Sunday, June 07, 2009

Nobody believes in embryonic personhood

I've been trying to find something original to say about the assassination of George Tiller. That this is an act of domestic terrorism seems indisputable. That this terrorism was egged on by a major media corporation, Fox News, is also indisputable. It also seems very likely that the suspect Roeder had assistance from Operation Rescue, making the event the fruit of a criminal conspiracy, and that he had financial backing from someone, since he had about $10 to his name.

But if you are an anti-abortion crazy, this terrorism is supposedly justified to stop the greater harm of murdering helpless infants. Now, for the purposes of practical politics I take the standard liberal position on abortion, but in terms of theory I find the question (to use my favorite word) interesting, because the situation of a pregnant woman simply doesn't fit into the framework of individual rights that underlies liberalism. A pregnant woman is not an individual, but a system of one full-fledged person and some fraction between 0 and 1 of another person. And that's not even considering whatever rights and responsibilities the father might have, that's a whole additional kettle of worms. Fetuses (and post-birth dependent children as well) simply do not fit neatly into simple legal and moral categories.

Let's dig into the anti-abortion position a bit deeper. It has the virtue of simplicity: any fertilized zygote, any cell with roughly 46 human chromosomes, is a full-fledged person, and killing one is murder. No troublesome ambiguity or middle ground. Unfortunately, it is easy to show that the anti-abortonists do not actually hold this position. In practical terms, they follow the same common-sense mental schema that everyone else does -- a zygote is not a person, but a quasiperson or potential person, that does not enjoy the full suite of attributes that come with personhood but instead gradually achieves them during development.

I've argued this before by pointing out that roughly half of all fertilized eggs fail to implant and are ejected with the menses. If zygotes were people, this would mean our infant mortality rate was 50%, and that priests would be sifting through discarded tampons with a microscope looking for blastulas to say prayers over. In fact, this doesn't happen, and nobody would consider doing it. Thus, nobody actually considers that zygotes and blastulas are people.

But the Tiller murder made me think of an additional support for this proposition. If full-blown personhood starts from conception, and there is no moral difference between abortion and murder of an adult, then there is also no difference between a late-term abortion of the kind that Tiller specialized in, and an earlier one. But somehow the anti-abortion terrorists singled out Tiller as being uniquely evil due to his willingess to perform late-term abortions. This is further evidence that the anti-abortion radicals do not really hold to their professed ideology. In fact, if you really believed that all fetuses and embryos were equal, Tiller's actions would be marginally more moral than other abortionists, since most of his procedures were performed out of medical necessity.

So moral prescriptivism aside, from a purely descriptive stance zygotes and other pre-birth forms of the human organism are not treated as people, even by those who hold an ideological position that defines them as such.

[update: Here's a good post that makes the same point in passing; and also includes some interesting facts on the frequency of late-term abortions (they're very rare, about .01% of all abortions performed).]

35 comments:

Michael said...

How do you know that "most of [Tiller's] abortions were performed out of medical necessity"?

Of course he would have said so, but "medical necessity" is a slippery thing, particularly when it involves such criteria as the pregnant woman's "emotional health." When such considerations are included within the ambit of medical necessity there is almost no situation in which an abortion cannot be justified.

Talking about the personhood of zygotes seems to me to be approaching this from the wrong end, when the matter in question is late-term abortions. It is the position of the advocates of unlimited abortion on demand - i.e., "the standard liberal position" - that there should be no restriction on abortion right up until the time of parturition. The question is not, then, whether a zygote has personhood, but whether a baby at full term minus one day, or even one hour, has less personhood than a baby one hour or one day after its birth.

From the standpoint of personhood there seems to me to be little difference between an infant immediately before parturition and one immediately after it. In the latter case, to be sure, it is breathing (perhaps with medical assistance), its umbilical cord has been severed, and it must get its nutrition otherwise (again, perhaps with medical assistance). But in terms of personhood or formed personality, what really is the difference? In both cases the infant is physically completely helpless and utterly dependent upon its mother and other care-givers, as well as being (so far as we can tell) psychologically a blank slate.

It therefore seems to me that anyone who can argue in favor of late-term abortions within the period when a child can be viable outside the womb also should have no objection to the killing of the newly born. Indeed, there are those who argue openly in favor of infanticide.

The only reason that the "standard liberal position" does not go this far is standard liberals' sense that it would not be popular; and in order to work all the wondrous "change" they want, they have to get elected first. Further affronts to the electorate's residual sense of morality can wait till the next term.

mtraven said...

How do you know that "most of [Tiller's] abortions were performed out of medical necessity"?

3rd trimester abortions are illegal in Kansas unless the mother's health is threatened. As the post might indicate, I am not very doctrinaire about abortion, but the prospect of assholes like you presuming to know better than a woman and her doctor what constitutes a legitimate health issue makes me more firmly pro-choice.

Tiller turned away cases where he did not agree that there was such an issue. For examples of why some 3rd trimester abortions are necessary, try here or here. Such late term abortions, and the need for them, are mercifully rare. If you think about it for 5 seconds you could probably figure out that no woman would endure the discomfort and risk of eight months of pregnancy only to terminate it on a mere whim, but that might require that quality of empathy that is anathemized by conservatives.

From the standpoint of personhood there seems to me to be little difference between an infant immediately before parturition and one immediately after it.

Personhood is not an innate biological property but a biologcally-grounded social construct. So while there is not much difference in cognitive capacity between a fetus immediately before birth and a neonate immediately after, they have a different social, moral, and legal status. Again, this is just how things are. The point of the post is that even extreme anti-abortonists have a gradated view of personhood.

Neonatal infanticde (selective killing of neonates before they are a day old) is a practice found in many cultures. In effect they don't attribute personhood until after the baby is born and found to be viable. I don't think anyone is advocating this stance for our culture, although Pinker in the linked article argues that perhaps the crime of neonaticide should be treated specially.

Further affronts to the electorate's residual sense of morality can wait till the next term.

The electorate is pretty solidly pro-choice.

Michael said...

The electorate is pretty soundly "pro-choice" because it has been barraged with propaganda by people who presume to be its moral leadership for several decades. The German electorate was pretty soundly pro-Nazi in 1932, when the Nazis became the largest bloc in the Reichstag. Did that make them right? Vox populi non est vox Dei.

Let's recall that while abortion and contraception have been around for centuries, they were for most of history the preserve of roués and loose women. The promotion of these expedients as positive benefits to society did not really begin until the invention of eugenics. Eugenics, back before its association with Hitler marred its reputation, was a favorite cause of the "progressive" element. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was a vigorous advocate of controlling the birth rate amongst persons of "inferior stock." It was the same in Britain, as Richard Overy documents in his recent book "The Morbid Age." Marie Stopes, the British birth control and abortion proponent, disinherited her son when he married a "genetically impaired" girl (she wore glasses). Julian Huxley argued that an increasing proportion of the population carried genes that would "gradually drag us down." Voluntary sterilization was universally supported. Unlike the United States, where the liberal Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in his opinion in Buck v. Bell that "three generations of imbeciles are enough," British public opinion would not tolerate compulsory sterilization. Nonetheless, Leonard Darwin, son of the celebrated Charles, thought it ought to be legalized. He also believed in euthanasia of defective children, asserting in private correspondence quoted by Overy that it might be necessary to kill a child with congenital blindness. "My wife and I certainly would," he wrote.

Thus it is not a stretch to suggest that if late-term, partial-birth abortion is to be permitted, that so should infanticide. Indeed, the belief has a distinguished pedigree amongst the intelligentsia. The public simply has not been desensitized on this issue - yet. Give it some time. In Germany the first to be killed were not Jews but the severely disabled in mind or body - "useless eaters," as the phrase of the day went. When the electorate is first persuaded that one group of innocent human lives do not have adequate personhood to deserve protection, it is much less difficult later to add another, then another, and so on.

You do not completely describe the practice of neonatal infanticide, at least in times of classical antiquity. The criterion was not simply that the child should be "born and found to be viable." Under Roman law, a woman upon giving birth presented her child to her husband, who decided whether to keep it or to order it abandoned. The principal intent of the law was that a man should recognize the child as his, rather than as a bastard. If he had been away campaigning with his legion until five or six months before the baby's birth, for example, he would likely order it abandoned as clearly not his own. In doing so he was exercising, not his patria potestas (lawful authority over his own children) but his manus (lawful authority over his wife). Another cause for abandonment was often an adverse omen associated with the child. Similar customs obtained amongst the Greeks. Many perfectly healthy infants were exposed for these reasons, some of whom were taken in by others as foundlings. Classical literature offers many examples. The Carthaginians, and the ancient Phoenicians from whom their settlement sprung, practised human sacrifice of the newborn. This too appears to have had little to do with viability. The divinity to whom obeisance was thus made was apparently the Molech or Moloch mentioned in Amos v:26 and Acts vij:43. I believe archaeologists have found ossuaries of infants' and childrens' bones confirming the Punic cult of infant sacrifice.

mtraven said...

The electorate is pretty soundly "pro-choice" because it has been barraged with propaganda by people who presume to be its moral leadership for several decades.

It's been barraged by anti-choice propaganda as well, from people who feel equally entitled to moral leadership, so that's no explanation. Fox News seems to have been directly involved in instigating violence against Dr. Tiller, and it has a greater reach than the New York Times and similar organs of liberal opinion.

Vox populi non est vox Dei.

You were the one who brought up popularity and the electorate, not me.

Your canned history of abortion is both irrelevant and wrong. Abortion has been practiced throughout history, by a wide variety of people for a wide variety of reasons.

Rather than descending into a pointless debate about the morality of abortion, I wish you'd address the actual point of the original post.

Michael said...

Your original post made many points. I have addressed those that seemed interesting to me.

If the actual point of the original post was that Fox News is responsible for Dr. Tiller's killing, in like fashion I propose (for the sake of argument) that you and people like you are responsible for the killing of Army recruiter Pvt. William Long and the wounding of Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula in Conway, Arkansas by one Abdul Hakim Mujahid Muhammad, a Muslim convert who said he did it because he disagreed with U.S. military operations in the Middle East.

The logic is exactly comparable. Fox News personnel disagreed publicly with Dr. Tiller's activities. You disagreed publicly with U.S. military operations in the Middle East. If Fox News is responsible for the shooting of Dr.Tiller, then by the same standard you and other critics of U.S. military policy must be for the shooting of Pvts. Long and Ezeagwula.

Of course the point that Fox News never called for Dr. Tiller's murder parallels the point that you never called for the murder of U.S. Army personnel, but if the former is no obstacle to blaming Fox News, the latter must equally be no obstacle to blaming you.

When, before the rise of eugenics, was abortion promoted by the intelligenstia as a positive social good? Of course it has been practised by a wide variety of people for a wide variety of reasons throughout history, but no one ever claimed high moral standing for those reasons. Procurement of abortions has been morally condemned throughout the history of western civilisation since at least the time of Hippocrates, the original version of whose famous oath forbade it.

As an example of a practitioner before the era of eugenics, we may consider La Voisin, who procured abortions for her clientèle amongst women of the Parisian upper classes during the reign of Louis XIV. She also provided them with special elixirs they could administer to husbands whose longevity they found troublesome, and disposed of unwanted newborns through her connection with the Abbé Guibourg, who sacrificed them to Satan in his fashionable black masses.

For all this La Voisin was broadly detested and reviled by the no doubt unsophisticated, insensitive, and religiously bigoted public opinion of the age, and eventually was executed in the place de Grève. Shall you then represent La Voisin as a protomartyr of feminism? Perhaps Hollywood, given all the acclaim amongst the great and the good for "The Cider House Rules," will soon make a movie in which she is presented as a tragic heroine who sought only to do well while doing good.

Peter Caisse said...

@Michael

Publicly disagreeing with policy is not the same thing as repeatedly condemning a doctor who performs abortions, referring to him as "Tiller the baby killer." When you concentrate your venom on one person who represents the group on the wrong side of of an extremely divisive issue all wrapped up in morality and politics, mischaracterize their position -- Dr. Tiller did not perform late term abortions without a reason -- and repeatedly tell your viewership that they are tangible evidence of evil, you're playing with fire. Perhaps if a liberal media outlet regularly referred to American soldiers as hired thugs and cold-blooded murderers for an extended period of time resulting in the murder of someone associated with the military, I'd agree with the parallel you draw. I don't know if we can place the blame squarely on O'Reilly's shoulders, but he certainly is part of a larger problem of seeing everything in black and white, and he does have power.

Michael said...

I have heard U.S. soldiers, both in the current Iraq/Afghanistan wars and during the Vietnam war, referred to as "baby killers." During the last presidential campaign I personally witnessed a liberal acquaintance say that during the Vietnam war John McCain had been a "baby killer." Attribution of war crimes and atrocities to U.S. servicemen is a commonplace on the left, including this forum. It has been at least since the days of the Korean war.

The left is all too ready to complain of "McCartthyism" and guilt by association, but the attempt to blame Dr. Tiller's murder on Bill O'Reilly et al. shows they are proficient users of the tactic themselves.

If "Dr. Tiller did not perform abortions without a reason" - just what were his criteria? It may be true that Kansas prohibits third trimester abortions "unless the mother's health is threatened," as Mtraven says. But as previously noted, "the mother's health" is a slippery concept. So is "threatened." What do these concepts really mean? If the law had a concrete standard, for example, that such abortions would be permitted only if the mother's survival were doubtful should the child be allowed to come to term, that might be easier to swallow.

Mtraven claims that "no woman would endure the risk and discomfort of eight months of pregnancy only to terminate in on a mere whim." I am not sure such a categorical statement can be made so confidently.

Martin Haskell, M.D., is a recognized expert on late-term abortion, his authoritative paper on late-term dilation and extraction having been published in 1992 by the National Abortion Federation. Dr. Haskell, who personally claims to have performed more than seven hundred partial birth abortions, points out that 80-odd per cent of these procedures are purely elective. He notes that "elective" does not mean that a woman chooses the procedure because of medical necessity, but does so because she wants an abortion. He has admitted that there does not seem to be any medical reason for the procedure.

Dr. Pamela Smith, in testimony before the U.S. Senate, has stated there are no obstetrical situations encountered in American medical practice that should require a partially delivered infant to be destroyed to preserve the life or health of the mother.

As for "mere whims," anyone who has ever known a pregnant woman has to admit that the vast hormonal turbulence associated with pregnancy in fact predisposes pregnant women to whimsy. Most of it is trivial, exemplified by such phenomena as cravings for unusual foods. I am acquainted with one woman who, during her pregnancy, compulsively drew the curtains at night because she was afraid she would see the ghost of her dead mother outside through a window. She admitted it was irrational but that awareness did not stop her from doing it.

Let us recall that the word hysteria is derived from the Greek hystera (womb), and that word stem is associated with a variety of words referring to wanting, lacking, longing, or tardiness. The Latin word oestrus, meaning a gadfly or a breeze, is applied in biology to the phenomenon of a female animal's season or heat; and from it comes the Italian estro, meaning rage, enthusiasm, or whimsy. The title of Vivaldi's cycle of violin concerti, "L'Estro armonico," is customarily translated - The Harmonic Whim.

I do not mean to suggest that most women are so lacking in good sense that they would choose to abort their babies simply on a whim after eight months of pregnancy. But if we believe Dr. Haskell, clearly some do, and they account for some 80% of the late-term abortions that are performed.

mtraven said...

Your original post made many points. I have addressed those that seemed interesting to me.

The main point was that even radical anti-abortionists do not believe their own professed ideology. That is a somewhat original and interesting thought, whereas debating the morality of abortion is almost guaranteed to be travellng over well-worn ground. Although I have to admit that bringing 17th century satanists into the argument is a new one on me. Very amusing, even if it's just a variation of the "Hitler was a vegetaran" fallacy.

Your analogizing Fox's whipping up violence against Dr. Tiller to the supposedly similar actions on the left is retarded. Bill O'Reilly regularly refered to a specific individual as a killer or murderer. Nobody on the left said anything similar about these army recruiters, certainly nobody with the kind of media reach of O'Reilly. I know you aren't so stupid as to actually believe these are at all parallel, so you are just blowing smoke as usual.

You need to give better references for your arguments. But even if you are accurately representing Dr. Haskell etc, the basic argument is about who gets to decide when an abortion is allowed, elective or otherwise? There are two choices: either the pregnant woman herself gets to decide what happens to her body and its payload, or some external authority does: the government or the medical establishment. That is the fundamental issue and no amount of gas can hide the fact that the anti-choice lobby wants to use the power of the state to force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term regardless of her own wishes.

Michael said...

If "even radical anti-abortionists do not believe their own professed ideology," can't the same be said of radical pro-abortionists?

Why, otherwise, do they dance about the issue with such euphemisms as "pro-choice" and "family planning"? The prevalence of euphemism and circumlocution in their propaganda reflects the consciousness that what they are promoting is shameful.

No organized society has not, to some extent, asserted and exercised authority to control its citizens' sexual behavior. Not all have done so in the same ways - for example, the customs of classical antiquity (as previously mentioned) approved of the abandonment of newborns, while this is today a criminal offense. Similarly, Muslim societies approve of polygamy whereas our law, founded in the European Christian tradition, does not.

Western Christendom universally stigmatized abortion. Its view was that the proper opportunity for making a "choice" presents itself at the time of consent to sexual intercourse. Those persons who constitute the "anti-abortion lobby" represent, for the most part, the continuance of this view, and they have as much right to express their points of view and to press for them to be reflected in law as you do to press for yours.

I, for my part, have never professed to know whether a zygote is a human life. My concern begins at the other end, when the unborn child is viable - when it might be delivered live, ny Caesarean section if nothing else - as opposed to being killed by partial-birth abortion. That is an awful 'choice' to leave entirely to the whims of private individuals, and seems to me to be well within the authority of the larger society to govern.

Long ago I noted that there were two political pressure groups that asserted absolute personal rights under the Constitution: the abortion lobby and the NRA. Their opponents in most cases have not argued for outright bans on their exercise of the asserted rights, but for 'sensible controls.' Of course, the right asserted by the NRA is embodied in fairly explicit Constitutional language about "the right of the people to keep and bear arms," subject only to a somewhat ambiguous dependent clause about a "well regulated militia." By contrast, the right asserted by the abortion lobby is found only in the "emanations and penumbras" of Roe v. Wade.

If I had to identify the more intransigent of the two groups, it would surely be the abortionists. Even the NRA does not maintain that civilians should be allowed to possess machine guns and artillery without restriction. By contrast, the abortion lobby resists with all its might such 'sensible controls' as parental notification requirements, in cases when minors seek abortions, and the grisly procedure of partial-birth abortion. It even opposes laws that might enable prosecution for causing the abortion of an unborn child in the course of committing another crime (e.g., assault and battery of a pregnant woman).

While the vast majority of firearms never harm innocent human life, every abortion terminates some sort of human life, whether or not it is equal in every respect to that of an infant after its birth. And the one thing we can say about that human life is that it's completely innocent of any offense, except that of being an inconvenience to the woman carrying it. Shouldn't that give us some pause? Shouldn't it give a humane society a basis for 'sensible controls'?

The great consequence of Roe v. Wade is that it short-circuited a legislative compromise such as those that were made in most European countries, most of which basically embodied the old standard of customary law, namely that 'quickening' was the terminal point in a pregnancy before which abortion was licit. If the left were not so intent upon forcing its uncompromised position on the country via the least democratic of its governmental institutions, I suspect that many of the 'cultural warfare' issues of the past forty years would not be as enflamed as they are. You have sown the wind and reapt the whirlwind.

mtraven said...

Why, otherwise, do they dance about the issue with such euphemisms as "pro-choice" and "family planning"?

This from someone willng to echo the Bush administration newspeakism of "enhanced interrogaton techniques".

While I despise euphemism in general, I don't find the terms you cite objectionable. Pro-choice people are just that: they want women to have the choice of having an abortion or not, as opposed to their opponents who want to use the power of the state to force them to carry a pregnancy to term. "Family planning" usually refers to contraception and other techniques that are alternatives to abortion -- are you against those as well?

No organized society has not, to some extent, asserted and exercised authority to control its citizens' sexual behavior.

So you admit that abortion laws are mostly about controlling sexuality rather than preserving the life of fetus? I'm surprised to hear this feminist talking point from you, but OK.

...they have as much right to express their points of view and to press for them to be reflected in law as you do to press for yours.

Who said they didn't?

I was speaking of Bill O'Reilly, who went far beyond "pressing a point", and targetted a single individual, repeatedly labelling him "a killer", compared him to the Nazis, NAMBLA, and al Qaeda, warned him of a coming "judgment day", and wshed out loud for the opportunity to commit violence against him (presumably after Tiller had already been the victim of a violent attack, but before his murder). This is very far from "pressing a point". While I beleve even this kind of fulmination is protected by the 1st Amendment, it is entirely amazing to me that it is coming from a major corporation and one of the most watched TV "news" commentators.

My concern begins at the other end, when the unborn child is viable...

If you bothered to read the links, you would know that only 1.1% of abortions are after the 21st week, while viability is generally held to start at around 24 weeks. So we are talking about a tiny fraction of all abortions performed, and most of those have a medical or other unusual justification.

That is an awful 'choice' to leave entirely to the whims of private individuals, and seems to me to be well within the authority of the larger society to govern.

Well, it is often an awful choice, but I fail to see a strong argument for the "larger society" (in practice, the state) having the power to dictate such a personal choice to a pregant woman. I will grant that the issue is not simple -- at some point the state does have the power to intervene to protect a child, to force parents to support a child, for instance. But where does a blob of cells stop and a person begin? The boundary of viability that you propose doesn't work very well, so birth is the bright line that society seems to be converging on.

Your attempt to pain the pro-choice lobby as extremists is laughable. How many people have they assassinated? The right to abortion is under attack by an organized terrorist movement, but NARAL is just too strident for your tender ears.

Michael said...

Of course child-bearing is sexual behavior. It is the logical aim and conclusion of normal sexual behavior. Or had you forgotten that?

That very few late-term abortions are performed is no reason not to regulate or prohibit them. Very few abortionists are assassinated by lunatics, either, but that does not mean such an act should not be condemned.

As for 'medical' reasons, just about anything can be and is cited as a medical reason for one or another supposed treatment. Look at the farce of 'medical' marijuana. How many people who have a real justification for its use are there among those who get presciptions for it? It was thus with "medical" use of alcohol during the liquor prohibition. You want a little whiskey in case of snakebite? Even if you are hundreds of miles from the nearest rattlesnake habitat? OK! Risum teneatis?. At least 'medical' whiskey did not, and 'medical' marijuana does not, necessarily imply the termination of human life. I'd agree with an approval of late-term abortion in a case when the life of the mother would likely be lost if the pregnancy came to term, and the infant could not be delivered by C-section without certain danger to the mother's life. That is a concrete limitation, not one of infinite flexibility.

As for who says opponents of unlimited abortion on demand don't have a right to express themselves - you do, at least implicitly, by trying to blame a murder on a person who never called for it. Robustly criticising a person is not the same as calling for his murder. You are engaged in a real stretch here. Even James Kirchick agrees with this, who as an assistant editor of the New Republic and a contributing writer to the Advocate, ought to be right up your alley.

mtraven said...

It [childbirth] is the logical aim and conclusion of normal sexual behavior.

So I guess you are opposed to contraception, since it enables illogical and abnormal sexual behavior?

A classical scholar like yourself ought to know that contraception and abortion go back at least as far as ancient Egypt, so humans have been abnormal for a very long time.

That very few late-term abortions are performed is no reason not to regulate or prohibit them.

True enough, but the general tactic of the force-pregnancy lobby is to use the example of late-term abortions to try to get all abortions banned. But since such cases are nowhere near typical, this is a dishonest tactic.

As for 'medical' reasons, just about anything can be and is cited as a medical reason for one or another supposed treatment.

You are repeating yourself.

Even James Kirchick agrees with this, who as an assistant editor of the New Republic and a contributing writer to the Advocate, ought to be right up your alley.

Jesus, you are really out of touch if you think James Kirchick and the New Republic are up my alley.

Michael said...

Of course contraception and abortion go back a long ways in human history. So do murder, theft, and adultery. We wouldn't need to have laws prohibiting certain behaviors if they didn't exist. There were no 60 mile-per-hour speed limits before there were vehicles capable of travelling that fast.

The question I asked you earlier - whether abortion was ever viewed by the intelligentsia as a positive social good, before the rise of eugenics - is one to which you gave a non-answer. Of course it was around long before then, but it was uniformly the province of persons on the margins of morality. The same could be said of contraception. Only in comparatively recent times, in which society has (to use Daniel Patrick Moynihan's felicitous phrase) defined deviancy down, have these sorts of behaviors obtained anything like their present spread, together with the moral approval or at least indifference they now enjoy.

I suppose La Voisin, or the marquis de Sade, or Aleister Crowley might - in the early modern period - be offered as some sort of antecedents for modern attitudes. Just as much modern political thinking has unacknowledged roots in Marxism (e.g., many clichés of feminism are drawn from Engels's "The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State") so it appears that much recent thinking on sexuality has unacknowledged roots in de Sade. He was considered a lunatic in his day; only in our present cultural degradation are his ideas adopted by the great and the good, again without acknowledgment or even awareness.

That I have repeated myself on occasion is because you have failed to make any credible refutation of the point in question. I'll continue to remind readers of your failure to do so, as long as you continue in that failure.

mtraven said...

The question I asked you earlier - whether abortion was ever viewed by the intelligentsia as a positive social good, before the rise of eugenics - is one to which you gave a non-answer.

It's a non-question. The "positive social good" is the ability of people to control their reproduction, and abortion is merely one technique for achieving that, and never the preferred one. And the idea that there is a unified view on abortion held by "intellgentsia" that is uniform throughout historical time and space is ridiculous. Many medical texts from the classical era onwards describe methods of abortion (ie Soranus); since doctors are presumed to belong to the intelligentsia that indicates a degree of approval.

And speaking of non-answers, you haven't stated your position on contraception.

it was uniformly the province of persons on the margins of morality.

a) I doubt it. Document this assertion.

b) If so, so what? I am not a conservative, and the fact that some moral judgments were made in 12th century France or the Hittite empire is an interesting data point but says very little about the moral codes we should be following today. If contraception and sexual activity outside marriage used to be relegated to "the margins of morality" and today they are not, that is a definite improvement in my book.

In practice of course, such marginalized activity was widely indulged in by people from all sorts of social classes. Contra Philip Larkin, sex wasn't invented in 1963.

Michael said...

That old medical texts described methods of abortion does not mean that the moral consensus of doctors was historically in its favor. Old legal texts likewise described methods of murder; that does not mean that lawyers, being a part of the intelligentsia, endorsed it.

Of course sex did not begin in 1963. However, I do not think you can maintain credibly that we have not seen, in our lifetimes, a whole range of previously criminal sexual activities not only legitimized, but deemed respectable and worthy of protection by the 'great and good' of our society.

This moral inversion is quite recent. Before the immediate present, the moral consensus had for centuries been that the behavior in question was reprehensible. The fact that it has never been possible entirely to suppress vice, and that "a wide variety of people from all sorts of social classes" engaged in it, did not mean anything more than that a wide variety of people committed a wide variety of other crimes as well. Society has always had a seamy underside - it is only recently that it has been celebrated. This is of course the characteristic antinomianism of the modern left.

On the topic of contraception, I find it interesting that when the birth control pill was introduced, the accompanying publicity was all about how it would help married couples to plan their families. There was at least no public acknowledgment that its effect would be to undermine the chastity of the unmarried and to facilitate recreational sex with no thought of the possible consequences.

Yet history shows that this is what it did - and, in a seeming paradox, the result has been more, not fewer, unexpected preganancies. The same may of course be observed of the availability of abortion on demand, which has tracked similarly with the rise in illegitimate births. To argue that still more abortion and contraception are needed falls into the typical left wing reasoning summarized by Albert Jay Nock as: "if an ounce of prussic acid will kill you, then all you need is a quart of it to put yourself in blooming good health."

According to one datum I have read, last year, 36% of all new births in the United States were illegitimate. That's higher than the rate of illegitimacy amongst blacks was in the 1960s when an alarned Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted with considerable accuaracy the effect that widespread fatherlessness would have upon black children as they grew up. We have of course seen the terrible degradation of the American black community that has stemmed from large numbers of its children growing up without stable, two-parent households. Those phenomena are now about to spread to the whole population.

Do you approve of a 36% illegitimacy rate? What kind of society do you think is likely to result from it? Is this result of having wrecked the institution of marriage as the norm within which sex and childbearing are to take place "a definite improvement" in your book?

Maybe it is for a cultural Marxist, who wants to replace the natural family as the fundamental economic unit with the state. As Herbert Marcuse observed:

"One can rightfully speak of a cultural revolution, since the protest is directed toward the whole cultural establishment, including the morality of existing society... The traditional idea of revolution and the traditional strategy of revolution have ended. These ideas are old fashioned... what we must undertake is a type of diffuse and dispersed disintegration of the system."

Marcuse looked forward to a future in which the existing "oppressive" order (capitalism, normal "patriarchal" families) would be destroyed, so that people could liberate their libidos and live in a joyous wold of "polymorphous perversity." If you want to see in advance how this works, look into any housing project in the welfare slums. Welcome to your Brave New World.

mtraven said...

That old medical texts described methods of abortion does not mean that the moral consensus of doctors was historically in its favor. Old legal texts likewise described methods of murder; that does not mean that lawyers, being a part of the intelligentsia, endorsed it.

That wins today's prize for worst attempted use of parallelism. So stupid it hurts.

I do not think you can maintain credibly that we have not seen, in our lifetimes, a whole range of previously criminal sexual activities not only legitimized, but deemed respectable...

Yes. Ths is a good thing.

Society has always had a seamy underside - it is only recently that it has been celebrated. This is of course the characteristic antinomianism of the modern left.

I disagree. Antinomians want to ignore or subvert the law; most progressive types want to change it. And in fact it would seem to be good for the law as an institution to not include so many laws that are regularly flouted.

I recall from my youth that it was very easy to be scornful of the law and government in general due to all the laws that were stupid (ie, most drug laws) and/or unjustly applied. Now I am older and more respectible, and need to instill some measure of respect for authority in my own children, so it would be nice to have an authority that was worthy of respect.

The gay marriage issue is another one that brings out the contrast. There is a mnority of gays (no idea how large) that is scornful of the whole concept of marriage and would at some level prefer that gayness retained its illicit flavor. They might, I suppose, be called antinomian. But most gays just want to be legit and set up housekeeping and joint wills like anybody else.

On the topic of contraception...

So despite your continued refusal to state a clear position, I assume you are opposed to the availability of contraception as well as abortion. Well, all I can say is good luck, that's one battle that seems pretty well decided and has small chance of being reverseed.

Do you approve of a 36% illegitimacy rate? What kind of society do you think is likely to result from it?

Dunno, Sweden does OK with a much higher illegitimacy rate. Granted, we are not Sweden, but illegitimacy per se is not a problem.

Michael said...

My observation is that contraception encourages promiscuity, and promsicuity, despite the availability of contraception, has led to higher rates of illegitimate birth, the increased incidence of venereal disease, and many other consequences that do not seem to me to be "a definite improvement." You ask what is my position. It is that one may regret all of this without any hope or expectation of seeing these unfortunate consequences reversed.

Perhaps increased promiscuity is an improvement from the standpoint of a male in early adolescence looking only as far as the immediate gratification of urges brought on by an overabundance of hormones. As adults we have to think with our brains rather than our gonads. Reaching adulthood couild well be defined as bringing of emotions and instincts under the discipline of reason. Of course many people never grow up. I also think that is regrettable.

I use the term antinomian with the meaning of revolt against traditional morality. It is the conscious inversion of good and evil - the antinomian's motto is "evil, be thou my good." The antinomian often only thinks the thoughts the sociopath actually carries into action. The late Norman Mailer seems to me to be a sort of prototypical antinomian, while the numerous sociopaths he wrote about or whose causes he took up actually had the guts to do what he only theorized about and admired.

Other antinomians have gone farther. On the point of sexual morality, de Sade was an antinomian. Aleister Crowley was an antinomian. Now, perhaps, the norms against which they revolted have fallen and the conduct they championed and exemplified has (as I noted) been legitimized and even thought worthy of society's protection. We shall see how this social experiment plays out.

As for homosexuality, I can only observe that its increasing acceptance in this country during the 'seventies was followed by a dreadful epidemic of a deadly venereal disease. Further, 'political correctness' precluded implementation some of the most effective steps that might have been taken to curtail its spread, such as contact tracing and the closure of the bath houses and pornographic bookstores the continued tolerance of which provided convenient venues for homosexual conduct. A little inhibition would have saved a great many lives in this instance. I predict that 'gay marriage' will not result in anything close to a majority of the homosexually-inclined forming stable relationships. Childbearing and the upbringing of children provide an incentive for heterosexual couples to stay together after the initial physical attraction or romantic love have passed. This will be absent in the case of homosexual couples. Their relations are more naturally transitory.

It hardly makes a difference what I think of contraception - or of homosexuality - other than to observe that the consequences of their legitimation have been far from unalloyed benefit. The ethnically native populations of Sweden and many other European countries are not reproducing at a rate sufficient to replace themselves, as they have aborted, buggered, and contracepted themselves into negative population growth. These population deficits are being made up by the immigration of peoples alien to their historic cultures and values. It will remain to be seen if enough Swedes remain in fifty years to preserve the social and economic framework that you find so admirable about Sweden. The immigrant populations do not in large part share the values of the culture that is their host. When they have the whip hand how long do you suppose it will survive?

mtraven said...

I use the term antinomian with the meaning of revolt against traditional morality.

There is no such thing as "traditional morality". Morality is rich and various across time, culture, and class (with some commonalities). The term "traditional morality" is deployed by people like you who want to pretend that a particular institutionalized version of morality has some kind of priveleged status.

It is the conscious inversion of good and evil - the antinomian's motto is "evil, be thou my good."

Too bad that's not what the word means. Or at least, that's not the most interesting meaning, since we already have "evil" for that. Antinomian means to be opposed to law as such. So I would agree that Crowley and de Sade would qualify, and most varieties of anarchist. But it clearly doesn't apply to organizations such as the ACLU and gay-rights organizations that are composed of lawyers trying to change the law.

As for homosexuality, I can only observe that its increasing acceptance in this country during the 'seventies was followed by a dreadful epidemic of a deadly venereal disease.

So? You think that AIDS was caused by the greater acceptance, or that it was God's punishment? I hate to tell you but there was plenty of gay sex before it was socially accepted. There may have been more promiscuity in the seventies, but that is not the same thing (and there was more heterosexual promiscuity in the seventies as well).

Further, 'political correctness' precluded implementation some of the most effective steps that might have been taken to curtail its spread, such as contact tracing and the closure of the bath houses...

This is largely true. So what's your point?

I predict that 'gay marriage' will not result in anything close to a majority of the homosexually-inclined forming stable relationships.

I don't recall ever hearing anyone make the claim that it would.

You seem to have some problem with the notion of rights. Gays want the right to marry like anyone else; that says nothing about how many of them will end up taking advantage of that right. They would like the right to serve in the military; that doesn't mean that they will all enlist the moment DADT is repealed. And advocating for the right to have an abortion is not the same thing as advocating that people should go out and have abortions.

Childbearing and the upbringing of children provide an incentive for heterosexual couples to stay together after the initial physical attraction or romantic love have passed. This will be absent in the case of homosexual couples. Their relations are more naturally transitory.

I hate to be the one to tell you, but gay couples raise children all the time, through adoption, artificial semination, and other means. I know many such couples and from my observation, these families tend to be at least as stable as heterosexual ones.

the consequences of their legitimation have been far from unalloyed benefit.

Few changes produce unalloyed benefits.

The ethnically native populations of Sweden and many other European countries are not reproducing at a rate sufficient to replace themselves...

Oh well. The alternative would seem to be using the power of the state to force people to reproduce against their will. Is that what you advocate?

Michael said...

I certainly don't advocate forcing people to reproduce against their will. However, the time to make a choice to reproduce is when one gives consent to sexual intercourse. It's kind of like a contract, which having been entered into, cannot be reneged upon.

As for my comment about the Swedes, you seem to have the mistaken notion that my comment about their future fate implies some desire to alter it. It is obviously beyond my ability to alter it, I don't think it can be altered, and in any event, they have made their bed and now must sleep in it. In nature there are no rewards or punishments - only consequences. The Swedes will bear theirs.

Let me be very clear: "traditional morality" is that which has historically prevailed in western Christendom; those who reject it, whether they be de Sade, Crowley, NARAL, NAMBLA, ACLU, etc. are all on the opposite side and are antinomians, who seek to invert the traditional moral order.

Of course there has always been vice. It is the antinomian's peculiar tactic, whether he be the marquis de Sade, Aleister Crowley, or some modern abortionist or sodomite, to identify it as a positive good. For most of history the people who engaged in vice made no such pretension, but showed clearly that they knew what they were doing was shameful by endeavoring to conceal it from the scrutiny of the society in which they lived.

The relevance of the promiscuity of the 'seventies, hetero- and homo-sexual, is that it was accompanied in both cases with a budget of evil consequences. These were of course not "God's punishment" in the crude low-church formulation. I like Kipling's summary better:

"On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: The Wages of Sin is Death."

The rise of bastardy and the return of syphilis, gonorrhoea, and other old venereal diseases amongst heterosexuals, and the horrific epidemic of the new venereal disease AIDS amongst homosexuals, are simply the natural consequences of the loss of sexual self-discipline during the 'seventies.

The sexual revolution has had many casualties, while its walking wounded surround us. I suppose you think all of this is a mere bagatelle, part of the breaking of eggs necessary to make an omelette. I beg to differ. I see no good arising from it at all.

mtraven said...

the time to make a choice to reproduce is when one gives consent to sexual intercourse. It's kind of like a contract...

You sure sound like a hell of a lot of fun.

Animals in nature do not have the ability to separate reproduction and copulation. Humans, in contrast, do. I never really understood why the Catholic Church and like thinkers have a concepton of human nature that tries to reduce us to bare biology.

Let me be very clear: "traditional morality" is that which has historically prevailed in western Christendom

I don't believe there ever was such a thing. People have been fucking and sodomizing since the dawn of history and have done it quite prominently in all of western Christiandom as well. The clergy was an especially rich source of incontinent behavior throughout the middle ages. Celibacy was imposed to try to get these rutting priests under control, which eventually resulted in the Church becoming the pederasty ring that it is today.

those who reject it, whether they be de Sade, Crowley, NARAL, NAMBLA, ACLU, etc. are all on the opposite side and are antinomians...

I hope you realize that lumping these disparate people and organizations together makes you sound like a raving loon.

I see no good arising from it at all.

I happened to watch the SF Gay Pride March for a bit yesterday. There sure are a lot of people who disagree with you, noisily and joyfully.

Michael said...

You are wrong about the origins of celibacy in the Latin rite of the Catholic church. We have been over this before. The origins of celibacy in the Latin rite have to do with feudalism and with the desire of the feudal noblesse to retain for themselves the patronage of ecclesiastical benefices. In a society in which sons followed fathers in the same trade or profession, a married priesthood would have threatened the ability of the laird or squire to control the appointment of the vicar at the church in his demesne.

You are apparently not aware that there has always been a non-celibate clergy in the Eastern rite of Catholicism, as there also is in the various branches of Orthodox Christianity. This rather puts paid to your theory that "celibacy was imposed to get these rutting priests under control." The real explanation is that in the places where the Eastern rite prevailed, the western model of lay-patronage of ecclesiastical benefices had never existed, so there was no demand for priestly celibacy as a means of preserving it.

Do you deny that there was a normative morality in western Christendom, and that among its aspects was sexual continence? You claim to be a Jew - have you not read the Old Testament? Was there not a normative morality in it of similar character?

That people from time to time transgressed these norms is no disproof that they existed and were broadly accepted. Indeed, the fact that their transgressors, with the exception of a few antinomians, generally tried to avoid detection of their misdemeanours, indicates that even they accepted the norms. As La Rochefoucauld observed, hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

What de Sade, Crowley, NARAL, NAMBLA, and the ACLU all have in common is their overt endorsement of transgression. Indeed, isn't "transgressive" practically a word of praise on the left? The left prefers the unrepentant sinner to the one whose attitudes bespeak a guilty conscience.

Your Gay Pride march may have seemed joyful to you - I suppose the hog, similarly, is joyful in the muck of its sty.

"As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man,
There are only four things that are certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

"And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins,
When all men are paid for existing, and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!"

mtraven said...

You are apparently not aware that there has always been a non-celibate clergy...This rather puts paid to your theory that "celibacy was imposed to get these rutting priests under control."

I am aware that the Eastern churches generally don't have a celibate clergy. I don't understand how that "puts paid" to anything though.

Do you deny that there was a normative morality in western Christendom, and that among its aspects was sexual continence?

The whole notion of "normative morality" is problematic. Such a moral code consists of rules that are promulgated and enforced by some centralizing authority. The mere fact that this authority finds it necessary to enforce these rules indicate that people do not in fact take them as actual and universal normative guides to behavior.

You claim to be a Jew - have you not read the Old Testament? Was there not a normative morality in it of similar character?

It was notoriously not followed. God got angry at his people quite a lot.

That people from time to time transgressed these norms is no disproof that they existed and were broadly accepted.

It's no proof that they were, either. It's very difficult to know what was "broadly accepted" when the same powers that make the rules are the ones writing the histories. We have no way of knowing what the moral thought of, say, a 9th century French peasant might have been and whether his values were guided by Church teachings or not. Furthermore, the Church itself had teachings on homosexuality and other matters that varied widely across time and place.

Indeed, isn't "transgressive" practically a word of praise on the left?

It is for some small segments of the left, which is not a unified thing, a point I made in the last posting which apparently did not penetrate your head. The only people who use the term "transgressive" are academic theorists, who are politically unimportant. On the other hand, it is part of the left's methodology in general to transgress that which is deserving of transgressing. Rosa Parks is an example that comes to mind, along with laws against miscegenation, sodomy, and a whole host of other things. Call it antinomian if you want, but I think you miss the point.

Your Gay Pride march may have seemed joyful to you - I suppose the hog, similarly, is joyful in the muck of its sty.

Your claim was that no good came out of gay liberation and other leftish social movements. But quite clearly there are a bunch of people who are happier than they were before and have more choices than they had before. So, you are wrong. Reciting Kipling is not an argument.

Michael said...

The relevance of the non-celibate clergy of Eastern rite Roman Catholicism most assuredly shows that the celibacy required of the Latin rite clergy had nothing to do with containing their sexual conduct quà sexual conduct. It had rather to do with preventing them from having legitimate offspring who might claim an hereditary clerical status, and thus threaten the secular nobles' rights of presentation to ecclesiastical livings. Where such rights did not exist, there was no requirement of clerical celibacy. Indeed, in some places, ecclesiastical benefices were held by non-celibate laity. Crinan, abbot of Dunkeld (978-1045) was one such example; he was the father of king Duncan of Scotland, the same as was killed by Macbeth. You ought to learn something about ecclesiastical history if you expect to argue about the origins of church polity and canon law.

The happiness the sodomite now derives from increased opportunities to be promiscuous without censure seems to me to be outweighed pretty decisively by the much greater probability of his contracting an incurable venereal disease. In nature there are no rewards or punishments - only consequences. And such are Kipling's gods of the copybook headings. Life is not only or even primarily about careless hedonism. The man who cannot learn to subdue his passions can never be truly free, for (as Burke observed) his passions will surely forge his fetters. Indeed, as the consequences of 'gay liberation' demonstrate, they may condemn him to long suffering and a premature death.

The history of moral codes and laws of course follows that of wrongdoing. There has and always been vice and crime - the existence of censure and sanction against it both evidences that fact, and reflects a prevalent norm that is widely accepted by a people, regardless of the system of government. Moral codes and laws that don't have such acceptance don't persist for centuries, as the censure of abortion and buggery have done in western Christendom.

Your attempts to show that abortion was broadly accepted in the past by the citation of Soranus is an overreach. In the first place, the editio princeps of his treatise on midwifery did not take place until 1838. This indicates its relative obscurity. The medical works of Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and Galen exist in many more manuscript sources and were almost all in print by the sixteenth century.

Furthermore, just about every textbook of materia medica from classical antiquity to the present indicates in detail all the poisons known to its author, the manner of their action, and the doses known to be lethal to human beings. Following logic analogous to that you have used with respect to discussion in old medical texts of abortion, you could argue this indicated that physicians and apothecaries saw nothing particularly wrong about poisoning people. You might indeed bring forward the examples of such eminent medical practitioners as Drs. Palmer, Pritchard, Lamson, Cream, and Crippen, in support of such an argument. Yet it would be quite erroneous to conclude on the basis of such evidence to suggest that poisoning was ever an accepted practice or that because a legally constituted authority found it necessary to enforce rules against poisoning, this indicated that "people do not in fact take them as actual and universal normative guides to behavior."

mtraven said...

Re clerical celibacy, your reasoning is invalid, but it occurs to me that I don't care a hoot about the issue, so am dropping the point. The larger point that made me mention it was that the clergy had a reputation for licentiousness behavior, whether or not that was the reason for celibacy. And the even larger point, which is the only one that actually is interesting to me, is that so-called "traditional morality" was not actually adhered to, most notably by those allegedly in charge of promulgating and enforcing it.

The happiness the sodomite now derives from increased opportunities to be promiscuous without censure seems to me to be outweighed pretty decisively by the much greater probability of his contracting an incurable venereal disease.

You said that "no good" came from gay liberation, which is manifestly false. If you are changing your position to saying that the net change in goodness is negative, that is a very different position, somewhat more defensible but still false. You can ask the sodomites themselves how they weigh the gains and losses. It's pretty obvious what they feel and I don't see how your opinion (nor mine) carries any weight compared to that of someone actually affected.

Life is not only or even primarily about careless hedonism. The man who cannot learn to subdue his passions can never be truly free, for (as Burke observed) his passions will surely forge his fetters.

You are about 40 years late to be starting a crusade against untrammled hedonism. It's really not something anybody is promoting these days. Gays want to get married, for god's sake, which is the opposite. But I imagine you oppose that as well.

As usual, you miss the point of anything related to freedom. Everyone indeed has to subdue his passions, the question is what do you subdue them to. To state regulation? To a moral code developed by a tribe of desert nomads several thousand years ago? To a personal commitment like marriage? Or to something else? For the last few hundred years society in the large has realized that what you cloyingly call "traditional morality" doesn't make much sense, and has been casting around for the next model. I can't say we've found it yet but going backwards is not an option. Can't keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen Paree.

I can't imagine what your point about Soranus only being translated in 1838 is. Many classical works are lost entirely, that doesn't mean they were unimportant. Soranus was widely respected and was praised by Augustine and Tertullian. Galen and Hippocrates also included procedures for inducing abortion. The analogy between poisons and abortion in ancient medical texts is strained, to put it mildly. Poisoning is a medical situation that doctors need to know how to deal with; abortion is a medical procedure.

Michael said...

If clerical celibacy existed to 'control rutting priests' then why did not the Roman Catholic church impose it universally, instead of in the Latin rite only? You are confusing the priestly vow of celibacy with the monastic vow of chastity. Celibacy is simply the condition of being unmarried. Look it up in the dictionary!

"Secular" (i.e., diocesan) clergy were kept from marrying in the Latin rite for the reasons stated, not because the Church wished to compel their complete sexual abstinence. If the latter were a necessary condition of the clerical state it would also have been required of the Eastern rite of Roman Catholicism. "Regular" clergy - i.e., those subject to a monastic rule - took a vow of chastity, which was one component of a more general pattern of asceticism that typically also included vows of poverty, in some cases those of remaining cloistered, or of silence. Religious asceticism of a comparable sort is also found amongst Buddhists and certain subdivisions of Hinduism - and it does not reflect the will of authority to control sexual behavior as such, but the view that giving up the pleasures of the flesh generally enhances the spiritual faculties.

I have no intention of 'starting a crusade against untrammelled hedonism.' I merely point out its disadvantages. And I note that the policy of the political left for several decades has been to cushion people from the natural consequences of wrongdoing.

I'm fond of Kipling's poem, among other things, because it summarizes the program of the left in one phrase - it is to create a society where 'all men are paid for existing, and no man must pay for his sins.' The left wishes to deliver the stupid, lazy, feckless, and vicious from the consequences of their folly, indolence, waste, and vice - and to force the intelligent, industrious, provident, and self-disciplined to foot the bill. To borrow the words of Boethius, it would stifle the fruit-bearing harvest of reason with the barren briars of the passions; not to free the minds of men from disease, but accustom them thereto.

In Paul Rahe's recent book "Soft Despotism," the author quotes a passage from Tocqueville that is almost eerily prophetic of the condition to which the modern left wishes to reduce society:

"I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Over these is elevated an immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate... It would resemble the paternal power if, like that power, it had as its object to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them irrevocably fixed in childhood... The sovereign extends its arms about the society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of petty regulations - complicated, minute, and uniform - through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way... it does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them; rarely does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting on one's own... it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way; it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies..."

You wrote earlier of moral codes being promulgated and enforced by some centralizing authority, but in fact the traditional morality that once prevailed in this country was not dictated by central authority at all. It was broadly rooted in the organic civil society - in families, churches, and communities. What has succeeded in good part in destroying it is centralizing authority, manipulated by left-wing activists and politicians. It was not popular demand that abolished laws against abortion or sodomy, but decrees of Federal courts - the least democratic branch of the highest and most remote level of government - obtained by the efforts of pertinacious litigants bent on subverting civil society.

mtraven said...

I thought we were talking about gay marriage and the sexual revolution, and before that embyonic personhood and abortion. You seem to have segued into welfare or something -- what does indolence have to do with any of the subjects at hand? As you usual, you have gone off into a evidence-free rant about something that has nothing to do with the subject at hand. Really, get your own blog.

You also can't seem to keep a consistent set of views from one sentence to the next. One minute you are decrying the repeal of laws against sodomy, in the next you are critiquing the left for purportedly wanting to "cushion people from the natural consequences of wrongdoing." It is the right, not the left, that is trying to (in their view) protect people from themselves (or so I guess -- the arguments for anti-sodomy laws are woefully incoherent, which is why they have fallen -- there is no good legal argument in their favor and plenty against). The left wants to let people make their own mistakes, the right feels the need to regulate people's private lives for them.

...in fact the traditional morality that once prevailed in this country was not dictated by central authority at all. ...It was not popular demand that abolished laws against abortion or sodomy...

I hope the contradicton in the above is obvious. Laws are by definition a manifestation of an authority. If traditional morality is so wonderful, people are perfectly free to follow it on their own without the benefit of state enforcement, now as ever. It is a peculiarity of our government that the larger Federal government (particularly the judiciary) is more libertarian on some issues than the states, but it is less so on others, such as drug laws and for the moment, same-sex marriage.

Michael said...

The left does not want to let people make their own mistakes, it wants to cushion people from the consequences of their mistakes. It is the party of the bail-out. Abortion is a sort of bail-out. If one should conceive a child as an accidental consequence of thoughtless fornication, just kill the little inconvenience. What callousness! Abortion is not only made legal, but promoted by government - women are encouraged to resort to it. The left wants to make it available free of charge to those who can't afford to pay for it. All of this represents a profound reversal of the previous norms.

True liberty has to do with political and economic action. It allows inequality to arise, which the left wishes to prevent. The left's version of liberty amounts to no more than libertinism. As an example, the First Amendment was clearly intended to protect political speech. Yet, with the left's active support, political speech in the United States is restrained by so-called campaign finance reform (and if you do not believe the FEC's reach will ultimately be extended to blogs - mark my words - ça ira!). On the other hand, the First Amendment was clearly never intended by the framers to protect pornography, yet the left supports the latter without restraint. Orwell understood why. Prolefeed is indispensable to the left's program.

Of course anti-sodomy laws reflected an exercise of governmental authority, but it was one with which most people agreed. A little bit of repression and inhibition would not have been a bad thing, considering the number of lives that were lost to AIDS due to the failure of government in left-wing urban enclaves like yours to enforce the sodomy laws, unwillingness to shut down bath houses, pornographic peep shows, etc.

Similarly, laws restricting the distribution of contraceptives and prohibiting abortion encouraged a society in which illegitimacy was very rare, because people had to practice self-discipline to avoid it. There was no law against bearing a bastard, but it was stigmatized. The law reinforced, rather than undermined, the norms of civil society.

Law cannot enforce virtue, and should not attempt to do so. But it ought to provide an environment in which people can make the right moral choices for themselves, rather than being positively discouraged, even hindered, from so doing.

You have not acknowledged the comment quoted from Tocqueville. I wonder what you think of it. It seems to me to describe quite well the kind of society in which you wish us to live. The left's attempt to produce its version of the Nietzschean Übermensch, as "New Socialist Man," was indeed an abject failure; but it seems to me that it has now turned its efforts towards producing Nietzsche's "Last Man", which is hardly an improvement:

"They have left the regions where it is hard to live; for they need warmth. One still loves his neighbor and rubs against him; for one needs warmth... A little poison now and then; that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end for a pleasant death. One still works, for work is a pastime. But one is careful lest the pastime should hurt one. One no longer becomes poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wants to rule? Who still wants to obey? Both are too burdensome. No shepherd, and one herd!..."

The only thing that isn't quite true about this is that there are still those who want to rule, but they conceal their ambition behind egalitarian platitudes. They are not aristoi, but a nomenklatura; not even honest barbarians, but philistines. Thus "the brave new world begins/where all men are paid for existing, and no man must pay for his sins..."

mtraven said...

Argh. "The left" is not a unified thing, and it does not "want" anything. Attributing unified purpose to large and diverse groupings is a sure way to make yourself stupid. True, there are some values that are shared broadly on the left, but they aren't what you say they are.

The left... wants to cushion people from the consequences of their mistakes.

If you count getting old or sick as a mistake, then I guess so.

I like to invert your statements to gain insight into what you believe. You ("the right") believe that it's very important that people should be punished for their "mistakes". You seem unduly obsessed with the supposed misdeeds of others, even those that can't possibly affect you, and dream of doling out the appropriate penalties. Seems like a personality disorder to me. You might want to avail yourself of this handy diagnostic instrument.

All of this represents a profound reversal of the previous norms.

Even if this was so, who cares? Norms vary over time and place, as you presumably know.

True liberty has to do with political and economic action.

As an example, the First Amendment was clearly intended to protect political speech. Yet, with the left's active support, political speech in the United States is restrained by so-called campaign finance reform...

Ridiculous. The most principled defenders of political speech are found on the left, such as the ACLU.

(and if you do not believe the FEC's reach will ultimately be extended to blogs - mark my words - ça ira!)

This issue was decided long ago. The FEC does not regulate the press and blogs for its purpose are considered part of the press. Note that it was conservatives who were attempting to suppress liberal blogs using the campaign-finance laws.

Of course anti-sodomy laws reflected an exercise of governmental authority, but it was one with which most people agreed.

Not any more: 74% of Americans favor the overturn of sodomy laws.

You have not acknowledged the comment quoted from Tocqueville. I wonder what you think of it. It seems to me to describe quite well the kind of society in which you wish us to live.

You have no idea what kind of society I favor.

Tocqueville was often a very astute observer, but your deployment of him is hamfisted. The implication that things like social security and food safety laws are somehow responsible for envervating the national character is ridiculous on its face. Again, let's invert the thought to find out what you think: you'd prefer it if we had massive poverty among elderly and a ready supply of tainted meat and lead-painted toys, because it builds character.

Here's a bit of Tocqueville from just after that passage you cite:

"The society of the modern world, which I have sought to delineate and which I seek to judge, has but just come into existence. Time has not yet shaped it into perfect form; the great revolution by which it has been created is not yet over; and amid the occurrences of our time it is almost impossible to discern what will pass away with the revolution itself and what will survive its close."

Which leads me to a point I think I've made before: your quarrel is not with the Left but with modernism itself, which is a development much larger and more inevitable than any political faction. Tocqueville had the good fortune to be in a time and place where he could observe and comment on these changes. The difference between left and right is that the left tries to engage with modernism (not always successfully, to be sure), while the right spends its energy harrumphing about it and dreaming of a mythical lost golden age. Hence its perennial irrelevance and reputation for obstinate stupidity.

mtraven said...

Here's another passage of Tocqueville, where he sounds almost like Marx and Engels, which is not that surprising, since they were observing the same phenomena at about the same time:

"The small aristocratic societies that are formed by some manufacturers in the midst of the immense democracy of our age contain, like the great aristocratic societies of former ages, some men who are very opulent and a multitude who are wretchedly poor. The poor have few means of escaping from their condition and becoming rich... there is no real bond between them [the rich] and the poor. Their relative position is not a permanent one; they are constantly drawn together or separated by their interests. The workman is generally dependent on the master, but not on any particular master; these two men meet in the factory, but do not know each other elsewhere; and while they come into contact on one point, they stand very far apart on all others. The manufacturer asks nothing of the workman but his labor; the workman expects nothing from him but his wages. The one contracts no obligation to protect nor the other to defend, and they are not permanently connected either by habit or by duty. The aristocracy created by business rarely settles in the midst of the manufacturing population which it directs; the object is not to govern that population, but to use it....I am of the opinion, on the whole, that the manufacturing aristocracy which is growing up under our eyes is one of the harshest that ever existed in the world...the friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed in this direction; for if ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrates into the world, it may be predicted that this is the gate by which they will enter. "

I'd say that passage stands up to time a whole lot better than the one you offered.

Michael said...

The real working class - i.e., of skilled tradesmen - has advanced considerably in its prosperity since the nineteenth century, not because of socialism or social welfare legislation, but because of its increased productivity. The wage of labor is the marginal productivity of labor.

The problem of poverty in in our society is that of those who are not, do not wish to be, or cannot be productive. There are many reasons why this may be the case, some of which deserve sympathy, and some of which do not.

Being old and sick deserves sympathy; suffering the consequences of laziness, stupidity, licentiousness, waste, and folly does not. I do not necessarily think people should be punished for such behavior, since the natural consequences are deterrent enough.

Two rather basic principles of economics are that government subsidizes what it wants more of, and punitively taxes that of which it wants less. Thus, for example, politicians spend public money on things that are perceived to be public goods, such as roads, sewers, and schools, or give tax incentives to private enterprises to do things deemed desirable such as providing health insurance for their employees. On the other hand, they impose punitive taxes on what they wish to discourage. Hence liquor is taxed heavily to discourage drunkenness, and tobacco to discourage smoking.

Government must, therefore, wish to encourage indolence and vice because of the generous subvention it gives to the idle, and to those whose dissipation has rendered them incapable of self-sufficiency. Contrariwise, government must wish to discourage thrift, since its taxation of interest on savings together with its inflation of the currency render a net negative return. Government must wish to discourage success in business, as shown by taxation of higher earnings at higher rates. Government must wish to discourage providing for one's family, as evidenced by the taxaton of estates - and so on.

Whereas virtue used to be its own reward, the actions of government in the era of socialism and social-welfarism seem calculated to destroy whatever benefit intelligence, industry, providence, and self-discipline might naturally confer, and to reward folly, laziness, waste, and libertinism.

We could, I suppose, quote snippets of Tocqueville till the cows come home, but you ought to be aware that he (like our founders) considered libertinism to be the enemy of true liberty, and admired the self-reliance and self-discipline of early nineteenth-century Americans - these being traits of character the left in this country has since the nineteen-sixties sought sedulously, and with considerable success, to undermine.

mtraven said...

I suddenly realized that your comments here (a) have nothing to do with the original post and (b) are not very interesting. So excuse me if I don't waste my time picking them apart.

Michael said...

Ah, but they do have to do with the original post.

Promoting abortion, buggery, and contraception - the ABC of post-Soviet leftism - is of a piece with other aspects of a program of 'defining deviance down,' the better to subvert the Christian tradition, the normal ("patriarchal") family, and private property. See, for example, Marcuse's "Eros and Civilisation." It is a blueprint for all that cultural leftism has accomplished in this country in the past fifty years.

mtraven said...

The post was not about the merits of abortion but about a specific bogus argument made by abortion opponents. It's right there in the title, even you can't miss it.

Michael said...

I addressed that point quite a long time ago. The question (especially with late term abortions such as those committed by the late Dr. Tiller) is not whether the zygote has personhood, or approaches it to a degree worth protecting, but whether an unborn infant in the third trimester, which is well within the sphere of viability, has personhood worth protecting.

The motto of the left could well be Sartre's twist on Ivan Karamazov: "If there is no God, everything is permitted."

Desensitization to any residual qualms begins incrementally. First, the value of life at its earliest stages is depreciated, as in the title to your post. Then the argument proceeds from the embryo to the unborn infant at 8-1/2 months. So adamant is the left's denial of the value of unborn life that it even resists legislation that would make battery causing a pregnant woman to miscarry a more severe offense than simple battery - for such a law might suggest that an unborn infant's life is worth protecting.

At the other end of life's trajectory the left pressures for 'death with dignity.' Just as in the case of abortion, hard cases (which proverbially make bad law) are initially cited in support. Just as victims of rape and incest were the original poster children for unrestricted abortion on demand, it is first suggested that persons in terminal illness and severe unmanageable pain should be permitted to elect voluntary euthanasia. Next it is argued that people who are not terminally ill or suffering unmanageable pain, but who are old, physically handicapped, or psychologically depressed, should be allowed assisted suicide. Then we arrive at the point (already reached in the Netherlands) where doctors euthanize patients they deem deserving, without their consent. And all of this is swallowed whole by earnest liberals whose nates tremble with indignation at the capital punishment of a serial killer. Moral inversion rules the day.

mtraven said...

I addressed that point quite a long time ago.

You obviously still don't understand it, as evidenced by your later statement:

First, the value of life at its earliest stages is depreciated, as in the title to your post.

So maybe you should try reading it again.

I am not the slightest bit interested in debating abortion in general, and even less in reading your vacuous tirades against the depravity of the left. There's no sensible way to reply to such nonsense.