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Incommensurable Evils

Last year one of my blog colleagues from Right Reason posted a piece on his own site in which he argued that Islam is the greater threat to us in the West and that we should unite to oppose it. The comparative language was meant to contrast the culture war with Islam with the culture war between social conservatives and liberals on domestic issues like abortion.

In response to that post, I put up one on the old Enchiridion Militis called "Incommensurable Conflicts" in which I argued that the two conflicts cannot be compared and that the statement that the culture war with Islam is more important than that with the Left is just false. I instanced there some of the horrors of the abortion culture.

Now I want to make the same statement about incommensurable conflicts, though in response to the opposite claim.

For it is also false to say that modern liberalism is worse than Islam. Here is an interesting correspondence in which Jim Kalb is challenged for having once made the comparative claim I am denying. "Badgered" might be a better word than "challenged." Kalb's interlocutor is rather rude for continuing to push him long after he says that the statement in question was a throwaway line on which too much weight should not be placed, though Kalb can't quite resist stating in the correspondence as it goes on that Islam has more "internal checks" on its evil consequences than does liberalism, so liberalism will give you "weirder and more inhuman results." Which is weirder and more inhuman, Mr. Kalb, tearing unborn children to pieces or holding down little girls while horrifically mutilating their genitals? The claim that people who do either are doing something incomprehensibly evil and must be stopped, period, seems to me exceedingly well justified. So perhaps a little badgering is in order. But the worries that Kalb is a "fifth columnist waiting to happen" (search "fifth columnist" on the page) seem to me not only uncharitable to Kalb, who makes it quite clear that he isn't anything of the sort, but also silly inasmuch as it is the leftists who are going to let the Muslims in at the city gates, if anyone is. It is usually the conservatives who are issuing warnings on this subject and the liberals who are pandering to CAIR.

Nonetheless, I think it's important to assert decisively, from the right, that both Islam and pro-death modern liberal culture are exceedingly bad, that neither can be said to be "worse" than the other, that they are incommensurable evils both of which right-thinking men should resist to the best of their ability in the various spheres where they operate.

There are many, many things I could list as evidences that an Islamic society would not somehow be better for Christians than a modern liberal one. Evidently one of the questions that arose in the whole Kalb discussion is whether Islam has "a place for Christianity" while decadent Western liberalism does not. Let's talk about that: The very fact that apostasy is to be punished by death under Islamic law means that evangelism--enjoined upon Christians by Our Lord himself--is illegal in sharia societies and that the acceptance of the truth of Christianity by those formerly Muslim is punished severely. This is not only a grave injustice but something that should give any Christian pause about making claims that imply that an Islamic society is in some sense better for Christians than a modern liberal one. And that is just speaking of the requirements of sharia itself, not of the severe de facto persecution carried on against Christians (not only apostates) in Muslim societies all over the world. Christians in the United States do not get dragged from their homes by a mob incited by a local imam at Friday prayers, beaten, taken away by police who come in response to the small riot, and then beaten by the police! And there are even worse examples I could cite if I got going. So as an empirical question, "Does decadent Western liberalism or Islam have more room for Christianity?" has been decisively answered by history itself in favor of decadent Western liberalism. (Note that I'm not using the term "decadent" ironically. The liberal West is decadent.)

Could that change? It could, though I think it's hardly likely that Western liberals are going to start trying and executing people for converting to Christianity or inciting mobs to beat Christians to a pulp any time in the foreseeable future. Kalb cites the infamous case of the Swedish pastor punished for criticizing homosexuality and raises the specter of the illegality of refusing to ordain women. Such a scenario is possible and even plausible in contemporary Western society, but it is not on a par with the persecution Christians suffer and the dangers they face in Islamic society. We should keep a sense of proportion. But suppose Western liberal society did get that bad. In that case we would have two violently-Christian-persecuting peas in a pod with no comparative statements to be made between them in Islam's favor. And it would have taken the Western liberals longer to get there, too.

How about the legal murder of innocents? I myself have cited this aspect of modern liberalism (in the form of abortion) as evidence that the culture war with modern liberalism is not "the minor one" when compared with the culture war against Islam. I stand by that reference and that claim. But I meant that modern liberalism is very bad, not that Islamic society is okay or not as bad.

While it's true that Muslims tend to be anti-abortion, this hardly means that we pro-lifers should make positive statements about the advantages of a Muslim society over a liberal one. I could point to the innocent civilians slain in acts of Muslim terrorism, but it might be argued that these people are not killed in Muslim societies but rather as part of the jihad against non-Muslim societies. This is hardly a comforting thought, but let's consider Muslim societies themselves. And there we find...honor killings, in which women are murdered by their male relatives for supposed violations of family honor. These violations may involve sexual sin on a Christian view, but in plenty of cases they do not. And in any event, no Christian should be arguing that a woman's having sex outside of marriage is properly a capital offense. Here the legal facts favor the West over the Islamic societies. In England, the murderers of Banaz Mahmod have been vigorously prosecuted and have been sentenced to life terms, of which they will serve minimum sentences on the order of 20 years apiece. (It's highly unfortunate that the UK has abolished the death penalty.) In Jordan, a man who murdered his pregnant sister, thus also killing her unborn child, has been sentenced to only six months. So much for Islamic tender concern for the innocent unborn. The Jordanian parliament has refused to raise sentences for "honor killings," and the court in its sentencing decision explicitly cited the fact that the woman had engaged in "shameful behavior" by becoming pregnant by a husband from whom evidently she was formally divorced--an oddity that deserves some thought, as she might even be regarded as having been still married to him on a Christian view of marriage.

So there is legal or near-legal murder of innocents in Islamic societies. There are also numerous other evils in the legal system involving refusal to protect the innocent, such as the extreme difficulty a woman has getting a rape conviction against her attacker(s). Just today comes a story from the Maldives in which a 12-year-old girl was gang-raped by four men who broke into her bedroom with an axe, but the judge ruled that she was a willing participant and hence sentenced the men merely for consensual sex outside of marriage.

I do not believe that these things can be compared. We should not say, "Because so many million unborn babies have been killed in Western society, and because abortion is illegal according to Islam, and because numerically fewer innocents are murdered legally in Islamic societies, Islam is better than Western liberalism."

As all good non-consequentialists know, innocent lives cannot be added and subtracted for a final "balance."

Comments (6)

It seems to me that whether a question like "which is worse" makes sense depends on the inquiry.

The comment that kicked off the line of discussion, after a delay of several years, had to do with the abstract question of which general system of understandings is better as a basis for social order. I then went on to other issues on the grounds that abstract speculations don't tell us what to do practically.

Still, the remark wasn't made completely thoughtlessly, and general speculations do matter because they have to do with basic features of things. It's important to discuss basic issues on occasion, even in the midst of a civilizational struggle, especially when the struggle lasts many centuries. Not all thought should be subservient to current needs and strategies.

From that very general point of view, it seems to me helpful to view Islam and liberalism as radical simplifications of Christianity. Islam keeps God, but leaves out the Incarnation and the divine rationality in which man can participate, while liberalism gets rid of God, at least as anything objective, knowable and authoritative, but keeps the ideal of rationality and man as somehow divine. So Islam, from the speculative standpoint I adopted, is belief in an absolutely transcendent God not bound by reason who reveals his arbitrary will for us in the Koran, while liberalism is the belief that man's will is the standard for the good, man's reason the standard for the true, and the principle of cosmic order, now understood as something we create ourselves, is construction of a rational technological system for the maximum equal satisfaction of preferences.

From that quite abstract perspective, it seems that Islam has an advantage, since loving God is the first commandment. In addition, each system must rely on some remaining presence of what it rejects, and it seems easier for Islam than liberalism to do so. Islam needs God to be somehow knowable and therefore present among us to have anything to say, and it needs rationality to say anything comprehensible. It therefore accepts and relies on the various Islamic sciences and on the Koran as the uncreated word of God here among us. It doesn't have to explain how those things can be since it can just say God makes them so.

Liberalism likewise needs something it denies to have anything to say. Specifically, it needs a moral order transcending human desire, since otherwise it can't say how its precepts can be binding. I think it has a harder time coming up with what it needs than Islam does, because it's hard to come up with much of anything if you deny the first principle of all first principles. Liberalism can say that if you don't act morally then by definition you're not acting morally, but so what? The result is obfuscation, for example defining liberalism as the mainstream and as rationality while denouncing opposing views as extremism, oppression, hate, ignorance, pathology and whatnot.

So it seems to me Islam as a general system is better suited to supporting social order and therefore human life than liberalism. In support of that conclusion I'd put forward the actual survival of Islam for 1400 years, its ability to arouse loyalty and devotion among very different people in very different settings, the artistic and intellectual achievements of Islamic civilization, and so on. Liberalism of course has existed in some form since maybe Locke or thereabouts, but until the 60s it wasn't clearly viewed as the sole legitimate basis of social order--its function was largely critical rather than constructive--and post-60s trends don't point toward its continued success.

It seems to me clear that nothing in the foregoing suggests any sort of alliance with Islam or denial that "both Islam and pro-death modern liberal culture are exceedingly bad ... that they are ... evils both of which right-thinking men should resist to the best of their ability in the various spheres where they operate." Each of the two has alarming features of its own. An enemy is more of a danger if he has virtues than enable him to function and endure than if he doesn't. On the other hand, the enemy within is likely to be more dangerous than the enemy without, especially when he makes it much harder to resist any enemy and he's adept at borrowing virtues he lacks himself and in fact systematically destroys.

It should also be clear that the foregoing is not a discussion of particular societies. There are good features of actual liberal societies, for example generalized social trust, that depend on a nonliberal heritage than liberalism takes advantage of but systematically destroys. And there are bad features of many Muslim societies, for example honor killings and female genital mutilation, that are not required or (so far as I can tell) particularly supported by Islam. It seems to me that liberalism has mostly arisen in very successful societies that have let their success go to their heads. If things go your way too much you start thinking you're God. It has mostly been less successful and radically divided societies that have succumbed to Islam. Such societies already had bad things like female genital mutilation. In both cases heritage is reflected in actual social life.

I shall have a lot more to say in response to Mr. Kalb's post. I had not expected a response from him, chiefly because I got the apparently false impression that he didn't want to be bugged about a throwaway line two years ago. Nor would I have written and bugged him about it out of the blue. I merely meant to use the correspondence (which I noticed linked from another blog site) as a springboard for the claims I wanted to make, not to bother him. But for a throwaway line, it seems to be one he's rather determined to continue to talk about and defend.

For the nonce, I will just say this: Mr. Kalb, I could not disagree with you more when you say that FGM and honor killings are not "particularly supported" by Islam. I cannot help thinking you are just ill-informed here. But perhaps this is part of some D'Souza-like urge to invent some sort of "real" or "pure" or "true" Islam that doesn't have all the nasty stuff. That sort of project, I submit, is seriously and dangerously misguided. We need to look at things as they are, not in some rarefied form that we call "the true X" that bears no resemblance to X as it is instantiated. As it happens, there is a hadith in which the Prophet himself commends a woman who mutilates slave girls. (And sexual slavery is also strongly supported by Islam.) He merely tells her not to "go too far" in such mutilation, which I suppose is a case of "be thankful for small blessings." That adultery is punishable by death is deeply entrenched in Islamic law, and the disparities between male and female testimony on this matter which lead to stonings of rape victims are also thus deeply engrained, as at least partly discussed in the Front Page Mag article I linked above. Honor killings are merely a combination of the injunction to kill for shameful behavior with, on the one hand, the heavily and severely asymmetrical treatment of women which runs through all of Islamic law, leading to a positive obsession with controlling women as a sign of family honor, and, on the other, the norms of tribal society (to which Islam has always been tightly tied), in which lethal force in the form of pre-planned execution is not thought to be rightly confined to a governmental authority. This probably explains the very widespread nature of honor killings in Islamic society and the fact that they are now being imported to Western societies in the Islamic families that immigrate.

What can you mean by the claim that societies that fall to Islam have always already had "bad things like female genital mutilation"? I suppose this might be a flat denial of my claim that one cannot weigh these things up and say they are the same, or worse, or better. If Western civilization falls to Islam, will you say, "Ah, well, we already had abortion, and that was a bad thing like female genital mutilation"? Or are you seriously claiming that all of the societies that have fallen or will fall to Islam really do literally practice female genital mutilation before Islam ever comes along? I cannot believe you are making this latter statement, which is historically absurd.

A few more comments in response. On thinking of Islam "in the abstract": I think this is not a useful procedure for Islam any more than it is for contemporary liberalism. In fact, if anything it is more distortive of Islam, as Islam has been from the beginning a more complete and interconnected system of rules for life than has contemporary liberalism. But consider: It is entirely possible to argue that liberalism/leftism supports the weak, the outcast, the little guy, and therefore that "true liberalism" is pro-life. One of the best pro-life warriors around, Wesley J. Smith, makes an argument very much like this. He's proud of having voted for Ralph Nader an election or two ago and believes that he can support a pro-life position that is not only secular but also liberal, very much along these lines. Well, I'm more glad than I can say to have WJS on the right side on life issues. I mean that sincerely. His work has been and continues to be indispensible. But I don't have to agree with him about the real essence of liberalism.

Yet, if anything, he has a better argument than does the person who attempts to talk about Islam "in the abstract." After all, there was a time when Al Gore was pro-life! But I'm perfectly willing to associate the abortion culture closely with modern liberalism, and this in no small part because of the near-hysterical support given by modern liberalism to the sexual revolution of the 1960's.

Just as you can construct in the abstract a "pro-life liberalism," so too you can construct in the abstract an "Islam" that is little more than a vague and benign monotheism, an "Islam" with _no_

conquest of the infidel,
slavery (including sexual slavery),
wife beating,
punishment of death for apostasy,
honor killings,
or stoning of rape victims.

But if you do so you will be creating an "Islam" divorced from its texts, history, traditions, and present practices all over the world.

Why bother? We should deal with things--including both liberalism and Islam--as they are. Nor should we pretend that these things are all just disconnected piles of propositions, as though (for example) the liberal fixation on sexual freedom has nothing to do with support for legal abortion, or as though it's just coincidence that most of the unpleasant aspects of Islam have to do either with mistreatment of women or with the forcible spread of the religion itself.

In fact, the whole idea that Islam has something going for it "in the abstract" pretty much boils down to saying, "Well, at least they believe in God and try to love and obey Him." Is that really either so obvious or, in any sense in which it might be true, so good? For one thing, it assumes without argument that we are talking about the same God, and that this sort of worship of God (through obeying the putative revelations of a false prophet) is a human good. Here I must express bafflement at the casual way in which this assumption is so often made. Thought experiment: Suppose I up and say one day that my friend Bob has received a revelation that is going to allow him to restore true religion throughout the world. I insist that Bobism _really_, _really_ involves worshiping the *same God* worshiped by Christians and Jews. But I also argue that Christians and Jews have over the years perverted and misunderstood the revelation of the True God, and that Bob is here to rectify that. I tell everyone that God (_really_, it's the same God) is now physically located at my house, that his worship requires sending me large piles of money, and that people who come to my house to worship (on, say, Wednesday, a new holy day) will engage in human sacrifice, taking our victims from a list of local Democrats, a practice God has told Bob to engage in.

Do I just get to _say_ that? And is everyone then obligated to intone solemnly, "Well, at least they believe in God and are trying to obey Him"? Am I just automatically worshiping the true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, no matter what crazy things I say about him, no matter what attributes I give him, no matter what insane commands I say he has now revealed, just because I _tell_ you that I'm worshiping God?

This is by no means obvious. And Bob had better watch out for lightning bolts. In Scripture, God is hardly easy-going on false prophets. In fact, it's almost _worse_ blasphemy if they say they're speaking for the God of Israel. They might be in less trouble if they were openly prophets of Baal.

A comment on the notion of "supporting social order." It doesn't seem correct to me to say that a society that is based on a particular religion and survives, even for a long time, owes this fact to the religion in question in a sense that requires some sort of endorsement--however qualified--of the religion. The most that can be said is that one _can_ keep a society going with that as its central religion. But this is true of animism, which arguably is much older than Islam. One can say "animism works" in the very limited sense that an animist society can go on for a long time without self-destructing. Big deal.

As for art--again, must we say that there is some deep and important truth in any religion that produces important artistic or engineering achievements? I don't see why. The Aztecs had some awfully cool pyramids on which to sacrifice their victims to their gods. That doesn't mean anything good about their religion.

The truth is, humans are incredibly adaptive. When missionaries arrived in Papua New Guinea, they found a society based on treachery! They were horrified when they told the story of the crucifixion of Jesus and found that the natives thought Judas was the hero, because he'd been such a great trickster. You wouldn't think such a society could survive, but it had. For who knows how many hundreds of years. I think such facts owe far more to the toughness of humans and their ability to find ways to make things work than to the truth of the false religions--mostly dark perversions of the truth--with which they seek to fill their souls and around which they manage to center their societies.

I wanted to work through some thoughts about Islam, you commented on some things I said, and you seemed more intelligent than other commenters, so I put my thoughts in the form of a reply to you.

I doubt it will be useful to continue the discussion as a discussion. Our interests are very different, and you seem inclined toward interpretations based on suspicions ("perhaps this is part of some D'Souza-like urge," "If Western civilization falls to Islam, will you say" etc.) that to me seem groundless and aside the point. The last paragraph of your first response to my initial comment is incomprehensible to me, for example. Each pursues his own concerns though. You say "I shall have a lot more to say in response." So if what I've written gives you occasion to go into issues you want to discuss, that may be all to the good.

My own interest in the little I've written on the topic has been to look at the most basic principles of Islam, as of Christianity and liberalism, and try to understand how they differ and the effects of those differences.

It seems such principles ought to matter a great deal. It's not easy to come up with a world religion or world-conquering philosophy, so when one comes along that's able to find a footing, prevail, endure and maintain its coherence in a variety of settings and in the presence of other world religions and philosophies for a very long time you'd expect to find at the center of it some absolutely fundamental principle that accounts for a lot of human reality together with a generally coherent way of applying that principle to the main lines of social life as well as shifting particular situations. If you take that approach it's likely you'll end up saying something positive about almost any general system of life that's lasted a long time. After all, if whole civilizations that after all had other choices available have devotedly lived and died by it for centuries you're probably missing something if it seems to you simply stupid and evil.

My basic concern in the matter is to understand what a complete system of truth would look like, what goes wrong when something important is left out, and why less complete systems nonetheless survive and often prevail. That's a grandiose inquiry, but it seems that each of us must engage in it to some degree if we are to be intelligent about our own basic beliefs. So far as I'm concerned, Catholic Christianity is the complete system, and Islam and liberalism are important examples of systems that leave out something necessary. The world around me doesn't agree, so to maintain and make sense of my own beliefs I have to ask the big questions.

Ultimate principles obviously don't explain everything about particulars, so if you take my line you'll downplay some things that seem important to those whose interests are more immediate and play up some things that seem less so. Also, you'll try to put the strongest construction on opposing systems, since presumably it's a system's virtues rather than vices that enable it to maintain itself and endure, and in any case your interest in the inquiry is how to attain the good rather than how to ward off threats.

Enough ramblings though. They're likely of interest chiefly to myself, so if I feel like continuing I'll do so at my own website.

[I notice that since I started putting this together you've posted another comment. A quick look confirms me in thinking that our assumptions and approaches differ too much for an e-discussion to be useful.]

Okay, I think I understand the project to some extent, and indeed we'll disagree on the utility of such a project. For one thing, I think it encourages bias. This is especially true when one has to fill something out into a system that isn't really a system in order to compare it with world religions. "Liberalism," for example, is a lot less of a total system than any major world religion at all, and that in the nature of the case. One could then fill it out in a lot of different ways. Locke (whose name has come up) was a devout Christian. I've been using the term "liberal" to describe a sort of combination of Daniel Dennett and Peter Singer, with a libertine twist. This doesn't seem to me unfair to contemporary leftists, nor even to quite a few 18th century French philosophes, but it is admittedly stipulative. Hence, it's not a very good thing to use for any sort of "grandiose" comparison. For such a "grandiose" purpose, it could be just as fair to compare a major world religion like Islam to what one might call the Enlightenment English Christianity of Locke. Or it might be fair to treat liberalism as a bigger phenomenon and thus to give it credit for the virtual abolishment of torture as a mode of eliciting confessions in the West. (An article in First Things some years ago did almost exactly this latter thing.)

But I'm not sure what purpose would be served by arguing over whether Enlightenment liberalism "should" get credit for the abolition of torture or whether the system we dub "liberalism" and compare to world religions "should" by definition exclude belief in God. I suspect that the problem is with the large-scale comparison program itself and that one aspect of that problem is that a certain type of conservative historian of ideas might be tempted to flesh out "liberalism" into a system in the most unflattering way possible while downplaying even the ubiquitous evils of a major world religion as "inessential."

What can you mean by the claim that societies that fall to Islam have always already had "bad things like female genital mutilation"?

Perhaps all Mr. Kalb is saying is that inherently weak societies are more susceptible to falling (almost voluntarily) to Islam than are stronger ones.

I am always astonished at the Persians' capitulation, which by historic accounts was swift and complete. They appeared strong, but their inner systems was full of hedonism and self-grandeur.

This could be the same for individuals who convert. There seems to be a character flaw in them pre and post conversion.

Also, 1,400 years of a social structure is nothing to scorn. It reminds me of these Scientology movie stars who have become incredibly successful once they entered that "cult." Something in the system lets them flourish.

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