Evil as Utter Irrationality

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St. Augustine of Hippo as pictured during the ...

St. Augustine of Hippo as pictured during the Renaissance (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The shootings at Aurora, Colorado reveal the irrationality of evil acts. I do not know whether the shooter is mentally ill–that will be determined in a psychiatric evaluation–but in the U.S. legal system he is held responsible if he knew the difference between right and wrong when he committed his crimes. What strikes me about this tragedy is its utter senselessness. This reminds me of Augustine’s notion of evil–that turning away from God, one’s highest good, is a supremely irrational act. It is as irrational as Esau’s giving up his birthright for a bowl of soup. Killing one’s fellow human beings (apart from situations of self-defense) is ultimately irrational, even if a killer goes through a reasoning process in planning a murder or murders. Sometimes it is difficult to find the causal chain of reasoning that a person used to justify and plan a murder. I cannot understand what the motive of the Aurora shooter could be. Whitman at the Texas tower–I can understand his actions because a tumor was pressing on the emotional centers of his brain, causing the rage that led him to shoot multiple people from the tower at the University of Texas. In the Colorado case, there seems to be no reason at all for the man to shoot and kill twelve human beings and wound 59 others. Perhaps he was angry with dropping out of graduate school, but how many people in that theater had anything to do with his graduate school career? A few years ago a graduate student killed his adviser, and that, while an evil act, makes some sense. The current situation makes no sense, and reveals evil at its most irrational and dehumanizing. If the shooter did this for attention, he is like a child wanting attention who pushes his baby sister in the water–what the shooter did was childish in the most negative sense. The sheer spitefulness, selfishness, and pride of evil are clear–“I’m going to get the attention I crave by murdering people”). Other people are only “living tools” (Aristotle’s definition of a slave) to the spree killer. They are used to satisfy his own selfish goals. Conscience by this stage has been seared “as with a hot iron,” to use St. Paul’s terminology.

These factors mean that trying to make sense of the incident, at least in terms of the murderer’s motivation, is only helpful in a trial setting. Saying that he was a “loner” is irrelevant, since many people are loners who never commit crimes. My head spins when I think about this case and how stupid human evil ultimately is. What needs to be done is to pray for the victims killed and their families, pray that the wounded will fully recover, and pray that even in a fallen world, an event like this will not be repeated.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian: Sincerity Does not Negate Moral Evil

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Dr. Jack Kevorkian's cropped image

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My student often with identify sincerity with truth, especially on matters of morality and/or religion. I remind them that Lenin was no doubt sincere in murdering hundreds of thousands of his political opponents. And he was sincere–unlike his successor Josef Stalin, Lenin really did believe in Communism and that killing people may be best for a greater good. Surely his sincerity does not make his actions morally right.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian was a sincere man. I do not believe, despite his rather expressive paintings of gruesome death scenes, that he was a psychopath or sociopath. He was well read in ancient Greek and Roman classics and was well aware that until Christianity came along, the vast majority of Greeks and Romans supported euthanasia–the Hippocratic Oath, based on the Pythagoreans’ high view of life, was the exception rather than the rule. Kevorkian used their arguments about a person dying with honor and dignity, arguments that were later revived by David Hume (1711-1776), to defend physician assisted suicide. Unlike the current Oregon and Washington State laws, which allow a physician to dispense a prescription of a deadly dose of drugs to terminally ill people who gave prior permission, Kevorkian went further. He built his infamous “suicide machine” which the patient could start himself, but Dr. Kevorkian had the set up in terms of inserting IV lines and arranging the correct drugs in each IV bag. The first bag released normal saline; the second a sedative to relax the patient; the third a dose of a deadly drug. Technically a patient could stop the process at any time; whether this always was the case in practice is a disputed point.

Dr. Kevorkian was not insane, but he was really, truly, sincerely wrong. He believed that he was easing the pain of terminally ill patients (although one woman he “assisted” had fibromyalgia, which is not a terminal illness). Error often contains partial truth, and the partial truth in Dr. Kevorkian’s stance is that a doctor’s sole duty involves more than preserving life. Sometimes it is best for a physician to allow the disease process take its course and withhold or withdraw burdensome treatment such as a ventilator or artificial nutrition and hydration. But to go beyond that and allow physicians to actively help a patient kill himself by a deadly drug that is in no sense a treatment for illness violates the fundamental end of medicine to “first, do no harm.” Kevorkian and his defenders might say, “But we euthanize animals who are hurting.” That is true, but animals do not have the level of understanding of the pain they feel compared to human beings. Human beings can understand what is going on and realize why they are in pain–and they can take steps to get medical treatment to stop the pain. Many physicians are not aware that most pain can be controlled with the proper drugs.

My best friend, during the final month of her life, was in hospice, where she received drugs to control pain and nausea. While the drugs were not by any means perfect, she did feel better, and I and her other friends were able to spend precious time with her and say goodbye before she peacefully passed away. If all terminally ill patients in pain received better palliative care, most of the clamor for physician assisted suicide would most likely go away.

Dr. Kevorkian represents the contemporary view that severe pain is the ultimate evil that can happen to a human being. Don’t get me wrong–I hate pain and have a very low pain threshold. I could not imagine the agony of being in constant, severe pain. I would want the best treatment for pain available if I were in severe intractable pain. In an earlier world that began to dissolve in the fourteenth century, pain was not considered to be the worst evil. Dying without salvation was. Today society is secular, and even many Christians are Christians in name only–they never accepted the world view and view of human nature that comes with Christianity. So they go back to the old Stoic view that suicide can be acceptable in some circumstances. Yet even the Stoics believed it was normally best to suffer misfortune and pain; suicide was a last resort to protect one’s honor and dignity. The modern world does not understand fortitude through pain, using illness to draw closer to the transcendent, or using a long, drawn out dying process to adequately prepare for death, both in secular and in spiritual matters. Today people want a quick death–in their sleep, of a sudden stroke or heart attack. There are times I feel that way, too, but when I use my reason, I realize that knowing one is dying, even if it involves great pain, gives one time to prepare, to say goodbye, and to draw closer to God. None of that would have made sense to the atheist Dr. Kevorkian. Yet a secular case can be made against PAS as well.

Not only does PAS violate the fundamental end of medicine, which is to help a person in need, doing no harm, but wide scale legalization would take away the psychological barrier to including more classes of people as candidates for PAS. Professor Margaret Battin once said at a talk I attended that she believed that someone with intractable chronic depression that could not be treated with drugs is a legitimate candidate for PAS. Most of the audience of physicians and philosophers seemed to agree. What about the person with chronic back pain that is not helped by drugs? What about the woman with fibromyalgia? To how many groups of people will PAS be extended.

In the Netherlands, where PAS is legal, thousands of patients have been actively killed by their doctors–without giving prior permission and without a family or friend as proxy giving prior permission. The doctor makes a judgment about the patient’s quality of life–and if the patient’s quality of life does not measure up to the physician’s standards, the physician kills the patient. A recent attempt to formalize a quality of life standard, below which a physician could kill a patient, was defeated in the Netherlands. But with some physicians already crossing that barrier, it may be just a matter of time before the law reflects practice.

Doctors already have a great deal of power over the patient. The patient comes to the doctor for help, and the doctor has the knowledge and the power to diagnose and treat the patient. Given that amount of power, would someone really want to agree with Dr. Kevorkian to give the physician the authority to help a patient kill himself? Once power crosses one barrier, historically it has tended to cross others.

Dr. Kevorkian meant well. But history shows that some of the worst tyrants in history “meant well.” Pol Pot really believed that by killing the educated classes and moving the rest of the urbanized population of Cambodia he could create a classless society. Instead he murdered over a million people. Dr. Kevorkian only was involved in helping a few hundred people kill themselves. But multiply that by hundreds of other Dr. Kevorkian’s along with a racially individualistic society that affirms that a person “has the right to determine the time and manner of one’s death.” Such hubris feeds Dr. Kevorkians and feeds physician power over life and death–and this in turn feeds Death itself. God help us.

Dr. Gosnell’s Alleged Actions and Abortion

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This is am image of a fetus about to be vacuum...

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The story at http://abclocal.go.com/wpvi/story?section=news%2Flocal&id=7906881 is horrifying, but it illustrates the inconsistency of U. S. law on abortion. Dr. Gosnell’s alleged actions were no different in any morally relevant way from doctors who legally perform late-term abortions on viable fetuses. Such late term abortions are legal for “health” reasons, which include both physical and mental health considerations. De facto, any woman can find a doctor to sign off that she cannot mentally deal with bearing a child, and abortion is legal up to the ninth month. Thus have court rulings since Roe v. Wade limited the power of the states to regulate abortion.

Why does the law permit a late term fetus to be killed inside the mother’s womb, but when the fetus is outside the mother’s womb the doctor is charged with murder? Does being inside the mother’s body somehow entail a different ontological status for the fetus than the baby outside the womb? Or is it more likely that a “fetus” is a living human person and that whether inside or outside the womb, killing that person is murder. The sheer hypocrisy of American law is revealed by this inconsistency. The sheer evil of the most rabid abortion advocates is shown by their support of abortion up to the ninth month of pregnancy. To me, this issue is a no-brainer–human life is a continuum from conception to death, and there is no non-arbitrary point apart from conception to identify the origin of the living human person. Abortion at any stage of pregnancy is outright murder, murder of the most vulnerable human persons who cannot defend themselves. Americans are seeing more and more that this is the case, but the dictatorial federal courts insist on forcing liberal abortion laws on the states. Thank God the Supreme Court allowed a ban on “partial-birth abortion,” but even if an abortion is not “partial-birth,” it is still murder. It is sad that the United States, which has much good in it, is capable of making such evil laws–laws that are inconsistent with other laws concerning murder. And make no mistake–abortion is an evil act.  If Dr. Gosnell is guilty of what he is accused, he will have done acts acknowledged by any reasonable person to be evil. Why not extend such outrage to oppose murdering human persons while they remain in the womb? Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but inconsistency is the mark of a fool–and one can be culpable for pushing beliefs that support the murder of the unborn.

Thoughts on the Death Penalty

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Title capital punishment

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Back in the 1970s, a father tortured his small daughter to death. He forced her to walk without stopping, denied her food, and when she asked for water, he gave her hot sauce. She died slowly, agonizingly. The father was given a prison sentence, and if I remember correctly, it wasn’t life in prison.

In a famous case in Indianapolis from the late 1960s, a teenaged girl was left with a neighbor while her parents were away. The neighbor tortured the girl to death, helped by her own children and by children from the neighborhood. This torture continued over a period of weeks until the girl died. The neighbor was given only a few years in prison, and died a natural death after her release.

Such heinous crimes are those in which I think the death penalty would be justified. Those who kill in this most gruesome way most often lack any conscience or even a concept of a conscience. Ted Bundy probably had a moral sense to some degree, for he would not kill any woman he could not dehumanize. But he deserved to die in Florida’s electric chair.

The only proper justification for capital punishment is the ancient notion of desert–not the “desert” a person eats after dinner, but “desert” in the sense of a person getting the justice he deserves. Although the death penalty deters the person executed, it does not tend to deter crime in any other way. When the British had over 200 capital crimes in the eighteenth century, including pickpocketing, crooks would pick the audience members’ pockets at a public hanging of a pickpocket. But an argument from desert is not concerned with utilitarian considerations. Someone who commits murder damages the very fabric of human society so much that such a person deserves to die.

The real problem with the death penalty, from my perspective, is practical–what if someone innocent is executed? That is why I believe that unless a case is as solid as the case against Bundy or the murderers in the two cases mentioned above, life in prison is the preferable option. In addition, since some murderers retain a moral sense and a conscience, it may be best to give those murderers life in prison in case they repent. Just because a person deserves to die does not imply that he must be put to death.  But in the case of sociopathic or psychopathic murderers, and in the case of murders that are particularly heinous (such as the two cases mentioned at the beginning of this post), these individuals should be executed. This argument assumes that the murderers have free will; a delusional paranoid schizophrenic who commits a brutal murder while delusional belongs in a mental hospital.

Many Christians oppose the death penalty even though Jesus told Pilate in the Gospel of John that Pilate had no authority unless God had given it. St. Paul, in Romans 13, states that the governmental authority “bears not the sword in vain,” a clear reference to deadly force. For those Christians who hate St. Paul, I would remind them that St. Paul is in the canon of Scripture–and they are not.

It is sad that the moral fabric of some human beings is so destroyed by their murderous choices that they deserve death. Christians should be, I think, more reluctant than many secular proponents of capital punishment to put it to use. But some people are “desperately wicked,” as my Greek teacher at David Lipscomb College, Dr. Harvey Floyd, used to say, and death is the only proper punishment for them when they commit atrocious murders. It seems to me that those who deny any need for capital punishment are blind to the extent of human evil and cruelty in a fallen world.