Monday, May 25, 2009

Kolnai on the "immoralism" of humanitarianism (and its "hypermoralism," too)

"irreligious humanitarianism necessarily involves a certain bias for immoralism inasmuch as it has no room for the concept of intrinsic moral evil, and of the moral scissure in human nature. Rejecting all intrinsic discrimination between human 'needs,' and interpreting moral 'evil' merely in terms of impulses which in given conditions are likely to interfere with the fulfillment of more imperious, general, and permanent 'needs,' it is bound to profess an ethical 'positivism' cleared from all experience of 'sin,' which is tantamount to a flattening out of all moral life into a technique of the gratification of desires. . . .
"The humanitarian attitude will lean towards making the goodness or badness of any type of conduct dependent on the part it may play in a functional framework of situations; placing instincts and moods on a footing with the direction of the will, manifestations of the 'subconscious' with decisions enacted by man's central personality, deficiency in 'training' or 'development' as well as 'disease' with malice and deliberate wickedness; and substituting 'cure' or 'prevention,' 'education' or 'elimination,' for all retaliation [(retributive justice)] proper. To the humanitarian mind, Raskolnikov's 'claim' to slaying and despoiling the old usurer will probably appear 'erroneous,' but not altogether absurd . . . ; while the public authority's right to execute the murderer must obviously appear absurd and fictitious--for the infliction of death and suffering will not be made undone but merely aggravated by the consequent infliction of more death and suffering. Under humanitarianism, the judgment of crime will tend to degenerate into a mere protection of 'majority' interests: to shrink to a mere repression of the inconvenient--or again, perhaps, to expand into a suppression of whatever may be deemed inconvenient. The self-same mentality that rejects the concept of punishing the evildoer as 'superstitious' or a 'mere disguise for the primitive urge of revenge' may glibly accept the 'elimination' of the 'unfit for life' or the 'maladjusted' as an act of 'higher humanity.'"

Aurel Kolnai, "The humanitarian versus the religious attitude," The Thomist 7, no. 4 (October 1944): 444-445. This "immoralism" Kolnai proceeds to associate with what, in humanitarianism, is paradoxically its reverse, a kind of "hypermoralism": "Certainly moral values taken in any specific sense of the term seem to be engulfed and transposed here entirely in concepts of material or 'psychic' welfare; but the less content attaches to the idea of moral perfection and the less moral substance appears to be left over, the more pretentious and cocksure becomes the pursuit of the claim to a formally 'perfect' world, a morally 'waterproof' and indeed a 'foolproof' reality as it were" (446).

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