Against Small Pox
There is a saying among logicians: one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens. In english, the idea is that different people often respond to the same argument by reaching opposite conclusions. If you see that an argument is valid, a logical response is to accept its conclusion. But another, equally logical response is to reject the argument’s premise.
That seems to be the situation with a recent post by David Curz-Uribe of the blog Vox Nova. David begins by contrasting two different views of the relationship between human beings and the rest of creation:
In the first account God tells Adam and Eve: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.” The sense here is of total control, ownership, “dominion.” On the other hand, in the second account it says that “The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.” Here the sense is of stewardship: caring for something that they do not own.
I do not want to read too much into these short passages, but I think that this tension still affects our current understanding of the world around us. If the world is “ours” in the sense we have complete control over it, then we can do what we want, subject only to our prudential judgment of how to treat our property. On the other hand, if the world is God’s, then our decisions must show deference to God’s own plan. We are stewards, and presumably (like all stewards) have a great deal of autonomy and authority, but in the end we are constrained by the plan of the actual Master of creation.
In the abstract I am more inclined towards the stewardship interpretation than the dominion interpretation given above (if for no other reason than that “stewardship” sounds nice while “dominion” sounds bad). Yet as David notes, the stewardship interpretation has some unusual implications:
[D]espite the very compelling arguments of those who argue for the destruction of smallpox, some part of me hesitates to willingly destroy any part of God’s creation. Now this is not, I hope, the “Bambi syndrome”: I hope that I am not getting all dewy eyed over a virus whose main function seems to have been to kill 100?s of millions. Nevertheless, it is part of God’s creation, and therefore part of God’s plan, if only in the contingent sense that God created a world in which diseases such as smallpox would evolve.
David is referring here to recent arguments about whether the last remaining samples of small pox ought to be destroyed (the basic argument is that if we keep the samples around, there is a risk of accidental release, which could kill millions, whereas if we get rid of it and in turns out someone else has some small pox – a terrorist organization, say – then we would be unable to quickly recreate the vaccine in case of an outbreak, and millions will die).
Strangely, I find myself in almost complete disagreement with David’s assessment (no offense!) On the one hand, I don’t find the arguments in favor of destroying the last remaining samples very compelling (maybe it’s just the illusion of control, but I’d rather risk an accidental outbreak than risk an intention one we can’t respond to). On the other hand, my objections to destroying the last small pox samples are entirely a matter of what David terms prudential judgment. The idea that perhaps we shouldn’t destroy the last small pox samples because that would be destroying part of God’s creation strikes me as something of a reductio ad absurdum of the stewardship view of creation. The truth is that we “destroy” parts of creation all the time. Whenever we cut down a tree to build a house or a fire or a children’s trinket, we are “destroying” a part of creation as much as we are when we destroy a sample of small pox in the lab. For that matter, the fact is that we have already destroyed 99.999999% of all small pox virus, and the remaining viruses exist not in their “natural habitat” but in artificial laboratory conditions.
Granted, the dominion view also has unpleasant implications (it would seem to mean, for example, that the reason we work to preserve nature, to the extent that we do, is because we enjoy it or benefit from it, not because it has some inherent dignity that must be respected). But compared to the implications that seem to follow from the stewardship view, it’s not a close contest. The only mystery (to me) is why anyone wouldn’t see it this way.