WHY WE KILL THE WEAK
Human Life Review 23:4 (Fall, 1997), pp. 67-74
Historians will write that by the last decade of the twentieth century, great numbers of men and women in the most pampered society on the earth had come to think it normal and desirable that their sick, their weak, and their helpless should be killed. When they were a poor country, they had not so thought; now in the day of their power and prosperity, they changed their minds. Babies asleep in the dim of the womb were awakened by knife-edged cannulas that sucked and tore at their soft young limbs; white-haloed grandmothers with wandering minds were herded by white-smocked shepherds into the cold dark waters of death. Many physicians came to think of suicide as though it were a medicine.
How is it even possible to think such thoughts? How can so many of our neighbors have been persuaded of their truth? How can a mind entertain the goodness of evil for as much as a moment without curling up and returning to dust? The paradox is as sharp as a broken bone, for it is not as though the people of our place and time have ceased thinking of what is right and good. That is not even a possibility for human minds. No, our neighbors tell themselves that they are doing the right and good. Therein lies the mystery.
There is a rule for probing such mysteries. We may call it the Asymmetry Principle, for it holds that one can only understand the bad from the good, not the good from the bad. Do we want to know how it is possible to be foul? Then we have to know how it is possible to be fair. Have we need to fathom the spreading desire to kill all those who have the greatest claim on our protection? Then we must fathom the good impulses from whose pollution this bad one comes.
In Augustine's day, the Manichaeans proposed a different principle. In their view, evil did not require any special explanation because it was one of the primordial realities. There are good things like light, health, and virtue, and there are bad ones like darkness, disease, and sin. Both have existed from the beginning; a good deity created all the former, and a bad deity created all the latter. That's all.
Although the Manichaean view seems simpler, it cannot be true. Everything bad is just a good thing spoiled. I can block the light in order to cast shadow pictures on the wall, but I cannot block the dark in order to cast bright ones. I can ruin a man's health to make him sick, but I cannot ruin his sickness to make him well. The veriest devil must possess the goods of existence, intelligence, power, and will; they become evil only through their disordered condition. Augustine taught us this.
What then are those goods whose pollution produces the wish to destroy the weak? Perhaps the most important are pity, prudence, amenity, honor, remorse, love, and the sense of justice. Let's consider how each in turn is spoiled.
Spoiled pity. In his ruminations on the original condition of mankind, Jean-Jacques Rousseau called pity an innate repugnance to see one's fellow suffer. Even animals have it, he said, for cattle low upon entering a slaughterhouse and a horse does not willingly pass near a corpse. The idea seems to be that the sight of pain makes me feel pain myself, and I don't like it. My pity is ultimately self-regarding.
This definition rather misses the point. True pity is a heartfelt sorrow for the suffering of another, seen or not, moving us to render what aid we can. True, there may be something self-regarding in pity -- by rendering aid, I do alleviate the pain I feel as a witness -- but my focus is on the pain of the other. By contrast, in Rousseauan "pity" the self- regarding element has taken over. Yes, rendering aid to the other would alleviate my pain; but if there is an easier way to escape the terrible spectacle, then from a Rousseauan point of view, so much the better. I can run away; I can turn my back; I can close my eyes. Perhaps that is why Rousseau left all his own children at orphanages.
But though Rousseau's definition fails dismally for true pity, for spoiled pity it works perfectly well. The purpose of pity is to prime the pump of lovingkindness, but when we refuse to use it in that way the impulse is merely displaced. While in true pity we move closer to the sufferer, in degraded pity we move farther. While in true pity we try to change the painful sight, in degraded pity we merely try to make it go away. And there are lots of ways to do that.
Then again maybe there aren't. In a society like ours, with no more frontier and hardly enough room to turn around, killing the sufferer may well be the cheapest and easiest way of making the painful sight go away. As someone said in the case of George DeLury, imprisoned for poisoning and suffocating his sick wife, I may say I am putting her out of her misery, but I am really putting her out of mine.
Spoiled prudence. Some things and persons must be entrusted to my care, and others to yours. Wiser than Marx, even Plato proposed communism only with tongue in cheek; he laughed about it and admitted that it would never work. Not caring even for the joke, Aristotle taught that when things are held in common they are not well cared for. We need homes, not warrens, families, not orphanages, and belongings, not tribal hordes. In the eyes of God my young children, my ancient parents, and my personal affairs are not really mine; I have merely been made a caretaker for them. But that standard is too high for the law, which must accommodate itself to the fact of sin -- including the sin of busybodiness. It may be fashionable to say that it takes a whole village to raise a child -- and it is certainly true that parents need to support each other -- but a wiser proverb is that with the whole village kibitzing I cannot properly take care of anyone or anything.
Prudence, then, is good judgment and conscientious care for the things and the persons entrusted to me. We may call it the insight and impulse of responsible stewardship.
Perhaps it isn't hard to see how the legal standard is confused with the moral norm -- how stewardship decays into ownership. I come to think that my life, my affairs, and my relatives really are mine, mine in the ultimate sense, and that I may do with them as I please. After this, just one little step takes me to the sheer urge to control. The urge is bad, but we can never understand it if we think of it as simply bad. Consider, for example, how hard it is to shame people who insist on control. They don't merely resist; they become indignant, morally indignant, as though someone were interfering with their virtue. Why is this? Because the bad impulse to be in control is parasitic on the good impulse to exercise responsible stewardship -- an impulse which has its own proper place in the order of things and its own proper claim on the conscience.
Spoiled prudence, then, manifests itself in the notion that I have the right to protect my life from the distractions of your suffering and dependence, and the right to manipulate you in the manner most convenient to me. These notions make strange bedfellows: the modern feminist agrees with the ancient Roman father that children are merely an extension of one's body, and the Dutch agree with the Eskimos that the old have a duty to get out of the way. But we should not be surprised. If the potentiality for prudence is universal, then the potentiality for its corruption must be universal too.
Spoiled amenity. Amenity, or complaisance, is the impulse every person has to accommodate himself to all the rest. Like every moral impulse it carries sanctions: in this case, fear of rejection and desire to belong. But as with every moral impulse, the sanctions are only training wheels, preparing us for obedience to a deeper moral principle written on the heart. A mature person accommodates himself to others not just from fear of rejection and desire to belong, but from concern for their legitimate interests.
The problem, of course, is that in many of us the impulse never does mature. We continue to rely on the training wheels and never learn to ride. Unfortunately, this makes a difference. Mature amenity draws a boundary; precisely because I care about the legitimate interests of others, my willingness to accommodate has a limit. At just the point where going along would not be good for all, I call a halt. Stunted amenity cannot make such distinctions. It cannot stop accommodating; it doesn't know how. I give Grandma lethal drugs to accommodate my relatives; to accommodate me, Grandma asks for lethal drugs. A girl has an abortion to accommodate her boyfriend; to accommodate his girlfriend, the boy goes along. We know these things are wrong, but for fear of being on the outs with others we do them anyway. In the extreme case, we accommodate each other to death.
Of course people suffer remorse when they commit these terrible deeds. For present purposes, the more interesting fact is that they tend to suffer remorse when they refuse to commit them too. When they hold out, when they say no, when they resist the clamor of voices telling them what to do, they feel not only afraid, but in the wrong. This shows that, like prudence, the urge to accommodate is not simply self-regard even when it is spoiled and self-regarding. It draws strength from the very sense of obligation that it corrupts. Conscience always does the best it can; when driven from its proper course, it finds another and flows on.
Spoiled honor. To honor someone is to show him the reverence due to him as a fellow image of God, distinct from myself, sent into the world for the Creator's pleasure and not my own. The impulse to honor others is the best vaccine against the urge to control them, but it suffers from corruptions of its own.
In one case within my experience, a woman tried to honor her husband by sparing him what she thought would be a dreadful ordeal. "If I ever become a burden to you," she said, "I want you to pull the plug." Although this was not to his liking at all, he tried to honor her in turn by giving her his promise. Before considering the outcome, let's consider what was wrong with the deeds.
What spoiled the woman's attempt to honor her husband was that she did not treat him as a moral being. Had he become helpless she would have borne any burden to care for him; she demeaned him by thinking he needed to be spared bearing burdens to care for her. What she thought honoring him violated the Golden Rule, for she would not allow him to do for her what she would have wanted to do had she been in his place.
What spoiled the husband's attempt to honor his wife was that he made her an illicit promise. He forgot that it is impossible to reverence the image of God in another by complying with what soils that image. Had he expressed an immoral wish, he would have wanted her to challenge him; yet when she expressed an immoral wish, he would not challenge her. So he violated the Golden Rule too.
The outcome? She did, in time, become sick and dependent, and she wanted him, for his sake, to keep his promise. In an unseemly rush, not wanting to but believing he had to, he did. She died, he grieved most terribly -- and he found himself unable to stop. The trauma of her death was overwhelmed by the trauma of his killing her. To the end of his own life, many years later, remorse made each day like the day that her heart had stopped. With the thought of sparing him a burden that he could have borne, she had thrust on him another burden that he could not. With the thought of complying with her wish, he had made that burden his own. Trapped by spoiled honor on every side, he did not even know how to repent.
Spoiled remorse. Guilt is an objective reality -- the condition of being in violation of moral law. By contrast, remorse is a subjective reality -- the feeling of being in violation of moral law. What is the purpose of the feeling? Obviously, to prod us into recognition of objective guilt so that we can repent and throw ourselves upon the mercy of God.
It may seem strange that remorse could ever get us into trouble instead of out of it. On the contrary, nothing is more common. Like every moral impulse, remorse can be displaced. It can refuse the relief of repentance and seek alleviation in another way instead. In the short term, remorse can even be palliated by further wrongdoing. The first murder in history was undertaken from spoiled remorse. Cain's sacrifice had been unacceptable to God; he killed his righteous brother to get rid of the reminder of his shame.
In another article I related several stories of women who had abortions because of remorse over previous abortions. There was the woman who was afraid God would "do something" to the new baby to punish her for killing the other, so she beat Him to the punch. And there was the woman who had her first abortion out of anger because her husband had been unfaithful to her, and her second because "I wanted to be able to hate myself more for what I did to the first baby." In much the same way that some people use one credit card to pay off another, she was trying to abate her present remorse by increasing her burden of future remorse.
We may be sure that spoiled remorse is just as great a motive for killing the sick and the old. For years, perhaps, I have neglected my aging father. Now, when he is weak and dependent, the burden of my conscience has become intolerable. I cannot bear the reproach of his watery eyes; I would rather endure the blows of his fists than the sight of his withered, lumpy hands. To avoid him I visit him less and less. One day he requires hospitalization and cannot feed himself. He is not dying, he is not unconscious, he is not even in great discomfort; nevertheless I tell his caretakers to withdraw his food and water. It is easier to face them than to face him, for he is the sole surviving witness to the slights of his ungrateful son. Besides, I tell myself, I no longer deserve a father. When his body is buried, perhaps my guilt will be buried too.
Spoiled love. Love is a perfect determination of the will to further the true good of another person. As such, it can miss the mark in either of two different ways. If the will is unsteady, then we call the love weak; if the understanding is bent, then we call the love spoiled. The faults of weak love are faults of omission, in that I fail to care sufficiently for the one who needs my mercy. But the faults of spoiled love are faults of commission, in that I may actually do him harm.
Although the modes of spoiled love are infinite in number, it may suffice to mention two. In one mode, what stunts my charity is a failure to understand the involvement of each human being in all the others. Many of us have known parents who have abortions for the sake of a child already born. They honestly believe that Johnny is an island, entire to himself; that it will be better for him if Sally is cut in pieces before her birth, because with one less child their home will be quieter and their finances more secure. In this frame of mind, Grandma too seems a threat to the younger members of the family. Isn't she just a useless eater? Up there in her nursing home she merely consumes while giving nothing back. Of course I don't mind spending time and money on her myself -- after all, she is my mother -- but why must my child do with less?
It is difficult to explain the wrong of abortion to someone who thinks it is better for Johnny to have a trip to Disney World than a baby sister, difficult to explain the wrong of euthanasia to one who thinks he will be more blessed learning to take than to sacrifice for a lady who needs his mercy.
In the other mode of spoiled love, what stunts my charity is a failure to understand the good of affliction. "Truly ... affliction is a treasure," says John Donne, "and scarce any man hath enough of it." Of course, no one should seek affliction or gratuitously impose it on another, but is there a soul alive who has not learned more from his hard times than his good? How dare we then imagine that our dear ones are like animals, who, when they suffer, have nothing to learn from it, and are fit only to be "put out of their misery"? What arrogance is it that denies to the sick at the last that teacher to which each of us is most indebted?
But this is an even harder lesson than the last one. That for fallen natures, physical suffering may sometimes accomplish moral good is a fact of everyday experience, but for people who do not even believe in spanking it may be hard to teach.
The spoiled sense of justice. The sense of justice is the desire to see that each is given his due -- that the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. It isn't hard to see how a spoiled sense of justice can make me feel justified in mistreating someone weak who I think has hurt me in the past.
Perhaps I nurse a grievance against my parents for wrongs done to me when they were large and strong and I was small and weak; now the tables are turned and I finally have the chance to pay them out. Perhaps they didn't really wrong me but I think they did; my generation has been more indulged, and consequently has a stronger sense of grievance, than any other in history. Of course resentment is an unpleasant feeling, but if I can convert it into moral indignation I feel much better.
Even more alarming is the tendency of the guilty conscience to call spoiled justice to its aid by inventing grievances. Cause and effect here trade places: We think of resentment coming first and mistreatment coming after, but it is often the other way around. People almost always resent the people they have treated worst, as a defense against the shame of having treated them so poorly in the first place. Unfortunately, such effects take on a life of their own and become real causes after all. Having invented a grievance to justify my neglect, I may now act in malice at the prompting of the grievance. I may resent my father for no reason other than that I have mistreated him; nevertheless, having invented a fictitious reason for mistreating him, I now feel justified in wanting him to die.
Not that I am likely to be so honest with myself about my thoughts. I may not admit my resentment at all, because we do not call it "just" to kick a man when he is down. But my secret sense of grievance will always be a finger on the scale of my benevolence, biasing me toward what anyone but myself would recognize as spite.
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There is a fallacy in our judgments about these things; it results from a distinction we ought not make. Some wrongdoing, we say, should be treated with lenity because it is committed with good motives. Other wrongdoing, we say, should be treated harshly because it is committed with bad ones. She killed her sick father out of desire for his inheritance, so she should be judged; he killed his sick mother out of sympathy for her pain, so he should be pardoned. She had an abortion because her exams were coming up, so she should be condemned; he supported the abortion out of respect for her decision, so he should be excused.
Distinguishing among motives is often no more than a way to let ourselves off the hook while keeping the others on it. After all, we know our own motives much better than we can ever know theirs; therefore we know the good in our motives much better than the good in theirs. We are always in a better position to plead extenuating circumstances in our case.
But that is not the main problem with pardoning wrongs that are done from good motives. The main problem is that all wrongs are done from good motives. As we said at the beginning, there is no such thing as pure or perfect evil; every bad thing is a good thing spoiled. Without good motives to corrupt, there could be no wrongdoing at all. Did George DeLury kill his wife because he hated the sight of her suffering? Then the motive was spoiled pity. Did he do it to stay in control? Then it was spoiled prudence. To go along with her wishes? Spoiled amenity. To keep a promise? Spoiled honor. To bury his shame, to put her out of her misery, to pay her back for hurting him? Spoiled remorse, spoiled love, spoiled sense of justice. That the raw material of his intention was good was the condition of his having an intention at all. But that he ruined that good material through a free exercise of his will was what made the intention evil.
To understand all wrong is not to excuse all wrong; rather, to understand it is to know why it is wrong. Yet achieving such understanding is far from useless. From the throne of mercy there may yet be mercy for a merciless generation, but not before we know what we have done. We had best get started, for we have done a great deal.