Quote of the Day, 6/28/15

The following taken from the section entitled “Dialogue Between Satan and a Christian” in Walter Kaufmann’s excellent book, Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Kaufmann, Walter A. Critique of Religion and Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978. 250. Print.)


Rather: Protestantism strikes agnostics just as Catholicism strikes Protestants. And an infidel is simply a man who agrees with Catholics about Protestants and with Protestants about Catholics. All religions look quaint from the outside, but are all things to the believer. That is true of atheism, too: it looks impious from outside and honest from the inside. And this is applicable to all religious rites and phrases: viewed without sympathy, they all seem odd. Take even a service of your own denomination: as soon as it is conducted according to another tradition or in a different language, it immediately becomes problematic and usually seems all wrong.


There is some truth in that. People have that attitude confronted with translations of the Bible to which they are not used. But what does that prove?


Religion can be a matter of habit, and it can be intense through and through; but it is incompatible with detached scrutiny.

One might say also: atheism can be a matter of habit, and it can be intense through and through; but it is incompatible with detached scrutiny. Detached scrutiny is rarely to be found, though much less rarely is it upheld as ideal, and hordes can be found who pay what amounts to mere lip-service to it.

Criticism always has a context; criticism always has a perspective; criticism always comes from a point of view; and criticism always, always comes from beings like us, embedded as we are in certain traditions, cultures, and societies. This is not to be forgotten, but much less is it to be disparaged or thought unfortunate. The very nature of having deep, profound beliefs is such that they cannot be blithely set aside, nor can they be dispassionately evaluated, as if to bestow unto us a ‘view from nowhere’, to borrow a phrase.

Quote of the Day, 6/27/15

This quote has special meaning for me; it captures perfectly the rank idiocy of a man I once knew, and a man that he knew and (wrongly) respected as a serious thinker.

The great religious leaders of humanity have generally been richer in passion than justice or fairness; their standards of honesty have been far from exemplary; and with an occasionally magnificent one-sidedness, they have been so obsessed by some features of the positions they opposed that they thoroughly misunderstood and misrepresented the religion they denounced. If they deserve blame for this, how much more blameworthy are those who use them as historical authorities, turning to Luther for a portrait of Catholicism, or to the New Testament to be informed about Judaism!

Kaufmann, Walter A. The Faith of a Heretic. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2015. 226-227. Print.

Quote of the Day, 6/26/15

When we consider the main design, it appears that the Gospels reject all concern with social justice and reduce morality to a prudent concern for one’s own salvation; indeed, that morality itself becomes equivocal. No agreement can be had on where Jesus stood on moral questions—not only on pacifism, the courts, and other concrete issues: most of his formulations do not seem to have been meant literally. Parable and hyperbole define his style. Specific contents are disparaged.

Kaufmann, Walter A. The Faith of a Heretic. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2015. 213. Print.

Kaufmann in both the above quote, as well as his Critique of Philosophy of Religion, has a good deal to say on this topic. On his reading (and one I find rather compelling, I should note), the morality of the New Testament is largely prudential, self-interested, and individualistic. Rather than the significant concern for social justice and the social reality humans inhabit shown in the pre-exilic prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, in the New Testament, Christ’s message is that of salvation for the individual. The only thing of concern for us is that we should achieve salvation, eternal life, immortality; however one wishes to interpret it, it is this self-interested, otherworldly prudential concern that permeates the text. As Kaufmann notes,

The morality of the Sermon on the Mount, too, is centered not in the neighbor but in salvation. Each of the nine Beatitudes in the beginning announces a reward, and they conclude with the promise: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”

Ibid., p. 210-211

Rewards for… something, depending on one’s interpretation of Scripture. What point is there in anything good in this world that does not increase my likelihood of attaining salvation? Suffering, justice, right action; all are instrumentalized at the level of the individual, and as but means to a selfish end.

Rather unlike the socially-aware, communal orientation of the Hebrew prophets, the New Testament brings a morality of indifference to social justice:

Consider the rich man who, according to Luke (18:18 ff.), asked Jesus the identical question [“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”].  To him, Jesus cites five of the Ten Commandments before adding: “One thing you still lack. Sell all you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” It is no longer the poor that require love and justice; it is the giver who is to accumulate treasure in heaven. The social order, with which Moses and the prophets were centrally concerned, counts for nothing; the life to come is everything. If what truly matters is treasure in heaven, what do the poor gain from what they are given?

If, to gain salvation, we must give up all property and follow Jesus, then either salvation requires the complete disintegration of the social order, or salvation is denied to the vast majority of men and restricted to a few. The Jesus of the Gospels was clearly prepared to accept both consequences: he was willing to countenance the disappearance of any social framework and resigned to see only a few saved.

Ibid., p. 209

Another question might be raised at this point. For what reason do the poor and those suffering greatly exist? Merely for the rich to distribute their goods to, as a means to attain salvation? Here the problem of evil rears its ugly head, it appears.

Yet another question: the poor, now, stand in need of similarly ridding themselves of ‘all ‘ the rich man gave them. The rich man seems, in pursuit of his own salvation, to have had the effect of putting a potentially (and eternally!) damning burden on the poor man. If there’s no goodness to be found in this world, of what possible use is any of this to the poor? A short, material respite before death and damnation? Or is this commandment only applicable to those with much and many? How, then, are the poor to attain salvation, one wants to ask?

Quote of the Day, 6/25/15

What distinguishes this conception from myths of a golden age among the Greeks and among other people is that the prophets [of the Hebrew Bible] stress the abolition of war and the establishment of a peaceful international community—and that they envisage this in the future and not, as other nations who spoke of golden ages, in the distant past. On paper these differences may seem small, the more so because the vision of the prophets has become a commonplace in the twentieth century. It is hard to do justice to the originality of men who, in the eighth century B.C., untutored by the horrors of two world wars with poison gas and atom bombs, and without the frightening prospect of still more fearful weapons of destruction, insisted that war is evil and must some day be abolished, and that all peoples must learn to dwell together in peace.

(Kaufmann, Walter A. The Faith of a Heretic. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2015. 204 205. Print.)

On Abortion, Murder, Genocide, and Moral Responses

Many individuals seem to consider abortion to be murder, on the grounds of fetal personhood. Generally speaking, individuals holding this view, in my experience, hold that from the point an egg is fertilized by a sperm, the resulting entity (however one wants to characterize that entity) has the full set of rights that, say, an adult human being would have.

I find this view to be entirely wrong. That isn’t the point of this essay, of course. But it should be noted at the outset that this is a view that I do not hold myself.

In any event, at least some individuals who consider abortion to be murder take a further step, and believe abortion to be genocide. It should be obvious that I don’t hold to this view either, for the claim that abortion is genocide entails that individual abortions are acts of murder taking place in a systematic, institutionalized, targeted scheme—or so it seems to me.

However, I don’t want to challenge any of the following claims in this essay: that fetuses are persons; that fetuses have rights; that abortion is murder; or that abortion is genocide. Those claims, which I would, incidentally, flatly deny, are not what I want to explore. What I do wish to explore is (1) moral questions of what is entailed by the claim that abortion is genocide; and (2) proper moral responses to acts of genocide and, a fortiori, murder.

What I want to claim is, in short, that the response to the claim ‘abortion is genocide’ on the part of those making that claim is so morally disproportionate that it amounts to a massive moral failing on their part, and, further, leaves these claimants morally culpable, or otherwise, worthy of moral blame and condemnation.

What does it mean to refer to something as genocide? We commonly refer to the Holocaust as a genocide; there is also Rwandan genocide in the mid 1990s; and the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century (there seems to be significant controversy over this last, and I don’t mean to take any particular position regarding it, for I have not the knowledge of the events nor the time period for anything like a proper characterization or reasonable belief thereof).

Genocide, then, seems to usually be an organized, systematic, and/or institutionalized attempt to eliminate an entire, discrete group of individuals. A discrete group maybe a religious group, a racial group, an ethnic group, and perhaps other sorts of groupings I have not considered. On this account, abortion seems to fail to be genocide. Surely, abortion is organized and institutionalized, though I would question whether it is systematic. But abortion is, generally speaking, not aimed at any particular group.

Of course, there are many abortions performed once the mother has knowledge the fetus has some sort of defect or another. Individual abortions, then, can be said to be aimed at particular groups of humans, inasmuch as groups of humans can be picked out by their possessing a common birth defect, for example. But the practice of abortion generally, inasmuch as abortion is organized and institutionalized can hardly be said to have any such purpose or ‘aim’. I hardly think, then, that abortion can really be characterized as genocide in the above understanding of that word.

However, genocide may be understood in another sense, that of murder carried out on a large-scale, systematized, institutionalized, and/or organized. In this sense, then, abortion may qualify as genocide, if abortion is truly murder—which premise, of course, the entire argument that abortion is genocide hinges on. Genocide as mass murder without a specific ethnic, racial, religious, or other group as its target is not, perhaps, consistent with the etymological origins of the word genocide, but nevertheless, it is consistent with how the term is used at least some of the time.

However interesting a question that may be, let us move on and, for the moment, assume that abortion IS genocide, which entails that abortion IS murder; for the sake of argument, we will assume that ‘abortion is genocide’ and ‘abortion is murder’ are true statements.

Consider this thought experiment: you know that there is a location where murders are being carried out daily. Further, these murders are part of a large, organized, institutionalized scheme of murder being carried out at hundreds of locations across the country. In short, you know that there is a location where acts of genocide are taking place.

What is the morally appropriate response? Obviously, everything else equal, action to halt acts of genocide is morally preferred over inaction. In fact, inaction on my view would be seen as a morally culpable choice, inasmuch as one has the ability to act and consciously does not, refuses to, or otherwise fails to act in any way whatsoever in a manner that would contribute to stopping acts of genocide. That seems, to me, to be relatively uncontroversial—though we may disagree over the moral theory used to formulate the moral duties, requirements, principles, or virtues that require some action, I do not believe that the conclusion, by itself, is controversial.

Obviously, there are a number of possible responses. Among them would be direct intervention. One could chain oneself to the doors of an abortion clinic. One could attempt to sabotage the power lines supplying electricity to an abortion clinic. One could, via various means, make a credible threat against the clinic (one need not, of course, actually make good on the threat for it to have an immediate effect). One could make good on threats and attack an abortion clinic, plant a bomb, assault abortion doctors.

Consider Dr. Tiller, who was murdered by anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder. In the aftermath, the abortion clinic that was run by Dr. Tiller closed less than a month following his assassination. It was only recently that a new abortion clinic reopened in Kansas City, in the same building that Tiller’s former clinic had operated.

Additional action had been taken by pro-life activists in Kansas City long before Tiller was assassinated. From NPR:

A massive effort organized by the Pro-Life Action Network and Operation Rescue descended on the city in 1991. Back then, there were three clinics that provided abortion services in the area. The protest epicenter was at Tiller’s clinic. Thousands streamed in from across the country.

“They did everything, they laid down,” says former district attorney Nola Foulston. “They wouldn’t walk. The officers had to carry them. They cried that there was brutal treatment.”

(via http://www.npr.org/2014/05/31/316715581/abortion-services-return-to-town-where-george-tiller-was-murdered)

Now, obviously this sort of mass protest would certainly have immediate consequences for the operation of the clinic. More obviously, the targeting of Tiller for successful assassination by Roeder had an even more immediate reaction: abortion services ceased entirely, and did not return for 5 years.

Now, if one could assassinate a single individual, and ensure that Auschwitz would have closed, immediately halting all acts of genocide and murder, is it even possible that anyone would say that is UNjustified? Keep in mind that the individual in question is complicit in the genocide as well. Even the leader of it, an individual without whom acts of genocide could not take place, as well as an individual who strongly believed that what they were doing was right. We find Nazis who believe thus to perverse, morally-bankrupt individuals, guilty of some of the most brutal, stunning crimes ever committed in recorded history. Few would mourn their loss. Even if the murders could be halted, or the rate slowed, with the knowledge that they may begin again later would not change the moral equation overmuch.

Yet, in the case of Tiller, even anti-abortion activists were, with few exceptions, condemnatory of Roeder. How can this be? Is not abortion, inasmuch as it is genocide, morally equivalent to the Holocaust? Is not Tiller morally equivalent to an SS officer, or doctor, carrying out the genocidal Final Solution? Isn’t Roeder simply fighting to halt an in-progress genocide by any means at his disposal—and shouldn’t that be celebrated rather than condemned?

One might plead that Roeder’s actions are equivalent to a vigilante, of an individual ‘taking the law into their own hands’. Surely, that’s true. But in both 1940s Germany and the present-day United States, the law and the government are not acting in any way to immediately halt genocide, or even individual acts of genocide. In both cases, the actions are legally sanctioned by government policy and law. Popular opinion is likewise implicated in both cases, inasmuch as many believed Jews were subhumans and that abortion is not morally wrong. What is left but to defy law, government, and authority? Legality and government approval are not the stuff of which morality is constituted—and I think that last point would command near-unanimous support and agreement.

Now suppose, for a moment, that the German people were generally aware of the Holocaust, that they knew the locations of the camps and what was going in behind their barbed wire fences. What would we think of people who condemned any and all action against the camps that was not simply handing out fliers, chalking up university sidewalks with messages, and holding up signs with messages to the SS officers running the camps, and trying to talk those running the camps out of what they were about to do? Wouldn’t that be an incredibly disproportionate response to what was happening? How could anyone’s moral character be taken seriously in either case? Especially if we assume that there are tens of hundreds of thousands of individuals opposed to acts of genocide, both in 1940s Germany and in the United States presently. Obviously, there’s more than enough support to make large, immediate changes: millions of Americans who hold that abortion is genocide could surely come together under an organized scheme to act in such a way that abortion clinics simply could not remain open for business.

If genocide involves unimaginable suffering and evil, how could any morally appropriate response to so incredibly disproportionate? What does this say about anti-abortion activists?

The bottom line is that there is a severe, irreconcilable disconnect between their rhetoric and polemics, and their actions. When this is pointed out, they hem and haw, and speak of not wishing to hurt the national political movement to eradicate abortion. The national political movement? What if a significant group of Germans in the 1940s, well-aware of what was being carried out at the concentration camps, said this same thing? ‘No, we must build a political consensus, we must change the government, we must write letters, march, hold signs… but what we must NOT do, under any circumstances, is to use violence, threats of violence, or sabotage, or anything approaching those means: we must talk and talk and talk without action.’

That is, I think, perverse. The actions are wholly inconsistent with the rhetoric and polemics, which is purely propaganda. To speak of abortion in this way, while refusing to act as if it actually is thus, is what gives the lie, and betrays one’s principles. To speak of abortion in this way is to do evil to the memory of the Holocaust: it is to do nothing less than make use of a horrible tragedy to serve one’s own political ends; it is to, in short, instrumentalize genocide in a perverse fashion that does not, and cannot, and must not be taken seriously by any thinking person.

Quote of the Day, 6/24/15

Somewhat late on this one, but so be it.

The search for a purpose behind suffering is not a mere matter of metaphysical speculation, nor a frivolous pastime of theologians. Man can stand superhuman suffering if only he does not lack the conviction that it serves some purpose. Even less severe pain, on the other hand, may seem unbearable, or simply not worth enduring, if it not redeemed by any meaning.

It does not follow that the meaning must be given from above; that life and suffering must come neatly labeled; that nothing is worthwhile if the world is not governed by a purpose. on the contrary, the lack of any cosmic purpose may be experienced as liberating, as if a great weight had been lifted from us. Life ceases to be so oppressive: we are free to give our own lives meaning and purpose, free to redeem our suffering by making something of it. The great artist is the man who most obviously succeeds in turning his pains to advantage, in letting suffering deepen his understanding and sensibility, in growing through his pains. The same is true of some religious figures and of men like Lincoln and Freud. It is small comfort to tell the girl born without a nose: make the most of that. She may lack the strength, the talent, the vitality. But the plain fact is that not all suffering serves a purpose; that most of it remains utterly senseless; and that if there is to be any meaning to it; it is we who must give it.

Kaufmann, Walter A. The Faith of a Heretic. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2015. 166. Print.

Quote of the Day, 6/23/15

John Stuart Mill, in 1862, writing on the American Civil War and Britain’s non-involvement:

When the new Confederate States, made an independent Power by English help, had begun their crusade to carry negro slavery from the Potomac to Cape Horn, who would then have remembered that England raised up this scourge to humanity not for the evil’s sake, but because somebody had offered an insult to her flag? Or, even if unforgotten, who would then have felt that such a grievance was a sufficient palliation of the crime? Every reader of a newspaper to the furthest ends of the earth, would have believed and remembered one thing only: that at the critical juncture which was to decide whether slavery should blaze up afresh with increased vigour, or be trodden out—at the moment of conflict between the good and the evil spirit—at the dawn of a hope that the demon might now at last be chained and flung into the pit, England stepped in, and, for the sake of cotton, made Satan victorious.

And a second excerpt, from the same Mill essay, on the South’s reasons and motivations for acting as they did:

If, however, the purposes of the North may be doubted or misunderstood, there is at least no question as to those of the South. They make no concealment of their principles. As long as they were allowed to direct all the policy of the Union; to break through compromise after compromise, encroach step after step, until they reached the pitch of claiming a right to carry slave property into the Free States, and, in opposition to the laws of those States, hold it as property there, so long, they were willing to remain in the Union. The moment a President was elected of whom it was inferred from his opinions, not that he would take any measures against slavery where it exists, but that he would oppose its establishment where it exists not,—that moment they broke loose from what was, at least, a very solemn contract, and formed themselves into a Confederation professing as its fundamental principle not merely the perpetuation, but the indefinite extension of slavery. And the doctrine is loudly preached through the new Republic, that slavery, whether black or white, is a good in itself, and is the proper condition of the working classes everywhere.

John Stuart Mill, “The Contest in America”

John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXI – Essays on Equality, Law, and Education, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Stefan Collini (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984). 6/23/2015.

From: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/mill-the-collected-works-of-john-stuart-mill-volume-xxi-essays-on-equality-law-and-education#lf0223-21_head_043