Respected conservative blogger says that I have “tainted the entire VFR community,” Part II
attempted to post Kristor’s below comment in the earlier entry
, the entry exceeded its maximum number of characters, so the discussion is being continued in this new entry. Notwithstanding its length, Kristor’s comment presents a coherent and intelligible argument, so I am posting it in its present form.
The discussion of the imago dei has engaged me in a deal of thought.
I didn’t read Lydia as reprimanding you. I read her rather as simply warning you, in just the way she might have warned you to stay away, as it is her policy to do, from Ouija boards, or for that matter from anyone who uses them, or who even argues that their use can be innocuous. The analogy is actually pretty good. A Ouija board seems innocent enough, after all. I mean, it’s a piece of cardboard, right? What could be the harm in using it to play a parlor game? But if the demonic is real, then use of a Ouija board is indeed an extremely dangerous undertaking. In using the board, the player opens himself to transactions with demons, and implicitly also to their use of his body as an instrument of their influence. He opens himself, in other words, to a much greater than normal risk of demonic possession, and endangers all who come near him.
Not that possession inevitably follows upon any use of a Ouija board—that would be a silly thing to say—but that such use does definitely increase the risk of possession.
To those who are alive to the objective reality of the supernatural, no part of the world is merely natural, and no act is exempt from spiritual meaning or consequence. To those alive likewise to moral reality, no act, however trivial, is merely amoral. When we commit a peccadillo, even innocently—even, famously, with good intentions—we increase our danger of damnation. It’s not, “snitch a cookie, go to Hell.” But it is, indeed, “snitch a cookie, increase your chances of Hell.”
So with the question of the loss of the imago dei. It seems quite a recondite subject, after all; how could its dispassionate consideration redound to our spiritual hazard?
This is something Lydia has thought, and worried, and written about a great deal—more, in fact, than any other conservative writer that I know of. She has not particularly worried about how the question of the imago dei touches race, or any other particular sort of men, whatever the sorting criteria—and so, her concern for you is not due to the fact that your consideration of the question in the context of race raises in her mind the spectre of the Holocaust—this is for her no mere jerk of the knee, but rather the product of extended deliberation. She worries about the bare move to define any category of people as other than fully human. She has been concerned with this motion in especial respect to abortion, infanticide, euthanasia—and, in particular, in the case of Terri Schiavo, in which she apprehends at work an immense and monstrous evil. Thanks to Terri Schiavo, and Dr. Kevorkian, and the Death Panels, and the spread of DNR orders and other “end of life planning” measures, it is easy to see that evil as more and more pervading our culture and our system of law, portending imminent damnation unless we repent. We live in unprecedentedly dangerous times. As Alan Roebuck argues today over at Orthosphere, this is the first time in human history that the ruling oligarchs of a culture have actually promoted lethal, mortal sin.
The reason that asking whether some men might not be formed in the image of God is inherently dangerous is that it cracks the door to a hall that leads to the room where Terri Schiavo was murdered because she had been found by the court to be no longer fully human. The court where this judgement was rendered is the vestibule of that passageway. In that courtroom, the question of the imago dei was implicitly raised as open, fit for the discourse of civilized men, and susceptible to their adjudication. Just past that courtroom, in the first room off the hallway on the left, is an abortion “clinic” where living human beings are ripped apart. A little further along that damned hall, there is a classroom where Peter Singer—the most eminent living professional philosopher —is arguing to his students that infants of less than a certain age are not fully human, and [sotto voce] that they may therefore legitimately be murdered, should their parents find them inconvenient. A little further and you get to the conference room where the Death Panels meet in Washington to proscribe certain treatments to patients older than 80. Down at the far, far end of that hallway is Auschwitz.
And somewhere along that hallway is a door, already unlocked and standing ajar, that leads to an agora where traditionalists, conservatives, and orthodox Christians and Jews are on account of their rejection of the liberal order categorized as not quite fully human, and persecuted. Listen, and you can hear already from that agora the sharpening of knives.
Our enemies decided long ago that men can jointly decide for ourselves that some sorts of us are not really men, and that it is therefore permissible to persecute them. When we ask ourselves whether some men might by their acts so deprave themselves as to extinguish their creation in the image of God, we effectually ask whether our liberal enemies might be correct about that.
This we ought not to do, and not just because it would be dangerous for us, or because it would give the world historical contest over to our enemies. No. For the traditionalist per se, as for the orthodox Christian, there ought to be certain questions that are taken to be definitively settled, as given by the order of being, and to have issued thence as basic, concretely inarguable precepts of human existence—these being, when translated into practice, precisely the integrated set of customs and traditions handed down to us by our fathers as our patrimony, and furnishing the very foundation of rational moral and intellectual discourse, and therefore of civilization and our common life. As one cannot build an enduring house upon sand, so one cannot establish a polity—cannot govern lives (our own or those of others)—according to rules that are not ultimately founded upon absolutes. If there are no absolute moral truths—if, i.e., the liberals are right and nominalism is accurate—then neither are there any relative truths, either. If nominalism is true, there is no such thing as moral reasoning, or goodness—or evil.
If on the other hand nominalism is false—as, being the death of thought, it must be—then the notion of traducing moral absolutes ought to fill us with horrible dread. If Peter Singer were a tradent [?], he would have reacted to his arrival at the conclusion that infanticide is A-OK by thinking, instantly, that the production of such an absurd and wicked result must indicate some profound error in his reasoning.
I do not argue that we ought not to discuss such questions at all. Indeed, we must. It is important, for one thing, that we understand just how our rejection of certain precepts as inherently evil derives from first principles and from their expression in the natural law. It is important to be able to understand, not just that it is evil to do certain things, but why. Thus for example, it is important that we—we of the West—understand just how it is, metaphysically, that the elimination of a man’s imago dei may be accomplished only by means of the complete extinction of his soul; so that we may then understand that, to the extent a man still exists at all, it is profoundly wicked to treat him as other than fully man, endowed by God with certain ontologically inalienable rights—or if we prefer, dignities or powers or virtues—that, precisely because they are ontologically given to him qua man (so that their alienation is not even really possible), we simply may not legitimately alienate. We cannot understand what it means to be a man of the West unless we understand these things.
Yet as we discuss why certain precepts are evil, we ought never to forget that they are indeed evil—and that, being derived from first principles that necessarily precede all discourse, their evil is a matter of sheer moral logic, and so nowise depends upon the course of our conversations, so that it is not a matter of mere opinion, to be settled in the public court. That’s sophistry.
The fact remains that when reasonable, moral persons, a number of whom have been participants in this discussion, look at contemporary reality, they see people acting and behaving in such a way that makes them reasonably wonder whether it is possible for people to be subhuman. It is reasonable and proper to allow them to work their way through these thoughts, and that’s what this discussion has been about. As I stated very clearly earlier, nothing in this discussion has related in the slightest way to any notion of legally/politically treating any class of people as subhuman, as your warning examples, such as the monstrous Peter Singer, explicitly seek to do. If Lydia McGrew had written her comments in a more exact and targeted manner, i.e., if she had warned of us where such a discussion might lead, instead of denouncing in her ridiculously overwrought manner me and the whole VFR community for having the discussion at all, much of the contentiousness here would have been avoided.
In fact, if Lydia and Matt had not written any comments at all, the discussion would probably have come to an end fairly quickly and the topic would probably never have been revisited. It was Lydia and Matt’s inappropriate and police-like attack on the discussion which triggered a pushback and led to a much longer discussion on the very topic they wanted so passionately to suppress. Good work, Matt and Lydia.
Lydia McGrew writes:
Patrick H. [see his comment in the previous entry] is completely wrong to say that I am trying to act as some sort of “taboo enforcer” specifically and only because of the initial racial angle to this discussion, and frankly I strongly resent the attempt at mind-reading. Did the racial angle add an extra layer of odiousness to the original discussion? Yes. As it did when other readers said similar things about gypsies, “traveling” Irishmen, and low-caste Indians, and even hypothesized some kind of “inter-generational” loss of the divine spark or image.
However, these are all just one part of the broader discussion. Once we begin hypothesizing that some people are less than human, of course our speculations could go in many directions. It is inevitable that racial groups will be a target there and perhaps not surprising, given the topics generally discussed at VFR, that the discussion at VFR began with racial groups, but other groups and individuals will come into the crosshairs. There are plenty of other potential candidates for being deemed “human non-persons.” I absolutely reject as not fit for civilized discourse a similarly “neutral” discussion on whether wicked criminals generally, of whatever race, have lost the divine image or have become less than human.
Much of my own work on asserting the personhood and full humanity of all men has been in the context of the pro-life movement, not in any racial context whatsoever. There it becomes particularly important not to be misled by appearance—e.g., that a newly conceived embryo does not look like a baby or that a person in a long-term comatose state doesn’t subjectively seem to have any personality. Such appearances assist the temptation to deny such a person “real personhood,” a temptation embraced all too joyously by contemporary secular bioethicists. I have written a blog post, in fact, asserting that teachers should not permit their students to refer in class or in papers to a human being as a “vegetable,” that that word should be considered taboo, not the sort of thing used in professional or polite company. None of that has anything to do with race.
In the case of heinous criminals, including sociopaths and psychopaths, as you know I have repeatedly asserted throughout this discussion my support for executing them. As not only I but other readers have pointed out, this punishment is just precisely because they are human beings and deserve to be punished for their morally evil actions. But there as well the temptation is to deem them non-human or sub-human because of their evil actions, their tendencies, and possibly also abilities—in Aristotelian terms, because of accidents rather than essence.
Ever since my first participation in these threads, I have scrupulously removed race from the equation and have addressed directly the place to which the conversation had moved—namely, the alleged subhumanity of wicked criminals, on which my position is that this is not a legitimate thing to be treated as an open question. Patrick is simply and utterly wrong.
Matt F. writes:
I find nothing in Kristor’s comment contrary to my own view or what I have written.
Furthermore, even after all that you still seem to be missing the point: it isn’t discussion of the subject per se which is a problem. It is treating the notion that some persons are subhuman as an idea worthy of respectful consideration that is the problem. Among civilized, moral, Christian men, that idea is not worthy of respect.
It is one thing to engage in thoughtful consideration of why that idea is terribly wrong. It is another thing entirely to treat that idea as possibly true.
The fact that the discussion has continued is a good thing, not a failure, inasmuch as the notion that this idea is worthy of respect and even possibly true has been challenged rather than let stand unchallenged.
But the discussion in which that idea was treated as worthy of discussion is the very discussion that I hosted, the very discussion that I said (for the carefully laid-out reasons I’ve repeatedly given, which should satisfy any reasonable person that VFR is not heading in a Singer-ite or Hitlerite direction) was legitimate, and that I still say is legitimate.
At this point, unless someone sends a comment which definitely adds something new to the discussion, I think it’s time to draw the discussion to a close.
August 5, 10:00 p.m.
Some more comments have come in which ought to be posted but I’m still trying to draw this discussion to an end.
I just read the August 15 comment in the previous thread. I’m sorry you think I haven’t been arguing in good faith. I guess all I can do is reassure you that I have been.
I frankly didn’t anticipate your move in suggesting that while discussing whether some people are subhuman along racial lines is unworthy of VFR, that discussion of whether other categories of people are subhuman is still fine. I stated it in the terms I did to get your attention, not to suggest that race was the beginning and end of the matter.
As far as not acknowledging your removal of the taunt goes, I’m not sure why my failure to do so is such a big deal. I don’t deserve your taunting in the first place, so it seemed to me the less said about it the better. But I admit that people are often puzzled and even sometimes upset by my “less is more” approach to communicating, so there is probably a personal flaw on my part there. In any case, I do appreciate you removing it.
Even if you didn’t anticipate my move of excluding the black issue while still allowing the general issue, that does not justify your failure to acknowledge that I had made that major concession to you. Your non-acknowledgment of my concession, combined with your continuing the argument as if I had never made any concession, made me feel that you were not arguing in good faith. However, your present explanation leads me to re-think that.
As for our private e-mail exchange in which you protested something I had said about you, here is my posted comment that you objected to:
The embarrassing spot you’ve gotten yourself into is that you are not just saying that the discussion here is not respectable, but that it is the equivalent of supreme evil. You’ve made that argument over and over; numerous commenters have shown how wrong it is; and at a certain point a manifestly false argument must stop being entertained.
In reply you sent me an e-mail in which the subject line was:
Re: you are better than this
Then you said, in part:
OK, now you are just making stuff up and ascribing it to me, as a way of saying “shut up”. You are better than that.
And here was my reply:
No, Larry: I said from the beginning that the discussion is one unworthy of civilized men. And it is precisely that with which you disagree. Fine. But don’t make this pretense that I’ve said things I haven’t. It is beneath you.
I see your point. You were not actually saying that the VFR discussion was the equivalent of supreme evil. It was your repeated, inappropriate analogy to pedophilia which cumulatively created the impression that you were saying that. So I will remove the second paragraph of my most recent comment.
Now you had used pretty strong language about me in your e-mail (“You are better than this … now you are just making stuff up and ascribing it to me … It is beneath you.” I didn’t take that personally. I saw your point that my comment was incorrect, I explained why I had made the error, and I removed the objectionable comment. The normal response on your part would have been a minimal acknowledgment, e.g., “Thanks.” I didn’t get even that. That lack of acknowledgement, in addition to your lack of acknowledgment of my previous major concession to you (which some saw as a surrender), strengthened the impression that you were just on a warpath, period, and were not taking in or responding to what other people were saying to you.
In conclusion, I take back what I said about your not arguing in good faith. I don’t take back my other criticisms of the way you have conducted yourself in this discussion.
Wanda S. writes:
I have little to add to the discussion, except to note that Matt’s approval of the way it has gone so far seems to be due to the fact that you have been successfully decoyed away from the original question and over onto the more comfortable ground of whether it is proper to talk about such things at all. His idea seems to be that it’s perfectly all right to discuss such things, as long as we are all in agreement of what the final conclusion will be. I don’t really consider that a “discussion”; more a pep rally. And I note that that’s exactly the sort of discussion the left specializes in—the “everybody knows” tactic of pre-empting any unexpected conclusions when it comes to discussions about abortion, divorce, feminism or race.
Lydia’s wariness because of her strongly held positions on euthanasia and abortion puzzles me. We don’t have to frighten ourselves with hypothetical scenarios of “what might happen” if forbidden ideas are released into the atmosphere—we’re living in that world right now. Terry Schiavo was put to death; infants are being aborted. How did we end up in this situation? Was it by falling into the trap of discussing it? Would everything have been all right if we’d just folded our arms and stonily refused to talk about it? Who brought us these horrors? It wasn’t the philosophers, still less the Christian philosophers—it was the lawyers and the utilitarians. Philosophy never entered into it. I think if these dangerous ideas had been discussed in the way we were trying to discuss this one, they might have been combated. Instead, under cover of the sacred “separation of church and state” maxim, the religious argument was short-circuited from the start, and the opponents were left to fight the moral battle practically disarmed. Today, the Christian argument against abortion is heard ONLY in the churches; in the wider world, its opponents are forced to limp along with nothing but the secular “human rights” weapon, and that has proved very unequal to the challenge.
I was perfectly prepared to be convinced by the arguments against the possibility that even savage criminals could lose the imago Dei, but alas, it never came. No lines from Scripture, no quotes from the saints. Only barked maxims about what decent and civilized people ought to know by now. As a result, I’m starting to suspect that maybe the case isn’t that strong after all. If it were, surely it would have been easy to prove it, but the opponents seemed more concerned with preserving their dignity than stooping to convince.
“Stooping to convince”—good phrase.
Western folklore is full of tales of human-like creatures that aren’t really human—vampires, zombies, werewolves, Frankenstein; there is a long list here.
The way our civilization has explored the question—and it’s generally a frightening thing—is through fiction. And look what has happened to vampires—once treated as a horror, now they’ve been rehabilitated into something cool, hip, Gothic.
It seems like Thomas Bertonneau would know all about this.
I returned home only a few hours ago. I was at the beach during the course of this epic discussion, and was unaware that I was doing field work; observing the range of humanity in its various stages of evolution and public undress. Public beaches reveal too much of our humanity.
My thoughts, after reading this discussion, descend to evolution. Most of the discussion is otherwise over my head. I’m wondering what the subset of devout modern liberal Darwinian evolutionist have to say. How would they defend their humanity? How would their views on evolution stand up to scrutiny in the context of this discussion? The Darwinian evolutionist has man on a continuum, don’t they? In their view, man is still evolving. If not, then when exactly was man or humanity fully formed? Or is he? I believe that they argue “not yet, we’re waiting for the conservatives to catch up.” The very people who make others out to be racist Nazis have as one of their principles that man is descended from the ape. When? At exactly what point in time or where on earth did this finally and completely happen? When did the last vestiges of the ape vanish? When did all, every scintilla of ape or monkey select out leave only a pure and complete man? [LA replies: these are good questions. But they don’t just say that man is descended from the ape; they say that man is an ape.]
Maybe I’m wrong, but to me it seems logical that there has to remain at least some measurable amount of ape or some kind of sub-humanity somewhere in our species. Isn’t that a determined element of Darwinian evolutionary theorists?
Where are the liberals on this?
If I just landed here from Mars, I think that a quick look around would indicate where a casual search might begin.
That’s not my actual thought. I’m just speculating as to what modern liberalism would lead me to think.
I have a reply to Buck, but since it doesn’t really fit in this discussion (which I’m still hoping to bring to an end), I’ve posted it in a new entry.
Robert B. writes:
I believe that this discussion is justified in terms of historic Western debate on this topic. I feel that it is a very worthy debate for men who are of God to have.
I find it odd that people such as Matt and Lydia see the discussion as to whether or not a man can lose his soul as something new and odious. Throughout the ages, since the founding of Christendom, Western man has debated this topic. Is it not part of what Dante writes about? How men lose their souls? Is this not also the lesson of Achilles? That his beastly treatment of Hector warranted the reclaiming of his pseudo godlike protection? As someone born into the pre-Vatican II Church, I have always believed that a person can lose his soul. That is precisely what was meant by the old term “He sold his soul to the Devil.”
The protagonist of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray is a man who has sold his soul to Satan, and therefore no longer has it. His portrait reflects the evil inside of him as he grows older and ever more corrupt. His physical form reflects the false beauty that Satan has given it—thus indicating, as well, that we mortals cannot always see evil incarnate—that it can hide behind false beauty.
Since the time of Socrates, Western man has debated topics in just such this manner as you have on your site. It is only very recently that liberalism has told us we may not. How else is one supposed to arrive at an ultimate truth, except by open discussion? Only leftist egalitarianism says otherwise. Only leftist egalitarianism says that we cannot discuss the general condition of man. We should not go there—ever. [LA replies: Indeed, Eric Voegelin made precisely that point about Marx, that he prohibited any discussion of human nature.] Man progressed through the ages, in his attempts to perfect himself, precisely through this type of discussion.
Robert B. continues:
Maybe I am the only one who reads you who attended parochial schools as a child, but the idea that one could lose one’s soul and become less than human was a topic of discussion and was intended to put “the fear of God” into you. I have never had any doubt that a man could become so depraved, so far beyond God’s grace, that he could also lose his soul and thus be irredeemable. I was shown this through the Bible and the things God did to those who went beyond his grace such that he destroyed them.
You and your readers have done nothing wrong.
Lydia McGrew writes:
I am simply open-mouthed at the utter lack of information in Wanda S.’s comment that philosophy “never entered into” the dehumanization of the unborn and the mentally disabled. That is an astonishingly uninformed statement. She refers to “the utilitarians,” as though utilitarianism is not a school of ethics in philosophy. I suggest she not talk about what she does not know about. As a matter of fact, “personhood theory” in bioethics has been hugely influential in these areas and continues to be so. Hence the smug surprise on the part of Julian Savulescu, the pro-infanticide editor who published the pro-infanticide article discussed not long ago at VFR. He pointed out that the idea that newborn infants are not persons has been in the philosophical literature for quite a few decades! Indeed, it has. For various reasons, including ultrasound inter alia, it became imperative to uphold abortion by arguing that there is a category of “human non-persons.” As it was quite evident that the actual capacities that were going to be required for this definition also excluded the severely mentally disabled, they, too, became “human non-persons.” A parallel movement took place (which as I recall, Larry, you knew nothing about) to declare some higher animals such as dolphins and bonobos to be “non-human persons.” Peter Singer is at least as well known in philosophical circles for his work in animal rights to raise the status of animals to that of persons as for his work to lower the status of infants to non-persons. He popularized the term “speciesism” as a supposedly similar form of bigotry to racism. I suggest that Wanda acquaint herself with the writing of Wesley J. Smith on this topic and learn something of the history of “personhood theory” in philosophy and its very real impact on public policy. Yes, it had a lot to do with “talking” (something Wanda explicitly denies). What starts in the halls of the intelligentsia just sitting around having “respectable” conversations about subhumanity does indeed make its way out into the world.
I posted Lydia’s comment because she had the right to reply to Wanda. But really it is so irrelevant to our topic. No one at VFR suggested that there were classes of human beings that are deprived of their humanity just by virtue of having been born. The whole discussion revolved around people who had become so depraved or degraded that they lost their souls or ceased to be in the image of God. Indeed, Lydia’s overwrought comments in this discussion have stemmed largely from the fact that, having battled against people like the evil Singer, she is reading into the VFR discussion something like Singer, but which in reality is not there.
Female reader NS writes:
Why are people conflating the evil of labeling a person as subhuman because of physical characteristics beyond his control (age, physical development, consciousness, etc.) with labeling a person who consciously chooses to act like a vicious animal as “subhuman”? They have CHOSEN to descend to the level of sharks and hyenas.
The Jews have no control over their Jewishness. Blacks have no control over their blackness. Babies in the womb have no control over their stage of physical development. The mentally incapacitated person has no control over the state of his mind. Jewishness, blackness, etc. do not detract from a person’s humanity in any way.
But unrepentant, violent criminals? Roving packs of bloodthirsty youths who revel in the aftermath of their destruction, beating up the elderly for fun and then posting videos online? They are worse than animals because animals lack free will, and animals are slaves to their instincts and environment. No, these are unrepentant humans who CHOOSE to commit depraved acts. I think “subhuman” is a pretty mild label. I mean, I don’t know of a single vicious pit bull who has laughed in the face of the person he just mauled. Humans are capable of sadism, animals are not. And a sadistic human has descended to a level that is not quite fully human. That is not to say, of course, that the sadistic human is beyond redemption. All things are possible with God. And it is possible for the Holy Spirit to touch that person, and that person can be redeemed thanks to Jesus Christ. But until that happens, and we must never lose hope that it will, sadistic humans are far less human than a developing embryo, in my opinion.
NS’s comment came in before I posted my previous comment, but is a perfect fleshing out of what I just said to Lydia in that comment.
Malcolm Pollack writes:
I want to say that I think you have handled yourself very well indeed, and that while I think Lydia and Matt were right to point out that this is risky territory, to be navigated with great care (you granted Matt’s point in that respect, and moved on), they are clearly piling on at this point, while you have steadfastly pressed on with what is very much a respectable and important discussion.
I was particularly impressed by the clarity of Vinteuil’s comment. Philosophers may have a terrible track record when it comes to getting answers, but they’re certainly good at sharpening the questions.
Hang in there.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 05, 2012 12:45 PM | Send
In fact, the piling on continued, but I didn’t want to post any more of it. As I said to Lydia in an e-mail this morning:
What you should have done was point out the danger in such a discussion, where it could lead, and we would have discussed that and agreed with you. But for you to denounce us just for raising the topic that was on our minds, for you to tell us just to shut up, was very wrong. Once you did that, no mutual concessions were possible.