Never Quote Discworld to an Atheist

The other day, I found this article from a Google alert: an essay on the religious website First Things by the author and Catholic apologist Elizabeth Scalia (who also blogs as The Anchoress).

The post was about Terry Pratchett, the celebrated fantasy author and secular humanist. Since his personal beliefs come through clearly in his writing, I was surprised to find out that Scalia’s a fan of his Discworld series. She quotes with approval the following passage from one of the Discworld books, Carpe Jugulum, which features a dialogue between the Discworld’s greatest witch, Granny Weatherwax, and the Omnian priest Mightily Oats:

“There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example,” said Oats.

“And what do they think? Against it, are they?” said Granny Weatherwax.

“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”

“Nope.”

“Pardon?”

“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—”

“But they starts with thinking about people as things…”

It’s interesting that Scalia didn’t mention that Omnianism is a satire of Christianity. But in any case, she approves of this passage because, as she reminds us, Pratchett is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s and has announced his intention to end his life on his own terms, when the time is right, rather than wait for the disease to rob him of himself. She thinks that Pratchett’s own characters would counsel him against that course of action:

I wonder if Granny Weatherwax would agree with Pratchett, or if she would tell him he was making a thing of himself — placing his life within the context of a simple stop-start mechanism without regarding the inborn transcendence that, regardless of origin, is demonstrated so ripely in his own inventiveness. She might wonder what that ripeness might yet become — for others, if not himself — if allowed to remain on the vine rather then be plucked early. Perhaps she would warn Pratchett that he risks thing-nifying the people surrounding him and loving him, by turning them into mere markers and bystanders.

This sounds like a challenge, and I accept it. I’ve been a fan of Discworld for a long time, and I’ll be damned if a Catholic apologist is going to tell me that Terry Pratchett’s wonderful cast of characters is on her side. And as it happens, I remembered another passage from the very same book, one which bears far more directly on the topic, which Scalia’s post didn’t mention. Here it is:

Granny Weatherwax was airborne again, glad of the clean, crisp air. She was well above the trees and, to the benefit of all concerned, no one could see her face.

….There was a story under every roof, she knew. She knew all about stories. But those down there were the stories that were never to be told, the little secret stories, enacted in little rooms…

They were about those times when medicines didn’t help and headology was at a loss because a mind was a rage of pain in a body that had become its own enemy, when people were simply in a prison made of flesh, and at times like this she could let them go. There was no need for desperate stuff with a pillow, or deliberate mistakes with the medicine. You didn’t push them out of the world, you just stopped the world pulling them back. You just reached in, and… showed them the way.

There was never anything said. Sometimes you saw in the face of the relatives the request they’d never, ever put words around, or maybe they’d say “is there something you can do for him?” and this was, perhaps, the code. If you dared ask, they’d be shocked that you might have thought they meant anything other than, perhaps, a comfier pillow.

….She’d been a witch here all her life. And one of the things a witch did was stand right on the edge, where the decisions had to be made. You made them so that others didn’t have to, so that others could even pretend to themselves that there were no decisions to be made, no little secrets, that things just happened. You never said what you knew. And you didn’t ask for anything in return.

When I pointed this out in a comment, Scalia responded with the following. I invite you to judge how plausible an interpretation of the above passage it is:

I think I interpret that very differently, along the lines of both the death of JPII and my own brother’s passing…”reaching in and showing them the way” through love and presence to the end.

I strongly suspect that Granny Weatherwax, far from siding with Elizabeth Scalia, would regard her as one of the people who “pretend to themselves that there were no decisions to be made”. As many times as I read it, I can’t understand her argument that ending your life on your own terms is degrading to the people around you by treating them as “mere markers”. (Why doesn’t this same argument apply to offering yourself as a substitutive sacrifice? Why doesn’t it apply to the willing martyrs whom the Catholic church exalts? If anything, aren’t they the ones who treat others as markers of their deaths?)

Insofar as this definition of sin is a useful moral standard, the Catholics are the ones who are guilty of transgressing it. If treating people as people means anything at all, it means recognizing their right to self-determination, allowing them to make their own choices even when we disagree. Yet it’s the Catholics who think they have the right to control others’ decisions; it’s the Catholics who regard a person’s happiness or suffering, their independence and autonomy, as unimportant, and it’s the Catholics who advocate keeping a person alive, even against their own expressed wishes, to suffer the disintegration of self and the ravages of terminal illness. Terry Pratchett saw these people for what they are long ago, so I’ll let him have the final word, by way of one more apt quote from Granny Weatherwax:

The smug mask of virtue triumphant could be almost as horrible as the face of wickedness revealed.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Rajesh Kher

    I suggest she hear one of the best lectures on assisted death by Terry. Its on Youtube.

  • Nathaniel

    At lot of this crap is Kantian “moral” philosophy repackaged and simplified. If you need another reason to dismiss Kant, this one is as good as any.

  • Hibernia86

    I don’t think it really matters what the characters believe, though. The characters or author could be wrong, so I don’t see why having them on your side matters. I think the issue should just be argued on a purely moral basis without caring who endorses each side.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    @Hibernia86
    She who lives by the Pratchett quotation, dies by the Pratchett quotation. Besides, TP unashamedly wears his philosophy through his characters and the opinion of someone actually intending to take the elective route should be respected.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    Nathaniel,

    You mean Kant of (paraphrased): “Do not treat others merely as means, but always as ends in themselves.”?

  • Shawn

    I’m surprised that you didn’t also mention the context of your quote – a pregnant woman had been injured and either she or the child could be saved, not both. Not only did Granny choose the woman without hesitation, she and Nanny Ogg insisted that the husband/father had no say in the matter and didn’t need to know that there was even an option. Besides, it’s clear from the books that a witch “helping you along” to death involves a little more than just physical presence. You’d have to pretty selectively read the books to miss that.

    For that matter, Sam Vimes performs euthanasia with a knife in “Night Watch”, and this is portrayed as sympathetic if not admirable exactly.

  • Scotlyn

    Thanks for this, Ebon. Your quotes are spot on.

    Terry Pratchett is one of my favourite writers on religion, and I think it is a great pity that he hasn’t teamed up with someone or other to write “The Religion of the Discworld.”

  • Carlie

    She needs to read the entire Tiffany Aching series. An entire book of it hinges on how Tiffany helped an old man out of his pain, and how she was unfairly accused of “murdering” him for it.

  • Nathaniel

    Yeah, that’s the sort of sentiment underlying Scalia’s use of those quotes.

  • http://twoangryvoices.blogspot.com Aegis

    Shawn @6 is spot on. What the hell a Catholic apologist is doing quoting a *witch*, let alone from the same book where that witch saves the life of a mother at the expense of the child she would have had (analogy strikes!), is beyond me. She’s either severely nearsighted when it comes to quoting sources, or horribly intellectually dishonest and quotemining a good man for her own agenda.

  • Alex Weaver

    Huh. Any relation to the Dishonorable Mr. “Mere Factual Innocence?”

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    Nathaniel,

    Kant’s advocating Nanny Ogg’s statement explicitly: the problems come in when you treat people as things. No one here — except perhaps you — are disagreeing with that. How that all shakes out in actions might be controversial, but it’s a bit disingenuous to indict Kant when he’s one of the few — if only — philosophers to claim that. For example, it can be easily claimed that Utiltarianist views reduce people to things … specificaly, numbers. Specifically, numbers specifying some notion of “utility”. Kant, however, is having absolutely none of that. So, unless you want to argue that people should be treated as things, you probably shouldn’t dismiss Kant. Disagree with, fine. Dismiss, no.

  • Rey Fox

    “Why doesn’t this same argument apply to offering yourself as a substitutive sacrifice? Why doesn’t it apply to the willing martyrs whom the Catholic church exalts?”

    Easy, because they’re acting as pawns of the church. Deciding when to end one’s life for health reasons? That smacks of independent thought.

  • Nathaniel

    And yet somehow that philosophy has ended up with him and others using that sentiment to defend the notion of keeping people alive even when doing nothing but suffering because…something something ends of themselves. Thus in this context I dismiss him, and do so contemptuously.

  • Alex Weaver

    For example, it can be easily claimed that Utiltarianist views reduce people to things … specificaly, numbers. Specifically, numbers specifying some notion of “utility”.

    Care to defend that position?

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    Nathaniel,

    It is very brave of you to dismiss Kant on the grounds of how some people have interpreted it, even after being shown that his view seems to reflect a sentiment that you agree with, and without actually examining to see if that end in itself is, in fact, actually correct and that therefore your view that things like assisted suicide are moral isn’t. I’m not, of course, saying anything about what is true here, but you seem to be judging Kant by your own personal moral view that I can guarantee you that I and many others — and not just religious people — will not agree with.

    Alex Weaver,

    Well, take Bentham and Mill and the “utility calculus”. What you do to figure out what to do is reduce all the specific interests of people to a calculated utility (positive or negative), add them all up, and decide what to do on the basis of which action has the highest number at the end. You are not allowed to treat any person any differently than anyone else unless it fits into the utility calculation, and at the end your decision is based on the total number, which means that you sacrifice the utility of some — maybe many — for the end of the highest utility, and thus are continually treating people as means to that end and not as ends in themselves. Ultimately, you treat them as numbers, and only appeal to anything about them as a means of getting a number.

    Now, this way of looking at it isn’t quite fair, but it isn’t inaccurate either. You can’t say the same about Kant, since he specifically repudiates any position that looks like that.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    Did Kant ever specifically address suicide or euthanasia? I find it hard to believe he would overlook them.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    I strongly suspect that Granny Weatherwax, far from siding with Elizabeth Scalia, would regard her as one of the people who “pretend to themselves that there were no decisions to be made”.

    It’s like that Marshall McLuhan scene from “Annie Hall.”

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    BTW, Sadly, No often has posts that make fun of Scalia, who is referred to as a “pretend nun.”

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    Michael,

    I haven’t read “Critique of Practical Reason”, so I’m not sure. Although I am right now very much looking at getting and reading it. That being said, whenever I’ve read Kantians or about Kant’s ethics it’s never come up. The only philosophical systems where either have come up, at least strongly, are Hobbes and the Stoics: Hobbes because his view implies that suicide should be overwhelmingly rationally impossible and the Stoics because they both advocate it at times and have an issue with people wondering why anyone would bother to go on living (because of their determinism).

  • Scotlyn

    Aegis:

    What the hell a Catholic apologist is doing quoting a *witch*, let alone from the same book where that witch saves the life of a mother at the expense of the child she would have had (analogy strikes!), is beyond me. She’s either severely nearsighted when it comes to quoting sources, or horribly intellectually dishonest and quotemining a good man for her own agenda.

    I suspect that Scalia secretly indulges herself with a Terry Pratchett novel now and then as a pure guilty pleasure, but couldn’t resist quote-mining, out of context, to make a point her intended audience is unlikely to question.

  • Owlmirror

    I suspect that that Scalia is attempting to equivocate between two very different concepts of “sin”.

    The Catholic/Christian concept of sin reduces down to an absolutist-authoriatarian dictate. Sin is defying the will of an omnipotent God. If God wants for you to suffer, then by damn you have to suffer, and ending that suffering of your own will is a sin of defiance. On the other hand, if God wants for someone to die (substitutive sacrifice or being a martyr), then dying is the right and proper thing to do. The avoidance of sin is based on thinking that you can read God’s mind and know what he wants, or trusting in someone else who claims that they have done so.

    Granny Weatherwax gives a purely secular and humanist concept of sin; one that is based on consequences to individual persons. Despite the fact that Discworld has Gods, their will in any given matter is utterly irrelevant.

    Scalia is confusing the two concepts, and saying that euthanasia hurts those who don’t want the one choosing euthansia to die.

    In actuality, it offends those who think that God wants the person who wants euthanasia to suffer until God wants that person to die.

  • Leum

    Did Kant ever specifically address suicide or euthanasia? I find it hard to believe he would overlook them.

    IIRC, Kant regarded suicide the same way he regarded masturbation: unspeakably horrific and wrong.

  • KY Hanna

    A marvelous and intelligent article! I too have been a fan of Discworld for a very long time. I cried when I read about Sir Terry’s plans, and I will cry again when he carries them out. A great light will be gone from the world. But, more importantly, that light will go out on its own terms. My grandmother is currently suffering from Alzheimer’s, or rather what’s left of my grandmother is suffering. There is no god, and Sir Pratchett is the One True Prophet. Don’t fear the Reaper. <3

  • Samantha E. Benten

    I have yet to read Discworld. Once I read Pullman’s trilogy, I’m putting that on my reading list next. :-)

    And yes, her reasoning is grasping.

  • Matt

    You, sir, have given me a reason to take a look at TP’s books.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    I’ve read a couple of Pratchett’s Discworld books and look forward to reading more, including the one mentioned here.

    On what Elizabeth Scalia wrote, what I found even more maddening than the article itself was a comment she wrote (in reply to commenter Ray Ingles). After quote mining a novel in order to tell the author of that novel that he was “making a thing of himself” because he was being honest with himself about the outcome of a horrible disease he has and making a difficult personal decision according to his wishes . . . she responds to a question about whether religion should be in the law with a comment about how Catholics are expected to shut up and not share their opinion unless they agree with others. In other words, she’s acting as though the real injustice in all this isn’t that she (and officials in the Roman Catholic Church) are being completely dismissive of the wishes of someone who has to make difficult decisions between bad options due to illness, but that someone’s disagreeing with Catholics.

  • Lynet

    In A Hat Full Of Sky, Tiffany “shows the way” to a [removed, because it's a spoiler]. That is to say, she helps it die. She doesn’t just give it ‘love and presence to the end’ (although there’s that, too). It wanted to die, but couldn’t have died without her.

  • Carlie

    Thought of another example, too, from Night Watch, where Vimes is rescuing prisoners from a torture chamber:

    “And some were dead. Others were…probably dead as far as Vimes could tell. If they weren’t, if they’d just gone somewhere in their heads, it was as surea s hell that there was nothing for them to come back to. The chair had broken them again and again. They were beyond the help of any man. Just in case, and without any feeling of guilt, Vimes removed his knife, and…gave what help he could. There was not a twitch, not a sigh.”

  • http://indiscriminatedust.blogspot.com Philboyd

    It’s an interesting question whether Granny Weatherwax is more of a Kantian or a utilitarian. On the one hand, she’s thoroughly practical and seems to attach importance to consequences; but on the other hand, her entire ethics is based around not treating people as things. Either way, it’s fairly clear from the text that she’s pro-euthanasia (which shouldn’t be surprising).

  • Scotlyn

    Granny Weatherwax is, of course, neither a Kantian or a utilitarian, she is simply HERSELF. Not only is her ethics based around not treating people as things, it also contains the precept that there is always a cost to be paid for the choices you make (which she always willingly accepts), and that it is important to see what is really there. I would be extremely pleased to qualify as a “Weatherwaxian,” myself.

  • Scotlyn

    There was never anything said. Sometimes you saw in the face of the relatives the request they’d never, ever put words around, or maybe they’d say “is there something you can do for him?” and this was, perhaps, the code. If you dared ask, they’d be shocked that you might have thought they meant anything other than, perhaps, a comfier pillow. (from Carpe Jugulum)

    The thought occurs that if I get around to writing a living will, the phrase “comfier pillows” could function as a codeword for “end it now, please.”

  • RipleyP

    I find the idea of using Discworld to promote the x-ian view point. In the book Small Gods there is a very clear view taken that gods need the people the people don’t need the gods. Not a can I would have thought they would want to open. It could get interesting though.

  • keddaw

    Scotlyn, what if your nasty relatives give you pillows with rocks in?

    I do have a slight problem with the non-pain removing euthanasia though. For all the sympathy I have for those with Alzheimers, the claim normally made is that they will be no longer themselves, and that is tragically true, but it is equally true that they will have become someone else, someone lesser, but someone none-the-less. I have problems about allowing people to kill other people, even if that person is legally themselves but functionally not.

  • artemiscuous

    What an interesting thought. I suppose it depends on whether you believe in the soul. If you do, then the soul, as the essence of the person, remains the same, and the right to self-determination remains.

  • Ogrekhirst

    A great strength in Pratchett’s writing, much like Douglas Adams is the grasp on human nature including its relationship with supernatural concepts. Pratchett has happily lampooned the ludicrous or destructive and uplifted the positive aspects of spirituality without feeling the need to simply reject it through his writings; or to put it another way he does not write about gods but about people in all their myriad ways.

  • Clau

    he does not talk about gods? I think he does, and not only about Discworld gods.

  • Clau

    “The gods of the Disc have never bothered much about judging the souls of the dead, and so people only go to hell if that’s where they believe, in their deepest heart, that they deserve to go. Which they won’t do if they don’t know about it. This explains why it is so important to shoot missionaries on sight.” (Eric, Terry Pratchett)

  • UniqueNY

    I was just having a conversation with someone about how a really good song allows you to apply it to your situation regardless of whether the actual circumstances of the composer’s vision exactly mirror your own circumstances or not. I do not know what the exact nature of Sir Pratchett’s motivations are, or were in previous novels, but what is clear is that his perception of human nature, foibles and graces is impeccable and I love all of the characters regardless of their beliefs. It seems as good a place to start as any when examining another person’s love of the discworld.


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