There’s a new post up at Greg Swann’s place on the heels of our discussion of the Schiavo case (see here, which leads to all previous post on both sides). I think it’s probably no accident that Greg posted this now, though he doesn’t explicitly implicate Schiavo, et al. It’s an interesting argument, the barest gist of which, is:
The purpose of civilization is to prevent rape, to make the world safe for women and children. To make a world where women are not raped and killed and where children are not stolen and sold and raped and killed. Civilization is the means by which men make the world safe from their worst impulses, and it is remarkably successful.
I encourage you to go read the entire exchange and see the argument in full.
As for myself, count me agnostic. I tend to think that civilization is just as purposeless as human evolution—as is, indeed, existence itself. I believe that purpose applies only to individuals and that such purpose is inherently selfish. To the extent that individuals cooperate on a million different levels with one-another (from romantic love between a man and woman to mega-corporations, and everything in-between), it ultimately goes to a selfish and individual purpose.
So then, why do we have civilization? Well, because we’re smart and rational. We figured things out—like agriculture. Prior to that, you couldn’t have large groups of people inhabiting one spot. They’d all starve to death because all native animal and plant sources would be quickly expended. Agriculture, a human technology, is the very heart of civilization. In short, humans found they could stay in one spot and eat rather than hunt for food and be always on the move. It was selfish individual purpose. It was then possible to invest time and resources in acquiring and improving property and shelter, and all the tools necessary to build and maintain them. Selfish individual purpose. Larger families could be raised and fed. Civility followed for the selfish individual purpose of protecting it all—not just the women and children—but all of it.
If you read Greg’s argument in its entirety, I buy most or all of it—not as an aspect of human civilization, per se—but as an aspect of pre-civilized human evolution. If anything, civilization is in part what allows us to move beyond the confines of our biology and mysticisms that are designed to get us to behave in pre-ordained ways without a lot of explanation.
No, I think that civilization has no intrinsic purpose—but that the state and religious institutions, that grew up around civilization, do. The purpose of both institutions, of course, is to control people. At first, both controlled through violence and threat of violence. Now, it’s just the state (universally) that operates through violence and threat of violence, while most religious institutions (excluding Islam in most places) operate not through direct violence, but through a veiled form of threatened violence aided by limited (curable) mental retardation, brainwashing, lies, deceits, and guilt. Of course, the threat of violence is what God is going to do to you if you don’t subordinate your will to that of the church’s authority.
It’s been a long time since I consulted the figures, and I don’t recall who’s ahead of whom, but in all history of human civilization, there’s hundreds of millions dead over nation-state wars fought over territory, and hundreds of millions dead over religious ideology. Civilization, while being a protector, appears also to be a huge and efficient killer. But, it can afford to kill because it’s so efficient at producing offspring above replacement levels.
So, how does all this relate back to Schiavo? Well, if I get Greg’s idea, civilization is about protecting and preserving life, both at the beginning and at the end, to every extent possible. I agree, but there needs to be limits, definitions, distinctions. First, begin with what life really is. What are its limits? Why is it crucially important to distinguish a fetus from a conscious, thinking being exercising its human volition? Proceed from there.
There is something deeply ironic about the Schiavo case, however. Can you guess? It is religious doctrine that gives both sides of the conflict their necessary premise. The real argument here is nothing more than about who plays God. And this is why religionists will ultimately loose. They have granted the premise that a higher authority can decide when to take a life, for whatever mysterious purpose—you know, like how God murdered those 300,000 people in Southeast Asia on his Son’s birthday—and it need not even make any sense. So if God can see fit to wipe out millions every year in preventable accidents, disease, state tyranny, crime, then can’t a well-meaning family decide when it’s time for a loved-one to go?
But humans are coming to know the fact that they are God, and rather than a slippery slope (because, then , they’ll go and play God, and we can’t have that!), it’s really the dawning of real, universal civilization. Guess why? Because, at his best, God has always been far, far more evil than our worst human beings. Think about it. We’ve always been real-God, and we’ve always been far better than imagined-God, as evidenced by the simple fact of all the human suffering “he’s” caused or allowed to happen in human history. Suffering that dwarfs the evil of men.
We’re so much better. We always have been.
We can be trusted with decisions like Terri Schiavo—or at least those she entrusted with such decisions.