Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Mark Shea on true and false courage (posted at C4C)

No time to blog this afternoon; instead, I'll share this piece cross-posted at the Coalition for Clarity blog, and invite my And Sometimes Tea readers to comment either here or there.

A terrific piece from Mark:

Similarly, many a radically selfish person has managed to convince himself he was a soul dedicated to the Good of Mankind or the Love of God even as he was about the business of doing some miserable piece of self-serving filth and telling himself throughout the whole affair that the gag reflex he felt was what truly courageous people must muscle down as they defy God and conscience for the Greater Good.

If that is so, then how do we make the distinction between a radically good and radically evil act? How do we tell that one is advocating radical evil and another is advocating radical Christian charity?

The answer is the cross. What marks out Jesus' radical act of courage is that He is brave in offering His own life, not some other innocent person. Conversely, if somebody is "courageously" willing to make some innocent person suffer or die, that's your first clue that they are not courageous for the things of God.

And so, for instance, Himmler is very brave with the lives of innocent people and singularly protective of his own. Likewise, Myers does not volunteer his own body to be reduced to a piece of meat for the sake of Science, much less for the sake of a baby. He demonstrates a congenital inability to distinguish brutality from courage and regards himself as brave for, among other things, being unmoved by the thought of stabbing a defenseless baby to death with scissors. The distinction between that act and interposing one's body between the baby and a fiend like himself is lost on a moral monster like Myers, as it is on Himmler. Like Jeffrey Dahmer, he is "unafraid" to reduce persons to meat. (And, oddly, nobody frets about his "incivility" or the effect he might have on some Jared Loughner in his class.)

In the same way, the Croatian guard is "brave" enough to slaughter innocents, but not enough to slaughter his nationalism on the cross of Christ.

Go read the whole thing here.

We've seen the "false courage" motif crop up in torture debates. The idea is that those who oppose torture are too cowardly to "man up" and do What Must Be Done to Defend Our Nation. The response to that is simple: a nation that can only be defended by having recourse to torture--or, indeed, any other intrinsic evil--is a nation no longer worthy of defending.


Anonymous said...

This recalls the statement of some SS officer or other Nazi official who praised the death camp guards. Something to the effect of: "And through it all, they remained decent men."

Faux courage, faux decency.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

It occurs to me that Myers's body would simply not offer the same opportunities as embryonic stem cells would, even if he were inclined to offer it. But I don't recall any stem cell researcher ever proclaiming themselves to be conspicuously brave - only inspired and determined.

There remains, of course, the question whether an embryo is a person. I wouldn't even say that it qualifies as "meat." Shea, unfortunately, has fallen into the fallacy of offering colorful analogies, and thinking the analogy proves a point. It doesn't.

c matt said...

There remains, of course, the question whether an embryo is a person.

There remains also the question of how one defines a person. That seems to be the impasse between most pro-lifers and por-abortionists. If we cannot agree on what a person is, we will never reach agreement on whether an embryo is one.

Anonymous said...

That is where it breaks down in the debate, isn't it? Person-hood.

As a committed Buddhist, vowed to refrain from taking any sentient life, my attitude is that person-hood is not the issue.

Any life form that has self-awareness enough to defend itself or recoil from pain or attack is "sentient." An embryo is exactly what a human being, a person, looks like at a certain age, but that is beside the point here.

It struck me one night when I found a centipede in a tea cup (that had been too long in the basement) how hard that creature was working to get out of the cup. It valued its life dearly.

Centipedes used to be among the most revolting of creatures to me, but my heart opened to it and I took the cup to another part of the basement and released the creature.

How much easier then, to allow a developing human to live? This is about a turn of the heart that cannot be unturned, unlike intellectual positions.

Last month I found that I was writing here to defend the pro-choice position, and realized that I no longer believe in it. I am not adopting Red's rage-and-disgust-filled dismissal of pro-choice persons because I know that they do not fit her stereotypes. But I cannot support the pro-choice position anymore.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I wouldn't characterize Red's argument as "dismissal of pro-choice persons" because they "do not fit her stereotypes." She believes what she believes, and she lays it out firmly. She may earnestly believe I'm going to hell, but she doesn't therefore consign me as non-human or unworthy of courtesy. If she were allowed to, I think she would even dip her fingers in water and drop some on my parched lips as I roast in the flames. But I don't expect to be in that position, and I don't think fear of hell is much basis for a moral commitment anyone could rely on. There should be some positive commitment for good reason too.

cmatt has gotten to the heart of the argument, in very few words. That is indeed where the impasse rests. As a matter of law and politics, so long as there is an impasse, so long as around half, or even 40%, or even 30%, of the population believes one thing, and the rest another, we have no sound basis for criminal legislation.

I would not compare an embryo to a centipede, but I do consider "sentient" to be an essential definition of whether the growth inside a uterus is a part of the mother, or is an independent person. I don't believe anything that exists in the first trimester exhibits sentience, nor at least part of the second.

I remain firmly committed to killing mosquitoes and bed bugs, although I think I too would prefer to let the centipede go outside. But anything sucking the life out of my pumpkin vines I would kill if I could.

As a Buddhist, do you refrain from wearing silk? There is a graphic description in Pearl Buck's The Living Reed of how silk worms are boiled alive to obtain the precious threads from which garments may be woven.

Anonymous said...


I was not comparing an embryo to a centipede. I was describing a turning of the heart, a sensitization to the aspiration of other beings to live the lives given them.

The trimester ideology no longer works for me. All you have to do is NOT KILL an embryo and unless nature decides to do so, the embryo will become sentient. Drawing lines is of no interest - this is not an intellectual exercise.

I do not actively refrain from wearing silk though I rarely buy it. But then, I'm not asking anyone to boil worms for me to wear silk.

I eat meat, though I do not kill it myself. I am not an ideological purist. Buddhism is not, properly, an ideology (not to say there are not folks who use it as one, because there are). It is a practice.

This is not about killing being immoral, it is about the effect of killing on the person who does it. If no one wants to kill animals for me to eat anymore, for example, I will be vegetarian without complaint.

I do not advocate criminalization. Women have a legal right to abort under current law. That does not translate to making it right, desirable or a good thing.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

I fully agree with your last paragraph. The point where I generally find myself in agreement with Erin is when she can point to people who are truly "pro abortion," not merely "pro choice." There is a difference, and there are people who push abortion as something very close to a positive good.