Nietzsche was right: if God is dead, then with him dies any moral block to the will to power. If there is no God to record our innocent sufferings and reward them, then we have no cause to endure them – at least when we can find the means to shunt them onto others. If the world is really Darwin’s and Hobbes’s rather than God’s, then human nature is red in tooth and claw, and all the happy slogans of brotherhood and justice with which we clothe a free society are so many lies we mutter to get through the day. In previous columns, we have already mentioned the long list of victims racked up in the twentieth century by men who thought this logic all the way through to the end, and acted accordingly.
But we shouldn’t incessantly invoke the worst criminals of history to illustrate subhumanism; such melodramatic comparisons too easily let us off the hook. (“I thank you, Lord, that I am not as these commissars who starve kulaks….”) Instead, let us look at ourselves, and our friends and neighbors. Let’s examine a trend in American childbearing – namely the fact that more than 90 percent of infants diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome are killed before their birth. The parents who make these decisions are not moral monsters like the men who volunteered for Nazi or Khmer Rouge killing squads. They are not even at the level of racist Southern sheriffs who beat up black voters. And yet, these American parents are using violence to eliminate innocent people. We should examine their reasons, and see if we can find any flaws in their logic. Let’s listen in on an argument between two parents who have just received such heart-wrenching news.
The Sacrifice of Abraham
Abraham: Oh honey, I’m so, so sorry. We were so excited about this. But we can try again.
Sarah: What do you mean, “try again”?
Abraham: Well, we can’t go through with… it wouldn’t be fair.
Sarah: Fair to whom?
Abraham: To the child, first of all. The doctors say that at best she will gain a mental age of 11 years old – for the rest of her life. She’ll be helpless to take care of herself, unable to work…. She won’t live on her own, or have a family. We’ll have to watch her like a hawk to keep her from hurting herself, and to keep other people from hurting her. Retarded people are often… exploited. Especially girls.
Sarah: In state institutions, maybe. Are you saying you’d dump our daughter in a state institution?
Abraham: Do you really want to spend the rest of your life – of our lives – caring for a child who will never be an adult? Who will never contribute anything? Never go to college, never get married, never give us grandkids? And what happens when we die? Who will take care of her then?
Sarah: Well, she might have brothers and sisters….
Abraham: Honey, I don’t think so. If we have to gear up to care for a handicapped child, do you really think we’ll have the money, the energy, to have more kids after that? I really can’t see it.
Sarah: So you’re saying it wouldn’t be fair to us.
Abraham: No, it wouldn’t. We have hopes and dreams, contributions we want to make. You’re working on that novel. Don’t you want to finish it? How about that legal clinic I’ve dreamt of opening in the barrio? Those are real things that can offer something to real people.
Sarah: So this baby isn’t real?
Abraham: How real is a child who will never become an adult? Who will always be stunted, with barely a rational mind….
Sarah: You make her sound like a monkey or something.
Abraham: I’m sorry. That isn’t what I meant. It’s just that humanity… it’s not an absolute. It’s on sort of a sliding scale.
Sarah: Would you kill a baby monkey? You won’t even eat veal.
Abraham: I have no tolerance for cruelty, for people who kill for fun or take relish in causing suffering. And neither do you.
Sarah: So where do you and I fit on this sliding scale?
Abraham: Well…. We’re adults, who work and pay taxes, whose work is socially useful – we aren’t arms dealers or human traffickers. We have friends, we read books, we support the arts. And our goal is to raise a child or two who might do the same. Who will over time become fully human in the way that we’ve worked to do.
Sarah: So when we get old and decrepit, we’ll be less fully human?
Abraham: A little less. Then a little less, with time, as our human capacities fall away and our human enjoyments fail, and we have fewer and fewer things that hold us to the world, fewer reasons to fear the end. We might even come to hope for it.
Sarah: So your nana is less human than I am?
Abraham: She didn’t use to be. She was quite a woman in her prime! You should have seen her confront those National Guardsmen at Kent State!
Sarah: But she’s less human now?
Abraham: Confined to a wheelchair, with senile dementia, in pain all day… I think that in lucid moments she’d say so too. Certainly, if I ever end up like that, I know that I’ll feel less human, and I hope you won’t let some well-meaning doctors hook me up to a machine to drag things out and prolong my suffering.
Sarah: Do you think your nana is suffering?
Abraham: I know that she is.
Sarah: And what do you think that means?
Abraham: That the doctors can only do so much. That life can be grim at times. That we should embrace the happy times when we can, because they do not last long. Oh, Sarah. That’s what I mean. We have the chance for a few happy years – maybe twenty or thirty or even forty – with normal kids who’ll lead a normal life. Then it will all be over and we’ll be gone. And it will be their turn. Would it be right to waste all that, to throw away our chance at some modicum of happiness? And for what?
Sarah: To suffer, I guess. That’s what you’re saying. To go through meaningless suffering to care for a child whose suffering will be also be meaningless, like your nana’s suffering and everyone else’s.
Sarah: So if we abort this baby – don’t wince, that’s what you’re talking about, man up! – and I get crushing guilt, that will be meaningless too?
Abraham: No. I will try to help you through it. I will take my share of the responsibility for this very, very serious decision. But if we suffer, because I’ll suffer too – this breaks my heart – it will gain some meaning from the future happiness it allows us to have. And our other children.
Sarah: Who otherwise you wouldn’t want to have.
Abraham: Well, no. I don’t think it makes sense.
Sarah: In the long run, does anything, Abe?
The Greatest Number of Chipper, Upbeat Moments for the Greatest Number of People
Abraham above is no slavering sociopath, and Sarah no plaster saint. But they fall on opposing sides of a red line that runs through the soul of modern man.
On Sarah’s side is the traditional, Jewish-Christian-Classical view of human life, as a mixture of suffering and joys underpinned by fundamental principles that weave our anguish into a tapestry that means something – and which might even be beautiful.
Abraham, however, holds to the modern, subhumanist creed: that life is a series of incidents that are either pleasant or unpleasant, in which we are free (because nothing matters) to try to pile up as many happy moments as possible, while minimizing the unhappy ones. If we choose to be altruistic (if that makes us feel happy), we can factor in the impact of our actions on the “happy-moment” totals of other people, and try our best to do the math so that we won’t steal too many happy moments from others. Because doing that would make us unhappy in the long run, or so people tell us.
Such a flabby calculus of subhumanist hedonism makes a poor substitute for a spine. One’s best guess at which course of action might provide the greatest number of chipper, upbeat moments for the greatest number of people will yield very different results from solid, intransigent moral code. In a pinch, we can always convince ourselves that whatever action we wish to take will actually add to the store of happy moments – in the long run, if not in the short run.
Surely the Chinese Communist Party leaders who imposed forced abortions on millions of Chinese women had convinced themselves that they were acting for the greater happiness of the many… why else would they have bothered? Likewise the scientists who conducted the Tuskegee Syphilis Studies: a few dozen illiterate black men would be left untreated to die in anguish, to gain key medical knowledge that might help thousands of others to live. We cannot quarrel with the math, since we cannot see the future. Grant these people their premises, and they might well be justified doing nearly anything to anyone.
Jason Jones is a producer in Hollywood. His films include Bella, Eyes to See, and Crescendo. Learn more about his human rights initiatives at www.iamwholelife.com.
John Zmirak is the author of The Bad Catholics Guide to the Catechism and blogs regularly at The Bad Catholics Bingo Hall. This column is from Jones’ and Zmirak’s upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century (Crossroad, 2014).