Thursday, August 6, 2009

While Europe Slept: Ethics and Cultural Decline

There is a growing body of literature on the death of Europe, the demise of European culture, the self-hatred of a "multiculturalism" that uncritically respects and celebrates every culture but its own and every religion except the one on which its culture is based. And, on the contrary, a smaller body arguing that the reports of Europe's death are exaggerated.

One perspective emphasizes the relentless march of aggressive Islam, finally set to complete the process of conquering all of Europe--the process that spanned centuries with little effective resistance until it was (temporarily?) halted at the Siege of Vienna in 1683. Others point to the growth of secularism as a rigid and intolerant "cultural ideology that mocks religion as superstition and celebrates technological rationalism as the only proper and intelligent way to think and to be in the world-- [a secularism that] has developed into nihilism, into a world in which we can no longer make judgments of value and truth in defense of human dignity and flourishing."

That quotation is from a thoughtful essay by Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicage. Called "While Europe Slept," it appeared in the March 2009 issue of First Things/span>--see

The dialectic and dialogue between belief and unbelief that has, she argues, characterized the Europe of the past three centuries has given way to this narrower, constricted view of humanity with the withering of belief. "The Jerusalem side of the European heritage tells us that all are equally children of God--the disabled, the ugly, the bad-smelling, the boring, the lonely--all require our care and concern. As the anti-Nazi German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted, even the most wretched life is worth living before God." Without God or some transcendent principle, the wretched life is not worth living and others (e.g., a hospital ethics committee or court of law)have the power to decide whose life is wretched and so not worth living. Peter Singer's satanic utilitarianism boldly embraces the implications of this moral philosophy in principle as the Nazis did in practice.

Elshtain shows with moving eloquence how the secular elevation of the sovereign self, unconstrained by superstitions about the intrinsic and equal dignity of all human life, leads to illiberal and dehumanizing consequences. In this brave new world, where the ethical and moral barriers to taking what they want have all been lost, the powerful have their way simply because they can.

"Over time human rights, now almost universally accepted among Europeans, will themselves come to be seen as so many arbitrary constructions that may, on utilitarian grounds, be revoked—because there is nothing intrinsic about human beings such that they are not to be ill-treated or violated or even killed. Even now, many do not want to be bothered with the infirm elderly or damaged infants, so we devise so-called humane ways to kill them and pretend that somehow they chose (or would have chosen) to die. Elderly patients are being killed in the Netherlands without their consent. A new protocol for euthanizing newborns with disabilities is institutionalized in the Netherlands, and the doctor who authored the protocols, Eduard Verhagen, tells us how “beautiful” it is when the newborns are killed, for, at last, they are at peace.

"The Australian utilitarian Peter Singer predicts confidently that the superstition that human life is sacred will be definitively put to rest by 2040. It doesn't take much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest that by that moment “life unworthy of life” will routinely be destroyed—in the name of liberal humanitarianism and compassion, and even cost-effectiveness, rather than the triumph of a master race. It is a softer nihilism than the past's, but it is nihilism all the same.

"In an interview for a British magazine during the summer of 2005, Singer said that if he faced the quandary of saving from a raging fire either a mentally disabled child, an orphan child nobody wanted, or normal animals, he would save the animals. If the child had a mother who would be devastated by the child's death, he would save the child, but unwanted orphans have no such value.

"This is the entirely consistent result of the view that human life no longer possesses an innate dignity, that we are only meat walking around, and we can be turned easily into means to the ends of others, just as we may turn others into means to our ends. It is the old master-slave scenario come to life, even as we congratulate ourselves on our enlightenment."

Can Europe survive its current cultural malaise, slackness, and loss of self-confidence that she and others (myself included) perceive in its demographic collapse--"one sign of an existential loss of hope and a turning of the self inward on the self, refusing to extend the self to a child and thus abandoning the task of civic formation on this most fundamental and private level."

It is not hard to show that the last, most secularist of centuries produced, in the practice of its major atheist and anti-Christian regimes (China, Russia, and Germany), a scale of mass murder many, many times that of all (even nominally) religious wars and persecutions of all previous centuries combined. Elshtain shows the ideological process by which this modern evil arose and continues to flourish.

"Europe was defined for centuries in and through an energetic dialogue between belief and unbelief and, having lost belief, finds nihilism. If human beings do not tend to what is good—if, indeed, they no longer believe in any such thing—they create a vacuum, into which comes that negation called evil and sin in Christian theology, a draining away from what is good.

"Evil need not take the form of the Hitlerian ­monster of Europe's past or the serial killers of contemporary movies. It can take the form of medical practitioners killing handicapped newborns or infirm patients, rather than healing and caring for them; the form of isolating and neglecting immigrants; the form of ignoring antisocial behavior and cruelty until it turns into open and widespread criminality; the form of an indifference that, in the name of toleration, permits a zealous minority to call for the murder of those who have drawn cartoons (however stupid those cartoons may have been) and for more suicide bombers and the killing of innocents.

"Evil can take the form of refusing to be what one is. The retreat from defining Europe in relation to her Jewish and Christian heritage is the face of European nihilism. When a reaction comes, it is likely to be extreme and distorted because indifference prevailed too long."

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