Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Race to the Bottom

It's often considered that when an author begins comparing someone to Hitler or Stalin, the course of rational discourse has been abandoned. While this is perhaps not universally the case, it is certainly true that comparisons to famous dictators are almost invariably an attempt to martial an emotion reaction which closes down the conversation in one's favor.

It is, then, perhaps not surprising that several people had initial reactions ranging to skepticism to derision when Vox-Nova writer Henry Carlson posted the following "thought experiment" Saturday:
In 2012, two historical leaders have been brought back to life. Each one has found their political party of choice and has, somehow, become a candidate for President of the United States.

The Democrats have Adolf Hitler as their candidate. He wants to help the United States get out of its economic slump. He wants to make sure the poor are able to get better jobs, the health care they need, and a greater sense of personal dignity than they have had in the past. He wants the nation to feel proud of itself through a new cultural renaissance. However, he points out the problem with the US is that the Jews have hindered the nation, and the only way to make sure the nation is able to attain a new era of prosperity is if we get rid of all the Jews. Once and for all. The final solution must be put into effect.

The Republicans have chosen Joseph Stalin as their candidate. Because of his historical ability to oppose Hitler, he is their man. He wants the United States to be a military power with sufficient strength to oppose all threats to the nation, external or internal. He promises to make sure the United States takes indirect control over Mexico and Canada as satellite nations. He also wants the general populace to be more prosperous than they have been in the past. This, he says, will be done in part by reinforcing current laws and helping to re-establish a perfectly ordered state. But he thinks there is a major problem: there are too many enemies of the state within the nation. They are destroying the nation, making sure it cannot be as great as it should be. They are not the Jews. They are not of any one race. They are all over the nation. They must be removed. So he proposes that he will find them and put them in prison camps. He will force them to engage in extreme, even dehumanizing, manual labor which will quickly kill them off. But their labor will help create a better nation and provide material support for those not in the camps.

The Democrats point out that Stalin’s plans would result in far more deaths, over three times as many deaths as Hitler’s plan. And they also say he would bring us into an unprovoked war with Canada. The Republicans point out that the deaths are a sad but necessary evil.... And since it is not genocide, and the people are not being directly executed, it can’t be said that Stalin supports an intrinsic evil. Even if it is clear that he intends the deaths of more people than Hitler, what he is doing cannot be said to be murder because their death would only be indirectly accomplished by the state. Biological failure would be the primary cause of their death. Some people might even be able to survive and thrive in the camps.

Would you accept the Stalinist propaganda in these circumstances? Would you vote for him because his policy is the lesser of the two evils, and one must, after all, make sure Hitler doesn’t get into power?
The first several responses essentially expressed skepticism about the likelihood or applicability of such a choice being put before people, to which Henry responded repeatedly by saying that this was a thought experiment, and thus people must attempt to engage it despite the surface absurdity of the situation.

Now, I'm not necessarily a fan of "thought experiments" which seek to force you to make decisions based on a set of highly improbably circumstances. (Which is, for instance, why I think the Trolley Dilemma, is not worth wasting time on -- it's formulated to make you address a situation based on a flawed understanding of morality, consequences, and reality in general, which doesn't tend towards such binary choices.)

So I responded, "No, it's not a 'thought experiment', because it's not thoughtful."

To which the post author responded, "Darwin, If you can’t offer anything other than insults, please, go away."

Well, I know that I'm at times subject to a tendency to go for the snappy line rather than the conversational route, so I thought perhaps -- having already inserted myself into the conversation -- I owed him a real answer. I responded:
Sigh… If you think this is a question worth answering:

The correct answer is of course to support neither candidate and work actively against both.

Given the way you’ve laid it out, that’s not a bit surprising.

The good news is that in this situation a Buchanan/Keyes ticket running as a third party could sweep, because both would look wonderfully mainstream and reasonable.
Several hours later I came back to find that Henry had responded to my comment by asserting, in part:
Now take it to the current election. If both candidates support an intrinsic evil, would you vote third candidate, even if it meant Evil A or Evil B would get in power? Or would you go for “the evil I can accept better” even though it is an intrinsic evil? Or what?

The thing is — if you can see a situation where both candidates would support evil and you can’t vote for them, then the problem is — the situation is here and now.
At the same time, I noticed that the words of my first "not thoughtful" comment had been deleted and replaced with: "[post deleted because it was only a personal insult, and did not engage the discussion]"

Somewhat peeved, I responded:
See, this is exactly why my first reaction was to mock the "thought experiment", because I knew that as soon as one provided the answer that was so obviously built into the problem, you would then announce that this as actually exactly the same as the choice we're facing in the election here and now.

I'll say this much: If you honestly think that the choices before you in the current election are the equivalent of being asked to vote for either Hitler or Stalin, then I think you should either find a third party solution you support or, in all honestly more probably, leave the country. Given the people I've known whose families fled Nazi Germany and the Stalanist USSR, I can assure you that one is better off getting out of that sort of situation than staying in it.

But the mere fact that you think your example is so closely applicable to the current election shows that you may be looking at reality in rather hyperbolic terms.

Not to mention that the fact that you deleted my comment simply because it said your thought experiment was "not thoughtful" -- claiming in your deletion explanation that it was a personal insult -- shows that you're not exactly into discourse...
Fortunately, I copied the text of that comment into my clipboard before posting, because almost immediately it was deleted and replaced with, "[I said, if you want to insult, go away]"

All further comments of mine (both a two sentence, summary of the substantive points of the above and a request that if all my other comments be deleted, my one remaining comment be removed as well rather than used to further Henry's argument) were deleted without leaving a trace. (You can view all surviving comments on the thread here.)

At this point, I was rather annoyed. While one hardly expects comments on a blog to be recorded on stone tablets for all ages, seeing them deleted entirely or replaced with public accusations of making personal insults tends to rile the pride of any blogsphere citizen. However, the desire to bring a cool head to the situation (and a prior commitment to spend the weekend putting in two apple trees and a vegetable garden in the back yard) led me to pledge not to do anything about it until Monday.

Having done that (and if any readers have actually made it through this much verbage to care at all) I think the situation merits addressing in two fairly brief sections:

The Poorly-Thought Experiment
From what I can make out from the author's comments, the purpose of the thought experiment is to bring the reader to the realization that either:
a) He should break from the two party mold and not support either major party, or
b) Holding that there are certain "non-negotiable" moral evils which make it impossible to support a candidate is an untenable position.

I suspect that it's a), but his comments leave room to suggest he may mean b) instead or as well.

The difficulty in trying to make this point with such a far-fetched example is that few readers will find much in this hypothetical which correlates to reality. The author himself does not clarify if he imagines that his hypothetical bears some particular relationship to real issues (perhaps the Jews are intended to represent unborn while Stalin's selected enemies are supposed to be Iraqis or the poor or immigrants?) or if he simply means it to be an example of two highly undesirable candidates.

Why does this make the dilemma essentially not worth answering? It seems to me that any sensible moral understanding of voting in a republic takes the act of voting to be choosing which, of the available candidates, it would be most to the common good to have in a particular office. This is, by its nature, a highly contextual decision. One takes into account how likely the candidate is to be able to execute those parts of his agenda that one disagrees with, and also what sort of deeper understanding of the world (and thus likely reactions to as yet unforeseen events) are suggested by the candidate's positions. There may also be situations in which one finds oneself so repulsed by all available candidates that one simply does not vote.

However, the suggested scenario and the author's explication, "if you can see a situation where both candidates would support evil and you can’t vote for them, then the problem is — the situation is here and now" seem to suggest a check-box worldview: Candidate A supports something wrong. Candidate B supports something wrong. Okay, now it's morally impossible to vote for either one.

This line of thinking seems to take all evils as equal, which is not the case in Dante or in practical politics. Thus, it immediately jumps from disapproving of certain positions of each party to suggesting that we are currently in a situation where they've selected Hitler and Stalin as their nominees. While I'm hardly one to suggest that we invariably view our current situation in the US through rosy lenses (we have, without question, some vast and tragic moral and cultural problems which afflict us), it seems to me that this kind of if-it-ain't-good-it's-pure-evil thinking suggests more comfort with the world of fiction than with real life. While not seeking to exaggerate the virtues or vices of our own times, or of some of the most hideous regimes in the last 100 years, all real countries and situations come with a complex human face. (Which is why, fascinating though I find reading about real WW2 history, I think that images of the great evil empires of the last century are getting massively over-used as symbols.)

A Place For Everything, and Everything In It's Place
While I think an unbiased reader will agree that Henry was incorrectly stifling discussion on the post in question, the incident also caused me to re-assess my own behavior a bit.

For those who are not familiar with it, Vox Nova is a large group blog whose stated purpose is to provide commentary on Catholic Social Teaching from a variety of viewpoints. Some of their writers are very good; some I agree with very much -- your mileage may very as to how closely those sets overlap.

Their "About" page says in part:
Vox Nova is a response to the ecclesial mandate to promote the common good in every sphere of human existence. We come from varying backgrounds and carry diverse social outlooks, traversing a wide range of demographics and political sympathies. Vox Nova is free, to the furthest extent possible, from partisanship, nationalism and demagoguery, all of which banish intellectual honesty from rational discourse.
At it's best, Vox Nova achieves something along these lines, but at other (all too frequent) points it tends to be more of a Catholic political fight club. (I hope I would not be thought gravely uncharitable in putting the partisanship/demagoguery to rational discourse ration at roughly 3:1) And since it has a decent size readership and authorship, and comment threads not infrequently run to 50 or more, it has something of the addictive nature of a forum.

Nonetheless, it is at the end of the day a blog belonging to its authors, and thus it is (in part) Henry's living room, and not mine. Moreover, I have my own much smaller soap box to which I feel committed to providing interesting content on a fairly regular basis. So I think perhaps it would be best for the blood pressure of all if (while still keeping up with the Vox Nova postings of some of my favorite authors there) I swear off combox battles there and perhaps write some more posts on the intersection of politics, economics and morality here on my own turf.


Cliff said...

First, I admit to reading only the first portion of this post, and skimming the rest.

Emily Post would have had a "hay day" with blogosphere etiquette.

I for one will vote on principle, not expediency. Ron Paul as a write in, or a third party. First, pro-life. Second, vote against incumbents whenever possible. Vote the bums out!

jawats said...


I stopped reading Vox-Nova about a month ago because of actions like that. I would enjoy seeing more of your commentary here.


Donald R. McClarey said...

Good post. A blog belongs to its owners, but when a blog opens discussion to combox comments wise owners will only delete comments that offend gravely against civility. One of the main purposes of comboxes is to subject ideas to robust analysis and debate. Too heavy a hand on the delete button and the debate is neutered.

I agree that attempting to comment on the American political scene by calling up the shades of Hitler and Stalin from the nether regions was very ill-conceived. It detracted from any point that Mr. Karlson was attempting to make.

I was shocked that your comments were deleted since in the Vox Nova context your comments have invariably been moderate and free of the partisan rancor that afflicts so many of the combox participants on that blog, myself on occasion included.

JHB said...

I am surprised that your comments were deleted; it was pretty tame by Vox Nova standards. It's Henry's post, but his response appeared heavy-handed and self-serious to me. I guess I'm less sympathetic, though, to the 'thought' experiment because the designated outcomes it was intended to provoke don't appeal to me.

Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

My view: life's too short to read Vox Nova.

What I've read about it here and on Jay's blog and elsewhere convince me that the good there only serves to give cover and draw an audience so that "Catholic" pro-aborts can sow confusion and try to convince people that it's OK for a Catholic to vote for pro-abortion Democrats.

I haven't heard anything about the good posts that make them sound so attractive as to be worth wading through the crap I've seen quoted from there.

The point of view of being an apologist for pro-abortion politicians is inconsistent with the Catholic faith, and a good Catholic blog wouldn't be willing to accomodate, let alone feature, such viewpoints.

They're free to delete any comments that don't please them from their blog. They won't be deleting any of mine.

Darwin said...


Probably the sane approach...

In regards to good posts at Vox Nova: there are a couple posters there that I think are usually sound and insightful. Personally, I've found just about anything by Blackadder to be interesting, right, or both.

Which I figured I should mention just because I have a tendency to call things our for blame more often than for praise.

Darwin said...

While I'm on a fairness kick, I should add that although I of course prefer the few right leaning authors on VN, several of those I seldom agree with (Katrina, Policratus and Michael Iafrate, if memory serves) have very unequivocally stated that they would not vote for any pro-choice candidate.

CMinor said...

Man, you're gonna get yourself banned from another blog!

While I've only had the time to skim your comments on the matter so far and not looked at the original at all, I'd say based on the excerpts you've provided that this "thought experiment" looks far less "thoughtful" than hystrionic and calculated to trigger emotionally charged reactions.

CMinor said...

Finished. A good idea that last. You will, I trust, be more mindful of Godwin's law than are certain parties?

Darwin said...

Man, you're gonna get yourself banned from another blog!

Yes, the Discovery Institute situation did spring to mind...

M.Z. said...

I doubt anyone will ever be banned at Vox Nova. That would require agreement. It has been attempted twice, and both times it has failed. Leaving the blog post owner in charge of their own comments has helped keep the peace among the blog members. It isn't really my place to tell Henry how to handle his threads. While I didn't delete your comments, a member of the blog other than Henry may have once you gave the request. I debated doing so once you made your request, because I try to respect people's wishes with regard to their comments. For example, I will fix tags and grammar on request and then delete the request. IIRC, a person made a comment that they wished they hadn't once and I deleted that portion of the comment. I will commonly delete duplicate comments and whatnot on other people's threads.

Darwin said...

IIRC, a person made a comment that they wished they hadn't once and I deleted that portion of the comment.

I hadn't known who did that, but I did appreciate it. ;-)

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

Thanks for the compliment, Darwin. For what it's worth, I've found your comments both here and at Vox Nova to be fairly insightful as well.

Also for what it's worth, I don't know if the partisanship/demagoguery to rational discourse ratio at Vox Nova is 3:1, but for the internet that's not a bad ratio.

Tony said...

We come from varying backgrounds and carry diverse social outlooks, traversing a wide range of demographics and political sympathies.

They traverse a wide range from alexham (the "token conservative") to the rest of them on the far left wing.

They're a mile wide and an inch deep.

Rick Lugari said...

Heh, I was reminded of your experience today when a similar thing happened to me. So get this.

Henry Karlson has a post up about a McCain music video. I have to summarize the comment thread because a good number of posts have been deleted, so bear with me.

Henry made a statement something to the effect that Obama's support for abortion is not [directly] favoring the slaughter of babies, but favoring the ability of others to do so. (I get the distinction he is drawing, I just don't think it exonerates Obama in the least) He then went on to point out that McCain supports 10000 years of war (wars in which many children have died). I don't know if by equating the two he was trying to bring McCain down to Obama's level or raise Obama to McCain's level, nevertheless, I think he took a little too much liberty in claiming McCain supports 10000 years of war (presimably all wars, just and unjust).

Alexham commented that outside of unjust wars (which if that is Henry's issue, he should state it as such) that the death of children in war is far from that of abortion [morally speaking].

Henry replied that Alexham is not pro-life because unjust wars equal unjust killing - the same as abortion.

Alexham replied that Henry needs to take a remedial reading comprehension class.

I penned the following comment which ended up in moderation:

Yeah, I think Henry needs to re-read Alexham's comment. It seems to me that Alexham clearly understands that all killing in an unjust war is immoral. His point being that the unintentional killing of children that will most likely occur in a just war is on a different moral plane than abortion.

Likewise, an example a little less likely to be misconstrued for argument's sake would be giving medications or vaccinations, or even utilizing automobile transportation. All those things are either morally neutral (or even a moral good in instances), yet it is reasonably foreseeable that all of those things will be the result in the death of some children - it indeed happens every day. That does not mean that we shouldn't do any of those things nor are they remotely close to the willful act of abortion. Nevertheless, as someone who favors giving medicine to children, has no objections to others giving certain vaccinations to their children, or favors transporting children in motor vehicles, I think it's quite a stretch to say I in some way, favor allowing at least some babies to being slaughtered. What I favor is moral goods that in spite of a foreseeable risk outweigh the risk. There is a huge moral difference between my examples and favoring an "abortion option". The deaths of innocents in a just war are morally akin to the former and far removed from the latter.

[When my comments moderation notice loaded the above exchange had been deleted and in its place were some snide back and forth comments between the two.]

I then posted the following comment, which went to moderation as well:

What the heck is going on here? Why all the deletions? Y'all should only delete items that are obscene…leave it to us adults weed through the faulty arguments, rhetoric and snide comments…we are capable of weighing their merit and determining who is out of line or being petty.

Apparently both have been deleted, and since then Henry posted a soap box style comment covering the same ground, but the implication is that Alexham (and I?) have an incorrect view. All done by mischaracterization of the view that was put forth by Alexham (and myself?).

When a war is unjust, then the killing in the war is equal to all unjust killing. We know some think “because war can be justified, it makes killing in war, even in an unjust war, less evil than abortion.” Not true. It’s like saying “since some killing can be justified, all killing is meaningless” and that should apply for abortion as well.

Indeed, the way people treat war could be applied to abortions. And has been. The logic of one becomes the logic of the other. Many treat abortion as justified because the fetus is an “invader.” One who is completely pro-life would see the evil in one and how it relates to the evil of the other. Many who claim to be pro-life, of course, will not see how the the same arguments are being used. They are anti-abortion, good. Personal reasons might even make them anti-abortion. But when will they be pro-life? Even the devil knows life begins at conception.

Rick Lugari said...

Returning back to that VN thread, I see that a conversation between Henry and Blackadder is continuing, even though the initial context regarding the 10000 years of war was deleted.

I guess I'm a little peeved because I don't think anything I wrote was offensive or out of line. It strikes me that Mr. Karlson is just being what us simple and uneducated folk call chickenshit.

And I say that knowing there is a likelihood that Henry and the other VN contributers may read it. I know each contributer controls their own thread, but it seems to me their should be some sort of universal and reasonable policy concerning these things. There's no "right" to comment on a blog, but that doesn't mean that whatever a blogmaster does with his combox isn't rude - or worse.

Darwin said...

I read over the thread you mentioned.

It strikes me that having that sort of approach to deleting comments you don't like also builds a great deal of distrust between readers and authors, and thus stiffles dialog. If, as in this case, the author is using deletion and modification to shape the overall comments thread to reflect his point, the reader is afraid to post any sort of comment, lest that comment be not merely deleted, but used against him to portray a false course of conversation.

Katherine said...

You were 'right on' to respond, "No, it's not a 'thought experiment', because it's not thoughtful."

Our nation, thanks be to God, is a democracy. The presidency gives neither a Hitler nor a Stalin the ability to do the evil deeds they did. The first principle is preservation of democracy and representative government.