October 2010 Archives
There are ironic punishments, but this seems like the crime itself is ironic. What are the odds that a thief would grab someone's cell phone during a demonstration of the ability to track a phone's location in real time?
I received an email with the title, "How You Can Tell Obama is Not a Socialist". The basic argument is that President Obama didn't implement full-blown government ownership of the banks and industries relevant to the economic problems that it has been calling a crisis. A true socialist, so goes the argument, would have seized the opportunity to, you know, implement socialism or something. A few instances of the government seizing control of something that's belonging to the private sector, trying to control your media appearances, and painting the opposition media as illegitimate nevertheless don't amount to taking over industry and the media entirely. So President Obama isn't really a socialist.
There's certainly something to the argument in this email, but it's not as straightforward as that, and there are ways that I think it's fair to describe President Obama's views as socialist.
1. A committed socialist might think we should engage pragmatically in incremental steps to reach an eventual socialist goal. If President Obama has a socialist theory of justice (as I think he does) and a pragmatic and incrementalist approach to realizing it (as I also think he does), then he's picking his battles so he can do as much as he can to move in that direction without trying to accomplish too much in a way that will end up just frustrating his final goals too much. So this at most shows that he's at most a pragmatic, incrementalist socialist. But hardly anyone who is informed and honest is claiming that he's more than that, and lots of people are claiming exactly that.
2. There are also distinguishable components of socialism. President Obama might have a socialist theory of justice in terms of what counts as a just, equal world without having a socialist view of who should own property or the means of production. I'm not sure what his view is about the ideal government and ownership of the means of production. So I don't know if he's a socialist in that sense, although at most he'd be a pragmatist, incrementalist socialist about such matters. But he could be completely a capitalist about those issues and be a socialist about justice in thinking there's a moral imperative to equalize pay and benefits of employees to a point where complete equalization is an eventual goal. That's a socialist theory of justice, and the way he uses the term 'just' makes the most sense if he thinks merely unfair or unequal distribution is unjust (as opposed to saying that it's unjust to implement policies or practices that ensure such unequal distribution, which a much greater number of people would agree with). Since he does seem, to my mind, to hold such a view, I do think he's working from a socialist theory of justice.
Surely there's a sense in which Obama isn't a socialist, but there's also a sense in which he arguably might well be.
The following passage is sometimes taken to teach that suffering and death aren't always because of the sins of the individuals who suffer or die:
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." [Luke 13:1-5, ESV]
This passage does not teach that. You can find a teaching close to that in the book of Job. It isn't quite that, though. What Job teaches is that the immediate cause of suffering need not be the particular sins of the person suffering. It never says that there's any suffering that's not because of the presence of sin in the world, though. This passage in Luke, in particular, strikes me as in fact teaching something in the opposite direction of Job's point.
What is says is that the people who died weren't any worse sinners than the ones who didn't die. This wasn't to illustrate they were innocent and suffered anyway. Jesus' point is for his hearers to repent so that too won't perish, as if the reason for the perishing was indeed because of sin but that many of the people hearing his message were simply spared that out of God's mercy, at least so far, but they should not presume upon that mercy continuing for much longer. So the point does seem to me to mitigate the Job point. While it may well be that suffering can occur without its being directed against someone because of that person's sin, this passage isn't teaching anything about the suffering of innocents. It's teaching that those who die because of their sin aren't any worse than those who haven't yet met God's judgment as fully as they might. Consider the very next words of Jesus in Luke:
And he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, 'Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?' And he answered him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"[Luke 13:6-9, ESV]
This seems to be a clear presentation of the patience point above. God is merciful, and that's why some continue to live despite deserving death. God puts it off to give them time to repent, but God need not do this. God doesn't owe this to us.
I've been thinking about two different themes that run together here, both of which came out in the still-ongoing discussion of the Canaanite genocide issue. One is the Punishment Theodicy, and the other is the Patience Theodicy. These aren't where theists typically start when dealing with the problem of evil, but I think that's unfortunate. The Punishment Theodicy is usually dismissed by contemporary philosophers pretty quickly, mainly because of the Job point. If there's innocent suffering, then the Punishment Theodicy won't do all the work. Also, you need a reason why God allows the sin that's being punished for a large amount of evil to constitute punishment. But I think the Punishment Theodicy does do a lot more work than contemporary philosophers want to give it credit. The claim isn't that every bit of evil is punishment directed against someone for a particular sin that's being punished by that particular bit of suffering. It's that the vast majority of evil in the world today is the result of sin's being in the world, and one reason God allows it to the point it gets to is because we deserve it (and indeed much worse). It's allowed, at least in very large part, in order to punish us.
Another reason this isn't popular, I suspect, is because punishment is not popular, at least not for retributive reasons. But retributive justice is very popular when you put it the right way. It's unpopular to suggest that we deserve suffering for anything when you talk in terms of sin and God, but just try telling a graduating senior who didn't get hired that it's perfectly all right for someone who had lower qualifications to get the job, as if any choice would have been equally good, and you get responses that assume some notion of retributive justice. We can't make sense of the notion of an ironic punishment if we don't think people can deserve suffering because of their sins.
The Patience Theodicy is an explanation why evildoers seem to get away with it, why God doesn't judge sin immediately. Habakkuk worried deeply about that question, and God's response is that the sinner seeming to get away with it will indeed be judged. I don't think we ever get in Habakkuk why he's delaying, though. One place we do see an answer to that is II Peter 3, where we're told that it's out of God's patience, to allow more time for people to repent. This theodicy explains a kind of evil that seems counterintuitive from one perspective. Normally, we want a reason why God allows evil. In a sense, this is an explanation of why God continues to allow a certain kind of evil. But on another level, this is an explanation of why God refrains from doing something that causes something that's intrinsically bad -- suffering and death. So it's a funny kind of theodicy, but it's a theodicy nonetheless, and it's also a pretty powerful one in that it explains quite a bit. The Punishment Theodicy explains a good deal of suffering on a very general level (without offering any claim about the details of particular cases, which is where those who apply it often end up mistaken). The Patience Theodicy explains a more specific kind of suffering by giving a reason why it might be allowed to continue when there's an easy way of cutting short evil by ending its existence altogether. It's an answer to the "how long" kind of question, i.e. the duration of evils, in Peter van Inwagen's way of putting it.
I'm not sure I had any specific point here, just some stewing thoughts after reading Luke 13 this morning, but I wanted to record some of these thoughts.
Philosopher Peter Ludlow presents the motivation behind Wikileaks to show that ways to resist it won't work, because they assume things that aren't true about why people are doing this. It's basically absolutism about the availability of information. The principle is that if there's information, then we should all have access to it. It's not remotely about calling people toward being more accountable or trying to promote a particular political agenda (aside from the absolutism about freedom of information, anyway, which is a political agenda).
The argument reminds me an awful lot of the kind of mindset Michael Crichton was arguing against with Jurassic Park. It's absolutism about the dissemination of information, without regard to any moral principles about whether it's good to do so or even wrong to do so in particular cases. In that way, it's highly parallel to those who pursue scientific research merely because they can and regardless of any of the ethical objections to doing so.