Greg Koukl debates Michael Shermer on God, atheism, meaning and morality

Two tough rams butt heads, and may the best ram win!
Two tough rams butt heads, and may the best ram win!

The full transcript of a debate between Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, and Greg Koukl, president of Stand to Reason. This debate occurred on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, and was moderated by Hugh Hewitt.

HH = Hugh Hewitt
GK = Greg Koukl
MS = Michael Shermer

Here is the full debate transcript from Stand to Reason.

And here’s an excerpt:

GK: Right. Actually, the big question here, Hugh, is whether it’s possible to be good without God. Now I’m not talking about whether it’s possible to be good without a belief in God. I certainly think that’s possible, but be good without God. And the answer to that question hinges entirely on precisely what you mean by good. And so I was going to give an illustration. So a man drags a young girl into the alley, he sexually abuses her, strangles here, and tosses her into the dustbin. Is that act wrong? Now I think everybody listening is going to admit it is wrong. But here is the real question. What do we mean when we say that that act of rape and abuse and murder is wrong? Are we describing the action itself, the object? Are we saying that the object, the rape, the murder, has a quality of being wrong, and therefore, wherever that rape goes, the wrongness follows it, just like your height, 6’ 2”, or whatever it is, is an objective quality of you. Wherever you go, your height follows you in the same way. Does the wrongness follow the rape? Well, if it’s a quality of the rape, if it’s an objective quality of the rape, then it does. And it doesn’t matter what people think about it, or what cultures decides, or what your evolutionary conditioning is. The rape is still wrong. The other alternative is that you’re not talking about the rape. You’re talking about yourself. You’re talking about your genetic conditioning. You’re talking about your culture’s decision about that kind of thing. And if that’s the case, then the truth of the wrongness of the rape is simply in the individual or the subject. And this is why philosophers distinguish between ethical objectivism and ethical subjectivism. Now there’s lots of different subjectivisms in ethics. But simply put, if you’re an ethical subjectivist, you’re a relativist. And actual ethics don’t exist. Ethics are an illusion. If you conclude that ethics are an illusion, there’s lots of different ways to explain it. Michael’s written a really great book, I think, called The Science Of Good And Evil. I’ve read most of it, and it’s well written, and it’s very compelling. But it’s a description about how the illusion of ethics has taken place. If you want to go that route, you’re welcome to go that route. But what you can’t do is you can’t then talk about morality as if it’s objective when your explanations are subjective. So this is a problem that I think all atheists, including Michael, have to solve. Are ethics objective or relative? And if they’re relative, then how can we make moral judgments that are meaningful on other people?

HH: Michael Shermer?

MS: Wow, let’s just get right into it. Well, I don’t think it’s quite so black and white. That is to say I think there are provisional moral truths that exist whether there’s a God or not. In other words, it’s wrong, morally, absolutely morally wrong to rape and murder. And that would be true whether there was a God or not. In other words, if…is God saying that it’s wrong because it’s really wrong, and He’s instructing us in his Holy Scripture that it’s wrong? Or is it only wrong because He said so? And if it turned out there wasn’t a God, would that make it okay? And my answer is no, it really is wrong, whether God says it’s wrong or not. That is to say I think it really exists, a real, moral standard like that. Why? Well, because first, you could ask the person who is being affected, we should always ask the moral recipient of the act, how do you feel about being raped or murdered or stolen from or lied to. And the moral actor will tell you, it doesn’t matter whether, if I could use a current example, I haven’t any idea if Tiger Woods and his wife are religious or not. But you can just ask his wife whether it was morally right or wrong, and she’ll tell you. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a God or not. It’s wrong. And so that’s the first principle. Just ask. Ask the moral recipient of whether it’s right or wrong. But I think Greg’s after something deeper, that is to say is there something even deeper still behind the moral actor’s feelings about how they’re treated. And the answer is yes, I think so. We’re a social species. We don’t live in isolation. We live as members of a group. And as such, there’s no possible way our group could survive, be cohesive, be a unit of any kind of solidarity against other groups, or against a harsh environment. If there were too much violations of social norms, that is if there were constant lying and cheating and raping and murdering, there’s no way a social group could hang together. And as such, as we all know, we’re very tribal. We’re tribal against other groups, but within our groups, we’re very pro-social, altruistic, cooperative. We have a good and evil in our nature. So to this extent, I find myself interesting often in agreement with my conservative friends on most of the things they consider morally, moral truths. That is, we share the same moral values, even though I come at it from a different perspective.

HH: Greg?

GK: Yeah, I’m actually not after something deeper here, Michael. At least to start out the discussion, I’m trying to be as simple and clear and precise as possible, because it’s very easy to weave together a bunch of things that sound persuasive, but turn out to be different things. Like for example, Darwinian evolution, which is a materialistic process, and here I mean the blind watchmaker thesis, the neo-Darwinian synthesis, natural selection working on mutations, and a kind of a cultural evolution that Michael has just referred to as we work together as a group to survive as a group. Those are two entirely different things. One is materialistic, Darwinian, the other one is intelligent design, quite frankly, where the group gets together and makes some determinations to encourage some behavior and discourage others. What I’m trying to do is to be able to answer the question that came up initially, is God necessary for morality, which Michael denies. It’s to say well, what is it that morality, that we’re trying to describe? It is either objective, and therefore an immaterial obligation that applies to certain behaviors, or it is subjective. The things that Michael described were variously subjective, evolutionary elements, subjective cultural elements, but then he affirmed that we all have good and evil in our nature, or an awareness of that. I agree with that entirely. We all are aware of those things. That’s why even if we don’t believe in God, we can still know morality and follow it. The question is what accounts for real, genuine objective morality?

HH: One minute to the break, Michael Shermer.

MS: I’m not arguing for cultural evolution. I’m actually arguing as part of our, what you described as materialistic, natural selection, Darwinian evolution, that it’s not enough to just pretend or fake being a good group member. You actually have to believe it, feel it, and live it. So what I’m arguing is that natural selected certain moral sentiments, as Adam Smith called them, moral feelings, an actual empathy, Adam Smith talked about, we actually empathize with somebody else, we can put ourselves into their shoes and feel their pain, I’m arguing that’s very real. It’s every bit as real a part of our evolutionary heritage as our eyes and our hands.

– – – –

HH: Michael Shermer, when we went to break, you were saying that evolutionary biology has produced a real morality.

MS: Yeah, I think really, Adam Smith had it right in his very first book, The Theory Of Moral Sentiments, long before Darwin, that we actually have in our biological nature, our human nature, the capacity to feel other people’s pain. He called it empathy, we think of it often either as empathy or sympathy. That is, we really do connect to other people. A lot of good research on this now, brain scans, you can show somebody a little video of somebody they know, or have feelings for, getting pricked with a pin, and the same areas of their brain light up, the pain receptors, as in the person getting the pin prick. In other words, we have an evolved tendency to really be deeply, emotionally connected to our fellow group members. And that’s why I say groups like World Vision, where you want to adopt a child, it doesn’t help to show a picture of 10,000 starving African kids. What does affect us is one child, a picture of one child with a little biography. That’s how you get people to adopt a child to donate. The reason for that is because essentially they’re tricking the brain, our brains into making that stranger an honorary family member, an honorary within group member, which is why I argue that free trade is one of the best ways of defusing normal tribal tensions between people. It makes them honorary friends, honorary members. Well, what’s going on there is we’re tricking the brain into sort of this evolutionary rule of thumb – be nice to people that are like you and that are related to you, and that you know, and that are fellow group members, and don’t do what our natural tendency is, is to be tribal and xenophobic against those other guys. And free trade is one of the best things you can do for that. So I’m arguing that’s actually tapping something deep within us.

HH: Greg Koukl?

GK: Yeah, basically, I agree with Mike completely here. We do have this tendency, and it seems to be universal among humankind. The question is, what is that tendency, actually? And what is the best way to explain it? And I see like a handful of significant problems with using evolution to explain morality. The first one is that evolution is a materialistic process. And here, I’m going back to an original point, and I don’t want people to lose it. There is no way that you can take molecules, and reorganize them in any fashion, over any length of time, and have pop out of the mixture an objective moral principle that’s immaterial, and that applies to human beings. All you’re going to get is a reorganization of the molecules. And what they can produce, and this is what Mike has done in his book, and he mentioned just s few moments ago, they can produce sentiments. They can produce feelings. They can produce behavior. But this leads us to the second problem of using evolution to explain morality, is that morality is more than sentiments, feelings and behavior. Morality entails things like motive and intention. I mean, you could have a guy walk into a garage, walk out with a hose, and is that wrong? Well, it depends. Is it his hose or somebody else’s hose? Did he intend to take the other person’s hose? Is he borrowing the hose? So we can see here are elements that are part of the moral thing that needs to be explained, that are immaterial, and therefore the Darwinian explanation can’t even in principle go there. It can’t do that job. But here’s the worst problem. Regardless of what our sentiments happen to be regarding moral actions, we can feel good or feel bad or whatever, the problem is that morality is prescriptive, not merely descriptive. That is it tells us not just what we did, but what we ought to have done in the past, and what we ought to do in the future. That is not something that any Darwinian mechanism can describe, because nothing about my biology can inveigh upon me to act a certain way for moral reasons in the future. It doesn’t tell me why I should be good tomorrow. This is a huge difference between these two views, the descriptive and the prescriptive. Prescriptive is part of morality, and can’t even, in principle, be explained by an evolutionary materialistic system.

HH: Michael Shermer, I’ll give you a start on that. We have about 45 seconds to the break, so you may want to…we’ll come back after the break and pick up. But what’s your start to that?

MS: Well, the start would be that again, let’s not think of evolution just as nature red and tooth and claw, and it’s nasty, brutish and short, but that in fact, we have this whole other social evolution. And I’m not talking about cultural evolution where we consciously make decisions, but subconsciously, because it’s in part of our nature to actually, seriously, deeply feel for other people and their actions, and the consequences of our actions, so that we actually have a sense of right and wrong that we’re born with, but then culture taps into and tweaks, one way or the other.

– – – –

HH: Michael Shermer, when we went to break, Greg had made the argument that the Darwinian model simply cannot explain immaterial concepts like morality, that there’s just no way you can rearrange the molecules to get there. You’re saying well, yes you can.

MS: Yeah, I think so, because if we think of morality as another suite of emotions that are involved with other people’s behaviors, the consequences of our actions, how we feel about them, how people feel about us when we do these things, that’s as every bit as important a biological part of our nature as anything else we talk about. So let’s take a real simple emotion. When you’re hungry, nobody does any calculations about the caloric input/output ratios of eating an apple versus an ice cream, although now it’s posted on the walls for us to see. But we just feel hungry, and we feel hungry for certain kinds of foods. The feeling of hunger is a proxy for something else. Evolution’s done the calculating for us. You need food, so we’re going to, your hypothalamus is going to secrete these certain chemicals that causes your stomach to rumble and so on. When you’re attracted to somebody else, a member of the opposite sex, nobody does the calculation by, let’s say, a man finds a woman attractive who has a .67 hip to waist ratio, and an hourglass figure, although that is pretty much universal. Nobody walks about with calipers taking measurements of who they’re going to want to date or ask out. You just look around, and you just go wow, I really find this woman attractive. It’s a feeling you have, okay? So those are kind of simple emotions, but sliding up the scale, the moral emotions are really no different. When I lie to somebody, I’ve violated a social norm, and they respond in a very angry, hostile way. So those emotions that we both share, guilt, shame, anger, disgust, involved a social relationship that whether it was a norm violation, those are the kinds of emotions that are just like hunger and sexual attraction that are built into us by nature, by evolution. Or, if you wish, this is how God created the moral sentiments, just like He created everything else in the universe, through a process of nature. I think that’s equally reasonable to argue. So I don’t see that it has to be an atheistic viewpoint versus a theistic viewpoint to get to our moral sentiments. Why couldn’t God have used evolution to create the moral sentiments as I’ve described them?

GK: Yeah, well, you don’t actually believe that, I know, Mike, so this is kind of like adding God to the soup, you know, if it makes people feel better. But the basic argument is that evolution all by itself can do the trick. And I think if your listeners are listening carefully, what they’re going to hear is Mike has just described, and if I’m being unfair to your assessment here, let me know, Mike, that moral feelings are simply that. They are sophisticated emotions that do some work for us for survival, and even on a group level. Now there’s a name for this. It’s called emotivism. A.J. Ayer, the famous atheist, offered this description of morality. It’s a relativistic scheme of morality. Morality doesn’t actually exist, Ayer argued. There is no objective right or wrong. Rape isn’t wrong itself. What happens is, we have feelings about it, and we express it in moral language, but rape isn’t really wrong. So your listeners are going to have to ask themselves the questions. When they just survey their own moral senses, and we all have access to this, do we want to believe that scientists have figured out that really what we’re doing is feeling sophisticated, complicated emotions, and that the emotions are in us, and we are not seeing anything about the action? Or does it seem like rape is wrong? Look, when I say rape is wrong, I’m talking about the rape. When I say liver is awful, I’m talking about me. I’m talking about my own tastes and preferences. It’s interesting, as Michael has given his explanation, though, that he’s doing, and I don’t know if you are aware of this, Michael, but you’re doing the very thing that I kind of warned against. You give a description of the foundations of morality that turn out to be relativistic, but then there’s a smuggling of a more objectivistic morality in the back door, like when Michael says you don’t have to do what your nature tells you to do, in other words, what you’ve been programmed by evolution to do. You can kind of rise above that. Well, now we’re talking about a morality that isn’t dictated by evolution, but a morality that we can employ through our acts of will, to rise above this kind of brutish evolutionary morality. And that sounds suspiciously like the very thing that I’m talking about here.

MS: But I don’t mean, there’s nothing to rise above by itself. Yes, we have to say rise above our tribal instincts to be xenophobic when we meet somebody who’s a stranger, who’s different from us. We all struggle against that, particularly in a black and white America, where there’s always been this underlying tension. Indeed, so culture helps us do that – education, travel, diversity of exposure to different people. That makes you a little more tolerant. Okay, but I’m not talking about that. What I’m talking about is tapping into the good part of our nature, the fact that in addition to that xenophobic tribalism we have, we also have this other side that almost never gets discussed in evolutionary…even in evolutionary circles, you’ll still hear evolutionary biologists talking about, in a way that Huxley did, and Herbert Spencer did in Darwin’s own time, that we have to somehow struggle mightily against our genes to overcome that nasty tendency we have to want to rape, kill, pillage and destroy. Well no, actually, we have this whole other side that’s just as genetically programmed into our nature. And the point of culture – education, politics, economics and so on, is to tap into the better angels of our nature as Lincoln said.

GK: Okay, here’s the question I have for you, Michael, then. You’ve identified that really, we have good and we have bad. That’s part of, under your terms, that’s part of our genetic nature, and we can choose to tap into what you call the good side. Why ever should we do such a thing if there is not a higher standard that directs our action to the better side, your words, than the bad side, your words, if really, ultimately, they are both the result of a genetic evolution, and from outside terms, neither is better than the other. Why should we do that, Michael?

MS: Yeah, well I don’t see how entering God into the equation changes that problem at all.

GK: Well, that’s the next step. What I’m trying to show is that the should comes from the outside, and if we can demonstrate that, then we can ask…

4 thoughts on “Greg Koukl debates Michael Shermer on God, atheism, meaning and morality”

  1. I wonder how Michael Schermer would respond to the situation that some people who commit horrific crimes have felt no remorse or guilt about what they did? Charles Panzram, for example, didn’t regret anything he did other than he couldn’t kill all of humanity. If you asked him how he felt about what he did he would tell you. If he were still alive I would say, “go ahead, ask him how he feels.” Charles Panzram did tell the world how he feels to a prison guard who wrote down all his craziness and then eventually had it successfully published many years later.
    It seems to me that Michael Schermer (like so many village atheists) are simply unwilling to logically follow through with the full implications of being a materialists/physicalist in metaphysics. A.J. Ayers (and others) have had the courage to do so.

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  2. As I read through Shermer’s responses I couldn’t help but think of the book “Ordinary Men” by Christopher Browning.

    https://tinyurl.com/y5fybnom

    It is worth the read but here is a significant synopsis posted by an Amazon reviewer:

    Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
    It seems to me that we in the West are like men in a cavern, out of which lead many paths, none signposted. Some paths lead to bright futures, but other paths lead to terrible ones, among them those where, once again as we did not so very long ago, we slaughter each other over ideology. And the way back is closed, so we must choose one path forward. The service of this book is that it illustrates Solzhenitsyn’s dictum, that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Thus, reflecting upon this book may help us choose the correct exit from the cavern, and to that end, it is worth bearing the unease that comes over us when we read books like this.

    This book, a staple of Holocaust studies for twenty-five years, has recently risen to fresh prominence due to repeated mentions of it by Canadian psychologist, and superstar, Jordan Peterson. His focus on the book arises from his own decades-long study of evil regimes, and his thought on how we, you and I, would really react if we lived under an actual such regime. Peterson’s basic point is that we are deluding ourselves if we think we would be heroes; the vast majority of us would fall somewhere on the scale of cooperation with evil. “Ordinary Men” shows that principle in application, in the history of a group of German men who saw militarized police service in Poland during World War II.

    Christopher Browning’s focus is on a “reserve police” (Ordnungspolizei) battalion, Number 101. This battalion consisted of roughly five hundred men and was composed mostly of working class men from Hamburg. Very few had any Nazi political background; most, to the extent they had political views, were probably Social Democrats. They were not soldiers; they were nationalized paramilitary police, of a type not found in America, but common in Europe, then and now. Basically, they were a combination of police force and National Guardsmen; not eligible, for the most part, for regular military service, due to age or some other reason, but frequently used to support operations in areas where the German military had conquered.

    What was special about this battalion was not its composition, or its actions, which were roughly the same as several similar battalions. Rather, it’s that we can know a lot of what these men actually did, which is not the case for most such units, lost among the fog of war and the desire to conceal the past. In the 1960s the German authorities conducted and transcribed, as part of a criminal investigation, extensive interviews with all the surviving Battalion 101 members they could find. Apparently this was one of the few battalions whose membership list was extant at that time, hence the focus on this battalion. It was these court records to which Browning, in the late 1980s, was able to gain access (though he was forbidden from revealing actual names except for those few men actually convicted of crimes, so he uses pseudonyms throughout), and which he used to construct what is part history and part psychological analysis. In more recent years additional such data has been mined and published, but Browning was the first to conduct a study of this type. He is very cautious in his approach, noting that no individual’s testimony can be taken at face value, but claiming, I think accurately, that by judicious and open-minded examination of the mass of testimony, triangulating claims against each other and against known history, a great deal can be determined with a high degree of certainty.

    The relevant area here is Poland in 1941 and 1942. Reserve Battalion 101 did not operate in Russia, but other similar battalions did, participating after Hitler’s invasion in 1941 in the rounding up, and increasingly frequent organized murder, of Jews in locations like Minsk. Many such battalions ended up pressed into frontline fighting, though, and the Germans fairly quickly transferred killing duties to locally recruited elements, who were for the most part only too happy to help out, unlike, as we will see, some of the reserve battalion’s policemen. Battalion 101, however, continued its behind-the-lines focus throughout the war, never serving as a fighting military unit.

    Beginning in 1940, Battalion 101 was used to resettle Poles (mostly not Jews) in Western Poland, around Łódź. This was deportation, but not killing or transport to death camps (which did not exist in 1940). At the end of 1940, the battalion took up guard duties at the Łódź ghetto, into which the 160,000 Jews of Łódź had been crammed. Again, this did not involve killing, though it involved mistreatment and dehumanization of Jews, if not by the battalion’s own men, then by other Nazis involved in guard duties. In mid-1941, the battalion returned to Hamburg and was functionally dissolved and re-formed; it these mostly newly enrolled men on whom Browning’s book focuses.

    Battalion 101’s direct involvement in massacres began in July 1942, as the Final Solution got into full swing. The first massacre was in the Polish village of Józefów, where the battalion was ordered to collect the roughly 1,800 Jews living there; to shoot women, children and old people on the spot, and ship out male Jews suitable for slave labor to Lublin. The battalion’s commandant, Major Wilhelm Trapp, gave a speech to the men in which he expressed some distress and said that men would not be punished for asking for guard or transport duty. A handful took advantage of the offer; the rest, in a highly disorganized, ad hoc, fashion, trucked Jews from the town, marched them into the nearby woods, and chaotically shot them in batches at point-blank range. (Here, and throughout the book, the fate of children is somewhat opaque—they must have been killed, but nobody, even Browning, seems to really want to talk about the details.) During the killing, some more, maybe ten percent to twenty percent, of the battalion’s men made themselves scarce, either by hiding or simply moving about with apparent purpose, but taking advantage of the confusion to not participate directly in the killing. Most of the men, however, participated to the end; when they returned to barracks, many were shaken, and alcohol was provided, but there was no collective pushback against what they had done.

    In August, Battalion 101 assisted in collecting Jews from various villages, for transportation to Treblinka, collecting them and packing them into the infamous cattle cars. Many Jews were shot during these operations, but killing Jews wasn’t the immediate goal, and local auxiliary forces (so-called Hiwis) did most of the actual killing. Then, in the fall, the battalion was directly involved in several more mass shootings ordered from above. (Who did the ordering is lost to history, as with so many things in war, and the Germans who organized the Final Solution were keen to avoid records, not so much for fear of punishment in this life, but because they thought the masses of Germans should not know what had been done.) These later shootings were more organized, since techniques had been learned and practiced, and, more importantly, men within the battalion had risen to positions of authority who either did not mind directing such work, or positively enjoyed it.

    The mass of men in the battalion had gotten used to carrying out their orders. Those who objected, of whom Browning profiles several, and who may have been as many as ten percent of the total, were the target of strong social pressure but were not punished, and the most vociferous objectors were ultimately transferred back to units based in Germany. More shootings and deportation followed, along with “Jew hunts” for those who had gone into hiding or become, or joined, partisans. The final killing in which the battalion participated was the massive killing in the fall of 1943, the “Harvest Festival” massacres, in which Heinrich Himmler ordered the coordinated extermination of the Jews in Lublin work camps. (While Browning does not mention it, the man in charge of “Harvest Festival,” Christian Wirth, was instrumental in the Aktion T4 program, the Nazi killing of the handicapped that preceded and smoothed the path for the Holocaust.) “For a battalion of less than 500 men, the ultimate body count was at least 83,000 Jews.”

    Reading all this is exhausting, even in a fairly short book. The usual disturbing details, hard to understand, crop up, such as that Jews went to their deaths with “quiet composure.” Browning humanizes, or at least reifies, the men of the battalion, drawing incisive sketches of them, as known through the interviews to which he had access. Generally, those few who did not participate, or limited their participation, were usually of a slightly higher social class than the other men. Several were tradesmen who had their own businesses and were not interested in a postwar police career, and so were more independent. Roman Catholics seemed to be the most likely to refuse—but there were few in Hamburg, so this was not a large group, either. But, as one would expect, no one factor dictated a man’s behavior. Or rather, one single factor hard to define did—his character.

    So why did “ordinary men” men become killers of innocents? Browning goes through each possibility. The first is conformity, “the basic identification of the men in uniform with their comrades and the strong urge not to separate themselves from the group by stepping out.” In essence, this is peer pressure. The second is a desire and compulsion to obey authority from above, reinforced by the “legitimizing capacities of government,” a strong element in the German mindset. The third is the men’s belief that they had no choice, that punishment for themselves or their families would follow a refusal to obey orders. As Browning notes, though, there is no example known in all the war of a single incident of a soldier being punished for refusal to murder civilians, much less any repercussions for his family, although that’s not to say threats were not made. Punishment of uninvolved family members for political offenses was, and is, a Left/Communist specialty, not used to any relevant degree by the Nazis. The fourth is anti-Semitism, conditioned by years of Nazi propaganda (or, perhaps, as discussed below, by the German social culture and pysche itself, not merely by Nazism). The fifth, beyond mere anti-Semitism, is aggressive indoctrination, creating the active principle of eliminationism of which intellectual anti-Semitism was the passive precursor. But, as Browning notes, these men were not political Nazis, for the most part, and relative to, for example, the SS, they received cursory indoctrination, in which at most a dislike for Jews was inculcated, not a desire to kill Jews.

    Browning seems to think that of these five, conformity was the key element, but that any individual man’s behavior cannot be isolated to one simple explanation. He points to the Stanford prison experiment as evidence that average men can quickly become cruel and treat others in dehumanizing ways, which is certainly true, as shown by this book, although it turns out that the actual Stanford experiment was pretty much a fraud, and not replicable to boot. Browning also adduces Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment with test subjects giving electric shocks to people at the command of an authority figure, noting the effect both of authority and peer pressure/conformity (although that experiment has also been criticized as far removed from the real world). My opinion is that pointing to these experiments isn’t particularly helpful to the reader; the mere recitation of the facts, combined with the (presumably far less traumatic) experiences of each of us, should be enough to show that conformity, by itself or combined with other factors, is itself enough to create murderers, for all men are fallen, and Order Police Battalion 101 is just another example in an endless litany. Each of us can be Cain.

    The only explanation that Browning rejects outright is that the actions of Battalion 101, and of all those who killed Jews in the Holocaust, were the result of some uniquely evil strain in the German psyche, springing from centuries of anti-Semitism as the core defining element of German culture. And there lies the post-publication history of this book. Browning’s core point is that these were ordinary men, not ordinary German men, and that to focus on their being German makes us feel that the Holocaust is unique, and therefore can be ignored as not having real lessons for the future, since the Germans appear to have left anti-Semitism behind. When this book came out, in 1992, it was widely acclaimed. In 1996, though, Daniel Goldhagen (known for his book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” a 1998 expansion on his arguments with Browning) attacked “Ordinary Men,” claiming that Browning had this analysis exactly wrong, and the problem was the Germans themselves, each and every one.

    I am hardly a Holocaust studies expert, but my understanding is that a basic divide is between “functionalists,” like Browning, and “intentionalists.” As the names suggest, the functionalists see the Holocaust as not being specifically planned and not being the necessary consequence of German sociology or even Nazi ideology, but something that organically developed as an intersection of ideology and events. In another universe, the Germans won the war quickly, and most Jews were not killed, but perhaps deported to Madagascar or Africa. Hitler probably never directly ordered the Holocaust and did not plan it; he stated the need for the “Final Solution” (which Browning believes was, until 1941, conceived of purely as a geographic relocation solution), and the well-known principle of “moving toward the Führer,” combined with the anarchy and internal competition of the Nazi state, along with circumstance, did the rest. The intentionalists, in opposition, see the Holocaust as the precise and deliberate culmination of a twenty-year plan. Lacking documentary evidence for this, they tend to focus, like Goldhagen, on the idea that the Germans uniformly lusted to kill Jews, as a result of German social psychology. Hitler just gave them permission to do what they all wanted to do all along.

    I knew none of this until I read this book, and came upon the Afterword, published in 1998 by Browning to respond to Goldhagen’s attack on him. Browning scathingly dismisses Goldhagen, in terms quite aggressive for an academic dispute. He distinguishes between German “xenophobic” anti-Semitism, common enough but not supremely important in the culture, and the much rarer “chimeric” or “redemptive” anti-Semitism found in true ideologues, such as Himmler, and a “fringe phenomenon” until 1933. He points out that if Goldhagen’s thesis is true, and the Germans were not indoctrinated into anti-Semitism by the Nazis, how were they so easily indoctrinated out of anti-Semitism after the war? He notes many other mass killings of equal viciousness, from Yugoslavia in the war, to Mao to Stalin, to Cambodia, to Rwanda. He accuses Goldhagen of bad history on many fronts, including the idea that anti-Semitism was more important to most Germans as a threat than Social Democracy or the Triple Entente. He notes that the Nazis were more than happy to kill many others besides Jews, especially Russians and Poles. He rips Goldhagen for bias, cherry picking his data and terrible social science methodology. The cumulative effect, though I have not read Goldhagen myself, is pretty devastating.

    In any case, Browning is correct that the behavior of Reserve Police Battalion 101 is not unique. It is, as Peterson says, what all of us could become—perhaps some of us might be the non-conformist, retroactively, in the right circumstances, baptized as heroes. But probably not. And that implies that if ideological mass, mechanized killing returns to the West, it will find little difficulty implementing the desires of ideologues.

    We on the Right tend to see this as a threat always over the horizon when the Left dominates, and that is true enough as a historical matter—the vast majority of such twentieth-century ideological killing was conducted by the Left, in an attempt to reach the Utopia that justified sacrifice, or at least the sacrifice of others. And yes, most significant killing by the Right in the twentieth century (leaving aside the Nazis, who had a great deal of leftist ancestry), was measured and usually proportionate, the result of civil war and the need to eliminate direct and existential threats, as in Chile, for example. But the Right should not be complacent—the same demonic, chthonic drives that spur on the Left recur, in their own fashion, in the Right, if less often. We easily forget the Ustasha in Croatia, for example, and, again, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.

    The Right must reckon with the truth that, in any future ideological hot conflict with the Left in America, towards which the Left is pushing hard, it would be easy for ordinary men to once again descend into eliminationism—particularly if the Right becomes informed by its own utopian ideology, rather than by the simple desire to break the current power of the Left and return society to basic virtue and the opportunity for human flourishing. Ideology, especially utopian ideology, is not only seductive and gives apparent meaning and simplicity; it is also an effective way to organize people and power. Merely offering a better life not crushed by the Left does not move men’s souls in the same way. Very few will die on the barricades for Russell Kirk. We see stirrings of a Right ideological movement, attractive as always to aimless young men, in groups like Gavin McInnes’s Proud Boys. It’s amusing to see the evil and terroristic Antifa get beat up, as they deserve, but it’s not a good sign for the future. Writ large, ultimately such movements, or rather their successors, can lead to the same type of behavior that Browning expertly narrates. Thus, reading this book, and listening to people like Jordan Peterson, may serve as a form of inoculation against such a dystopian future. All young men should be required to read it. For some, like Antifa, it will be taken as a how-to guide, but for others, it may dampen the wars to come.

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  3. Saying “Our morals evolved” commits the Genetic Fallacy: that how we come to know something determines its validity.

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