the same moral intuitions? Does our conscience operate the same way? Common experience and research both show the answer to be complex: in some broad principles, yes (reciprocity seems to be a universal norm, and killing requires a very good excuse, at least), but in many specific cases, no (sexual morality varies quite a bit across cultures).

Now, if the desire to do good were natural, then, a critic might challenge me, would not conscience be the same in everyone? But it does not seem to be. And then children would be pure, benign beings, would they not? It is a rare child indeed who is not occasionally a little monster.

These topics (whether children are morally pure and whether conscience is the same in all of us) are, in fact, connected. Children are born crooked. They should be straightened out in a gentle, loving way by their parents. Doing so develops a child's conscience or sense of right and wrong. Their parents are from a wide variety of cultures, with a wide variety of mores, to be sure. But nature and universal human experience are useful teachers—their operation looms large in what is called "growing up" or "maturing," beyond the more deliberate "raising up" and "nuturing" by older, wiser humans.

To say that people are naturally good or that they naturally value the good is not to say that such refined moral sensibilities are automatic. It is merely to say that nature and common situations create common, indeed universal influences in us all and indeed in all animals. The cat that saved the puppy knows how helpless the young are, knows that being in precarious places is fraught with pain and danger. Due to its quite natural (and, maybe especially to children fascinated by the video, perfectly understandable) valuation of such potential precious life, it decided to help the puppy. Another cat might have acted differently, of course.

When there is similarity of conscience, therefore, it can be partly due to common upbringing or culture, but it can also be due to even more common, impersonal life circumstances (which can be common even in the broader animal world).

Another point worth mentioning helps to clinch the conclusion that we are naturally moral. It is certainly perfectly moral—and many traditions would say deeply important—that we act effectively to preserve our own lives. Not only should we not be killing ourselves, but we also typically bear a burden, sometimes a difficult and heavy burden depending on our circumstances, to care for ourselves once we are adults. This might sometimes look selfish when our well-being is in some competition with someone else's; but when we are merely trying to survive and stay comfortable, we are surely doing something quite right. And I dare say nobody denies that desire for self-preservation is "natural," if anything is, and that animals do the same. Yet, for all its naturalness, preserving one's life is an injunction so important that breaking it is regarded a mortal sin by the Catholic Church.

Very well, I hear my critic say. Perhaps there are natural circumstances that make us look out for ourselves and each other, and this behavior is perfectly moral or right. We are naturally moved to be moral, in that limited sense. But you've glossed over so many important issues. Why should you not lie, cheat, and steal if on balance it improves your life? Morality, you say, is life-affirming action. But whose life should be affirmed? Maybe I want to say: mine only. And if I should disagree about who benefits from moral action, you do not seem to have given me any grounds on which to prefer your answer over my own.

It is absolutely true that my theory is not finished. I need to put some further touches on it.

I want to begin by admitting that, indeed, I could not convince anyone that it is exclusively in their self-interest to be moral. It might be, sometimes, in your self-interest to be completely immoral. Of course, it depends on what you mean by "self-interest." Immorality is bad for the soul and you will, it seems to me, ultimately have a more satisfying life if it is a moral life. But surely not always. I do not see how one can always justify a moral life, complete with much other-regarding action, simply because doing so is always in your own personal self-interest.

In other words, I am inclined to reject a view philosophers call ethical egoism, i.e., that ultimately, the reasons we have for doing right can be explained in terms of our own rational self-interest. That is the view of Ayn Rand, for example. I used to put some stock in that theory, but no longer. There are simply too many difficult cases. Why should an ethical egoist ever become a soldier or police officer or fire fighter, putting his life on the line for others? I regard that as admirable heroism. For that matter, why should a woman ever have children and sacrifice a large part of her life doing so? Mothers are generally among the finest and most admirable human beings. Such self-sacrifice does not redound to the egoist's own benefit. The rather stretched answer that egoists sometimes give is that they quite deliberately and rationally extend their sphere of concern beyond themselves to their family or country. But then, I respond: by definition, you are no longer an egoist if your values extend beyond yourself.

What is this "sphere of concern"? This will turn out to matter. It basically means the things we ought to be concerned about when making our moral deliberations. Our sphere of concern extends to whatever things figure in our moral calculations. From items closest to furthest away from me, potential items in my sphere of concern could include: myself; my family; my neighborhood; my community; my state or region; my country; all of humanity; all intelligent beings; all sentient beings; all living beings; and finally, absolutely everything in the universe.

To get a taste of what philosophers say about this topic, it is sometimes said that if we limit our sphere of moral concern to just human beings and do not extend moral concern to animals, then we are guilty of a kind of bigotry called speciesism (like racism, but about the human species). I am not going to try to adjudicate that now. All I want to point out is that even plants can fall into my sphere of moral concern. I would not just start stripping a tree (even out in the middle of the jungle, far from where anyone would miss it) of its leaves for no good reason. Closer to home, we generally find it to be a moral concern that we treat pets humanely, and we (should) teach our children not to torture even small animals, even insects.

It is less common, however, for philosophers to discuss what I will call a sphere of influence. While on the one hand your sphere of concern includes everything you care about in deliberating, on the other hand your sphere of influence includes everything you might reasonably be thought to have some more or less direct influence on. The universe makes up a vast web of causality, but clearly, we should not be held responsible for distant consequences we cannot possibly predict. What we are responsible for is whatever we could reasonably predict. If my taking a Sunday drive somehow, inadvertently, causes an accident across town, I am not responsible for that. But if I might cause an accident by failing to use my left turn signal, then any such accident is in my sphere of influence.

More generally, though, we can say that our sphere of influence increases the more power we have in the world. A young person fresh out of high school working in a factory has little power or influence in the world. The CEO of a multi-billion dollar international corporation has influence ultimately on millions or even billions of people, and so has a much larger sphere of influence.

I went through these platitudes to set up two general claims:

  1. We should take all of life as our sphere of concern.
  2. Our actual moral obligations vary considerably based on on our sphere of influence, i.e., how great of an effect we can have on others (and on all life).

Generally, our obligation—perhaps, indeed, our purpose in life—is to do the most good we can within our sphere of influence.

In other words, the young factory worker has the greatest impact on his own life and that of his immediate family and friends. His own life usually comes first (your obligation is generally to yourself first and foremost); his family and friends, on whom he can have a significant impact for good or ill, are very important; beyond that, he has some impact on his workplace and his local community; beyond that, he has even less in the way of obligation to his country or all of humanity, but even these obligations can matter. But the young factory worker has the greatest impact on his own life and that of his immediate family and friends.

Matters are very different for the CEO, whose personal and family obligations must sometimes and quite reasonably take a backseat to what are more profound and wide-ranging impacts that action or inaction can have.

The reason you should not steal another person's stuff, then, is that in doing so, you are hurting that person. Simply by virtue of the immediate effects of your contemplated crime, your victim would be within your sphere of concern.

But there is more to it than this.

After all, perhaps you are poor and the other person is rich, and you will benefit hugely while the other person will lose comparatively little. Perhaps the rich person has an obligation to you, who have a clear and present need, after all. Maybe, just maybe, stealing from the rich would be the right thing to do. It is easy to see someone constructing that argument.

To explain why such reasoning would be incorrect, and why you should "be moral" according to conventional ideas of morality (such as that stealing is wrong), I must expand my theory again. So far I have spoken mostly about value theory, i.e., about what things are good and bad for us, what is valuable and why, and how far our sphere of concern should extend. I do say "our obligation is to do the most good we can," but I do not really say what this means. I need to produce what ethicists call a theory of obligation or of right and wrong.

In approaching this enormous and forbidding subject, it would not be a bad idea to begin with the case before us now. If you were to steal, and if you wanted to be quite deliberative about the case, you would naturally ask yourself, "Where does it end? What is my policy now? Should I always steal from the rich whenever I have the opportunity?"

And then a more enlightened soul can give you the sort of platitudes that you were probably expecting at the beginning of this essay: if you stole, you would have to cover up and hide your crime; you would risk severe penalties; you would cause fear and upset to your victim and your victim's loved ones; you would create more work for the police, undermining society's laws; you would be teaching yourself to become dependent upon others' honest work; etc. Even if you were quite poor, regardless of how much you stole, it would make everyone worse off, and not the least you. I do not intend to make this case in any more detail. Especially if you are able to make reference to spheres of concern beyond yourself, understanding why stealing is wrong is not the hard part. It is rather easy to explain. I am not saying this is unimportant, either; understanding why you should do this and not do that, applying general principles in many particular cases, is admittedly a central part of a moral education. It is part of growing up and, as I said, getting less crooked.

But I wanted to discuss the general question: Why be moral? An individual explanation is meager fare. You wanted a full meal. Why, in general, should you embrace those principles that are regarded as representing "morality"? And if it is not clear what those principles are, how do you decide on them?

I could go in some depth at this point about about what is called ethical theory. I would discuss virtue ethics and rule consequentialism (which are two of the type of theoretical approaches I like best), but I think for a general audience it would be most useful if I avoid the jargon and stick to matters that have more obvious and easily-graspable substance.

Here then is my answer: We should be moral, we should do as much good for the world as we can, because that is our natural purpose in life. Given the proper understanding of what morality is, or how it actually functions in our lives, this turns out to be a fairly easy answer to defend. And I will defend it in more detail further down, but first I want to explain what I mean.

People who discuss the question "Why be moral?"—and here I would include many philosophy instructors and students—seem to regard it as a hard problem because we are tempted to do all sorts of wrong things, and philosophy should provide us with motivations to resist what is wrong and to do what is right instead. But that seems to be a difficult feat for philosophy to perform.

The thing that makes it difficult, however, is that so many of us (including those philosophers) simply do not understand that doing good for the world is, in a sense, why we are here. If our purpose is to do good, that in itself makes it clear why we should avoid wrong action. This is, I maintain, a perfectly natural, ordinary, commonsensical idea.

Evaluating a life in the long term, as in a funeral encomium, we might call a person a "good man" and a "good woman" simply to convey that they made it a habit to abide by some narrow list of moral maxims, such as the Ten Commandments. That would not be wrong, exactly, but in many cases, it significantly mischaracterizes the praise we are giving the dearly departed. Clearly, we are not merely saying that they followed some rules. We are saying that they had a massively beneficial impact on the world, or at least on everyone around them (in their sphere of influence). They made the lives of everyone they touched at least a little bit better: you have heard that said of people. Are you rather envious when you hear that? I am. I think many of us are. We have moral ambitions, and when we hear this said of a deceased person, we think: "She succeeded. Will I?"

Who does not want to be good in that sense? Maybe you say, "Well, I do not work in soup kitchens or teach kids to read; I build skyscrapers" (or whatever). Indeed. And if your skyscrapers are excellent and help many people, are you not rightly honored for your contribution to society? Have you not done good? I think so. There are, after all, many ways to improve the lives of those around you. There is a division of highly moral labor. Modern industrial society shares work in many ways, and helping the helpless is of course not the only beneficial role to play, as important as that is.

"She left the world a better place than she found it"—that we can say such things about our life's work, or about how we treated others, rightly strikes many of us as encapsulating what the purpose of life is. Funerals as well as near brushes with death sometime inspire us to re-examine our lives in broad strokes, to evaluate whether our lives really have meaning. There are lessons to be gleaned from the examination of a life lived "in full." In the ancient Greek apothegm, "Count no man happy until he is dead."

In a speech, I argued that what makes it difficult for young people (and some older people, e.g., those undergoing a personal crisis) to figure out the meaning of life, or what they should do with their lives, is the uncertainty involved in deciding how we can best impact the world. This is inherently hard to predict; there are too many variables and too many unknowns. When you are starting life, you naturally want to know the greatest impact you can have on the world. Perhaps a good way to view this is by speculating about what you want your funeral encomium to contain. But there is no easy way to know whether it is possible to get "from here to there." Thus the difficulty.

Some people, of course, seem only want to "get ahead." They seem to be entirely selfish. Perhaps, but "getting ahead" is only one aspect of their ambition. What really matters is why they want to get ahead or to get power. It all depends on the ends: If you seek wealth in order to get women, or to satisfy your vanity by impressing others, or simply to bend others to your whim, then you are ignoring a great deal in life that is truly valuable. Such people end up losing their loved ones; or they do the popular rather than the correct or right thing, and so the effectiveness of their work suffers; or they have power indeed, but no love and no real achievement. All that said, there are some who are equally ambitious, but whose ambition is perfectly well-grounded: they want to be a doctor because they want to benefit the human race by curing people; they want to be a lawyer because they actually do care about law and justice; they want to be a programmer because they care about making life easier for others through innovation and usability. If I am correct, then your motives are deeply important.

Let me see if I can sum up this answer. It is life, I said at the beginning, that has value in itself. To live and to flourish just is the securing of valuable things and conditions that make life easier, safer, and more pleasant. But it is perfectly natural for us, like all well-functioning animals, to support and affirm life wherever it is found. It is not merely about our own lives, but about life in general, in ever-widening circles of influence beginning with our own lives. So:

What is ultimately valuable? Life itself.

But what sorts of things are objectively good, then? Whatever supports or enhances life.

Whose life? Whose good am I to be aiming at? Your own first of all, but beyond that whoever (and indeed whatever living thing) you can have a positive impact on, i.e., that which is in sphere of influence. This is just right action.

But why should I seek to do right in this sense? You do, as a matter of fact, unless you are broken. It is the nature of life itself to seek that which is good. This is the purpose of life itself.

I know this is apt to seem very inadequate to many people, who were, like those philosophers and philosophy students, expecting me to say something that would motivate them to do good. And here I am saying only that if they are not broken, then they are already so motivated!

Very well. If you are seeking moral inspiration, then let me see if I can offer a bit of that.

Right action is life-affirming, and superlative action is unusually so. In other words, as you do more good, the more wonderfully, deeply, broadly other lives is benefited. We reserve our most unrestricted and enthusiastic praise those who go out of their way to save lives, or to make lives much better. We honor fallen heroes for making the ultimate sacrifice that allows others to go on living, or living freely. We honor inventors who make the lives of millions easier. We honor great leaders, if they lead whole societies to deeply beneficial improvements. We honor messiahs, prophets, scholars, and scientists whose great works orders our thinking and shape our cultures and remove the confusion of the ages, so we can act more correctly and confidently.

At the same time, the folks at home honor honest laborers and providers, for making a home life possible. We honor our mothers and caretakers for making home life easier, more loving, and more pleasant. We even honor our children for their comparatively trivial achievements, because of what a crucial role they play in helping life to go on; and we honor our elders for their long lives of good work and for the wisdom and guidance they can continue to pass on.

At whatever scale, small or great, this is what life is about. What could be more motivating than a life that is productive of all the good things, material, intellectual, and spiritual, that make a richer life possible? Is this not what you are (as I said) already motivated by? You might say, "But that is just life," but I am telling you that a life well lived is a moral life; it is, in Jesus' excellent phrase, "abundant life." We naturally want that, and that is why to be moral.

Perhaps you want to complain that I have still not really answered the question. Why should you not steal if you can get away with it? Why should the holder of the Ring of Gyges not make himself a wealthy king? I will give you two answers.

First, unbroken people avoid such crimes not because crime is not in their self-interest, but because the gains that crime provides do not make up for the fact that it simply gets in the way of, and indeed puts at grave risk, so many more important things in life. They put at risk the very purpose of life. They will make your life not only chaotic, but also meaningless. Law-abiding citizens around the world and throughout the ages are not dupes, as criminals sometimes say; they are the wise ones. They have known all this and lived by it. What I say is simply a matter of common sense to them.

The second answer requires that we examine evil in more depth. Some thieves will not find any of this satisfactory. What about those students of mine who declared they would run rampant if society broke down? I seem to be implying that we all, because it is "natural," seek to do well; and that, of course, seems obviously false. There are bad people out there, no doubt. Indeed, evil people exist. (I have a blog post explaining what I mean by evil.) So is it my claim, perhaps, that those people are confused, thinking they do good when they do evil? Or are they good sometimes and evil sometimes? But is that really possible, on my theory?

The simple and uncontroversial observation that some behavior is normal does not entail that abnormal behavior does not exist. It only requires that we produce an explanation of what makes behavior normal or abnormal. I have already explained what makes life-affirming, life-enhancing action normal. But what exactly is abnormal about evil people?

I have already said that bad people are broken. They are not functioning properly. I do not mean that they are mentally ill; they might be sane enough. Evil people are broken in a specific way. I mean they have lost the natural desire to benefit the life around them. They are not merely bad but evil if they have contempt for life itself.

There are people who are so broken, indeed, often because they have been so abused (and were unable to recover), that they go through life filled with spite, contempt, black cynicism about anything held up as important or true, anything beautiful, anything innocent, anything showing great promise. They are so broken that they are motivated to do quite the opposite of what I claim is the "natural purpose in life." They are prepared to throw their lives away and, if they can, to ruin others' lives in the process. Such people do exist.

They are most nihilistic elements of society. Nihilism is a much darker concept than many people in our cynical society seem to think. "Nihilism" in general means the position of rejecting value per se, but that then means rejecting everything that is, in fact, good for us. Such nihilism comes in degrees. You might be nihilistic with respect to art or certain (say) Christian values you think are bourgeois, while retaining a firm grasp on the value of human life and property. But there are people who are even more broken, who see no special value about human life, property, law, happiness, or anything that well-functioning people naturally value. Such nihilists can act on such their contempt for human values by taking action that is entirely unguided by such ends, or that is hostile to those ends. When they do, we should avoid them, improve them where we can, and punish them if necessary.

I have not answered all moral questions in this essay; I have not tried to. I have not even finished answering the question, "Why be moral?" to my own complete satisfaction. Long books can be and are written about the subject. All I hope to have done here is to sketch a theory and an explanation that, if you did not have anything better, you could use to understand why you should seek to do as many good, life-enhancing things in the world as you can, while avoiding bad, life-defeating things. In the process, I hope I have helped those readers (most people, in my experience) who have a very limited view of what morality is really about to embrace a much broader view. After all, if to "be moral" is to live well, with everything that entails, then the scope of morality is life itself, and you should be moral to live most abundantly.

Against Cannibalism

I'm going to go out on a limb and declare that eating people is wrong.

Psychologists Jared Piazza and Neil McClatchie, however, appear to believe this position is just a little bit unenlightened. If we are clever, as they are, then we will not be too dogmatic in our aversion to human flesh. That, at least, is what seems to be the upshot of their recent article, which appeared in The Conversation and then in the Daily Mail.

For my part, I happen to think that certain things, like murder and pedophilia, deserve to remain taboos. Apparently, I must now explain why cannibalism, too, should continue to be taboo.

The fact that I must defend the taboo, apparently, is further evidence that we are struggling with an insidious antivitist tendency in the West: that is, there is a strange contempt for the value of human life. As I argued in an earlier blog post, instances of antivitism include support for active euthanasia for the depressed (even for teenage girls); enthusiasm for late-term ("partial birth" and "after birth" abortion) and even infanticide; antinatalism, the view that it is harmul for a human being to be brought into existence; and the more radical elements of the childfree movement. When I wrote that blog post, I hadn't considered that there might be some silly-clever academics who would test the daring, edgy position that eating people might, perhaps, be OK.

Let me roll up my sleeves, then, and see what can be said in reply to an article titled "Is it time to drop the cannibalism taboo?" I'd tell the authors to "bite me," but I'm afraid they might take me literally.

Our intrepid authors begin by listing certain species that eat their own: tadpoles, gulls, pelicans, various insects, rodents, bears, lions, and yes, our fellow primates (famously, chimps). Very well. And what conclusion are we to draw from this? It's not clear. They don't draw any clear conclusion. They draw, instead, a contrast:

For humans though, cannibalism is the ultimate taboo. In fact, our aversion to cannibalism is so strong that consent and ethics count for little.

This is a very curious thing to say, however. Is it supposed to be clever or funny? As far as I can tell, looking at the context, the authors seem to be in earnest. "Consent and ethics count for little"? The implication is that consent—as in a person saying, "Sure, go ahead, eat my finger" or "eat my dead body" or "have a cupful of my blood"—ought to count for something. That's odd enough, but much odder is the bizarre implication that ethics might counsel us to eat humans, that the taboo against cannibalism might represent a rejection of ethics.

This is bizarre in two ways: first, there's the utterly bizarre, and even horrific, suggestion that ethics would have us eat people; second, there's the casual and even smug wording or tone, as if this were a clever movie review and not about devouring people. If it's supposed to be funny, I don't get the joke.

The problematic tone only gets worse. Our authors go on to describe a thought experiment they had experimental subjects do:

In one of our own experiments, participants were asked to consider the hypothetical case of a man who gave permission to his friend to eat parts of him once he died of natural causes.

Participants read that this occurred in a culture that permitted the act, that the act was meant to honour the deceased, and that the flesh was cooked so that there was no chance of disease. 

Despite this careful description, about half of the participants still insisted that the act was invariably wrong.

"Imagine that," seems to be the authors' implication, or so I imagine. "We explained that the person was dead, that a culture regards eating him as honorable, and that the flesh was cooked and germs destroyed. But they still thought consuming human flesh was wrong! How curiously narrow-minded!"

The authors don't say that, though. They refuse to be pinned down. They leave it a mystery what they really think themselves.

Another thing they don't say, though I would expect sane scholars to, is: "Of course, philosophers and priests throughout history have had a thing or two say about the value of human life, so their position is defensible." But no. The only justification of the taboo against cannibalism they are willing to entertain is one based on "essentialism."

To introduce this idea, the authors speak about the famous case of the crash in South America in which some survivors ate bodies of the dead in order to stay alive:

One survivor, Roberto Canessa, felt that to eat his fellow passengers would be 'stealing their souls' and descending towards 'ultimate indignity' – despite recalling that in the aftermath of the crash, he like many others had declared that he would be glad for his body to aid the communal survival mission.

The tragic anecdote above illuminates why humans are the exception to the animal cannibal rule. Our capacity to represent the personalities of the living and the departed is unparalleled. 

One does not get the impression that the authors quite approve of Roberto Canessa's theory: note the distancing scare quotes around "stealing their souls." Modern scientists do not believe in souls, much less stealing souls. One suspects, beyond that, they they do not put much stock in the idea of placing an unusually special value on human lives.

Why do I say that? They go on:

This deep connection between personhood and flesh can mean that careful reasoning in certain situations over the merits of cannibalism is overridden by our feelings of repulsion and disgust.

Here their views begin to come out. Careful reasoning—which only sophisticated academics such as themselves are capable of, no doubt—is overridden not by morality, not by concern for the value of human life, not by concern for the soul (our own or that of the consumed), but by repulsion and disgust.

I believe disgust has become a bête noire for the academic left, ever since it became common knowledge that conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals. Disgust strikes us as an irrational, even an involuntary physiological reaction. This use of language (the section of the essay is titled "Categorical Disgust") thus allows the authors to imply that a sort of deep-seated irrationality lies beneath our resistance to eating people.

Of course, they wouldn't have to be committed to that view. After all, murder and rape and pedophilia disgust every decent person, as well, but there are independent reasons to think they are deeply wrong. Disgust isn't the only reason for our aversion to such crimes.

So maybe Piazza and McClatchie will, reasonably, avoid implying that it is only disgust that would explain why we avoid cannibalism. But no:

So why our disgust for human flesh but not that of other animals? Philosopher William Irvine has us imagine a ranch that raises plump babies for human consumption, much like we fatten and slaughter cattle for beef. 

Irvine suggests that the same arguments we apply to justify the killing of cows also apply to babies. For example, they wouldn't protest, and they're not capable of rational thought.

Although Irvine is not seriously advocating eating babies, the scenario is useful for illuminating our bias when considering the ethics of cannibalism. 

This passage pisses me off. I find it repellent and disgusting—and yes, my reaction is physiological, because I get sick to my stomach reading it through—though I can certainly articulate why. The authors actually suggest that there is merely a bias against cannibalism, and that, if we lacked this bias, if we were more enlightened, then we would have no more objection to eating babies as to eating cows. Really—a couple of university researchers make this implication, and the Daily Mail thought it was a good idea to publish an article that says so.

Well, biases are of course unfair and unreasoning; they indicate bigotry and prejudice. So, do our noble and eminently rational authors explain why the firm stance against eating babies amounts to little more than a bias?

Of course they do:

From a young age, we tend to think about categories, such as humans or cows, as having an underlying reality or 'essence' that cannot be observed directly but that gives a thing its fundamental identity. 

For example, humans are intelligent and rational thinkers, we have personalities and a desire to live, and we form bonds with each other.

This psychological essentialism is a useful shortcut to guide our expectations and judgements about members of the category – but it doesn't work so well when the typical qualities of that category don't apply, for example upon death. 

You see, if you think eating babies is much worse than eating cows, it is because you buy into a very Aristotelian-sounding folk theory that small human beings have a mysterious "essence" that gives them their fundamental identity qua valuable human beings.

Essentialism, like disgust, is another bête noire of the academic left. If you find yourself saddled with essentialism, then rest assured: you have been dismissed. That's because the idea itself is rather ridiculous. Essentialism, as it is typically understood, isn't just that categories have defining properties (as when Aristotle says that the definition of human being is 'rational animal'). It is that those properties represent some strange metaphysical beastie that, as our authors put it, "cannot be observed directly."

But it is, surely, a straw man: who believes in essences in 2019? A few philosophers, maybe, and some Catholics theologians impressed with Aristotle. But Piazza and McClatchie actually claim that ordinary people find cannibalism abhorrent due to some essentialist views they hold. That doesn't even pass the chuckle test.

But probably, they are trying to put a patina of folk science on religion. While pretty much nobody believes in essences, lots of people, like the aforementioned Roberto, do believe in souls. Perhaps these psychologists just lack the philosophical or theological sophistication to distinguish between essences and souls; and probably, they would have the precise same objections to souls. Souls, too, might not appear observable, and they depart upon death, i.e., when "the typical qualities of that category [a human being with a soul] don't apply, for example upon death." Of course, one view that is apt to be commonly cited for the abhorrence of eating babies (aside from the murder and infanticide thing) is that babies are held to have souls.

Belief in souls doesn't require essentialism, but it is perhaps a fair representation of a certain religious attitude toward baby eating. But what if you don't believe in souls, as I am pretty damned sure our brave authors do not? Does that mean you must resign yourself to accepting the inevitable baby meat farms in some horrific "enlightened" future?

Besides, even if you do believe in a soul that has a special attachment to a body, and that's why you don't ingest those bodies while alive, what's to stop you from ingesting them after they're dead?

To answer that, I will finally leave this silly article and offer up a theory of my own. Mind you, I fully support the taboo: we don't need no steekin' theories to justify our absolute abhorrence of the very topic. (My wife refused to discuss it after about two minutes. I couldn't really blame her.) But I find that, over and over, we find the obvious ignored and called into question, and it is useful (and philosophically interesting) to articulate the obvious and defend it. As I said, I've already defended the obvious views that murder and pedophilia are evil, and also that human life has inherent, special value and that purpose of education is the getting of knowledge. I rather like defending obvious but important truths against idiotic attacks on them.

Cannibalism is wrong because it sets a very bad precedent. If anybody gets a taste for human flesh, they are a threat to the rest of us.

Decent people (unlike some philosophers with idiotic thought experiments) are inclined to wildly irrational hostility toward baby-eaters. (Well, let's face it, I'm not sure any restraint on hostility toward baby-eaters is irrational.) Why? Because the last thing we want to have to deal with is a society with baby-eaters in it.

But how about corpse-eaters, when permission is obtained in advance and some bizarre society I'm sure I've never heard of thinks it's respectful toward the dead? It's the same thing: we don't want corpse-eaters stalking among us because we don't want them getting any ideas about bodies that are still alive. It's very much like concern over drawn child molestation: that's abhorrent to decent people because people with a taste for it might move on to child porn, which is absolutely horrific because its production requires truly horrible crimes being done upon children. You just don't go there.

This, I suggest, is ultimately what fills us (all of us) with horror when we hear of or merely contemplate the idea of eating babies, body parts, or fresh corpses. We might have religious ideas about the soul in addition, for sure; if life, for you, is a holy thing only to be disposed of by God, the idea of consuming the body is surely sacrilegious. But the threat, the monstrous threat—the shiver-inducing Hannibal Lecter threat—of someone going around looking for people to eat is why it is a no-no for absolutely everyone.

It was only in researching this post that I came across news reports from 2015 that some people drink human blood. Described as "real vampires," people do it for health reasons (which are reasons I would avoid the practice, but never mind). Though the BBC claims (citing one such vampire) that there are "thousands" of Americans who regularly drink blood, I would venture to say that the vast majority of people, people I would describe "sane people," would find the practice utterly abhorrent. And why? My theory explains this very handily: nobody wants to live around vampires. I for one don't want to have to worry whether someone is coveting my blood.

Even worse is the suggestion one can find in a few articles, like this Vice article, that the blood of young people is highly desirable to the very rich: Peter Thiel apparently touts the health benefits of transfusing the blood of youths into his own veins, and he avidly follows studies in China of this very thing. Well. Not only do I not want to have to worry about vampires, I don't want to have to defend children, especially poor children (think third world orphans), against amoral, soulless, wealthy vampires.

This sounds like fiction, but the BBC and Vice inform me that my fears may be well-founded.

I hope that my simple theory of why eating people is wrong, and the above excursus about the evils of drinking blood, will put Piazza and McClatchie's article into perspective. It turns out to matter that we have the right reasons to reject their insanity. If we rely only on "essentialism" or harm to the soul, we might lack the intellectual ammunition to ward off the proliferation of vampires.

In the end—after dryly considering the merits of eating corpses to ward off third world famine—our authors explain that they're still against cannibalism:

For now, we're as happy as you are to continue accepting the 'wisdom of repugnance': human flesh, despite its biochemical similarities to that of other mammals, shall remain firmly off limits.

This might seem droll, but I find it unsatisfactory and am not at all convinced of its sincerity. After all, the authors suggested over and over that resistance to eating human flesh is irrational and rooted in mere biology or superstition, that it is "natural" (since savage animals do it), and that it might even be beneficial.

The authors do not consider for one moment, however, the fact that cannibalism is a human action, that human actions typically take place in the context of habit, and that morality may be understood as the recommendability of good habits (which we bless as virtues or principles) and the deplorability of bad habits (vices).

For some strange reason, those writing about ethics often speak in terms of specific, often highly contrived or unusual cases. But that is not how we approach matters of personal policy in our daily lives. We decide, rather, whether we want to take some action of some general type. Peter Thiel decides not whether to sample a bit of blood just now, but whether the habit or policy of drinking blood in general is recommendable.

That is the sort of question we should be asking ourselves, too: are there any circumstances, perhaps beyond the direst and most absurdly unusual emergencies (which basically never happen), in which we should consider ingesting human flesh? The answer, clearly, is no; the reason is that this would give evil, unbalanced, and insane people a taste for it, and perhaps especially for the flesh of the very young. The horrors are so great while the need basically nonexistent.

Even less could I seriously countenance the idea of young blood (or, God forbid, flesh) for the very wealthy: the moral and ultimately criminal dangers are much too great just to give the super-rich a slight edge in health and youthful appearance. Indeed, nothing could be more evil, more contemptuous of the humanity of others, than the willingness to use wealth to directly consume the flesh of a child, especially if the child dies, or if children in general are put at greater risk.

There are some things that civilized societies just don't do. Indeed they are taboos, and cannibalism certainly deserves to remain one.

Why I haven't read Lolita

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 enforcementa 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.

A Theory of Evil

For a long time, the precise nature of evil eluded me. But extended, dark contemplation of the case of Jeffrey Epstein and his associates has helped to bring the nature of evil into focus. Mind you, this is not a topic in philosophy I have studied much at all, so I have no idea if I am recapitulating any of the theories of evil currently on offer. I make no claim to originality, and the following will be brief and provisional.

Evil is contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others. It will help, before I elaborate this definition, let me clarify what evil is not.

First, evil is not contempt for this or that person; contempt can be deserved. We all have deep contempt for Epstein; but he deserves it richly. Evil 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, in the sense in which I understand it (maybe I'm mistaken), 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 still have principles and ideals that we fall far short of; their principles are what make them misanthropes. They are very impressed with the idea that we are all sinners. 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. Evil is quite different, as we will see.

I have come to the conclusion that a proper understanding of evil as well as of goodness—i.e., understanding this sort of contempt—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 many people have such contempt. I am writing this essay partly because 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. Over the years I have been increasingly impressed by the strength of 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 admitted was Dostoyevsky's Idiot; a trusting nature, unwilling to accept the existence of evil, was Prince Myshkin's 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 might say they treat others not as ends in themselves but as mere means to their ends. That 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.

But what do I mean by the key phrase "contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others"? How do I distinguish this from mere contempt of this or that 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 because that is only due to poor work. The stereotypical mean girl in high school has contempt for "ugly girls" and "nerds," but that is only for those features. We won't 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.

So far I have been vague in my description of evil in a certain sense, i.e., in the varying scope 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 (or pedophilia), both of which I have analyzed at some length a few years ago.

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 the righteous demand for justice. When the revenge motive occurs to an extreme degree across families, clans, and gangs, we have a blood feud, which at least used to be 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 to positive desire to harm or exterminate.

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. But 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 are not evil, and that is because they retain a basic respect for the enemy's humanity. I wonder as a non-military person: is war psychologically devastating for very good people, unusually so, because it requires they kill people they respect?

One very broad 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. "Partial 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 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 pedophilia) but with a great deal of 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: contempt for humanity.

The existence of evil is simply hard for some of us to accept, and that is precisely because we can't imagine anyone having such contempt for innocent life. It was only after wrestling with the Epstein case—only confronting the increasing evidence from a case in my own lifetime, of monsters callously, deliberately, joyously violating innocence, demonstrating extreme contempt for the human life in their sway—that I was able to begin to believe it wholeheartedly.

A modern impulse, which looks (but is not necessarily) naïve, is to be highly suspicious of the concept of evil. It strikes "sophisticated" people, sometimes, as old-fashioned, 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 very real and present mental states of individual evil people.

This modern conceptualization, that the concept of evil is 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.

Indeed, in the last few generations—picking up in popularity in the mid-20th century—clinical, merely descriptive, even 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 be part of the explanation for 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.

We have been allowing evil to thrive. We must begin to stop it now, more vigorously. If necessary, we should 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.

On the clash of civilizations

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:

  1. 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.?
  2. Is it preferable—if it is possible—that all the world share the same culture?
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

Why pedophilia is evil

However it is defined, pedophilia is wrong; but beyond that, it is evil. In a deeply disturbing trend in the last few decades, pedophilia apologists have tried to soft-pedal the condemnation of this horrible crime and criminal ideation. They are very wrong. Here's why.

Prefatory notes—I wrote the first draft of the following essay about the horror of pedophilia in late 2016 or early 2017 and posted it on Medium and Quora, where it got quite a bit of attention. Since I deleted my accounts on those sites last winter, this essay (and a number of others) have been unavailable. But I want this and a number of other essays to keep circulating, so I'll be posting them here on my blog. The following essay in particular seems important in light of the Jeffery Epstein imbroglio.

But it wasn't the Epstein case, or any particular case, that originally led me to write about pedophilia. It was, rather, a long-standing interest in applied ethics in general, together with the (to me) jaw-droppingly incredible fact that people defend pedophiles. (As was the case with philosopher G.E. Moore, a lot of my philosophical writing is basically in reaction to absurd positions that other people take.) When I first encountered this rhetorical phenomenon in 2002—that was when pedophiles first descended upon Wikipedia—I simply couldn't believe it. My naive incredulity disappeared through repeated encounters with pedophiles in connection with Wikipedia. In fact, I came to believe I had an obligation to do at least a little something about it, which is why I reported Wikimedia Commons' pedophilia pages to the FBI in 2010 (which took no action that I know of).

All that said, this is no more a pet cause than any others in applied ethics. I have also written about the evils of murder, racism, antivitism (a neologism of mine), censorship, violations of privacy, and other topics in applied ethics. I especially like my essay on "Our Moral Abyss."

I have rewritten the essay slightly, and follow it with some replies that I made to comments by real, live pedophiles (they're online and quite shameless, if you didn't know) that I hope will clarify my arguments.

First, let’s talk about what the word “pedophilia” means. People who write about pedophilia insist that the word means (a) sexual attraction to prepubescent children (or, sometimes, any children below the age of consent). But, of course, people often use the word to mean (b) actual sex with children, i.e., what is more correctly described as child sexual abuse or (these mean the same) child rape.

I want to state very clearly and defend the thesis that pedophilia in both senses is not just “bad” but deeply evil. This is not a thesis about either psychology or the law, but instead about morality.

It’s distressing how poorly the evil of pedophilia seems to be understood. So let’s try to get very clear, beginning with (b) actual sex with children.

Child sexual abuse is an act so damaging and degrading, and at the same time shockingly selfish, that it deserves to be called evil, if anything is evil: for some moments of pleasure, the adult causes the child life-long trauma.

The moral horror of child sexual abuse

Sex with children is a horrific evil because it traumatizes the child for life. In this regard, it may be compared to torture and rape of adults; even after the act is over, it continues to wound. It fills the child with undeserved shame and low self-esteem for life. For some adult survivors, this pain becomes so unbearable that they take their own lives. It permanently alters the child’s understanding of sex. Some suffer (and that is the right word) from nymphomania, and some become completely closed off to all sexual relationships. Horrifyingly, it also makes victims more likely to be abusers when they grow up.

Child sexual abuse is an act so damaging and degrading, and at the same time shockingly selfish, that it deserves to be called evil, if anything is evil: for some moments of pleasure, the adult causes the child life-long trauma.

I want to assert very clearly and forcefully that anyone who presumes to evaluate the morality of child sexual abuse without discussing the horrible facts about these consequences is, by that omission, perpetuating the evil. I would argue that every discussion of the subject should make unequivocally clear that, however “pedophilia” is defined, sex with underaged children is a horrific evil and is intolerable. This would not be so important if pedophilia were widely understood to be a terrible evil, if it did not have its shameless advocates; but since such advocates do exist, it is incumbent on the rest of us to remind those who might be at all confused on the point of these basic facts.

Another shockingly incorrect stance on this topic is that sex with prepubescent children is wrong only when the child “doesn’t consent.” This needs only one reply: the trauma described above will happen whether or not “consent” seems to be given by the child. And, of course, children are not capable of consenting, because they don’t understand the nature of the sex act or its consequences. Anyone using such phrases as “if the child consents” is using the language of pedophilia apology and is very highly suspect.

There are other reasons why sex with children is wrong as well, and they bear briefer mention. Children can be physically injured by sex. It can result in pregnancy among girls as young as 12 (sometimes younger), and in STDs among both boys and girls, which only compounds the horror. Child rape is one of the most egregious violations of the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit. It deeply damages families and family life. And of course it is against the law, and age of consent laws exist for very good reasons, as I hope I’ve explained.

An evil mental disorder

Some writers demand that everyone use the words “pedophilia” and “pedophile” according to senses defined by psychiatrists. But, just as we may opt not to extend our everyday use of “fruit” to tomatoes, even though biologists tell us they are fruit, so we may opt to continue to use these words in their popular senses.

As a philosopher, i.e., someone trained in the definition of concepts and argumentation over how to apply words, I want to advise the opposite: you may and should continue to use the word as you always have, at least in most contexts. A pedophile, in this popular sense, is someone who sexually abuses children, or who tries to, or who wants to. To be clear, I’m not saying that these ought to be the scientific or clinical uses of the terms. I’m saying that the everyday use, which I am discussing here, need not mirror the clinical use.

The medicalization of a condition clearly does not preclude its moral evaluation.

But now let’s do talk about the clinical sense: the desire to have sex with children. This, too, is a moral evil.

Some will bristle at that mere claim. They act as if the fact that psychologists write about, and treat, pedophilia means that, since pedophilia is just a medical condition, it is off-limits for moral evaluation. This argument is so obviously fallacious that it actually serves better as a reductio of the premise; in other words, the medicalization of a condition clearly does not preclude its moral evaluation.

Others will say that mere desires obviously can't be morally evaluated. Admittedly, among the people who write about this subject, it is a less popular stance to say the desire and not just the act is evil. But it is worth pointing out that, if you were to take a poll — I couldn’t find any, probably because it seems so obvious — you would discover that the vast majority of people find the desire to have sex with children to be very bad indeed, and I’m guessing most people would have no objections to placing the label “evil” on it.

I am not saying this is an argument for the claim that desire for sex with children is evil. But it puts in context the frankly bizarre and disturbing practice of some to treat pedophilia as merely a psychiatric disorder, as if it were not a very deeply serious problem for other people as well. Let us grant that pedophilia, in the sense of desire for sex with children, is indeed a psychiatric disorder; indeed, there seems nothing well-ordered about it. But most of us simply couldn’t care in the slightest that it is a psychiatric disorder, i.e., we don’t care that there is something wrong with the brains of pedophiles, except insofar as such people pose a threat to our children. Pedophilia as a disorder per se rightly strikes us as a threat, and such a monstrous threat that it is evil.

So, yes, well spotted, pedophilia is a disorder. But that does not stop us from condemning it as something quite evil, not just a clinical condition like, say, high blood pressure. I do so condemn it, and so should we all.

Mind you, I don’t mean to say I have absolutely no sympathy whatsoever for the psychological condition of a person who wakes up one day finding himself wanting to boink little boys and girls. It is, rather, that I greatly prioritize the health of families and communities far above whatever pain an illicit desire might cause such a person. In fact, the priority of the former is so much greater that I can say that the only significant reason that most of us need care about the mental health of a pedophile is that, through caring, we might perhaps prevent child sexual abuse. There is no other important reason.

If this still isn’t clear, think of it this way. I suppose there are people who want very badly to rape women. They fantasize about it, they watch rape porn, they might have come close at times. Some have actually done it, although others have never done it. Call such a person a rapeophile. (Arguably, an extreme form of a DSM-5 category, sexual sadism disorder.) Now, if pedophilia is a mental disorder, I think it is safe to say that rapeophilia is one too. To be sure, being a rapeophile might cause a person great mental anguish; it certainly should. But in this situation, whom do I care more about: the rapeophile, or women who might possibly be in danger from the rapeophile? Obviously, the latter — even if the rapeophile has never acted on his desires.

How can pedophilia be evil if is beyond a person’s control?

But, some critics will say smugly, you're missing an obvious objection: how can pedophilia be evil if is beyond a person’s control? The short answer is that it’s not entirely beyond a person’s control. But let’s back up a bit.

As a philosophy instructor for many years, I taught undergraduates the common maxim that one cannot be responsible if one lacks freedom; if we ought to do something, or not, then it must be the case that we are free to do it, or not. How can we be obligated to do something that isn’t in our power?

When psychiatrists inform us that pedophilia is a mental disorder and when certain (I think quite contemptible) activists insist that pedophiles cannot control their desires, these claims are sometimes used draw the definitely false conclusion that pedophilia, in the psychiatric sense, is not bad.

Desires and compulsions are not unalterable facts of nature.

I deny the premise. I claim that pedophilia, or the desire to have sex with children, can be controlled. Alcoholism too is a mental disorder and it can be controlled, albeit with great difficulty. That is why I maintain that alcoholism is quite morally bad. Many people—many recovering alcoholics—agree wholeheartedly with me. All acknowledge at least that it is an addiction, and few would object to the good advice that we should not allow ourselves to sink into that awful swamp before it gets that bad. Indeed, I would say, we bear a huge obligation to ourselves to avoid it. But admittedly, once we are addicted, it becomes more understandable if we do not heroically and suddenly de-addict ourselves. Still, we also bear a very heavy burden to lift ourselves out of addiction as well as we can, and, after the fact, we can still be blamed for allowing ourselves to become addicted. We will bear this burden until the addiction no longer afflicts us; and then we will still bear the burden of not letting ourselves sink back into it.

Desires and compulsions are not unalterable facts of nature. That's a fact.

And this fact is, as it turns out, a deeply important point that must not be passed over lightly, much less dismissed. It is entirely unrealistic—as well as cynical and corrupting—to deny the adjustability of desire. After all, a great deal of morality and psychiatry both, as well as rehabilitation in criminal justice, are concerned with adjusting unwelcome desires. To treat desires and compulsions as unchangeable forces of nature is essentially to give up on moral improvement, psychiatric recovery, and criminal rehabilitation.

Universal experience teaches that intense desires do not simply arrive full-blown in our heads. They creep in, as it were, experienced as mere possibilities. We consider them, perhaps briefly, musing. If something is quite taboo — for example, murder, sex with a sibling, or using the “n” word — then most of us will drop the idea immediately, and the desire has little chance to germinate.

Let’s suppose there is a person who, for whatever reason, has unusually weak self-control. If this person finds himself with a desire, he has no filters to rein it in; it doesn’t occurs to him that he should not reject it. Instead, he nurses his desire. He thinks about it. He considers and discusses with himself; he imagines; he plans, but without acting on the plans.

Suppose that person is a pedophile.

The pedophile then, finally, decides that he has a problem, that it might be wrong for him to have these desires. Is such a person not morally culpable, foolish at least if not actually evil, for allowing such desires to fester unchecked? Why wouldn’t he be? Think about any illicit or undesirable desire you might have had in the past — for too much porn, dessert, alcohol, drugs, game time, or whatever your vice might be. It can be hard to stop yourself from indulging in bad habits. But do you not also remember when you developed those bad habits, and when you could have much more easily reined them in?

Why should the desire for sex with children be any different? Don't just claim that it is different; explain very carefully how and why it is different. It isn't.

Someone might argue that I am comparing bad habits like overeating or drinking too much alcohol — and those are actions — with an undesirable desire, which the pedophile we’re talking about doesn’t act on. If he never indulges the desire, why think the mere desire is bad?

This is a fair question, but there is a clear answer. The thoughts are bad, of course, because people who lack the self-control to order their thoughts often lack the self-control to restrain the behavior that the desire would lead to. We do not leave children alone with people who confess that they have pedophilic desires, because desires might lead to action.

The desire is horrific because the action is horrific. Would we not also be horrified by someone confessing he thinks constantly about raping women? I certainly would be.

This is the main reason, then, that pedophilia in the clinical sense is horrifically evil: it can, and sometimes does, lead to a horrifically evil action. It is idle and sophomoric to insist that, after all, it might not lead to that action. A person who lets such an evil desire fester and grow strong has for that very reason demonstrated a lack of self-control. The risk is significant, and it is a risk of a great evil.

The desire is horrific because the action is horrific. Would we not also be horrified by someone confessing he thinks constantly about raping women? I certainly would be.

Let me consider one final reply. What if someone claims to have this desire but that it is fully under control — that he would never rape a child, and would only ever fantasize. Putting aside worries about the risk, surely mere fantasizing hurts no one.

Well, no; it is not fantasizing per se that makes pedophilia so evil. It is, first and foremost, the risk. And anyone who is so out-of-control as to permit these feelings to fester in himself is a risk, so far as the rest of us know, no matter what he may say. And while the fantasizing might not hurt anyone, it certainly does increase the risk.

Pedophilic feelings have other ill effects. They can cause someone to go looking for child pornography, which creates a market for actual child rape. Even drawn child molestation can increase the chances of a desire for the real thing, thereby creating a market. After all, if a pedophile enjoys looking at drawn pictures of children being molested, surely he or she might get even more excitement from actual photographs.

It is also an undesirable desire because the pedophile must never act on it. It is, for that reason, in addition to be horrifically evil, also pointless.

Let me clarify one last point. In this section I’ve been arguing that pedophilia, considered simply as a desire for sex with children, is horrifically evil. But I am not saying that psychiatrists or clergy or others who are working directly with pedophiles should be highly judgmental. I have no opinion on that; I suppose psychiatrists should do whatever in their clinical experience reduces the disorder fastest and most permanently, while remaining humane, of course.

Stop the pedophilia apology

If you look online at discussions of pedophilia, one of the first things you will read about it is not how evil child sexual abuse is. Instead, you will read that pedophilia is just a feeling, and feelings can’t be controlled, so pedophiles aren’t bad. The fact that this is the popular narrative horrifies me, and I think it should horrify you. The narrative is not only quite wrong, for reasons I’ve already explained, it is also quite dangerous.

Even those who agree that sex with children is a great evil unwittingly contribute to the problem, if they speak as if pedophilic desires were unalterable facts of nature. When a behavior seems to spring from a desire or a psychiatric diagnosis, modern thinkers are in the unfortunate habit of treating the desire or diagnosis as, indeed, incapable of change, when they certainly are not.

There’s a funny thing about free will: the more we believe that something is in our control, the more control we have over it. By contrast, the more we believe that something is out of our control, the less we will be inclined to do anything about it. It is as if a belief in free will gives us free will.

Therefore, I’m afraid that those who characterize pedophilia as an unchangeable desire are actually directly contributing to the problem. It would be like telling alcoholics that they cannot escape their alcoholism. If they believed that, then why would they even try? And just imagine saying that aloud to "rapeophiles": "Too bad you have a desire to rape women. Now that you have it, make sure you don't act on it." We can't imagine anyone with such a complacent attitude in the #MeToo age. Why countenance such an attitude toward those who desire to rape children? Are children less worthy of protection than women?

If your illicit desires are unchangeable, if you bear no responsibility for them, then why fight them?

Heeding this message — and also horrifically — many pedophiles regard their condition as just “another sexual orientation” that may be responsibly indulged (i.e., only in fantasy). One can find a sympathetic group for practically anything online, including pedophilia. I’m sorry to report that, in my experience, pedophilia propagandists are online, active, and emboldened.

Pedophilia must never be normalized. Have no compunctions about calling it evil; it is important that we do call it evil; we prevent this evil from spreading by identifying it as such.

Their propaganda is disturbing. Consider: There is the plea that we should “understand” pedophiles first and foremost, often with no attention to the risk to abuse victims. There is the drive to consider a deep moral evil and societal cancer as primarily a matter of clinical study and treatment, with the implication that moral evaluation is somehow unscientific and reactionary. There is, incredibly, “activism” on behalf of “age of consent reform,” as if advocacy on behalf of one of the most horrific crimes imaginable were somehow “progressive.” And there are aggressive demands of tolerance of drawn depictions of child molestation — created by and for pedophiles — because it is a “victimless crime." Never mind that what is depicted is, for all decent people, one of the most heinous of crimes, worse than ordinary rape because it is the rape of children. Never mind that the consumers of such depictions are pedophiles who must restrain themselves from that crime. Such propaganda seeks to normalize pedophilia.

If there is one reason that we should insist that pedophilia constitutes criminal ideation as well as a disorder, and that it is a horrifically evil one at that, it is that we should take a stand against those who would, quite deliberately, try to normalize it. If it is normalized, this will embolden the weak and the malevolent to indulge their desires. We have less to fear from those who are strong-willed enough not to act on their desires. But the world is filled with weak and malevolent people who are only too ready to indulge their desires when an opportunity arises. There is no social or individual benefit to be gained from normalizing pedophilia. If there is one thing that deserves to remain taboo, it is this.

Pedophilia must never be normalized. Have no compunctions about calling it evil; it is important that we do call it evil; we prevent this evil from spreading by identifying it as such.

- fin -

Note: what follows are some replies I made to pedophiles, yes, real-life pedophiles, who commented on the Medium copy of the above article. I'm not including the pedophiles' replies because I did not save copies of what they wrote when I left Medium.

Reply #1

This is a reply to a teenage self-confessed pedophile who said he'd never acted on his feelings and that I was very mean for lacking empathy for his plight.

I’m writing so that unformed minds, who might be confused by the likes of you, won’t be. I have absolutely no desire to have “empathy” for pedophiles, any more than I want to have empathy for rapists. Frankly, I think child molestation is considerably worse than rape of adults; it is a truly horrific crime. “Non-Offending Minor Attracted Persons” is no more legitimate than, and no more deserving of empathy, than “Men Who Want to Violently Rape Women But Restrain Themselves.” The only reason to empathize with such a person’s pedophilia is to prevent crime; and the way that crime might be prevented by empathy is not by making the criminal (or would-be criminal) feel better about their criminal ideation but by coming to understand their patterns, motivations, and other things that allow us to (a) catch and punish criminals and (b) aggressively prevent actual child abuse.

If any teen of mine confessed to being sexually attracted to little children, I would (a) explain in great detail why pedophilia is not just a little bit wrong, but horrifically evil (and probably make them read the essay I wrote, and demonstrate excellent understanding of it) and (b) immediately seek professional help from a therapist who agreed with me that pedophilic desires must be treated as criminal ideation, with a goal of eliminating them as much as possible.

It’s silly and absurd to be accused of having a “look-how-morally-upstanding-I-am” tone as I patiently explain how evil pedophilia is. I have also carefully and patiently explained why murder is wrong, and nobody accused me of being self-righteous. That’s because normal people don’t think they’re particularly great because they don’t commit crime. For normal people, that’s just the baseline.

But I will, of course, show no compunctions about telling pedophiles directly and without regret that you are not just “sick,” but deeply morally corrupt, and I don’t mean a little bit or in a hip and edgy way (like, e.g., drug abuse seems to some people), but in a straightforward your-heart-is-black way. Pedophiles are evil. They don’t need empathy. They need therapy in the way that muggers could use rehabilitation — not because we feel sorry for the pedophiles (or muggers), but because society desperately needs them to refrain from their evil behavior. And the notion that pedophilia is a sexual orientation that needs to be normalized is horrifying and beyond obscene.

Reply #2

This is a reply to someone describing himself as a European graduate student in the humanities, who thought he was being clever by making sophistical replies to the arguments in my essay. These are my rebuttals.

Matt, as you are speaking as a pedophilia apologist, and as you are speaking to someone who believes pedophilia (in both senses defined in my original essay) is evil, you have no credibility or authority. So when you adopt a tone of condescension, you merely come across as ridiculous. I’m still laughing at you; you deserve derision and contempt. And this is why I’m not going to reply to your stupid attempts at zingers; they just make you look creepier.

Here are a few replies:

I wrote: “ 'Non-Offending Minor Attracted Persons' is no more legitimate than, and no more deserving of empathy, than 'Men Who Want to Violently Rape Women But Restrain Themselves.”

You responded, irrelevantly: “Exactly how is it not legitimate? Are you suggesting that it is impossible for a pedophile to control their actions? You’ve already argued that they can in your previous article.”

“Rapeophilia” — defined, say, as the exclusive or predominant desire to rape women — is about as legitimate as pedophilia, defined similarly but with regard to children. So imagine someone came up with “Non-Offending Rape Attracted Persons,” or NORAP, and said the various sorts of things about their desire to rape women that you say with regard to attraction to children. They just need help; they shouldn’t be ostracized; they should be “understood”; don’t judge them as a potential rapists because most of them don’t rape; etc. Well, it’s pretty damn obvious that saying these things in defense of a fictional NORAP category is no different from saying similar things in defense of NOMAPs (i.e., pedophiles). Considering that defense of rapeophilia is utterly illegitimate, we can also say that defense of pedophilia is utterly illegitimate.

Now, I’m glad that you at least pay lip service to the notion that pedophiles can control themselves. But I say more than that they can stop themselves from raping children. I say, furthermore, that they bear a heavy burden to deny and rid themselves of their desire to rape children, which they should have denied and repressed the moment it appeared. Instead, they went with it. It is playing with fire to indulge potential criminals by saying that their desire to rape children is a “sexual orientation” on a par with heterosexuality or homosexuality, by saying that there’s nothing wrong with fantasizing, etc. Imagine a group of people, the worst of whom are regular rapists, who say, “There’s nothing morally wrong with people who can only get off on rape fantasies. They can’t control themselves. We should understand them. Some women actually secretly want to be raped, you know — but of course, we believe rape is very, very wrong. (Except, of course, for the people who think it’s just fine, right?)”

You’re not even nearly as clever as you think you are. You’re an idiot. Your bias in favor of people who commit horrific crimes has made you unable to understand basic reasoning. I don’t have many opinions about the best way to rehabilitate pedophiles. I know I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t generally opine about such things. But I do have an opinion about social mores: it should never be an acceptable part of society to encourage adults to accept within themselves their attraction to children. That is, and should remain, one of the strongest taboos we live by. I don’t know or particularly care what therapists say to pedophiles in their therapy sessions.

I also have an opinion about the goal of therapy is the same as the goal of therapy with rapists or alcoholics or drug addicts: to rid themselves of the desire. In this regard, it’s very, very different than the goal of therapy for homosexuals. Most people think we shouldn’t try to “cure” homosexuals; I’m one who thinks we shouldn’t. In that regard, homosexuality can be regarded as a sexual orientation whereas pedophilia and rapeophilia cannot. Similarly, wine tasting and being a whisky connoisseur can be regarded as more or less healthy pastimes; alcoholism isn’t, and alcoholics bear the heavy burden to rid themselves of their compulsion.

Why murder is evil

Originally posted on Quora, since deleted, and now re-posted here with a few edits. The Quora question was, "Who might you find in the lowest circles of hell?"

If there were a hell, then murderers, particularly mass murderers, would have to occupy the very lowest circle. I think many people do not understand what a horrific crime murder is. This is a shame. So let me explain it.

Frankly, the crime of murder makes all others pale in comparison. The trouble in understanding this is that murder is more "metaphysical" and so its evil, more difficult to comprehend. When a person is dead, nothing else happens to him qua person. Thus the crime of murder seems to have a short shelf life. It takes ten minutes to sharpen the knife, a minute to confront the victim and do the deed, a few hours for the body to be discovered, a year or two for the survivors to grieve, and then life goes on. Some educated idiots even seem committed to the view that, since life is a vale of tears, murderers are doing their victims a favor. For many murder victims, the terror and pain last only for moments; is it really so bad?

But, no. That's not how it is. If you think this way, you probably also don't understand the economic concept of opportunity cost. The evil of murder lies not in the pain of dying and grieving, but in the enormousness of what it deliberately prevents: an entire life.

If you (wrongheadedly) think of life materialistically, as collecting stuff, then consider that murder involves not only robbing a person of all of his current possessions, it also involves robbing him of all possessions he would ever earn and enjoy in the future. The murderer as it were leaves you utterly naked for eternity. He's stolen your money, your house, your car, your jewelry, your computer, your devices, your toys, your clothes--and everything you would have had in the future, too. That's a lot of stuff!

If you think of a life as a series of experiences, many of which are worthwhile in themselves--"peak experiences" and all--then consider that murder involves robbing a person of all the experiences he would have in the future. The murderer as it were locks you in a plain, windowless room forever. All chance at experiencing books, movies, relationships, food, etc., all gone.

If you think of a life as "love," as a collection of meaningful relationships, then consider that murder involves abruptly breaking every single one of those relationships, between parent and child, sibling and sibling, friend and friend, husband and wife. All of them, all at once, never to return. The murderer as it were restrains you from all future dates, outings, time with children and parents, all of it. He has stolen your power to enjoy your parents, your husband or wife, your children, your friends--everyone you know, everyone you will know, everyone you might otherwise have brought into the world. That is truly an incredible loss.

If you think of life as service, as helping others, then consider that murder involves preventing you from helping anyone else, ever again, in any way whatsoever. The poor, sick, ignorant, and powerless, whoever you might have helped, will not be helped, at least not by you. The murderer as it were ties your hands and makes you watch helplessly as others try to shift for themselves even when they can't or don't know how.

If you think of life as the pursuit of meaningful goals, then consider that murder permanently and irrevocably removes a person's ability to achieve anything whatsoever. The murderer as it were chains you to a wall with everything you might want to do far out of reach. The murderer makes every one of your dreams permanently, irrevocably impossible. Imagine how outrageous it would be for someone to come to your dream job and then physically restrain you for five minutes from doing that job. Then imagine someone doing that for the rest of your life. That's what murder does.

There are, of course, some other truly horrific crimes, such as abuse and torture. But murder is worse than abuse. Many abused people go on to live good lives and give life to others. In the end, they would rather have been abused than murdered. Murder is also worse than torture. Think of the war heroes who were tortured even for years, who later went on to have happy families and achieve great things. In the end, they would rather have been tortured than murdered.

The most deadly institution in human history is government; certain heads of state would be at the very bottom. If sheer numbers are what matter, then Stalin, being responsible for more deaths than any single individual in history, would have to be at the very bottom. Mao would be next. Hitler would be third.

Just try to think of everything that these monsters robbed from the world. It's inconceivable.

We should think quite a bit harder about the political, social, and psychological factors that made it possible for such monsters to rise to power.

The Antivitist Trend in the West

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).

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 about 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 shows 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.

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 will never know anything but 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 2019, so I suspect you won't be surprised when I tell you the answer is yes. 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 Tribune reported 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," maintaining that newborns should be permitted to be killed if their mothers don't want them.

Fortunately, the view never really caught on—unless you wanted 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:

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 take the gun away.) Clearly there is. But wherein lies the difference?

There are a couple, 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.

Talk back: Why should we have more restrictions on "harmful" speech on social media?

Dear all,

This is a different sort of blog post.

Rather than me writing yet another essay to you, I want to open the floor to you. I want you to answer something for me. It's like the subreddit "Change My View."

This is aimed specifically at my liberal and progressive friends who are very upset at the social media giants for letting things get so out of hand. See how much of the following applies to you:

You have become increasingly aware of how awful the harassment of women and minorities by the far right has become. You are really, sincerely worried that they have elected Trump, who isn't just a crass clown (many people agree with that) but basically a proto-fascist. You are convinced that Trump must have gotten elected because of the growing popularity of right-wing extremists. They engage in hate speech. Not only is this why Trump was elected, it's why people are constantly at each other's throats today, and why there has been domestic terrorism and mass murder by the right. Therefore, all mature, intelligent observers seem to agree that we need to rein in online hate speech and harmful speech.

I've heard all of this a lot, because I've sought it out in an attempt to understand it—because it freaks me out. Here's the thing: I think it's mostly bullshit. Yes, people (of all political stripes) have gotten nastier, maybe. I didn't vote for Trump and I dislike him. But beyond that, I think the entire line above isn't just annoyingly wrong, it's downright scary. This is largely because I have always greatly valued free speech and this above-summarized mindset has put free speech (and hence other basic liberal democratic/small-r republican values) at risk.

But I'm not going to elaborate my view further now; I mention it only to explain why I want your view first. I'll save an elaboration of my view in a response to you. What I hope you'll do, if you agree with the bold bit above, is to explain your sincere, considered position. Do your best to persuade me. Then, sometime in the next week or two, I'll do my best to persuade you, incorporating all the main points in your replies (assuming I get enough replies).

So please answer: Why should we more aggressively prevent harmful or hate speech, or ban people who engage in such speech, on social media? The "why" is the thing I'm interested in. Don't answer the question, please, if you don't agree with the premise of the question.

Here are some sub-questions you might cover:

  1. Did you used to care more about free speech? What has changed your mind about the relative importance of it?
  2. Do you agree with the claim, "Hate speech is not free speech"? Why?
  3. Exactly where did my "Free Speech Credo" go wrong?
  4. If all you want to say is that "free speech" only restricts government action, and that you don't think corporate actions can constitute censorship, but please also explain any thoughts you have about why it is so important
  5. If you're American and you want Uncle Sam to restrict hate speech, why do you think the law can and should be changed now, after allowing it for so many years? (Surely you don't think Americans are more racist than they were 50 years ago.)
  6. Does it bother you that "hate speech" is very vague and that its application seems to have grown over the years?
  7. If hate speech on the big social media sites bothers you enough to want to get rid of it, what's your stance toward blogs and forums where racists (or people who want to call racists) congregate?
  8. Where should it end, generally speaking? Would you want the National Review banned? Don't just say, "Don't be ridiculous." If that's ridiculous, then where do you draw the line between, for example, banning Paul Joseph Watson from Facebook and using government power to take down a conservative opinion journal?
  9. By the way, do you think it's possible for conservatives and libertarians to be decent people? Honest? Intelligent? Do you think they are all racists? Do you think that articulating all or many conservative or libertarian positions is essentially racist or harmful speech?

Basically, if enough people answer these questions (one or all), I think that'll give me an idea of how your mind actually works as you think this stuff through. This will enable me to craft the most interesting response to you. I want to understand your actual views fully—i.e., not (necessarily) some academic theory, but your real, on-the-ground, down-to-earth views that results in your political stance.