Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tenderness in the Absence of God

Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor once wrote that "In the absence of faith, we govern by tenderness, and tenderness leads to the gas chamber." Tenderness in this case means a desire that others not suffer needlessly, or a desire for their suffering to be alleviated if at all possible. Another Catholic, Walker Percy, picked up this theme in his 1987 sequel to Love in the Ruins, called The Thanatos Syndrome. Note that I don't take it as fully established that this tenderness necessarily leads to genocide, but historically it seems the case that this tenderness has indeed been a major cause of things like the holocaust. And get this. Not just they saw it. Lots of people saw it, and see it still, including theists and atheists, religious and nonreligious people. Perhaps notably, G.K. Chesterton saw it, though not so specifically, when he made his consistent warnings against Eugenics in the pre-World War II era. Let me repeat this again. Chesterton, who died in 1936, was frequently warning against the dangers of not only the slightly more obvious Nazi-ism, but eugenics. Again, G.K. went dust-to-dust in 1936, and as a bonus it might be noted that his major work Eugenics and Other Evils was copyrighted for 1922. Again, I am not suggesting a necessary link. I am suggesting that in all governing by tenderness--which is an ill-defined concept sans the Divine Love or some other objective measure of what the heck it means--we come out to a line in the sand, a line readily redrawn and moved. It has been described as a slippery slope; I find the line in the sand less suggestive of logical fallacy. But I do believe I say with no danger of fallacy that even if it be the case that we can get some traction on a slippery slope, it remains slippery. Again, I don't think it leads necessarily to genocide, but I can see how this can happen historically if not of necessity, and I am convinced that one morning we will get up, and this God-forsaking compassion will dress us and lead us where we do not want to go. [[EDITED FOR CLARITY: With that in mind I present a number of links exploring what tenderness in the absence of God can do to a society, followed by a few actual people who preach it in our society speaking in their own words, followed by what I think to be the only real solution to the problem--as opposed to solutions which are more temporary.]]

For further decent expositions of what the heck O'Connor and Percy were talking about, you can see this link, this longer article from Ingatius which fills in some of the gaps in how compassion can lead to gas chambers. For a good example of Chestertonian thought on the subject, one can check out this essay by G.K. himself, which might sound kind of flippant in places. But seriously consider what was said and when it was printed (1937).

It seems like some of the things in healthcare and philosophy nowadays are just too...convenient to ignore. Check out for instance, Peter Singer's article Why We Must Ration Health Care...granted that some rationing will have to happen if our country goes the socialization route. I have massive unease about giving his position anything resembling full support, though it is more than a little less abhorrent than I expected.* Next, check out Russia, where a journalist is writing articles that suggest newborns could be euthanise under the proper circumstances. Also, there's this monstrosity that appeared in the real live New York Times back in 2005 and also seems to be a piece of advocacy at least for tolerance if not outright acceptance of just "letting nature take its course" in certain cases.*** Not quite euthanasia, but getting there! I don't even need to mention the state of assisted suicide laws around the world (culled from pro-PAS sources in a time before Washington's Doctor-Assisted Suicide law passed.

Now of course, if the world were to be converted to a true ethic of life and Love, compassion fully under the dominion of Our Lord, or at least a reverence for Life and Love, lots of these problems would go away. At the risk of getting utopian, there would be no more worries about how much a life is worth, because with everyone living correctly (including proportionally correct donations by the rich and middle-class, to the poor) there would be a substantially lower need for rationing of any kind. Sadly, we are not yet living in the New Heaven and New Earth, the only places where this could really happen and (perhaps with a bit of irony) places where it won't be needed so much. That said, it seems a pretty obvious thing that we should be taking steps to bring as much of that Kingdom to reality here on Earth, and now, as we can. As with so many other things, fighting laws which cede to capitol-T Tenderness will help, fighting a political fight will help. But nothing, ultimately, will save us as a society or a world, as nothing saves a soul, but conversion.


* I can't support it unless I can find some way of divorcing it from his other philosophical positions, including the main things he's known for, his proposal that infanticide is a lesser crime to that of killing a full-grown adult. Also, SuzyB, which also gets the hat tip for that particular article, makes some notes that remind me of my basic objection, which is that we shouldn't necessarily value lives differently. The thing is, there's no way to ration health care without eventually coming across like you're valuing lives differently.
** The original article doesn't appear to have a translation up; if someone finds a full translation tell me so I can link it.
*** I'll readily admit that I am still wrestling with the degree to which this constitutes "playing God," but if an infant is even remotely likely to survive in the long run it seems like measures should be taken to save him/her. Also, I will maintain that there is a qualitative difference between passively shortening the length of an infant's suffering and actively striving to end it.

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