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Over the last few days, my friend Dan Fincke and I have been discussing a comment made by Justice Antonin Scalia on Americans’ acceptance of capital punishment. The quote first appeared in the journal First Things, then was quoted by the blog Doggy Style and reposted by Dan himself (that’s where I first encountered the passage. For context, here is the quote that started our interesting discussion (in its entirety so far as I have read it; emphasis is Doggy Style’s):

“So it is no accident, I think, that the modern view that the death penalty is immoral has centered in the West. That has little to do with the fact that the West has a Christian tradition and everything to do with the fact that the West is the domain of democracy. Indeed, it seems to me that the more Christian a country is, the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral. Abolition has taken its firmest hold in post-Christian Europe and has least support in the church-going United States. I attribute that to the fact that for the believing Christian, death is no big deal. Intentionally killing an innocent person is a big deal, a grave sin which causes one to lose his soul, but losing this physical life in exchange for the next – the Christian attitude is reflected in the words Robert Bolt’s play has Thomas More saying to the headsman: “Friend, be not afraid of your office. You send me to God.” And when Cramner asks whether he is sure of that, More replies, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.”

For the non-believer, on the other hand, to deprive a man of his life is to end his existence – what a horrible act. And besides being less likely to regard death as an utterly cataclysmic punishment, the Christian is also more likely to regard punishment in general as deserved. The doctrine of free will, the ability of man to resist temptations to evil is central to the Christian doctrine of salvation and damnation, heaven and hell. The post-Freudian secularist, on the other hand, is more inclined to think that people are what their history and circumstances have made them, and there is little sense in assigning blame.”

Dan had a rather nice analysis of the quote, outlining just why he found it such a “scary travesty” (his term), ending with the following comment: “These are the kinds of consequence that fantastic, dogmatically held, faith beliefs (that no one supposedly ever takes literally) can have. This is why some of us atheists think it is a big deal what people believe—even if their beliefs sound so ludicrous that no modern person in his or her right mind would ever be expected to make practical decisions based on them in fact.

I agreed with an awful lot of what Dan said. The phrase “scary travesty” is pretty accurate in my opinion! I have to believe that if one of Scalia’s children was murdered, he would not agree that that death was no big deal because his child could look forward to an afterlife. Here, I disagree with Thomas More: to be killed unjustly is a crime of the worst sort, and even if we did have an afterlife to look forward to, this would not make the death any less horrible. Even assuming the religious metaphysics is factually true, we will experience a utopia outside of time. There’s no advantage in rushing into it, and quite a bit to be lost in terms of the time-bound existence we can only experience as part of “this” life. This is why Christians and religious people generally are as upset by murders and suicides and accidents and fatal illness (before the end of life) as we are. Such grief is not a failure of theology or even the pang of our own loss, but a grief at the what-should-have-been.

This was what I had in mind when I replied to Dan. Specifically, I said:

Personally, I think this proves we need more theology, not less, within the religious community. Because this view is such an astoundingly bad interpretation of immortality and its relationship to ethics, it just begs to be refuted – not just by those people who deny immortality but also by those who believe in it and don’t think this means that we should all be suicidal.

This is a major difference between Dan’s and my views, I think. I was horrified that someone could so abuse Christian metaphysics to think that any unjust death was no big deal. I can easily imagine Scalia’s belief doing real harm, if he actually believes it (as opposed to just summarizing other peoples’ beliefs; the context isn’t 100% clear) and if he would use it as the basis of a legal opinion, even unconsciously. That possibility makes me want to convince him that his belief is wrong, as quick as possible. And Scalia’s Christian metaphysics – to the extent that it’s based on a text and can be critiqued internally – can actually be useful here, not a hindrance.

When I made this comment I had in mind a distinction I draw in my ethics courses, when teaching ethical subjectivism and cultural relativism. Subjectivism, roughly defined, is the idea that by “right” I mean the kind of action or motivation I personally approve of; relativism gives a similar definition but at a societal level. Subjectivists and relativists do allow for what I call internal critique. For example, if a subjectivists believe human life begins at conception but also thinks abortions are permissible in the case of rape, I could point out that her beliefs are contradictory even by her own standard. But it’s less clear that a subjectivist’s belief can be critiqued externally. That is, if a subjectivist believes we should euthanize everyone at the age of seventy irregardless of health or personal wishes, and that belief doesn’t contradict other beliefs, I’m not sure we can always argue that the view is simply wrong even if it doesn’t contradict some of the individual’s other beliefs. (We may be able to, in certain cases; I’m thinking of Hume’s ideal observer view in Enquiry 9.1, but I’d have to give it some careful thought before making a definitive statement one way or the other.)

Anyway, the specifics of that debate are really beside my point. I only bring it up because it’s a good philosophical example of a distinction many of us make all the time: claims can be analyzed regarding their consistency (1) with other subjective beliefs, and (2) with other objective truths that the person may not recognize yet. I’d also make the further claim that if the first kind of argument will work and if time is a factor, we should usually opt for that route. If you want to convince a libertarian as quickly as possible and Rand will do the trick, use Rand; for a communist it is pragmatic to appeal to Lenin; and for a self-avowed Catholic, who is speaking on behalf of the supposedly Christian American culture, you appeal to the Bible.

My reasoning is actually pretty simple, and I believe it applies universally. People have a vested interest in beliefs they have already adopted, and they like to think they are being consistent (that seems like part of human nature, to dislike contradictions). Asking them to adopt a new belief is always more difficult because they need to think it through and see if they really agree with it, and even if they do choose to adopt the belief they will need time to integrate it into their existing belief systems. Even then, since people grow more attached to their beliefs with time, I believe they are more likely to sacrifice newer beliefs in order to preserve newer beliefs. I’m not saying this is correct or not, but if our main purpose is to avoid the practical (and serious!) consequences of this particularly rancid belief, and if there’s a path of less resistance than the battle of the metaphysics, I’d say let’s take that path.

Dan then wrote a very nice post answering the point I was raised. (By the way: thank you, Dan. I was honored that you took my argument so seriously.) He summarized my argument as:

Her argument seems to me to be that if Scalia, due to religious prejudices, will not listen to philosophically presented arguments that he thinks are trumped by his (or Americans’) theology, then we should present those philosophical arguments within the theological terms he is most deeply committed to so we will have hope of actually persuading him.

I reject this approach because it just perpetuates both the false attribution of authority to theology and the false idea that it is just to consider theological arguments in legislating and these are the real sources of the problem. Not to challenge this perpetual error machine itself but to just try to work within it and correct the errors one by one is like treating symptoms and not the real disease.

Religious prejudices have nothing to do with it, actually. I simply think, human nature being as it is, it would be more effective to use Justice Scalia’s pre-existing beliefs as a tool to reform this particular one. I was making an appeal to utility, but I thought that was warranted since Dan seemed to make a similar point in his post. (Dan, please correct me if I misunderstood you.) In Dan’s original post he seemed to imply that Scalia’s belief was particularly bad because it might motivate his action. If the goal was to prevent future actions, I’d say practical concerns become relevant.

Dan then says that in addition to the specific belief of Scalia’s, he also wants to “challenge the perpetual error machine itself.” This claim, along with Dan’s comparison of theology to Plato’s “noble lie,” deserves a post of its own, and I will try to address it at greater length tomorrow. (I have tickets to see J. Edgar and need to leave soon, and don’t want to rush through such an important topic.) But let me speak briefly to what seems like the heart of the matter.

Dan compares theology to Plato’s noble lie (see the first section of his post for a truly well-done overview of that concept). This suggests that theology is a set of defined beliefs – God is just, God created evil, substitutionary atonement was necessary, etc.; otherwise I am not sure how theology or any part of it could be a lie.

I tend to view theology quite differently. There is a fine tradition in Judaism, Christianity, and I expect other traditions as well of theology being the continuing struggle to find new truths in old books. The revelation itself (as in the corpus that the rabbis, priests, pastors, etc. are trying to interpret) is old but the interpretation is continually new. Philosophers see this same phenomenon; just as modern scholars read Aristotle but often interpret him differently than Aquinas, Kant, or Dan’s own favorite Nietzsche would have, theologians re-read Leviticus in a different way than Talmudic scholars or medieval Catholic Scholastics would have. I guess I see theology more as a process than as an end-product, and so it seems like a category error to believe it could function like Plato’s noble lie.

I actually would be happy to challenge the “perpetual error machine” that says here are the facts of what the Bible means and they can never be understood differently. That implies that the God I believe in (incidentally: out of faith rather than reason) is reducible to propositions; I deny that claim. It also implies that our current moment in history is the pinnacle of human understanding, something both history and philosophy (and science, for that matter) argue against.

But that is unfortunately all I have time to say tonight. More on Dan’s comparison to the noble lie tomorrow. If you haven’t encountered it before, do yourself a favor and read his discussion of it. It’s really a very interesting line of thought that’s worth mulling over.

This entry was originally posted at http://fidesquaerens.dreamwidth.org/21394.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

Comments

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(Deleted comment)
marta_bee
Nov. 13th, 2011 02:05 am (UTC)
It does seem a cop-out of the worst sort to say let God sort it out!

Scarily enough, people like Scalia do have a sort-of kind-of point regarding America. Criticism of the death penalty came within a generation of atheism becoming respectable, and it seems that there's an inverse relation between the two - the lower percentage of citizens who are members of mainstream religion (Christian, Jewish, etc.), the more likely it is to have a death penalty. But I personally think that has more to do with the kind of religion being practiced (fundamentalist vs. liberal) than the degree to which religion is practiced. My own city, NYC, actually has a lot of people in the synagogues on Saturdays, church pews on Sundays, and so on - but we also are so exposed to other practices and cultures, it's hard to be as iconoclastic as our countrymen down in Texas. :-)
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