Conscience money

Via Ophelia, we get this comment by Christopher Hitchens, addressing the Catholic Church in his debate about religion with Tony Blair:

if I was a member of a church that had preached that AIDS was not as bad as condoms, I would be putting some conscience money into Africa too, I must say. I’m not trying to be funny. If I was trying to be funny, you mistook me. It won’t bring back the millions of people who have died wretched deaths because of that teaching, that still goes on.

What strikes me about this, aside from a deepening of my hatred for debates as means of addressing interesting questions, is that Blair surely could not have asked the obvious followup. Because while Hitchens is not a member of a religious denomination responsible for bringing suffering to Africa, he and Blair are both charter members in a political denomination that has brought unspeakable suffering to the people of Iraq. And I wonder how much conscience money he’s put into rebuilding Iraq, and into rebuilding the international relationships shattered by the ill-advised war which Blair launched and for which Hitchens shilled?

Hitchens, remember, was then a columnist at The Nation, America’s institutional left-wing journal of opinion. I suspect that more rhetorical power came from his warmongering in that venue (“Even the liberal Nation says we should invade…”) than from the fictions Judith Miller penned at The New York Times. Because serious people don’t think the Times is really that liberal, so their warmongering could be read as the usual sensible centrism, while The Nation‘s seeming pro-war stance cut the anti-war effort off at the knees.


  1. #1 Deepak Shetty
    November 28, 2010

    While I agree in general with the point you are making , Blair could not have made the point anyway (even if he was completely blameless for the war in Iraq) – it would be a tu quoque fallacy.

  2. #2 Saikat Biswas
    November 28, 2010

    If Hitchens were to donate his entire personal wealth as ‘conscience money’ towards rebuilding Iraq and were he to serve on every committee aiming to mend shattered international relationships, would you then accept his argument against the Catholic Church’s position on condoms and AIDS?

  3. #3 SocraticGadfly
    November 28, 2010

    Ohhh, what a smackdown! But, surely, Hitch has sent millions of $$$ to his drunkenness-beloved Kurds, has he not?

    Bottom line: as an epistemological skeptic, and a bit of an Academic philosophical skeptic, NOTHING is a force for unmitigated good or evil – in this case, neither religion nor Wilsonian nation-building.

  4. #4 G.D.
    November 28, 2010

    Isn’t your “obvious” point here something of a tu quoque fallacy, Josh? Regardless of Hitchens’s failures with respect to the Iraq war, his point seems pretty good to me.

  5. #5 SocraticGadfly
    November 28, 2010

    Oh, here’s my take on issues of moral equivalency at play here, and whether we can semi-rationally make moral equivalence judgements:

  6. #6 Rob Knop
    November 29, 2010

    I would probably quote this dude from a couple thousand years ago who said something about “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, but then I’d be subject to a bunch of assaults from extreme atheists who thinks that I can’t be intellectual honest as a scientist or some such.

  7. #7 Deepak Shetty
    November 29, 2010

    Rob Knop
    Ah but society doesn’t work this way. Replace adulterer with paedophile – see if your “let he who is without sin” works.

    Is this enough of an assault?

  8. #8 Josh Rosenau
    November 29, 2010

    It would be a “tu quoque” if Hitchens were actually helping those he’d harmed, and if I claimed that this invalidated his critique of Catholicism. I was making a separate point, not attempting to refute his claim about Catholicism. Paying “conscience money” isn’t the worst possible idea, frankly.

  9. #9 Don
    November 29, 2010

    Hitchens’ conscience should bother him on Iraq. But it wasn’t The Nation that supported the war, just Hitchens. He eventually left because (as I recall) he was alone among Nation contributors in supporting the war.

  10. #10 J.J.E.
    November 30, 2010

    Completely irrelevant. Even if Hitchens were worse than Stalin himself and personally with his own hands had killed millions of people, it wouldn’t be pertinent to the discussion unless his killing was directly related to the topic of the debate: i.e. religion. A classic red herring that serves to distract.

    When it comes to religion (the topic of the debate as I recall), the Catholic Church (the biggest religious organization on the face of the planet earth throughout all of human history) certainly deserves criticism. And those who who have been active members of the church and who haven’t voiced their opposition to that share in the blame. Hence Hitchen’s point. I’m not sure what Iraq has anything to do with the topic of the debate. It would be similarly irrelevant any number of foreign policy boners that Blair had pulled while in office. The topic is religion.

  11. #11 Josh Rosenau
    November 30, 2010

    JJE: I grant freely that my point is irrelevant to the debate Hitchens was having. The topic there was, as you say, religion, and I don’t really care about HItchens’s or Blair’s views on religion. If Blair brought this same point up as a counterargument, he’d deserve criticism. I’m not bringing it up as a counterargument.

    I’m bringing it up because I’m pissed off at Hitchens for getting us into Iraq and for demonizing anyone who didn’t agree with his disastrously ill-conceived notions about that war’s awesomeness. And it amuses me that he’s able to see the log in the Catholic Church’s eye around one firmly embedded in his own.

  12. #12 J.J.E.
    December 1, 2010

    Fair enough. Your blog, your topics. But I do think it is worth noting that in the context of the debate (not your blog, but the debate) Hitchen’s point is fair game while yours isn’t.

    Of course, you do discuss bad policy of all kinds here, and I suppose it is worthwhile to call out Hitch every time you get chance on his Iraqi delusion. But it did seem a bit of an odd juxtaposition given that I was expecting something of a religious nature.

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