From Matt Bors.
A lot of what I post about is on sensitive issues, so I have come to expect the usual denial and obfuscation from my opponents. I expect a lot of denial on this issue also. Human sacrifice? HAR HAR HAR! Surely that’s a relic of past, ignorant ages!
Not really. We still practice human sacrifice and praise it, but we just do it without the pomp and circumstance. Human sacrifice happens when you know someone will die but you justify it as being for some higher purpose (be it religious, social, economic, or other). Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while may remember this example.
However, we need not restrict ourselves to this kind of example. The simple fact is that anyone who rejects the “do no harm” principle to the point that they find some number of deaths “justifiable” supports human sacrifice in some form. I am not saying that such a position is automatically invalid, but it does have the burden of proof, and “well, I think it’s justified” doesn’t cut it.
The problem is that people who support human sacrifice also refuse to admit that they support human sacrifice. This is understandable; anyone who would openly make such an admission would discredit emself as a normal human being. So they have to finagle, whine and bitch.
A good example of that is the commenting rules I applied for a while on the pro-abortion series. I asked people the following questions:
What maximum number of women dead from botched back alley abortions per year under an anti-abortion scheme do you consider a fair and just tradeoff to prevent all abortions that would happen under a pro-abortion scheme? (for anti-abortion people)
What maximum number of children afflicted with spina bifita/Tay-Sachs/leukemia/cancer/Downs Syndrome/etc a year born under a pro-choice scheme do you consider a fair and just tradeoff to prevent the distress of women who would not be allowed to have a child under a pro-abortion scheme? (for pro-choice people)
My reasoning behind these questions was two-fold:
1. To get my opponents to admit that they support the deliberate sacrifice of human beings for their goals.
2. To get them to quantify their support of human sacrifice, so we can advance the debate beyond rationalizations and get to the heart of the matter.
Of course my attempt failed. Some people claimed they were unable to answer because the question didn’t apply to them, and tried to finagle their position so it wouldn’t apply. Other people refused to consider the issue because it was too damageable for their position. Yet others simply didn’t answer. It’s the elephant in the room.
One person tried to return the question to me, asking me how many lives my beliefs are worth. But that’s a misfire, because I can always hit that one out of the park: the answer is, and always will be, zero. I don’t give a shit who you are or what you believe, no one’s beliefs are worth the lives of innocent human beings.
When I say, “do not impose harm,” I don’t mean “do not impose harm unless you’re not doing it to a specific person.” I also don’t mean “do not impose harm unless it’s on someone you don’t like or who you think deserves it.” I also don’t mean “do not impose harm unless it’s legal.” I mean “do not impose harm.”
One may reply, what answer do I expect? Do I expect an exact number? No, not really, but at least an order of magnitude. If it is justified to have people die for your beliefs, it would be nice to have an idea of how much death is warranted, and whether the current death rate is warranted.
And there are people who are able to be clear-headed about this and answer the question, such as Biting Beaver in this entry. We need more people with her high level of honesty. I still think her position is fucking disgusting and wrong, but at least it’s something we can debate. Without some kind of starting point, how can there even be a debate?
Let’s go back to the abortion question. If you are pro-choice, it is an incontrovertible fact (no matter how much you try to finagle out of it) that you support the birth of compromised children, some of which will die in horrible sufferings, and others who will experience lives of suffering. So how many child deaths are pro-choice policies worth? It’s a simple question that demands an answer.
Sure it’s uncomfortable to advocate the death of children, but if that’s the problem, then stop advocating positions that entail the death of children. And if you really believe that the pro-choice position is right beyond pragmatic considerations, then don’t be ashamed of its consequences and answer the question. It’s as simple as that.
Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me,please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution, too; but there can be no such solidarity with children. And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension. Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and have sinned, but you see he didn’t grow up, he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years old. Oh,Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived criesaloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for.
These questions apply to any issue where people’s beliefs entail suffering or death. Natalists blather on and on about how happy they are and how life is a gift, so we have to ask: how many horrible deaths is your happiness worth? It is a fact that perpetuating the life-system entails not only natural deaths but also horrible torture for billions.
Darwin’s Hamster talks about it on this video. His point is that for the debate on natalism to advance, natalists need to answer this question. Until they continue to refuse to answer, the debate will always remain stalled.
Darwin’s Hamster also points out that this question is no different from the atheist argument that religion harms people, and that therefore it is hypocrite for an atheist to agree with the atheist question but not the antinatalist question. You can’t point out the harms of religion and claim it’s a good argument while claiming that a look at the harms of natalism is a bad argument.
When faced with this question, natalists have to divert the issue and argue that death is just a fact of life and we should accept it, that we antinatalists are just whiners who want perfect lives. The trouble is that this is a straightforward lie: we humans are the ones producing this suffering, it is not a “fact of life,” it does not need to exist or have to exist.
But like pro-choice advocates, they must ignore the fact that we are the ones producing the suffering, that we are responsible for its existence and continuation. If they can silently reclassify suffering and death as an inevitability, they get themselves off the hook. It just happens, don’t you see? Babies just pop out of thin air, I’m tellin’ ya! They just appear and there’s nothing we can do about it! In the same way, capitalism is validated because human life just is a contest for survival and there’s nothing we can do about it (when in fact it is capitalism that creates most of these rigged “contests”).
Misogynists use the same “inevitability” gambit towards pornography and prostitution. So we have to ask, how many deaths of female prostitutes are justified in order to serve men’s supposed needs? Well, prostitutes are not really human, you see, so it’s better to just forget about it. So there is an inevitability argument, but also simple bigotry. Both will do equally well.
In a more abstract way, I also talked about a similar problem relative to God giving people free will. It seems to me to be a conclusive argument against Christianity that God giving us free will implies all the crimes people have committed in history, including all murders, wars, torture, rapes, and so on.
We can also ask, how many deaths of innocents are justified in order to maintain a State? Or how many deaths of workers are justified in order to maintain coal mines? People still die of coal mining accidents every week even in the most advanced countries. How many deaths at the hands of mafias and drug impurities are justified by the War on Drugs? And so on, and so forth.
The basic principle, I hope, is clear: if you are proposing a policy that entails innocent people’s deaths, you have the burden of proof to show that such a policy is worth it. For example, having hospitals entails many deaths due to lack of hygiene (hundreds of thousands of people die every year because of it), but it’s still better than not having health care. A decentralized system would probably be far healthier and less deadly, but if we simply compare hospitals to nothing at all, I think the choice is pretty clear. Sure it takes lives, but its primary purpose is to sustain life. The medical establishment, on the other hand… the less said about that the better.
So what’s the point of these questions? Am I just trying to shut people up and drive them away? No, the topic of my entries already does that for me, and besides that wouldn’t be very productive. This is not going to be a big surprise given the topic of this blog for these past months, but it obviously has to do with radicalism.
The prevalent utilitarian worldview tells us that human sacrifice is justified if the sacrifice is of some benefit to us, no matter how small (such as in our economist believing that horrible deaths are justified by relieving a headache). That is quite a trivialization of the right to life: your life may be worth as little as a headache, so it’s barely worth even considering. Like most economists’ constructs, the mockery of ethics used by economists serves ruling class interests and trivializes workers’ lives and values, and therefore is fundamentally anti-radical.
From the voluntaryist standpoint, I imagine all these questions are pointless, because a person who believes in any of these positions is not necessarily creating harm. A goose-stepping statist may not necessarily use violence against dissenters, or even support violence against dissenters (although eir statist belief still aids and abets the people who do the violence). So why should we attack the statist for eir belief? Ey’s “doing nothing wrong.”
Radical analysis tells us that it is possible for a person to voluntarily and harmlessly participate to a coercive and harmful system. One may work at some retailer or other and be completely ignorant that one’s work is subsidizing corporations that have financed or are still financing death squads (Chiquita, Dole, Chevron, General Motors, Ford, IBM… the list goes on and on). Admittedly this is unlikely to convince anyone to leave their job because, after all, we all need a job. But my point is that the actions of the worker are harmless, while serving a genocidal system.
So no, I am not saying that every single advocate of natalism, pro-choice, misogyny, statism or Christianity is committing harmful actions. Like all radical analysis, this is not about individual actions but about institutions and the harm they perpetuate on individuals. Because of their scope, institutions can magnify evil, bigotry or ignorance a million fold. One person cannot perform genocide, but an army can. Implicit in the concept of an army is not just a group of people but an ethic of obedience and violence, political aims, wages, buildings, weapons, provisions, an economy that can produce these things, and so on.
There can be no step taken towards making an equal and just society if one is unable to analyze existing institutions and their effects on society, as well as imagining institutions which are structured around egalitarian and just values. There can be no more fundamental principle for such a society than the principle that we should not impose harm. As Anarchism tells us, hierarchies are the root of the problem, and the goal of hierarchies is to exploit others for an elite’s benefit, no matter who the elite is.
As such, human sacrifice is only part of one extreme end of a spectrum that goes from genocide, to slavery, to exploitation, to alienation, to freedom. Our goal is to analyze institutions from the other end of the spectrum, that of individual freedom and social autonomy. The fact that some people openly support human sacrifice and its logic merely tells us that they are no friends of freedom.
In answer to the question “how many human lives can be justifiably sacrificed for your beliefs?”, most people will just hem and haw, argue that you don’t understand their position, that the question is not fair, that human sacrifice is worth it, and will basically do anything but answer the question. My answer is simple: zero.
To end on another quote from The Brothers Karamazov, which reiterates my challenge to my opponents:
“Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”
Come on people, tell me the truth. Can you do that?