Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fascism cometh

Conservatives have debased themselves so pathetically during the last eight years--and more--that it may be difficult to take them seriously. Recently, the tea parties attempted to draw attention to the egregious deficit spending of the Obama administration, were mocked and maligned by the mainstream media. Whatever the merits of the particular forms the protests took, it is surely laudable to point out that, just as our forebears lamented being taxed without representation, it is similarly unjust to require future generations to pay for the excesses of today. But if Obama deserved scorn for the size of his deficits, conservatives erred grievously in failing to call Bush to task for the very same thing. It is true that Obama's deficits are larger, much larger; nonetheless, the state could never have grown so rapidly had the political right not abdicated so completely in their defense of limited government. I do not doubt that the intentions of the Obama administration would be quite similar, but even supposing that an almost unknown and unproven Senator who leaned so severely leftward could capture the office without Bush's aid, at least conservatives would be able to agitate for limited government without appearing to be the seething hypocrites that they are.

Having dispensed of the Bush conservatives, we may now profitably examine the nature of conservatism itself. Divorced from the political considerations which have arisen recently, conservatism is rooted in a steadfast defense of tradition. It does not simply oppose all change; this would be folly, and would remove all potential for moral progress. Instead, it implores agitated reformers to be patient before attempting to enact massive change. Conservatism knows that change for the sake of change is not only bothersome, it is dangerous, because it undermines the rituals and institutions which are the very marks of civilization. Reformers also tend to overstate the effects of pronouncements from above, and understate the unintended consequences of altering an aspect of any organism so complicated as society, consequences which can be seen very clearly in the excesses of the French Revolution. If an institution is to change to address a particular deficiency, a careful examination must be made of the problem; only when it has been properly studied will it be possible to produce its remedy.

It is unfortunate, then, that conservatives have disgraced themselves, because their admonitions are desperately needed right about now. It would be nice if there existed a real opposition to the all but inevitable growth in government, though right now, simply slowing the growth would be a much welcome change from the roller coaster ride that has been the first one hundred days.

At the risk of being maligned as simply another indignant right-winger, I must insist that several aspects of the current administration make it particularly dangerous. First, the president and his staff have a great deal of naive optimism about their ability to reform the world. As leaders have found out before, there are severe limitations to what men can do to better humanity, about which Obama and his minions seem blissfully unaware. As John Derbyshire points out:

Every age has its characteristic follies, and those follies have their correctives. The folly of the present age in America is a facile, infantile optimism, that recognizes no limits to human abilities or the wonders that can be wrought by politicians, bureaucrats, and generals. The corrective is a firm, measured pessimism.

The danger posed by the Obama administration would still exist even if he proved to be a masterful statesmen. That he has thus far governed with roughly the same incompetency of his predecessor is hardly encouraging. The parallels do not end there, alas. One of the aspects of the Bush presidency which leftists correctly identified as deeply problematic was his inability to change his mind on matters even when facts revealed his position to be tenuous. No matter how poorly the war went, Bush was convinced that we had acted rightly and that history would bear this out in the end. But cannot much of the same be said of Obama? When the stimulus fails, and his ridiculous environmental policies do nothing to alleviate the elusive global climate change; when State run schools are still producing half literate dregs in dilapidated buildings despite exorbitant funding; and when the situation in Afghanistan remains hopeless despite a surge, are we even reasonably confident the president will re-examine his principles. As Charles Murray observed during Obama's State of the Union speech:

It looks very much as if the president is oblivious to everything we've learned about social programs and educational reforms in the last 40 years—and by "we" I include policy analysts on the left as well as right. The guy never indicates that he is aware that we've tried a whole bunch of the same stuff he wants to try and evaluated it repeatedly and—read my lips—it doesn't work.

It is certainly too early to insist that the Obama administration is a failure. On the other hand, despite the rhetoric of change, almost every move the president has made has been in the direction of increasing drastically the power of the government. I know of no historical parallels in which an economy as unhealthy as ours has embarked on a similar course to their edification.

This gets us to the second dangerous aspect of the Obama administration. Like any progressive politician, he favors action over inaction, even when we're not clear about how to act. Speaking of the economic stimulus in the aforementioned speech, Obama said:

I called for action because the failure to do so would have cost more jobs and caused more hardships. In fact, a failure to act would have worsened our long-term deficit by assuring weak economic growth for years.

These are dubious claims. Setting aside my libertarian principles for the sake of the argument, it is possible that certain actions made by the government could have helped the situation. But to insist that any action whatsoever was preferable to doing nothing is absurd. This is when a thoughtful and principled conservative would step in and insist that we first attempt to understand the problem. Then we can go about finding a solution. Simply acting wildly is neither sensible nor responsible.

Later, in the same speech, Obama stated:

I intend to hold these banks fully accountable for the assistance they receive, and this time, they will have to clearly demonstrate how taxpayer dollars result in more lending for the American taxpayer. This time, CEOs won’t be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over.

I interrupt briefly to remind him that members of AIG took bonuses after this speech. And although it has not received as much attention, much of this money was used by the company to shore up debts to foreign banks. It's unclear how this benefits the American economy. On the other hand, it illustrates the point that acting before thinking is bound to produce unintended, and unpleasant, consequences.

Still, this plan will require significant resources from the federal government –- and yes, probably more than we’ve already set aside. But while the cost of action will be great, I can assure you that the cost of inaction will be far greater, for it could result in an economy that sputters along for not months or years, but perhaps a decade.

Here we have another senseless defense of action over inaction, always and everywhere. I hesitate to bring up the next point, because it is liable to be misinterpreted as hyperbole. The tendency to see the State as an all encompassing entity and the cult of action are signs that Barack Obama is yet another American fascist president. Let me attempt to make my case.

First, Benito Mussolini's dictum of "nothing outside the state" is in full accordance with not only Obama's positions, but with most of those of the ruling elite. We take it for granted that Il Duce knew a thing or two about fascism. Even Republicans tend to conceive of very little outside of the state, whatever their rhetoric might say. For instance, support of "school choice" might seem like a good way to reform the broken educational system, but it still concedes the point that we should all pay money to the State with which it will then educate our children. Home-schooling is more drastic, and explicitly anti-Fascist, because it insists that some things should be done by entities without any relation to the State. On a similar note, social security reform would maintain the fiction that it is the role of the State to care for its subjects when they enter retirement.

Second, the tendency to act without a plan, merely in the hope that trying things is preferabble to leaving them alone is further evidence of fascism. As Jonah Goldberg puts it in Liberal Fascism:

Mussolini's main governing themes were expediency and opportunism... Mussolini zigzagged every which way, from free trade and low taxes to a totalitarian state apparatus. Even before he attained power, his stock response when asked to outline his program was to say he had none. "Our program is to govern" the fascists liked to say. (p.48,130)

Similarly, Obama has a vague end for which he has acted in his attempts to save the economy. But nowhere is there any evidence of a plan; in fact, no one even seems to know where all of the bailout money went. We should see further evidence of this when the bailouts fail, necessitating more action by President Obama. But we can perhaps see better evidence of American fascism in action by looking to President FDR, whose New Deal, after all, was the inspiration for the latest round of government expansion. Again, from Goldberg:

Today many liberals subscribe to the myth that the New Deal was a coherent, enlightened, unified endeavor encapsulated in the largely meaningless phrase “the Roosevelt legacy.” This is poppycock. “To look upon these programs as the result of a unified plan,” wrote Raymond Moley, FDR’s right-hand man during much of the New Deal, “was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter’s tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy’s bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator.” When Alvin Hansen, an influential economic adviser to the president, was asked — in 1940! — whether “the basic principle of the New Deal” was “economically sound,” he responded, “I really do not know what the basic principle of the New Deal is.” (p.130)

Given how little time Obama has had to govern, my conclusion may seem a bit forced. But I wanted to get it out here now because if I had to give a prediction, I would say that as things progress during this administration, we're more and more likely to descend toward totalitarianism--which is a term Mussolini used to describe, quite positively, his own system of government. Now, this doesn't mean that Obama is going to line up the right-wingers to be shot; nor will he necessarily begin to jail dissidents in large numbers--though his idealogical predecessors, Lincoln, Wilson and FDR all did this.

What it does mean is that government control will become pervasive. Price controls may be instituted; rationing may return. Behavior will be closely watched, and seemingly innocuous activitied will be curtailed. Freedom will fade even further. Look for Alexis de Tocqueville's portrait of a despotic democracy to become all too real:

It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd...

The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A good start to Marx

Before settling into a scathing indictment of the man and his work, in his book Intellectuals, historian Paul Johnson observes: "Karl Marx has had more impact on actual events, as well as on the minds of men and women, than any other intellectual in modern times." Although there is little in Marxism which holds a personal attraction for me, it is nonetheless true that some familiarity therewith is necessary for a man who lives in “modern times”. To this end, and based on the recommendations of those more congenial towards his system, I picked up Marx For Beginners by Rius.

Contrary to Johnson, Rius believes that the ideas of Karl Marx have been a tremendous boon for humanity. He attributes: "social security, pensions, paid holidays, unions, scholarships" to the influence of Comrade Marx. Notably absent from his list is the Stalinist show trial, but so too is Stalin himself from the "little dictionary of Marxist terms" which concludes the book. Keeping in mind the veracity of Johnson's statement quoted above, Rius overreaches when he claims that "all revolutions... have a Marxist origin." Forget the American and French Revolutions: someone awaken Thucydides and tell him to rewrite the revolution of Corcyra to include Marxist overtones!

A "short biography of the man" is given before Rius delves into some useful background. However alluring his philosophy, one problem, as Rius admits, is that "Marx is hard to digest!" Understanding Marx's intellectual background can aid the digestion process. In this case, it helps to know something of Hegel, who requires some knowledge of Kant, and so on and so forth. With this in mind, Rius spends about thirty pages touching upon the history of western philosophy.

This section of the book is marred by Rius's attempts to conflate everything he approves as preparing in some way for Marx, while deprecating all other influences on western thought. His tendency to assign the moniker of materialist or atheist to early Greek philosophers underscores his point about the intrinsic antipathy between religion and philosophy; but while this was largely true of the Greek world, and may appear to be true today, the early Christians did their noble best to unify philosophy and religion. Plato was saved while Poseiden was left to rot. Sometimes, as when he insists that St. Thomas Aquinas practiced "mental gymnastics", Rius is being honest in revealing this bias—though I would add that he would benefit from Thomas's defense of private property in Summa Theologica II-II, Q24 A1. But when he includes Dante—who was immensely influenced by Thomistic mental gymnastics—in his pantheon of Renaissance personalities, one can hardly help but chuckle at such historical illiteracy.

The rest of the book covers Marx's: philosophy, economic doctrine, and historical materialism. Rius makes good use of quotes from Marx, Engels, and a number of their followers—the majority of which comes from The Communist Manifesto, which is, disappointingly, the one bit of Marx I've actually read—and his interspersed rhetorical asides are quite charming. The three-pronged exposition works well, and gives a good grasp of Marx's thought. It draws me no nearer to belief in his system, but it makes a certain amount of sense why one who had lost his faith in God, yet realized that evil often triumphed in this world, would latch onto such a system. As Daniel Boorstin puts it in The Seekers: "So for his followers, Marx was able to avoid the emptiness of a valueless world ruled by impersonal forces by assuring them of the triumph of justice in the long run."

There are a variety of reasons one might study Marx. At the very least, one may better grasp the happenings of the twentieth century, from Lenin's Revolution in Russia to the adoption of quasi-socialist legislation in many parts of the west. But a spectre is again haunting Europe, and indeed the world. I think it a gross misrepresentation to conclude that unregulated capitalism is somehow to blame for the economic crisis; nonetheless, the perceived failure of capitalism has amplified the siren's song of Marx. Whatever the shortcomings of his thought, the man may very well influence the twenty-first century as profoundly as he did the twentieth. For that reason, and so that the application—or misapplication—of his ideas sheds less blood and brings more justice than it did at first attempt, we may profit from studying him. Rius provides an instructive and engaging beginning.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Unnecessary nukes

I'm no fan of our president, but when he takes undeserved flak I think it's important to come to his defense. In a post over at National Review's Corner, Brian T. Kennedy writes:

[W]e must thank the North Koreans for at least reminding the American people that the world is a serious place where life and death matters. This is more than our elected representatives are giving us these days. Newt Gingrich, no longer elected, struck just the right tone on Fox News Sunday in taking the threat as seriously as it is warranted. It was in stark contrast to Mr. Obama’s pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons — an idea so ridiculous that it begs the question, “Why not a world without weapons of any kind?”

I will answer Mr. Kennedy's question in a bit, but first I'd like to quote from one of Rich Lowry's readers, who is again discussing some of the statements made by the president during his visits to Europe:

There is of course a serious scholarly debate to be had on the NECESSITY of using the Bomb (though the preponderance of thought is, yes, it was necessary). But to say that we bear a “moral responsibility” to prevent the use of nuclear weapons because we are the only ones who used them? Wow.

Take it a step further and this seems to mean that the use of nukes is never permissible. If it wasn’t justified against Japan (after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, kamikazes, no surrender in the islands, 400K US deaths at the hands of Japan and her allies, an estimated 500K to 1,000,000 US casualties if we invaded), then it’s never justified. Follow that logic: those who dropped the bombs are bad guys, as are the scientists who developed the Bomb. Did they have a moral obligation to refuse orders and not develop or drop the bombs? What should the US military do TODAY if President Obama orders the use of nuclear weapons? Are they morally obligated to refuse orders? Which brings up a final question: if the use of nuclear weapons against Japan leaves us with a “moral responsibility” to prohibit their use today, is President Obama saying he would never order the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances? Someone (Jake Tapper?) should ask him that.

The reason I quote from this anonymous reader is that he articulates the reasons we were justified for dropping the bomb on Japan--the corollary of which is that if similar circumstances should ever arise again, we would be justified in dropping another bomb. The defense is simply this: the bomb saved lives in a war with a nation which would have fought us to the death; therefore, nuking Japan was a moral good. Considerations for individual lives doesn't enter in because they are squeezed out in the plainly utilitarian balancing of numbers. I might be opening myself up to a charge of Obama like naivete; nonetheless, it needs to be said that this is an extremely cynical way of justifying an atrocity, one which speaks badly of our ability to reason morally.

Whether or not the bombs saved lives is ultimately not the issue; it can not be proven with any certainty since the bombs ended the war, though I am inclined to believe that the Japanese would have surrendered without an invasion. The question is whether the destruction of more than one hundred thousand human beings, many of them civilians, was morally acceptable. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it in discussing the doctrine of just war: "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation. A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons - to commit such crimes." (2314)

Thinking as a philosopher, if only for a moment, self-defense is morally justifiable because such cases involve acting to preserve one's own life, which is a moral good. It follows that any defense of innocents against aggressors is likewise justifiable. Applied to war, this means that the non-aggressors--the United States in WWII--are justified in preserving their lives against the aggressors--Axis powers. But this does not mean that everyone identified with those powers is to be treated as an aggressor; on the contrary, the rules of war--at least in the realm of ethics--ensure that only combatants are liable to attacks by the defenders.

It could be argued that non-combatants are also aggressors since they are supporting a hostile regime, perhaps by aiding in the production of weapons. We can safely assert that varying degrees of culpability exist. For instance, contractors who are providing equipment for armed forces are essentially part of the forces themselves, and may be treated as such. Those who grow grain, which is then sold at market, possibly to the military, have very little if any culpability. After all, most of us pay taxes which go to provide bombs which then rain down upon Afghanistan weddings. While we would be acting nobly to serve jail time in defiance, like Thoreau or Mohamed Ali, I don't think such drastic actions can be expected of everyone who finds fault with a war which they are forced to support indirectly. Lastly, culpability is lessened severely in the case of a totalitarian regime.

Returning to task, it is clear that targeting non-combatants is morally unacceptable. Such targeting may help bring about the end of the war--although, as Allied fire bombing will attest, it may increase casualties without effective the enemy's ability to wage war--but it is impossible to act thus and claim the higher moral ground. Such actions are, to put the matter bluntly, acts of terrorism. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaski attest that it is not only weak powers which resort to such tactics, nor is it true that terrorists never win. Often, they do.

The existence of a situation in which the use of nuclear weapons would be deemed morally permissible strikes me as dubious--to say the least. This is why a world in which there were no nuclear weapons would be preferable to one in which products which can only be used for evil sit idly by until mankind succumbs to employ them again. This moral examination also calls into question many of the techniques used by a modern military. If it isn't possible to ensure that non-combatants aren't going to be hurt by the bombs dropped by planes thousands and thousands and feet above the ground, it would be difficult to justify such moral recklessness, however effective we may believe such techniques to be.

This allows me to finally answer Mr. Kennedy's question. Most weapons can be used in morally justifiable--as well as morally neutral--ways. If a robber enters my house, brandishing a gun, and I shoot him to subdue him, I am using a gun in a morally acceptable manner. I can think of no parallel in which nuclear weapons could be used similarly.

The question we need to ask ourselves is if we could conceive a situation in which using nuclear weapons would be morally permissible. Those who believe we acted justly during WWII would do well to reconsider the issue, setting aside practical concerns and treating the ethical dilemma for what it is. The logical outcome for the rest of us is that the Unites States should disarm. Whether or not such a move would invite attack is beside the point; if we would never be justified in retaliating with nuclear weapons, then we should act now to remove the temptation. It would be truly shameful if the only country which has ever used nuclear weapons were to do so again.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Not by reason alone

I wish to comment upon a piece written by George Williamson, which is a response to a far better one written by Julian Baggini. Most of my words will be devoted to the former, but to give the reader some idea of what Williamson writes about, it helps to quote briefly from the latter. After confessing that he has not read any of the books written by the four horsemen--Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens--Baggini remarks:

This is not a function of what exactly these books say, but of how they are perceived, and the kind of comments the four horsemen make in newspaper articles and interviews. All this, I think, has been unhelpful in many ways. In short, the new atheism gets atheism wrong, gets religion wrong, and is counterproductive.

While admitting that I have only read Dawkins's book, I find myself in agreement with Baggini, at least on this point. Even those who agree with Dawkins may come away from The God Delusion admitting that he is a bit of an ass. Tone is very important in apologetics; while it is utterly unreasonable to expect anyone to be all things to all people and avoid offending entirely, one's audience will be less receptive to one's message if it is delivered with scurrilous condescension. One reason I like Chesterton is that his admonitions are offered with charity, which can only help his apologetics. Perhaps vehemence aids in the selling of books, but it seems less suited to change hearts and minds.

Enough background. Williamson writes:

Perhaps the answer lies in Mr. Baggini’s complaints of the new atheists’ use of reason and evidence. The new atheists “claim reason as a decisive combatant on [their] side only”, and must “recognise the limits of reason” and “acknowledge that atheists have no monopoly on it”.

That they might claim reason for their own is implausible, considering the diligence and detail in which they have scrutinized the reasoning and evidence of their theist opponents, whose books they appear to have bothered to read, in spite of the likelihood that they have seen much of the same calibre. But the new atheists go on from this examination to assert, on the strength of reason and evidence, that their case is the better supported.

The only problem with the second paragraph is that it isn't even vaguely true. An amateur Thomist, I became quite excited as Dawkins moved to address the arguments of my favorite philosopher. But instead of dismantling the arguments of Aquinas, or even providing an engaging examination, Dawkins squirms away with a rhetorical flourish. As Vox Day points out in The Irrational Atheist:

Dawkins is not actually interested in genuinely considering the question of God’s existence, as evidenced by his cursory perusal of a few of the less complicated arguments for the existence of God. His dismissal of the 3,020 pages of the Summa Theologica in less than three pages is no demonstration of surpassingly brilliant logic; it’s merely waving a dead chicken over the keyboard in an attempt to deceive the ignorant into believing that the argument has been seriously considered and found wanting. This is particularly egregious given that part of those three pages is devoted to a tangent that is entirely unrelated to the quinquae viae. (p.133)

The problem, for Dawkins and others, is that the evidence in favor of a first cause is actually pretty strong. Nonetheless, the God of the philosophers does not appear to be the God of Abraham, the God of Issac, and the God of Jacob, much to Pascal's chagrin. As St. Thomas asserts, "It is impossible to attain to the knowledge of the Trinity by natural reason." Thus, while there is plenty of room for doubt, especially over the claims of specific religions, merely skipping over the arguments in favor of God's existence is intellectually dishonest.

It's also quite disappointing. Dawkins knows a good deal about science, which makes those sections of his book to be fascinating. But if he is representative of the best that can be thrown at the greatest religious thinkers, then atheism, or at least the Dawkins variant, needs to return to the drawing board. In order to write well about a subject, you need to take the time to study it. Contrary to Williamson, they haven't done their homework.

Alas, neither has he:

Believers may be unhappy to hear that religion is behind a lion’s share of the world’s wars, but this doesn’t make it less the truth. Further, not all of the quotes clearly support Mr. Baggini’s claims. He makes much of the ‘arrogance’ of Dawkins’ website slogan, “a clear thinking oasis”, which really seems a bland claim to provide careful, reasoned thought.

First, the minor critique. To insist that one's website is an oasis of clear thinking implies that most of one's surroundings are muddle headed desert. Certainly, both the Internet and the culture at large give ample evidence of muddle-headedness. But to insist that Dawkins can provide one of perhaps only a few realms in which weary travelers may parch their intellectual thirst is a bit much.

Second, although Webster in unable to aid in quantifying "a lion's share", Williamson is revealing his ignorance when he insists that religion has been the cause of so many wars. As Vox points out, religion can only be blamed for 6.92 percent of those chronicled in the Encyclopedia of Wars. (ibid. p.104) That's not a very hungry lion.

Debunking the "religion is the cause of war" canard is important for a number of reasons. To start with the most apparent: if a large majority of wars are caused for other reasons, apostasy isn't likely to prove very beneficial at reducing the body bags produced by aggressive leaders of men. But this erroneous assertion also calls into question a good deal of the thought of Dawkins and company. To be so spectacularly wrong about the causes of war one needs to be fairly ignorant of history, which is regrettably resplendent with bloodshed; to attribute the cause of war to religion one must know very little of what the latter entails. But if an atheist doesn't know very much about religion, any criticism he offers on the topic is bound to miss its aim.

It is perhaps too much to indict atheists for making this mistake. On the other hand, if reason is to be one's god, one should serve her well and faithfully. For this is the crux of the argument Dawkins makes. He writes a good deal about the disutility of religion, but if religion, or at least one of them--however malevolent--was backed up by the evidence, we would be obligated to adhere to it. For the philosopher, the utility of religion may hold academic interest, but it holds no sway over his mind, which must be moved by reason alone. In short, Richard Dawkins is an atheist for the simple and sensible readon that he believes that God does not exist. It follows that the religions of the world are based on deceptions and lies; worse, by insisting that man believe in things which are clearly nonsensical, they prevent his higher faculties from guiding him rightly.

Yet as Baggini points out:

You cannot, on the one hand, put forward a view that says great intelligence is easily over-ridden by psychological delusions and, on the other, claim that one unique group of people can see clearly what reason demands and free themselves from such grips. Either many religious people are not as irrational as they seem, or atheists are not entitled to assume they are as rational as they seem to themselves.

The discussion of religion and war suggests some validity to Baggini's second option. Atheists too can be blinded by "psychological delusion". This observation is instructive, but it is also damaging. If man is not wholly reasonable and rational, attempting to construct a system built wholly on reason is bound to fail. Religion, in its better moments, has traditionally served to aid reason by offering man a good at which to aim, as well as motive for the attempt. There may be something which will provide the same--perhaps better--support which religion offered, but leaving a void in its place is most unreasonable.

This is a lesson humanity should have learned, and one which me might yet learn if we study history closely. After all, the philosophes of the enlightenment voiced many of the same arguments as the four horsemen--and with more wit and erudition. In some respects, Jean Meslier wrote The God Delusion almost three hundred years before Dawkins; even the tone is similar. Writing in 1965, and thus after Bertrand Russell penned Why I Am Not a Christian, Will and Ariel Durant call Meslier's Testament, "the most complete antireligious declaration that even this age would ever know." (The Age of Voltaire, p.617)

Proponents of unaided reason would do well to study the lessons of their intellectual predecessors, laid out in the next two volumes of the masterful study conducted by the Durants. The bloody revolution in France was but one possible outcome of a society attempting to divorce itself from religion; the gulags of the Soviets and the gas chambers of the National Socialists were but others. Since no such attempts have yet proven worthy of our approbation, we should be cautious about expecting a departure from the past in our future experiments sans religion.

I'll allow the Durants, nonbelievers, the the last word. Hear Pope Benedict XIV speaking--not really of course--to Voltaire:

We are convinced -- and the world is returning to us because it is learning -- that no moral code of confessedly human origin will be sufficiently impressive to control the unsocial impulses of the natural man. Our people are held up in their moral life -- though this is uncongenial to the flesh -- by a moral code taught them in their formative childhood as part of their religion, and as the word not of man but of God. You wish to keep the morality and discard the theology; but it is the theology that makes the morality sink into the soul. We must make the moral code an inseparable part of that religious belief, which is man’s most precious possession; for only through such belief does life acquire a meaning and a dignity that can support and ennoble our existence. (ibid. p. 791)

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

On civilization and children

After over five hundred pages chronicling the vicissitudes of The Renaissance in Italy, Will Durant recounts "The Moral Relapse":

The Church and Scriptures bade men increase and multiply, but comfort counseled infertility. Even in the countryside, where children were economic assets, families of six children were rare; in the city, where children were liabilities, families were small--the richer the smaller--and many homes had no children at all. (p.586)

It is important for a society to have children, not only because, without them it quite literally disappears, but because children represent society's hope for a better future. However impoverished, if a civilization is resplendent with children, it stands some chance at succeeding. Contrarily, as Renaissance Italy demonstrates, no matter how prosperous a nation, if it has lost faith in its future, it will begin to recede, until perhaps--but not always--that faith is rekindled.

A point could be made that the tendency of our leaders to pay for the excesses of today with the money of tomorrow is good evidence about how we feel about the future. On the one hand, it could be argued that optimism is the impetus of letting tomorrow's problems be ignored. The salient point, however, is that such intense focus on living well in the here and now at the expense of the future is irresponsible, and no mark of a balanced and healthy civilization.

But there is no need to reach for such a point when the more obvious one presents itself:

The recession is driving American demand for contraception and for abortions. The media have been riven this past week with stories about the rising number of couples and single mothers doing the math and deciding this is no time to bring a child into the world --- not when the economy is depressed, jobs are scarce and family incomes are dropping.

The media have also been rife with stories portraying this trend as something of a tragedy. Let me propose a counter view: it is not.

I don't know what media the author, Bonnie Erbe, has been reading, but if she's right about their stories, I can't help but consider this a good thing. My faith in the rationality of mankind is such that I cannot expect people to always recognize violations of the natural law; at the same time, abortion is so obviously a moral wrong that when it is finally recognized as such, our progeny will look back at our protestations to the contrary as a dark period of human history.

After recounting an individual case, Erbe continues:

Yes, it's sad that this unwed, pregnant mother of three had no money for bus fare. It's terrible that her boyfriend lost his job. It is heart-wrenching that she fell to tears in the doctor's office. But in the long run, can we agree that this unwed couple's decision not to bring a fourth child into the world when they are having trouble feeding themselves and three children is no tragedy? It's actually a fact-based, rational decision that in the end benefits the three children they already have and society as well.

The economic argument for an abortion is not only weak, it's precisely that to which the lazy Italians of yore would have resorted. Now, there are circumstances in which a family can no longer provide for another child; but this doesn't mean that it becomes morally acceptable to abort her. Abstinence is still possible, even in marriage, for extreme circumstances, and adoption is always a valid recourse.

The other problem with this argument is that it's not at all clear when a family can't afford another child. In many if not most cases, an additional child will be cost prohibitive. That it will also be the source of innumerable blessing shouldn't be forgotten. Throughout history, families have lovingly welcomed these blessings into their lives, under situations of such dire poverty which few if any Americans will ever experience, and which most of us can hardly even fathom.
Without declaring myself competent to judge individual circumstances, it seems fair to suggest that children should be valued, and that parents should only avoid having them under especially dire circumstances.

The true test of a society comes under crisis. The tendency is for politicians to manufacture them, but sometimes they appear in actuality. The endless series of hobgoblins could be ignored, but economic collapse must be confronted. We may continue to insist that luxury is the status quo, a right to which all Americans may lay claim. Or, we may put away childish things and clean the mess we see all about us. However long the recession lasts, no matter how far America relapses, civilization marches on. It always does--with children carrying its glorious banner.