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

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 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. These abhorrent practices normalize pedophilia.

If there is one reason that we should insist that pedophilia is a criminal behavior 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 a European graduate student in the humanities, I think, 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. And this is why I’m not going to reply to your laughable 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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOXxKxwjogM

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.


A Free Speech Credo

I. Free speech is nothing if not offensive.

  1. Free speech just is the right to say offensive things.
  2. Popular, safe speech needs no protection; only unpopular, unsafe speech does.
  3. Free speech needs protection precisely because and to the extent that it bothers, annoys, dismays, infuriates, emotionally wounds—and, yes, offends—other people.
  4. You have the right to offend me, and I have the right to offend you.
  5. I find attacks on free speech deeply offensive.
  6. You have a free speech right to attack the right to free speech.
  7. To oppose free speech is to favor censorship.

II. What free speech is not.

  1. Free speech extends well beyond the First Amendment.
  2. Free speech is a moral right that should be protected by legal rights in all countries on earth.
  3. You do not gain more free speech if you are given a louder megaphone, a larger podium, a bigger audience; but you lose free speech if such things are seized from you by an authority.
  4. It is incoherent to suggest that you win "more" free speech for yourself by silencing your ideological foes.
  5. Free speech never was equivalent to some fair quantity of speech; it was always about whether or not you were being silenced by some authorities.
  6. The appalling ignorance spewed about free speech in the last few decades demonstrates how important it is that we teach philosophy, logic, and especially American civics (or the civics of liberal, open societies) in schools.
  7. Those who do know the issues behind free speech—professors, lawyers, philosophers, historians, journalists—must step up to teach and correct about free speech, or this principle will be lost.
  8. Defending important principles of democracy, like free speech, demands courage.
  9. Citizens of a free republic, perhaps especially intellectual and well-spoken citizens, have a positive obligation to exercise that courage.

III. The politics of free speech.

  1. A generation ago, free speech was not just another liberal cause—it was one of the most essential and defining of liberal causes.
  2. A person who is not a free speech absolutist does not deserve to be called a "liberal."
  3. The Old Censorship that liberals railed against in the 1960s—conservative demands for censorship of both obscenity and far left propaganda—is moribund.
  4. For several decades, until very recently, free speech was a cause that united American liberals and conservatives.
  5. There is a New Censorship on the left as well as, to an extent, the right.
  6. The New Censors are governments eager to rein in hate speech; some Silicon Valley corporate executives and their employees; some university administrators, professors, and student agitators; and those journalists and activists who agitate for more.
  7. The New Censors are dominant in most of the centers of power—they are leaders in today's Establishment.
  8. The New Censorship is, especially in its rapid rise, quite new and genuinely alarming.
  9. The attack on free speech has become so striking and dismaying to some liberals that some have gotten into the business of denying that an attack exists; but this is wishful thinking.
  10. Former defenders of free speech are contemptibly hypocritical or cowardly not to stand against the new censorship.
  11. That goes double for academics.
  12. Academics not willing to give a full-throated defense of free speech on campus betray academic freedom—freedom of inquiry.
  13. Campus speakers who take views offensive to the left now need police protection; some campuses require the speakers to pay protection fees.
  14. Political speeches safely delivered on campus in the past were more shocking and "offensive" than speeches shouted down today—the standards have changed.
  15. Google, YouTube, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Apple, Patreon, and a few others have more real-world power and influence than many U.N. members.
  16. Moral panic about trumped-up charges of bigotry is being used to justify not just censorship, but political censorship—the worst kind.
  17. It is now a well-established fact that the Internet giants are intolerant of certain political speech.
  18. Much of the speech controversially censored by Silicon Valley, campus authorities, and governments has an important political aspect.

IV. Hate speech must be protected despite its offensiveness.

  1. Most people who want to protect hate speech also happen to abhor hate speech.
  2. People want to protect hate speech not because they approve of it, but because they have a much greater horror of censorship.
  3. The New Censors often pretend not to understand the difference between defending free speech and approving hate speech. They deserve to be excoriated on this essential point.
  4. There is no First Amendment exception for "hate speech."
  5. The essential problem about a "hate speech" exception to free speech is that the phrase is irreparably vague.
  6. There are no widely-agreed standards of "hate speech"; there is little agreement on what constitutes "hate speech."
  7. A great deal of what now passes for "hate speech" is, in fact, merely political speech that somebody else hates.
  8. It is morally wrongit is outrageous—to censor political speech.
  9. Sometimes, the "hate" in "hate speech" is most accurately understood as a feeling not of the speaker, but of the person damning the speech.
  10. The best short definition of "hate speech" in this dishonest sense is: speech that enfuriates the Establishment, i.e., our would-be censors.
  11. "Hate speech" used to be restricted to speech clearly motivated by bigotry against race, religion, or sexual orientation.
  12. You must defend, without hesitation, the freedom to utter hate speech—even speech that is outrageously bigoted—or you have abandoned free speech as a civil right.
  13. Until very recently, this was the position of the ACLU and of liberals generally. Many still believe this.
  14. It is absurd to suggest that anyone who defends free speech is ipso facto bigoted, racist, or—ironically—fascist.
  15. The actual fascists of history did a great deal of censorship.
  16. The irony is that censorship, rejection of free speech, and indeed thought control are essential to the totalitarian mindset—an irony lost on certain uneducated and miseducated youth.
  17. We could still return to more enlightened standards of free speech, having realized the enormity of error in this abandonment of principle.
  18. Many well-intentioned social movements, once considered "progressive," have deservedly died out; the New Censorship, like Prohibition and Eugenics, should be one of them.

V. To abandon free speech is to confer arbitrary power.

  1. As people have different values and emotional make-ups, people are capable of hating and being offended by many things.
  2. Historically, people have found different religions, philosophy, cultures, races, research, and even language—even art and music—to be deeply offensive, malevolent, and, yes, hateful.
  3. Permitting censorship based on disagreements overs facts and aesthetics empowers the authorities to determine facts and aesthetics.
  4. Similarly, permitting censorship of political discourse empowers the authorities to determine who wields political power.
  5. Once the authorities gain the power to mold our thoughts, they will not easily give up that power.
  6. Once they gain sufficient power to censor, authorities always grimly impose their values and their vision of reality by force.
  7. The values of the powerful, the elite, the Establishment, are guaranteed to change; they always have; and how often have they been 100% correct?
  8. Therefore, if you are worried about right-wing censorship, you should also be worried about left-wing censorship.

VI. Censorship violates our right to autonomy.

  1. Those who are most eager to take away your right to free speech want to impose their own beliefs on you.
  2. Censors are would-be thought controllers.
  3. If you want to be in control of your own thoughts—your own values, religion, philosophy, aesthetic, etc.—you must support free speech.
  4. Censors are worthy of the deep contempt of the free citizens of an open, truly diverse republic.
  5. No one—absolutely no one—can be trusted to wield the power to determine what millions or billions of people shall believe.
  6. The bloody Inquisition and the fatwa-wielding mullahs, the secret police and propaganda ministries, the holy warriors and the Bible-thumping do-gooders, they all had deep contempt, indeed deep hostility, to those who would dare to think their own thoughts about important truths.
  7. I value the right to think my own thoughts.
  8. The thought controllers are utterly convinced that they know best and that others are wrong.
  9. "Why is there a need to think your own thoughts?" the heretics are told. "The truth is known. If you deny it, you are anathema, a heretic, an enemy of the people, a traitor to the state."
  10. The New Censors insist that their concerns are merely pragmatic, obvious, and eminently reasonable; but that is what most censors have said.
  11. All censorious regimes have in common a furious hatred of the free-thinker, rejection of the individual, hatred of the outsider—the stern demand that we subject our minds to that of a controlling group.
  12. You cannot support censorship without ultimately wanting to impose an entire thought-world.
  13. Indeed, the most passionate new censors today are entirely convinced of their own thoughtworld, indeed they want to impose it on the rest of us, and indeed they have the deepest contempt for those who differ from them, even slightly.
  14. It might be hard for some citizens of an established, old democracy to understand, but thought controllers throughout history have had contempt for the dignity of most people.
  15. Respect for the diversity of individual minds absolutely requires free speech.
  16. This standardizing, collectivizing, controlling impulse is inherently dehumanizing.
  17. We will inevitably lose the habit of thinking and speaking for ourselves, of fearing being ourselves.
  18. Our very dignity rests in our being responsible for our own thoughts.


I hereby license this document under the Creative Commons nc-by-sa 2.0 license. Please feel free to circulate copies, as long as you don't profit from them and you use my name (and note any changes you happen to make, such as additions and deletions).


An opinionated FAQ about Facebook's censorship of the alleged "far right"

A lot of people understand neither free speech nor what the far right is. Here's a beginner's guide.

Yesterday, Facebook and Instagram, which are owned by the same company, announced a purge—a fair description—of accounts by a roster of famous right-wing figures as well as Louis Farrakhan. What are we to make of this?

Who was banned?

The names include

  • Alex Jones: both popular and much-reviled right-wing conspiracy theorist, previously banned from various other platforms
  • Infowars: Alex Jones' news/info company; in addition, reportedly, 22 Infowars groups or pages were removed from Facebook, as of last month
  • Reportedly, any account that shares Infowars links will be summarily banned from Facebook
  • Paul Joseph Watson: British YouTube video star specializing in ironic take-downs of the far left; has been employed by Infowars
  • Milo Yiannopoulos: another Briton, flamboyant gay conservative/libertarian who specializes in provoking the left
  • Laura Loomer: a right-wing commentator and activist maybe best known for disrupting a production of Julius Caesar in which Caesar is portrayed by a Donald Trump lookalike
  • Paul Nehlen: an "America first" right-wing political candidate who has tweeted many anti-Semitic remarks
  • Louis Farrakhan: leader of the Nation of Islam, a black Muslim leader famous for anti-Semitic, anti-white, and homophobic remarks

One thing all of these except Farrakhan have in common is that they've made anti-Muslim (or at least anti-Muslim extremist) comments, but more about that below.

Why were these people/groups banned?

The specific reasons are not clear and have not been made (fully) public. The Verge reported rather cryptically, and uncritically, that Facebook said the banned accounts "violated its policies against dangerous individuals and organizations." I wasn't able to locate the Facebook press release.

The Verge also reported this, without naming a specific source other than "the company":

But the company did point to some of the actions leading up to the accounts’ removal:

* First in December and again in February, Jones appeared in videos with Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes. Facebook has designated McInnes as a hate figure.
* Yiannopoulos publicly praised McInnes and British far-right activist Tommy Robinson, who Facebook has designated as a hate figure.
* Loomer appeared with McInnes in December, and more recently declared her support for far-right activist Faith Goldy, who was banned after posting racist videos to her account.

This is bizarre; rather than cite specific things the banned figures said or did that are obviously bigoted, or couching their explanation in terms of specific terms of service, Facebook apparently thought it was relevant to point out that the banned people associated with or praised people like Gavin McInnes, designated as "a hate figure," and "far-right activists" Tommy Robinson and Faith Goldy. It looks like guilt by association.

Wait. Before you go on, explain: Why is that bizarre?

Because it specifically eschews any attempt to pin a particular case to a particular objective standard. It's fundamentally vague and thus fundamentally unfair. If you have an association with or even merely express approval of a verboten figure, you yourself can, apparently, be banned. What if I say I've liked some of Paul Joseph Watson's videos? (I do.) Does that mean I should be banned? (Too late, I quit Facebook, but still.) Maybe more to the point, does it mean that I agree with everything that Watson has ever said? Of course not.

Facebook apparently called these people "right-wing." What really does "right-wing" mean, anyway?

Prepare yourself for a brief lecture about political terms.

"Right-wing" has two very different meanings in American political discourse. On the one hand, it means "conservative": being supportive of traditional views on social issues, especially Christian values interpreted fundamentally, of devotion to country and national interests, and of relatively unregulated free markets. In general it means traditional (formerly bipartisan) American political values of small government and individual liberty, but within some religious constraints.

By the way, libertarians are sometimes called "right-wing" presumably because they favor unregulated free markets, but sometimes they're called "left-wing" because they also support social liberalism. Go figure.

On the other hand, "right-wing" also is taken to mean "tending toward fascism of the Nazi sort." Thus, some progressives want you to believe that the National Socialist Party of Germany is supposed to represent the values of American conservatives, just taken to an extreme. There are a few problems with that:

  • The Nazis believed in giant, ever-present government, regulating everything, i.e., totalitarianism, as well as a massive social welfare state. It wasn't the National Socialist party for nothing. Mussolini and Hitler both began their political careers as, and thought of themselves as, socialists. They both became strongly anti-Communist, but the conflict was an internecine left-wing one.
  • Nazis hated the idea of a free market, and many Nazi leaders were hostile to or deeply skeptical of Christianity (some were devout, to be sure).
  • Racism is not a uniquely conservative value; extreme racism of the fascist stripe is not a particularly conservative value. In the U.S., some of the most open of our racists also express conservative values, and progressives have made hay of this fact. But in the past, some of the most racist and eugenicist people in the history of the U.S. were in favor of welfare state and even socialist policies. Remember Sen. Robert C. Byrd, Democrat late of West Virginia and a former KKK member who recruited Klansmen? He wasn't the only one. And today, anti-semitic (and anti-white, and arguably anti-Asian) racism can still be found on the left.
  • In short, fascism was a racist and nationalist perversion of an already perverted doctrine: imperialist internationalist socialism.

By the way, I'm not meaning to apologize for those American conservatives who (openly or not) are racists, who do want to wield the awesome power of the state to repress their enemies, who hate foreigners on principle, etc. Indeed such people really are like Nazis. They’re not nice and I don’t support them at all.

The problem is that most mainstream conservatives are not particularly racist—even if they support systems that happen to favor their own "white privilege," which is another issue—they are not imperialistic nationalists, and they sure as hell could not entertain anything so horrific as a genocide. And, of course, they don't support socialism, but then the left probably doesn't mean to imply that they do.

So much for "right-wing."

What does this term "far-right extremist," that I hear bandied about so much, really mean?

Those bandying it are making a spurious accusation of guilt by association. When leftists calls a conservative "far right," or a "far-right extremist," they blur the distinction and commit the fallacy of ambiguity, i.e., they use word "right" in two different senses in order to tar merely strong conservatives with the brush of fascism. Their dirty little implied argument is this:

  1. Paul Joseph Watson (just for example) isn't just conservative, he's extremely conservative.
  2. That means he's both far right, and extreme. So he's a far-right extremist.
  3. The Nazis and the KKK were far-right extremists.
  4. Therefore, Paul Joseph Watson is like a Nazi or KKK, or ideologically aligned with them. (Probably punchable!)

This sort of thing is not just fallacious, it’s libelous.

When you want to refer to an American or British conservative as being unremittingly so, but not a fascist and still within the broadly classical liberal Anglo-American tradition as it has been handed down to us in the early 21st century, you can call the person an "arch conservative" or in Britain maybe a "staunch Tory."

You would call such a person "far right" only if you wanted to falsely, libellously imply that the person is fascistic. “Far-right extremist” merely compounds the libel.

But today’s American conservatives are fascistic, right?

As my Irish friends say, go feck off. Re-read the previous two answers.

No, they aren't. Some good friends and family members of mine, whom I love, are conservative. They hate the elements of fascism listed above as much as anyone. I personally have a lot in common with them, although being an agnostic and rather more principled on issues of liberty, I think I'm closer to the libertarian outlook. If you say conservatives are fascistic, you're insulting my friends.

But libertarians are crypto-fascists, too. They use talk of liberty and free speech as a cover for their insidious racist views. Right?

You need to feck off even harder, you ignorant twit.

No, you can't get any farther from a fascist than a libertarian. Libertarians favor individual rights rooted in respect for our inherent value and autonomy, love minimal government, and hate racism. Fascists favored huge, powerful governments, didn't give a fig for individual rights, and were totalitarians and racists. Libertarians hate war generally, but they especially hate wars of aggression and even of intervention (such as in Iraq and Syria). Fascists are extremely jingoistic nationalists and imperialists. Libertarians tend to be very tolerant of foreigners and many of them support open borders, and the idea of empire-building strikes them as abhorrent.

In fact, historically straight-up socialists have had a hell of a lot more in common with socialists of the National Socialist variety. Yes, really.

Fine, but aren't the above-listed people actually far-right in the bona fide fascist sense?

I don't know all of them, so I can't tell you. Here are a few comments.

Alex Jones is a conspiracy theorist type. I have met his ilk before; possibly you have as well. He lacks judgment. He does seem to be quite conservative in the American sense. He's said some things that are extremely insensitive on almost anybody's view. All that said, I haven't seen much evidence that he's a fascist per se. He's a nut. There's a difference. All fascists are nuts, but not all nuts are fascists.

I like Paul Joseph Watson's videos about architecture and his pessimistic takes on demise of Western (not to say white) civilization. He's also quite fun to watch when he takes down left-wing inanities. He pulls no punches, and he's probably said some things that I wouldn't approve of; but then, we all have said things I wouldn't approve of. I see zero evidence that he's a fascist or on the "far right" in that sense. He strikes me as being libertarian, but I'm not sure. Maybe conservative.

Milo Yiannopoulos is "provocative" and comes across as an insensitive asshole, especially to the left; he makes shocking personal attacks sometimes, which is probably the main reason he is now persona non grata. The whole incident in which he seemed to apologize for the priest who molested him was quite creepy. But beyond that, Milo is an incisive libertarian type; I don't think it's quite right to call him conservative. I'm quite a bit nicer than he is, but I have agreed with a lot of stuff he's said. So have plenty of conservatives and libertarians who have come to watch him. Neither he nor they are fascists. (He's a flamboyant British gay man with a black boyfriend, for god's sake.)

Laura Loomer: I don't really know who she is. Never watched or read anything by her.

Paul Nehlen: Ditto. I didn't know of him before his ban. I read a few things like this that give what looks like rather good evidence that he's a vicious anti-semite. He might very well be a bona fide fascist, for all I know. I’m not a fan.

Louis Farrakhan: America's crazy black uncle. Keep America weird. Let Louis be Louis.

So maybe there's one "far right" figure, in the sense of fascist, among them, unless you also count Farrakhan, most of whose political views are pretty close to historical fascism as far as I can tell. The rest are very loud activist types with large to enormous followings that the Establishment wants to squelch. That's really why they were banned. Not because they really are fascist types.

Besides, I don't think we should ban fascists from our largest platforms. Maybe from smaller ones, sure. I reserve the right to ban fascists from this blog. But when it comes to larger platforms, to “the public square,” I'm a free speech absolutist.

But wait. At least they’re Islamophobic, i.e., anti-Muslim bigots, right?

I don’t know any of their views on Islam well enough to say. Disliking mass immigration by certain people who avowedly have an “extreme” politico-religious view, i.e., those who (like maybe 44% of European Muslims) declare they want to turn European nations into religious (Sharia) states, isn’t necessarily bigoted. You can be open to friendship and cultural exchange with radically different cultures without wanting your culture to be transformed into those other cultures. Religion matters a lot. Opposing immigration by moderate Muslims (like Westernized Turks) does strike me as bigoted, though.

I think some resentful and stupid conservatives really might be personally bigoted against Muslims generally, so I can’t really say in any one case. I’ve had moderate Muslim friends and family members; I don’t support any ethnic or religious bigotry.

Official U.S. immigration policy (last time I checked) also officially excludes Communists from immigrating. Did you know that? I’m all in favor of excluding them. Communists are an influence we don’t need. But I’ve had Communist friends.

OK, then, with that background about the political labels: Did Facebook and Instagram violate the above-listed people's free speech, or did they not? Were theycensored?

No, not in the sense in which the term is understood in American jurisprudence. As silly-clever progressives will never tire of reminding you, the First Amendment does say that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, and therefore, no company can violate your free speech rights as guaranteed by the Constitution.

But yes, in a broader moral sense. Americans seem to have a huge blind spot when it comes to the topic of free speech, forgetting that the right was discussed long before the United States existed, and that it was applied to the church as well as the state. American constitutional jurisprudence does not exhaust all there is to say about free speech. OK? So get off your high horse there.

What's the case that Facebook did violate free speech rights in a broader sense? Well, it's this: Facebook and Instagram have become massively powerful and influential networks, in some ways more powerful than many governments. They serve all of humanity. They are among the main fora whereby civil discourse—including political discourse—takes place. They are the public square of the 21st century.

We all ought to have the right—the moral right, if not the political right—to participate in this public square. If you're excluded from it, how do you exercise your necessary, essential democratic rights of participating in public deliberation?

Of course, this isn't to say that others must be forced to listen to you. I should be able to block you quickly and easily if I personally don’t want to listen to you. I have absolutely no problem about blocking people who treat me disrespectfully. I have an absolute right to block myself from hearing you, but not to block others from hearing you.

And yes, those blocked people were also censored. Not all censorship is done by government. Churches, schools, corporations, publications, libraries, and other organizations with authority over what people can say and hear can practice censorship of various kinds. Of course, the most dangerous and objectionable kind of censorship is done by the government. Never forget that. I am much more worried about censorship by governments in Europe and Canada, and future censorship by the American federal and state government, than I am by any corporate censorship.

Should we be surprised by Facebook's action?

Hell no. Silicon Valley and Facebook in particular have been preparing us for this for a few years now, having banned many conservative accounts and repeatedly justified their stances, albeit in a dishonest, mealy-mouthed and wrong-headed way. I suppose it is surprising to a degree, however, whenever standards are shifted, as they have been. How far are these people capable of going? Pretty far. The ultimate answer might surprise even me.

Does anyone actually support these people being banned?

Oh yeah. Lots and lots. It's rather scary just how popular the ban is among the left and much of the Establishment commentariat. Who knew just how repressive the left would be if given the power? (Answer: many of us.)

Should Facebook and other Big Tech be regulated?

No. The government dictating to them how they should run the public square entails that the government will ultimately run the public square. We should eschew that idea, as attractive as it might be as long as "our people" are in power, for the same reason we should eschew the idea of government-run news media: Anything potentially so powerful is much too easily corrupted and becomes a honeypot for would-be criminal masterminds and dictators.

At least with the free market, we have the opportunity to seek out better ways to organize ourselves if we find ourselves excluded from biased forums. How long do you think the likes of Facebook will enjoy their hegemony if they continue to behave this way? As long as the rest of us have the means and freedom to organize independently, then not too bloody long. People like freedom and fairness, it turns out.

Should the banned people sue Facebook for defamation?

Maybe. I'm not sure. It's an interesting idea.

So what the hell should we do?

Decentralize social media and get behind a coming Declaration of Digital Independence. Don't worry too much. It's OK. It'll happen. I have very good reason to think it will. It won't happen overnight, but it's coming. This is one reason why both Facebook and Twitter have made rumblings in the direction of decentralizing social media. They know they have to get out front of the movement. They know it's coming.

So Larry, does this mean you're going to delete your Facebook account?

Been there, done that.

Go and do the same. Facebook must be put out of business.

I'm serious. Please delete your Facebook account. First, urge your FB friends to do the same. If you support free speech (and privacy!) and want to send a message to our would-be corporate overlords, you must know by now that it's the right thing to do.