A Tender Evil

Alfie Evans and the tyranny of empathy

My newborn son sleeps calmly next to my wife as I read the inevitable headline that young Alfie Evans has died. Becoming a father takes all of your worst fears and replaces them with the thought of your child suffering or dying. Witnessing or hearing of the suffering and dying of someone else’s child is almost as bad, since it brings on the fear that it might happen to yours. To even know that such horrors happen (and happen every day) is enough to stress one’s faith in the goodness in all things to an uncomfortable limit. The sentiment feels more like animal recoil than human emotion, perhaps the result of some bygone genetic adaptation. But it must be resisted.

Tenderness must be resisted because it is precisely this kind of sentimentality that perpetrated the peculiar indignity of Evans’s death: his abduction from his parents by professionals who made sure he expired instead of leaving the country to pursue an outside chance at life, or at least death on the dignity of his own time. Certainly many well meaning alarmists will make his killers out to be coldhearted calculators of dollars and cents or brainwashed socialists or numb nihilists in the grip of the banality of evil. But pass a decade or two in an urban center–the kind that boasts of “thought leaders”–and you will know better. I am certain that the bureaucrats and experts that removed Alfie Evans from the care of his family did it from the bottom of their hearts. This was a crime of passion.

It is no mistake that the denizens of First World countries both dote on their children more lavishly than anywhere else and kill them in record numbers. In the United States for example, the Federal limit on when you may end your child’s life is as generous as the kindness lavished upon the healthy, able-bodied survivors. Yet there is no absence of empathy in these places. Denizens of the modern West are right to make much of their ability to feel the suffering of others as if it was one’s own. It is this sort of tenderness that cannot abide to watch the suffering of a child, and so it must make sure the suffering ends–but whether it is to put an end to our suffering or the child’s who can say? For an empath, they are both the same thing. Our great feeling and concern, authorizes us to give life and to take it away. If it feels good, do it. If it feels bad, kill it.

An empathetic people prides itself on its ability to feel and act on others’ behalf. But perhaps the “humane” seizure of Alfie Evans from his parents’ care to ensure the quickest end possible to his awful existence (we are sure it was awful) had more to do with ending our suffering than his. Watching a dying little boy day after day in a hospital bed (or in the news) is hard on empaths like us. Perhaps it is our weak faith in the goodness of things that cannot withstand the thought of a young, grieving couple going to great effort to pursue a final hope-against-hope to save their son, only for it to end in failure. Empathy has no taste for heroism.

It seems that the British state decided that the Evanses failed to empathize sufficiently with their son, and that this disqualified them from discharging their natural rights as parents. In our forgetful, anxious, fearful, and murderous times, the objective value of someone’s life cannot outweigh the weight of such sentimentality. There are times when empathy obscures the intrinsic good of life and the intrinsic evil of taking it away prematurely. Walker Percy, channeling Flannery O’Connor, charged the United States above all with succumbing to tenderness. Banishing the old God for whom certain acts were intrinsically evil, and conjuring up the spirit of the therapeutic to take its place all but ensured that such acts could be perpetrated with the loveliest of intentions, and by people who are so concerned with the suffering of others as to be easily moved to tears. “Tenderness” he wrote “leads to the gas chambers.”

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