I don’t know anyone who believes in transhumanism, the techno-fantasy that we can merge our consciousness with computers and thus attain an earthly, silicon immortality. But many of us are functional transhumanists. We act as though, with proper and rigorous application of science and technology, we can fend off death. Every accident is preventable. With the right safeguards and early detection, every disease can be cured. This amounts to saying that, if we could get things just right, nobody needs to die.
“Every accident is preventable. Nobody needs to die.” As I write these words, I can’t help but feel that I am caricaturing an altogether fitting and noble concern for the value of life. But the people who say such things act as though they believed them.
In New York, the city government is committed to Vision Zero, a policy for traffic safety. The Vision Zero website states: “We recognize that deaths and serious injuries in traffic are not inevitable ‘accidents,’ but preventable crashes that can be ended through engineering, enforcement, and education. No level of fatality on city streets is inevitable or acceptable.”
By definition, no accident is inevitable. But it is inevitable that there will be accidents, because we are human. For good and for ill, we have the capacity for free, self-directed behavior, which means that life cannot be de-bugged. Nothing short of the technological replacement of human agency can prevent us from acting irresponsibly on occasion. And because we are finite creatures, not immortal gods, we’re vulnerable to mishap. For these reasons, the statement that “no level of fatality” is “inevitable or acceptable” sums up the quasi-religious claims of transhumanism. It’s also a charter for philanthropic totalitarianism. In any decent society, what is unacceptable must be prevented.
In my youth, there wasn’t a hint of Vision Zero. My mother smoked two packs a day for fifty years. Lung cancer killed her at sixty-nine. She was unlucky, perhaps, but not unusual. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, people like her smoked and drank and ate what they liked, some to excess, few with any concern about their health. Parents drove home from weekends at the beach sipping cocktails while their kids bounced around in the back of the station wagon. Nobody wore a helmet except on the football field. Nobody had a gym membership unless he was a bodybuilder.
My mother did not want to die or get sick, any more than she wanted to be poor and destitute. But those fears were moderate, not strong. Perhaps the experience of economic depression and a world war had taught my mother’s generation that bad things happen. So why not keep your worries in check and enjoy some of the good things in life? In her final days, I asked my mother whether she regretted smoking. She gave me a bemused look, and replied, “No. It’s not as though the alternative was to live forever.”
We can look back on those attitudes and judge them careless. But I find myself sympathetic to my mother’s position. We need to be realistic about life and not let our worries dictate. Fears of disease, injury, and death are natural. But as Thomas Aquinas notes, we must discipline our fear so that it is properly ordered by reason. This requires the virtue of fortitude, which allows us to endure certain evils for the sake of greater goods. We should not be rash or foolishly court danger. But we should not be timid, either, unduly fearing the misfortunes that might befall us. Fortitude attains the mean. It allows us to pursue the greater goods that make life worth living.
Which brings me back to Vision Zero. It is not put forward as a philosophical statement; it is a slogan, meant to keep street engineers and city planners focused on traffic safety. But the Vision Zero rhetoric has a way of taking over. No breast cancer death is inevitable! No football brain injury is acceptable! No AIDS death is tolerable! What may seem high-minded—promoting health and safety—is in truth dangerous. A single-minded defense of bodily life can quickly become an enemy of living.
Our souls are disordered when we fear death and other physical evils to such a degree that we fail to fulfill our duties to God and others, or even to ourselves. In modern times, we often diagnose this disorder as phobia—an unreasonable fear of getting sick, or of failing to turn off the gas stove. Unlike a disordered fear of impoverishment, which leads to greed, we don’t have a satisfactory traditional word for undue preoccupations with health and safety. So we’ll have to make do with “safetyism,” a term coined by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind to describe approaches that make safety the highest value. Safetyism refuses to acknowledge that life lived well requires pursuing ambitious, sometimes risky goals.
We recognize that the vices of greed and lust are whipped up by society’s emphasis on wealth and sex. We’re less likely to recognize the disorder of safetyism, which is expressed and reinforced with Vision Zero talk.We need to be more conscious of its harms. Just as surely as celebrity culture draws us toward superficiality and consumerism leads to self-indulgence, safetyism encourages timidity, which leads to small lives.
I do not want to be misunderstood. A glass of wine is one of the goods of creation, as is sexual pleasure. Enjoying wine and engaging in sexual intercourse, if done in accord with reason, can be part of a virtuous life. The same can be said of wearing a bicycle helmet and going for regular checkups. But we ought to acknowledge that something is amiss when safety becomes as great a fixation in our society as sex, so much so that they are conjoined in an improbable formulation that draws a laugh from the worldly wise: “safe sex.”
The rise of safetyism is recent. My grandfather was born shortly after the twentieth century began. After he had a heart attack in his sixties, he resolved to take regular two-mile walks, a prudent measure that no doubt extended his life. But today’s serried ranks of exercise machines and regular recourse to personal trainers would baffle him. And he’d be dumbfounded by the endless concerns about what foods to eat and not to eat: broccoli, to prevent cancer; no bacon, to prevent heart disease; red wine, to promote heart health; fish whenever possible—the list is endless. And what would he make of the fact that over the course of just one or two decades, everyone has decided that he must wear a helmet on a bike or scooter? I recently saw children wearing helmets on playgrounds in Central Park.
Our responses to the COVID pandemic have run along these grooves. Lockdowns, masks, vaccines, and the rest—every aspect of the last eighteen months has its legitimate reasons, as does regular exercise and attention to diet. But we must not kid ourselves. Greed is not simply a matter of saving money. It arises when our concerns about money take on a debilitating urgency, when having more becomes an end-in-itself. The same holds for safetyism. During the pandemic, the measures imposed and adopted often echoed Vision Zero and its rhetoric. Some public health officials openly speak of COVID Zero, and accordingly they exaggerate dangers and adopt manipulative methods to rally the public.
To be troubled by consumerism and its effects on our souls does not make one “anti-capitalist.” To be opposed to the sexualization of children, the ubiquity of pornography, and the cheapening of sex does not make one “anti-pleasure.” In the same way, concerns about safetyism are altogether fitting.
Safetyism is reinforced by the punitive, take-no-prisoners consensus that attacks anyone who raises doubts about the necessity or efficacy of the extreme measures of the last eighteen months. And there’s no question that safetyism does spiritual damage. A socially reinforced preoccupation with bodily life can disorder our priorities just as surely as does social messaging that makes sex the supreme good. In truth, our disordered fears can be even more damaging than our disordered desires. And that includes fears of illness, suffering, and death.
We often regard sins of excess and indulgence as the worst vices. This view is mistaken. Desire draws us out of ourselves, and this is its saving grace. Gluttony wrongly seeks satiation with food and drink, but at least it seeks to be filled and satisfied. Lust pants for sensual pleasure. The yearning is disordered, but the engine of desire is engaged. As Plato recognized, we are able to climb a “ladder of love,” rising from physical passions to a rational love of the transcendent. We can’t climb, however, if we don’t get on the first rung, and lust, however misguided, can take us there. For this reason, Dante places the deadly sin of lust on the seventh and final ledge of the mountain of purgatory. Sinful passions, once purified, are not stymied or quenched. They are redoubled as we turn to God.
The taint of original sin leads us toward self-love, which St. Augustine identified as the root motive for every sin. The fallen creature is homo incurvatus in se, “man curved in upon himself.” Lust and gluttony serve self-love, to be sure. But as with the drunk who must go out to buy the next bottle, these sins force us to venture beyond ourselves in pursuit of pleasure. Anger has a similar out-going quality. An irate person explodes, carried away by a passion. Even those who simmer with cold anger are plotting evil deeds, which require initiative and agency.
By contrast, fear causes us to recoil, withdraw, and retreat. Envy and jealousy fear that the greater wealth, honor, and happiness of others somehow diminishes us. More often than not, this vice demeans and degrades others so that they will share in the poverty of the envious person. Envy levels down. Better that nobody should enjoy the good things of life than that they do so to a greater degree than I.
The same degrading and diminishing dynamic characterizes avarice. We sometimes confuse greed with lust, using “greedy” to describe someone who wants to enjoy and keep all the good things for himself. But in the Christian and classical tradition, greed means hoarding, desperately holding on to wealth out of fear of poverty and loss. Greedy people hate to spend their money. In medieval and Renaissance poetry, greed is personified by a man emaciated and clothed in rags. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens presents Ebenezer Scrooge as very nearly lifeless, consumed by his anxiety that a penny might be wasted and his wealth diminished. Greed’s counsel is negative: Better to enjoy nothing than to risk loss. Only fear can explain this self-impoverishment amidst plenty.
In the list of the seven deadly sins, we use the Anglo-Saxon “sloth” to translate acedia, which is a transliteration of the Greek word that means despair, the inability to rouse oneself to seek any good. The envious person wishes he had what his neighbor has. The avaricious man takes wan pleasure in contemplating his hoard. As a consequence, these vices can at times flash with desire, even if they are motivated primarily by fear. Acedia, by contrast, leads to the cessation of desire. It looks at suffering and death and shudders, believing that physical evil has the final word. Without hope, acedia whispers, “Why bother?” It repeats the weary word that echoes through our present age: “Whatever.” Shrinking before the fear that there are no higher, transcendent truths, we despair over the meaningfulness of any of our activities, ambitions, and goals.
Fears of sickness are not the only terrors haunting us today. Indeed, one of the most notable features of recent history has been the great onrush of fears. A 2021 study surveyed opinions of people aged sixteen to twenty-five on the topic of climate change. Seventy percent of American respondents described the future as frightening. Thirty-five percent said humanity was doomed. Nearly fifty percent believed that most things of value would be destroyed.
These dire attitudes should not surprise us. Greta Thunberg is feted by elite institutions and featured in media, which widely broadcast her prophecies of destruction. And there are other strong currents of anxiety. Parents fear that their children will not get into selective colleges, so much so that some are tempted to pay bribes. The kids fear that something they post on social media might torpedo their futures, and they anxiously curate their résumés. Those lower down on the social ladder show signs of having given up. Drug overdose deaths and illegitimacy are on the rise. Marriage and overall fertility are in decline. Because most of us live in an upper-middle-class bubble, we imagine that women are postponing (or forgoing) marriage and children because of career ambitions, not despair. But the total fertility rate in the United States is collapsing, down to nearly 1.6 children per woman in 2020. The pace of the decline (the rate was 2.1 in 2007) cannot be explained by the behavior of professional women. In all likelihood, the birth dearth is a society-wide response to fear. Having children is daunting in a world in which so much feels precarious. It can seem downright irresponsible if one believes that humanity is doomed.
Over the last eighteen months, the barrage of public health messaging about the perils of COVID coursed down the same deep riverbed carved by the doomsday rhetoric we’ve been hearing for years: warnings about climate apocalypse, rampant racism, and other social evils. In September, the Wall Street Journal reported that as many Americans have died of COVID as perished during the Spanish Flu pandemic (675,000)! This breathless report ignored the fact that the population of the United States is more than three times greater today than it was in 1919, when the Spanish flu took its toll. And it did not notice that a century ago there were no incentives and few resources to support today’s zealous recording of COVID deaths, which in all likelihood means that the death toll of the Spanish Flu was four or five times greater than that of the current pandemic.
But facts don’t seem to matter. Today’s journalists and editors are imbued with the conviction that they have a moral duty to accentuate peril and danger in order to motivate ever more vigilant efforts to promote health and safety. This pseudo-philanthropy—saving lives!—intensifies the role of fear in our collective psyche, deepening the damage of safetyism.We’ve put masks on children for two years, convincing ourselves that, even if they are ineffective, it’s a harmless measure. But it is not harmless to tell children, in effect, “The world you are entering is a very dangerous place.”
St. Thomas observes that hope puts fear in its proper place. Perhaps anxieties have mounted in the West because hope has declined. In the 1950s, wages rose. People moved from cramped apartments to suburban homes. Cars got bigger and faster every year. Jet planes took to the skies. Men would soon walk on the moon. Not surprisingly, most Americans believed in progress, the modern, immanent version of hope. The 1950s have a reputation for buttoned-up conformism. But that’s a 1960s conceit. In hopeful times, vices tend toward wanton excess, not fearful self-protection and despair. Playboy was founded in 1953. During that decade, Frank Sinatra and the fast-living Rat Pack put Las Vegas on the map.
At some point during the last two decades, “sustainability” replaced progress. It’s a desperate word, not a hopeful one. There’s still plenty of conspicuous consumption in our time. But it’s haunted by fear. Do we have enough—enough to buy a house in a good neighborhood, enough to pay our kids’ tuition, enough for retirement, enough for medical care, enough for expectations that seem to rise faster than incomes? Our constitutional republic has not collapsed, but not a day goes by without a commentator’s warning us that we’re on the brink. Pundits speak of the decline of American power. Professors engage in ritual apologies for the sins of Western culture. Sustaining whatever can be sustained increasingly seems like a difficult, thankless task that is, perhaps, hopeless—or so we fear.
In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis depicts the realm of the damned as grey and shabby. It is not a place of sensuality, excess, and undisciplined exuberance. At its most extreme and unmitigated, self-love becomes a fuel-starved flame that barely flickers with life, a condition Lewis evokes when he depicts the damned in self-imposed isolation, separated by great distances in a vast, lifeless landscape.
In the thought of St. Augustine, pride is the cardinal vice. Yes, but in the end, pride does not enlarge our souls to rival the divine, contending for the cosmos as Milton shows Satan trying to do. Rather, as we glimpse the power and glory of God, pride causes us to recoil in terror. We tremble, dreading the prospect of serving, obeying, and loving him. The vice of pride causes us to fear that loving God will diminish us, even destroy us. In a desperate effort to maintain our self-love, we do not “puff up.” Rather, we contract, withdrawing into ourselves, constructing a concrete bunker to protect our egos from love’s temptations to venture devotion and self-giving. As Thomas Hobbes recognized, by commanding retreat and giving priority to self-protection, fear constructs its empire.
St. Ignatius of Loyola saw that the first principle of spiritual health is to overcome pride with a commitment to serve, obey, and love God in all things. “To do this,” St. Ignatius observed, “I must make myself indifferent to all created things, in regard to everything which is left to my freedom of will and is not forbidden.” From this he drew the obvious conclusion: “On my part I ought not to seek health rather than sickness, wealth rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long life rather than a short one, and so on in all other matters.”
I favor intelligent measures to promote public health. Children should be counseled against reckless behavior. It is prudent to consider the prospect of misfortune, setting aside funds against their occurrence. We should be alive to environmental dangers, political perils, and foreign threats. But as we address these and other concerns, let us not underestimate the very real spiritual danger of fear itself. St. John Paul II was right to urge us: “Be not afraid.”
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ Charles Péguy: “It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.” Who can count the number of university presidents and deans, CEOs and foundation heads, journalists and celebrities whose cowardice has been shamefully evident over the last year?
♦ I draw the Péguy quote from Roger Kimball’s fine survey of the French Catholic writer’s achievement in the July issue of the Epoch Times. By Kimball’s reckoning, Péguy has enduring importance
because of his insights into the distinctive hubris of modernity: the curious modern tendency to substitute faith in technique for the cultivation of wisdom, the belief that a perfect administration of life could somehow relieve us of the burden, the unpredictable adventure, of living.
Péguy flourished in the first years of the twentieth century, his life cut short by a German bullet in 1914. Since that time, the modern hubris has grown only more monstrous.
♦ Last summer I noted that the rainbow flag is more important to our ruling class than the American flag: “It is the flag of our globalist elite, symbolizing ‘diversity and inclusion,’ the principle that they regard as the source of their right to rule.” I predicted that “the time is coming, perhaps soon, when our elites will suppress the American flag and wave all the more insistently the rainbow substitute.” At the beginning of this academic year, Kristin Pitzen, a teacher in a public school in Orange County, California, put up a rainbow flag in her classroom, importuning her students to pledge allegiance to it instead of to the American flag she had taken down.
♦ Readers may have noticed that medical forms now often ask for “preferred pronouns.” A friend put down “Honey/Badger/VerySharpFangs.” She was a bit disappointed when her bloodwork came back, because it reported results “based on documented legal sex.” Shouldn’t the lab be reporting cholesterol levels in reference to animal values?
♦ Jonathan V. Last, editor of The Bulwark, recently penned an attack on the pro-life movement. Last allows that “there are many, many pro-lifers who truly and sincerely care” about the unborn, but they are exceptions to the rule. “As an institution, it’s hard to see the pro-life movement as concerned with anything more than control and power.” He appears to want to take a swipe at the Mississippi law currently before the Supreme Court: “Turn your back on those who would use the love of life as a means for exerting power and control,” he urges. That’s a direct echo of the left’s slogan, “Keep your rosaries off our ovaries.” Last implies that “true” pro-lifers should oppose laws that limit abortion, because such laws compel people (by means of “power and control”) to respect the lives of the unborn. By his reckoning, true pro-lifers should be satisfied with merely urging such respect.
♦ The Wall Street journal reports: “At the close of the academic year, women made up 59.5% of college students, an all time high, and men 40.5%.” These numbers represent an accelerating trend. If it continues, “two women will earn a college degree for every man.” This outcome may appeal to those who live in the fantasy land of the Beach Boys (“Two girls for every boyyyyyyyyyy”), but it does not foretell a functional male-female dance for the rising generation.
In another article in the same September 7 issue, the Journal conveyed the latest data on out-of-wedlock births. As many know, the rate of out-of-wedlock births has gone up in the last generation, and by a lot. But what’s little known is that it has risen most sharply for college-educated women. Data from 2017–18 show that in this cohort, nearly 25 percent of women aged thirty-two to thirty-eight had their first babies out of wedlock, up from 4 percent in 1996. Researchers cite “less economic security.” Perhaps, but the main reason is plain to see. Given the collapse in male enrollments at colleges and universities, whom are these women supposed to marry?
That same day’s Journal also ran a story on VCR afficionados, featuring a picture of Nicole Wiegand and her “wife,” also Nicole. In the lifestyle section, there was a report about how to become a “morning person.” The article was illustrated by a photo of Eric Komo and his “husband,” Aaron. And progressives wonder why men and women aren’t coming together in stable ways.
♦ Today, a college degree is often the baseline requirement for white-collar jobs. Given trends in male and female enrollments, employment prospects for men will suffer. This situation may be actionable. Our legal doctrine, developed by the Supreme Court in Griggs v. Duke Power Co., stipulates that employers may not impose job requirements with disparate outcomes for people of different races and sexes, if those requirements are not directly relevant to job performance. Very few white-collar jobs require skills or knowledge that are learned only in college. In truth, companies limit job searches to those with college degrees because doing so is an easy way to screen for people who can complete tasks and show up to work on time. But when convenience leads to disparate outcomes, it becomes illegal. It is my hope that legal activists will bring discrimination lawsuits against employers who require irrelevant college degrees and thus harm men in the workplace.
♦ In a long opinion essay for the New York Times, Thomas Edsall sifts through recent social scientific research on the failure of so many males to flourish. One factor keeps coming to the fore: Boys growing up in single-parent households have more behavior problems, do worse in school, and face diminished life prospects. What gives? Some researchers fix on limited financial resources, since one-parent households have less money than two-parent households. But honest social scientists admit that the more powerful factor is hidden in the “single-parent household” euphemism. Such families are overwhelmingly headed by mothers, not fathers. It is the father’s absence, not the loss of his salary, that deforms so many males as they come of age in twenty-first-century America. Sadly, Edsall can’t bring himself to say so. More sadly still, neither he nor anyone else in the liberal establishment can bear to acknowledge that we should be doing everything we can to shore up marriage, the institution that requires men to stick around to be fathers to their sons.
♦ Heidi Crowter has Down syndrome. She and two others brought a case against the British abortion law that limits abortion to the first twenty-four weeks of pregnancy but allows a child in the womb to be killed at any point if diagnosed with “physical or mental abnormalities” that might cause him to be “seriously handicapped.” Crowter’s lawyers argued that the legislation is unlawfully discriminatory against those with physical disabilities. The High Court judges hearing the case determined otherwise, upholding euthanasia of the handicapped.
♦ Heather Mac Donald reporting in City Journal on racial politics in Great Britain:
A British classical music organization has inadvertently ripped the veil off the diversity arithmetic, and the consequences may be far-reaching. Earlier this month [September] the English Touring Opera told nearly half its orchestral musicians that it would not be renewing their contracts for the 2022 season because of “prioritized increase diversity in the orchestra.” In other words, as a bunch of white guys you must be cleared out so that we can boost the collective melanin levels among our musicians. Your talent does not matter; your skin color does.
♦ The University of Chicago Divinity School is advertising three positions: Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the field of race and religion; Assistant Professor “whose work brings together race and religion”; Associate or Full Professor—race and religion. These are the only openings.
♦ A reader recently wrote to report on the benefits of being a subscriber. His oldest daughter attended a fine Catholic university. Not to leave her future to chance, he gave her a student subscription to First Things. The young woman prominently displayed the magazine on the coffee table in her dorm room. Male suitors who lacked familiarity with our fine publication were ruled out. In the event, she found a young man whose piety (and superior intelligence) met her high standards, and she is happily married. My correspondent noted that he has now given a First Things student subscription to his youngest daughter, who has just started her freshman year.
♦ You can get a student subscription by visiting firstthings.com/student-subscription.
♦ The New Criterion marks the fortieth anniversary of its founding this fall. For those who do not know this estimable publication (and everyone should), it stands as an indefatigable defender of sanity and good taste in a time when both are in short supply. I’ve subscribed for at least two of the four decades of the New Criterion’s existence, first with unqualified enjoyment, and then—after assuming my role at First Things—with regular pangs of envy, such as an editor will feel when reading a particularly fine piece of writing in somebody else’s publication. The editorial staff of First Things lifts its collective glass in salute to Roger Kimball and his team at the New Criterion.
♦ Readers got in touch to let us know what they thought of the magazine’s new look. Consensus opinion: The glossy cover is awful. “The magazine now looks slick and cheesy,” wrote a reader in Alexandria, Virginia. Likewise, a reader in Palm Springs, California: “I detest the tarted-up appearance of such a serious periodical. It feels almost lubricious in my hands.” We agree! Our new design deserves the same demure matte finish that has graced our covers for a decade. Alas, the printer put on the shiny varnish by mistake. They better get it right this month!
♦ Taylor Schmidt would like to start a Readers of First Things (ROFTERS) group in the Charlotte, North Carolina area. If you’d like to join, drop him a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ I’d like to welcome Carl Trueman, who joins the esteemed company of Mark Bauerlein, Shalom Carmy, and Daniel Hitchens as a contributing editor.