Introduction: Christianity and Politics (Right Reason post 1)

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I just discovered that the Right Reason blog is no longer online at all. It was a politically conservative philosophers' blog hosted at the same server that hosts this blog, and I knew that it had stopped producing new posts, but I didn't expect all the archives to disappear. I managed to recover all the content from the guest-posting I did toward the end of that blog last year, including the whole comment thread on each post. I didn't know about, but it apparently saves the content of any web page at various intervals so you can go back and check what was once there. So I'm going to be posting that series here on days when I have less time to blog new stuff. Here's the introductory post. I'll put the comments below the fold since this initial post led to quite a lengthy discussion despite its brevity.

Introduction: Christianity and Politics (Guest Posting)

I'm very happy to have been asked to contribute some guest posts to Right Reason for the next week or two. Max asked me to take on the theme Christianity and Politics, and I'd like to use this opportunity to explore Augustine's views on how Christians should relate politically to a religiously pluralist society. I think he has a lot to offer to those current debates, and his views line up nicely with my own in several ways. I don't expect just to present Augustine's views, however. I expect this to be as much about how I see myself as an evangelical and how I relate to the pluralist society we live in, including how religious views can affect both political discourse and ground my support for particular policies.

I imagine some readers of this blog know who I am, since my blog Parableman is listed in Right Reason's blogroll, but I'll say a little about myself for those who don't know me. I'm a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University, working on a dissertation with Linda Alcoff on the metaphysics of race (and races). My primary philosophical background is in analytic metaphysics and philosophy of religion. In addition to my personal blog, which includes discussions of philosophy, politics, theology, and Christian apologetics, I contribute to the philosophy of religion blog Prosblogion, and I was part of the OrangePhilosophy blog when that was active.


In the subject of Christians getting into politics, I would like to repeat the Biblical warning "put not your trust in princes".

It is a wise warning. It does not mean that one should not deal with princes, only not trust them, nor tie one's fate with them.

We are seeing too many conservative religious people suffer from the unthiking support they gave Bush, even defending purely secular policies, because it was Bush who proposed it. When those policies - in ths case Iraq - became unpopular, the support they gave unthinkingly is now counted against them.

Deal with princes, as you must, but never forget that their purposes are not the same as you. Never let them think that you will support them no matter what, or worse, that you are bound to them because you have nowhere else to go. Let them work for your support.

Posted by: Adriana | July 12, 2007 9:01 PM

Adiana, I think it's important to distinguish between putting your trust in someone/something in the sense of resting all your hopes in that person or thing and supporting someone or something in the sense of agreeing with what they're doing, promoting the cause, and hoping that the people involved continue to do what's right. I see no problem with the latter, even with someone purely secular. I'll get into that issue some in these posts.

As for Bush, I guess I would disagree. I tend to think of his motives as pretty good when it comes to Iraq, even if several things weren't carried out well. I certainly would defend the motivation for invading Iraq as a just cause, even if other points in just war theory are harder to meet. (In the end I'd argue that they can be met, depending on the particular version of just war theory you work with, but that's not the issue here.)

I don't know what you mean by secular. If you mean "inconsistent with Christianity", then I'd strongly disagree. If you mean "moral but not specifically Christian", then maybe I'd agree, but I'm not sure why you're making the distinction.

Some of what I'm going to say fits nicely with your general points. Augustine might not have put things exactly the way you did, but I think some of his thoughts on these issues would resonate with you. I suspect some of them might not, however. Perhaps we'll see.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | July 12, 2007 9:58 PM

Your topic has been in my thoughts recently - I look forward to reading what you have to say on the matter.

Posted by: Dan | July 12, 2007 11:28 PM

Jeremy: By secular I mean "matters not pertaining to doctrine" or "matters in which Christians can have completely different opinion without effect on their faith", or "matters in which you do not need to be Christian to agree or disagree".

There are plenty of matters like that: whether or not to build a new HIght School building or just fix a new one, whehter or not to convert streets from two way to one way, where to put a parking garage.

Suppose a local politician who is in the good graces of the local Christians proposes a new, controversial scheme, like building a new road,which is opposed because of environmental concerns. and the Christians line up vociferously behind him, because he is an ally.

Suppose the road gets built, and the public finds out that the excavation causes an acid water crisis in the surrounding communities, that ruins several local businesses because, and costs thousands of taxpayers money to fix (it happened where I live). How do you think people will think of any Christians involved in politics after that? Like those idiots who backed that stupid boondoggle that we are still paying for? That they better not show their face around here? That Christianity tends to make people real stupid?

Back up a boondoggle because you agree with the proponent on matters of Christian policy and you birng Chrisitanity into disrepute.

Posted by: Adriana | July 13, 2007 8:23 AM

I agree in general, but I do think there will be times when a Christian politician will do something unpopular that is nonetheless the right thing to do. I would want to support the person in those case. I tend to give the benefit of the doubt in unclear cases, but that's not the same as going along with the person just because they are "one of us". I do think that's a bad idea, probably for some of the same reasons you do.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | July 13, 2007 8:39 AM

It's ridiculous to blame Christians qua Christians if some policy they support turns out (or is considered to turn out) badly. It's those who say, "We don't want those Christians to show their faces around here" who are being unreasonable. How many times have non-Christians supported policies that have turned out very badly indeed? We should do our best to support or not support policies on whatever topic based on our best estimate of the policies themselves, and then take the consequences. Otherwise we end up saying, "Oh, we'd better stay out of politics as much as possible lest we give Christians a bad name by supporting something that people think has turned out badly." And let's face it. People are going to blame the Christians either way--for staying out or staying in--if we don't support the policies _they_ want us to, even though _those_ might have bad consequences as well. Let's not make trying to please those who might blame Christians our goal in political activity.

Posted by: Lydia | July 13, 2007 9:47 AM

Jeremy: Your topic is quite interesting and relevant. I hope you will elaborate on the meaning of 'secular' and its relation with Christianity. Under "secular" we find issues neutral to Christianity, issues concordant with Christian thought, and issues definitely contrary to the Christian religion. I have the impression that what people usually mean by "secular" is something contrary or opposed to Christianity. But this isn't necessarily so, and this fact generates considerable confusion and difficulties in dealing with our pluralistic society. However, I believe that the conception of "secularism" as an absolute neutral space is nonsense, and obviously incompatible with Christianity.
I look forward to your presentation.

Posted by: Fernando Ruiz | July 13, 2007 12:53 PM


Christians, as private citizens can and should promote all causes they believe in and it should be foolish to blame Christianity if they choose wrong.

But the problem is when they make an issue of their Christianity in advocating it. Any Christian can support a boondoggle and that means only that he does not have much sound judgement.

But if an organized group of Christians, **identifying themselves as Christians as their man characteristic when they get into the debate** support said boondoggle, then Christianity suffers. If pastors get on the pulpit and preach for the need for the boondoggle, if they start a theological debate on its vertues, if they complain of "secular humanism" of the opponents of said boondoggle, then they will not take hits as fallible private citizens when the folly of their proposal is apparent. Christianigy itself will be blamed.

Personally, I think a lot less of Christianity since I read the column of Cal Thomas in which he approved of "extraordinary rendition" and torture, and called traitors and cultural enemies those who oposed it. Unfair? Perhaps, but it was Thomas who got Christianity inot disrepute, not me.

Posted by: Adriana | July 13, 2007 9:04 PM

I very strongly disagree with Thomas as well on that subject. I don't notice, however, that you are claiming that he said anything like, "Christianity tells us that we should support torture." It strikes me as weak to argue that saying that people are in some sense "cultural enemies" for disagreeing with him automatically counted as connecting his position directly with Christianity. In fact, I'm a bit surprised at your pastors' group and their connecting the road building to Christianity. How did Thomas do that with torture?

Posted by: Lydia | July 14, 2007 6:55 AM


The case about the road was an hypothetical example (because I did not want to talk of the boondoggle of Iraq) We did have a problem with water pollution due to road construction, but religion had nothing to do with it, just old fashioned stuff-your-pockets legislators.

As for Cal Thomas he quite often paints himself as a Christian, and bemoans the fact that we do not follow Biblical precepts in our daily life. Why should I think that he was **not** speaking of himself as a Chrsitian when he applauded torture, since he spoke of himself as Chrisitan in so many other occasions? Did he put a big sign saying

"These are my opinions as a citizen, not part of my religious convictions"?

Can I be blamed for being confused on the matter? Or can Thomas, or anyone else swich on and off his religious convictions, proclaming them when it is conveinient for his agenda, and forgetting them when it is convenient for his agenda? I mean, is he only a Christian when it is to his advantage?

Posted by: Adriana | July 14, 2007 7:20 AM

There's a difference between the following two things:

1. having a moral view, one you think your Christian convictions are consistent with, perhaps even one you think Christian principles lead to when all reasoning is done, but you can understand why others with the same Christian convictions might take them in another direction

2. thinking the Bible explicitly teaches something or saying that you support a certain view because you are a Christian and Christianity teaches it

I have almost never seen Cal Thomas do the latter. Most of his arguments are toward the philosophical end. He doesn't cite scripture or the authority of some religious figure or group. I very much doubt he did so on the torture issue, but if you can point to somewhere where he does that I'd be interested to know of it.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | July 14, 2007 8:55 AM

"Christians, as private citizens can and should promote all causes they believe in and it should be foolish to blame Christianity if they choose wrong.

But the problem is when they make an issue of their Christianity in advocating it. Any Christian can support a boondoggle and that means only that he does not have much sound judgement."

Adriana, you are not very consistent, and it's obvious to me that you're looking for opportunities to bash Christians' behavior in politics. How very interesting that Cal Thomas must either never refer to his Christianity in the context of any political discussion at all or else put up a big sign saying these are just his opinions as a private citizen or else, to you, the presumptive position is that he's speaking in some heavy sense "qua Christian" and that Christianity is "brought into disrepute" if he holds incorrect views on any political matter--presumably anything from torture to the war in Iraq to the environment to road-building.

That is unreasonable.

And somehow I'd be willing to wager that if Christians came out with some big pro-environmentalist statement, _explicitly citing_ their Christianity and acting qua Christian group (as I believe some have done), and then there were bad consequences from various measures to try to "reduce greenhouse gases" and "stop global warming," you would _never_ blame them for having "brought Christianity into disrepute." Why would that be? Well, because you would have _agreed_ with their position and would have thought it entirely reasonable and appropriate for them to use their Christianity to advance environmentalism, regardless of the consequences. Or so I guess. These things always seem to come as calls for Christians to shut up about any positions that might be regarded as "right."

And I speak as someone who doesn't support the war in Iraq, by the way. But why can't we keep Christianity out of it, either way?

Posted by: Lydia | July 14, 2007 11:17 AM


The danger of backing a boondoggle is always the same, no matter how much we sympathize or not with their position. That's why I used the hypothetical case of road building since roads can be good things (usually are) or in any case are seen as morally neutral.

Prudence, or the lack of it, is the issue). I found Thomas highly imprudent because

a) He made a big deal of his philosophy based on Chrsitian principles and decried the "inmorality" and "moral relativism" of those he disagreed with.

b) he then advocated a morally repugnant action, whil deriding those who objected to it in the same tones in which he condemned moral relativism, not noticing that the only way that he could urge a morally repugnant action was to embrace moral relativism.

Hypocrisy is bad enough, but blatant hypocrysy is the worst. I can be merciful to those who transgrss in their private life, though I might (since my charity is rather imperfect) find their predicament funny. But those who preach one thing in public to then preach the opposite equally in public make it easier for others to mock their beliefs.

Posted by: Adriana | July 14, 2007 1:40 PM

How is it that, by his own standards, he is violating his own standards? I don't see that. It may be that some of his views are wrong according to how you happen to interpret and apply certain Christian positions. But for it to be an inconsistency it needs to be that these views are inconsistent with how he understands and applies those Christian principles. I very much doubt that he has that problem.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | July 14, 2007 1:49 PM

My question continues to be how or whether Thomas linked his support of torture to his Christianity, thus bringing Christianity into disrepute. I can't tell if you're claiming, Adriana, that he clearly did this or not. It sounds sometimes as though perhaps, because Thomas is known to be a conservative speaker, this is supposed to mean automatically that Christianity is "tainted" by any of his morally wrong opinions, an approach I object to and suspect will be applied selectively. In fact, it almost has to be applied selectively, or else we would have a ridiculous situation in which, say, people who like beer or belong to a stamp collecting society would bring "disrepute" upon these other activities if they also happened to hold a morally repugnant position on some unrelated topic.

But now you seem to be back to saying that Thomas himself, in the same column, somehow implied that opponents of torture are unChristian because they are moral relativists. If he said that, of course, he's wrong, and wrong at an additional level of confusion beyond the advocacy of torture itself. It would also be a case of his attempting to use Christianity to justify torture, which would make the accusation of "bringing Christianity into disrepute" more credible.

Perhaps it would help if you provided a link to the column in question.

Posted by: Lydia | July 14, 2007 3:18 PM

Thomas contradicts himself because

a) he says that moral relativism is bad, that is than an action that is bad will not become good because of circumsntaces.

b) He then says that torture is good because of circumstances.

Maybe he means that torture is good, circumsntances or no circumstances.

In which case, one may conclude that

c) He does not believe in the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or believes that the Golden Rule applies only sometiems for his convienence

d) Maybe he does want to be tortured, and because of it, he has no problem with torturing others.

How can he get out of that conundrum unless he says "circumstances make it good or bad" that is, he embraces moral relativsm.

Posted by: Adriana | July 14, 2007 4:14 PM

You still haven't given us any indication where Cal Thomas says any of this, so I have no idea what he actually said, but I have two things to say about what you've presented him as saying.

1. He seems to be confusing relativism with consequentialism. Relativism says different things might be true for different people, perhaps simply because they have different views or because their culture approves of and disapproves of different things (although it could be more complicated). But that's consistent with consequences playing no role in morality. If my culture, say, has a few moral absolutes, and it's therefore wrong for me to do those things despite the good consequences doing them would produce, then according to the relativist I shouldn't do it, but according to the consequentialist I should. He seems to be worried about consequentialism, but he's calling it relativism.

2. Some views that aren't consequentialist are absolutist, i.e. they insist that if anything is wrong it will always be wrong under any circumstances. Kant held such a view. But it's simply not true that you have to be a consequentialist to deny absolutism, as I argued recently here. You can deny consequentialism while thinking consequences matter when they're serious enough. That means Thomas can say exactly what you say he says without any inconsistency. He can be opposed to consequentialism (even if he calls it relativism) because he thinks merely good consequences shouldn't be enough to make an action good, all the while thinking that serious enough consequences will be sufficient to justify doing something that would otherwise be wrong. There's no inconsistency there.

As for the Golden Rule, he could say that it's generally true but that in certain circumstances another, more important, moral principle takes precedence (and perhaps that other principle is another instance of the Golden Rule but one that involves far more people, for example).

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | July 14, 2007 6:51 PM

Curious term, consequetialism. I have never run across it in any newspaper columns, even though "moral relativism" is an every day expression.

It puts me at a disadvantage to argue on terms that you know and I don't. I cannot prove nor disprove that Thomas is a consequentialist.

Forgive me if the cynic in me suspects that "moral relativism" is what your policitcal opponents do, while "consequentialism" is what those you feel symptathetic do engage in.

Forgive me if I bring in the view of the normal reader of the newspaper, someone who is quite intelligent, who can read and understand differing opinion columns, but is not up to date with philosophical terms. You may have me at a disadvantage, but remember, if you want to advice Christian on how to get into politics, you might consider telling how not to irriate the average voter.

Posted by: Adriana | July 15, 2007 8:40 AM

Here is the article from Thomas that got the most attention. His only mention of religion was to say he wants to put the fear of God into suspects:

Two things about the torture debate, there is an unlimited number of ticking bombs and an unjustified degree of certainty that each suspect knows the details of a major plot. Plus, the connection to a certain infernal TV show.

I hesitate to agree with Lydia, but the example of Thomas to impugn all Christians is far fetched. One could easily make the same associative claim about any large group or religion which has individuals who choose intimidation and violence. It makes for fun politics, but it is ultimately an inaccurate claim.

Posted by: Step2 | July 15, 2007 11:18 AM

Whaddaya mean, Step2, you hate to agree with me? :-)

But don't worry, I'm not sure that you do agree with me. I wasn't really saying, "Don't associate me with that dreadful Cal Thomas just because we're both Christians." What I was rather saying is that Thomas's specific opinions on torture, not being connected apparently *even by him*, and certainly not by any significant number of Christians (or perhaps by any Christians at all), with any teachings of Christianity, do not bring Christianity into disrepute. Other scenarios might have other understandable consequences as far as bringing disrepute to Christianity.

Posted by: Lydia | July 15, 2007 6:20 PM

Adriana, consequentialism is the view that consequences are the only morally relevant factors in determining whether an action is right or wrong. One example of a consequentialist view is utilitarianism, which takes happiness of the most people to be the only morally relevant factor. Another example is ethical egoism, which takes one's own happiness as the only important factor.

Since Thomas' statements (as reported by you) seem to be against views that allow consequences to make an action right even if it violates what you might think are other moral principles, it seems as if consequentialism is his real target, and he's just wrongly calling it relativism.

That wasn't my main complaint, however, just a pet peeve (and one against him, not you). My main complaint was against you, and that was #2. I don't see any inconsistency whatsoever in both (1) denying that consequences can automatically make an otherwise wrong action right while (2) saying that extreme enough consequences do sometimes make an otherwise wrong action right.

Now if you can reference his critiques of what he's calling moral relativism, I can confirm that that's what he's saying with (1). Since we've now got a link to his torture comments, I can confirm that what he's saying in (2) is exactly what I suspected. He holds that in very rare and extreme conditions it's ok to do what's otherwise wrong. This is a view that someone as liberal as Alan Derschowitz would agree with, although Derschowitz wants to limit this ability only to the president. But most opponents of the techniques that are being called torture are ok to allow those techniques in these extreme cases, so unless you're an absolutist as I defined it I don't see what the problem is.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | July 15, 2007 7:59 PM

Thanks for the explanation. I suspect that Thomas, like most columnists likes to simplify things (anyway, a newspaper column is not a philosophical or theological treatise, but it is more of a propaganda tract).

Nevertheless you must let me bring my viewpoint which is of a reasonably intelligent person who reads a lot of newspapers, and whose general culture, while expanding, does have gaps (and the viewpoint of those who are not expanding their culture).

From that viewpoint, Thomas is an exponent of a segment Christianity, not the most common, but the most noisy probably, which means that it is easy to take him for the epitome of it.

The fact that he makes moral condemnations tends to make readers feel guilty because they are not as "pure" as he is, at least that is part of it. He thunders against the left implicating not tht they are merely wrong, but that they are wicked and bent on destroying anything that is good. And by implication, that he is better.

And they I find that this person who is doing his best to make me feel inadequate for not coming up to his standards is actually praising something that I find morally abhorrent (among other things because a cousin of mine was tortured and murdered by the military in Argetina, with the approval of Reagan and Kirkpatrick).

Do you want me not to dispise the man? Do you want me not to feel betrayed? Do you want me to deny my feelings, telling me what I should feel? Do you want me not to dispise what this man seems to believe in? You want to castigate me for being unfair because I feel betrayed? Do you want to add insult to injury?

As for torture, you seem to be quite fond of the "ticking bomb" scenario, which seems to allow it. Have you considered the "trapped innocent" scenario? someone who has noting to do with what is happened captured and tortured in secret to make him confess things he knows nothing about?

The difference is taht while the first scenario has yet to happen, the second one has. One German taxi driver of Middle Eastern descent, whose name was Al Khaled was abducted, taken to a secret CIA prison and tortured for secrets he did not have, because he was mistaken for a differente Al Khaled. When they found out the error, they released him, without even an apology, warning him not to tell what happened to him.

He is still waiting for an apology from anyone.

How many ticking bombs have been found by torture in the meantime?

I am sorry that I am not "fair minded" as you want me to be. People who feel betrayed rarely are.

And if you want Christians to get into politics, they better know that by their actions they may bring Christianity into disrepute, and that people may feel betrayed and not stop their anger at their persons but towards what they most cherish. It is human nature.

Posted by: Adriana | July 16, 2007 7:51 AM

"Some views that aren't consequentialist are absolutist, i.e. they insist that if anything is wrong it will always be wrong under any circumstances."

I am not sure I understand this definition of absolutism. Obviously, there are some acts whose rightness or wrongness depends on circumstances--a view that denies that would be absurd. Thus, whether it is morally acceptable for me to say that it is raining in Waco today depends on whether it is raining in Waco today (on my preferred view; on a more common view, it depends on whether I believe it is raining in Waco today). Whether it is wrong for me to wear a green hat while in your company depends on whether I have promised you not to do so. Whether it is wrong for me to stick a knife in your chest depends on whether this is in the context of my performing heart surgery on you.

Maybe the formulation we want is this: Absolutism is the view that for any wrong act A there is a description D in general terms and such that (a) A satisfies D, (b) necessarily any act that satisfied D is wrong, (c) D does not include any reference to the consequences of A, and (d) the description is given in non-moral terms. ((c) is needed, or else consequentialism counts as a form of absolutism.)

However, such a view appears absurd. Consider the action of administering a vaccine. Clearly whether the action is right depends on whether the vaccine is likely to work, and whether its bad side-effects are likely outweigh its benefits. Suppose that the vaccine has side-effects worse than the disease it is against. Then it is wrong to administer it.

Maybe we can fudge things a bit by saying that it is not wrong to distribute the vaccine just because it is harmful, but it is wrong to distribute the vaccine if one believes it is harmful. This description satisfies (a)-(d). But once we understand (c) as allowing us to include beliefs about consequences in the description, the "subjective consequentialist", namely someone who believes that the right action is the one that is believed to have the best consequences, becomes an absolutist, and that isn't right.

Here's the best I can do in defining absolutism: There are some descriptions D of actions satisfying (a)-(d) (including in respect of believed consequences) such that necessarily any action falling under D is wrong. Or, for short, while there may be actions whose rightness or wrongness is determined by consequences, there is at least one action whose wrongness is independent of consequences.

Posted by: Alexander R Pruss | July 16, 2007 12:05 PM


I'd be happy to revise my definition to "whatever Kant has in mind when he says that lying is always wrong, breaking promises is always wrong, etc." I don't find his view plausible, so I haven't ever tried to work out a version of it that isn't absurd. I do think he faces a real challenge due to being able to define actions with more specificity or less specificity.

I would say that there are some actions whose rightness or wrongness are independent of consequences, however. But that would be a very restricted class, tied basically toward one's attitude or actions with respect to God (and perhaps some derivative actions related to the image of God, but I don't think even killing someone made in the image of God is always wrong, and not much is going to be worse than that).

But my allowance for that might require me to be more serious about this than I have been. I'll have to think about that. My main point here, however, is that I think it's relatively easy to take the view that consequences alone aren't sufficient to make an otherwise wrong action right, while still allowing for the view that in extreme circumstances otherwise wrong actions might be perfectly fine and perhaps even morally obligatory. I think that point stands despite the problems you're raising.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | July 16, 2007 1:36 PM


That is certainly a relief. The natural order of things was topsy-turvy for almost a day.


I did not see anything in the Thomas article to indicate his support of torture "in very rare and extreme conditions." He was explicitly talking about the standard procedures manual for interrogating all detainees. Under his proposed guidelines it would be, in fact, common and normal procedure to commit torture on every suspect.

Posted by: Step2 | July 16, 2007 5:07 PM

The scenario in the show 24 that Thomas was defending was exactly the extreme situation that I'm talking about. Thomas presents no other case to illustrate this supposed use of these techniques as a matter of course. All he does is defend it as a moral obligation in such extreme cases. Making it illegal to do it period means you can't use it in the extreme cases. Thus he opposes such laws. I see nothing in his piece that shows a willingness to use these techniques in anything but extreme cases like the one the show presents or other similar terrorist attacks. That's all he positively says, and it's all I'm willing to assume he means. I don't like to extend my interpretation of people's views beyond what they actually say unless there's good reason to do so.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | July 16, 2007 5:50 PM


I apologize for losing my temper. The problem was that I wanted to show you what the problem was, which was that I felt personally betrayed.

It is like you found that someone whose philosophy you found attractive was a practicing abortionist.

Would you not consider that his philosophy was a very weak reed when it came to helping him tell right from wrong?

So that was my reaction. Good or bad, it was rooted in basic human nature.

wanted you to consider as one of the dangers that are implicit in any public action by Christians: that their moral failings, while not dictated by Christianity, makes them witnesses against it. Self--righteousness makes things worse; also the more adversarial their attitude, the more harshly they (and their creed) will be judged when they slip (and slip they will, for such is the nature of Original Sin).

As for the 24 scenario, you might consider it an example of the slippery slope, which you can recognize when applied to abortion ("the woman is a very sick minor, the victim of rape, and the child will be severy damaged, etc. etc.. a real exceptional case" leading eventually to "the baby inteferes with my lifestyle").

Slippery slopes are slippery slopes, no matter what the subject or whoever proposes them.

Posted by: Adriana | July 16, 2007 9:02 PM

Adriana, which kind of slippery slope do you mean? I can think of several distinct things that are called slippery slopes. Do you mean something like the fact that something can be wrong on one end of a spectrum and morally ok on the other, but the stages in between are so slight that it's hard to draw a line where it becomes wrong? That's what it sounds like you're saying, but I'm not sure what you're saying about it. So I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be responding to.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | July 16, 2007 9:49 PM

Yes, that kind of slippery slope. The one that finds justification in one extreme case, and then uses that extreme case as precedent for the following ones.

I got the idea from a Spanish friend, who noticed that abortion got legalized after appels to emotion based on extreme cases ("menally deficient underage mother victim of rape, and severely deformed child" or some such) and before you knew it, it was abortion on demand...

So, beware of extreme cases, because the ordinary ones will follow....

Which is why I hate 24 and its scenarios.

Posted by: Adriana | July 16, 2007 10:53 PM

OK, so now I understand the complaint. But that's not what I'm doing, and I don't think it's what Thomas is doing. What I'm doing is giving an ethical theory about how moral justification works in cases that involve actions that are usually wrong. There is a moral principle that it is wrong to do action A. That moral principle is not absolute, but it is usually applicable. When the consequences are severe enough, the threshold for allowing the action can be overcome. Where that threshold is depends on how bad the action normally is. For an action like breaking a promise, it doesn't take as much as an action like killing or torturing. So it might be that my car breaking down, and keeping my promise would involve serious expense to find a taxi to get there on time, leaving my car on the side of the road and ignoring my need to get it towed, and maybe it's not worth it just to have lunch with a friend, even if I promised to be there. The consequences have to be much more serious to kill someone, and perhaps self-defense or defending others would do.

The question you're raising is that there needs to be a place to draw the line, or you'd end up justifying based on any consequences that are good. That's right. That's what the threshold is. As the consequences get less severe, the moral justification diminishes. Something can be more wrong than something else, but it could also be less clearly justified. As the justification diminishes, so does the rightness of the action, eventually reaching a point where it's not clear at all that it's morally ok, and then it becomes clearly wrong as the justification diminishes even more.

This is just a problem of vagueness, and there are two kinds of ways around those. One is that there is a sharp line, and the other is that there's a continuum with degrees of wrongness. I've gone with the second approach on this issue.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | July 17, 2007 6:15 AM

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