Atheist Eric MacDonald Equates Thomist Philosopher Edward Feser’s Ideas with Those of Nazi Heinrich Himmler

Eric MacDonald, a former Anglican priest turned atheist, recently quoted at his blog the following passage from Thomist philosopher Edward Feser’s book on atheism, The Last Superstition (St. Augustine’s Press 2008, pg. 153):

This life, in both its good and bad aspects, takes on an exaggerated importance. Worldly pleasures and projects become overvalued. Difficult moral obligations, which seem bearable in the light of the prospect of an eternal reward, come to seem impossible to live up to when our horizons are this-worldly. Harms and injustices suffered in this life, patiently endured when one sees beyond it to the next life, suddenly become unendurable.

Does that sound like Heinrich Himmler to you? Well, it doesn’t to me either.

But here’s what Eric MacDonald wrote in response to Feser’s observation:

When I read this I was immediately reminded of Heinrich Himmler’s speech to SS leaders in Poland after touring the killing centres there in October 1943.

And why would that be? Well, because Himmler (whose speech you can listen to at YouTube here) thought his ends justified his means.

So, if you’ve ever thought that your ends justified your means about anything, then expect the following: if Eric MacDonald learns of your view, it might well put him in mind of Heinrich Himmler.

Here’s MacDonald again:

As Himmler says: “To have stuck it out and — apart from a few exceptions due to human weakness — to have remained decent, that is what has made us tough.” I find in Feser’s stand, and the stand of the Roman Catholic Church, very little that is in substance different from this. It may seem hard and merciless, but it is our duty. That is what is being said. These things, looked at as purely this-worldly, may seem inhuman and cold, but in the light of eternity they are for the best. I think I see where the rationale for so much tyranny comes from. The Communist looks to the brilliant future when the state has withered away, the Nazi to a world without Jews, the Roman Catholic to heaven and its rewards. Such fond hopes and silly beliefs will justify a multitude of evils.

Well, no shit, Hegel. When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.

But the flip-side of this truth is the following: good really does sometimes arrive through undesired—even repugnant—means. When Roosevelt and Churchill decided that total war, however emotionally repellent to them, was to be endured for the sake of ridding Europe of Hitler, their end justified their means as well.

In fact, if you pause to think about it, any truly happy ending must justify its means. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a happy ending. This is because one’s ends are always based in a hierarchy of values in which some goods are subsumed to others. If, for example, you have chosen to take a job in New York, you foreclose all the good things that come with living in Los Angeles (or Miami or Boston). And, of course, it also means that you won’t be devoting your time and attention to the poor of Calcutta. No one ever gets to escape hard choices surrounding the prioritizing of values.

I, for instance, think it would be great if lettuce and broccoli grew wild and unhindered everywhere, living out their natural life cycles in lettuce and broccoli-life joy. But, callous me, I also recognize that people have got to eat.

Context is everything.

So, unless Edward Feser is advocating genocide or cannibalism (or some other equivalently repugnant behavior), Eric MacDonald should be reluctant to put him in the company of Heinrich Himmler.

And, since I’ve got Feser’s book, I thought it might be informative to quote something from the page prior to the one MacDonald quoted from. And so, on page 152, Feser says that

. . . man’s overarching end is to know God, and he has an immortal soul that gives him a destiny beyond this earthly life.

Isn’t that just awful? What an outrageous way to order one’s values!

And what else does this repugnant man say? Here are the sentences immediately prior to the ones actually quoted by MacDonald (pgs 152-153):

First of all, since knowing God is our highest end, our moral duties include, first and foremost, religious duties: duties to pursue knowledge of God, to honor Him as our Creator and the giver of the moral law, to teach our children to do the same, and so forth. These duties are not some optional extra tacked on to a rationally based system of morality; they are integral to such a system.

Second, without keeping in mind that our ultimate destiny is an eternal one and that knowing God is our natural end or purpose (even if it is left to us, as beings with free will, to decide whether to pursue and realize that end), our understanding of our lives in the here and now, including our understanding of morality, becomes massively distorted.

How so? Here’s the part of Feser that MacDonald latched onto, and that put him in mind of Heinrich Himmler:

This life, in both its good and bad aspects, takes on an exaggerated importance. Worldly pleasures and projects become overvalued. Difficult moral obligations, which seem bearable in the light of the prospect of an eternal reward, come to seem impossible to live up to when our horizons are this-worldly. Harms and injustices suffered in this life, patiently endured when one sees beyond it to the next life, suddenly become unendurable.

Now, isn’t it quite clear, in context, that Edward Feser isn’t advocating the diminishment of this life to some evil end? Feser believes God exists and is thus concluding that, were he not a theist, then day-to-day sense experiences might tend to take on an exaggerated importance for him because they would, naturally, rise in his hierarchy of values, perhaps even taking top place. But, since they are not at the top of his hierarchy of values, they do not quite have this type of power over him (either to overly disappoint or agitate him).

But, if you insist on calling Feser’s value orientation a necessary diminishment of large swaths of reality for a passing phantom, then isn’t it quite evident that atheists must also necessarily diminish large swaths of reality to passing phantoms as well?

An atheist, for example, may value working on a rare automobile that he keeps in his garage, and might well subsume a great deal of the rest of reality to his pursuit of that one thing he values most, foregoing the pleasures, say, of having children, taking up surfing, or passing out leaflets on a street corner for a local talk by Richard Dawkins.

And this car phantom too will pass.

We are, each of us, in thrall to only a very small bit of transient reality every day, and our values are always set in a hierarchy (with lots and lots of other things neglected). Therefore, not having an open and generous heart to all that’s going on in the world shouldn’t, in itself, be sufficient to set us in a moral class with Heinrich Himmler. As the energetic Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, says at the beginning of a documentary about his life, “Love is not ‘I love you all!’ Love means I pick out something.”

On the other hand, Zizek soon follows this observation with a startling conclusion (and one that MacDonald and Feser might both smile at): “In this quite formal sense, love is evil.” 

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Atheist Eric MacDonald Equates Thomist Philosopher Edward Feser’s Ideas with Those of Nazi Heinrich Himmler

  1. Uh, I think you’re missing Eric’s point that when you claim that *your* ends justify any means, take very careful care to make sure you’re not Himmler, and that you understand who is going to judge those means.

    Further you say that some times this is fine, and some time *undesired* means can bring about good. Um, no. No, it doesn’t, because you don’t go into any detail about those who would think it undesirable, nor what is specifically undesirable about it. In most cases one can always derive “good for some, bad for others”, and this is deadly important when we talk about ethics. A polarisation of any power stance gives the worst possible outcome for people who have no influence, and would so hope that if nothing else, that is the lesson learned from the last two world wars.

    • santitafarella says:

      Alexander,

      I would ask you a simple question: was the United States’s ends sufficient to justify its means in the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo during WWII?

      I find both of these to be tragic incidents during WWII. Had the U.S. lost the war, people would have been put on trial for what happened. I also think that in the way that the United States ordered its values, it was defensible.

      Unfortunately, each human being is limited in the time she has on earth. This means that value selection is a zero-sum game. To pursue one value means other values are placed beneath it.

      If you were Truman or Churchill during WWII, you would have had to make horrendous choices. That doesn’t make Truman or Churchill Himmler.

      It is true that a Catholic values church, and arguably wastes a lot of time doing things related to it rather than pursuing other more pragmatic human goods. But that’s true of everybody at every moment. The world is much, much larger than any single life. If your argument is that religion wastes human energy on passing phantoms, no shit. So does TV. But inefficiencies related to the highest good should not immediately put us in mind of Himmler.

      And what is the highest good, anyway? It’s some sort of hierarchy. State yours. What’s the highest good you wish people would orient to?

      —Santi

      • “was the United States’s ends sufficient to justify its means in the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo during WWII?”

        This is very easy for me to answer; no. It is easy for me, because I find most war-time decisions abysmal, as I find most human behaviour abysmal. However, I recognize that this isn’t a very pragmatic answer, so let’s ask it as if it had some consequence to me;

        If I were Churchill, would bombing Dresden be justified in my eyes for getting closer to winning the war? And it’s still no, and it mostly stem from the fact that I do not believe in the polarisation of opinion, that there are absolute answers, and especially that there are no black and white ones. There’s always alternatives, and I don’t think for a second that Dresden nor Tokyo nor Hiroshima or Nagasaki or even D-Day needed to be as horrible and wasteful as they were.

        But this is just a wild goose chase. The point is that I’m not these people in those contexts, but that that fact doesn’t stop me and others judging these actions on their own merits. And I (and I assume others) find them horrible, and they do not justify the means *because* there’s always alternatives. The alternatives weren’t chosen, and the result is what is being judged. It happened, and we can’t change it. But just that they happened doesn’t *justify* them. Justify is a word loaded with justice, not results.

        “That doesn’t make Truman or Churchill Himmler.”

        Well, to the point of the Holocost, then no, and neither to the point of lost lives due to their command. But undoubtedly thousands died at their command, and so we quickly leap into the old quicksand of comparative statistical deaths, which is a bit of a misnomer. If Himmler ordered millions killed, and Churchill ordered thousands killed, when we deal with ethics it doesn’t matter so much the numbers in question, but the reasons for doing so, and I think you agree? (Not to denigrate the numbers here; they are truly beyond understanding) This our dispute, the reason for the killing.

        I’m not convinced that one murder of knowing is much better than any other. I’m not sure that if Himmler thought some deaths were justified and that Churchill thought some deaths were justified that one of them are worse or better on those merits alone. Himmler justified it through his doctrine, Churchill through his. They both made decisions, and history has deemed the one much worse than the other, to the point of saying that the latter had no other choice because he had to stop the former.

        But *this* is the point I’m making; Churchill could easily made different choices that would make us judge him differently, better or worse. He could have chose a number of options, and frankly I judge on the full spectre of choices and the choice made, rather than saying that the choice he *did* make was necessary (as we probably don’t actually know this, we can only speculate).

        I don’t feel comfortable justifying anything based on assumption, and in my opinion the less assumption, the better the judgement. And I think there’s less assumption in “there were options” than there is in “he had no other option.”

        “And what is the highest good, anyway? It’s some sort of hierarchy. State yours. What’s the highest good you wish people would orient to?”

        The highest good? Well, again I don’t believe in this kind of structure when it comes to the human condition. I don’t for a second think that I could deem one thing better or worse than some other very similar but categorical different thing. Is helping a lady across the street better or worse than mowing your neighbours lawn? I’m not sure we can categorically even claim to know what evil is. We can state a number of things we think are bad and evil, but not categorically, not for all people. It’s so fuzzy, it’s amazingly full of nimble context and poor perception that I don’t want to have even a strong opinion on it.

        I tend to think that the best guide in good is to be clearer about what is bad, and my rule of thumb is not to do anything to hurt other people, especially if they don’t want me to, but even something as supposedly clear-cut as that has tons of unclear context and fuzziness about it.

        What is your highest good?

      • santitafarella says:

        Alexander,

        I don’t really disagree with your points—they’re all reasonable in my view. I grapple in the same darkness. I don’t like cruelty, etc.

        My highest goods in the abstract are freedom of mind and conscience, discipline, novelty, beauty, truth, justice, gnosis, love, home. It’s hard to improve on these. Religious people tend to embody these things as representative of God, Jesus, the Buddha, Krishna, etc.

        I don’t know if God exists, so I have to be content to simply put them out there and say that, whenever one is orienting one’s life toward one or more of these at some level, the kingdom of heaven is not far from you (to put it in the terms of the Gospel of Mark).

        Of course, each of these has a shadow and it’s hard to say that existence would be complete (or even interesting) without those shadows. The largest shadow is death.

        So it’s very hard, absent revelation (which I don’t believe we have), to really know what to do.

        Feser’s religious position is not yours or mine. It seems to undervalue this existence for another one. Maybe that’s bad. On the other hand, the position is understandable because this existence really doesn’t add up. There’s a great deal more suffering than can be redeemed within existence itself, and death always looms. We are all waiting our turn. Hope in some sort of transcendence keeps a lot of people sane. Himmler’s cruelty shouldn’t be conflated with the average human’s coping with a fucked situation.

        —Santi

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