There is also a moral case against it: it eviscerates us.
(There is also a moral case against evisceration, but I’m quite sure it doesn't require any elaboration here.)
Let’s take a simple example from my own life to demonstrate this point:
When I was a wee young lad, I suffered from an acute fear of needles. This was of course perfectly natural, as needles are clearly evil – long, thin, pointy extrusions of malignancy is what they are.
Cunning too. Needles often came to me in the guise of harmless tools, mere implements wielded by smiling, white-coated men working in service of public health. “Vaccines” they called them. But I knew better. Those men were no more in control of those needles than they were of the sun.
You see, when a needle comes into being, it brings into the world a single-minded purpose -- call it a will to prick. And this purpose it will bear out, not by hook, or by crook, but by insidious insistence on its thin, glinting raison d'être. Even a doctor, Hippocratic oath and all, cannot look upon a needle without being co-opted. “Look,” he says, “Here is a tool I can use to further my profession. Here is salvation from plague and pestilence! And at so little cost, too. Just a little prick…” The needle you see, has won before the game ever begins.
Knowing this, when presented with a needle, I tended to decline. Indeed, once was I so firmly diplomatic in declining that a burly nurse had to be called in to pin me to the table.
This incident led to a certain amount of remonstrance on the part of my parents and the doctors. It also meant that future visits to the needles’ lair were preceded both by stern lectures and sympathetic commiserations all aimed at buying my compliance. And eventually, they worked. I learned to accept needles as a sort of black magic, demons, but demons who could be bought. For a price, just a thimbleful of blood, sometimes less, they would turn their vicious, pointy little wills on my microbial enemies.
In other words, I learned my lesson, as we all (in the developed, needle-co-opted world) must do.
Or so I thought we all must do.
Then, while driving to work the other day, I heard this story on NPR. For non-link followers, the gist was that Marin County, California, a hotbed of post-hippie idealism, has also become a hotbed of non-vaccination.
Needless to say, I became irate. “Do you all want to die?!” I shouted at the radio. “Did you have so much fun learning about the plague in school that you wanted to try it for yourselves?! Did you ever stop to consider that everyone else has to participate in your mad experiment too?!” Since the radio didn't answer, my questions became louder and increasingly rhetorical. In fact, several nearby cars had to swerve to avoid the violence and unpredictability of my rhetoric. The radio, however, was unfazed, and continued to drone on, breathily, about measles outbreaks, lawsuits, and distraught public health officials.
Eventually I calmed down, returned to my own lane, and began to consider the problem. “How,” I thought, “could anyone be so stupid as to ignore the clear benefits of using black magic to conjure away the plague demons? Couldn't they tell a lesser demon from a greater?” But this time, the questions were no longer rhetorical. I really wanted to know how non-vaccination could happen in thinking adults. So I did some research. The answer to the first question: Humans are terrible at evaluating threat levels. The logically-following answer to the second: No.
So why can’t we tell a lesser demon from a greater? Well, actually we can, but not in person. The thing about demons is, they have magnetic personalities. They are extremely charismatic. For proof, consider the afore-mentioned charisma of the needle. Meeting a demon in person knocks most of us off our feet, at least, off of our mental feet. We tend to forget about all the other marauding evils that tread the dark places in our societies as soon as we get lost in the bottomless Dracula pupils of whichever demon has just stepped out into the light before us.
We think we are coming to our senses when we finally break free of that gaze to turn and run, but the truth of the matter is that we fly, as often as not, only into the arms of deeper and darker powers. Thus do non-vaccinating parents, fearing the admittedly black magic of the needle, ring the dinner bell for lurking plague beasties uncontemplated, but many times more pernicious.
There is a solution, however, or at least, a practice that may mitigate our tendency to ascribe the greatest threat to the most conspicuous harm, and that practice is abstraction. Exactly what my parents used on me.
First, they asked, “What does the needle want?” That was an easy question.
“It wants to hurt me.”
“That’s right.” They responded. “But does it want to kill you?”
“I don’t think it cares.”
“Right again. It just wants into your flesh, living or dead.” I didn’t see how this was reassurance. Then the next question came, “What does a virus want?”
“What’s a virus?” I countered.
“It’s a germ. Tiny. Smaller than one of your cells. Like a little machine. Not really even alive. On the outside, it has little barbed hooks and knives to cut a hole in your cells’ outer wall. Then it injects a little piece of itself in disguise—“
“Injects?!” I thought, losing the thread of the discussion. Inject was a needle word, a bad word, a badge of the enemy! “What?” I said.
“—it injects a piece of itself in disguise, and your cell thinks that piece is a piece of its own. A cell is made to make more cells, so it starts to copy that piece, unknowingly building more viruses, until there are so many inside that it can’t hold them all, and it bursts open, and all the viruses flood out.”
“Oh my God!” I said. “Oh my God, they’re tiny needles!” I thought.
“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain.” they said. “You need to stay on His good side or He’ll make more viruses. Now, one more time, what do viruses want?”
“They want to make more needles,” I said in horror.
“What?” they said.
“They want to make more viruses.” I said.
“Right. Now listen, the doctors’ needles are full of dead viruses. When they inject them into you, your cells learn what they look like, so they can fight back.”
From there the lecture continued, and I got the history of plague and the relative risks of various anti-viral and antibiotic techniques, the difference between bacteria and viruses, etc, etc. It all kind of blurred together as I contemplated a new and terrifying piece of information. Viruses were needles that could reproduce. The doctors’ needles were anti-viral. Indeed, they were stuffed with the corpses of dead or zombified viruses. Clearly the doctors’ needles didn't like the competition and had conscripted human allies to fight back. The doctor’s needles were virus enemies, and the enemy of my enemy…
I cannot tell how much of this train of thought my parents had anticipated. Likely a great deal. In any case, the lecture had the desired effect, but not I think, especially because of its content.
Rather, the context of the lecture was what made my realization possible. A lecture might be boring or irritating, but it was a safe zone. While being lectured, I could be sure that no needles would turn up. Lectures were for contemplating needles in the abstract. “What is a needle?” was the question, not, “What is this?” “What does a needle want?” was the question, not “Can’t you see this needle has your best interests at heart?” It should be clear that the abstracted needle was by far a superior rhetorical tool. Held firmly in the imagination, and therefore stripped of its charisma, it could be considered without the roiling of the viscera it always engendered in person.
Hence the moral argument for abstraction. Considering an entity that isn’t present allows us to judge, viscera-free, the relative threat it poses. Then we can all do a better job both of protecting ourselves and of protecting others.
There’s a great deal more to say about this, especially because permanent freedom from viscera is no recipe for success. We have to think about when to feel. But for now, just think: the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so ponder your enemies, and ponder theirs.