May 2010 Archives

It strikes me that two principles commonly used in textual criticism can actually cancel each other out.

1. Charity to the Author: Other things being equal, it's generally better to be charitable to the author when we can do so. If we find two readings in manuscripts, where one makes a lot more sense for someone to have written than the other, then we might favor the one that we might more easily expect someone to have written and try to find some other explanation for the divergent reading.

2. Hardest Reading: Other things being equal, textual critics generally prefer a reading that is less likely to be what you'd expect to find, because copyists can see something and auto-correct it as they are copying. If they find something they consider to be grammatically, semantically, historically, or theologically incorrect, they might fix it. So the harder reading is often taken to be more likely, because we can explain why the manuscripts with the easier reading exist, when it's much harder sometimes to explain why the manuscripts with the harder reading would have arisen from the easier reading if that had been original.

These principles do seem to me to go in opposite directions, since charity seems to support the easier rather than the harder reading. I haven't done a lot of textual criticism myself, but I've read plenty of instances of authors writing about particular cases, and I have to wonder if sometimes people might choose one or the other of these in order to justify the reading they prefer, since charity supports the easier reading.

Does this make textual criticism completely subjective, at least in cases where these two principles are the only relevant ones that apply? Not really. I tried to state the principles carefully enough to hint at how the potential conflict can sometimes be resolved. Charity leads us to look for an alternative explanation for the harder reading, one not having to do with authorial intention, since it favors easier readings we'd actually expect someone to like. The Hardest Reading principle gives us an alternative explanation for how easier readings could arise, but we still need to make some sense of why someone would have authored the hardest reading, or else we might wonder if it's not original, provided that we do have an account of how the hardest reading could arise. Sometimes a slight different in how one letter is written can provide that explanation. Sometimes the harder reading still makes plenty of sense but requires some more careful explaining to see how it fits with the rest of the passage or some other passage. But in many cases there will be a reason to prefer the harder reading or the more charitable reading because of what we might say about the alternative reading.

I do have to wonder, though, about cases where the harder reading makes absolutely no sense, and the more charitable reading can easily be explained by being copied wrongly from the harder reading. There are hard cases in textual criticism because these principles do run counter to each other.

[cross-posted at Evangel]

The 330th Christian Carnival will be hosted this coming Wednesday at And She Went Out...The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the Christian Carnival archive.

To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:
This is the 57th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post concluded discussing the psychological account of personal identity. This post moves on to the bodily account.

According to the dualist account of personal identity, being the same person is having the same immaterial mind or soul. According to the psychological account of personal identity, being the same person is having a continuation of the same set of psychological properties such as memories, desires, beliefs, personality traits, moral character, and so on. The main contender to those two approaches would be biological accounts, which base personal identity in some biological facts. The most common versions of biological accounts are the bodily account and the brain account. The bodily account takes someone to be the same person just in case they have same continuing body. Sometimes it's put in terms of whether there is a continuing organism.

The central intuition behind the bodily or organism view is that we are most fundamentally biological organisms. That's what it is to be a human being. So it would make sense if the criteria for remaining the same human being had to do with being the same biological organism, i.e. continuing to exist via having the same living body.

You get a counterintuitive result from the bodily view. Suppose we develop the technology to remove my brain and put it in your body. I think most people would then say I switched bodies, an intuition that favors the brain view. On the bodily view, you get the very weird result that I remain in my original body. If no brain is put in, then I might simply be a human vegetable. If your brain is put in my body, then I'd think I'm you and now would have all your memories, personality, moral beliefs, and character traits. But there's you, going around in your own body, thinking you're me and having my traits. According to the bodily view, it would still be you in your original body acting as me and me in my original body acting as you.

But Eric Olson gives a difficult argument to resist for a bodily view:

1. I could have been born without a brain.
2. If something could have been different about me, then it's not essential to me.
3. Therefore, my brain isn't essential to me, to my being me. So I could continue to exist without my brain.

The first premise seems intuitively true. I could have had the condition of anencephaly, in which case I would have been born with no brain, just a brain stem, and I wouldn't have lived long.

The second premise seems obvious at first glance. An essential property is defined as something without which you wouldn't have been you. How could you gain and lose essential properties, then? It should be the sort of thing you would never be able to gain or lose.

I can think of three different ways someone might try to resist this argument.

A)      If dualism is true, there actually isn't anything disturbing about this argument. If dualism is true, then our brains aren't essential to who we are. That's the point of dualism, in fact. Descartes thought it was possible to exist without your body at all, including your brain. So dualists might even accept the argument as it stands without accepting Olson's organism view of what we basically are.

B)      If a biological view that considers the brain to be essential to who we are is correct, then the first premise is false. The anencephalic baby that might have resulted from the same egg and sperm I came from wouldn't have been me, because it would have had no brain at all and thus not my brain. So the argument begs the question against that view by assuming a premise that no one holding that view would grant.

C)      If the psychological view is correct, then the second premise is false. I could have been born without a brain, and at that point my brain wasn't essential to me, but now it is because now my psychological properties are present. This requires that what's necessary for you to be you can change with time. Many philosophers would frown at this, since the idea was to find what's central to your being you that doesn't change over time. But this is a possible view. You could never lose an essential property. You'd stop being you (and thus stop existing). But you can gain essential properties. Once you have them, they're essential, but they weren't essential before you had them.

So it seems as if all three rival views have a response to the argument. That doesn't mean the argument is unsound. It just means the alternative views shouldn't accept the premises, so a careful proponent of the alternative views would be unconvinced. But you might not want to reject either premise except to defend a view you already hold, and so the argument might still convince someone who is inclined to accept the premises. Also, the notion that we're simply biological organisms does appeal to a lot of people, and that's the basic intuition behind this view, even if the view's implications in brain transplant cases and human vegetable cases might conflict with other intuitions some people have.

It's not clear that the arguments here are all that decisive, therefore. But it is clear that, though we have some intuitions that conflict with a bodily view, we also have some that conflict with it.

In the next post, I'll look a little more closely at the brain view.


The 329th Christian Carnival is up at Thinking in Christ.

LOST Finale

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The series finale of the six-year show LOST aired on Sunday night. Judging by comments I've seen on Facebook and other places online, it was a love-or-hate-it kind of finale. Like Battlestar Galactica, a lot of how I evaluate the whole show was going to hang on whether they pulled it off in the finale. I thought Galactica was successful. I left the LOST finale thinking we may have a candidate for a worse finale-to-show ratio than Enterprise, whose final season was among the best Star Trek and final episode was among the worst moments of Star Trek (and the worst moments of Star Trek include Star Trek V, so that's really saying something).

One of the interesting questions for me was the new storytelling device of season 6. The first three seasons included flashbacks, with a different character focus each episode, detailing the backstory of characters now stranded on the island. In the third season finale, the producers pulled a fast one on the audience, because the flashback sequence interspersed throughout the episode ended up at the very end revealing that we weren't seeing previous events but ones that didn't happen. Somehow some characters get off the island, and they're not having a good time of it.

Season 4 then implements a flash-forward dramatic device showing the lives of these characters after they leave the island, with the on-island events eventually catching up to their departure from the island in the season 4 finale alongside the science fiction device of the Frozen Donkey Wheel, which (a) moves the island, (b) sends the guy who turned it himself off the island, and (c) sends the characters who remain flashing through time to various significant moments in the history of the island. 

Season 5 focuses on getting those who left back to the island and getting the flashes through time to stop, which happens when another character leaves the island by turning the Frozen Donkey Wheel, which traps everyone in 1974. Meanwhile, those who return mostly end up in 1977, three years after their friends arrived in the 70s and became part of the until-then mysterious Dharma Initiative, which was exploring the unusual properties of the island. All during Season 5, the character keep reiterating that they can't change the past. Whatever happened happened. Whatever they're about to do already happened in terms of the past of the time they originally came from, and they will now witness it from the perspective of its being present, but anything they know to be true about what will happen is going to happen. Everything that does happen seems to confirm this. But some characters decide to try to change the past anyway by blowing up a nuke near a major outlet of the electromagnetic properties of the island where the Dharma Initiative is drilling.

From that point on, it's unclear whether they changed the past or merely fulfilled what they already knew took place. Season 6 begins with the characters on their original flight, and it doesn't crash. Then the camera zooms underwater, and we see key locations on the island. Did their plan work? Did they blow up the island and sink it? But then we flash to 2007 on the island, thirty years after the bomb blew up, and our characters appear to be still on the island. Their adventures continue as if they changed nothing. They merely fulfilled the past by causing the Incident, an event they'd heard about happening during the Dharma Initiative. That event caused Dharma to build a setup where electromagnetic energy needed to be siphoned off every 108 minutes, and they needed someone to push a button that often. The survivors ended up taking on that task for a year but only after the guy assigned to the task before them forgot to push it and crashed their plane. So their bomb basically caused their own crash. Instead of preventing it, they caused it.

Then what was going on with the plane that landed in Los Angeles? The producers called that a flash-sideways, which suggests an alternate universe. But they denied that it was an alternate universe, leaving it mysterious what was going on. Over the course of the season, flash-sideways characters began to remember events on the island. It wasn't until the finale, though, that we discovered what it was. It's what happened after they all died. Some of them died during the show, some early and some only at the end. Some survived the island-storyline and presumably died much later. But everyone dies sometime. The flash-sideways turned out to be a place they somehow created for themselves to meet up before moving on to whatever is next.

I'd been looking forward to an explanation of this flash-sideways, because it's especially important to the time travel stuff I've been working on. It turns out not. The original "whatever happened happened" line seems simply to be true. The sideways isn't an alternate timeline caused by the bomb blowing up. It's nothing but an illusion for the gathering of all the characters deemed appropriate by the writers to have their as they awaited their walk through the door of glowing light.

It's an understatement to say that I was disappointed. It makes my time travel stuff easier to write, and it confirms that they weren't messing with their originally-stated explanation of how time travel works. But it seemed like pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo that made the whole flash-sideways elements of the season seem irrelevant. There is no sideways reality. It's a fakeity created as an illusion so they can work out their issues with their lives before going on to whatever is next, and the writers left it open what's next. The suggestion seems to be that it's a good afterlife together with their buddies, but it's possible they all step into the light and go on to a miserable eternity in hell for all the show has to say.

So I thought much of the finale was dumb. Even in the island part of the story, which I mostly liked, one main character sacrificed his life needlessly, because another character could have done what he did that killed him but survived. That was truly dumb, because it invalidates the sacrificial death the writers wanted to give him. But most of the island story was all right. I watched it again, fast-forwarding through the sideways except for the last ten minutes, and I enjoyed the episode a lot more.

I should also say that someone convinced me in between watchings that there is a redeeming quality of the overall point of the episode, at least from a Christian perspective. While the show suggests a number of things that I'd disagree with about the religious perspective of the writers, some of it that even seems pretty lame to me, I at first didn't recognize that the writers were recognizing the value of eternity and relationships with people as more important than temporal things, and no Christian should see that as a bad message, even if it's mixed with other things we might disagree with. This is a work of fiction, and I think Christians should see this episode as containing one or two important seeds of the Christian gospel (while also undermining one or two others).

Has that changed my opinion of the finale? Well, watching it a second time without the flash-sideways portion (except the very end) was a lot more enjoyable. I do think I would have preferred removing that whole storyline except the very end if they wanted to insist on that and replacing it with something that would have delved more into the history of the island and the mysteries of the island than the time travel of season 5 was able to do. But I think I can say now that I don't think this was as bad as the Enterprise finale. It was more like the mixed bag that was the Stargate SG-1 finale, which had some fun and interesting moments but didn't at all do what I thought a series finale for that show needed to do.

Welcome to the 328th Christian Carnival.

The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the Christian Carnival archive, and for more information on participating you can see this post and the links therein.

I've had a lot less time this week than I expected, so I'm interested more in getting the links together for everyone's posts and less on how I present the information. It's the posts themselves that should matter most anyway. I've been a little more stringent with the rules this time around, excluding any post that's outside the dates for the past week. If you submitted a post that you posted before last Wednesday, and you don't see it here, it's because it's ineligible for this carnival. Sometimes I give a few grace days and accept late submissions for the previous week, but this time around I chose getting the carnival posted in a timely manner over bending the rules to make the carnival larger.

There was also one post whose date I could not determine, and one person submitted two posts from the same blog and same author, but neither had permalinks for individual posts (at least the ones given didn't work, and the main page of the blog didn't have links for them that I could find).

I've arranged the submissions in the order I received them, and I've not followed my usual practice of selecting a few other posts from the Christian blogosphere to include despite their not being submitted. I've had a lot less time to read blogs lately, and I haven't actually had a chance in the past week to check in at my favorite Christian blogs that don't usually submit posts.

So without further ado, on to the Carnival...

Here's another one from Jonathan Glasgow that I'll just quote his own description of:

We are all simultaneously struck by an agent that causes us forget our systems of racial classification. Any time we start to racially classify ourselves, our cognitive apparatuses short-circuit. One hour later, cognition reverts to its pre-amnesiac state, and racial classification resumes.

(Again, as with several of these, if you think races don't exist, you'll say they continue not to exist through this. But this question is for those who think they do exist.)

Do races stop existing for that period of time and then come back into existence, or does something keep them in existence during the interim period? If so, what generates their existence?


The 328th Christian Carnival will be hosted this coming Wednesday right here at Parableman. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the Christian Carnival archive.

To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

The Author Theodicy

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My friend and sometime co-blogger Wink likes to think of God as the author of creation in a much more literal way than most people do. He sees God as writing a story, with human beings as some of the main characters, and one response he has to the problem of evil is that the story overall justifies certain instances of badness occurring throughout the story.

This also serves as a helpful analogy for him in thinking through the relation between divine sovereignty and human freedom, since the characters in a book can easily have free will of whatever sort you'd like even if every step of their fictional lives is written by an author. Within the story, their choices are all free. They make choices, and those choices need not be determined in any way by anything outside their control (although if it's a story in a deterministic world, then of course something outside their control does determine their actions, and they at most have only compatibilist free will).

It was hard to resist thinking about the author theodicy when I heard this quote on a recent podcast (see writeup here) by the executive producers of Lost:

We're sorry that it happened, but we're not sorry that we did it, and we make no excuses for it. It is a very intense and dark time on the show. Obviously the deaths of these characters provides a tremendous emotional catalyst for the survivors, because now they're at war. The sides were a little hazy before now. Now, there's great clarity. -- Damon Lindelof

Then consider the specific reasoning given:

We felt it was really important that the audience understand that, going into the end of this show, nobody is safe. One of the problems in television is that you innately know that certain characters aren't going to die, and that strips certain shows of their jeopardy. We want there to be a feeling that anything is possible, and that going into the end of the series, that is very much true. There will be some surprising things.

It's the author-theodicy version of a point made by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in sections of their work that I've taught in my history of philosophy intro class. Augustine asks us to consider a painting. There will likely be spots that, taken apart from the whole, would look ugly. But in the context of the whole painting they fit and make the painting itself more beautiful than it would be without them. Aquinas similarly says that the occurrences of evil in the world are indeed intrinsically bad. The fact that they occur is unfortunate, and other things being equal a good God who could prevent them would do so. But other things aren't equal, because the macroscopic picture of the history of the universe (which, of course, goes on forever into eternity according to Aquinas, with evil defeated forever after a certain point) is better as a whole if that evil occurs, even if the microscopic look at just that bit of evil should lead God to declare it bad and worth avoiding.

Lindelof seems to be making a similar point. It's unfortunate that these beloved characters had to die, but they thought things would be best for them to die at this point given the story they are trying to tell. The macroscopic look determines whether it's worth doing. They're not sorry they did it, because of that macroscopic effect. The microscopic look determines whether the event is unfortunate in itself, and in this case they admit that it is. But the macroscopic effect is what matters for storytelling, even if sometimes honesty requires acknowledging the microscopic picture as Lindelof does in this quote.

The 327th Christian Carnival is up at

Proverbs and Wives

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Proverbs contains two themes that might seem in tension with each other.

House and wealth are inherited from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the LORD. (Prov 19:14, ESV)

As James says, any gift is from God.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights. (James 1:17, ESV)

On another level, there's a human role in acquiring certain kinds of things that can also be gifts of God:

He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD.(Prov 18:22)

So both houses/riches and an insightful wife are a gift from God. Both might come by means of some process that doesn't on the surface involve God, but one's own finding might be a significant part of it.

So what's the contrast in Prov 19:14 supposed to be, then? If everything is from God, then why are some things from God while others only from human beings? I puzzled over this for a while. Perhaps it had something to do with coming from God in one sense (the way everything comes from God) and coming from God in another sense (a sense in which only some things are from God).

That's certainly one way to make sense of such a distinction, but it doesn't strike me as the best solution. The most natural way to make such a distinction is between things God intends for the good of the person receiving them and things God intends not for the good of the person receiving them but for some other reason. I can't see how that fits well with this verse, though. Couldn't both things be intended by God for the good of the person receiving the gift?

I have another suggestion. This particular verse speaks of a prudent wife, not just any wife. It's not as if Proverbs only speaks of wives in good terms or anything. There's a long section in chapter 31 devoted to the industrious wife, but there are proverbs here and there about how hard it is to live with contentious wives (as in the previous verse), too, and one of the big opponents of the first nine chapters is the adulterous wife. Critics of the biblical wisdom literature sometimes focus on the negative pictures of wives while ignoring the good ones, usually to argue for some kind of sexism at work. But it takes selective appeal to certain parts of Proverbs to think the perspective behind the book is simply negative toward women and wives. It would be a similar mistake to think it's simply positive toward women and wives. Like the book's attitude toward people in general, including men, it places people into the wise category or the foolish category, and there are some particular ways of being wise and foolish that it emphasizes about how wives can be wise or foolish.

So here's my suggestion. The contrast in Prov 19:14 is not about some gifts being from God and some gifts not being from God. It's about some gifts that can come from people and some gifts that can only come from God. If my is right, then Prov 19:14 is about how parents can leave you possessions, and they can set it up so you get pretty much what they intend you to get. They might give you a spouse, but they can't guarantee a good spouse. Only God can do that. That's not to say that an inheritance isn't also a gift from God. It's hard to read Proverbs as a whole, never mind the rest of the Bible, and get that impression. But even if parents can arrange a marriage, there's part of the gift that can only be arranged by God, and that's something that requires depending on him. For anyone about to arrange a marriage, this is something to keep in mind.

At various moments in my life, it's occurred to me that the people who have been most important to me or most influential in bringing me to a certain point or simply those who have been most enjoyable for me to be around have not always been the people I would have chosen. They simply were around at the same time I was, and circumstances worked themselves out. To those who accept a sufficiently strong view of divine providence, then, it seems impossible to see such events as anything but the hand of God, and the same should be true of the events leading to a marriage, even if nowadays it's a lot less often from the organizing hands of parents and may even sometimes be simply due to two people finding themselves together often enough and finding that they want to continue spending time together in a deeper way.



The 327th Christian Carnival will be hosted this coming Wednesday at RodneyOlsen.netThe Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the Christian Carnival archive.

To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:


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student comment in response to the idea that there might be a bad afterlife for bad people:

Furthermore, it is hard to believe that a higher being would wish for the suffrage of mankind, because any higher being would be above that and not involve themselves in petty nonsense.

I agree that a higher being would be above giving us suffrage. After all, wouldn't a higher being know better than us? Giving us a voting role in ultimate decisions wouldn't really serve any good. I don't see how it would be petty, though, and I don't see how this point supports the idea that there couldn't be a bad afterlife. That a higher being would be above giving us suffrage actually supports the possibility of a bad afterlife despite our protests, since it doesn't matter whether we approve.

I finished up my classes today by looking at Thomas Aquinas on natural law, and it occurred to me that a famous proponent of natural law today served as a good example to illustrate one of Aquinas' points. Aquinas doesn't think every moral conclusion that we can derive from natural law should be enforced by human law. He says the moral principles most worth enforcing are those that involve serious, especially potentially-widespread, harm. Almost any natural law theorist is going to see harm to yourself as immoral, but Aquinas wouldn't see that as a good reason to prohibit it by human law. He also says it's not genuinely a law without promulgation, which includes enforcement to motivate compliance.

As I was talking about this in class, I remembered Clarence Thomas' hilarious dissenting opinion in Lawrence v. Texas from 2003 and mentioned it as an example. Texas had laws against same-sex sodomy that no one ever enforced. Cops investigating a serious crime followed a lead and legally invaded a home that they suspected their target was living in. They were wrong. He'd moved, and a gay couple now lived in that home. The police stumbled in on the two men in the process of an illegal sex act. They promptly arrested them, and the two men sued in a case that got to the Supreme Court. Did this law violate these men's constitutional rights by this law?

Thomas' opinion is priceless, and my summary of it got some audible laughs from students who don't normally show much interest in any class content. He says it's not unconstitutional for the reasons given in Justice Scalia's dissenting opinion. The reason he wrote separately was not to change anything from what Scalia had said. He wrote a separate dissent to make it clear that he thought the Texas law was stupid, and that's exactly the word he used. He wanted it on record that he wasn't voting to uphold the constitutionality of the law because he thought the law was a good law. He didn't. He just didn't think it was the place of the U.S. Supreme Court to tell state legislators what to do on such matters. The law itself, however, was a stupid law. It's largely unenforceable, and any enforcement will be so sporadic that it will have hardly any deterrent value anyway. This is exactly what you'd expect of a natural law theorist in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas insists that there shouldn't be human laws of this sort.

I decided to take a look at the Wikipedia entry for Justice Thomas to see what it might say about natural law, and it says the following:

Whereas Thomas' earlier writings had frequently referenced the legal theory of natural law, Thomas distanced himself from that controversial stance during his confirmation hearings, giving the impression that he had no views. Thomas himself later asserted in his autobiography that in the course of his professional career, he had not developed a judicial philosophy.

What he actually did at his hearings (and yes, I just reviewed the transcripts to be sure I was getting it right) was to point out the difference between (a) thinking natural law is the basis of why it's good policy to have certain constitutional rights and (b) thinking we should look to natural law rather than to the Constitution's positive rights when deciding matters of constitutional law. Thomas had long endorsed (a) and never endorsed (b), and what the entry describes as his distancing himself from his previous natural laws views was really his denial of (b), something natural law theory doesn't imply anyway. When he says he had no judicial philosophy in his book, that doesn't mean he hadn't ever developed a view on the foundations of ethics, which is what natural law theories are. Not having a comprehensive judicial philosophy does not mean having no meta-ethical views.

Of course, if I changed the entry and gave as an explanation the fact that this is what natural law theory states, especially if I indicated my credentials as a philosopher, it would be rejected as original research. Wikipedia is the only place in the world where actual expertise on an issue counts against you in terms of recognition as the sort of person who can say something authoritative. It only would allow this if I had written it in a book or something and if someone who had no expertise on the issue had read it in that book and cited it. The best I could do is mention it in the discussion page for the article and hope someone who isn't a philosopher might be convinced and thus change it.

Oklahoma has rendered doctors immune to lawsuits if they lie to parents about the test result of a prenatal tests for disabilities, provided that their reasons for doing so are to prevent an abortion. I want to leave aside the question of birth defects in general and just focus on the Down Syndrome case. The law seems to cover cases when a parent might be preventing very serious pain in a case where the quality of life is very low, and I'm not going to tackle those issues right now. So what I have to say here doesn't cover everything this law does, and even if everything I say here is right it's compatible with that to say that the law still is bad for covering cases that don't have the features that this post focuses on. What I have to say here doesn't get into those cases at all, so don't take me to be commenting on them or the law in general. That would take a lot more work and premises that are more controversial, I think.

So restrict the law, for the sake of this post, to cover just Down Syndrome cases. 90% of children at the fetal stage who are predicted to have Down Syndrome by prenatal tests are aborted. These tests have 5% false positives, so 5% of those cases are probably not genuinely Down Syndrome to begin with. Even if I didn't think abortion was generally a bad thing, I would be opposed to such a practice. I know people who have told me they would have made such a decision with their own child, and I just can't imagine being the sort of person who could think that, never mind do it.

Nevertheless, my initial inclination was to think this is entirely the wrong way to go about trying to do something to resist the deaths of almost all children with Down Syndrome before they ever even get to experience the world. This seemed like a bad law. But on reflection, it occurs to me that it's very difficult to explain why this law (and remember I'm restricting myself just to the Down Syndrome cases here) is all that bad, at least given four premises that I think are widely-enough held (or would be if people had all the facts, anyway).

1. Abortion is generally bad and worth preventing, even if at some cost and even if there are cases when abortion is permissible.
2. It's morally permissible to lie to someone who is going to do great harm, as long as you don't cause more harm in the process.
3. Killing a fetus who tested positive for Down Syndrome is participation in the genocide of those with disabilities.
4. The harm done by lying to a parent who wants to abort a fetus who tested positive for Down Syndrome is not greater than the harm caused by that parent's participation in the genocide of those with disabilities.

Many pro-choice people would agree with 1 but would still want abortion to be generally available (that's what makes them pro-choice rather than pro-abortion), and all pro-life people would agree with it. So I think a majority would support that.

Hardly anyone accepts 2 except a few absolutists, e.g. those who think any biblical commands that apply today and who wrongly think the Bible commands never to lie or, I suppose, contemporary Kantians who accept Kant's absolutism about lying. I know some people who hold such views, but I don't think they're in the majority. Most pro-life and pro-choice people alike think it would be permissible or even a moral obligation to lie to a Nazi hunting down Jews, for example.

I would argue that 3 is a perfectly accurate description for such an act, given that more than 90% of positive test results end in abortion. As a society, we're killing off those with Down Syndrome in huge numbers, and I would guess that many people who might be inclined to think aborting someone after such a test is all right end up being horrified when they discover that statistic. This requires no commitment to any pro-life position, just a recognition that it's a very bad thing to wipe out people just because they have a disability and that people with this particular disability generally have very happy lives and can contribute quite a lot to the world.

So the only way to resist this argument that I think would appeal to a great many people would be to argue that lying in this very particular circumstance causes more harm than the participation in the genocide of those with disabilities. But I don't think that will be as easy an argument as it might at first sound. There is the value of being able to trust a physician, and this does undermine that, but it's a law that only has one allowance for why that can happen, so it doesn't undermine confidence in physicians in general, just in physicians when it comes to this test. Is that such a bad result, given how bad the consequence is of parents being able to get this information? In fact, you might think the doctor's responsibility to the fetus requires not providing information to parents who the doctor knows would then kill the fetus, so the argument that this violates a doctor's professional responsibilities seems counted by the argument that giving the information also does.

I'm having a hard time, then, explaining why I have such resistance to this method of preventing abortions that result from the desire not to have a child with a disability. There seem to be cases where there's a strong argument in favor of withholding that information.

Jesus the Jew

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Prov 19:17 says those gracious to the poor are lending to God. It's hard for anyone familiar with the New Testament to think about such a statement for very long without being reminded of Jesus' discussion in Matthew 25, where he says, "whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me."

It amazes me how far people will go to find sources outside the Hebrew tradition for some of Jesus' ideas. So many of his statements are steeped in the language and conceptual framework of the Hebrew scripture. The extent of these connections don't often enough get noticed, and not all of them are as obvious as others, but enough of them are transparent enough that I have to wonder if the people who make such statements know the Hebrew scriptures very well.

Christians will look at this example as a proverb in the Hebrew scriptures teaching a principle that would come to be exemplified in Jesus' teaching about himself, with the implication that Jesus is according himself divinity by taking on a feature the Hebrew scriptures reserve for God. But even those more skeptical of such notions should at least admit that Jesus' teachings are so strongly influenced by the Hebrew Bible and that it's contextually insensitive to take Jesus to be primarily something more like a Roman Stoic or an adherent to the teachings of some kind of eastern mysticism. Where there might be similarities there, his actual background, language, and cultural milieu serve as a far better explanation even of the teachings that are fairly distinctive in the gospels and not found with such close parallels such as this one.


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