The Politicization of Terms: “Progressivism” and “Islamophobia”

It is commonly noted that the West is in the midst of a series of “culture wars.” On the surface of the matter, the conflict seems to be centered on contentious issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. Despite the attention and controversy over such issues, I think our culture war is fundamentally a clash between the three most dominant worldviews in the West, and that the political rancor over these social issues is merely the main symptom of this clash of worldviews. These three main worldviews are: Judeo-Christian theism, Enlightenment Realism (a.k.a. Humanism), and Materialist Naturalism. What I am interested in this essay is not to analyze the three worldviews or try to get to the root of the clash between them, but to comment on an unfortunate development in the mode of argumentation between proponents of the differing worldviews. This development is what I shall refer to as the politicization of terms, to the effect that, given the assigned definition to these terms, their employment either to label oneself or one’s interlocutor in debate is tantamount to either self-congratulatory speech or certain informal logical fallacies. Though I think numerous terms fit my description, I would like to focus my attention on the terms “progressivism” and “Islamophobia.”

At bottom, the term “progressivism” is a self-congratulatory term. Progress connotes the gradual realization of the Good. It is crucial here that we note the distinction between a formal and material sense of the Good. All humans naturally yearn for the Good in a formal sense. Political ideologies and proposed policies necessarily exist because of man’s natural preoccupation with the attainment of the formal communal good. The differences between ideologies and policies exist, therefore, because humans disagree about what materially constitutes the formal communal good.

The term progressivism, then, is a blatant self-congratulating term, because it claims a monopoly on the answer to the question of what materially constitutes the communal good. I have stated above that all humans desire the communal good, but have different answers as to what is the best means of attaining that goal. Naturally, then, all humans desire societal progress, or gradual realization of the communal good. One who labels themselves a progressive, then, claims a monopoly on the answer to the question of what is the best means for the realization of the communal good. The progressive implies that only his ideology and his policies will lead to societal progress. In claiming this monopoly, all political debate is made impossible, for the interlocutor of any progressive is seemingly a regressive, i.e., one who wants the opposite of progress for society. Of course, once we recognize the self-congratulatory nature of the term “progressivism,” we understand that an opponent of a progressive is not someone who wishes the deterioration of society, but simply one who has a different conception of what materially constitutes the formal concept of the communal good.

To use the term “Islamophobia” is to commit at least three errors. First, labeling an interlocutor or a statement Islamophobic is to commit the genetic fallacy. The origin of a belief or the motivating factor(s) for someone’s holding a certain belief do not determine the truth value of the belief’s content, regardless of what it may convey about the believer himself. Therefore, even if a person believes certain propositions due to an irrational fear of Islam, this does not necessarily ensure that those propositions are false. The truth values of the propositions are to be determined separate from an evaluation of the motivating factors for the person holding such beliefs. Labeling a person Islamophobic, then, shuts down debate. It is claimed that because a person has an irrational fear of Islam, any belief which the person holds concerning Islam is either questionable or outright false due to the person’s phobia. What is ignored, unfortunately, is the need to explain just what is exactly false about the beliefs a supposedly Islamophobic person may hold.

The second and third errors which I think the usage of the term Islamophobia commits concern the very definition of the term. The first is the fallacy of equivocation. It seems to me intellectually atrocious to assign the term phobia to any intellectual position or worldview. The term phobia should be restricted to non-intellectual matters. Animals, physical settings, sensory stimuli, and the like are candidates for appropriate objects of phobia. The obvious danger of using the term phobia in relation to intellectual matters is that intellectual disagreement can come to be equivocated with irrational fear. Once this is done, any proposition uttered by a person who is said to have a phobia to an intellectual subject will be discredited without an explanation as to why the proposition is false.

The last error which I shall mention is the assumption that individuals couldn’t possibly have a legitimate fear of Islam. In the previous paragraph I claimed that the term phobia shouldn’t be assigned to intellectual matters. I do accept that it is obviously possible for a person to have an irrational attitude towards an intellectual subject. It should be remembered that epistemic function contains normative aspects. When reason is implemented correctly by different agents contemplating the same intellectual subject matter, both should come to obtain the same attitude toward the subject. In the case of Islamophobia, two persons thinking about Islam could come to develop different attitudes about Islam. Assume that both come to obtain very disapproving opinions about Islam. It is perfectly possible that one agent, through the incorrect use of reason and misuse or lack of appropriate intellectual virtues, could come to hold irrational negative opinions about Islam, while the other agent, through the proper function of reason and the intellectual virtues, could come to rationally hold negative opinions about Islam. The third error, then, in using the term Islamophobia, is that it assumes as concrete fact that one cannot possibly have rational negative opinions about Islam. That, though, should be up for debate, rather than implied as settled through the mere use of a term.

My concern in sharing these thoughts is not to bash persons who use politicized terms. I desire a return to orderly philosophical debate about political issues, so if I am correct that the use of politicized terms hampers or shuts down such debate, I hope I may contribute to helping us all revive constructive debate about the issues which we all care about.

 

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War’s Questions

 

Life is a universal experience. Across time and geography, individuals find themselves in different cultures, under varying economic and political systems, identifying with different creeds and faiths. Despite the external environmental differences which individuals and groups experience, the unchanging human nature which all humans possess provides them with a common experience of life. Life is a sort of interviewer for each human—it asks individuals such questions as what they identify as valuable in life, what meaning, if any at all, they ascribe to life, what value they place on themselves as individuals, and which endeavors they find to be worthwhile. This short list of general questions is certainly not a complete list of the numerous complex questions which individuals face; moreover, many individuals throughout time fail to clearly attempt an honest answering of life’s pressing questions. If many individuals fail to consciously reflect upon life’s demanding questions, it may be because life is a polite interviewer, not an interrogator. Certain experiences within life, though, seem to present themselves as experiences of interrogation; war is such an experience. A soldier on the border of death finds it natural to give thought to life’s pressing questions, for he becomes aware that the prospect of death points out to him that he seems to have many subconscious answers which he hasn’t openly scrutinized. Among the myriad of questions which war focuses on the mind of the soldier, the soldier often find himself chiefly contemplating on his status as an individual and the question of personal responsibility and his attitude towards life and death.

War presents individuals with the question of how they think of themselves as individuals and how they respond to the idea of the responsibility of an individual to his country. While an individual faces these two connected questions in the general course of life, proximity to death makes the soldier painfully aware of his individuality and the implied answer that his presence in war gives to the question of his responsibility to his country. Rousseau’s famous phrase “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”, could be paraphrased to say that man is born as a free individual, yet society tells him that he is a pawn. War makes a man question whether he will assert his individual independence or accept society’s designated status of a pawn. The idea of the soldier as a pawn is expressed by Paul Baumer in All Quiet on the Western Front when he reflects, “We saw that the classical conception of the Fatherland held by our teachers resolved itself here into a renunciation of personality . . .” (23). Baumer understood that the script that society writes for the soldier demands that he renounce his individuality and embrace the cause of his country, regardless of what opinions the individual may have on the necessity or justice of a particular war. Baumer’s fellow comrade in arms, Kat, further comments on this topic:

 Just you consider, almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are laborers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchmen as regards us. They weren’t asked about it any more than we were (205).

Other soldiers exemplify similar cases of this internal resentment when soldiers realize that they are expected to be mere pawns in the game of war. In the case of the Korean War, both Captain Verity in The Marines of August and Naval reservist pilot Lt. Harry Brubaker in The Bridges at Toko-Ri resent being called up to fight when they both feel that although they did their duty in fighting for their country in WWII, they have been forced to jeopardize everything which they hold dear in a war which both couldn’t care less about. In the case of the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brian in The Things They Carried echoes this attitude of resentment towards war when he states, “I was drafted to fight a war I hated . . . The American war in Vietnam seemed to me wrong. Certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons . . . I did not want to die. Not ever. But certainly . . . not in the wrong war” (40). In commenting about the attitude of the larger society about the war and the soldier’s responsibility to do his duty towards his country, O’Brian continues in an indignant tone, “. . . it was a war to stop Communists, plain and simple, which was how they liked things, and you were a treasonous pussy if you had second thoughts about killing or dying for plain and simple reasons” (45). Political figures and society in general expect the soldier to embrace his status as a pawn, and by doing so, to renounce his individuality. War, though, when it places the soldier on the borders of death, makes him reconsider how worthwhile the cause which he may die for really is.

The soldier that is aware of the horrible prospect of death may question the cause for which he is fighting. As O’Brian states, proximity to death “makes you recognize what’s valuable” (81). An awareness of the value of life on the borders of death makes some soldiers question the legitimacy of their particular war. While some soldiers react with resentment when they question their duty to fight for their countries in wars which they have no interest in as individuals, it is certainly not the case that this is an all-pervasive attitude. More so, the different natures of different types of wars elicits different responses from soldiers contemplating the question of their duty to their country. Two factors which make a big difference on the attitudes of the soldiers on the ground towards a particular war are the motives which lay behind a war and whether nations make use of conscription. O’Brian, although indignant about being drafted to fight a war which he hated, states, “There were occasions, I believed, when a nation was justified in using military force to achieve its ends, to stop a Hitler or some comparable evil, and I told myself that in such circumstances I would’ve marched off to battle” (44). The nature of a war, then, decides whether some soldiers resent their supposed duty to their country or carry on their duty with a certain dignity about their mission. In With the Old Breed, although Sledgehammer resonates the theme of soldiers as pawns when he notes that “we were training to be cannon fodder”, he did not have any resentment about his service for his country because he understood the necessity and the justice of the cause for which he was putting his life on the line for (22). The problem with the questions of individuality and duty to one’s country, as O’Brian puts it, is that “a draft board did not let you choose your war” (44). It is the issue of choice which ties the two questions together. A soldier who freely chooses to fight for his country in a war which he recognizes the value of will often serve with heroism, while a soldier who disagrees fundamentally with the motive or scope of a war will often serve with resentment. Kat alludes to the issue of soldiers having the freedom to choose to fight based on the particulars of a war:

A declaration of war should be a kind of popular festival with entrance-tickets and bands, like a bull fight. Then in the arena the ministers and generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing-drawers and armed with clubs, can have it out among themselves. Whoever survives, his country wins. That would be much simpler than this arrangement, where the wrong people do the fighting (41).

O’Brian echoes the same thought when stating, “There should be a law, I thought. If you support a war, if you think it’s worth the price, that’s fine, but you have to put your own precious fluids on the line” (42). The issue of choice is at the forefront for those soldiers who do contemplate the question of how they are to relate their individuality with their country’s call to war. Many soldiers fail altogether to contemplate this question, simply resigning themselves to the fates of obedient pawns. Such an attitude is evidenced by the example of a Chinese prisoner of war in The Marines of August. According to the private’s service record books, he began fighting under Chiang Kai-shek in 1937, fought the Japanese until the end of WWII, and fought the Communists from 1947 until Kai-shek departed for Formosa, after which he was conscripted into the Communist army (97). Such a is the nature of a soldier who resigns himself to the fate of a pawn—he answers the call to war regardless of the particulars of any conflict.

War influences the attitudes which soldiers have towards life. The experience of war leaves some soldiers disenchanted with life, while for others it serves to remind them of life’s tremendous value. Since soldiers are commonly a society’s youth, the brutal nature of war may shatter the idealistic outlook on life which some youth possess. Baumer comments on this aspect:

The war has ruined us for everything. We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in war (87).

War shatters the idealization of life for some soldiers, leaving them disenchanted with life. The disenchanted soldier is characterized by the possession of the opinion that much of life is a mere façade. Having experienced the worst that life has to offer in war, the soldiers who become disenchanted with life by war are those who are dissatisfied by the whole façade because of one horrible scene, whereas the soldiers who see the beauty of the façade in light of that one horrible scene are those who affirm the value of life after seeing the brutality of war. Baumer again speaks of disenchantment with the whole of life and the common course of societal norms:

How senseless is everything that can be written, done, or thought, when such things [as war produces] are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands (263).

The fact that war is possible within life taints the whole experience of life for the disenchanted soldier. This disenchantment of such soldiers provides them with a new outlook on life, many times one that contrasts sharply to that of their fellow citizens who have not drunk from the bitter cup of war. For one, the disenchanted may no longer accept the values and cultural and intellectual norms of their societies. Norman Bowker in The Things They Carried, relates, “If I could have one wish, anything, I’d wish for my dad to write me a letter and say it’s okay if I don’t win any medals. That’s all my old man talks about, nothing else. How he can’t wait to see my goddamn medals” (36). For Bowker, his father’s placement of value on medals was abhorrent. To think that soldiers lay their lives on the line for their countries, sometimes in useless wars, and then to be compensated with some shiny toys which are supposed to thank them for them getting wounded and killed! Bowker couldn’t care less about his society’s fetish with war medals. All he seems to have wanted was some emotional support in the midst of a war which left him dazed, but his dad was too macho to comfort a terrified son. Such values. Disenchantment with life can even lead the soldier to altered views of the value of life. Baumer notes, “When a man has seen so many dead he cannot understand any longer why there should be so much anguish over a single individual” (181). The fact that humans so often have no qualms with killing each other en masse would suggest to some soldiers that life isn’t so sacred and valuable as our societies say it is. Finally, disenchantment with life can be so powerful as to make a soldier willfully embrace death to escape the pain of life, as in Norman Bowker’s case, who commits suicide. It may be the ultimate tragedy that a soldier or veteran can become so disenchanted with life that he embraces the enemy which he once so fanatically sought to avoid, death.

For many soldiers, the experience of war serves to affirm the value of life rather than to destroy their zeal for living. Although Sledgehammer relates that he “had tasted the bitterest essence of war”, he did not become embittered with life, but rather put the harsh experience of war behind him and settled down again in civilized society (66). Sledgehammer’s experience points out that many soldiers see the horrors of war as something to be discarded in their past and that they must continue on with life away from the battlefield. For these soldiers who take this attitude, experiencing war makes life even sweeter many times. As O’Brian shares, “Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost” (81). Captain Verity is a good example of how war makes a soldier realize what he values most in life when the author writes, “If he died, Kate would be alone . . . and for the first time in his life he was frightened of death. Not for himself, but for her” (37). Similarly, many of the WWII and Vietnam veterans who spoke in class shared that war made them realize that the value they placed on their lives along with the lives of their comrades and their loved ones back home spurred them to fight for survival, not for patriotism or ideology. O’Brian exhibits this attitude of fighting for survival when he comments about how he  killed a Vietnamese soldier, “There were no thoughts about killing. The grenade was to make him go away” (133). The enemy for O’Brian was an obstacle to his having the opportunity to go back to live the life he loved, and that’s why the enemy had to be eliminated when it presented itself to him.

War naturally makes a man think of and question his attitude towards death. For many soldiers death is terror, an enemy to be avoided at all costs. For some, death is simply stoically accepted or even welcomed as an escape into the abyss of nothingness or an afterlife. These contrasting attitudes are evident in the two soldiers sentenced to execution by court martial in Paths of Glory. One of the soldiers is terrified of death and desperately seeks consolation in religion in his final moments, while the other simply resigns himself to the inevitability of death. The common attitude of fear of death is mentioned by O’Brian when he writes, “They were afraid of dying but they were even more afraid to show it” and “They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die” (20-21). For some soldiers the natural attitude of fear of death may turn into utter terror. Baumer speaks of this aspect when he relates, “Fear we do not know much about—terror of death, yes” (139). Some who see death as terror may exhibit a painful realization of what the philosophers call the threat of nonexistence. When a soldier realizes just how insignificant he is and how meaningless his life appears to be in the face of the inevitability of death, rage may follow at the prospect of his eventual nonexistence. Baumer poignantly expresses this attitude, “We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation” (113). This rage need not be loud or visible, for it may exhibit itself as the quiet weeping of a disillusioned and disenchanted soldier, as when Baumer watches Kemmerich die on his hospital bed:

I sit tensely and watch his every movement in case he may perhaps say something. What if he were to open his mouth and cry out! But he only weeps, his head turned aside. He does not speak of his mother or his brothers and sisters. He says nothing; all that lies behind him; he is entirely alone now with his little life of nineteen years, and cries because it leaves him (31).

For some soldiers the possibility that all that death has to offer them is an unwanted transition into nothingness makes them consider the possibility of an afterlife or seek solace in religion. Captain Verity and Izzo both are examples of this occurrence, as Verity confesses that he sometimes wishes he had a religion he believed in because it seemed to comfort the men who did and Izzo attends religious services regularly, regardless of sect or theology, seemingly as a sort of “fire insurance” for the afterlife. For a minority of soldiers, war may lead them to “sometimes thinking death would have been preferable” to the conditions of warfare and continued living, as in Sledgehammer’s case (273). For these soldiers, a proximity to death may take way its fear, presenting it as a somewhat favorable option in light of the horror of war. In all the different ways soldiers cope with the prospect of death, it is certain that war forces the soldier to consider his attitude towards death.

War is a unique, albeit horrible, experience within life. Despite the grotesque nature of war, the experience of war commonly awakens many soldiers to considering the big questions which life presents its inhabitants. The individual who lives the mundane life commonly fails to contemplate these questions, but by being placed on the borders of war, one is made painfully aware of the important questions of life. A few of the most important questions which many soldiers find themselves led to consider are the question of the relationship between personal autonomy and an individual’s duty to one’s country and the attitude which the soldier has towards life and death.

 

Thinking and Living

Life is an interesting journey. It has its joys, its sorrows. Sometimes you can feel as if you’re intoxicated with life, like Life itself is a sage and you silently sit at its feet, listening, learning, growing, all the while in awe of its wisdom and power to inspire. There are those beautiful and tranquil moments—a run on an early autumn morning, a moment of watching a little child laughing, a laid back conversation with a mentor, or those precious times of contemplating the wisdom that that the men and women from our past have left for us through their written thoughts. Life is beautiful, or at least one is aware that it can be so.

On the other hand, life can also be disheartening, and some of its sour experiences disenchants many. These sour experiences occupy my thoughts quite regularly, and even more so, the mundane realities of the world around me often make me look at life with a blank stare. The customs and innovations of our brave new world most often leave me disheartened when I experience them. Too many times I see that it is customary to pretend to care about others in a way that we do not, to engage in flattering formalities, to give up our individuality for common causes, and so on. I remember once joking with a friend about my goal of becoming desensitized to life. Maybe I was somewhat truthful, for what I meant was that I hoped to become immune to the façade that is so common in man’s outlook of life and his attempt at living it.

In youth, we are quite perplexed with what life is. There seem to be so many questions, so many possibilities, and so much uncertainty. One of the things that has left me most dissatisfied in life has been education. It seems to me that education should serve primarily to teach a student approaches to the art of living. Too often, though, education is just a morbid duty for most children and youth. Maybe behind all the standards and tests and the rest of the nonsense they forgot that the student must be equipped to live, not to pass silly tests so that the teachers look good. I doubt that many students who go through twelve years of schooling or even additional higher education ever consider any of the meaningful questions of life; friends, sports, and Netflix leave them no time for thinking.

That’s it, that’s what I want to get to: how to think. That used to be the purpose of education, you know. Nowadays, students are too lazy to embrace the challenge of using education as a guide to the art of living. Education has been supplanted by hip culture as the defining force of one’s motivations and outlook on life. The student no longer looks to the knowledge and wisdom of the past to guide his life by. But that’s a good thing, right? I mean, Tolstoy and Twain, or Shakespeare and Socrates, or Dostoyevsky and Descartes, or Aquinas and Augustine, or Kafka and Kierkegaard, or Erasmus and Epictetus, or Vives and Voltaire, they all definitely never uttered anything more meaningful than that wonderful and most exalted motto of our 21st century, “YOLO.”

Maybe that’s why I am so sure that life can be beautiful—because as an individual I can nourish my mind and soul from the wisdom of the past. Very often formal education is a distraction that I try to get over with so I can get on with my “real” education, where I lay back and listen to the sages. I have often heard that we, as youth, should learn from our elders. But what if our elders did not learn much from theirs? What have we to learn then? Ah, that’s it. We youth have very few living elders from whom to learn and be inspired by. That is just the more why we must befriend those wonderful dead thinkers of old. The more dead friends you have, the better prepared you will be to really live.

So go. Learn. Learn how to live.

Four Shots

The alarm clock awoke. 9:59 p.m. Wolfgang rose. Well, his upper body did so. An arm reached out and thanked the alarm clock for fulfilling its function. Wolfgang uncovered from his blanket. He flipped on his back. His dreary gaze fixed on the poster directly above him on the ceiling. A watercolor painting of a lion devouring a gazelle stared back at him.

Wolfgang’s favored café closed at 11 p.m., so he made haste with his morning routine. He selected a pair of joggers and a loose sweater as his costume for the day’s stage. He grabbed his satchel and umbrella and took the rear exit of the apartment building. The narrow alley was empty. The autumn sky was clear. Wolfgang undid his umbrella. This act was his service to humanity. The imbeciles he met on the way to the café couldn’t help but engage in the act of thinking when they saw him carrying an umbrella in fine weather. Wolfgang cherished the sight of the eyes that the umbrella provided for him on the way. A calm rage would build up in him. Sometimes he would roar with laughter towards the end of his walk. They actually looked puzzled. If only they would think. The pawns.

10:37 p.m. Wolfgang arrived at the café. He folded his umbrella. He walked inside. Only one person ordering. Two of the regular workers were busying themselves. Wolfgang did not recognize the girl taking the order. Hopefully she wouldn’t respond too awkwardly. Maybe the other two had told her about him. Wolfgang stepped to the counter.

“Hi! What can I get for you?” She was an especially lively and jovial pawn. She did look very copulate-able though. But never mind that. Wolfgang stared at the helpless creature, shifting his focus between her two eyes.

“Sir?” Her voice trailed off. Her puzzled remark caught the attention of one of her coworkers. The lady walked over with a slight grin.

“Jen, he wants a large mocha latte.” The startled girl hurried the transaction.

Wolfgang received his latte and headed out. He headed for his alley. When he entered the opening of the alley, Wolfgang heard what appeared to him as a mixture of muffled cries and heavy grunts. The sounds appeared to be coming from about the middle of the alley where a few dumpsters were situated. Wolfgang approached the sounds. In the space between the two dumpsters he made out three pawns: two males, one female. His brain put the pieces together. The pawns called it rape.

Wolfgang was disheartened. Why did the imbeciles choose his alley? How dare they disturb his peace? Wolfgang stepped into the open space. The two males noticed him.

“Hey buddy, get lost!” They portrayed large grins. Wolfgang put his latte on the ground. He opened his satchel. He grabbed the glock. Horror appeared in place of the grins. Wolfgang sighed. First shot. Second shot. Kill. Kill.

By now the female had collected herself. She was coiled up. Legs pulled in. Chin on top of her knees.

“T-th-thank you,” she sputtered. Wolfgang shifted his gaze towards her. He raised his glock in her direction. The female uncoiled. She opened her mouth. No sound came out. Her eyes bulged. Third shot. Wolfgang didn’t want to deal with her. He didn’t want to deal with the aftermath.

Wolfgang went up to his room. He settled at his desk. Latte at his disposal, he finished two whole coloring books before he heard the sirens. It was only a matter of time before the pawns intruded. Wolfgang walked over to his satchel on his bed. He grabbed the glock. He sat down at his desk. The desk was littered with coloring books.

The fourth shot rang out.

Humanism and Capital Punishment

A modern feature of humanism is its opposition to capital punishment. Leading humanists who present their case for opposing the death penalty commonly speak of the value of human life and the inhumanity, even cruelty, of execution. In my opinion though, such emotional talk, even if well intended, has failed to get at the core of the matter. Any argument concerning capital punishment must, I believe, start at the philosophical level. Of course, other factors, such as the often mentioned cost factor when comparing capital punishment to life in prison sentences, have their place within the debate, but I maintain that the debate must firstly contain a philosophical reflection on the justice of the implementation of capital punishment. Therefore, I would like to present a short philosophical inquiry as to whether capital punishment may indeed make sense within the humanist worldview.

To start off with, I would like to just briefly state what form of humanism I am addressing, as there are slightly varying kinds. Understandably, I am not addressing the kind of Christian humanism birthed by Petrarch and Erasmus, but rather the more modernly relevant secular, or if you’d like, atheistic humanism.

Secular humanism does not identify human life as sacred. If God is dead, the Christian’s assertion that life is sacred for the very fact that the Creator gave man intrinsic worth and dignity by God’s very image being stamped upon him is no longer is of any relevance. Man is simply the product of random chance plus time plus matter. Nevertheless, humanism has glorified evolution’s darling creature and has declared him supreme and quite whimsically, special. Secular humanism’s description of human nature and humanity’s status entails certain conclusions about the idea of justice in relation to capital punishment. Having thrown off the yoke of religious dogma, secular humanists must be default believe that human life is not sacred. Of course, history makes clear that a chief argument of support for capital punishment in the West’s Christian past was the Judeo-Christian belief of the sanctity of human life. As the argument went, if a man violates the image of God upon his neighbor, thus taking away the life that the Creator solely has authority over, he must be put to death. Such an argument, of course, is for the past.

Secular humanism rejects the premise that human life is sacred; therefore, its position of opposition to capital punishment would seem logical at first glance. But, would humanism not find capital punishment appropriate based on any other foundational premise? I would assert that it should. Here, I would like to reflect on secular humanism’s ties with social contract theory in relation to morality and how this relationship provides humanism with a few premises from which it could view capital punishment as appropriate.

Morality within secular humanism is largely constructed in light of social contract theory. I would sternly maintain firstly that such a morality is not and cannot be objective since its ontological foundation is not anchored in God or some other transcendent authority, but rather the opinions of man. The secular humanist sees as immoral that which he sees as unpleasant in his eyes. It follows then, that mankind should agree on a lot of things which would be considered as unpleasant and undesirable. Murder, rape, deceit, theft, and so on, would all be undesirable for each individual man to experience. If man can agree on these undesirable actions, surely it would be reasonable for him to agree with his fellow humans that a social contract, containing individual promises not to commit the undesirable actions in return for others promising to not do so as well, would be a reasonable solution. Furthermore, it would follow that punishments would be devised for the cases where this social contract would be breached. So then, in formulating these punishments, should these humanists agree upon capital punishment as the penalty for the undesirable occurrence of murder?

My answer is, of course, a definite yes. It would make sense for murder to be seen as the ultimate breach of the social contract, not only because an undesirable act was committed, but also that a fellow participant has been taken out of the game, so to say, against his will. It would be reasonable I think, not cruel, for humanists considering this scenario to conclude that this ultimate breach of the social contract would only deserve the punishment of the guilty party being taken out the game himself.

 

 

Humanism and the Herd Mentality

The individualistic citizen is society’s enemy. Society survives because of its encouragement of the herd mentality and the unquestioning adherence of the masses to the herd mentality. Present day Western society would no doubt quickly jump to its own defense against the accusation that it encourages adherence to the herd mentality in its citizenry by adamantly asserting that the West is the bastion of the values of individuality and personal autonomy. As a lover of the West, I would be first in line to praise the West for the cultivation of such values, but my observations only lead me to believe that the herd mentality is sadly only too prevalent today amongst the masses in the West. My claim is understandably seemingly contentious and exaggerated, yet I do not mean to be facetious in making it. I welcome any criticism of my claim, that the West encourages a herd mentality, as I only maintain it based on my limited experiences in Western culture. For now, I must go on to the main point of my claim.

Western civilization has introduced to the world those key values and principles which I think makes it the greatest civilization in history, notably the values of secular government, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and personal autonomy. I would not be so foolish to ignore the faults of the West in its history and we should certainly note that it has taken the West a long time for the wholesale implementation of the noble values which I listed. I say this for I think it is necessary to be said at a time in the history of the West when it is sadly evident that younger generations are being taught cultural self-hatred and the noble lie of cultural relativism. There should be no shame and hesitance in our praising the West for that which it has done right. It is the West, starting with the ideals of the Renaissance and on through those of the Enlightenment and now the modern era, that has given the modern world its beliefs in individual freedoms.

I am not sure whether I could say, based on my judgement according to my limited historical knowledge, whether there was ever a time in the West’s modern history when the herd mentality was not encouraged of the masses. My claim, then, is not that there has been a resurgence in the encouragement of the herd mentality, for I think it has always been encouraged of the masses in the West; rather, I claim that the West still encourages a herd mentality, in contrast to the popular notion that it has stopped doing so.

To what then does the West encourage the herd to adhere to? The West encourages a herd mentality in regards to the worldview which its masses hold, that worldview being humanism. The status quo in terms of worldviews among many of the West’s leading intellectuals is atheistic humanism. The West has secularized and the role of religion is ever diminishing in the lives of Western individuals. The atheistic humanism ascribed to by many of the West’s leading intellectuals has trickled down to the masses and it would be plausible to say that God is indeed dead in the West, or at least that He is on His deathbed. The West, though, has not dealt with God’s death in an intellectually honest manner. If Western civilization lay upon the foundation of the Judeo-Christian worldview in the past, then God’s death would necessitate a change of worldviews.  The West did proceed to make this change, swapping humanism for the Judeo-Christian worldview mainly throughout the turbulent 20th century. Atheistic humanism, though, is a massive contradiction. In the swapping of worldviews which took place in the West, because the values which the Judeo-Christian worldview birthed were so highly cherished, many who converted to humanism saw no need to abandon the values along with their abandoning of the worldview. Humanism kept at its core such foundational claims as the immortal declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Never mind the fact that we don’t believe in the Creator which the quote refers to, we can still hold on to the pathetic idea that all men are equal in value and dignity regardless of the fact that atheism makes clear how stupid of a belief the equality of humankind is. At its core foundation, humanism has no foundation which mandates its concern for universal rights and global progress. Universal rights cannot have any objective foundation if God does not exist and progress is simply a tragic myth. One of my favorite modern philosophers, John Gray, mentions humanism and some of its faults in his book Straw Dogs, once noting:

Humanism is not science, but religion – the post-Christian faith that humans can make a world better than any in which they have so far lived. In pre-Christian Europe it was taken for granted that the future would be like the past. Knowledge and invention might advance, but ethics would remain much the same. History was a series of cycles, with no overall meaning. Against this pagan view, Christians understood history as a story of sin and redemption. Humanism is the transformation of this Christian doctrine of salvation into a project of universal human emancipation. The idea of progress is a secular version of the Christian belief in providence. That is why among the ancient pagans it was unknown.

Humanism, then, appears to be a reincarnation of the Judeo-Christian worldview that is only coated in secular terms. If atheists were to be honest, I think their worldviews would look something like a stew of existentialism, nihilism and absurdism, but certainly not humanism. Humanism has its own ethical theory and increasingly asserts that morality is objective, yet I think it is foolish to think that atheism can give you objective morality. To echo Dostoyevsky’s words, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” If such a statement is true, let’s consider some of its effects on humanism, starting with its ideas about justice and morality.

According to my understanding, a key aspect of the idea of justice as understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition was the belief in ultimate moral accountability because of the belief in a Judgement Day. It followed then, that humans did not see themselves as the ultimate judges, for they saw God as the final Judge of all things. Such beliefs gave humans the hope that justice would be ultimately satisfied, if not in this world, then the next. Truly, they thought, if a perfect God existed, then His judgements would be perfect also. I laugh though when I look at humanism and its ideas about justice. If no ultimate accountability shall take place, then the present enactments of justice in our humanist societies in the West seem quite unjust to me. Let’s imagine that Hitler had not committed suicide and the Americans got their hands on the rascal before the Russians. What does humanism with its concept of justice suggest you do with such a grotesque and hellish figure? Do we simply execute him? Let him rot in prison for the rest of his life maybe? No, if I was an atheist and I had his fate in my hands I would torture the maniac for as long as possible, nurse him back to health, and resume the torture, continuing the process over and over until sadly I would come to a point of miscalculating how long he could sustain my torture and he’d slip away into nothingness. That would be my idea of justice for such a situation. Remember, I have no hope that Hitler will be ultimately punished by a just God, so I only think it reasonable to take the matter into my own hands. Yet would not humanism call for his execution? Such a prospect makes me sick; execution would be a favor for that vile animal. Such is the stupidity of atheistic humanism.

On to the topic of morality according to atheistic humanism. I’m not sure I can put into words how stupid I think atheist intellectuals are when they try to argue that atheism can give you objective morality. If Western man no longer believes in the Christian God who supposedly revealed a Moral Law which was based on his perfect nature, then morality is not, and cannot, be objective. To echo Richard Dawkins, there is “no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

Some atheists claim that morality can be objective even in the absence of God because some things are clearly desirable or undesirable. They argue that it is quite clear that everyone would agree that rape, murder, being stolen from, and such similar examples, are all undesirable for each one of us. More so, we would agree that freedom, peace, love, and other such noble conditions and values are desired by each one of us. Such an argument for objective morality is pretty hallow though. Just because something is undesirable, even by every person on the planet, it does not follow that it is objectively evil for one person to commit that undesirable act. If a person can commit that undesirable act, say theft, without getting caught and therefore receiving society’s ire or punishment, then why should he not follow through with the act? It’s not like he’ll be punished in the afterlife, so why not? Even the thief would agree that being stolen from is not exactly enjoyable, but why should he care about the discomfort of strangers if he could get away with stealing from them?

For those who still may disagree that atheism can’t give you objective morality, let’s consider the example of Piggy and Jack in Lord of the Flies. Whenever Piggy confronts Jack about stealing his glasses for the use of the lenses for the fire, he says:

You’re stronger than I am and you haven’t got asthma. You can see. . . . But I don’t ask for my glasses back, not as a favor. I don’t ask you to be a sport . . . not because you’re strong, but because what’s right’s right. Give me my glasses. . . . You got to.

So why should Jack give him his glasses back if he can afford not to? Because “what’s right’s right?” According to whom is it right not to steal? Society? And what if one dissents and can get away with it? Ladies and gentlemen, if God does not exist, then might is right. Rules of conduct could be said to be rational because they provide a framework wherein competing goals and desires of different persons can be resolved in a peaceful manner. But, such rules only hold weight when the two competing parties with the conflicting interest are on a similar level in terms of physical and mental capabilities and societal statuses. It is easy to imagine two farmers agreeing not to fight over some land which both desire due to the fact that it is more beneficial for each to give up his claim on the land than to face the possibility of a conflict which could possibly lead to physical injury, even loss of life, and maybe even a forfeiture of all of one’s property in the case of a defeat. But suppose the two farmers are not equal in strength, possessions, and standing. Suppose we have on our hands a case where we see a baron vying for the same piece of land as a common farmer. The baron, obviously more powerful than the common farmer, could easily employ the usage of a few mercenaries to rid himself of the nuisance of the farmer and his family, thereby ridding himself of the competing claim to the land which he has set his eyes on. So, then. The common farmer is gone. Might has prevailed in the face of a traditional rule of conduct simply because it could and wanted to. Where then is objective morality? No, there is no objective morality here. There is only incentive here. Individuals would be unreasonable not to comply with moral rules when they do not have a clear upper hand in comparison to their competition; more so, individuals would be cowardly, not just unreasonable, not to leave behind moral rules whenever their might permits them to do so. Simply put, might makes right, and therefore, morality cannot be objective.

I think one can see why it would be desirable for the masses to adhere to humanism and never awaken to its massive faults and contradictions. The government and the elite and powerful would of course favor a citizenry of humanists rather than reasonable egoists. If the masses of nonreligious people and atheists/agnostics in the West turned from humanism to egoism, how would the West survive? What does the government do with a citizenry who follows the law only up to the point where it knows it can get away with breaking it, instead of believing as in the humanist past that it is “right” to obey the law even when inconvenient to oneself? I bet governments shudder at such a prospect. That is why they would adamantly encourage the herd to follow humanism, even if by doing so the masses are believing in a contradictory worldview. And of course, governments could care less whether humanism is contradictory or not, for they simply care that it provides a society stability and peace if the masses believe in it. At the end of the day that’s all that matters.

On Death

Death. How can one describe this Thing? Many of the human race call Death a Thief, but it is foolish to assume that life is something that humans deserve, something that is stolen from them. Humans cannot be said to deserve anything; all that nature and chance bestows upon them are unmerited favors. Man is the product of random chance; he finds himself at the top of the pyramid of the life that evolution, that base, cruel and indiscriminating process, has brought into existence. Yet despite all of man’s evolutionary advantages and successes, he is weakling in comparison to his fellow animals concerning his reaction to Death. The animals do not wail when a loved one falls prey to nature’s forces, they do not gnash their teeth in desperation in the face of Death. Yet man has forgotten that he is a mere animal. His evolutionary attainments do not give him a pass at Death’s hands; man is condemned as prey as his fellow animals are. Man is weak and irrational in his reaction to Death. He weeps, he wails, he may recline in solitude for a short time, he erects monuments for those who have ceased to be, and he engages in formalities meant for remembering his friends and companions of old. Most of mankind participates in such irrational actions for they cannot cope with Death’s reality.

Death is terror. All humans who show remorse when they are affected by its presence in the lives of their loved ones are terrified of Death. Whether they are consciously aware of this fact or not, such humans see Death as the evilest of enemies. Death does not terrorize them because of the prospect of its experience, but because of what Death brings—nonexistence. It is nonexistence which truly terrifies most people, even though almost all are too naïve and wimpy to actually contemplate this state of terror. Such people harbor so much resentment and ill passion towards this state that they cowardly refuse to contemplate its reality. A man terrified of nonexistence may go mad if he contemplated its peaceful reality. One day, such a man will die. His loved ones, friends, and acquaintances will weep over his fate, but only for a short time. The man will be given a plot of land on which he can make his permanent mark on this Earth; this neglected plot may witness some visitors for a few years. Eventually though, the man will be forgotten. His loved ones will die themselves. His fleshly remains will totally decompose. His remains will not only cease to exist physically, but he will cease to remain in the memories of other humans. His great-grandchildren will care not about his pitiful life. This man will be no more. No more. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The world is indifferent to his nonexistence. The universe could care less that he spent a few seconds as a visitor in its realm. The man is no more. No more!

Just think. You and I will cease to exist one fateful, yet indifferent, day. Those who know us will pretend to care, yet they will get accustomed to our nonexistence. No one cares. One day the lights will go out and our train of thought will abruptly screech to a halt. Think! Nonexistence! Nothing! Absolutely nothing—that is our inevitable end.

Nothing. Such an absurdity, yet such a welcoming prospect. Maybe we should embrace this upcoming nothingness. Maybe we should laugh in its face. Is it truly our enemy? What if it is our liberator? Why shouldn’t it be? I think it may very well be. No, Death is not an agent of terror for the brave; Death is their agent of liberation. We will be freed from this suffering which we call life. We will be freed from absurdity. We will be free to be no more.