Category Archives: Ethics

Sevenfold vengeance

I’m not a fan of colloquial, paraphrastic translations of the Bible (or of anything else for that matter); I generally stick with the Authorized Version, and when I use other translations as a supplement I choose the most strictly literal ones I can find. However, my wife having recently become interested in the Bible, but finding the archaic language of the Chinese Union Version and the King James to be rough going, I now have in my home something called the Good News Bible.

I’ve perused a few parts of it, and the very colloquial language (“Prophesy, who is it that smote thee?” becomes “Who hit you? Guess!”) turns out to be surprisingly useful at times, casting familiar passages in a very unfamiliar way and forcing me to notice what they actually mean. In an essay my brother Luther wrote a few years back (a good essay, by the way; read it), he mentions that

the grave danger of the scriptures is that they are church-talk, and we are so used to church-talk we can hear, understand, and discuss it without ever letting it penetrate beyond the churchy part of ourselves.

Luther goes on to say that we are so used to the word “eternity” that it means nothing to us, and that it can be helpful to mentally replace it with “85,000 years” (“for some reason, eighty-five thousand years seems a lot longer than eternity to me”). He’s right; it is helpful — and the same applies to any number of other overfamiliar “churchy” expressions. The Good News Bible (and other simplified translations) may avoid such expressions because they are unfamiliar to its intended readers, but in so doing it also provides a valuable service for readers with the opposite problem — those for whom such expressions are so familiar as to have lost all meaning.

Here’s how the Good News Bible renders Genesis 4:13-15.

And Cain said to the LORD, “This punishment is too hard for me to bear. You are driving me off the land and away from your presence. I will be a homeless wanderer on the earth, and anyone who finds me will kill me”

But the LORD answered, “No. If anyone kills you, seven lives will be taken in revenge.” So the LORD put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who met him not to kill him.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read the KJV rendition of this — “Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” — without the meaning of those words ever really sinking in. The GNB spells it out in a way which comes as a shock but which is surely correct. To avenge a murder is to kill the murderer, and you can’t kill the same person seven times, so to avenge a murder sevenfold can only mean to kill seven people — including, presumably, six who are not guilty of the murder of the person supposedly being avenged.

It’s hard to see any justice in this, especially given that Abel, despite his blood crying from the ground, is not avenged at all. In fact, the whole point of the promise to avenge Cain seems to be to deter anyone from trying to avenge Abel! Why would Cain’s murderer be punished so much more severely than Abel’s? Perhaps it could be argued that Cain was not truly guilty of murder; since no one had ever died before, he could not have known the full meaning of his act — whereas anyone who might try to kill Cain in order to avenge Abel’s murder must eo ipso understand what it means to kill a man. But could Cain really have been ignorant of what killing meant? After all, he had seen Abel slaughter sacrificial animals before. And even if we assume that Cain’s murderer would deserve death in a way that Cain himself did not, what about the other six victims of the sevenfold vengeance? Why would they deserve any punishment? (And who would they be? As far as we know, the world population hasn’t even reached seven yet at this point.)

Another possible interpretation hinges on a different reading of “shall.” When the Lord says “shall,” we are used to understanding it as a commandment — but perhaps here the Lord is only making a prediction and giving a warning. Rather than ordering that Cain be avenged, or saying that he ought to be avenged, perhaps he is just warning that he will in fact be avenged if anyone kills him. If you kill Cain for killing Abel, someone will kill you for killing Cain, and then someone will kill that guy for killing you, and so on without end. “Sevenfold” could just mean “many times over.” Maybe Yahweh, still a young idealistic God at this point, is warning humanity that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. He may later have regretted this policy of allowing murder to go essentially unpunished, since before long “the earth was filled with violence” and he had to wipe everyone out and start over again. And one of the first things he did after the Flood was to introduce a new rule: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”

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Economy

“No surplus words or unnecessary actions,” says Marcus Aurelius. “No random actions, none not based on underlying principles.” It’s an appealing principle by which to live, but in the end I always give it up because it itself seems random and unnecessary. It’s a principle of poetry, not ethics — and there’s something very unpoetic about a life lived consciously as poetry.

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Authority and respect

Of the five Moral Foundations proposed by Jonathan Haidt, “authority/respect” is one of the three which he says liberals tend not to take into account despite its importance in conservative and non-Western moral thought, so I want to spend some time thinking it out. This post is just a quick overview of the territory, which I hope to explore in more detail later.

Two types of authority

First, I think it’s important to distinguish between two very different types of authority: structural and doxastic. This is a simplified version of T. T. Paterson’s fourfold classification of authority, which is summarized on this page as follows:

  • Structural authority: the right to command
  • Sapiential authority: the right to be heard by reason of expertness
  • Moral authority: the enhancement of structural and sapiential authority by reason of proven rightness and goodness of action
  • Personal authority: the enhancement of structural and sapiential authority by reason of the charisma of the personality

My concept of structural authority is essentially the same as Paterson’s: the right to command the obedience of others, held by virtue of one’s social position and without regard to one’s personal merits. If someone has structural authority over you, then you have an obligation to obey him. Other moral considerations may sometimes take priority over obedience, but it is nevertheless a general obligation. Other things being equal, you should obey the boss because he is the boss, regardless of your personal opinion of him. Structural authority is claimed by governments; by the leaders of companies and churches and other organizations; and (depending on the culture) by parents (especially fathers), husbands, slave owners, etc. The authority of God is often conceived of in this way, too, by those who think he deserves our obedience simply by virtue of being our creator.

The other type of authority, the doxastic subsumes most aspects of Paterson’s “sapiential” and “moral” authority types. While structural authority is concerned with issues of obedience and legitimacy, doxastic authority is largely a matter of trust and trustworthiness. If someone has doxastic authority in a particular field, it means it is reasonable to defer to his knowledge and judgment, not because of any social position he may or may not hold, but because you believe that he is more likely to be right than you are — whether because of specialized knowedge or superior moral judgment. Doxastic authority is the authority attributed to teachers, scientists, doctors (in both the original and the modern sense of that word), gurus, and experts of all stripes. It is more morally ambiguous than structural authority; while disobedience to legitimate structural authority is rarely seen as being good in and of itself, questioning doxastic authority — “thinking for oneself” — is often seen as such. Trusting legitimate doxastic authorities is generally considered permissible and perhaps prudent, but rarely morally obligatory. There are cases, though, where those who dare to maintain opinions contrary to “the scientific consensus” — creationists, racialists, and adherents to the various schools of thought known to right-thinking people as “denial” — are condemned in moral terms, suggesting that submission to doxastic authority can in some cases be seen as a moral obligation.

Sometimes a person’s doxastic authority is inferred from his position in society, but this is still not the same thing as structural authority. They key distinction is whether or not the authority’s personal merit or expertise is relevant. “He’s a Harvard professor, so he probably knows what he’s talking about,” is an inference of doxastic authority. “I don’t personally agree, but, hey, he’s the boss,” is a recognition of structural authority. Often the same person holds both structural and doxastic authority. For example, when a student obeys the classroom rules established by the teacher, he is respecting the teacher’s structural authority; when the student believes what he is taught without fact-checking everything himself, the teacher’s doxastic authority is at work. Despite these complications, I think the distinction between the two types of authority is a clear and important one.

As for the last of Paterson’s authority types, charismatic or personal authority, it doesn’t really belong in the same typology as the others. Charisma is an important consideration in the sociology of authority — the question of which individuals are given authority and why — but not (or not directly) in the ethical theory of authority. Charisma is not a valid answer to the question of why people ought or ought not to defer to someone, though it may be useful in explaining why they do in fact so defer. Charisma can be instrumental in a person’s rise to a position of structural authority; and the wisdom and competence of a charismatic person is more likely to be recognized (and overestimated), leading people to grant him (possibly undeserved) doxastic authority — but in the end authority, however acquired, is still either structural or doxastic in nature (or both). Charisma is sometimes a source of authority, but it is not properly considered a separate type of authority.

Respect

Respect is a vague and difficult topic, but in at least one of its aspects it is closely tied to the concept of structural authority. The degree of respect you show to a person is a way of communicating what social status you attribute to him. To disrespect an authority figure is, at least implicitly, to challenge the legitimacy of his authority and to encourage others to do the same.  The mechanisms of respect and disrespect allow authority to be maintained, or to change hands, without resorting to actual violence.

There is also an aspect of respect which seems to have little to do with authority, since it is often said that we should respect everyone, not only authority figures. This sort of respect really belongs more to Haidt’s harm/care foundation, since the main purpose is to avoid hurting people’s feelings. It is more a form of kindness or courtesy than of respect in the sense of deference.

Tradition

Haidt includes deference to tradition under the authority/respect heading. The authority of tradition is probably primarily doxastic in nature, since traditional ways are considered to be “tried and true” — that is, more likely than one’s own ideas to be correct or useful.

It’s not clear whether or not tradition can ever be considered to have structural authority. We do sometimes grant structural authority to the dead — as when we feel ourselves bound by the stipulations of a deceased person’s will — so it is perhaps possible to attribute structural authority to traditions which embody the collective will of our predecessors.

Often, though, the importance of tradition seems to be more of an ingroup/loyalty issue than one of authority or respect. By participating in the traditions of one’s community, one reaffirms one’s membership in and loyalty to that community.

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Muhammad vs. Paul on slavery

I’m still reading the Qur’an. I found this passage on slavery.

God maketh comparison between a slave the property of his lord, who hath no power over anything, and a free man whom We have Ourselves supplied with goodly supplies, and who giveth alms therefrom both in secret and openly. Shall they be held equal? No: praise be to God! But most men know it not (16:77).

Compare this with the familiar line from Paul’s epistle to the Galatians:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (3:28).

At first glance, Paul seems much closer than Muhammad to our modern ideas about freedom and equality, but I’m not sure that’s really the case. Paul’s point is not that all people should be made equal, but that in God’s eyes they already are — that the question of whether a person is Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, is simply not important. Paul’s writings make it very clear that he saw no need for Greeks to be made into Jews, and I suspect that he would likewise have seen no need for the slaves to be set free. Abolitionists can argue that if all men are equal in the eyes of God we ought therefore to treat them equally in society, but Paul’s writings could just as easily be used to dismiss slavery as a non-issue.

Muhammad, on the other hand, seems to be enthusiastically endorsing the institution of slavery, praising God that the slave and the free man are not held equal. I think there are two ways of reading his statement, though. Is God saying that slavery is appropriate because men are not equal, or is he saying that men are not equal because slavery exists? Under the first reading, the message is: “Should all men be held equal and equally deserving of freedom? No! Some should be free and others should be slaves.” The second reading would gloss the same passage thus: “Should we pretend [as Paul does] that being a slave is just as good as being free, that the slave and the free man are in fact equal? No! Being free is clearly better.” The latter reading is supported by Muhammad’s focus on the ability to give alms as the distinguishing feature of a free man. If a free man is better able to do good and serve God than a slave is, the natural conclusion is that it would please God if every man were free. Muhammad clearly thinks that his point about slaves is a controversial one (“most men know it not”), and, given that he is clearly familiar with Christian teachings and often argues against them in the Qur’an, I wonder if this passage might even be intended as a direct response to Paul’s feelgooderism: No, Paul, slaves are free men are not to be considered equal, and all men will not be equal until all men are free.

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John C. Wright’s anti-gay argument

John C. Wright’s case against homosexuality, laid out mostly in Part V of his essay on sex (links to all six parts available here), can be summarized as follows:

  1. It is in society’s interests, for various prudential reasons, to insist that the sex act proper (copulation) be restricted to marriage.
  2. People will be able to comply with the above restriction only if they cultivate habits of sexual self-command (chastity) rather than sexual self-indulgence (unchastity).
  3. All sexual acts other than actual copulation — that is, sodomy and other acts called “unnatural” in less sensitive times — are “unchaste in essence” because they “mock or impersonate the sex act with the same physical sensations as the sex act, but they are [sexual] by accident, not sexual essentially.” Unnatural sexual acts may nevertheless be permitted within marriage as an adjunct to, but never a replacement for, the sex act proper, “provided these acts increase the union and love of matrimony.”
  4. A preference for unnatural acts over copulation, such that one’s preference weakens one’s appetite for copulation rather than strengthening it, is a neurosis. Unnatural sex acts should be treated as we treat drinking and gambling: “If done in moderation, in certain times and settings, no opprobrium attached. When they become addictive, obsession, or neurotic, they become vices, and must be deterred.” “Customs and manners therefore cannot support non-copulation forms of neurotic sexual deviance without eroding matrimony. The two are mutually exclusive.”
  5. Therefore, regardless of whether or not homosexuality is in itself harmful or bad, “it still cannot escape the general prohibition against non-essential forms of sexual gratification neither leading to nor supporting copulation.”

I basically agree with (1), though it must be stressed that the marriage-only rule works only if it is enforced by society, and that in a society which does not enforce it there’s no particular merit in choosing to live by it as a matter of personal principle. In this way marriage is a bit like a driver’s license. It’s in society’s interest to insist that all drivers have a license — but if driver’s licenses were considered by the law and society to be completely optional, a driver would be under no moral imperative to get one. He would be under a moral imperative to drive competently and safely — the behaviors which the institution of driver-licensing is meant to enforce — but provided he did so, there would be no need for the formality of getting an actual license. That formality is of no benefit to society unless it is mandatory. The same goes for marriage, which is basically a license to have a sexual relationship. It’s arguably a good idea for society to require that all sexual relationships be licensed (more on this in another post, perhaps), but absent such a requirement, there’s nothing particularly moral about getting such a license yourself (though in some cases you might do so for reasons of self-interest). As with driving, the important thing is not the license itself but the behaviors the license is meant to enforce. But, all that aside, I’m going to grant (1) for the sake of argument here. Whether or not you agree with it, it should be interesting to accept it as a premise and see whether the suppression of homosexuality follows — whether, that is, any valid line of reasoning lies behind the common use of “pro-marriage” as a euphemism for “anti-gay.”

Point (2) is an interesting one. Though it seems almost a truism, it’s often overlooked in discussions of sexual morals. If it’s important to control one’s sexual urges in at least some situations (and everyone agrees that it is, though they may differ on what those situations are), then there’s a case to be made for sexual self-control as a general principle, for chastity as a virtue to be cultivated. Masturbation, for example, may be a harmless habit in itself, but by abstaining from it one develops a habit of controlling one’s sexual urges, making it easier to refrain from committing actual sins such as adultery and rape. (Quoting Hamlet at this point is almost a reflex, but I’ll control myself.) That’s one theory, anyway; the other theory is that suppressed lusts eventually burst out in a far more virulent form — that, as Nietzsche has it, lust begs for a piece of spirit when a piece of flesh is denied it. The latter idea is so fashionable, and the intellectual fashions these days are so uniformly obtuse, that my natural inclination is to side with Wright on this one — but really it’s an empirical question, to be settled by psychological observation and experiment rather than armchair philosophizing. In any case, let us grant this point also for the sake of argument.

Point (3) is more of a jump: that all unnatural/non-coital sexual acts are essentially unchaste — by which word Wright means vicious rather than virtuous in the Stoic sense, demonstrating (and, through the power of habit, reinforcing) a tendency to self-indulgence rather than self-mastery. It’s not immediately clear to me why yielding to lust should be considered less self-indulgent when done in the biologically correct manner, and the bit about their being sexual only accidentally rather than essentially doesn’t really clear it up much. Reading between the lines, though, I think Wright’s point is something like this. Sex has three basic functions: reproduction, bonding, and personal gratification — the last of which is obviously self-indulgent in nature. Even in cases where personal pleasure is one’s primary motivation, the fact that other purposes are also being served makes it fundamentally less of a vice than, say, solitary masturbation, which has only one possible purpose and has therefore rightly become synonymous with self-indulgence. To borrow an analogy Wright has used elsewhere, we may often eat primarily for pleasure rather than nutrition, but the latter end is also being served; eating for pleasure and then making oneself vomit it up, on the other hand, has no possible function apart from pleasure and is therefore fundamentally vicious.

But are non-coital sex acts really vices pure and simple, in the same category as masturbation and bulimia? They may not have any reproductive function, but they retain the bonding function of sex proper. Wright admits as much when he allows for non-coital acts so long as they “increase the love and union of matrimony.” Even outside of a matrimonial context, it’s hard to argue that these acts are purely vicious, since personal pleasure is not their only function and is sometimes not even a function. (For many people, I suspect, performing fellatio or cunnilingus or allowing oneself to be sodomized is actually an act of self-sacrifice, something in which they take little pleasure themselves but which they are willing to do as an expression of love and to give pleasure to their partner.) So I can’t agree with Wright’s classification of these acts as “unchaste in essence,” a designation which should be reserved for acts which have no function apart from self-indulgence.

Point (4) is that any sexual preference or appetite that draws one away from the sex act proper rather than towards it — i.e., homosexuality — cannot be supported by society without eroding matrimony. I find this to be a very weak argument. First of all, the “matrimonial position” Wright advocates is not that everyone must get married (as a Catholic, he obviously has no problem with celibacy), but that no one should be having sex outside of marriage — and, as Wright emphasizes again and again, the sexual practices of gays are not really sex. Gays are not engaging in extramarital sex and are thus not part of the problem marriage was instituted to solve. Wright tries to argue that non-coital acts are nevertheless a problem because they are detrimental to sexual self-control, and that a person who indulges in such acts makes himself less able to resist the temptation to indulge in extramarital sex. But, as Wright emphasizes again and again, gay sex (unlike non-coital heterosexual acts) draws people away from copulation rather than towards it and therefore cannot be said to be making anyone more susceptible to the temptations of extramarital sex. Once again, the matrimonial position is that extramarital sex (in the narrow sense of copulation) should not be allowed. Since homosexual acts are not extramarital sex, and presumably do not make one more likely to indulge in extramarital sex, it’s hard to see what the problem is.

The only way I can see that tolerance for gay sex could undermine marriage would be if the sexual liberties of gays somehow had a tendency to negatively affect the chastity (sexual self-control) of straight people — a possibility which is perhaps not as far-fetched as it seems. One could perhaps make a case for gay abstinence similar to St. Paul’s argument that Christians should not eat food offered to idols. (See 1 Corinthians 8.) If you’re a staunch Christian, says Paul, eating food that has been offered to a pagan god doesn’t mean anything and is not an act of idolatry, since you know that the god in question doesn’t actually exist and are therefore not worshipping it — but for someone less firm in his monotheism, less sure of the nonexistence of the pagan gods, the very same act would be idolatrous and potentially damning. Therefore, writes Paul to his Christian audience,

take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; and through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?

In the analogy I’m proposing (one which will undoubtedly rub some Christians the wrong way), the strong Christians Paul is addressing represent gays, the Christians whose monotheism is shaky represent straights, idolatry is extramarital sex, and the eating of food offered to idols stands for extramarital sex-like acts other than actual copulation (for the sake of brevity, I’ll just use the word “sodomy” in its broad sense). For gays, extramarital sodomy does not lead to extramarital sex and is therefore not (or not always) wrong — but, if practiced openly and with society’s approval, this liberty of theirs could embolden straights to indulge in similar acts, which for them do lead to extramarital sex and are wrong.

The obvious solution is to eliminate the double standard, not by suppressing homosexual acts altogether — that would be a double standard the other way, leading to the opposite problem of gays being emboldened by the liberty of straights — but by creating an institution of gay matrimony and insisting that all sex and sodomy be limited to marriage. Aside from the Corinthian argument, there are other reasons this is a good idea. Although the strongest arguments for matrimony involve children and are therefore not directly applicable to sodomy, other arguments — about minimizing emotional pain, dealing with the problem of violence between sexual rivals, and controlling the spread of venereal disease — apply to both equally.

This proposal is unlikely to find many supporters. Advocates of gay marriage are, after all, accustomed to thinking of it as a freedom rather than a restriction, a right rather than an obligation, and might not be so enthusiastic about it if it comes at the price of suppressing gay fornication. Nor are conservative Christians likely to think much of it. Still, I think it’s the logical conclusion of Wright’s argument.

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John C. Wright on sex in society

John C. Wright is apparently a science fiction writer. I’ve never read any of his books, but now that Scientists Considering Christianity is defunct and Jim Kalb seems to be posting less and less often, Wright’s LiveJournal has become one of my main sources for intelligent conservative Christian writing. (I try to read such material regularly as a counterbalance to my natural tendencies as a clueless liberal atheist.)

Recently, in response to a deluge of comments from gay activists who accused him of (among other things) being opposed to homosexuality solely for religious (read: irrational) reasons and questioned whether there could be any other reason for such opposition, Wright has posted a six-part secular defense of marriage and traditional sexual morality, explaining the train of thought that led him to become a sexual traditionalist before his conversion, when he was still a passionate atheist.

It’s given me a lot to think about, and I intent to return to it at my leisure and spend some time thinking about each of his points. So, for my own future reference (and for anyone else who is interested), here are links to the six parts, with summaries of what each covers:

  • Part I: On self-control. On the objectivity of morals. On virtue. Law and custom. Do as thou wilt. The bounds of the question.
  • Part II: Is marriage a contract? How pliant is human nature? Is sex entertainment? Men are jerks.
  • Part III: The sex act. Passions related to the sex act. Prudence related to the sex act. Humans are altricial. Bastards and cuckoos. Permanence. Exclusivity. Polygamy. Violence between sexual rivals.
  • Part IV: Third parties to marriage. The father of the bride. The grandparents of the child. The investment of the interest in virginity.
  • Part V: Matrimony and fornication. Prudence regarding matrimony.
  • Part VI: What does this have to do with science fiction? A personal note to Mr. Charles Stross. A general challenge. Christian modifications to this position.

Although triggered by an argument about homosexuality, Wright’s essay isn’t primarily about that topic. It mentions it only as a sort of postscript, and my initial reaction (as I said, I plan to reread it later and take some more time to think about it) is that his case against homosexual acts isn’t nearly as strong as his case against premarital and extramarital sex. (As I mentioned in the course of my discussion with A. C. Grayling, I just don’t think sex-like acts other than actual copulation are anywhere near as morally serious as the act itself; because they are disconnected from the possibility of childbirth, less is at stake.) I’ll come back to this topic later after I’ve had some time to digest and dissect his arguments.

Incidentally, the barrage of angry comments from homophobophobes to which Wright was responding was triggered by another post (since deleted) in which he made some sarcastic remarks about this news story: It seems the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) releases an annual report grading TV networks on their depiction of gay, lesbian, and otherwise sexually atypical characters, and that Syfy (formerly Sci Fi) got an “F.” Predictably, the network executives fell over themselves to apologize and earnestly insist on their commitment to diversity, and Wright, being in the science fiction business himself, was understandably worried about the precedent set by GLAAD’s ideological bullying and Syfy’s groveling submission.

What, you may ask, did Syfy do to deserve an “F”? Well, you see, their shows featured only two gay characters this past year — sympathetic characters both (as far as I can gather, not having actually watched the shows in question), but still only two. That’s it. That, according to the bozos at GLAAD, is defamation. You’d think they’d give at least a “C+” for a marginally positive portrayal, but apparently these guys take the idea of “damning with faint praise” very seriously: If you say gays are cool, but you don’t say it often enough or loud enough, you’re serving the Dark Side.

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Are non-sociopathic atheists hypocrites?

Bruce Charlton of Scientists considering Christianity has finally enabled comments on his blog, at least in theory, but my first attempt at taking advantage of this new feature was not a success. Not only was my comment not approved, but the post in question was completely rewritten and the paragraphs I was commenting on were deleted! So until I see an actual example of someone successfully leaving a comment on Dr. Charlton’s blog, I intend to play it safe and do my commenting here.

Charlton’s recent post about the alleged hypocrisy of atheists has me scratching me head. He makes the following main points:

  • If there is no God, then life doesn’t come with any predetermined meaning or purpose. The only meanings and purposes are those people choose for themselves based on their feelings. But human feelings are (according to atheists) biological products of evolution, and — follow me closely here — amoebae and clumps of grass are also biological products of evolution! Therefore human life is “as meaningless as the life of an amoeba.”
  • Hedonism logically follows from atheism, and if atheists were to “live by their beliefs,” they would “seek pleasure and avoid pain with utter ruthlessness,” suppressing any pangs of conscience as being merely biological in origin and therefore irrelevant. (Amoebae, you will recall, are also biological, and we don’t let them tell us what to do!) Dr. Charlton helpfully suggests “crack addict” and “serial killer” as possible career choices for the philosophically consistent atheist.
  • Fortunately most atheists are nice people who try to live morally just like anyone else. This is completely hypocritical, but Christians don’t usually call them on it because they’d rather the atheists be harmless hypocrites than murderous crack fiends. Of course the third option, the one Dr. Charlton hopes his atheist readers will go for, is to trade in their atheism for Christianity and no longer be forced to choose between sociopathy and hypocrisy.

So, where to begin? I guess the amoeba thing is as good a starting point as any. Does Christianity really do a better job than atheism of explaining why a human life is more meaningful than that of an amoebae? Atheism seems to put them on equal footing by ascribing the same origin — biological evolution — to both men and microbes. Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that human beings were created by God for a divine purpose, whereas amoebae — oh, wait, I forgot, Christianity teaches that amoebae (and plants and animals and rocks and everything else) were also created by God for a divine purpose! The crucial difference between man and amoeba must involve something other than their origins.

The “meaning of life” — where it comes from, what it is, whether the phrase itself has any meaning — is a tricky issue that I intend to explore in later posts, but for now the important thing is not to assess the validity of the ideas summarized in the first bullet point above, but to note how completely they are contradicted by those in the second. Under Charltonian atheism, all feelings and purposes and desires are supposed to be equal in their amoeba-like meaninglessness, but it quickly becomes clear that Charlton sees some on them — the hedonistic ones — as more equal than others. For reasons that are never made clear, an atheist who suppresses his meaningless biological hedonistic urges in order to follow his meaningless biological moral instincts is considered to be a hypocrite, while one who does the reverse is living by his beliefs!

The strongest case Charlton can logically make is that atheism gives us no compelling reason to choose either morality or hedonism — that, while thankfully most at least try for the former, atheists have no good arguments to make to the determined sociopath who wants to know why he should be moral. The worst you can say is that atheism places morality and hedonism on equal footing, giving us nothing higher to appeal to in choosing the one or the other. Charlton goes wrong when he tries to push the point even further, saying that hedonism follows from atheism and that morality is inconsistent with it. If, as Charlton maintains, an atheistic world provides man with no predetermined purpose or values, how could an atheist possibly be guilty of hypocritically living by the “wrong” set of values or pursuing the “wrong” purposes?

Of course, Christianity is equally unable to give a reason for choosing morality over hedonism. It avoids the whole issue by teaching that such a choice is unnecessary. In a world governed by a just God, no deep distinction between morality and hedonism is possible, since the only effective way for a hedonist to pursue pleasure (heaven) and avoid pain (hell) would be to behave in exactly the same way that a genuinely moral person would. (“If I have not charity,” as Paul infamously puts it, “it profiteth me nothing.“) Christianity deals with the problem of morality by concocting a world in which morality no longer has any meaning.

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Filed under Ethics, God

Religious labels for kids

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins comes out against the use of religious labels for children, arguing that we should find phrases such as “Christian child” and “Muslim child” just as bizarre and inappropriate as, say, “liberal child,” “Keynesian child” or “secular humanist child.” To describe children in religious terms is to label them “with the cosmic and theological opinions of their parents” — which is surely just as silly and offensive as ascribing to them age-inappropriate political or economic opinions, right? Dawkins chalks it all up to “the weirdly privileged status of religion.”

But wait a minute — do people really ascribe cosmic and theological opinions to young children? Although the act of writing this sentence will make it untrue, Google currently returns zero hits for “monotheist child,” zero hits for “Thomist child,” zero hits for “dualist child,” and zero hits for “premillennialist child.” Why? Because these are actually labels for theological opinions — as opposed to “Catholic child” and “Jewish child,” which are labels for group membership. Very young children might not be capable of having coherent opinions about complex topics, but they are certainly capable of group membership, whether in a formal organization like the Roman Catholic Church or a cultural entity like Judaism. Most people will accept group labels for children, even secular ones like “American citizen” or “Cub Scout,” and will balk at opinion labels, even religious ones like “monotheist.” There doesn’t seem to be any double standard at work here.

So I don’t see anything wrong with mentioning what religion a child belongs to. Of course there’s a case to be made that children ought not to be recruited into religious groups, but the fact is that they are, so we might as well call a spade a spade. Better to acknowledge the true state of affairs — that nearly every religious group in the world recruits children, especially children born to group members — than to deal in prissy euphemisms like “a child of Catholic parents.”

Actually, I have a hard time getting all indignant about parents indoctrinating their children. (Dawkins, with his characteristic tact, proclaims it equivalent to, if not worse than, child abuse.) If you really believe that something is true and important, then of course you’re going to want to teach it to your children. If you don’t, there’s something wrong with you. I would question the patriotism of any parents who said, “We both love our country, but we’ve decided not to raise Junior as a citizen. When he’s old enough, he can decide for himself which country he wants to be loyal to.” I’d question the morality of any parents who chose not to give their children any moral guidance, leaving them to “decide for themselves.” And I’d question the religious seriousness of any parents who chose not to indoctrinate their children. I can’t get behind the idea that you’re free to believe whatever crazy thing you like but that you mustn’t teach it to your children.

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Filed under Ethics, Language, Politics