Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Some thoughts on Godwin's Law

"60,000 reichsmarks: This is what this person suffering from hereditary defects costs the Community of Germans during his lifetime. Fellow Citizen, that is your money, too."

Just yesterday, I read on Father Z’s blog a quickie extract from an opinion in the Fishwrap by Thomas C. Fox on the revised English missal. Not wasting any time, in his second paragraph Fox dragged in the predator priest scandals:

These are tough years for the U.S. bishops who have fallen under dark clouds for their failings in their handlings of the decades’ long clergy sexual abuse tragedy in our church. To the failing of protecting our children from clergy abuse many will now be adding another: the failure to protect clear and simple — and meaningful — English in our mass liturgies from an assault by ideologically led bishops.

This prompted me to make a new addition to Layne’s Laws; to wit, an exception to Godwin’s Law I’ve named (in characteristic modesty) “Layne’s Exception”:

In any online discussion where the topic is the Catholic Church, its leaders or beliefs, as the discussion thread grows longer, the probability of a reference to pedophile priests approaches 1 (100%).
  • Corollary 1: The reference will be not only invalid but inappropriate and abusive.
  • Corollary 2: The earlier the reference is made, the greater the probability the rest of the discussion will follow the reference down a rabbit hole.

At the same time, I’ve been having second thoughts about a derivative of Godwin’s Law, the “Hitler card” fallacy. As proposed, the argumentum ad Hitlerum is considered a fallacy if it takes the form “Hitler/the Nazis accepted idea I, therefore I must be wrong”. An argument is also consider an ad Hitlerum if it associated Hitler or the Nazis with a weak analogy, especially a question-begging analogy.


Here is where I need to clarify something: Comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis generally backfire not because they’re fallacious but because we’re taught to think of them all as evil personified. This Pavlovian association immediately transforms “Your position is similar to that of the Nazis” into “You’re evil” … which is no way to sway hearts and minds to your position. That’s why it’s worth the trouble to find some other way to make the point.

Of course, there are people out there who aren’t interested in changing minds but in heaping abuse on their opponents. Those people are generally known as “trolls”, but whom I like to call “a$$holes”.

Having said that, the qualm I have with calling Hitler/Nazi references “fallacies” is that the form given above says “Idea I is evil because Hitler approved of it”. This is exactly backwards: We consider Hitler evil because he accepted I — already understood to be evil — as true and good.

Idea I, in this case, is eugenics.

We never thought to ourselves, “Well, the whole idea of getting rid of the insane, the defectives and the handicapped was okay, but those chaps just went a little too far.” Rather, when the full scope of the Nazis’ extermination activities were revealed during the Nuremburg trials, the public reacted in horror as much to the destruction of the disabled as they did to the mass slaughter of ethnic groups.

Nor was it a question of improper motivation. The Nazis may have pursued such a program in the quest for Nietzsche’s Übermann; it doesn’t follow, however, that a similar program is morally acceptable if instead we say, “They’d be better off dead.” Such a judgment is necessarily subjective; there’s no objective fact or value upon which such a determination could be made. A person with a properly working moral compass is almost duty-bound to ask the unanswerable question: “How do you know that?

Part of the problem secular humanism has with coming up with a coherent ethical set is that it has no proper philosophy upon which it can base a theory of innate human dignity. Indeed, any attempt it makes to raise humans above the level of other animals is open to the charge of “speciesism” from the PETA set, a charge most religions can shrug off as irrelevant and ridiculous.

(Christianity is unabashedly anthropocentric. However, this centering on humans doesn’t preclude the compassionate treatment of animals so much as it places it in proper perspective.)

I’ve written before of parents who treat children as consumer products made to fulfill their desires. Eugenics takes this a step further: in its quest to produce Man 2.0, it treats our entire species as a imperfectly-designed car or washing machine, precisely because its supporters have only the vaguest idea of human dignity.

Eugenics is not evil because the Nazis practiced it. Rather, the Nazis are considered evil because they practiced eugenics. Proudly. And they didn’t trouble to keep it secret; rather, they documented everything with a Teutonic thoroughness that gave the Nuremburg prosecutors problems only through the sheer volume of paper, pictures and film.

*          *          *

The Greeks had a word for it: hubris, an arrogance born out of a loss of contact with reality and an astounding overestimation of one’s capabilities, a pride that practically begs for punishment from the gods. It’s this human folly as it manifests among scientists that novelists, from Goethe’s Faust to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the late Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, have warned us about: we really don’t know what we’re screwing with (cf. First Law of Ignorance).

Sometime we’ll have to run down a list of social and environmental problems created by technology as unintended consequences. For now, suffice it to say that Man 2.0 is a bad idea on many levels.

All analogies are essentially illustrative, not demonstrative. To that extent, they all beg the question; if on this ground one analogy should be disallowed, all should be disallowed. And if the relevant difference between A and B is significant enough to one’s opponent, then the analogy will be “weak” even with two dozen points of contact.

All this remembered, the Hitler card should be played as little as possible, and not without serious care. But when it is played, it must always answer the question: “Why do we consider Hitler and the Nazis evil?”