I’ll take the sterile rock, thanks

The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has written a post recently (H/t to Brian Leiter) responding to recent books written by Owen Flanagan (The Geography of Morals, 2016) and Paul Bloom (Against Empathy, also 2016). To oversimply grossly, these two writers think we would be better off getting rid of certain kinds of emotion, in Flanagan’s case anger and in Bloom’s case empathy. Flanagan thinks we would be better off striving to become like Buddhist or Stoic sages, and Bloom thinks we could achieve a good society better using cool, rational compassion in place of empathy in making social decisions.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Professor Schwitzgebel doesn’t like these proposals very much. He advances (though admits he doesn’t at the moment have an argument for defending) a view that the world would in an important sense be poorer without these emotions even if getting rid of them might in some sense make the world better. He thinks that there is an intrinsic value to having a “rich” world, and articulates his understanding thusly:

I want to push back against the idea that we should narrow the emotional range of our lives by rejecting empathy and anger. My thought is this: Having a rich emotional range is intrinsically valuable.

One way of thinking about intrinsic value is to consider what you would wish for, if you knew that there was a planet on the far side of the galaxy, beyond any hope of contact with us. (I discuss this thought experiment here and here.) Would you hope that it’s a sterile rock? A planet with microbial life but not multi-cellular organisms? A planet with the equivalent of deer and cows but no creatures of human-like intelligence? Human-like intelligences, but all lying comatose, plugged into simple happiness stimulators?

Here’s what I’d hope for: a rich, complex, multi-layered society of loves and hates, victories and losses, art and philosophy, history, athletics, science, music, literature, feats of engineering, great achievements and great failures. When I think about a flourishing world, I want all of that. And negative emotions, destructive emotions, useless bad stuff, those are part of it. If I imagine a society with rational compassion, but no empathy, no anger — a serene world populated exclusively by Buddhist and Stoic sages — I have imagined a lesser world. I have imagined a step away from all the wonderful complexity and richness of life.

Most of Professor Schwitzgebel’s commenters seem to agree that the “wonderful complexity and richness of life” seems to trump any advantages to getting rid of things like anger.

My response to Professor Schwitzgebel’s though experiment is the good antinatalist one: “sterile rock, please.” I do find it entertaining how the way the experiment was set up allows me to echo Schopenhauer.

If you try to imagine, as nearly as you can, what an amount of misery, pain and suffering of every kind the sun shines upon in its course, you will admit that it would be much better if, on the earth as little as on the moon, the sun were able to call forth the phenomena of life; and if, here as there, the surface were still in a crystalline state.

Again, you may look upon life as an unprofitable episode, disturbing the blessed calm of non-existence. And, in any case, even though things have gone with you tolerably well, the longer you live the more clearly you will feel that, on the whole, life is a disappointment, nay, a cheat.

Wenn man so weit es annäherungsweise möglich ist, die Summe von Not, Schmerz und Leiden jeder Art sich vorstellt, welche die Sonne in ihrem Laufe bescheint; so wird man einräumen daß es viel besser wäre wenn sie auf der Erde so wenig wie auf dem Monde hätte das Phänomen des Lebens hervorrufen können, sondern, wie auf diesem, so auch auf jener die Oberfläche sich noch im krystallinischen Zustande befände.

Man kann auch unser Leben auffassen als eine unnützerweise störende Episode in der seeligen Ruhe des Nichts. Jedenfalls wird selbst Der, dem es darin erträglicher ergangen, je länger er lebt, desto deutlicher inne, daß es im Ganzen a disappointment, nay a cheat ist…

Note on the texts

I’m not about to offer a global defense of my view any more than Professor Schwitzgebel is of his, but I will offer first this observation: the “rich, wonderful world” that Professor Schwitzgebel imagines is surely one containing a lot of suffering. I don’t think Professor Schwitzgebel would deny this claim and indeed language like “…negative emotions, destructive emotions, useless bad stuff, those are part of it” seems to admit it, but to expand a bit on the point. The existence of anger — at least, any sort of anger that is somehow rationally motivated — seems to require the existence of suffering, something for people to be angry at, and seem also likely to be the cause of suffering as people act on that anger or, alternatively, bottle it up and stew. An empathy, if it’s to have much of a positive point, needs suffering to empathize with.

Having made that observation, I’m inclined to offer an error theory for why it is that people can believe that it’s so great to have a “rich, wonderful world,” and it’s that when people are allowed to contemplate cruelty and suffering as spectators, rather than as people who have to undergo the suffering, it turns out that they rather enjoy the spectacle. Our literature abounds in atrocity: from the Iliad to the latest action-movie productions of Hollywood, violence and death draw eager audiences. Those pages of history are most avidly read that are written in blood, whereupon are chronicled stories of war, massacre, and persecution. Our sporting events, from gladiatorial combats to American football, are given their seasoning by the prospect of injury and pain. And, without going too deeply into the politics of the present day, I must observe that much current political behavior is at best hard to explain if we do not take into account how the winners in political struggles savor, if only through their television screens, the sufferings inflicted on the losers. Old Nietzsche was right: spectatorial cruelty is woven deep into our natures. Small wonder people like Professor Schwitzgebel and his commenters want the “rich” world. It gives them something fun to look at, or at least contemplate within the confines of their imaginations. Honestly, it is all enough to make one sympathetic to that dark kind of antinatalism.

Let me say that I do not for a minute that I do not think for a minute that I am a better person than Professor Schwitzgebel or his commenters. I have just as much spectatorial cruelty in my nature as they, perhaps more, as a quick glance at at least one of my other blogs will quickly reveal. If I differ from them, it is only in my unwillingness to think well of myself.

Note on Schopenhauer’s text:

The German text is taken from this online version of his Parerga und Paralipomena under the heading Nachträge zur Lehre vom Leiden der Welt (§156). It represents my own transcription from the rather painful-to-read original Fraktur text. I have tried to follow the punctuation of the original. In one instance I have taken the liberty of updating Schopenhauer’s spelling (from “Noth” to “Not”). The words “…a disappointment, nay a cheat” are in English in Schopenhauer’s original text. The English text is from a translation by Thomas Bailey Saunders, published as “On the Sufferings of the World,” published at Wikisource. Both texts were accessed on March 15, 2017.

Return to main text.

Nature’s brain-hacking

From a recent article in the Health section of The New York Times: “Pregnancy Changes the Brain in Ways That May Help Mothering.”

Pregnancy changes a woman’s brain, altering the size and structure of areas involved in perceiving the feelings and perspectives of others, according to a first-of-its-kind study published Monday.

Most of these changes remained two years after giving birth, at least into the babies’ toddler years. And the more pronounced the brain changes, the higher mothers scored on a measure of emotional attachment to their babies.


In the study, researchers scanned the brains of women who had never conceived before, and again after they gave birth for the first time. The results were remarkable: loss of gray matter in several brain areas involved in a process called social cognition or “theory of mind,” the ability to register and consider how other people perceive things.


A…possibility is that the loss is “part of the brain’s program for dealing with the future,” [Paul Thompson, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California] said. Hormone surges in pregnancy might cause “pruning or cellular adaptation that is helpful,” he said, streamlining certain brain areas to be more efficient at mothering skills “from nurturing to extra vigilance to teaching.”

Another story, from the Guardian, “Pregnancy causes long-term changes to brain structure, says study”, adds some detail.

While the researchers say the lack of similar brain changes among new fathers suggests the adjustments are down to biological processes, such as fluctuations in hormones,[Cambridge University neuroimaging expert Dr. Kirstie] Whitaker points out that environmental influences could be at play. But she agrees with the authors’ suggestion that decrease in grey matter volume could be linked to evolutionary pressures.

“Being a new mum is hard and you have to adjust an awful lot,” said Whitaker. “Your brain is going to be able to respond to that change and it is going to make it so that you can take care of this newborn bundle of joy.”

Now to be sure, it is only one study with a relatively small number of subjects, and we should generally be skeptical of reports in popular media on new science. (I have included the Times‘s link to the underlying Nature paper so readers so inclined may follow that in detail). But let’s grant for the sake of argument that the researchers are onto something and Nature really is hacking pregnant women’s brains in the service of making them better mothers. That possibility prompts (for me, anyway) the following reflection.

At this time there circulate among a certain subset of men who identify as “pick-up artists” or “men’s rights activists” putative techniques for hacking women’s brains in order to increase their sexual availability to the would-be hackers. Decent people generally see these attempts at mind-hacking as a pretty vile way to behave toward other human beings, and rightly so. But curiously, when nature is the hacker, carrying out part of its relentless program of putting new generations of suffering beings on earth, we get something like breathless celebration.

Makes you wonder how much anyone thinks these things through.

The Great Commission

Here is Jesus addressing his eleven remaining disciples in Matthew 28:18-20.

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power [ἐξουσία] is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations [ἔθνη], baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded [Faustus: ἐνετειλάμην –there’s that word again] you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

So if I get this right, and I see no reason to think I’ve got this wrong, they’re supposed to head out and make everything and everyone Christian. Not explicitly said, but surely implied, is that this process if successful means wiping out all other religions, non-religious worldviews, and ways of life, on a planetwide basis. The great diversity of humankind is to be replaced with a Jesus-based monoculture.

I can think of many names for the aspiration embodied in Jesus’ command, of which “cultural imperialism” is perhaps the most diplomatic.

The Great Commandment

Here’s a post I thought apropos for Christmas Day, because we all remember whose birthday it is (other than Humphrey Bogart‘s, that is).

Many people think that the core of Christianity can be found in something called The Great Commandment. It’s really two commandments, and can be found in Matthew 22:35-40.

Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Perhaps “commandment” seems a little strong, but if you look at the underlying Greek you’ll find that the word used by “Matthew” and rendered by King James’s translators as “commandment” is ἐντολή, which is a very commanding word in Greek. Outside of the Christian scriptures it was used by Herodotus (in a verbal form) to describe an order given by the Persian King Cyrus to one of his subordinates.

This meaning raises a question, which no Christian in the past two thousand years has, to my mind anyway, successfully answered, or even raised.

Why on earth would we think of love as something that could be commanded?

The Artifex anticipated

The days are dark and growing darker, and not just due to the workings of celestial mechanics on the northern hemisphere. To try to find some sense of calm in the darkness I have been spending more time as usual with philosophy. With David Hume, because he never fails to be a good companion. With Arthur Schopenhauer, because his cosmic pessimism seems appropriate to the moment, and with Nietzsche perhaps most of all, because as the foremost exponent of the roles played by ressentiment and innate cruelty in human mental life he strikes me as the finest diagnostician of the illness that is life today.

I have read Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals any number of times over the past few decades. The greatest books — and this is surely one of them — repay re-reading no matter how many time one rereads them. On this re-read, something stook out.

Remember the Artifex Atrox? It is that mysterious being, that anti-God that is filled with joy at human suffering, that feeds off of it and created the universe for the purpose of having it. It was invoked (though not under the name I have attributed to it, by John Zande as a way of breaking apart and defeating theodicies. In Nietzsche’s book, I found a claim that some version of the Artifex Atrox might have been present to Greeks of old in their very gods. (Since more than one, should we perhaps then call them Artifices Atroces? Here is Nietzsche’s claim, taken from the Second Essay, §7. As usual, original German text is on the left, a tolerably-good English translation on the right.

Was eigentlich gegen das Leiden empört, ist nicht das Leiden an sich, sondern das Sinnlose des Leidens: aber weder für den Christen, der in das Leiden eine ganze geheime Heils-Maschinerie hineininterpretirt hat, noch für den naiven Menschen älterer Zeiten, der alles Leiden sich in Hinsicht auf Zuschauer oder auf Leiden-Macher auszulegen verstand, gab es überhaupt ein solches sinnloses Leiden. Damit das verborgne, unentdeckte, zeugenlose Leiden aus der Welt geschafft und ehrlich negirt werden konnte, war man damals beinahe dazu genöthigt, Götter zu erfinden und Zwischenwesen aller Höhe und Tiefe, kurz Etwas, das auch im Verborgnen schweift, das auch im Dunklen sieht und das sich nicht leicht ein interessantes schmerzhaftes Schauspiel entgehen lässt. Mit Hülfe solcher Erfindungen nämlich verstand sich damals das Leben auf das Kunststück, auf das es sich immer verstanden hat, sich selbst zu rechtfertigen, sein »Übel« zu rechtfertigen; jetzt bedürfte es vielleicht dazu andrer Hülfs-Erfindungen (zum Beispiel Leben als Räthsel, Leben als Erkenntnissproblem). »Jedes Übel ist gerechtfertigt, an dessen Anblick ein Gott sich erbaut«: so klang die vorzeitliche Logik des Gefühls – und wirklich, war es nur die vorzeitliche? Die Götter als Freunde grausamer Schauspiele gedacht – oh wie weit ragt diese uralte Vorstellung selbst noch in unsre europäische Vermenschlichung hinein! man mag hierüber etwa mit Calvin und Luther zu Rathe gehn. Gewiss ist jedenfalls, dass noch die Griechen ihren Göttern keine angenehmere Zukost zu ihrem Glücke zu bieten wussten, als die Freuden der Grausamkeit. Mit welchen Augen glaubt ihr denn, dass Homer seine Götter auf die Schicksale der Menschen niederblicken liess? Welchen letzten Sinn hatten im Grunde trojanische Kriege und ähnliche tragische Furchtbarkeiten? Man kann gar nicht daran zweifeln: sie waren als Festspiele für die Götter gemeint: und, insofern der Dichter darin mehr als die übrigen Menschen »göttlich« geartet ist, wohl auch als Festspiele für die Dichter…

Text of Friedrich Nietzsche, Zur Genealogie der Moral, “Zweite Abhandlung: »Schuld«, »schlechtes Gewissen« und Verwandtes,” §7 from http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/buch/zur-genealogie-der-moral-3249/4 . Accessed on November 11, 2016.

What really arouses indignation against suffering is not suffering as such but the senselessness of suffering: but neither for the Christian, who has interpreted a whole mysterious machinery of salvation into suffering, nor for the naïve man of more ancient times, who understood suffering in relation to the spectator of it or the causer of it, was there any such thing as senseless suffering. So as to abolish the hidden, undetected, unwitnessed suffering and honestly to deny it, one was in the past virtually compelled to invent gods and genii of all the heights and depths, in short something that roams even in secret, hidden places, sees even in the dark, and will not let an interesting painful spectacle pass unnoticed. For it was with the aid of such inventions that life then knew how to work the trick which it has always known how to work, that of justifying itself, of justifying its “evil.” Nowadays it might require other auxiliary inventions (for example, life as riddle, life as epistemological problem). “Every evil the sight of which edifies a god is justified”: thus spoke the primitive logic of feeling — and was it, indeed, only primitive? The gods conceived of as friend of cruel spectacles — oh how profoundly this idea still permeates our European humanity! Merely consult Calvin and Luther. it is certain, at any rate, that the Greeks still knew of no tastier spice to offer the gods to season their happiness than the pleasures of cruelty. With what eyes do you think Homer made his gods look down upon the destinies of men? What was at bottom the ultimate meaning of Trojan Wars and other such tragic terrors? There can be no doubt whatever: they were intended as festival plays for the gods; and insofar as the poet is in these matters of a more “godlike” disposition than other men, no doubt also as festival plays for the poets.

From Walter Kaufmann, ed. and trans. Basic Writings of Nietzsche (New York: Modern Library, 1992). pp. 504-5.

Of course they would not let a painful spectacle pass unnoticed. This must really be a true festival time for all gods and genii.

For those of us who savor a bit the idea that philosophical positions are the captives of the psychological needs of philosophers, Nietzsche has a bit more.

Nicht anders dachten sich später die Moral-Philosophen Griechenlands die Augen Gottes noch auf das moralische Ringen, auf den Heroismus und die Selbstquälerei des Tugendhaften herabblicken: der »Herakles der Pflicht« war auf einer Bühne, er wusste sich auch darauf; die Tugend ohne Zeugen war für dies Schauspieler-Volk etwas ganz Undenkbares. Sollte nicht jene so verwegene, so verhängnissvolle Philosophen-Erfindung, welche damals zuerst für Europa gemacht wurde, die vom »freien Willen«, von der absoluten Spontaneität des Menschen im Guten und im Bösen, nicht vor Allem gemacht sein, um sich ein Recht zu der Vorstellung zu schaffen, dass das Interesse der Götter am Menschen, an der menschlichen Tugend sich nie erschöpfen könne? Auf dieser Erden-Bühne sollte es niemals an wirklich Neuem, an wirklich unerhörten Spannungen, Verwicklungen, Katastrophen gebrechen: eine vollkommen deterministisch gedachte Welt würde für Götter errathbar und folglich in Kürze auch ermüdend gewesen sein, – Grund genug für diese Freunde der Götter, die Philosophen, ihren Göttern eine solche deterministische Welt nicht zuzumuthen! Die ganze antike Menschheit ist voll von zarten Rücksichten auf »den Zuschauer«, als eine wesentlich öffentliche, wesentlich augenfällige Welt, die sich das Glück nicht ohne Schauspiele und Feste zu denken wusste. – Und, wie schon gesagt, auch an der grossen Strafe ist so viel Festliches!…

It was in the same way that the moral philosophers of Greece later imagined the yes of God looking down on the moral struggles, upon the heroism and self-torture of the virtuous: the “Herakles of duty” was on a stage an knew himself to be; virtue without a witness was something unthinkable for this nation of actors. Surely, that philosopher’s invention, so bold and so fateful, which was then first devised for Europe, the invention of “free will,” of the absolute spontaneity of man in good and evil, was devised above all to furnish a right to the idea that the gods in man in human virtue, could never be exhausted. There must never be any real lack of novelty, or really unprecedented tensions, complications, and catastrophes on the stage of the earth: the course of a completely deterministic world would have been predictable for the gods and they would have quickly grown weary of it — reason enough for those friends of the gods, the philosophers, not to inflict such a deterministic world on their gods! The entire mankind of antiquity is full of tender regard for “the spectator,” as an essentially public, essentially visible world which cannot imagine happiness apart from spectacles and festivals. — And, as foresaid, even in great punishment there is so much that is festive!

How much more plausible an explanation of “free will” we have here than the implausible explanation that belief in free will is plausible because free will is itself plausible!

A natural experiment

As perhaps many of you are aware, we just had a presidential election here in the United States.  Without commenting directly on the merits of the candidates or their parties or positions, I cannot help but note that the outcome of the election put a variety of metaphysical and axiological propositions, not normally thought to be amenable to direct testing, to the test.

You theists, who believe in the existence of some sort of benign and superpowerful entity who creates and sustains the world we live in and with whom we can somehow have a relationship, you big idea collided with reality last night.  It crashed and burned (again).

You spiritual-but-not-religious types who believe in some mysterious-but-benign something that somehow suffuses the world we live in, your big idea collided with reality last night.  It crashed and burned (again).

You secular types, who don’t avow belief in any of that religio-spiritual mumbo-jumbo but do subscribe to the proposition that the arc of the universe is long but bends toward justice, your big idea collided with reality last night.  It crashed and burned (again).

You nice liberals, who think that most people are kind and decent and will manifest these traits if just given a chance to, your big idea collided with reality last night.  It crashed and burned (again).

You American patriots, who think your country is exceptional, a shining example to the world, your big idea collided with reality last night.  It crashed and burned (again).

You antinatalists, who think that it is a misfortune to be born, your big idea meshed neatly with reality last night.  It was triumphantly vindicated (again).

If nothing else, the morning after was an opportunity for a me to have a pleasant exchange of tweets:

That aside, I am more disgusted with the world than usual today. I’ll be in my cave.

A moment of identification

During my few moments of leisure this week I read parts of the Adam Parfrey-edited  anthology called Apocalypse Culture (N.P.: Feral House, 1990) and came across an interview by Jim Morton with a woman named Karen Greenlee.  The title of the interview is “The Unrepentant Necrophile,” and that title tells you much of what you need to know about the interview.  (I mean, I could tell you more, but I’ll spare the sensibilities of my more sensitive readers.)    One part of the interview struck me, in which Greenlee reflects on her curious propensities:

For a while I found myself thinking “Yeah, this isn’t normal.  Why can’t I be like other people.  Wy doesn’t the same pair of shoes fit me just right?”  I went through all that personal hell and finally I accepted myself and realized that’s just me.  That’s my nature and I might as well enjoy it.  I’m miserable when I try to be something I’m not.

I’m miserable when I try to be something I’m not.

If you must know, I am not a necrophile.  I believe most of you are not necrophiles, either.

But we are all Karen Greenlee, whether we admit it or not.

An early flicker of antinatalist consciousness

I remember being told about a phenomenon which I’ll call “AIDS mothers” sometime in my mid-teens.  (Note:  I can’t make a hard factual claim that there really were such women, only that I was told of their existence; this post is meant more as moral autobiography than history.)  These were (or would have been) women who knew that they were infected with the HIV virus who nonetheless chose to conceive children.

Now I should note that when I heard about these women it was the early or mid-1980s, 1985 at the latest.  There were then no therapies for HIV infection; the very first anti-retroviral drug would not be approved for use until 1987.  So HIV infection was usually a death sentence: a horrible death sentence, because it would often progress to full-blown AIDS.  And in the case of pregnant women there was a common problem of maternal-fetal transmission of the virus (the World Health Organization now estimates that without treatment — and treatment didn’t exist in 1985 — maternal-fetal transmission rates are somewhere between 15% and 45%).    So adding up the unlovely parts here, we would have examples of women who, knowing that they would likely soon be dying horribly, were conceiving children who themselves stood a significant chance of dying horribly early in life.  And, if they managed to avoid dying horribly early in life, would still have to endure the prospect of being orphaned when their mothers would die, a ghastly process which they might have to witness as young children.

“Why would anyone do that?” I recall asking the interlocutor who had told me about AIDS mothers.

“These women are lonely and frightened and do not want to die alone.  Having a child is a way of preventing that.”

And I recall thinking then that as much as we may pity these suffering women, as awful as we may feel for them, there seemed something just unconscionable about standing aside while they conceived children.  I don’t think — though one’s memory does often dim over thirty years — that I said so out loud, because while I could not shake the thought it felt like a really asshole thing to say.  (The experience was not just an early spark of antinatalist consciousness, but a good lesson in the disunity of the virtues.  Intellectual honesty and good manners are generally enemies, and keeping them both in harness is, at best, difficult.)

What I did not think then, because it was too radical a thought for me to have, was that between the “AIDS mothers” and “normal” parents there would seem to be a difference more in degree than in kind.  Observations like that would only happen later in life.

Exoteric and esoteric watchings of _Into the Abyss_

Yesterday evening I finished watching Werner Herzog‘s 2011 documentary Into the Abyss. The story behind the movie is very simple, one a spree of crimes committed by two young men — really, boys.  From the New York Times’s review:

In October 2001, in Conroe, Tex., Sandra Stotler, her son Adam and his friend Jeremy Richardson were murdered, apparently because the killers wanted the red Camaro in Ms. Stotler’s garage. About a week later, after a shootout in a shopping center parking lot, two young men were arrested in the case. One, Jason Burkett, received a life sentence. The other, Michael Perry, was sentenced to death.

The bulk of the movie consists of people being very gently interviewed by Herzog:  the bereaved survivors of the victims, detached, professional lawmen, the imprisoned perpetrators and people connected with them.  For people looking to feel bad about and for humanity there’s abundant material to chew over here.  It’s heartbreaking to watch a woman like Lisa Stolter-Balloun talk about what it’s like to try to live her life after her mother and brother were killed or to watch a would-be tough guy like Charles Richardson gazing at the framed picture of his dead baby brother and struggle not to cry on camera.   And it’s downright disturbing — and perhaps a little nausea-inducing — to watch Michael Perry trying to face down the existential anxiety of imminent execution with a parade of smiling clichés of religious and therapeutic uplift.  One can tell that he’s not quite persuaded by his own story.

Michael Perry being led away from his interview with Werner Herzog. Eight days later, Perry was put to death by lethal injection.

Michael Perry being led away from his interview with Werner Herzog. Eight days later, Perry was put to death by lethal injection.

What was really raw, though, was watching the interview of Delbert Burkett, the father of Jason Burkett and himself likely to spend the rest of his life in prison.  The elder Burkett blames himself for the dark course his son’s life took.  He reflects on what he should have done as a father that he didn’t do:  if only I had taken my boys to play baseball, if only I had had them raise a steer like I did when I was a boy, if only I had been there to really teach them right from wrong.  When Herzog asks Burkett where the really bad choice was made, Burkett remembers that he had a football scholarship to the University of Texas, but he gave that up, dropped out of high school and football and started to do drugs instead, a choice which led him down a path to a life of crime and imprisonment.  How could I not have been riveted at that moment, given my own morbid fascination with life-counterfactuals?   If you ever want to see a portrait of a man being eaten alive by his own sense of remorse you can watch this but be warned:  it is not easy viewing.

Amidst all the suffering there is an odd twist ending.  Jason Burkett ends up being married in prison to a generous, pretty young woman named Melyssa whom he meets through correspondence.  (I must wonder: do “normal” men have so little to offer these days that an attractive woman like Melyssa prefers to court and marry a convicted murderer, a man incarcerated in a maximum security prison who will not even be eligible for parole until sometime in the 2040s?  Answer: probably yes.)  Melyssa has made — so it is strongly implied — a very curious arrangement under which some of Jason’s semen has been smuggled out of prison to inseminate her.  She is in an advanced stage of pregnancy by the time Herzog interviews her, and she holds up an ultrasound picture of her yet-to-be-born son on her smartphone for the viewers to see.  “You can see he gets his strong chin from me,” she says with evident adoration.

I would imagine that 99 of 100 of Herzog’s viewers will be feeling a warm glow of moral satisfaction at this point.  After all this suffering, a happy ending of sorts.  Against the claustrophobic images of Texas’s death chamber shown only minutes before, an image of hope and new life. All’s right with the world, after all.   This might even be Herzog’s own reading of his documentary.  It is the surface that everyone sees, thus the exoteric reading.

And yet I cannot avoid a different reading, because I haven’t forgotten Delbert Burkett and his own lifetime of regret.  Given the world as it is, the suffering we have seen, the knowledge that terrible things happen to people like they have happened to most of the interviewees in this movie, given the knowledge that people will almost inevitably make bad choices, how can we justify bringing the innocent child shown on Melyssa Burkett’s smartphone screen into the world.  Even the suffering is not a certainty, it is surely a risk.  How can we justify materializing the risk.

Perhaps it would be best if I treated my reading of the movie as an esoteric one.  I’m sure it’s one that’s upsetting for most people.  But I’ve always had a problem staying away from keyboards.

Moot court

Maybe this is a Moot Court case for someone. Maybe it’s a cautionary tale about politics and how law can be abused. In any event, it has been kicking around in my head for a few days, so I thought I’d spill it out into a post and see what happens.

The State of Dysphoria has an Antinatalist Party which, as part of its party platform, contains the following policy statement. “We hold that conceiving and bearing children does irreparable harm to those children and that childbearing ought to be discouraged by appropriate public policies. We accept that human extinction is inevitable and believe that it would be better for such an extinction to take place sooner rather than later.”

After many years of increasing popularity the Antinatalist Party enjoys a great electoral success in Dysphoria, winning both the governorship and solid majorities in both houses of the state legislature. The new legislative majority proceeds to enact a set of policies consistent with its platform. These include.

  • Contraception of every useful kind, provided free to the users at professionally staffed clinics established throughout the state.
  • Abortion is made fully legal and for early-term abortions made available without burden or delay, again free to women who want it, at clinics established throughout the state, and protected against violence by vigorous security measures and strict laws protecting the clinics, their patients, and their personnel.
  • Surgical sterilization is made available, free to any patient who wants it, at state clinics. In addition to sterilization being free, individuals opting to undergo the procedure are provided with a generous credit on their state income tax.
  • Physicians are required by law to advise women seeking obstetric or gynecological care (other than emergency care) with the aim of continuing a pregnancy to delivery to advise their patients of the ready availability of abortion, of the fact that early-term abortion is substantially safer than delivery of a live infant, and are furthermore required to show their patients a professionally-produced video vividly depicting various ugly potential consequences of pregnancy (breech births, pre-eclampsia, amniotic fluid embolisms, etc.) as well as various horrible things that happen to children (genetic diseases, premature death, mental illness, being horribly injured in war etc.). Along the lines of a certain Internet-famous pamphlet, they are advised that all these bad consequences can be avoided by opting to have an abortion.

All of these public policies cost money, of course, which the state legislature raises by imposing a special surtax on the existing income tax in Dysphoria. Predictably, there’s anguished complaint from the political minority in Dysphoria about how their being compelled (sometimes, for rhetorical emphasis, “forced at gunpoint”) to pay for “immoral” policies. The last policy in the list above also draws angry objections from some physicians, especially Catholic physicians.

While the Antinatalist Party is busy with its program in Dysphoria, the Pro-Life Party wins U.S. Presidency. The Pro-Life Party has a platform plank which reads “We hold that children are a blessing and that life itself is a blessing. It is a duty imposed by the Law of Nature and Nature’s God to do everything both to protect the right of all people to exercise their procreative capacities and to protect all human life from conception to natural death.”

Naturally the Pro-Life President and her Attorney General are under considerable pressure to do something about those Antinatalists in Dysphoria and their insolent rejection of the Law of Nature and Nature’s God. Sitting up late with his law books one night, the Attorney General finds the following interesting provision in the United States Code. He underlines what he takes to be the most relevant provisions.

18 U.S. Code § 1091 – Genocide

(a)Basic Offense.—Whoever, whether in time of peace or in time of war and with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in substantial part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such—

(1) kills members of that group;
(2) causes serious bodily injury to members of that group;
(3) causes the permanent impairment of the mental faculties of members of the group through drugs, torture, or similar techniques;
(4) subjects the group to conditions of life that are intended to cause the physical destruction of the group in whole or in part;
(5) imposes measures intended to prevent births within the group; or
(6) transfers by force children of the group to another group;
shall be punished as provided in subsection (b).

(b)Punishment for Basic Offense.—The punishment for an offense under subsection (a) is—

(1) in the case of an offense under subsection (a)

(1), where death results, by death or imprisonment for life and a fine of not more than $1,000,000, or both; and
(2) a fine of not more than $1,000,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both, in any other case.

(c)Incitement Offense.—
Whoever directly and publicly incites another to violate subsection (a) shall be fined not more than $500,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.
(d)Attempt and Conspiracy.—
Any person who attempts or conspires to commit an offense under this section shall be punished in the same manner as a person who completes the offense.
(e)Jurisdiction.—There is jurisdiction over the offenses described in subsections (a), (c), and (d) if—

(1) the offense is committed in whole or in part within the United States; or
(2) regardless of where the offense is committed, the alleged offender is—

(A) a national of the United States (as that term is defined in section 101 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1101));
(B) an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence in the United States (as that term is defined in section 101 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1101));
(C) a stateless person whose habitual residence is in the United States; or
(D) present in the United States.

(f)Nonapplicability of Certain Limitations.—
Notwithstanding section 3282, in the case of an offense under this section, an indictment may be found, or information instituted, at any time without limitation.

In order to forestall an obvious short-circuit: The Attorney General is willing to accept a slightly tendentious reading of 18 U.S.C. § 1093(2) where “ethnic group” is defined (“the term ‘ethnic group’ means a set of individuals whose identity as such is distinctive in terms of common cultural traditions or heritage;”) and argue that all of humanity has common cultural traditions and heritage and that it is therefore an “ethnic group” within the meaning of the statute.

Swarms of Federal agents are sent to the state of Dysphoria to arrest the governor, his entire cabinet, the whole Antinatalist caucuses of both houses of the state legislature, and several hundred Antinatalist Party members on the grounds that they have either committed genocide within the meaning of (a)(5) of Section 1091 by imposing measures intended to prevent births within a relevant group, or that they have incited the same or conspired to do so.

Do the Pro-Lifers have a legal case? A moral case?