If you want to write satire nowadays, you should give up on publishing books and even articles. Reality outpaces parody so quickly that you’re better off sticking to Twitter. If you take the time to write your dyspeptic warnings of the future into a polished, final form, chances are that, before they are even copy-edited, some lunatic will have made them come true.
I speak from bitter experience. Back in 1997, I was writing a screenplay, and a key plot point concerned a media billionaire buying influence at the UN by paying off its debts. Before I could even finish the script, Ted Turner had offered to do exactly that. (His offer was turned down; the UN knows it can carry on looting taxpayers worldwide to fund its foie gras-and-eugenics soirées.)
Likewise, when all New York was debating what ought to be built at Ground Zero, in my usual practical way, I suggested rebuilding, brick for brick, the old Penn Station as an act of reparation to the City. I made the quip to friends that, if New York elites had their way, what we’d see instead was the Jimmy Carter Memorial Peace Mosque: a massive Islamic structure that would flash, on a Times Square-style ticker around the building, 24/7: “We’re sorry! Please leave us alone!” in Arabic and English. I always meant to write that up in an essay about the foibles of self-hating liberals . . . but now that it’s pretty much happening, I’ve missed my window again. I’ve started to be more careful about unrolling the crazed implications of godless philosophies — lest I give the lunatics any more bright ideas. Britons might wish that Anthony Burgess had never written his acid satire 1985, which predicted in 1978 that British elites would rebel against the tyranny of labor unions by flooding the country with Muslims. Be careful what you warn against . . .
The need for this precaution was brought home to me yet again this week, when I read the editorial page of the New York Times. Now, of course, this is always a near occasion of sin: Our Lord warns in Matthew 5:22, “Whosoever shall say, Thou Fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” Given that, reading the Times is more dangerous to the soul than Penthouse Letters. But this week I wasn’t tossing scraps at the mewling anti-Catholic kittens Nicholas Kristof squeezes out every few weeks, or waving my middle finger at Frank Rich’s George Costanza smirk. No, this week I came across something truly extraordinary, a proposal so ludicrous and obscene that I even I hadn’t thought of it first.
On September 19, 2010, Rutgers and Princeton philosophy professor Jeff McMahan led human reason over the giddy brink of madness: In an op-ed for the Times, McMahan takes Utilitarianism and animal-rights ethics to their proper, logical outcome. His starting point is simple enough: Since there is no God, and no natural order that designates man as its highest member, of course we have no right to inflict any suffering on animals by eating them.
This much Princeton’s Pete Singer proved long ago, in Animal Liberation. Singer has since gone further, and shown that any sharp distinction in kind between man and animal amounts to the prejudice of “speciesism,” which is just a form of racism practiced on behalf of . . . the human race. Hence, for Singer, the value of a fetus is rather less than that of a full-grown chimpanzee. What is more, it is wrong and speciesist to rule out sexual encounters between the species . . . as wrong as it once was for Southern states to outlaw interracial marriage. So far, so good. Nothing controversial here.
But McMahan goes even further: While there is no highest good in the world, we can identify absolute evil — suffering. There being no God, there is nothing and no one that can render suffering meaningful or redemptive. It’s the metaphysical equivalent of kiddie porn, and it’s our duty to stomp it out. Not just among the human race (that would be racist), but also among the animals. Sure, that means that we should stop eating animals. But McMahan is too stern a logician to stop at such halfway measures; we must also, he argues, stop animals from eating each other. As he wisely notes:
Our primary duty with respect to animals is therefore to stop tormenting and killing them as a means of satisfying our desire to taste certain flavors or to decorate our bodies in certain ways. But if suffering is bad for animals when we cause it, it is also bad for them when other animals cause it. That suffering is bad for those who experience it is not a human prejudice; nor is an effort to prevent wild animals from suffering a moralistic attempt to police the behavior of other animals. Even if we are not morally required to prevent suffering among animals in the wild for which we are not responsible, we do have a moral reason to prevent it . . . .
On this point, I have partly anticipated McMahan. In a piece I wrote where I modestly proposed eating animal-rights activists instead of animals (the editors wouldn’t let me include my sketches or recipes), I also urged Singer and his followers to give up their “speciesist” practice of only urging vegetarianism on humans. Instead, they should take their arguments out to the woods:
I’ve never read of efforts by animal-rightists to convince polar bears and lions to switch from animal protein to soy — although I’d like to encourage PETA to get out there in the field and commence the dialogue. We could film this historic summit for broadcast on C-SPAN and Animal Planet. The Carter Center could sponsor the peace talks.
McMahan seems pessimistic about the prospects of simple persuasion. Indeed, he is as willing to use force to put an “end to evil” as the most gung-ho neoconservative. What McMahan suggests is that we either sterilize, exterminate, or genetically re-engineer every carnivorous species on the planet. That means all dogs and cats, lions and bears, eagles and sharks, and pretty much every kind of fish — except for the tiny ones that live on plankton. He does acknowledge that this project might have adverse environmental impacts. Indeed, because of our ancestors’ overzealous attempts to extirpate the wolf, my sister’s lawn in suburban Long Island is every night overrun with hungry deer. So if we neuter all the bears and outlaw hunting, McMahan admits, we’ll have to put all the deer and rabbits on the Pill — though perhaps the sheer amount of female hormones we flush into the water from human contraceptive use will solve that problem “naturally.”
It’s easy to pick on the likes of Professor McMahan, who seems less like a real person than one of the villains from a C. S. Lewis novel. (Think of Professor Weston in Out of the Silent Planet, who hoped to wipe out every species that wasn’t of obvious use to mankind.) And if I were a student at Princeton, I would gleefully gather my friends every Friday night to serenade Professor Singer with the Yale song “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep.”
But really, I’m grateful for men like these. Protected by tenure, they have the freedom to roll out for us all the final implications of the fuzzy, lazy thinking that motivates most of us in half the decisions we make every day. This came home to me from reading the brilliant contribution Rev. Dwight Longenecker made to Disorientation — a book I edited covering 14 “heresies” that threaten the faith of college students. In it, Father Longenecker explains the toxic logic of Utilitarianism, which he sums up this way:
Utilitarianism is the ethical theory that pleasure is the greatest good, suffering the greatest evil. Therefore our actions must be guided by calculating what will bring the most pleasure or least suffering to the largest number, regardless of other considerations.
This is the ethic that drives Professors Singer and McMahan, and it’s not as obscure or eccentric as it sounds. As Father Longenecker asks, if Utilitarianism is true:
Shouldn’t the government serve as a kind of a Ministry of Pleasure, hiring scientists and bureaucrats to research what will offer most of us maximum happiness, then pressuring us to make the right decisions? If “the greatest pleasure for the greatest number” is the guiding principle, that overrides any concern for individual autonomy, and gives the people in power license to dictate all our choices. If this seems to you far-fetched, think for a second how strange your grandparents would have found it that in some parts of our country gay “marriage” is permitted, but smoking is virtually prohibited; prayer in schools is forbidden, but seat-belts are mandatory.
In other words, men like McMahan are already in the saddle, and the ideas of Singer represent not crackpot fantasies but the philosophy of the future. They are the inevitable outcome of Reason deprived of Faith — just as inquisitions and jihad result from Faith that tramples Reason. It is only by walking gingerly the classical Catholic tightrope between the two that we can avoid the plunge into madness.