Monday, August 06, 2012

Human exceptionalism matters, even for the bad guys

I had hoped and planned to be blogging next here at Extra Thoughts about something much happier than what will be contained in this post. However, since a final and, I think, important comment of mine is not to be published (I am told) in another venue, I've decided to post about the matter here after all.

For the past several days I have been intensely involved in trying to convince Lawrence Auster that he should not be hosting a respectful conversation at his site, View from the Right, over whether some human beings are actually subhuman! To save time, I shall link all the threads in a row. They are here, here, here, and here. The consideration of this odious proposition began in explicitly racial territory, and though Auster said that he wasn't prepared to "stand by" the outrageous comment he made that kicked off the discussion, and although he decided to shift the discussion away from the racial angle lest it be "seen in racial terms," there was no explicit retraction. It seems only fair to add that some of his readers did not actually fully make the shift, though largely the conversation moved to a discussion of individuals rather than groups.

However, we should also not be respectfully considering the proposition that criminals, even truly horrible criminals, might be literally less than human.

In the course of the several threads, many incredibly odious comments were posted without any demurral from Mr. Auster. One reader, Ben M., even purported again and again to provide Biblical evidence for considering some people to lose the imago dei altogether and hence to be less than human. The threads make hair-raising reading. Commentator "Vintueil" in this thread, who chided me as allegedly not having the true philosophical spirit for not keeping all questions open (or something like that), literally raised as a merely interesting question whether there are subhuman beings (clearly, in the context, including biological humans) whom it might be more legitimate to torture than it is to torture full-fledged human beings.

Auster was utterly unwilling to accept the idea that this was not a conversation that should be going on. Once it had shifted largely to the question of criminals, he defended the conversation to the hilt. He was  greatly angered by my somewhat anguished attempt to appeal to him as a fellow Christian to stop this, so much angered as eventually to make me see that it would not actually make matters significantly worse for me to put up this additional explicit post about the controversy.

There were several excellent gems among the comments, including this eloquent one by Kristor. I don't have time to link to all of those who deserve praise for their attempts to stand in the gap, including commentator Matt.

One question that surfaced more than once from Auster, implicitly or explicitly, was this: If one accepts the death penalty, what difference should it make practically if wicked criminals are considered subhuman? They are simply going to be executed anyway, and that's it. He asks this explicitly here:
[S]ince we are talking about individuals, not classes, nothing worse would happen to murderers who are believed to have lost the image of God than already happens to murderers who are believed to have the image of God. So Matt’s passionate indignation is much ado about nothing.
By the end of the last thread, he and other commentators were still heaping a certain amount of scorn on those of us who were bringing up issues such as abortion and euthanasia (all of these being offshoots of the attempt to declare some people to be "subhuman"). After all, they reasoned, they were only talking about the bad guys. How could the story of Terri Schiavo possibly be relevant?

Now, I considered that this showed such a sweeping lack of imagination, information, and thoughtfulness as nearly to be beneath answering. But these kinds of things kept coming up, with even something of an air of arrogance about them, as if they were unanswerable, so I finally decided to address the issue of criminals directly. Let me say here, as anyone who reads the threads will see, that I am a strong defender of the death penalty. But the death penalty does not arise from a denial of humanity. Indeed, it arises from an assertion of humanity and hence human moral responsibility, such that the penalty is just because the criminal has committed acts that deserve it. This could not be the case if the criminal were subhuman, a point several commentators attempted to make to Auster, without noticeable effect. There are far, far worse things than the death penalty, and it is very important that even the bad guys not be dehumanized. The state may and in my opinion often should justly kill them, but we may not dehumanize them.

So I sent another comment to Auster explicitly addressing the question of what difference it would make to dehumanize criminals. However, he was evidently weary of the conversation and refused to publish it. He even alleged in a private e-mail that I had nothing new to say in it. This surprised me considering that he and his readers had repeatedly asked how any of this could be relevant to wicked criminals, how it could be a problem to consider that they might be subhuman, and this was the first time I was expressly addressing that issue.

It was because of his refusal to publish that I decided to put up this post. I do not have time to edit my comment to him to make it less targeted or less full of allusions to the dispute at VFR. I have many other, better, things that I would like to read and write about. But if anyone has been following that controversy and reads this, let it be known: Those of us who are opposed even to considering the dehumanization of any members of the human race, including criminals, are not lacking answers to the question: What difference could it possibly make?

I have removed View from the Right from my blogroll here at Extra Thoughts. Despite the fact that Larry Auster has frequently had some excellent insights on various political topics, several of which I have quoted and highlighted in different venues, it is important given the extremely odious nature of these ideas he has recently been flirting with that my blogging activity no longer be associated with the site View from the Right.

Here is the comment I sent to Auster that he decided not to publish:

I'm getting a tad weary of the constant, unimaginative challenges to explain how it could possibly matter to declare criminals to be subhuman. Does it never occur to either you or to your readers that considering some human being to be in some deeper sense less than human is a big deal morally and metaphysically, and that just because you can't right off the top of your head think of any practical consequences, it does not follow that it isn't a big deal? Maybe you just aren't thinking hard enough about what it means to consider someone to be subhuman! I'm afraid you all seem to me like a little child who says, "But they're bad guys!" as though that settled all questions and made it irrelevant what else we say or do about the individuals in question.

First of all, several of us have now pointed out that if you take away humanity, you take away personal responsibility, and therefore you can no longer say that individuals deserve their punishment. Does it not seem to you that this might make some difference to public policy? I assure that it already has! Indeed, long ago in the twentieth century the penal model of retribution became passe. The result has been lighter rather than heavier punishment, continual examinations by psychiatric boards to see if the criminal is "no longer a danger to society," at which point he is released, and the like. Because we no longer had a clear-cut notion of a concrete punishment which the criminal deserved but only of the criminal as an object for manipulation and (it was always hoped) rehabilitation, we actually did far less to protect society from criminals. That is one possible, and in fact actual, direction that policy can go when personal responsibility is denied.

But it could have of course gone in quite a different direction, and this was feared by various thinkers including C.S. Lewis. What could instead have happened was that criminals were not executed but instead were indefinitely incarcerated while they were subjected to experimentation which was allegedly supposed to alter them (again, as passive objects of the manipulation of others rather than responsible human beings in their own right) and make them good citizens. What Lewis (and Dorothy Sayers, as she shows in an exchange in one of her novels) realized was that in actuality such criminals would be being used as experimental subjects "for the good of society"--as, in fact, raw materials.

Which brings us to further possibilities if the imago dei is denied in criminals and they are considered to be subhuman. Executing people is by no means the worst thing we could do to them. Advocates of the death penalty like myself have an extremely clear idea that we execute a person not because it doesn't matter whether he is a man but because he definitely is a man and deserves to be executed. Suppose that we did not believe this. The short-sightedness of saying that such a radical change would make no difference, that the death penalty would still be all that we would or could be justified in carrying out, is simply astonishing! 

Human beings are extremely useful creatures. Their bodies, for example, are intricately designed and have limitless possibilities for being useful fodder for others if they are dehumanized. The history of the ideology surrounding comatose patients is useful here (though you, as usual, cannot see how having my fought that battle and being informed about it could possibly be useful once we are talking about "the bad guys"). Bioethicists are simply slavering over those in "persistent vegetative states," arguing that we should change the definition of death so that they can be declared dead so that their organs can be harvested. Why would the same not apply to criminals if they are not humans? Here are just a few things that would be prima facie justified if criminals are not truly human:

--They could be an excellent source for organs. A kidney might be harvested while they were still alive, thus guaranteeing freshness. Or they could be killed at just the right moment under ideal conditions for harvesting heart, kidneys, and other organs and tissues. (China's organ "donation" system has for decades depended so heavily on taking organs from executed prisoners that international observers doubt the practice will ever be ended.)

--Scientific and medical experimentation of all sorts and varieties could be carried out on them. The imagination positively boggles at the thought of all the possibilities there. Scientists are constantly looking for new sources for experimental subjects. And, yes, medical experimentation on our country's currently popular "subhumans"--persons in a "persistent vegetative state"--has already been suggested. So again, a little real-world information goes a long way. These criminals would be healthy subjects, and of course their consent would not be required once they were regarded as non-human. Some experiments might kill them, but who cares? They are "the bad guys" and were going to be executed anyway, so what difference does it make? (Only the difference between what is morally heinous and what is a just activity of human government, I point out.) As long as the experiments were carried out relatively humanely, with plenty of anesthesia where needed, we could even congratulate ourselves on being "kind to the beasts." We could even put them deliberately into a "persistent vegetative state" in order to experiment with ways of awakening people!

--They could be used for surgical practice by medical students. Currently students have to practice using either real patients, animals, or computer models. Using a convenient "subhuman" criminal with a fully human body but without the rights of a bona fide patient would have many advantages over any of these options.

--I'm told that members of the military sometimes have trouble getting over their inhibition to killing people and that this can affect their battle-readiness. "Subhuman" criminals could be executed in the context of using them for killing practice by soldiers.

All of these uses could be done fairly humanely, as we would wish animals to be treated humanely. Vinteuil raised in his list of "interesting" questions, which evidently allreal philosophers treat as open questions, whether it would be legitimate to torture "subhumans"! Had I brought that question up myself I would no doubt have been accused of hysteria, but here is your warm supporter congratulating you on your "courage" who has done it for me. You didn't even seem to notice. Argue with him if you don't think torturing "subhuman" prisoners could possibly be an issue that could arise. In any event, I have given you an entire list (and with imagination and a willingness to overcome the "ick" factor, more could be supplied) of things that do not have to involve torture, some of which might involve no extra pain at all, that could be quite morally licit once you dehumanize convicts. What these actions do all involve, the observant will notice, is treating these prisoners no longer as full humans but rather as a mere means to an end, as things for use by others. That is the real ideological result of dehumanization, and it is a morally odious one. If these people are really less than human, there is no principled reason why they should not simply be used in these ways.

Ideas have consequences. Please do not tell me that you aren't advocating any of these things or even that you aren't advocating any "system." It doesn't matter. You don't get to choose the consequences of your ideas. That is an objective matter. This is something that you are constantly pointing out about liberals. It is true here as well.


philwynk said...

It appears that CS Lewis developed the idea of humans becoming less than human several times in his fictional writing.

When I read your article, I immediately thought of the scene in Prince Caspian where Susan encounters a bear and assumes that it is a talking bear, only to find out that it intends to eat her. Her reaction to learning that the formerly talking bears of Narnia have become wild is to wonder, "What if we humans were to become so wild that we lose our ability to speak?" or something like that.

He processes a similar idea in The Great Divorce, noting that the sins of certain people overtake them so as to completely eradicate their humanness; that there is a point where a human ceases to be a grumbler and becomes a grumble. Such people, says MacDonald in the novel, are beyond redemption.

And finally, he notes something similar in his handling of the Unman in Perelandra: some ghost of Weston surfaces in one of his conversations with the Unman and mumbles at Ransom about infinite tortures, and Ransom wonders what it is to which he is talking.

Of course, this does not necessarily mean anything for the sake of keeping the civil peace. I think perhaps Lewis would say that deciding when such a line has been crossed belongs to God. It certainly is not safe in the hands of a human government.

Lydia McGrew said...

Ad #1: For humans to lose the ability to speak and to become "wild" is not, per se, for them to lose the imago dei. If one insists that somehow Susan _was_contemplating something so esoteric as their actually losing the imago dei (which seems unlikely in a child--I believe it's Lucy but don't have time to check, FWIW), one should note that in no way was Lewis endorsing the idea that this actually is metaphysically possible.

Ad #2: This is a picture of damnation. Losing one's soul and losing the image of God are not the same thing. Moreover, the passage is instructive rather than heretical only insofar as one takes it to be a metaphor. If one takes it literally, it becomes a version of annihilationism, which is theologically false. I prefer to interpret Lewis's notion of "becoming a whine" as merely a fruitful and instructive metaphor for the reduction in human personality involved in damnation. Furthermore, the conversation to which I was objecting was talking about living people, not damned dead ones.

Ad #3: The Unman is both Weston truly damned (see #3), which somehow seems to have been able to happen during this life, and demon possessed. The very fact that one can ask about "which one" he was talking to emphasizes the possession element. Nonetheless, Ransom keeps trying to reach Weston in case he is not permanently damned and bring him back until it becomes evident that he must kill him.

It is _incredibly_ important that the notion of losing one's soul not be conflated with becoming a living subhuman. Incredibly important. I will be willing to venture to speak for Lewis that he would never have countenanced actually dehumanizing living human beings. The "agnostic" approach--oh, we can't _know_ when these are subhumans (though it really does happen), so it has no relevance to the real world--is a bizarre and dismaying, not to mention practically utterly stupid, attempt to pretend that the pernicious and odious idea that the world is full of literal subhuman-humans has no actual consequences.

I'm not buying it. Nor should anyone else.

Lydia McGrew said...

Actually, Lewis's sensibility was exactly the sort of healthy one that is a good counterweight both to liberal whining against the death penalty *and* to any attempt to say that criminals are subhuman. One sees this especially clearly in _That Hideous Strength_. The idea of executing criminals never held any horrors for Lewis, and he is even able to handle old Merlin, who, as the book says, "doesn't have a 19th century penal code" and recommends chopping off people's heads at a moment's notice. But it is the horrible people of the N.I.C.E. who, rather than _punishing_ criminals as responsible human beings with limited punishments, use them for experiment purposes. Lewis wrote expressly on this subject of the perniciousness of getting rid of retributive punishment and personal responsibility in a letter to T.S. Eliot, I believe it was. It was a subject often on his mind, which only goes to show that there is nothing new under the sun and that the idea of dehumanizing criminals was around in the intelligentsia a long time ago.

Lydia McGrew said...

Let me add too: We're not talking about fiction here. Not sci-fi or fantasy or any kind of fiction at all. We're talking about literally conjecturing that some people in the world today are literally less than human, conjecturing this on the basis of their savage behavior and their "feral" behavior and appearance.

If one can't see what the major problem is with seriously entertaining any such supposition, and if the post I've just put up does not show one what that problem is, there's not much more I can say. But there is indeed such a major problem. Some questions ought to be beyond the pale of civilized and a fortiori public discussion and conjecture.

Mr Veale said...


Did the racial angle add an extra layer of odiousness to the original discussion? Yes. As it did when other readers said similar things about gypsies, “traveling” Irishmen, and low-caste Indians

Well, here's one "sedentary" Irishman who is overjoyed that you took this stand; I'm not sure what words of support I can offer, other that to say that I am so pleased to know you right now!

A few points:

1) You are entirely correct. Certain thoughts should not even be imagined or conceived, never mind entertained and pondered. This is a teaching that the church has ignored of late.

2) I am simply not sure what would be left of theology if we believe that a human can lose the imago dei . This implies that the imago dei is earned. One gets it through grace, but one keeps it through good works! This is just a perverted covenantal nomism! It is more heretical than Pelagianism!

3) There is historical precedent for the barbarity that you fear. The Japanese army executed Chinese prisoners of war with bayonets to inure soldiers to killing. The behavior of the Japanese forces - who were renowned for their chivalry in WWI - became too horrible to relate here. The medical experiments of Unit 731 also depended on the practice of dehumanisation. Subjects were referred to as "logs".
Antony Beevor hints at the atrocities, but refuses to describe them in The Second World War (p60-61; 771-772) Ben Steele and Jonathan Lewis go into a little more detail in Hell in the Pacific, as does Lawrence Rees in Horror in the East

4) It is outrageous that your grace and civility - more than I could ever have managed given the layers of odiousness- should be met with outrage.

Graham Veale

Fake Herzog said...

Reading this post and your examples of what previous writers have thought about this subject I immediately came up with my own example: Anthony Burgess' novel (which was later made into a famous movie with a nihilistic ending that Burgess' source material didn't have) A Clockwork Orange. The central idea of the novel, for those who don't know, is that the depraved criminal protagonist is captured by the state and then subjected to special experiments which result in him unable to commit violence. Burgess has terrible things happen to the protagonist, suggesting that when we take away someone's free will (i.e. what makes them human and created in the image of God) then we take away their humanity and this is not good.

Burgess is ultimately hopeful that people like his protagonist can eventually be reformed and grow up and out of violence. Like you, I'm much less sanguine and therefore support harsh penalties for individuals who commit terrible crimes precisely because they are human just like you and me. Justice demands that they pay a price for their crimes, even if we hope and pray that they can know redemption before their execution.

Mr Veale said...

Again, the SS, the Wehrmacht and the Imperial Japanese army dehumanised "Slavs", Poles and Chinese because their appearance and behavior seemed less than civilised to young men raised in (relatively) advanced nations.

This is not science fiction. This is well documented - see Timothy Snyder's "Bloodlands", Michael Burleigh's "Moral Combat" and "The Third Reich", Richard Evans "The Third Reich at War" and the essays in Ian Kershaw's "Hitler, the Germans and the Final Solution".

The last thing we need in the 21st Century is secularists and pseudo-conservatives agreeing that some people are less than human!

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks FH and Graham. FH, _A Clockwork Orange_ sounds grim but a good warning. Is Burgess's idea that the protagonist should have been left with free will and then persuaded to reformation? Like you, I'm inclined to say, "Good luck with that, but I'm not betting on the reformation." But the whole idea of "programming" people so as to take away their ability to be violent is a fertile field for science fiction, I believe, and shows the quite proper worry that we humans have about the loss of free will in the name of public order.

Graham, I have to ask: What in the world _is_ a "travelling Irishman" supposed to be? Google isn't helping me much on this question.

Beth Impson said...

A number of years ago, there was a school shooting in Canada. I happened to walk through our living room during a news segment about the shooter's trial. It featured the prosecutor saying something like, "There is just something in some people that makes them able to evil things."

I recall being horrified at this statement. There is that in all of us -- original sin -- which can and does make us able to do evil. But this is in ALL of us, not SOME of us, and we can be redeemed from us.

If we believe that everyone is basically good, except that a few people who do grave evil such as murder have some "special" evil thing in them, then we will be able to justify doing anything we want to those people -- torture, vivisection, anything.

And of course, who is going to decide which actions demonstrate this evil in some people? Perhaps teaching your children about outmoded, moralistic religions is evil? Perhaps refusing to perform a homosexual "marriage" is evil? Who knows? Whoever is in power at the time, of course.

That statement gave me such a horrible chill that it has stayed with me all these years, and I think of it whenever the issue of criminal punishment comes up.

Lydia McGrew said...

Graham, I didn't know many of the historical examples you bring up and especially the one about the Japanese practicing killing on Chinese prisoners. What a coincidence. I made that example up out of my own head, but they were there before me.

I wanted to say a bit about your comment about thoughts that shouldn't be imagined or conceived. Some people have been inclined to defend this discussion at VFR on the grounds that people are going to have such thoughts spontaneously when horrified and confronted with evil, so we need to air them, get them out in the open, and "work through them."

That sort of psychobabble reminds me of the idea that you should tell your entire church about all your darkest thoughts and temptations, that it will do everyone good to be "honest" and let it all hang out.

Certainly there can be a place for a counselor to talk with someone about various thoughts that have come into the mind of the counsellee. I imagine that priests and pastors have to do a lot of this. And it may be possible to exorcise dark thoughts by conversation with a wise mentor.

But that is of course a far different matter from sitting around, even two or three people much less an entire web-site-full, and saying, "Hmmm, let's consider the pros and cons of this idea. Let's take it out for a spin. Maybe it's true. C'mon, admit it, we've all had such thoughts. Let's not suppress them or repress them. Let's bring them out into the open and consider whether they might possibly be _true_." That is _profoundly_ unhealthy and is not at all the same thing as "working through" something that one knows somewhere in one's heart is not really right or dangerously exaggerated and must not be taken literally.

Lydia McGrew said...

Beth, that's really interesting. If I'd heard that I probably would have just moved on thinking that "something in some people" meant the specific will to do evil at that specific time and place or something. But your interpretation may well be the better one, because the idea that we're all "basically good" is so ingrained in the popular mind, so it would make sense that they might think, "The reason he did this terrible thing is that he's a truly different entity from the rest of us--one that is foreordained to be bad."

Lydia McGrew said...

I'm not, by the way, denying the existence of sociopaths. I'm just saying that sociopaths are, in fact, fully human beings, and that we must never deny that.

Mr Veale said...

"What in the world _is_ a "travelling Irishman" supposed to be?"

I'm at a bit of a loss there myself, Lydia. Maybe our equivalent of the Flying Dutchman?

"Travellers" in Ireland and England are Irish folk who live like the "Gypsies" of Europe. So maybe they just mean Irish Travellers, as opposed to Roma or Sinti?
Of course, Irish Travellers are a social group, and not an ethnic group in Ireland.
Irish Travellers are recognised as an ethnic minority in England, but that's because England is full of English people. In Ireland, whatever folks might say, they're just us in caravans. So if Irish Travellers are subhuman, so am I. Ah, well. Someone ought to tell Liam Neeson.

On CS Lewis - another subhuman - I think he viewed damnation as a loss of a coherent personality. That is serious, but does not amount to the loss of the image of God.


Lydia McGrew said...

Yes, a loss of coherent personality. That fits well with the fictional representations.

Tony said...

I suspect that Auster's approach to arguing the Right isn't finally beneficial. I have only followed his stuff intermittently, but from those bits and pieces it is relatively clear that he does not does not produce his commentary in any sort of disciplined manner. Yes, he is smart, clever, and often right. But he is also spotty, opinionated, and unnecessarily harsh with people who are themselves often right, but not always in agreement with him. But in addition to those defects, not always disastrous ones by themselves, he adds the problem of simply not pursuing truth with discipline. Being disciplined means being humble to truth (especially, to Truth), and being humble toward those who have other elements of the truth, that you don't have. But still more, it means being submissive to the order in which truth is accessible. You can't just stout at a newcomer, for example, they will just leave and you haven't accomplished anything. I think that Auster's lack of discipline shows up in many ways, including not paying attention to constructive criticism, but also in not paying attention to appropriate caveats and limits on inquiries.

Ed Feser made this point quite effectively a couple years ago: there ARE some discussions that you shouldn't engage in, because simply having the discussion is to give credence to points of view or premises that everyone ought to repudiate without having to "figure out" whether they agree. Even to discuss such a point so as to merely show (yet again) why it is that everyone should automatically agree can only be done cautiously and with restraint, in the right circumstances. And THAT is not to discuss the issue as if the conclusion were in doubt. To say: "let's consider whether the Holocaust was moral or not" rather than to inquire "what is the root evil behind the Holocaust", for example, is just a bad way to proceed.

Clearly, LA doesn't get that. He doesn't think that a commenter not being automatically in agreement with things that ought to be self evident even to simpletons and children should give him worries about discussing it with them.

One of the things that becomes immensely clear the more you try to discuss reasonably with wide ranges of people is that some people have made themselves incapable of rational discourse by their lifestyle and by their having willingly absorbed and becoming molded to evil philosophies. But these defects are more in the will than in the intellect. It isn't so much that they have error in their minds as that they have love of disordered goods in their wills, and that love obscures ordered truth. To discuss with them as if their comments amount to legitimately reasoned discourse is simply to give them far more validity than they are due. Which is a symptom of an undisciplined attitude toward discourse.

William Luse said...

You're on the side of the angels on this one, Lydia. Now you see why I told you a long time ago I won't go there anymore. On occasion, my sense of foreboding is more than just instinct.
One commenter, a mutual friend of ours, was strikingly civil in his responses, when I know that he could have resorted to more caustic formulations. And Kristor's letter was wonderful. I remember him from W4 and actually miss seeing him there.
Finally, it seems to me that a Christian who speculates that the Imago Dei is something that can be returned to sender, or dropped in a trashcan, is someone flirting with a faith other than Christianity. The ID is a gift; unlike many people, its bestower will never ask that it be returned. Since it is a gift, we are free to do with it as we like; it is redeemable, but only upon death, and that redemption will not involve surrender. Once given, forever owned.

Anonymous said...

Just to add to the discussion, I sent this e-mail to Lawrence Auster. I have not seen it posted so I will post it here in case anyone finds it of value.

"I think at least part of McGrew's and Matt's objections are well founded. It can be argued that these discussions have the power to weaken and damage societies traditions indirectly. As an example let as compare Chinese civilization and Mencius to Western Civilization and Plato. Plato was far more radical in his speculations, and far more willing to imagine a world where every aspect of life had been reordered by philosophy, and tradition was controlled by philosophers. He acknowledged the limits of thought and acknowledged that such a society could never be practically implemented right at the beginning of his Republic, but the thoughts were still discussed and recorded. Mencius never engaged in such speculation, and he formed the great core of Confucian philosophy for centuries. This has the side effect of making his philosophy less deep, but also more practical and less likely to be used against a society's morals and culture. We can see that Marx, Lenin, and Mao, although aware of Confucius and Mencius, found their source in a perversion of the Western philosophic tradition. The Confucian tradition with it's traditionalism and conservatism never bothered to engage in the speculations that people would later try to implement as a part of reality. That is probably a large part of what kept China safe from the radical changes afflicting the West until 1912. We in the West have had a philosophical base far more willing to question the established order, and that is not always to our benefit.

Art from Texas"

Beth Impson said...

I've got the whole quote that I heard written down somewhere, but I don't have time to go through years' worth of stuff to find it. I recall quite well that the prosecutor made it very, very clear that she was contrasting this boy with "something evil in him" to all the rest of us, who *don't* have that "something."

I agree, sociopaths exist -- but they are only different from us, in the end, because of the more horrific ways they act out their sinful natures. And they are indeed every bit as much human as those of us who "merely" yell at other people or lust in our hearts or whatever.

I am, by the way, totally with you that the possibility of there being persons who are sub-human should never be taken seriously for even "academic" discussion. Of course, as you know, such discussions always bring up for me my precious granddaughter whom we lost last summer. The love and wonder she brought into our lives in her seventeen years can't be expressed -- yet people who have this discussion would often place her in their so-called "sub-human" population. It appalls and disgusts me that anyone ever suggests such a wretched, horrible lie.

Lydia McGrew said...

Tony, I'm very glad to hear that Ed Feser said that. Heh! "Vinteuil" is going to have difficulty denying Feser's credentials as a _real_ philosopher!

Bill, excellent comments on the imago dei. Once given, forever owned.

Beth, I think the reason some people have thought they can "get away with" dehumanization here is that they are naturally compassionate people, conservative on a variety of issues, and that therefore people like your granddaughter don't even begin to be in the crosshairs of *their* dehumanizing thoughts or talk. Hence, they think that issues like murdering the disabled cannot possibly be relevant to the discussion.

What I have learned from involvement with the pro-life movement and especially from Wesley J. Smith's passionate advocacy of what he calls "human exceptionalism," which I of course call the image of God, is that once we start denying its existence in anyone, we are no longer making sense of what human beings *are*. And that poses a danger to everyone, including those vulnerable people we want to love and protect. What it comes to is that a kind of strong essentialism regarding mankind is the only consistent philosophical barrier to all manner of evil.

People become terribly grieved and outraged, horrified to their very souls, by the unspeakable atrocities committed now by evil men and by the existence of sadists. Still more by the fact that all too often they are not justly punished and the innocent are not protected from them. Shocked, they initially reach for such spontaneous outraged outbursts as "These men have descended to the level of brute beasts!" "These animals did this horrible thing!" And so forth. I would say that if such things are on the level of mere brief expressions, spontaneous metaphors, nothing more than expressions of righteous anger and a desire for due justice, they are not necessarily harmful. Our Western society is increasingly unwilling to *have* any outrage at evil actions nor to punish them appropriately.

But there is a huge, huge danger when we start to intellectualize such things and say, "Oh, maybe they aren't just metaphors."

That temptation can arise, I think, from continually filling one's mind with knowledge of atrocities and horrors. Doing so has major occupational hazards, and just one of them is that one will welcome darkness into one's own heart in the form of rationalizing the full dehumanization of the criminal who has done these wicked deeds.

Wesley J. Smith said...

I am not going to comment on the blogger with whom you are disputing, Lydia. But you are absolutely right. There are things we should never do to even the baddest of guys, simply and merely because they are human. No human is a sub human even if they so act.

Aaron said...

I'm totally with you on this one, Lydia. I haven't read the exchange at VFR, but there's no reason to even talk about considering some human beings to be subhuman.

On a couple of the references here: I have no idea what "imago dei" means, theologically, in these discussions. I wonder whether the correspondents all mean the same thing by it. I've read something about the phrase's original meaning; it was a fairly common juridical phrase at the time, with at least one example in Akkadian (I think) cognates of the Hebrew. It always meant a god's viceroy on earth. In Genesis, it would have been understood as saying that man was God's viceroy on earth, as it says in the sentence that follows it, having dominion over the animals. But apparently there's no consensus on that.

The commentor who recommended A Clockwork Orange (I recommend it, too) is British, I think. He's apparently talking about the original, British version of the novel. Here is Wikipedia on the omission of the final chapter for the American publication, on the grounds that Alex's decision to turn his life around was unrealistic. The movie - which, unlike the book, was exploitative - was based on the American text.

Mark said...

Feser's right. The question of whether there could be some sub-human persons may be entertained in theory, but the answer must be 'no'. This is what good reasoning looks like, other conclusions will have failed to present sound reasoning.

I've argued before that a just God could not place human beings on a sinful earth that could be confused with sub-human beings on that same earth. How the result would not both corrupt and degrade both classes of beings I cannot possibly fathom. Neither would be safe from the other. A distance is necessary. If there were the most degraded distopian fantasies couldn't do this world justice. That is not to say artificial psuedo-species might not be invented due to psuedo-science, in fact this has happened, but it has no basis in nature and wasn't always a symptom of man's inhumanity to man, unlike the known sins.

Gyan said...

Auster's basic error is to confound politics with theology, generally a perilous enterprise.

Why does he not ponder about the loss of Imageo Die in white abortionists, and homosexuals?.

Theologically, it is extremely unwise line of thinking. The Christian thinks of Divine Justice with himself as the defendant. The Christian must think of losing Imageo Dei in himself most of all.

The image of Divine Justice with oneself as a plaintiff is typically Old Testament (CS Lewis in Reflections in Psalms but this book is not sufficiently Christological, rather seeks to give a speculative Hebrew view of Psalms)

Regarding sub-humans in CS Lewis, I think of Swastici and Marxici in Pilgrim's Regress (an allegory).

Anonymous said...

I've read the entire discussion over at VFR (your commentaries and everyone else's). It seems obvious there's just one fundamental point which the question of 'losing' the Imago Dei, were it possible, must address. If any individuals or sub-groups, however wicked and brutal, are denied their full humanity, how is it possible to hold them to account, morally speaking, for their behaviour?

The answer is that it is not. Therefore punishing of wrongdoers who have been judged 'sub-human', would be the equivalent of hunting and perhaps eliminating wild and dangerous animals which have no rights to consider. This sort of 'vengeance of the righteous' would itself be inhuman.

(I don't have any brilliant insight to communicate in this debate, but I'm horrified that such a proposal should surface).

Bruce said...

There was some discussion over there about what “created in God’s image” means. It was implied that the meaning isn’t 100% clear or settled. Fake Hertzog above suggests that it means created with a free will like God has. I never thought of it that way. My question is: is this the established understanding of imago dei either in the Catholic Church or in Protestantism?

Also, I thought someone over at VFR would weigh in with a quote from the Church Fathers. Surely they addressed the issue of whether one can lose the imago dei.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Thanks to WJS, especially, for stopping by and for your support!

Mark, I gather that Tony was saying that Feser's position was that there are some questions that shouldn't be entertained, not that he mentioned this question specifically. Still, the commentator to which I was referring _seemed_ to be implying that one is no true philosopher if one considers any questions to be closed.

Gyan, I think (should I add "to be fair"?) that those involved in that conversation would definitely want to include various people who are white in this "might be subhuman" category. Hitler was explicitly mentioned, for example.

Bruce, one commentator brought in the Church fathers to say that they argued that one could lose the "likeness" but not the "image" of God. As textual interpretation, that seems highly dubious, since "image and likeness" are pretty clearly Hebrew parallelism for the same thing in the text. As theological labels, it matters a lot what one means by it. If one *merely* means by "losing the likeness" of God that one _does_ descend into evil and depravity, then that's all very well. That's simply acknowledging that we can look recognize evil when we see it, that this does not reflect who God is morally, and so forth. However, the commentator who brought up "losing God's likeness" seemed to be using it (and was taken to be using it) as a terminological way to continue saying that metaphysically there is a real sense in which some people are literally less than human, and that's a no-go. Whether the Church fathers meant that by it I'm much inclined to doubt.

Scott W. said...

Well I read a little of the first link to get a sense of what was going on.

Zippy once dubbed Vox Nova blog the Debate Club at Auschwitz. Looks like we have another.

Anonymous said...

I understand that human beings are made in the' image and likeness' of God because they've all been created with an immortal soul. Nothing and nobody can deprive any human individual of that endowment. But I am not sure whether free will and rationality are also indispensable attributes of this legacy.

Bruce said...

For reasons unrelated to this discussion and the one at VFR, I am interested in knowing if there is an orthodox definition of imago dei. I think I’m interested because FH’s definition above was something I hadn’t thought about before and it sparked my interest. Could FH or someone else please provide references to the Church teachings, etc.? Is it in the CC catechism, the writings of the fathers, was it defined at an ecumenical council, etc?

Bruce said...

Here’s my take on the VFR discussion (I followed most of it). It seemed like a valid question to me simply because it’s not intuitive to me one way or the other if a person can lose imago dei and it’s not something that anyone talks about in Church, catechism, etc. and it’s not discussed at all by Christians like, say, pederastry, abortion, etc. are and I couldn’t think of any scriptural citations one way or the other. So it seemed like something I had never really thought about and it could be discussed and pondered. As I was reading the discussion, I was thinking that we are not in dangerous territory because we will never have perfect knowledge of whether or not someone has really lost imago dei and it has no possible applicability anyway since we would never judge for ourselves whether or not an individual has lost it or not. You have given me an alternative viewpoint to consider here.

My reaction to your initial comments was along the lines of “she wouldn’t consider this undiscussable if the initial context hadn’t been race.” I imagined that if they were speculating about an enthusiastic late-term abortionist or a enthusiastic baby-bayoneting Japanese soldier losing the imago dei that you wouldn’t consider it undiscussable even though you’d have the same position in the end. Your later comment cleared that up.

Here’s my reaction to the beginning of the discussion when the context was race. I didn’t think that people were saying that blacks were any more likely because of intrinsic/created characteristics to lose imago dei. Only that if one could lose it, then in the current circumstances such a loss might be more common among (but not exclusive to) blacks since what was being discussed was acts of extreme, sadistic brutality. In the 1930’s such a loss might be more common among Japanese soldiers and in the 500’s it might be more common among Germanic barbarians, etc. It’s always been my position as a VFR reader that even though Africans commit more violent crime, they are not inherently more sinful (violent crime is not the only or even the worst sin). So even the race context didn’t make me real squeamish. Obviously if one accepts the impossibility of losing imago dei, then all these speculations are pointless.

Bruce said...

I don’t mean to sound too fundie (or too Catholic??) , but don’t we as Christians literally believe in demon possession? Is it possible that people that commit extreme acts of brutality are literally demon possessed? If not them, then who? If so, then can a demon possessed person have lost the image of God? It seems to me like even if the answer is yes, that such a person could regain the image of God since Jesus cast out demons and said we can do the same.

Fake Herzog said...


Yes of course, as usual fiction has nothing on what us depraved sinner wind up actually doing to one another. I am familiar with your historical examples and I appreciate you reminding me and the rest of Lydia's readers of the horrorific real-world consequences of discussing the ideas that Larry seems fit to discuss over at his blog. As Richard Weaver once famously said, Ideas Have Consequences.


I'm not British but spent a year in London and it was there that I bought the English edition of Burgess' book.

Finally, a quick Google search turned up this very interesting article about this subject that I think most of the readers of this blog would be interested in:

(it is also available in pdf format)

Lydia McGrew said...

I will have time to get to these only later. Bruce, the short answer to your question is that human beings have an essence that makes them what they are. As Christians we _call_ this the "image of God," but non-Christians can perceive that human beings all form a "kind" as well and have an essence. Since a man who is demon possessed still _exists_, he therefore still is the _kind_ of thing that he is (namely, a man). Hence he has not lost his essence (which is impossible) and has not lost the image of God. I mentioned demon possession above. A demon is a separate being, a fallen angel. It is a horrible thing that this sort of separate being should come into a man and overwhelm his will and control his actions (to a greater or lesser extent), but that is not the same thing as saying that there is no human being present.

Lydia McGrew said...

Working through gradually: Alex, freedom and rationality are part of what we might say man's essence is oriented towards. That is to say, man is the *kind of thing* that reasons, thinks, and exercises free will. But essence precedes action. In other words, a man is not a thing that is (presently) thinking rationally. Rather, a man is the *kind* of being that thinks rationally.

What this means is that even when a person is not *presently* thinking rationally, or even when a person lacks the physical capacity to actualize rational thought--for example, through lack of present development, through illness, or through injury--that person is still the kind of thing that is meant to think rationally. Hence, the lack of present rational thought is either a temporary stage in development (as in a young infant) which will pass or is a *privation* caused directly or indirectly by some misfortune, as in birth defects, injuries, coma, etc.

The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of the present ability to exercise free will. (Which neither a man presently in dreamless sleep, under heavy anesthesia, nor a newborn infant, possesses.)

Lydia McGrew said...

Bruce, I think the phrase "image of God" may be making you think that this is an esoteric or difficult issue, when in fact it isn't. Let's take the Christian idea to be that the image of God is the essence of man, what it means to *be* a man--a human being.

It ought therefore to be pretty easy to dispose of any idea that a living human being can lose the image of God, for this would be to say that a living human being can cease to be a human being, which is nonsense.

Put it a different way, consider the convoluted ways of talking and thinking that are necessary even to try to contemplate such an oxymoron: One has to invent phrases like "biological human being" and then say that we can have a biological human being who is, nonetheless, less than really human. What does that mean? Well, it doesn't seem to _have_ a meaning. After all, for all the talk of "descending to the level of sharks and hyenas," nobody really thinks that such people actually *are* sharks or hyenas.

Let's go at it a different way. The contradictory idea that one can have human beings that really are not human beings is subject to an ethical reductio. (I think we really should use ethical reductios more often.)

1. [Supposition for reductio] It is possible for some living human beings to become less than human.

2. Then it is possible for it to be permissible for some human beings to treat some other living human beings as less than human--e.g., to make use of them as we would make use of other subhuman creatures such as animals.


3. What is envisaged in premise 2 is never permissible but rather morally monstrous.


4. It is not possible for some living human beings to become less than human.


Since the image of God should not be regarded as something esoteric but just as what makes a man a man, it is therefore not possible for any man to lose the image of God.

Since it is never a good idea to discuss morally odious propositions as though they are open or respectable positions, it is not right to discuss the position that some human beings can become less than human as an open or respectable position.

Aaron said...

I went and looked up the discussion of "in the image of God" that I mentioned above. It's here, in Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil. This is in the middle of a much longer discussion of humanity's co-regency over creation. By the way, it's a fascinating book.

Bruce said...

That’s an interesting way of thinking about it Lydia. I guess I’ve tended to vaguely define it as what we share in common with God and don’t have in common with the other biological creations since it's part of the creation narrative. So I’ve tended to imagine it as a list of things.

Lydia McGrew said...

A "list" approach can be harmless or even interesting, Bruce, so long as we don't confuse

--a list of things that are normal, right, appropriate for mankind as a type of being, and which separate mankind as a species from the other animals


--those attributes *as presently exhibited* by some given individual.

The former can be important for seeing that, in fact, man as a type of creature is different from the other animals. This is a way of getting access to the imago dei, of seeing that man isn't just an animal.

However, the moment we think about it a bit, we realize that there are individuals who don't exhibit all of these traits all the time, and in fact, *all* of us have times when we aren't exhibiting these traits in some sort of on-line way. When any of us is deeply asleep, for example, especially under any anesthesia that eliminates dreaming, we aren't at that present moment exhibiting rationality, the use of language, self-awareness, and so forth. These are in fact all typical characteristics of man that manifest the imago dei, but that doesn't mean that a patient who undergoes surgery loses and regains the imago dei while he's knocked out. Similarly, a newly conceived embryo or even a newborn baby isn't at that moment using language, exhibiting rational thought, and the like.

It's very important not to insist that we have to manifest these traits at a given moment in order to have the essence of humanity. Rather, the essence of humanity is what makes us the *type* of being that is naturally oriented to exhibiting those traits.

The same is true of moral traits and conscience as well. So a sociopath who appears to have no conscientious scruples about committing heinous acts is not at that moment exhibiting the moral traits of conscience, a sense of guilt, etc., that are normal to man and that we would put in that list. But that doesn't mean that he doesn't have the essence of being a man.

The trouble that some people have with this explanation is that they want to say, "But it's the sociopath's _fault_ that he's descended to that level. He must have encouraged that loss of conscience somewhere along the way."

Now that's absolutely true, but there is no reason to take it to have the slightest bearing on the issue of human essentialism. *Of course* he is to blame for hardening his heart and dulling his conscience and feeding on darkness and doing darkness. That's why it's legitimate to execute him. That's why we're outraged at him for his evil and not outraged at the sleeping man for having "turned off" his own rationality. Because one thing is a wrong thing to do and the other isn't. But the fact remains that present exhibition of some distinctively human trait isn't necessary for being a human being. We can tell that in the innocent cases, and the basic metaphysical insight carries over to the case of the wicked person as well.

Or, to flip it around: Once we start saying that the imago dei, the essence of humanity, is something that comes and goes, that it consists in the *present exhibition* by an individual of a set of traits, then there really isn't any very good reason to restrict that to moral traits. After all, it is perfectly reasonable to list rationality, self-consciousness, and language use among those things that distinguish man, the species, from other animals. Such a list will quite reasonably include non-moral as well as moral traits. And if someone must presently exhibit the traits in the list, at any moment, in order to be human, then living innocent people too can lose their humanity in virtue of accident or injury. Which is obviously a monstrous conclusion in itself.

Mr Veale said...

I think it is interesting that the Image of God is emerging as the basis of human equality. To stray into unequivocally odious territory we need to be willing to deny that some people have God's Image.

Another interesting point: to be in God's image is to receive God's grace. Like I said, to deny that is worse than Pelagianism. They only said that we can earn salvation. VFR seems to be saying we must earn the pre-condition to salvation; we must earn the right to be considered human by God! As heresy goes, this is more or lesss as bad as it gets.

The image cannot be earned! Nor can it be maintained with acts of "righteousness" (or by being beneficial to society, or by meeting some arbitrary standard of rationality or autonomy!)

I wonder if Pro-Life theologians could make some mileage out of that?


William Luse said...

Seems to me that to say a man can lose the imago dei is to assert that he has lost the possibility of redemption, which pretty much empties Christianity of its content. So treating the possibility of that loss as a serious point of inquiry is to attack the Faith itself.

Mr Veale said...

I think I deserve some sort of reward for proving I'm not a robot...where does blogger get those ridiculous images from?

Fake Herzog
Thanks - like Lydia says, some things we're better off not knowing. It's interesting that Beevor refused to describe the actions of the Imperial Japanese Army in his more scholarly work; Rees said more in his volume, which was based on a BBC series. But not much more. It would simply be too much for some families to hear. (I hasten to add that just 20 years before these atrocities, the same army was renowned for its chivalry. Once you decide that your enemies are not human the descent into moral chaos is rapid.) I wish that I had not read what little I did on the topic; but I am quite sensitive about such things.
However, I am now outraged when trendy nihilists treat media violence as as a bit of fun. What a dangerous attitude to take to evil.


Jeff Culbreath said...

Lydia, I'm very happy to see this development (your distancing from VFR), as you must have known I would be. Wish I were half as surprised as you are that Auster is treating the subject this way.

As an aside, I'm fairly certain that Luther and confessional Lutherans generally, along with some of the uber-Reformed, hold that man lost the image of God *entirely* in the Fall. But they do not interpret the imago Dei in a Catholic manner.

Lydia McGrew said...

Jeff, I did wonder if anyone would bring up Calvinism, etc., and their views of the loss of the imago dei. I cannot claim to have researched them but suspected that they might come up.

I can only say that the only thing that might save such views from having really horrible implications would be if they had some strange notion of the imago dei so totally removed from "what makes a man human," that is to say, so pointless and esoteric, as to leave the essence of humanity untouched by such a radical view about its general loss. On that subject I am not sanguine, as uber-Reformed are not known for...shall we say...attempting to make their positions philosophically reasonable. As for example in the very strong view of sovereignty that amounts to determinism. I believe the more recent claim is that compatibilism can solve that problem for them, but since compatibilism is untenable, they do still have problems with freedom of the will and personal responsibility.

But now, look what you've done: Lured me into giving a semi-frank opinion about the dangers of Calvinism. :-)

Gyan said...

We must be careful in not confounding political, biological and spiritual notions of equality.

Christianity declares spiritual equality. Christians in the West do not fully appreciate it since they have no experience otherwise. But Hinduism explicitly has spiritual hierarchy with Brahmins on top and untouchables on bottom.

The 18C revolutions declared political equality but maintained distinction between a citizen and a non-citizen. But the modern libertarianism, which is the logical climax of liberalism, seeks to erase this distinction thereby denying the political nature of man.

Bruce said...

I had thought about Calvinism too and had come to a similar conclusion. They teach total depravity, right? So they’d probably say that we’re all equally depraved and so I don’t think there’s much danger of them putting some people into the subhuman category.

Mr Veale said...

Lutherans have interpreted the "Image of God" as our original righteousness (which is tosh, but there you go). But so far as I can see, the confessions do not imply that we have lost, or can lose, human nature.

the Formula of Concord is clear that

God created not only the body and soul of Adam and Eve before the Fall, but also our bodies and souls after the Fall, notwithstanding that they are corrupt, which God also still acknowledges as His work, as it is written Job 10:8: Thine hands have made me and fashioned me together round about.


Hence the distinction between the corrupt nature and the corruption which infects the nature and by which the nature became corrupt, can easily be discerned.

In short - there are no subhumans in Christian Orthodoxy. (Although blogger is doing its best to prove that I'm a robot!)


Bruce said...

I’ve also considered what Jeff mentioned about Lutherans and Reformed. It isn’t clear to me that we didn’t all lose imago dei in the Fall. Do we regain it when we are saved? I can’t remember “image” being used outside of Genesis.

Lydia, the problem I have with your definition of imago dei is that it seems like a circular definition (Q:What is it to be human? A:To have imago dei. Q:What is imago dei? A:It’s what makes us human.) and one that’s constructed to reach the conclusion that you’ve already made.

What if we can lose imago dei and regain it? Since I don’t know for sure what Imago Dei is I’m not sure this isn’t possible.

I just don’t see the danger of traditionalist/Christians discussing this before they’ve reached a firm conclusion. No one is listening to us and if they did they wouldn’t be murdering their babies and comtose relatives anyway. We’re talking about acts of extreme depravity. The only people that could be affected by our dialogue would be a rare type of criminal and that assumes that we actually had influence. But if we did we wouldn’t start doing animal experiments on the rare criminal because we don’t know for sure if they can lose imago dei and we don’t know for sure if an individual has lost it and we don’t know that he can’t regain it. So there’s multiple layers of protection for the rare criminal that might be affected by our dialogue even if we had any influence. I understand your concern that we might contribute the the culture of death in some small way but I just don't see how.

I’m still surprised that someone hasn’t given an orthodox, formal definition. Jeff mentioned that the Lutheran definition is different that the Catholic. What are they?

Lydia McGrew said...

Gyan, I'm pretty unimpressed. "Political equality," in one trivial sense, sure. For example, children can't vote. Big deal.

But if your idea is that teaching "spiritual inequality" in the Hindu sense is not a problem, yeah, it's a problem.

Of course we as Christians can talk about great souls, people who are prayer warriors or especially close to God or something.

But any notion that some people are in a spiritual caste system is pernicious in the extreme.

Graham, thanks, that's useful. Yes, if one has a extremely narrow (and, as you say, wrong-headed) definition of the imago dei as "our original righteousness," then it doesn't affect one's view of a person's humanity to deny it to everybody or even to say that in salvation it has been restored to some people or whatever. Righteousness before God is obviously not the same thing as humanity.

Mr Veale said...

I'm not a card carrying Calvinist, nor a Calvin scholar but -

I think it's important to realise that Luther did not identify the image of God with human nature. It Image wasn't a set of powers or capacities - it was it is a state of affairs. The image was a reflection of God's righteousness -like an image in a mirror, I suppose. Of course we no longer resemble God's goodness - the mirror of human nature no longer reflects that image.
This is one reason why the Lutheran's had to go to some lengths to explain their position on human nature.
It's interesting that while Calvin's commentary on Genesis 1v26 accepts Luther's interpretation (the image of God refers to Adam's pure moral nature) Calvin is already beating a retreat -
"But now, although some obscure lineaments of that image are found
remaining in us
" By the time we get to James Orr the retreat is complete. The "image of God" primarily refers to a set of capacitiesand secondarily can refer to a restored righteous character.

But neither the Reformed nor the Lutherans have argued that we have lost, or can lose, our human nature. They simply disagreed with the majority exegesis of Genesis 1v26.


Lydia McGrew said...

Bruce, I've published your second comment, but the way I handle it is intended to make it unequivocally clear that *in no way* am I treating these things as _open questions_. I'm merely working with you to try to increase _your_ understanding. If that sounds patronizing, I'm not too worried about that, because it's far more important to me not to seem to be entertaining these questions as open. So, to proceed with that clear:

First, yes, the Bible expressly states in Genesis 9:6 that the death penalty is justified because man was made in the image of God. In other words, the murderer deserves to be punished because his victim is in the image of God. This is Noahide. It is post-fall.

Second, a definition is an explanation. My _argument_ is an argument that people cannot be subhuman. If you want to make up some idiosyncratic definition of "the image of God" so that it means having brown hair or something irrelevant like that, you're free to do so for your own personal purposes. But both in the threads to which I was objecting and also in most of Christian usage, the phrase refers to what it means to be human. That is why it was unequivocally clear that in the conversation I have condemned it was being considered an open question whether *some people were less than human*. There was no question that that was the issue being given a very positive hearing. Frankly, I don't really _care_ whether someone uses the phrase "image of God" in asserting that you can't be less than human. If someone is an unbeliever, he's probably not going to use that phrase, but he can still assert that there are no subhumans and can never be, and he can realize that to think there might be is to contemplate something monstrous. Conversely, even Christians can flirt with that monstrous idea, as they did at VFR, though Christians will be more likely to use a phrase like "image of God" in the discussion. The terminology is not so important as the ideas. As you saw, the opportunistic attempt to say that some people are, really, metaphysically less than human but to couch this as their losing the "likeness" of God was not something I considered debatable either.

If you are unconvinced by my ethical reductio and continue to think that, hey, maybe it would be just fine to treat some people as less than human, there's not much more I can do to help you. That it would be heinous to do so _is_ one of my premises. But that wouldn't have anything to do with your being unconvinced because of some "circularity" in a definition. (By the way, definitions are often in some sense circular, because if we're trying to explain a concept, we try to access various other words that our audience knows the meaning of. That's not the same thing as a circular argument.)

Lydia McGrew said...

As far as "what could little old us do, nobody's listening to us," that really goes nowhere. For one thing, you can damage your own souls by thinking that, hey wow, maybe some of these "feral" people really are less than human. You damage each other's souls by mutual encouragement and back-patting over the "courage" it takes to invite such ideas in. And you can damage anyone who is ever influenced by the blog. If you want to pretend that that blog has no influence, you can pretend that, but it isn't true. It's not a huge influence, but one _constantly_ reads people writing in saying, "Oh, gosh, I'm so glad I've found this blog; it's helped me so much. It's clarified my thoughts" etc., etc.

If one has *no* influence, why blog at all? One blogs because one thinks that there is a point to such public conversations. Bloggers can't have it both ways. They can't publicly say, "Hmm, maybe this heinous idea is really true" and then, when called on it, say, "What does it matter? I don't have any influence anyway. Nobody listens to me." If that were true, why *wouldn't* it be a problem for an "uninfluential" group of people to sit around talking about why maybe genocide or pedophilia isn't wrong?

Lydia McGrew said...

Oh, Bruce, Fake Herzog linked a _huge_ (Catholic) document that contains _tons_ of stuff on the history of the Christian concept of the image of God, including in the Reformation. Why don't you go read it and do some research, if the purely theological terminology and history interests you so much? Here's the URL again.

Mr Veale said...

Actually, there's a great little book by Dewey Hoitenga - John Calvin and the Will: a Critique and Corrective
Much more helpful than the title implies. He very persuasively argues that Calvin should have recognised that the human will has the ability to choose. Moreover, we retain the ability to choose some good things.
What we do not have is the ability to regenerate ourselves. We cannot choose to love God with all our strength and understanding without God's intervention.
Unfortunately Calvin thought that he had to deny all power of choice to the will to guard against Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. He overcooked the goose, so to speak.
But - to get to my point - Hoitenga refers to passage after passage in which Calvin praises the human intellect. Even though it has been damaged by the fall, it remains remarkable, and retains much of its dignity.
So much so that it leave all without excuse. So Calvin praises our common human nature.

I'll add another thought...(although I am worried that I'm answering a fool according to his folly) ...
If we lose our human nature, we lose our moral understanding and our ability to choose.
So a "subhuman" would not be responsible for any acts that they perform while they are subhuman.
Therefore we should not find an alleged subhuman's actions morally reprehensible.
So Himmler, Heydrich, Greiser, Hoppner, Karadzic, and Breivik are depraved, sinister and deeply wicked humans. But if they were subhuman they could not be wicked.

Lydia McGrew said...

I wanted to say something about this idea that "we're Christians" so it's all supposed to be okay.

This argumentum ad christianorum is truly absurd. Has God promised Christians infallibility? Think what this is saying,

"Y'know, maybe some people really are less than human. Yeah, it kind of seems so. I mean just look how feral and evil they are. Maybe they've really lost the image of God. Maybe they are subhuman. Wow, how interesting. This thought just keeps occurring to us as we're trying to process what we're seeing, and I really think that maybe...What? What's the matter with you? Why are you so horrified? We're _Christians_ saying all of this. Don't you TRUST us?"

That just simply will not wash.

And let me add that this is not about motives. I've seen on another website (not VFR) discussing this flap someone saying that I'm uncharitably attributing bad motives to people. What nonsense. That's liberal-speak--asking to be given a pass on outrageous ideas because they have "good motives." This is about not giving any quarter to morally heinous ideas. People don't get to entertain such ideas seriously as real candidates for truth and then get a pass because we're supposed to believe that they have good motives!

Bruce said...

I didn't notice Fake Herzog's link. Thanks for pointing it out.

Don't worry about seeming patronizing. I have a lot to learn and I didn't bring it up to convince anyone. I wasn't challenging you, I was interested in what you'd have to say.

Anonymous said...

I've seen on another website (not VFR) discussing this flap someone saying that I'm uncharitably attributing bad motives to people.

It is ridiculous how our opposition in this discussion has demonstrated a basic incapacity to even begin to paraphrase correctly. One blogger says of you,

'She soon accused him of something close to genocide. This was not simply “taking him to task.” She also decided that he is henceforth unworthy of attention and all his previous writings are nullified because of these statements.'

I speculate that some subjects cause some people to lose the capacity to read: call it loss of the imago pellego or something.


Lydia McGrew said...

Wow, I accused him of something close to genocide, huh? I must have missed the part where I did that. :-)

I guess people are incapable of distinguishing deliberately wandering about in dangerous and dark ideological territory from actually going out there and doing a concrete evil deed oneself.

Or maybe they recognize that these are different but think that any of us who are very perturbed by the former must be accusing a person of doing the latter.

Really, it sounds to me like this all just comes down to the "I'm a good person" defense. "I'm a good person, so how can you be horrified at any idea I choose to flirt with? If you do get horrified, you must be saying that I'm a very bad person. So you're attacking me. But *I* know I'm a good person, so I know that, no matter what the idea in question might be, you must just be overreacting and attributing badness to me unfairly." Smart conservatives would never in a million years let liberals get away with that.

Mr Veale said...

These people are being willfully dishonest, and it's not nice seeing a friend being treated that way. I'm choosing my words very carefully, because I'd want to be much blunter than good manners allow.

Andrew said...

I've recently been reading much of Fr. Seraphim Rose's work and through it became aware of the English translation of Fr. Michael Pomazansky's Orthodox Dogmatic Theology. As you may know, Orthodoxy considers Christian Truth to be the Scriptures as understood by Church Tradition (being guided by the Holy Spirit, thus making unnecessary and false later innovations such as papal infallibility and sola scriptura) via the Holy Fathers. Fr. Rose considered Fr. Pomazansky's work an excellent distillation of Orthodox dogma and used it as the primary text in his theology courses of the New Valaam Academy which were part of his missionary work at his monastery in Platina, CA. According to this work the Holy Fathers did in fact make a distinction between the "image" and "likeness" of God. I'll just copy the relevant section below:

In summary, one may say that all of the good and noble qualities and capabilities of the soul are an expression of the image of God in man.

Is there a distinction between the "image" and the "likeness" of God? The majority of the Holy Fathers and teachers of the Church reply that there is. They see the image of God in the very nature of the soul, and the likeness in the moral perfecting of man in virtue and sanctity, in the acquirement of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, we receive the image of God from God together with existence, but the likeness we must acquire ourselves, having received the possibility of doing this from God. (Footnote 20)

To become "in the likeness" depends upon our will; it is acquired in accordance with our own activity. Therefore, concerning the "counsel" of God it is said: Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness (Gen. 1:26), but with regard to the very act of creation it is said: God created man in His own image (Gen. 1:27). About this St. Gregory of Nyssa reasons: By God's "counsel," we were given the potential to be "in His likeness."

(Footnote 20) St. John Damascene: "From the earth God formed man's body and by His own inbreathing gave him a rational and understanding soul, which last we say is the Divine image--for the 'according to His image' means the nous and free will, while the 'according to His likeness' means such likeness in virtue as is possible" (Exact Exposition 2.12; FC, p. 236).

p. 139 Fr. Michael Pomazansky Orthodox Dogmatic Theology

-Andrew E.

Lydia McGrew said...

Andrew, your exposition of the image/likeness distinction is one with which I don't have an ethical problem, though I still think it's exegetically quite shaky. But of course, given that exposition, one would never use it to say, "This person is less than human." Merely to say that someone lacks a certain degree of moral perfection, virtue, etc., clearly is no threat to his humanity.

When one reader brought that distinction up at VFR, the reader however actually did use some phrase like "less than human" to describe lacking the likeness of God. Now, maybe he didn't mean it, but he said it. Moreover, it was definitely being seized upon opportunistically to deny full humanity and was clearly the barest of terminological shifts for describing the initial idea: "There are these 'feral' people out there who might really be less than human." So to me that was just term juggling.

In a purely theological context where "likeness" is clearly defined simply to refer to virtue, wisdom, perfection, and the like, it does not raise the same moral problems.

Mr Veale said...

It's worth noting that those Protestant theologians who believed that humans lost the "image of God" in the Fall believe that we alllost it. We are all depraved. There's no ground here for a perverted theology that believes one class of people to be less human than another.

There is no wriggle room here. If you believe in sub-humans you are not an orthodox Christian.

I'm also getting impatient with the "you're only attacking our ideas because you think we're politically incorrect" defence.

Here's the thing. Suppose you believe that 2+2=5, and someone tries to corrects you. It doesn't really matter why they're correcting you. You were still in the wrong! And it was a pretty terrible mistake on your part.

Lydia McGrew said...

I thought of that, Graham, but isn't there then some idea that those who have been called by God and received the Holy Spirit have had the image restored? So if it did have something to do with human nature, that would still create a two-tiered system. To my mind the bigger point is that such thinkers didn't identify the image with human nature at all but rather with righteousness.

Mr Veale said...

Oh, absolutely Lydia. The main point - the crucial point - is that the Image in Genesis 1v26 was interpeted as a very special form of righteousness by the Reformers. They did not think that it referred to human nature - but Calvin certainly believed in the dignity of our common human nature.

Luther and Calvin equated the image with innocence, and did not believe that any of us could get that back in this present age.

So there are the two great "equalisers" - our common human nature and original sin.


Gyan said...

I appear to be misunderstood. I am not recommending Hindu notions of liberty, spiritual or otherwise.

My point was made before. Auster is confounding politics with theology and must be called on this.

British labeled as Criminal Tribes certain troublesome groups in Indian Empire that were subject to special regulations. So this is a case of political inequality.

But they never suggested any theological meaning nor searched for some Biblical support or otherwise. They kept politics strictly apart from Theology and we should do the same,

You may also like to remind Auster of the concept of Thinking with the Church. I haven't come across it here too.

Lydia McGrew said...

Hmm. Well, it seems to me not so very unreasonable that the notion of a spiritual caste system with "untouchables" on the bottom would have political implications. It certainly does in India historically! So I'm not convinced that keeping spiritual and political equality strictly separate is entirely possible, depending on what one means by "spiritual inequality."

Bruce said...

What’s the big deal? Just say Laura Wood. She named you. Talking around who’s saying these things kinda makes it look like one thing they’re accusing you of (treating them as if they’re unmentionable) is true.
I’m sure she meant something like “accusing him of coming close to advocating genocide” but was careless in her writing. I don’t remember seeing anything like that in what you wrote so maybe she’s wrong. But I don’t agree that they’re making the liberal argument that they have good/benevolent intentions or are good people. And the argument that you’re imputing bad motives to them isn’t the same as an argument that they get a pass for benevolent motives. He stated that he had a visceral reaction that was an attempt to understand the reality of what he’s seeing. I don’t think that’s either a benevolent or a malicious motive.

Lydia McGrew said...

Bruce, I in fact don't attribute malicious motives to Auster here. So I was trying to explain why the silly exaggeration to the effect that I'm attributing bad motives to him and to his readers. To my ear, this sounds like a kind of reverse argument: "You're criticizing them quite strongly for these threads. Therefore you must be attributing bad motives to them. But you're wrong, because they don't have bad motives."

Why drag motives into the matter at all, when I didn't do so? I don't know for sure, but at a guess, I'd say because of a tacit implication that good motives are a kind of ethical cleanser for any speculations. Similarly for Christianity.

Andrew said...

Lydia, just to be clear the image/likeness distinction/exegesis is not mine. I'm not capable of valid Biblical exegesis on difficult questions (nor are most all Christians I think, this was a big flaw in the original VFR thread) which is why I turn to the Holy Fathers.

I read Joseph A.'s comment from the VFR thread more charitably I guess. I did think his comment was sloppy in a couple places but having read a fair amount of his stuff from his blog it seemed clear to me, nevertheless, that he was attempting to articulate the Patristic consensus on the image/likeness distinction.

And I think that consensus does show a way forward towards forming an adequate understanding of the seemingly inhuman depravity we sometimes encounter while remaining within Christian dogma.

-Andrew E.

Lydia McGrew said...

Andrew, I too thought that Joseph A. was probably capable of nuance on this issue in his exposition of the Fathers' position. However, to say that some people really are less than human, when talking to someone who is contemplating attributing subhumanity to "feral" people, is an example of "sloppiness" that really can't be let pass without comment and dissent. That ends up, to use a jargon term, being a form of "enabling" that we really didn't need.

Samson J. said...

Removing VFR from your blogroll over this? You are a petty coward, Lydia.

I'm reminded of a prominent theology forum that I used to frequent when I was a new Christian. I haven't participated there in years, and one of the reasons why not is on full display here: every time I go back, I marvel and shake my head at the hilarious and tragic farce of seeing so-called "truth seeking" Christians who are utterly stalwart and earnest defenders of the strictest PC orthodoxy. Oh, yes, they take great pride in being Soldiers For Truth as they stand up for right on a select few issues of the day, but on other questions they are as fervently devoted to the Party as anyone I've seen.

Well, I don't know about "real philosophers", but for people honestly seeking the truth, nothing should be beyond examination. I'm tired of Christians who are afraid to ask hard questions, and I'm tired of Christians who are the worst enforcers of the PC straitjacket, worse even than liberals, because they think a Higher Power demands it.

Moreover, the specific matter under discussion at Auster's is worthwhile, and has to be asked by somebody. It (along with a host of surrounding issues) is currently one of the biggest challenges to my faith - and I can certainly say that I'm not interested in any faith that tells me I'm not allowed even to think about things that appear to me to be big, obvious, neon-flashing question marks.

Lydia McGrew said...

Generally, I don't publish personal attacks--against anyone, not just myself--so I considered not publishing this.

But I decided to do so and just to say this: I don't know exactly in what sense this "issue" (what issue? whether some people really are subhuman?) is a challenge to your faith, or how it could be. But I would guess it is some version of the problem of evil--How could God allow such wicked people to flourish, or how could God allow people to become so degraded, or something of that kind.

I would simply suggest that instead of immersing yourself in "race realist" blogs and the like, you investigate the problem of evil generally and what sorts of answers can be given to it in terms of human choice, human freedom, and so forth.

Remember too that the evidence _for_ God's existence and _for_ Christianity is extremely strong. It's a tendency of people who are worrying about one issue--the problem of evil, for example--to focus down on that one issue too much and to lose sight of the cumulative and strong case for the claims of Christianity.