A Theory of Evil

First posted Aug. 16, 2019. Revised and reposted Nov. 4. Good to read alongside "Why Be Moral."

For a long time, the nature of evil eluded me. But dark contemplation of the Jeffrey Epstein case and of the very existence of pedophile rings has clarified the nature of evil for me. Here, then, is a brief and provisional theory.

Evil is contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others.

Evil is contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others. I will explain what I mean by this, but first let me clarify what, on this theory, evil is not.

One personification of evil: Jeffery Epstein

First, evil is not contempt for this or that person; contempt can be deserved. Epstein himself richly deserves our contempt. But evil is something more far-reaching: it is contempt for the humanity of others. That qualifier is very important, as we will see.

Another thing evil is not is mere old-fashioned, curmudgeonly misanthropy. Misanthropes might claim to "hate everybody," and they are very much distrusting, but they aren't necessarily bad just for that. Most self-described misanthropes do not hate human life as such; they're just deeply, profoundly disappointed with everyone. They have ideals that we fall far short of, and it is actually their unyielding principles that make them misanthropes. They are impressed with the idea that we are all sinners, so they have not given up the idea of sin. They do not reject the principle that we should value all human beings; they just believe that, due to the inevitable foibles of humanity, we cannot justify admiring or trusting anyone. Distrust and disappointment are not evil at all.

Quite a good book

I have come to the conclusion that a proper understanding of evil—i.e., understanding the very idea of contempt for the humanity of some others—is profoundly important if you are to have a mature, clear-sighted view of your own life and of the world and its history. We might define naïveté as the failure to accept that anyone has such contempt. I have been rather naïve, in this sense, all my life. I have always liked Will Rogers' charming sentiment that he never met a man he didn't like. I have become increasingly impressed, over the years, by the Christian elevation of love, or agape, as a virtue—love for one's fellow man. I thought it was something of a failing in myself that I disliked some people. One of the fictional characters I rather admired was Dostoyevsky's Idiot, Prince Myshkin; his trusting nature, his unwillingness to accept the existence of evil, was his problem, too. I am coming to the conclusion that I myself have been rather idiotic about evil, and that has to end.

Kant

An evil person looks at another person and says: this is a non-person; this is a piece of trash; this is an obstacle or tool to be used and then discarded. Psychiatrists call such people sociopaths. A Kantian would say they treat others as mere means to their selfish ends, not as ends in themselves. That formulation is close, perhaps, but limited. After all, there is also a kind of nihilistic evil, which seeks to destroy pointlessly, due to the deepest contempt for a person, and hatred of their humanity as such—not to advance any further goal. Such dark, twisted, broken souls exist in real life, not just in horror stories.

With that long preamble finished, let me now explain what I mean by the key phrase "contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others." How do I distinguish this from mere contempt of some disagreeable human feature? If the big bad boss sees that an employee does poor work, the big bad boss might look down on, or have contempt, for the employee, but it might be due only to poor work. The stereotypical mean girl in high school has contempt for "ugly girls" and "nerds," but that might only be contempt for ugliness and nerdiness.

However nasty they can be, I don't propose to call the boss or the mean girl positively evil unless they demonstrate contempt for something deeper: their target's humanity.

Not quite evil

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.

Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son

But generally, I think that for us to call a person evil requires strong and consistent contempt for the humanity of others. By the way, whether a person actually acts on their contempt seems unimportant. An evil monster, locked away with no opportunity to work evil, is still an evil monster.

How should we understand the other key term, "contempt"? A brief gloss is "considering someone to be inferior or worthless." It is typically regarded as an emotion, but there is a distinguishable attitude of contempt as well, one that could be cold and unfeeling, insofar as it merely involves a low evaluation of others. The attitude of contempt would be the contemplation of another person as being unimportant. Someone who regards some others with "nothing but contempt" will not credit them with rights, interests, or consideration typically accorded to (respected) peers.

But contempt for the humanity of others is a special sort of contempt. Note that we sometimes speak of dignity as a sort of "baseline value" that people have, in virtue simply of their being human. Contempt for the humanity of others, then, is the denial of their basic dignity. One who has such contempt denies his victim—deemed "scum" or "trash"—any rights, interests, or consideration.

Contempt for the humanity of others, then, is the denial of their basic dignity. One who has such contempt denies his victim—deemed "scum" or "trash"—any rights, interests, or consideration.

Root of all evil?

Evil is essentially dehumanization. If love of money is the root of all evil, that would be because it reduces human beings to commodities—which is to dehumanize them.

So far I have omitted to mention the varying scope, or target, of evil. Sometimes, the scope is quite narrow. A person obsessed with just one other person can have quite evil feelings and motives toward just that person. Perhaps this is how we should understand certain relationships that go terribly wrong. In addition, some criminals who are prone to outright evil may experience that type of contempt—for the humanity of their victims—on an individual basis. Two particularly evil crimes often directed at individuals are murder and child rape.

If evil can be manifested toward single individuals, can it be manifested toward families and small groups? Certainly it can. The motive of revenge may be understood as the utter rejection of the humanity of a person, well beyond a righteous demand for justice. When the revenge motive occurs to an extreme degree across families, clans, and gangs, we have a blood feud, which is sometimes regarded as a particularly dark sort of evil: members of opposing tribes regard each other as worthless vermin in need of extermination.

"I am a man."

Widening the scope even further, racism is revealed as one of the varieties of evil: it involves the very destructive notion that there is no difference among all members of a race, that they are all equally undeserving of respect. It can be horrifically evil in its more extreme forms, in which contempt rises from lack of respect as a peer to positive desire to harm or exterminate some dehumanized vermin.

War crimes are a tremendous evil: they reveal profound contempt for the humanity of the enemy. War is a terrible plague, because success at the endeavor often seems to require that one dehumanize, or lose all respect for the humanity of, one's enemy. By contrast, noble warriors have respect for their foes and refuse to treat their humanity with contempt. Perhaps that is an old-fashioned notion of war, but it seems the only defensible one. Good soldiers may have to participate in terrible, destructive battles, but they never sink to the level of war crimes because they retain a basic respect for the enemy's humanity. I wonder: Is war psychologically devastating for very good people, unusually so, because it requires they kill people they respect?

Child rapists would have to have contempt for the minds and bodies of the most vulnerable human beings, for their basic humanity, to mistreat them so appallingly.

Jimmy Savile—a child rapist, pure evil, was knighted and allowed to thrive for decades by powerful people. Ask why.

One very broad possible scope (21% of the U.S. population) is children. There are some people in the world—believe it or not—who have contempt for the humanity of children. They are the child rapists. They would have to have contempt for the minds and bodies of the most vulnerable human beings, for their basic humanity, to mistreat them so appallingly.

In the broadest scope, there is an evil, if thankfully small, movement afoot in the world. It appears to be hostile to human life as such, wherever it occurs. In lieu of a better word, which I couldn't find, I invented one: antivitism (anti-life-ism). This is, I want to suggest, an evil movement, however organized or disorganized it might be. "After birth" abortion and active euthanasia of teens for depression are two examples: only those contemptuous of the value of human life as such could champion such things. Again, pedophilia advocacy is another example: the harm to children is so horrible and so obvious that it seems only contempt for humanity as such can explain the defense of it.

One strand of this movement does have a name: antinatalism. As a dictionary definition has it, this is "a philosophical position that opposes human procreation, holding it to be morally wrong." More generally, antinatalists hold that human life is itself a tremendously bad thing, as they never tire of telling you.

One of the original anti-natalists, Théophile de Giraud

Now, let me be fair: I don't claim that antinatalists feel contempt toward their fellow humans. They certainly sympathize with human pain, which of course suggests decency. But anyone who takes such a theory seriously enough to act on it, I think, would have to be among the most inhuman monsters conceivable. If human life is on balance so awful, then the antinatalists would seem to be doing us all a favor by literally putting us out of our misery. This does raise an interesting theoretical challenge to my definition of evil: if antinatalists have contempt (as in, a very low estimation) for human life, but they do not in any obvious way have contempt for people, are they evil according to my definition?

My response to this is not to revise my definition of evil but to accuse antinatalists of incoherence. If they value human pain, then as a matter of fact they do value human life over human death, regardless of their protestations. Please, though, antinatalists, remain incoherent if you must remain antinatalists; please don't start taking your contempt for human life to heart.

I accuse no one of evil of the broadest possible scope, for the simple reason that the accusation would be absolutely extraordinary, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Perhaps some of history's worst murderers were that evil—perhaps many. I would not rule that out.

Luis Alfredo Garavito Cubillos, The Monster of Génova, admitted to rape, torture, and murder of 138 children and teenagers

So much for this brief discussion of the scope of evil. Next I want to maintain that it is of the utmost importance that we accept that evil actually exists. Naïve people have had too little experience with extreme evil to accept that it exists. They react with horror and incomprehension when confronted with it. I myself have willingly used the concept of evil (as in essays I linked to above about murder and child rape) but with some incredulity. I suppose I used it as shorthand for "extremely bad." That's not wrong, but it fails as a definition because it leaves out the essential feature of contempt for humanity.

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

A modern impulse, which looks naïve, is to be highly suspicious of the concept of evil. Old-fashioned ideas of evil strike "sophisticated" people, sometimes, as mean, stupid, and insensitive. So they try to sympathetically "understand" evil, to explain it reductively in terms of vague, impersonal root causes rather than the unambiguous attitudes of specific, real people.

I don't recommend it

This modern notion that the concept of evil is somehow insensitive is highly pernicious, I believe. If we are not willing to name evil as such, we will understand evil motives badly, we will judge evil actions improperly, and we will punish evil crimes leniently. To deny that evil exists is to make it easier to be evil.

Indeed, in the last few generations—since in the mid-20th century—clinical, merely descriptive, sympathetic, and even celebratory depictions of evil have become the norm in Western culture. I will not here speculate on why this has been the case. I will say, however, that I believe this attitude to explain why crime rose in the same time period (until mass incarceration began), and why horrifically evil crimes seem to have proliferated and to have become ever more popular to this day.

This is a result of the moral abyss we find ourselves in—an echo from its depths, so to speak. If we fail to credit evil people fully with their inhuman motives, if we fail to contemplate head-on the tremendous destructive force of their contempt for humanity, then we allow evil to thrive. That is a fact, a very awful one. It should give us all pause.

If we fail to credit evil people fully with their inhuman motives, if we fail to contemplate head-on the tremendous destructive force of their contempt for humanity, then we allow evil to thrive.

We have been allowing evil to thrive. A good first step to stopping it is to re-examine the notion of evil and begin, once again, to name it for the unspeakable, but very real, horror that it is.

I leave you with a related thought.

What makes humanity loveable, and what inspires the most devotion toward heroes and leaders, is the capacity for creation, the ability to invent, build, preserve, and restore whatever is good, i.e., that which supports and delights flourishing, well-ordered life. What makes evil individuals worthy of our righteous anger is their capacity for destruction of the good, due to their contempt for human life as such.

Ary Scheffer, The Temptation of Christ

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.


Gay activists and Hollywood liberals vs. traditional Muslims vs. free speech liberals

Here's a richly ironic slice of our strange, sad old world in 2019.

Ellen Degeneres is (quite rightly) protesting the Sultan of Brunei for introducing the death penalty (stoning to death) for gay sex. He's also executing people for adultery, but Ellen doesn't mention that:

https://twitter.com/TheEllenShow/status/1113177461276082177

To this, a reply was posted by an account, "Jihyo" (apparently, the name of a Kpop singer), who claims to be a Demi Lovato fan and medical student, and who writes various pro-Muslim comments. The reply was:

This is a Sharia law in Islam. And lgbt is never okay. I am an educated person & a medical student. In gynecology, urology & dermatology departments, we often get gay patients with terrible diagnoses. They always come with complaints relate to their sexual activities.
(I'm not embedding this because it repeats that Ellen tweet also might well be removed anytime by Twitter. But that's just a cut-and-paste quote of what "Jihyo" wrote.)

In the ensuing war of words, which you can easily imagine if you don't look for yourself, "Jihyo" is taken to task for being "cruel and inhumane," for being not in the "21st century," an "offensive agitator" and "nasty," etc.

One person more seriously responds that "there is no religious justification for this punishment." This is an interesting formulation: does the person mean that no religions cite any justification for stoning gays to death, or that no such religious justification would succeed if attempted?

For their part, the Sultan, his people (who perhaps understandably do not criticize his policies), and this "Jihyo" clearly disagree with both interpretations, as do many other Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, northern Nigeria, Yemen, and others. All have the death penalty for gay sex.

So now we have the interesting spectacle of Ellen, along with reliably progressive celebrities like George Clooney and Elton John, criticizing the Sultan of Brunei for a policy that they might or might not realize is already practiced in the most devoutly Muslim countries of the world.

And, interestingly, nobody is calling them "Islamophobic."

Well, why the hell not? Shouldn't they be called Islamophobic? What gives? If a conservative, or Allah forbid an alt-right conservative, were to dwell for long on the precise same facts about the modern Islamic world, if they were to call traditional Muslims "cruel and inhumane," not in the "21st century," an "offensive agitator" and "nasty," etc., then what would happen to them? Well, the U.K., Canada, Austria (probably all of the E.U.), and other countries do criminalize criticism of Islam—whether such laws should, in fairness, apply to Ellen's criticisms of Muslims seems unclear.

The weird unresolved tensions and rich ironies on display here are no doubt what caught the attention of a Paul Joseph Watson, who has worked for Alex Jones' Infowars for many years. Once, he called himself a member of the "alt right," before the term became much more clearly associated with fascism. He is, whatever else he is, an avowed foe of the left. Earlier today he posted an article on the kerfuffle titled, "LGBT vs Islam (Choose Your Fighter)," and wryly observed, "This one isn’t going to end well, is it?"

But is it only erstwhile "alt right" people like Watson, and free speech zealots like me, who observe the ironies involved here? Of course not. Old-fashioned Bill Maher could be counted on to notice the weirdness, too. He criticized Clooney for proposing a boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel: "What about Saudi Arabia? If you really want to get back at them, stop driving or using oil."

Gay conservative Andrew Sullivan made some well-placed observations on Maher's show as well: "The nice thing about a free society is that you can have a political life and then you can have your actual life. Not everything has to be political." He added, "We shouldn't be dictating our lives by religion, according to the dictates of wokeness. It kills the vitality of a free society."

Sadly, this hullabaloo will all probably disappear in a week's time. Brunei will start executing gays, just like Saudi Arabia. Gay activists will go back to making common intersectional cause with Muslims from countries where those same gay friends would be executed. After a few years, self-righteous (but strangely unreflective) Hollywood progressives will once again start checking in at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Europeans and Canadians will keep enforcing blasphemy laws against Islamophobes who criticize Islam, even when such unwoke cretins are criticizing Islam for executing homosexuals—as long as the cretins aren't too powerful and aligned with the left, of course. Then it's OK. Then they're not Islamophobes.

Attempting to make sense of all this, the beautiful people will placidly declare that they "contain multitudes." Life will likely go on much as before.


Until this year, when I decided to lock down my cyber-life and reformed how I use social media, instead of writing the above, I would have just posted some snide remarks on Facebook or Twitter. But since I've quit Facebook and don't use Twitter except in service of media I have some control over, i.e., Everipedia and this blog, now I have to consider whether the issue is worth making a whole blog post over. In this case, I thought so.


Is Western civilization collapsing?

A perennial topic for me (and many of us) is the notion that there is a deep malaise in Western civilization. There are, it seems to me, three main camps on the question, "Is Western civilization collapsing?"

1. The conservative position. "Yes. And it's a horrible thing. For one thing, elites have basically stopped reproducing. They're inviting people from foreign cultures into their countries, and they're reproducing faster than their elites. The result will be an inevitable cultural replacement after a few generations, although probably not before we go through a period of bloody civil wars. And Western traditions are not being passed down. We are becoming less Christian every year. Our universities are teaching less and less of the classics of Western civilization. Though they spend longer in school, our graduates are more ignorant of their cultural roots. We have no desire to create beauty any longer. We have nothing, really, to live for. Our heart is simply not in it any longer; we're in the death throes of this civilization."

2. The postmodern position. "Are you really even asking this question? So you think Western civilization is 'collapsing'? Well, maybe it is. If so, good! But if we're going to be honest with ourselves, we should recognize that there is much about Western civilization that deserves to die, and the sooner the better. What will replace it? Who knows? Who cares? But you must be a racist Islamophobe if you think it will be Islamic. But probably, you're just an idiot because there is no reason to think Western civilization is 'collapsing.' It might be, however, transforming, and into something better, something more tolerant, open, and multi-cultural."

3. The optimistic position. "Oh, not this again. Haven't you read Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now? Look, almost all the metrics look better than they've ever been. People always think we're on the brink of disaster even when things are awesome. The world is better educated than it's ever been. People in third world countries are moving into the modern world. Look at the Internet! Look at technology! Look at all the entrepreneurship and discovery that is happening every day! How on earth can you fail to recognize that, far from being in our death throes, we are ramping up a new global civilization with, perhaps, some new values, but which enjoys radically transformative changes for the better every year."


Here are a few notes to put these into perspective. The conservative position is a position about the health of traditional Western values and culture. It takes the view that these values and culture should be preserved, that they aren't being preserved, and that Westerners therefore are living increasingly meaningless lives.

The postmodern position is a primarily a reaction to the conservative position. It denies that there is a problem worth solving because Western values and culture are better off dead and buried.

The optimistic position certainly appears to be about another topic altogether, i.e., not about the health of traditional Western values and culture, although it pretends to be responding to conservative worry. It equates "civilization" not so much with Western traditions and values, precisely, as with the sort of globalist system of capitalist economies and the largely Western-derived education and culture that has sprouted and flowered in the 20th and especially the 21st centuries. You can see it in most of the big cities of the world. The success of this civilization is not to be evaluated (on this view) by some subjective measures of morality, or religion of course, or using sociological metrics that go proxy for these, but instead by more objective measures of well-being such as GDP, literacy rates, and longevity rates.


These positions interact in interesting ways.

  • A very strong case can be made that it is precisely certain Western traditions (democracy, industrialism, free enterprise, science, etc.) that have enabled the global success celebrated by the optimistic position.
  • The postmodern position is, too, absolutely rooted in some Western values (such as cultural tolerance and Christian charity).
  • And the optimistic position is widely (and in my opinion rightly) regarded as too optimistic; almost all of us detect some manner of deep moral malaise in Western civilization (such as dangerous populist racism, on the one hand, or the dangerous weakening of Christian values, on the other), even if we don't necessarily think of it as threatening civilization itself, and the happy talk does not do this justice.
  • And the postmodern position is surely right to suggest that Western civilization has undergone and is likely to continue to undergo radical transformations that have made the Western roots of American and European societies look positively foreign. But does that mean the collapse of civilization, or its transformation?
  • And if it is transforming and not collapsing, is that unequivocally a good thing?
  • Are important values, that conservatives perhaps talk about more than progressives, being lost? Put aside your political differences and ask yourself: might that be important? And what consequences might that have for the new global order?
  • Is it true that there must be some transcendent purpose and deep values that undergird our lives, or else (as conservatives suggest) civilization, that will cause not merely its transformation but its wholesale replacement with some other civilization that does celebrate some transcendent purpose? And if that's true, what values would replace Western ones?
  • Could something like progressivism itself constitute a global value system?
  • We already know that any such progressive value system largely conflict with traditional Christianity and some other Western values, but doesn't it also conflict with Islam?

I don't suggest any conclusion now. I just thought that contextualizing the debate would be interesting.


Could God have evolved?

1. How a common argument for the existence of God failed—or did it?

As a philosophy instructor, I often taught the topic of arguments for the existence of God. One of the most common arguments, called the argument from design or teleological argument, in one formulation compares God to a watchmaker.

If you were walking along a beach and found some complex machine that certainly appeared to be designed by someone, which did something amazing, then you'd conclude that it had a maker. But here we are in a universe that exhibits far more complexity and design than any machine we've ever devised. Therefore, the universe has a maker as well; we call it God.

This is sometimes called the Watchmaker Argument—since the mechanism our beachcomber finds is usually a watch—and is attributed to William Paley. Variations on this theme could be the single most commonly-advanced argument for God.

The reason the Watchmaker Argument doesn't persuade a lot of philosophers—and quite a few scientists and atheists generally—is that all the purported signs of design can be found in the biological world, and if biological complexity and appearance of design can be explained by natural selection, then God is no longer needed as an explanatory tool.

Some skeptics go a bit further and say that all the minds we have experience of are woefully inadequate for purposes of designing the complexity of life. Therefore, not only are natural mechanisms another explanation, they are a much better explanation, as far as our own experience of minds and designing is concerned.

But here I find myself skeptical of these particular skeptics.

2. Modern technology looks like magic

Recently, probably because I've been studying programming and am understanding the innards of technology better than ever, it has occurred to me very vividly that we may not be able to properly plumb the depths of what minds are capable of achieving. After all, imagine what a medieval peasant would make of modern technology. As lovers of technology often say, it would look like magic, and we would look like gods.

We've been working at this scientific innovation thing for only a few centuries, and we've been aggressively and intelligently innovating technology for maybe one century. Things we do now in 2017 are well into the realm of science fiction of 1917. We literally cannot imagine what scientific discovery and technological innovation will make available to us after 500 or 1000 years. Now let's suppose there are advanced civilizations in the galaxy that have been around for a million years.

Isn't it now hackneyed to observe that life on Earth could be a failed project of some super-advanced alien schoolchild? After all, we already are experimenting with genetic engineering, a field that is ridiculously young. As we unlock the secrets of life, who's to say we will not be able to engineer entirely different types of life, every bit as complex as the life we find on Earth, and to merge with our inventions?

Now, what havoc should these reflections wreak on our religious philosophy?

3. Could an evolved superbeing satisfy the requirements of our religions?

The scientific atheist holds the physical universe in great reverence, as something that exists in its full complexity far beyond the comprehension of human beings. The notion of a primitive "jealous God" of primitive religions is thought laughable, in the face of the immense complexity of the universe that this God is supposed to have created. Our brains are just so much meat, limited and fallible. The notion that anything like us might have created the universe is ridiculous.

Yet it is in observing the development of science and technology, thinking about how we ourselves might be enhanced by that science and technology, that we might come to an opposite conclusion. Perhaps the God of nomadic tent-dwellers couldn't design the universe. But what if there is some alien race that has evolved past where we are now for millions of years. Imagine that there is a billion-year-old superbeing. Is such a being possible? Consider the invention, computability, genetic engineering, and technological marvels we're witnessing today. Many sober heads think the advent of AI may usher in the Singularity within a few decades. What happens a millions years after that? Could the being or beings that evolve create moons? Planets? Suns? Galaxies? Universes?

And why couldn't such a superbeing turn out to be the God of the nomadic tent-dwellers?

Atheists are wrong to dismiss the divine if they do so on grounds that no gods are sufficiently complex to create everything we see around us. They believe in evolution and they see technology evolving all around us. Couldn't god-like beings have evolved elsewhere and gotten here? Could we, after sufficient time, evolve into god-like beings ourselves?

What if it turns out that the advent of the Singularity has the effect of joining us all to the Godhead that is as much technological as it is physical and spiritual? And suppose that's what, in reality, satisfies the ancient Hebrew notions of armageddon and heaven, and the Buddhist notion of nirvana. And suppose that, when that time comes, it is the humble, faithful, just, generous, self-denying, courageous, righteous, respectful, and kind people that are accepted into this union, while the others are not.

4. But I'm still an agnostic

These wild speculations aren't enough to make me any less of an agnostic. I still don't see evidence that God exists, or that the traditional (e.g., Thomistic) conception of God is even coherent or comprehensible. For all we know, the universe is self-existing and life on Earth evolved, and that's all the explanation we should ever expect for anything.

But these considerations do make me much more impressed by the fact that we do not understand how various minds in the universe might evolve, or might have evolved, and how they might have already interacted with the universe we know. There are facts about these matters about which we are ignorant, and the scientific approach is to withhold judgment about them until the data are in.