Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Cautionary Tale

Ever more often these days, I have a completely different set of ideas about what to write about ten minutes before I set my fingers to the keys than when I actually start to type. Today is one such day.

It started with this column by John Kass:

Jayne and Jon Cornwill, an Australian couple, recently came to America with a bit of trouble.

The trouble? Boys.

They have three little boys, and three rambunctious boys were quite enough for the Cornwills, thank you. What the Cornwills wanted was a little girl.

But all they got were boys. And this led to what is known in the sex selection business as profound "gender disappointment."...

So they turned to modern science, which many believe can solve the problems of the modern age. And they found an answer to gender disappointment:

Pre-implantation genetic screening, or genetic gender selection.

Please read the whole thing. Then read Chapter 3 of C. S. Lewis’s “The Abolition Of Man,” and reflect.

The great Thomas Szasz once defined freedom as “That which you demand for yourself but would deny to others.” There’s a great deal of truth in that. Most of us trust others less than they deserve, but ourselves far too much. We even trust ourselves to control others’ futures: mostly by decreeing what they must, may, or must not do, but in these latter years also by decreeing what they must or must not be.

George Orwell was focused on the cognitive and emotional aspects thereof:

‘You are a flaw in the pattern, Winston. You are a stain that must be wiped out. Did I not tell you just now that we are different from the persecutors of the past? We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us: so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be. Even in the instant of death we cannot permit any deviation. In the old days the heretic walked to the stake still a heretic, proclaiming his heresy, exulting in it. Even the victim of the Russian purges could carry rebellion locked up in his skull as he walked down the passage waiting for the bullet. But we make the brain perfect before we blow it out. The command of the old despotisms was “Thou shalt not”. The command of the totalitarians was “Thou shalt”. Our command is “THOU ART”.

Lewis had a wider focus:

`Man's conquest of Nature' is an expression often used to describe the progress of applied science....I do not wish to disparage all that is really beneficial in the process described as `Man's conquest', much less all the real devotion and self-sacrifice that has gone to make it possible. But having done so I must proceed to analyse this conception a little more closely. In what sense is Man the possessor of increasing power over Nature?

Let us consider three typical examples: the aeroplane, the wireless, and the contraceptive. In a civilized community, in peace-time, anyone who can pay for them may use these things. But it cannot strictly be said that when he does so he is exercising his own proper or individual power over Nature....What we call Man's power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers manifested in the aeroplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target both for bombs and for propaganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.

As “The Abolition of Man” was written seven decades ago, we cannot fault Lewis for failing to foresee genetic surgery, therapies applied directly to the embryo, or abortion. Yet all of these are now being exercised to circumscribe the possibilities available to our successors: our children.

Few persons would dare to argue that, if it’s possible to free our children from the burdens of genetically borne handicaps or diseases, nevertheless we should refrain from doing so – and I am not one of them. But how shall we comport ourselves in extremis? When the handicap is uncorrectable – when the disease cannot be extirpated – when despite all our best intentions and efforts, the child will either be born “imperfect” or not at all...what then?

Sarah Palin made her choice. She was widely derided for it – even condemned in some circles, including by one “Objectivist” commentator who argued that it is selfish to allow a Down’s Syndrome baby to be born.

Needless to say, one can only hold such a position if one denies the humanity of the unborn child. But every child begins as a embryo...a fetus...and ultimately, a newborn baby fresh from the womb. As we who cherish life like to say, where’s the dividing line? At what point does the right to life attach to that creature – and why not before then?

Once again, Thomas Szasz is on hand to jar our thinking:

When man believed that happiness was dependent upon God, he killed for religious reasons. When man believed that happiness was dependent upon the form of government, he killed for political reasons. After dreams that were too long, true nightmares...we arrived at the present period of history. Man woke up, discovered that which he always knew, that happiness is dependent upon health, and began to kill for therapeutic reasons.

For a man to kill himself, though a terrible sin, cannot be prevented by any imaginable exertion of benevolence or will. Killing unborn others to prevent them from being “unhealthy” – in some cases after straining for years to bring them into existence at all! – what shall we call that?

Let C. S. Lewis state the conclusion:

The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall have `taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho' and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it? For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please....

At the moment, then, of Man's victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely `natural'—to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammelled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man's conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature's conquest of Man. Every victory we seemed to win has led us, step by step, to this conclusion. All Nature's apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on. What looked to us like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us for ever. If the fully planned and conditioned world (with its Tao a mere product of the planning) comes into existence, Nature will be troubled no more by the restive species that rose in revolt against her so many millions of years ago, will be vexed no longer by its chatter of truth and mercy and beauty and happiness. Ferum victorem cepit: and if the eugenics are efficient enough there will be no second revolt, but all snug beneath the Conditioners, and the Conditioners beneath her, till the moon falls or the sun grows cold.

Think about it.


A Reader said...

Those Aussies are deranged. "Mourning a child you never had", because your boy-girl is off in a house with three children? The only reason to mourn in that way is if the couple couldn't ever get pregnant, or stay pregnant.

Backwoods Engineer said...

"What we call Man's power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by."

I thought of this passage when reading the Spoonerite series, especially when Althea (well, and Martin) created technologies of which the other clans became immediately jealous. House Morelon, and only some individuals of it, were really the masters of Nature; the others would only gain wealth or convenience or both by them, but they could not be said to be the possessors of them, not in the true sense.

Love your stuff, Fran. Helps me to think better than I do.

A Reader said...

Objectivism is merely political atheism. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge", so where does that leave the Randians? It is the individualist reaction formation against that form of collectivist political atheism which we call Soviet Communism, but it makes most of the same mistakes. It is useful insofar as it highlights a history deliberately obfuscated, but once it moves beyond its assertions that A is A and that Man was not made for the State, it begins to run out of gas. If each human life is an end unto itself, how is one life less valuable than the rest because the person owning that life cannot support himself as well as others and may require lifelong aid? The assertion that such a life is too burdensome to be allowed is the first step down the path to collectivist murder en masse.

neal said...

Heh. Humans become self selective, and wonder the lack of righteous kings, mad prophets; heroes both old and new.

So, if your Father travels, and your Mother carried a certain line, then wandering off into the desert is just some story fit for misfits.

It is that whole half of one thing, one third of the other that changes mostly everything paying attention.

Joseph said...

When an Objectivist says something is selfish, doesn't that mean he's in favor of it?