Monday, January 22, 2007

Materialism vs. Immaterialism

So, this may be so obvious that everyone knows it but me, but here goes anyway. I always thought it was interesting that the religious right is generally anti-abortion but pro-death penalty, while the secular left tends to be pro-choice and against the death penalty. You'd think, in terms of consistency, that you'd be for protecting life on both ends (anti-abortion and also anti-death penalty) or on neither end (pro-choice and pro-death penalty). Why is it that people can be so passionate about protecting one life but not another in this way?

After all, a lot of hay is made by comedians and others about this apparent inconsistency, such as jokes about how much the religious right gets weepy about a microscopic bundle of cells but has no mercy when demanding a guy get the electric chair, but I don't think I ever heard anyone advance an explanation as to why.

I'm not talking about proximate causes here. I am one of the people I'm talking about, after all, being pro-choice and anti-death penalty, and I know the reasons I believe both.* But, beyond the surface level reasons such as, "Abortion is murder," and "Since we can't give a wrongly-convicted person his or her life back, we shouldn't be willing to take it because it could be a mistake," is there a coherent reason that anti-abortion and pro-death penalty go together and why pro-choice and anti-death penalty seem to go together?

Here's my theory. The religious right, being, well, religious, spend a lot of time thinking about immaterial things, like God, angels, Heaven, etc. Whereas those of us in the secular left spend little time thinking about the immaterial and more about the physical reality we inhabit.

Right. So?

Well, you see, I suspect this difference in basic thought patterns is what drives the stances each side takes on these issues. Those on the religious right, in both cases, believe they are protecting someone they can't see, a potential human being in the case of abortion, and the victim of the crime in the case of the death penalty. Concentrating on the immaterial means thinking about things you can't, by definition, see, things that aren't concrete and standing in front of you, just like the fetus and the victim. They believe they are standing up for the rights of those who can't speak for themselves.

Those on the secular left, on the other hand, being rooted in the material world, are trying to protect the real person that they know exists right there, right then: the mother (by protecting her right to control her own body) and the death row prisoner. The victim, to the non-theist or irreligious, is beyond our help and protection, and a potential person is another way of saying a person who does not yet exist and thus does not have rights that trump the rights of the mother, who does already exist and have rights.

Which brings me something this line of thinking brought me to. A term used by the religious right to describe the secular left, meant to be an insult, is "materialists." This is meant to imply that the secular left is low, base, concerned with material things (which implies greed), as opposed to themselves, the noble, faithful, selfless ones. But why is it that the religious right gets to define the conflict as "materialism" vs. "faith?" Because, strictly speaking, "faith" is not the opposite of materialism, since you have faith in material things (like the people who believe in Bigfoot). No, the more apt opposite of materialism would be immaterialism.

And, as Thomas Jefferson said, "To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings." And that's the fact. Immaterialists believe in nothings and immaterialism is the practice of putting the rights of nothings before the rights of the living, thinking, feeling, real inhabitants of this world. The famous saying, "Kill them all; God will know his own" isn't the result of an anomaly or perversion of Christianity and theism. It is a logical consequence of immaterialism, of putting the good of the immaterial (the soul) above the material (the body). What difference does it make if we kill a few good Christians along with these heretics, after all? Their souls will go to Heaven to be with God, after all!

But that's just another way of saying that nothing (their souls) will go nowhere (Heaven) to be with nothing (God). The deaths, unfortunately, are all too real.

* I believe in the right to an abortion because the rights of a woman to control her own body outweigh the rights of a potential person, and also because I believe that the anti-abortion movement is, in large part, about controlling women and their behavior. That's why anti-abortion activists not too subtly imply that all women who have abortions are sluts who wouldn't need abortions if they weren't.

I oppose the death penalty because it's not worth the risk of executing an innocent person. We can set free someone who has been falsely imprisoned (though we can't give them those years back), but taking someone's life is final and the system isn't foolproof enough to take that risk. Besides, I think executing someone is letting them off easy.


At 7:26 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

This is a good topic and a touchy moral issue. It could be the subject of a very interesting discussion, had we a diverse yet respectful audience in which to air it. Alas.

I agree that there's an element of what you say behind the rhetoric, but it seems to miss a few points, too.

First, of course, many very religious people do oppose both (e.g., Catholics).

But more relevant to your post, I have heard people defend the position that abortion is wrong but the death penalty is okay. I wont say I agree with the defense, but I've definitely heard it many times.

It goes something like this:

A person has the ability to forfeit their life when they become a danger to their community and they make choices that directly harm their community.

A "bundle of cells" has never is therefore innocent of any crime. We do not, as a community, have a right to take its life because the bundle has not violated the social agreement ... it was never able to choose

This position has a lot of logical problems, but it's real position people have.

Now Paul (as usual) will take the opportunity to move slightly off-topic:

Incidentally, I am opposed to the death penalty for altogether different reasons, though I do agree with your reason as well. Like most things, I like to break down the decision into parts with which I can deal more manageably. After such decomposition, I cannot find a rational reason to support the death penalty.

As far as I can see, there are four reasons for a society to impose the death penalty:

1.) Make victims and the rest of us feel better;
2.) Remove the threat from society;
3.) Reduce the cost of that threat; and
4.) Deter future crime.

I'll take them in order.

First, the purpose of a justice system has nothing at all to do with how we feel, but it is to make us safe and to resolve disputes. Of course I want victims (and the public) to feel better, but not at the cost of human life ... moreover, there's little evidence that we do feel better as a result. Even if we did, and even if it were worth it, it wouldn't be justice, it would be revenge.

The second bullet confounds several things. First, it assumes that the threat cannot be eliminated by rehabilitation. Assuming we could rehabilitate a cop-killer, then that reason would go away. I doubt society would change its mind about giving the killer the death penalty, though. So the position is disingenuous. Second, it mixes up the next bullet with this idea: After all, the threat can be removed by simply incarcerating the person for the rest of their life. It just costs a lot to do this.

Third, cost is the toughest of these issues because it really causes us to look into ourselves and decide what a human life is worth in terms of raw dollars. I know it is easy to allow emotion to cloud our judgement and say that some serial killer isn't worth a dime of my money; however, the question is more basic: How much money is it worth to preserve any human life? We aren't talking about the killer now, we are talking in the abstract (because we are setting policy) ... if it cost me one penny to incarcerate the person for the rest of their lives, would I do it? How about a dollar? How about $10? Etc.

I'm not comfortable with that route, so I reject the point altogether. I wont assign a dollar figure to human life. I remove "efficiency" from my reasons for the death penalty altogether. (And efficiency is really what the third point talks about).

It is the fourth point that is the real meat of the controversy, I think. If I thought many innocent lives could be spared (and our system for determining guilt were much better), then I might be pursuaded by this point.

Unfortunately, I've yet to see any credible evidence that it is an effective deterrent. Actually, there's a tremendous amount of evidence from many socieities that it is not. I know a lot of people who believe that it is (despite the evidence) because this violates their notion of common sense (*), but since I do not have their conviction in the face of opposing facts, I have to go with reason: the death penalty does not deter.

Also, since human life is on the line, I think the burden of proof of deterence is on the one holding the switch ... so to speak.

I also know a lot of people who believe we don't implement the penalty properly ... we are too wishy-washy about it. If we were harsher, faster, and more determined, criminals would think twice. Again, I ask: Where is the evidence of this?

Thus exhausts my reasons. I just cannot see a logical, rational reason to be for the death penalty.

(*) Actually, it makes sense to me that DP is not a deterrent: Those that commit desperate and horrible acts are typically either mentally ill, under the influence of something (drugs, passion, etc.), or very desparate. I cannot see how any such affected people would stop to think, "Hey, I might get the death penalty ... maybe I'd better not kidnap this person, kill them, then chop their body up and hide it under my house." I don't know ... I don't have a frame of reference for that mindset in any circumstance.

At 8:38 AM, Blogger mooglar said...

I wasn't aware that Catholics opposed both abortion and the death penalty. Which seems a grievous error on my part, since I've read so much about Catholicism (a Catholic priest is the main character in a novel I've been working on here and there for seven or eight years). I seem to have mostly run into the two categories of opinion I mentioned. But, of course, my theory here is probably too simplistic and pat, but I do think it's a different way of looking at it than is typical and my have therefore have some value, even if it does have its flaws.

I agree that people use the argument against abortion you cite. My contention is that those arguments are rooted in the dichotomy of thinking I noted. In fact, the argument you posted is a perfect example: the "bundle of cells" has never been able to do anything to harm its community and thus is innocent of any crime, therefore we do not have "a right to take its life away... it was never able to choose". The logical flaw in this argument is that it never was able to choose because it isn't yet a person. But only if it were a person would it have "a life" for us to take away. The argument here is implicitly looking at the potential human being it could become and giving this bundle of cells the rights of the person it may potentially become, a person who does not yet exist. Only by focusing on the potential, nonexistent future person it could become can a bundle of cells that lacks any of the characteristics of a human be considered human. By the same token, the death row inmate, according to the argument, made "choices that directly harm their community." Since you only get the death penalty for murder (well, treason too, but we'll exclude that), the victim of the inmate's crime is dead and beyond our help. Executing the criminal won't do the victim any good. And the "community" the inmate harmed is once again an immaterial thing (while composed of material parts, I would contend that it is more of an idea than a real, physical thing). While I'm not saying these arguments are intentionally disingenuous, I am saying that the influence of immaterial thinking is at play underlying them.

I had actually been tempted to go into more detail about my death penalty beliefs, but it seemed, as you say, "off-topic" so I restrained myself. The rationale I posted isn't my entire rationale for opposition to the death penalty, it's just the one I generally bring up first because it seems to be the one most convincing to those who support the death penalty, or at least the one they heap the least scorn upon. I actually also agree with all your points about capital punishment as well.

As to point 1, exactly, it's about revenge. If the justice system is about revenge, then we may as well allow revenge killings and vigilantism. If not, however, then revenge shouldn't play into the justice system at all.

As to points 2 and 3, once again, agreed. We don't have to kill someone to remove them as a threat to society. And cost is a non-issue. For one thing, of course, it actually costs more to execute a person, with the lengthy appeal process, than to imprison them for life. But we can't speed up the process or allow fewer appeals without increasing the risk of mistakes, which is one of my main objections as noted in my original post. So, since it costs more to execute than imprison, and we can't reduce the cost of executions without increasing the risk of mistakenly executing the innocent, cost actually argues in favor, in my opinion, of getting rid of the death penalty anyway. But I agree that cost should not be a factor in deciding whether a person should live or die (even though insurance companies do it all the time).

And, of course, the death penalty isn't a deterrent, for EXACTLY the reason you noted in your footnote. The people who commit murder aren't able to envision the consequences of their actions in the first place, or they wouldn't do it. I mean, I heard about a case on the news the other night where a guy who worked at Taco Bell went in after hours and asked a co-worker, who obviously liked him because she gave him a hug when he stopped by, for some money. She didn't have any, so he stabbed her and slit her throat. Whether he's going to get executed or imprisoned for the rest of his life, his ability to think through consequences is obviously impaired. I mean, he went in there hoping to come out with, what, $50, maybe, since the person he was asking for money from works at Taco Bell? How is walking out of the Taco Bell without $50 possibly, in any rational sense, so bad that it makes sense to kill someone and risk life imprisonment or death? What was he going to go without because he didn't get that $50 that it makes sense to say, "Screw it, I may as well commit a crime that will effectively end my life?" Obviously, if the guy was capable of forming that thought, he wouldn't have killed her. But, since he clearly wasn't capable of forming that thought, there's not much "deterrence" going on.

At 1:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose the left can be described as materialistic since they by and large support taking more and more of my money to pay for their ideas so that argument has some merit. Abortion on the other hand, is a different issue.

Let us postulate that a woman has control over her body. We accept this without proof. No problem. How about the control of keeping her legs shut to begin with or if abstinence is too lofty a goal then let us also postulate that we've known for centuries exactly how babies are made and if we "must have sex" as the moralists of the moment would have us believe then why on earth would any woman in control of her body NOT use birth control pills or a foam or sponge while her partner also employed a condom? The left would have you believe, since they believe in nothing they cannot see, that despite how stupid a person has to be in this day and advanced age to have an unwanted pregnancy (I'm not talking about rape or incest I'm talking about two consenting adults), that abortion should be considered just another birth control method. If they practiced what they preached, maybe we'd have a few less liberals around.

By and large I am also not a big fan of the death penalty. Believe it or not, the death of Saddam Hussein accomplished nothing. How can hanging a 70 year-old man protect anyone. I think the death penalty is reserved for the career criminal who freely admits that they will continue to commit crimes against humanity whenever they are able. What do you do with a person like that? Do you jail them forever and continue to use tax dollars to give them 3 square meals a day and free cable TV while they get an education? I honestly don't know. Some can be rehabilitated, but do we do with the Ted Bundys and John Wayne Gacys of the world who can't stop themselves much less be stopped? Hopefully, one day we will have a solution to the death penalty question.

I believe in God, I worship Jesus and read my bible. The Bible says, "Vengeance is mine I will repay." and Jesus said "He who is without sin cast the first stone." Taken out of context that can mean that the Bible is solely against the death penalty so we as Christians shouldn't be for it. I guess the point is that it is written that one day we will ALL be held accountable. God promises the gift of grace. We don't deserve it, and can't earn it. The beauty of it is with faith in God, I hope I receive what He gives me rather than what I deserve. Good blog.

At 7:20 AM, Blogger mooglar said...


I suppose the left can be described as materialistic since they by and large support taking more and more of my money to pay for their ideas so that argument has some merit.

That same argument can be made of many on the right these days. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are "small government" parties anymore. Both are for expanding government and spending more money, it's just a matter of what they want to spend that money on. And the fact that the Republicans want to cut taxes but still spend more money doesn't make them "small government," it makes them fiscally unwise.

I don't think that abortion should be "just another birth control method." I, like most liberals, think that we should work to reduce the number of abortions. Studies show that the way to reduce the number of abortions is safer-sex and contraceptive education, not abstinence-based programs. It is the lack of adequate safer-sex and contraceptive education in many places that is, in fact, the reason that many people don't know better and don't take precautions. The policies of the right make abortions more common, not less.

As to your question about what we should do with John Wayne Gacy and his ilk, I answered that in my original post.

At 7:17 PM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

Regarding: "Let us postulate that a woman has control over her body. We accept this without proof. No problem. How about the control of keeping her legs shut to begin with"

I am confused. What is to be proved ... that a woman has control over her body? Are we talking about control over biological functioning or are we talking about legal rights to make decisions about that body? The former is a complicated question that seems irrelvant to the conversation, the latter is clearly the case (currently) in US law.

Or do you mean something different? What, exactly are we supposing?

As to the "keep her legs together" bit: False dichotomy. Abstinence is a good thing; the health, freedom, and material well-being of the mother is, as well. One can actually be a strong proponent of both positions without inconsistency.

Regarding Anon's observations about the left: You are overgeneralizing. The left is not of one accord on the abortion issue, nor is the right.

The issue is very complicated, and anyone (on either side) who thinks it is clear-cut is (in my mind) just not thinking carefully enough about the opposing side's viewpoint.

Regarding: "The left would have you believe, since they believe in nothing they cannot see..."

Now you're just being silly. Most people on the left are religious. Indeed, some of the most faithful people I know are liberal ... some are pro-life, some are pro-choice. Being conservative is not a pedigree to God.

Becoming pregnant in this day and age most likely inolves foolish choices, I agree. That is irrelevant to the debate.

Do we really want to decide this weighty issue based on how people should behave? Put another way: If a woman could easily become pregnant through no intentional action on her part (eschewing rape, etc.) ... say spores in the air ... would your pro-life position differ? I would hope not.

At 11:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A postulate is something we accept without proof. That's why I postulated a woman has control over her own body, we don't need proof of that, she does.

My comments on the materialistic left were strictly based on Mooglar's original post. I'm aware some leftist s are spiritual beings.

If it truly should be a woman's choice (again not talking rape, incest, extenuating circumstances)and despite the latest and greatest in education and contraception she still chooses abortion, why do we call her mother? If we call her mother then are we not acknowledging the fetus as viable and a living child and by extrapolation is not that abortion not wrong and unneeded? How can there be a mother if there is no child? These questions must be answered or abortion IS just another birth control method. My mind swims at all of the people in this world who want children and cannot have them (myself included) who would adopt that unwanted child. I know that abortion is necessary sometimes but I also know that some people just consider it as routine as a flu shot simply because they were too lazy to protect themselves. This issue will probably never be solved in our lifetimes I am afraid.

At 5:24 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

I understand very well the frustrations one feels when seeing so many people make so many foolish decisions, while struggling to bring life in the world onesself. My wife and I took nearly a decade to have children. It is hard emotionally, and it is definitely angering to see people waste life.

I think all three of us agree that men and women should abstain or practice safe sex. If a person is unwilling or unable to accept the responsibility of parenthood, they should not make choices that can lead to that end.

I don't see this position as in any way inconsistent with either or pro-life or a pro-choice view. If it is not a distinguishing property, it is not relevant to the debate.

The reality is that people who are not prepared (emotionally, financially, etc.) to be parents do become pregnant for many reasons ... regardless of the reasons we must look at that fact as it is. We should encourage and help people not to end up in such circumstances, but we cannot ignore the issue just because we wish people behaved better.

All I am saying is let's not cheapen this debate. To deal with the issue, one must address the complicated questions of how much individual freedom women have, when does human life begin, what is the intrinsic value of an unrealized human life, what are the social ramifications of allowing/preventing abortions, etc. These are tough questions ... they involve a mix of pragmatic, philosophic, and moralistic considerations.

Mark's original point (I believe) is a fair one: The issue of when a fetus becomes a human is a fascinating and unanswerable philosphic question. The issue of poverty, despair, and the cycle of both of these is a real and tangible issue.

It's clear to me that this question of when human life begins is important ... so I don't mean to minimize it. It is also clear to me that even trying to arrive at a personal answer to the question can be messy and complicated.

An anecdotal example: Had the doctor come to me during my wife's pregnancy (let's say early pregnancy to make the point more extreme) and said, "There's a problem; it's your wife's life or the fetus." It's a no-brainer for me: I choose my wife. If someone threatened my daughter the day after she was born, either my wife or I would sacrifice ourselves (and the other would permit the sacrafice) to save her.

When did that change in value occur? I don't know. But I know it did. To some extent, we are hard-wired about these things ... but we are also thinking, reasoing beings. We are also a part of a society that must have a social policy of some kind. So we are forced to deal with this "Materialism vs. Immaterialism" debate.

At 9:04 AM, Blogger Zeinrich said...

I like the dichotomy you've framed these two debates in. I'll have to ponder this angle some more. At the very least, it grounds the decisions to consequences (in this world, if you're a theist, and, well, just plain consequences for the rest of us), which is where we need to ground all such arguments. (Even if you're a theist. Aren't Christians and Jews supposed to be trying to make this world heaven on earth, or at least get it part of the way there?)

I'm used to seeing it more like Wiegand does, that anti-choice / pro-death penalty stances are joined over a matter of choice: The unborn have yet to be able to choose (and maybe you tack on something like "and thus are 'innocent'" or "and thus should be protected") whereas the condemned has made his choice (and is now subject to its outcome).

If you take these two issues as a whole, and frame the debate in terms of choice... Well, the pro-choice / anti-death penalty isn't anti-choice, it's just putting the power of decision in the hands of different people. Maybe it's a good way of framing it because it removes the crutch of polarization.

The materialism vs immaterialism stance could gain strength by bringing in Judaism's (disparate) views on abortion. A lot of the discussion is very legalistic and in many ways very "materialistic," concerning the here and now. Yet in the same way, very moralistic and religious. It'd be an added means to take the discussion away from the whole secular/religious framing.

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