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.

  1. Why does ‘dominion’ “sound bad”? While I more or less agree with your observations re DCU’s VN post, I don’t understand why ‘dominion’ on its face is less good than ‘stewardship’; aren’t they just aspects of the same reality?

  2. This brings to mind a comment made at the recent CPAC meeting. Ann Coulter was asked who was her favorite democrat. Her answer, “That’s like asking what’s my favorite disease.”

    Plus: Since Rachel Carson’s, et al, hysteria about an unproved “silent spring” and concomitamt bans on DDT, etc. tens of millions of Africans (possibly needlessly) suffered from malaria, sleeping sickness, etc. all of which may have been averted . . .

    Here are the Commandments: Love God with your whole strength, whole heart and whole mind: in truth and in spirit ; and love your neighbor as yourself.

    In that light, keeping smallpox alive sounds sinful. Unless, of course you define small pox as your brother or neighbor.

    Your faith must be as the little child’s.

    Let’s see: some cogitate on a small pox (you need an eletrcom microscope to see one) virus’ right to life, but an eight-month old unborn human doesn’t . . . Oh, maybe that explains voting for Obama.

  3. Yeah, I’m with you that this seems a very odd way of framing the question in regards to small pox.

    I would, likewise, tend to think that keeping a few secure lab samples around would be the wiser choice, since they’d be needed to create vaccines at some future point. But seeing it as a violation of creation to destroy the last samples of small pox does seem odd.

    I think it might be a spill over of the somewhat magical power that some people assign to the idea of a species, and thus the utter horror that people have with the idea of species going extinct. Whereas in the point of fact, while from a conservationist point one certainly doesn’t want to see people needlessly wiping species out, it is quite normal for species to go extinct as environments change and new competitors appear.

  4. The VN article implicitly assumes that there are two contradictory creation stories. Its analysis further implies that we are to choose which creation story we are to follow on the basis of its advice. The article doesn’t say that; it definitely doesn’t say that. I doubt the author thinks in those terms. But it does soften the reader to that sort of analysis.

    The choice between dominion and stewardship is false. To make an inadequate analogy, it would be like a reader of the OT and NT trying to decide if God is one or three. The truth is not a choice between A and B; it’s a blending of them.

    A better analogy would be – actually, it’s a great analogy – should the husband be the leader of the family (dominion) or should he love his wife and children (stewardship). The truth is that the husband is called to be both, each aspect reinforcing the other. It’s worth noting that the dual understanding, that we are to be lords and stewards of creation, would yield the sane framework for this topic, which is a bias toward humanity over smallpox. The fact that the VN author’s underlying approach would yield a framework that can’t choose between a virus and humanity is a powerful indication that the underlying thought is flawed.

  5. I think there may be a world view difference that you sort of touch on….

    I think the best way to lay it out is this:
    Imagine that two murderers separately kill two groups of people, in situations utterly identical except for two points:
    the first kills 50 but does not wipe out the group (mass murder);
    the second kills 40 and wipes out the group he killed. (genocide)

    Which is worse?

    (I wish this were purely fancy, but I’ve had folks inform me that genocide is always worse than murder– even if the “genocide” consists of killing the last member of a group for a totally unrelated reason, such as “he was trying to kill me.” See, sci fi is good for something….)