Roderick T. Long

Archives: April 2004

Back to archive list      Back to current page


Am I a Real Man?

Brad Edmonds’ column today offers a checklist to help me determine whether I am a “progressive man” or a “real man.” I was eager to find out, so I took the test. But it seems I am both, or perhaps neither.

On vehicles: I’m still saving money for a car, any car. (I probably lean slightly toward the “real men” category here, though; I prefer cars I can’t lift.)

On meat: Any of the above (except tofu, blecch – though tofu ice cream is surprisingly good). No preference.

On religion: I think the one true religion is philosophy, toward which the core insights of all world religions approximate in varying degrees. This doesn’t fit easily into either of Edmonds’ categories.

On politics and economics: Apparently “progressive men” are statist busybodies while “real men” believe in property rights. That puts me on the side of the “real men,” I guess; except that “real men” apparently also take a “shut up he explained” approach, which sounds like a statist bureaucratic attitude to me.

On music: I see no conflict between liking Beethoven and liking “some bald or unwed pregnant chick, singing.” No preference here.

On careers: If I understand this one correctly, “real men” think men should have careers while women should stay at home. Count me “progressive” on this one.

On child rearing: The choice here between “parents” and “day care” is a tendentious way of putting the career question over again. I reject the false dichotomy behind this “choice” – which probably lands me in the progressive camp again.

On education: I’ve personally been public-schooled, private-schooled, and home-schooled. As a libertarian I oppose public education (one of the options under “progressive”); the choice between private schooling (the other option under “progressive”) and home schooling (the choice of “real men” – with wives at home, presumably) seems a matter of personal context to me; no real preference here, unless rejecting the legitimacy of one of the two “progressive” options counts as a move toward the “real men” side.

On the handicapped: Apparently “real men” think the needs of the handicapped require no systematic solutions, while “progressive men” think they require violent statist solutions. A curse on both their houses!

On booze: I prefer wine to beer. Progressive, I guess.

On foreign policy: You might have expected “real men” to be in favour of indiscriminate bombing, but apparently they’re libertarian non-interventionists. So count me a “real man” on this one.

On foreign trade: I’m with the “real men,” I guess, though I would resist the false dichotomy between free trade and workers’ interests; I think free trade is in workers’ interests.

On charity: I favour the “real men” side.

On women’s rights: See above on the handicapped.

On guns: I’m with the “real men.”

On sex: False dichotomy here.

On gangsta rap: I thought “real men” were supposed to be libertarians of some sort, but apparently belief in “protected speech” is a hangup of the progressive men.” Count me progressive.
The general assumption behind Edmonds’ list is that being a libertarian and being a social reactionary go together. This assumption I entirely reject, as I would reject any attempt to yoke good and evil together; see my articles here and here. Indeed, I regard the eradication of this attitude among libertarians, and a resurrection of the very different attitude of the 19th-century individualist anarchists (see some of the works archived here), as one of the chief tasks facing the libertarian movement today. What fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness?

(Eirenic note: while I can’t recommend Edmonds’ views on social mores, I do happily recommend his series of columns on Abolishing Government.)

Posted April 30th, 2004




Democrats like to call Ralph Nader a “spoiler” who handed the election to the Republicans.

It’s true enough that if everyone who voted for Nader had voted for Gore instead, Bush would not be President. But it’s equally true that if everyone who voted for Gore had voted for Nader instead, then once again Bush would not be president.

So why isn’t Gore just as much a “spoiler” as Nader? What’s the difference? Why was it Nader’s responsibility to pull out of the race to avoid drawing votes away from Gore? Why shouldn’t Gore have pulled out of the race to avoid drawing votes away from Nader?

The fact that such a question has probably never so much as occurred to most of those who level the “spoiler” charge illustrates the extent to which the major parties have come to accept their entitlement to elective office.

All political parties are equal; but some are still more equal than others.

Posted April 28th, 2004



Pro-Rape Catholics versus Pro-Hypocrisy Catholics?

In a news story about how the Vatican is putting increasing pressure on Catholic politicians who defend abortion rights, a remark from Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, caught my eye. Kissling said:

Every time Catholic church leaders have attacked Catholic politicians for their view on abortion, the Catholic politicians have become more popular and the church has become more marginalized. It’s a very foolish strategy relative to political influence.
Now I have no sympathy for the Catholic Church’s position on abortion; I regard opposing abortion rights as the equivalent of advocating rape. (In both cases a woman is deprived of the right to deny others the use of her body.) Hence I’m delighted if the Church’s rigid stance on abortion is causing the Church to lose political influence.

Nevertheless, Kissling’s description of the Church’s policy as a “foolish strategy” bugged me a bit. If abortion truly were the unspeakable crime that traditionalist Catholics believe it is, then opposing it wouldn’t be a matter of strategy at all; it would be a moral duty. The Catholic Church isn’t supposed to adopt or abandon moral stands on strategic grounds; rather, its task is to uphold eternal truths regardless of fashion. After all, even belonging to the Church was not exactly a prudent “strategy” in the days of the Roman Empire (pre-Constantine at least).

Now in fact I think most of the propositions the Church regards as eternal truths are no such thing; but this is a dispute over content, not over strategy. G. K. Chesterton, one of my favourite Catholic authors, used to say with a certain pride that “the Church is always the only thing defending whatever is at the moment stupidly despised,” be it reason in an age that despises reason, or tradition in an age that despises tradition. I don’t share Chesterton’s assessment here (over the centuries, the Church has indeed stood up for many good things, including Aristotelean philosophy and proto-Austrian social theory – but also for many evil ones, Mirari Vos being a good example), but he is certainly right in thinking that in every age some good thing is stupidly despised, and that it is a mark of honour to defy the despisers rather than to placate them “strategically.”

The Catholic Church should abandon its views on abortion (and related reproductive matters) because those views are wicked and indefensible – but not because those views are unpopular. And when Catholics for a Free Choice advise the Vatican to moderate its views in order to avoid losing supporters, they are simultaneously committing an ad baculum and endorsing hypocrisy. If the Church’s position really were correct, then the Vatican should stick to its guns regardless of how much support this might cost the Church. After all, if you try to win supporters for your cause by compromising your principles, then the support you win is precisely not for your cause, but rather for some other cause you’ve adopted in preference to your own.

As a Hellenised Palestinian philosopher once put it: “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

This post is part, albeit eccentrically so, of the Stand Up For Choice BlogBurst in support of the March for Women’s Lives.

Posted April 24th, 2004



Marx and Spencer: Celebrity Death Match

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

I recently came across an article called Cooperative Urges by Glen Gibbons. It begins like this:

In London’s Highgate Cemetery, about midway between the grave sites of Karl Marx and George Eliot, is an overgrown tombstone with the name Herbert Spencer inscribed on it. The generally neglected circumstances of the plot echo Spencer’s failed effort to apply to human society some of the principles Charles Darwin espoused for evolutionary biology – such concepts as survival of the fittest and natural selection. Consequently, the 19th century British social philosopher never earned the sort of lasting recognition accorded his eternal neighbors.

Against the arguments that human progress reflected the benefits of cooperation and community, Spencer’s followers extolled the benefits of individuals and individual enterprises vanquishing the less effective among them, securing the place of the strong and weeding out the weaker.

But sometimes the world is not quite so Darwinian as it’s made out to be, especially in human affairs. Sometimes qualities and resources are complementary and their judicious combination, synergistic.
And then the rest of the article goes on to extol the benefits of cooperation.

By now I should be used to such misrepresentations of Herbert Spencer – and Gibbons’ article doesn’t even come close to being one of the most egregious in this regard. (See my article Herbert Spencer: The Defamation Continues as well as this follow-up.) But to see Spencer, one of history’s greatest champions of “synergistic cooperation,” being described as an opponent of such cooperation, and to see him being compared unfavourably in this regard to Marx, of all people, is truly surreal.

For Marx, society is characterised by inherent conflicts of interest among economic classes, conflicts that can ultimately be resolved only through violent revolution and expropriation; it’s no coincidence that the chief legacy of Marxist régimes has been mass death. For Spencer, by contrast, such ideas belong to the misguided “militant” model of society, against which Spencer championed the “industrial” model of peaceful cooperation and mutual benefit. When Spencer speaks of the “survival of the fittest” (a phrase Darwin borrowed from Spencer, not vice versa), he means that cooperative modes of interaction, being “fitter,” are destined in the long run to displace conflictual modes of interaction, and he regarded social progress as a matter of increasing fusion among people’s interests.

He explained his view over and over in books such as Social Statics, The Principles of Sociology, and The Principles of Ethics, but he might as well have been tossing his books into the ocean as far as modern discussions of Spencer go; everyone’s sure what he said, what as a “Social Darwinist” he must have said, but no one seems to go to the trouble of actually reading him.

It is misleading in any case to think of Spencer as applying Darwinian theories to society; Spencer’s Social Statics came out in 1851, predating Darwin’s Origin of Species by eight years. As Friedrich Hayek notes in Law, Legislation, and Liberty:

It was in the discussion of such formations as language and morals, law and money, that in the eighteenth century the twin conceptions of evolution and the spontaneous formation of an order were at least clearly formulated, and provided the intellectual tools which Darwin and his contemporaries were able to apply to biological evolution. ... A nineteenth-century social theorist who needed Darwin to teach him the idea of evolution was not worth his salt.
And far from being a “failed effort,” Spencer’s work offers far more valuable contributions to the understanding of human society than does the work of essentially reactionary thinkers like Marx.

According to Gibbons, Spencer’s modest gravesite is “overgrown” and “neglected” in comparison with its bombastic Marxian neighbour because Spencer “never earned the sort of lasting recognition” that Marx enjoys. It would be more accurate to say that Spencer has earned such recognition but hasn’t received it. As contemporary society lurches ever further back into the “militant” mode of dirigisme at home and warmongering abroad, a thoughtful reassessment of this much-maligned but seldom studied philosopher is long overdue. (One of the goals of the Molinari Institute is eventually to make all of Spencer’s works available online.)

Posted April 23rd, 2004



Just Ignore Them

Here’s a cheery thought on this gloomy Tax Day: government is one of the few problems that can be gotten rid of by ignoring it. In this respect it compares favourably with such hardier ills as tornadoes, swarming piranhas, and male pattern baldness.

There’s a catch, of course. If only a few people ignore the government, it won’t go away; instead it will come down on those few people like a ton of CS gas. But if the number of people ignoring the government – treating its commands as one would treat the commands of some delusional street person – were to reach critical mass, the power of the state, resting essentially as it does on the complaisance of the governed, would melt away like butter in the Arizona sun. As Étienne de la Boétie wrote in his classic essay Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (read it online or buy it):

Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces.
This is one of the advantages of anarchism as a political program. Those who seek to replace one system of governmental control with another cannot achieve this goal by ignoring the government; they have to take active steps to seize the reins of power, probably by violence. But not so for anarchists. Now if government leaders were Kryptonian superbeings, ignoring them would not be sufficient to achieve anarchy either; one would need to convert the rulers to anarchism or else start developing kryptonite-based weapons. But in fact government rulers are human, all-too-human, and do not command sufficient strength in their own persons to compel the obedience of their subjects. The rulers’ power consists crucially in the legitimacy granted to them by those they rule – what Ayn Rand called the “sanction of the victim.” Withdrawing that sanction reduces the rulers to the same status as everybody else – the strategy dramatised in Eric Frank Russell’s delightful satirical novel The Great Explosion (read it online or buy it) and documented theoretically and historically in Bryan Caplan’s article The Literature of Nonviolent Resistance.

Hence one of the chief goals of anarchist political activity must be to help build a cultural milieu in which the inclination to ignore the government will be widespread enough to achieve critical mass.

(Such a set of cultural attitudes will also come in handy after the anarchist (r)evolution. Critics of anarchism often ask how the protective associations with which anarchists propose to replace government can be trusted not to abuse power themselves. I’ve argued before that such associations will have far less opportunity to abuse their power than do governments today, and I think those arguments are good ones; but it’s also worth noting that a populace that has rendered itself ungovernable by the state will be equally ungovernable by competing associations.)

Posted April 15th, 2004



The Treasonous Ann Coulter

“Liberals promote the rights of Islamic fanatics for the same reason
they promote the rights of adulterers, pornographers, abortionists,
criminals, and Communists. They instinctively root for anarchy against
civilization. The inevitable logic of the liberal position is to be for treason.”

– Ann Coulter

The rantings of neofascist diva Ann Coulter have grown so bizarre that even neocon intellectual thug David Horowitz finds her an embarrassment. But is she also guilty of treason?

By the strict constitutional definition of treason: no, of course not. But Coulter uses the term “treason” promiscuously, to mean any expression of support for those whose policies are harmful to the United States. Since she has herself been a manically vocal advocate of the warmongering, tax-devouring, civil-liberties-trampling policies of the liberticide Bush régime, the word “treason,” as Coulter uses it, fits her own activities perfectly.

I don’t see why we shouldn’t apply Coulter’s own definition to herself. Let her be known, henceforth, as what she has chosen to become: the treasonous Ann Coulter.

Posted April 14th, 2004



The Power of Language and the Language of Power

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Geekery Today reminds us of the following marvelous quotation from George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”:

 George Orwell, 1903-1950 In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.
My only quibble with what Orwell says here is the qualification “In our time.” Though admittedly the vague, mushy sort of writing that Orwell criticises here is quintessentially contemporary, euphemism of some sort is a pervasive and universal feature of (nonlibertarian) political speech – and not accidentally so. Government, by its nature as a coercive monopoly, necessarily violates the norms of peaceful cooperation and reciprocity whose approximate observance is a precondition for social existence.

As Ludwig von Mises writes in Human Action:

It is important to remember that government interference always means either violent action or the threat of such action. The funds that a government spends for whatever purposes are levied by taxation. And taxes are paid because the taxpayers are afraid of offering resistance to the tax gatherers. They know that any disobedience or resistance is hopeless. As long as this is the state of affairs, the government is able to collect the money that it wants to spend. Government is in the last resort the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning. Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom.
This is why in political speech it is always necessary to “name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” Admittedly, however, the rise of democratic and egalitarian ideologies has made the state’s need for obfuscatory language all the more urgent, since such ideologies have largely disabled traditional appeals to natural social hierarchies. Even less than its predecessors can the modern democratic state afford to acknowledge its essential role as instrument of the ruling class.

Yet in the end it is not quite in the interests of state power for its basis in violence and exploitation to be entirely obscured. After all, the state’s being known to command vast coercive means is crucial to its influence in the first place. Hence the need for language that mystifies the violence of the state. As I wrote in Equality: The Unknown Ideal:

On the one hand, statist ideology must render the violence of the state invisible, in order to disguise the affront to equality it represents. Hence statists tend to treat governmental edicts as though they were incantations, passing directly from decree to result, without the inconvenience of means; since in the real world the chief means employed by government is violence, threatened and actual, cloaking state decrees and their violent implementation in the garb of incantation disguises both the immorality and the inefficiency of statism by ignoring the messy path from decree to result.

Yet on the other hand, the effectiveness of governmental edicts depends precisely on people being all too aware of the force backing up those edicts. Hence statism can maintain its plausibility only by implicitly projecting a kind of grotesque parody of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation: just as bread and wine must be transformed in their essence into the body and blood of Christ in order to play their necessary spiritual role, whilst at the same time they must retain the external accidents of bread and wine in order to play their necessary practical role, so the violence of the state, to be justified, must be transubstantiated in its essence into peaceful incantation, yet at the same time, to be effective, it must retain the external accidents of violence. (This sacralization of state violence explains how proponents of gun control, for example, can regard themselves as opponents of violence whilst at the same time threatening massive and systematic violence against peaceful citizens.)

But to ignore or mask the violence upon which socioeconomic legislation necessarily rests is to acquiesce in the unconscionable subordination and subjection that such violence embodies. It is to treat those subordinated and subjected as mere means to the ends of those doing the subordinating, and thus to assume a legitimate inequality in power and jurisdiction between the two groups.

Posted April 14th, 2004



Shut Up and Obey

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

During last night’s press conference, when asked about the similarities between the Iraq and Vietnam quagmires, our Commander-in-Chief replied: “I think that analogy is false. I also happen to think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops and sends the wrong message to the enemy.”

The point of this answer was obviously not to give grounds for thinking the analogy false (something he made no serious attempt to do), but rather to suggest that invoking such an analogy is disloyal.

Of course, Bush has never shown any grasp of the distinction between grounded belief and motivated belief.

Posted April 14th, 2004



Zydeco Good, Nazis Bad

I just got back last night from the SSPP in New Orleans (a kind of alternate Narnia, where it’s always Mardi Gras and never Lent). Excellent talks, stimulating conversation, wonderful food, and beautiful scenery – plus great music from my favourite zydeco band, Mitch Cormier and the Can’t-Hardly-Playboys, at the Cajun Cabin.

While you’re awaiting my scintillating responses in the debate over filicide-as-piety, in the meantime you should go to this site to read why you should (and how you can) participate in a GoogleBombing to knock the Nazi-style anti-Semitic group “JewWatch” out of the #1 spot for Google hits on the word Jew. All you have to do is place a certain link somewhere on your webpage, and the magic of the Web will do the rest. You’ll be striking a blow not only against anti-Semitism but also against its kissing cousin, statism – the JewWatch website lists “Anarchism” under the category of “Jewish Mind Control.” Three cheers for Jewish Mind Control!

Posted April 12th, 2004



Pause Button

I’m off to New Orleans for the SSPP meeting. If you’ve sent me feedback about Abraham – I shall reply, brilliantly and devastatingly, upon my return.

Posted April 6th, 2004



Evil That Good May Come?

Yet another post on Abraham! (See the two previous installments here and here.) Kevin Vallier sends me the following objections; my replies are interspersed.

Why is that “certainly” a reason to stop trusting that voice? Abraham had a long history with a being that he had trusted on many occasions and could do many amazing things. He had gone on faith before and been rewarded. Could he not rationally expect, in the back of his mind, a good to come of this act?
Sure. But, for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere, I don’t regard consequentialism as a viable moral theory. Thus murder remains a forbidden rights-violation, regardless of whether some “good” comes of it. Or, to put it another way, no good on balance can come from an immoral act, because no result counts as good if achieved through wickedness. Either way, no end can justify an immoral means.

Further, I should point out that if you think the obvious reason to stop trusting that voice is if it asks you to do something immoral, consider the source. If Abraham believed that God was the ultimate source of the good,
The claim that God is the “ultimate source of the good” is ambiguous. If it means that God makes things right or wrong simply by commanding or forbidding them, then I reject such “theological voluntarism” as incoherent, for the usual reasons. (Since I know that Kevin rejects theological voluntarism also, I won’t dwell on this option.) If instead it means that, as Aquinas taught, God’s nature (not his will) is the ultimate standard of morality, it follows that God, being unable to change his nature, is unable to command anything immoral; so if we receive a command to do something immoral, we are entitled to infer immediately that the command is not from God.

then if God orders you to do something that is considered immoral (say because it has a bad effect on your character) then wouldn’t it be rational to assume that since it is probably in God’s power, that you will be better off in the end?
Killing innocent people no doubt does have a bad effect on one’s character; but that surely isn’t the reason that killing innocent people is wrong. Murder is wrong in itself, and not because of its consequences. Hence even God cannot make the wrongdoer “better off” in any way that would justify the use of immoral means.

This is to say that when God is involved the typical facts about character cultivation (moral law) are not applicable. But this is only true in a sense. When God gets involved then we have reason to suspect that our characters, our beings will be better cultivated by doing what he asks rather than by following our understanding of moral law. Don’t we?
I don’t see how this is relevant. As an Aristotelean, I regard virtuous conduct as that which expresses the virtues of character, not that which cultivates those virtues. (And those virtues in turn are logical constituents of, not merely instrumental means to, human flourishing.) In Politics 8.3, Aristotle raises the question of whether it would be permissible to do wrong if by doing so one could put oneself into a position to do much more good later on. His answer, of course, is no: “he who violates the law can never recover by any success, however great, what he has already lost in departing from virtue.” (This is a logical claim, not a causal one.) Admittedly, if consequentialism were true, Abraham’s conduct could in principle be justified; but that’s because, if consequentialism were true, any horrifically evil conduct could in principle be justified. But that’s an argument against consequentialism, not an argument for killing Isaac. (And if this defense of Abraham did work, why wouldn’t it work for Laney also?)

Now, this does create the problem of not having any moral standards by which we can judge God. However, I don’t have a particular problem with this. Since I think God is a thinker (the mental source of mental being) and I think that to be that source he has to be mental and only mental (with no physical form), then I think, as Thomas did, that he is in direct contact with all forms and so knows all things. So, I think, following Aristotle, he couldn’t help but be all good if he knows all things (and has no physical body to separate him from full and immediate knowledge of all things).
For Thomas Aquinas, God is reliably good not just because he knows the good but because he is the good. I’m not sure I understand the reference to Aristotle; Aristotle’s God doesn’t know all things, and anyway Aristotle never says that someone who knew all things couldn’t help being good. (On Aristotle’s view rational beings have the freedom to decide whether to exercise their knowledge or not.) I also can’t agree with the view that having a physical body is an impediment to knowledge; it reminds me of the view Rand lampooned as saying we are blind because we have eyes and deaf because we have ears.

Posted April 4th, 2004



And His Axe Was Made of Gold

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

In my last post I raised the question why Jews and Christians apply different standards to Abraham and Deanna Laney, praising one and condemning the other.

William Marina offers an answer:

unlike Laney, who killed her two sons, Abraham did NOT kill his son, Issac [sic], but instead made a Covenant with Yahweh. Tit for tat, monotheistic worship and rewards as a Chosen people, in exchange for no more human sacrifice.
The fact that Abraham didn’t go through with it is a difference, certainly – but hardly a relevant one. The point is that Abraham was prepared to kill Isaac, and relented only because God sent a reprieve at the last moment. Presumably Laney too would have relented if she had heard a voice giving her different instructions at the last minute. The only difference between Laney and Abraham lies in what they were (eventually) ordered to do, not in their willingness to obey immoral orders.

Hence I cannot agree with the correspondent who wrote me to say: “God was testing Abraham; if He hadn’t intervened, we don’t really know whether or not he actually would have killed him.” The entire story loses its point unless we assume that Abraham was prepared to go through with it; otherwise how could he be taken to have passed the “test”? In the Bible, God, upon relenting, says to Abraham: “now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.” Unless God has been hoodwinked by Abraham here, the clear implication is that Abraham was indeed prepared to kill his own son.

This correspondent also writes that the two cases differ because Abraham, unlike Laney, “had three whole days with his son ... to talk about it, and it was with his son’s consent.” This correspodent must own a different version of the Bible from mine; in my Bible (the text is Genesis 22) Isaac is still clueless at the last minute (“Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”), and nothing is said about his consent.

Another correspondent points out that Abraham, presumably unlike Laney, “had a history of communicating with God and receiving the fruits of those actions.” But when a voice you have reason to trust tells you to kill your own son, surely that’s a reason to stop trusting that voice. The test of a message’s divine origin is its conformity to the moral law; as one of Abraham’s descendants famously remarked, “by their fruits ye shall know them.”

As for William Marina’s “covenant” interpretation, I can’t find that in Genesis 22 either. God doesn’t say “sign onto the following list of odd dietary practices, and I’ll stop demanding human sacrifices.” (When had he ever demanded them in the first place?) Instead God says:

because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:
That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;
And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.
In short, a vast and flourishing progeny is Abraham’s reward for being willing to sacrifice his son. Nothing is said about an end to human sacrifice being part of the reward. (And if it had been, how would that help? On this reading of the story, the crucial fact remains that Abraham was prepared to kill his own son, and I do not see how this can be interpreted as an admirable intent on his part.)

Posted April 4th, 2004



God Said to Abraham, Kill Me a Son

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Few Americans feel much sympathy for Deanna Laney, the woman who bludgeoned two of her children to death in response to alleged instructions from God.

Yet most Americans believe in the existence of God and in the possibility of receiving communications from him. Nor do they necessarily doubt that Laney had some experience which she interpreted as such a communication.

Why, then, do they not hail Laney’s actions as a sublime expression of faith?

I suspect they do not do so because they think Laney should have regarded the horrific content of the communication as evidence that it did not come from any authority worth obeying.

And surely they are right to think this; a command to slay one’s own children seems far more likely to be the product of delusion, or perhaps of some malicious spirit, than an injunction from a wise and loving deity.

Yet of those who condemn Laney, vast numbers are Jews and Christians who have nothing but praise and admiration for the biblical patriarch Abraham’s readiness to obey the divine command “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains ....”

So what’s the difference between Abraham and Laney? Why shouldn’t Jews and Christians praise Laney as Kierkegaard (in Fear and Trembling) praised Abraham, as a “knight of faith” who achieved a “teleological suspension of the ethical”? Or if Laney is to blame for not wondering whether it truly was God that was speaking to her, why isn’t Abraham likewise to blame for wondering the same thing? There seems to be some cognitive dissonance here.

As Sartre notes in Existentialism Is A Humanism:

If I hear voices, what proof is there that they come from heaven and not from hell, or from the subconscious, or a pathological condition? What proves that they are addressed to me? ... If a voice addresses me, it is always for me to decide that this is the angel’s voice; if I consider that such an act is a good one, it is I who will choose to say that it is good rather than bad.
When people praise on the Sabbath what they condemn every other day of the week, we are entitled to suspect that some hard thinking has been shirked.

Posted April 3rd, 2004



Back to archive list      Back to current page