Jeremy Pierce: November 2010 Archives

Secondary Moral Obligations

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There's a category of moral obligations that occur in funny circumstances. Given that you are doing a certain immoral thing, there are nevertheless obligations that you have. The pope has recently conceded (finally) that there are such obligations involving condom use. It's wrong to be a male prostitute, but it's "a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility" if the prostitute uses a condom. In other words, if you're going to be immoral, you do have the moral obligation of wearing a condom. You shouldn't be doing the initial immoral thing to begin with, but if you're going to do it you still have another obligation to be responsible and wear a condom, or else you fail at a further obligation.

The fullest quote I've seen is, "There may be justified individual cases, for example when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be ... a first bit of responsibility, to re-develop the understanding that not everything is permitted and that one may not do everything one wishes."

Perhaps we could call this sort of thing a secondary moral obligation, one you don't have unless you're doing something you have a moral obligation not to do.

Since some secondary moral obligations might be immoral themselves were it not for the primary moral obligation, there really is an interesting character to them. That's certainly how the pope's view in this case works. Condom use is normally immoral, according to his view. But given certain immoral actions, you then have a secondary moral obligation to perform that normally-immoral act of using a condom.

I want to say something about Andrew Sullivan's response, because I think Sullivan latches on to something important that most people haven't picked up, but he's also got it completely wrong in another respect. What Sullivan notices is that "Benedict has chosen a case where transmission of new life (barring a real miracle) is already impossible". It's not clear if he would say the same thing about a female prostitute, where conception might be possible. It's quite possible that this is why he chose this example. I'm not sure. Does the recognition of secondary moral obligations only occur when the stakes of the effects of risky sex are greater than the stakes of contraception, and the latter still appear in cases of heterosexual non-marital sex?

I suspect Sullivan is wrong about this, though, and the pope would still invoke what I'm calling a secondary moral obligation in cases where there's high risk of STDs with immoral sex of any sort, but Sullivan has given a possible distinction that might come into play. I credit him for spotting that possibility, but I'm wondering if he has any evidence other than the fact that he chose this example when he could have chosen another (which is no more than speculation, actually).

I have to criticize Sullivan's understanding of the larger issue. I don't think he gets the point being made. He describes this statement is taking one form of gay sex as being more moral than another. That strikes me as at least very misleading, if more moral means anything other than less immoral. When you say something is more moral, it sounds as if there's a continuum between things not moral and things most moral, and this is in between somewhere. That's not what Benedict said, though. What he said is that both are immoral, but one is moreso.

What he goes on to say next, however, does seem right to me. It does follow that moral considerations of this secondary sort would apply in gay sex. If gay sex is immoral, there are some instances that are less so than others. Anonymous gay sex is more immoral than gay sex in a committed partnership. Duh. But is such a position really anathema to the Roman Catholic Church? Is Benedict likely to say that there's no moral distinction between killing someone while robbing a bank in order to get away safely and taking sadistic delight in blowing up the entire bank with forty hostages as you go, even though none of their deaths were required for your escape?

I'd be pretty shocked if he thought such a thing. In fact, an alternate position by John Allen strikes me as more likely: "Pope Benedict XVI has signaled that in some limited cases, where the intent is to prevent the transmission of disease rather than to prevent pregnancy, the use of condoms might be morally justified." So the issue is intent, as is unsurprising. Pope Paul VI's statement on sexual morality allowed for some cases where an act that would normally be immoral might in certain contexts be justified given that the intent is not to prevent conception but to save a life. The case of a married couple with one spouse HIV-positive seems to be another, and I know of several instances of Catholic bishops and even a cardinal endorsing condom use in such a case (and the entire Phillipines conference of bishops even made a public statement to that effect).

So is Sullivan's conclusion that the pope is now opened up to a gray-scale of morality rather than black and white morality? Hardly. There's still a fact about what you ought to do and what you ought not to do. The gradations are not between right and wrong, where it's factually uncertain which things are which (or even worse that there are no facts about where the line lies). I've seen nothing to indicate anything other than a sharp line between right and wrong in Benedict's moral thinking. It's just that there are degrees in how wrong something can be. Out of the things that are simply wrong, some have a greater degree of wrongness to them than others. Using a condom to have gay sex in a committed same-sex legal marriage is, on the Catholic view, simply wrong, even if it's not as bad as having unprotected sex with a male prostitute in a one-time encounter.

Given what the pope's position is, it's interesting to see the headlines news outlets are giving to the pronouncement (and I'm just looking at what's on the top of the Google listings). Yahoo's is pretty good: Pope says some condom use 'first step' of morality. CBN seems to be using the same headline. ABC is also in this category, as is Catholic Herald.

Politics Daily, on the other hand, gets it entirely wrong: "Pope OKs Condoms in Some Cases, Such As Prostitutes Avoiding HIV". That doesn't get the point at all. It's not that he's OKing it for them. It's that he can see it as a movement from being thoroughly immoral to being a little less immoral, all the while insisting that they should be doing none of it to begin with. You have the same problem with the New York Times: Pope Says Condoms to Stop AIDS May Be Acceptable. NPR has the same problem with different language: Pope Says Condoms Can Be Used in Some Cases. Al Jazeera has an initial headline that's fine, but then they have a sub-headline that's as bad as any of these. First: Pope softens stand on condoms. Then the summary immediately below says he considers it acceptable in some cases. Others in this category include the New York Post, CNN, and the Huffington Post. The Daily Beast is perhaps the worst: Pope Partly Endorses Condoms.

FOX News is only a little better: Pope: Condom Use Can Be Justified in Some Cases. The reason I think that's a little better is because it's actually true, whereas the NYT and Politics Today headlines are simply false. The pope has not said that it's OK or acceptable to use condoms to stop AIDS, just that it's less immoral than engaging in such behavior without a condom. I think it's technically correct to say, however, that it can be justified in some cases, if the view is that you incur a moral obligation to use a condom in such circumstances by engaging in the immoral behavior. But it's pretty misleading. It suggests that this is all right, even if it doesn't go as far as the others in asserting that. MSNBC has a similar headline, with "OK" instead of "Justified". That strikes me as better than saying he OKs it or that it may be acceptable, but I think calling it justified is a little better.

[cross-posted at Evangel]

Update: The discussion at Evangel has brought up a couple things I wanted to mention here (but I recommend reading the comments there, which are much more full than anything I expect here).

1. Steve Hays provided a link to this story, which suggests both that this isn't really all that new in the thinking of the Catholic hierarchy but that it would be perceived as a change in policy by most in that hierarchy.

2. David Nickol quoted the section of Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae that I was remembering that allows for non-contraceptive intents behind actually-contraceptive measures, as long as there's no contraceptive intent. Here's what he quotes: "the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from--provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever." That confirms my sense of things that lay behind my response to Sullivan.

Update 2: Well, here we go. He didn't mean to include just male-male acts.

Update 3: Steve Hays sent me a link to another article confirming the information in U1 of the first update.

Christian Carnival CCCLIV

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The 354th Christian Carnival is up at Keyboard Theologians.

The NIV 2011's translator notes explain a number of their translation decisions. As I said in my initial reaction, I like a lot of their decisions about so-called gender-inclusive translation issues, even if I don't think they quite got things right.

One problem is that they avoided using the very singular "they" that their own research determined to be pretty much standard English nowadays except if it was ridiculously awkward to avoid it. As a result, they did end up with some not ridiculously awkward but still nonetheless awkward constructions just to avoid standard English. It's much more awkward to translate a personal pronoun as "the one who" or "the person who" when the alternative is simply "they".

I do appreciate their attempt not to create ambiguities with plural-form pronouns with singular reference. It would be bad to have a singular-referring "they" in a context where it's not clear if it is singular-referring (when the original language has no such ambiguity). That's one of the problems with the TNIV that they're trying to correct (and the NLT and NRSV demonstrate similar problems at points).

They chose to avoid singular-referring plural-form pronouns unless there's a singular antecedent in the context that can remove the ambiguity by serving as the most obvious antecedent. That strikes me as a good decision. Consider the examples they give:

Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. (Mark 4:25)

It's hard to hear the "they" there as referring to a group. It refers to any individual who does not have, who will even lose what they have. On the other hand, consider the following two statements:

When Jesus comes into someone's life, he is a new creation.
When Jesus comes into someone's life, they are a new creation.

The first statement is ambiguous, if it's appropriate to use "he" to refer to anyone regardless of their gender. But it doesn't actually come across that way, at least to me. I cannot read that statement as a good paraphrase of "anyone in Christ is a new creation". The "he" seems to me to have to refer to Jesus being a new creation. It just doesn't seem natural for it to be referring back to "someone". The second statement removes the ambiguity in a way that makes it impossible to take "they" to be referring to a group.

Consider also something like:

Everyone who is righteous will receive his reward.

I read that, and I think, "whose reward?" It seems to lack an antecedent. I just can't hear that sentence with "his" referring to "everyone" in the subject. I have to work very hard to make that meaning come out of the sentence, and it would require the same double-take it I encountered such a sentence in the writings of someone who died over a century ago who would have used such a statement in a much more natural way. There are people for whom this is natural, who just don't interact with the mainstream population and thus don't understand that "everyone who is righteous will receive their reward" is much more natural for most English speakers.

Combine that with the fact that the committee looked to hard data to see what actually is being used, and I think they've got some good support behind their decisions on this question. Instead of arriving at a translation result politically by assuming an ideology (whether feminist, traditionalist, or whatever else it might be), they decided to be translators and translate into the actual English language rather than English as they'd like it to be. That's how they ended up with "mankind", which I would oppose if I had a vote. But apparently it's still common enough, whereas using "him" to refer to a gender-unknown person isn't really common anymore but common enough that they left it in a number of places when the alternatives were just too awkward, ambiguous, or problematic in whatever way.

So there's a sense in which what they're doing is simply the insistence of Protestants in Bible translation since the Reformation (and most Catholics since the Counter-Reformation). They seek to translate into the language as it's actually used, and they went to an actual study providing hard data rather than going with their gut about which forms people actually use. You might prefer that the language not change in the way it's changing or that it change more rapidly, but they're Bible translators, not language architects. They're not in this in order to figure out how the language should be changing and how rapidly. They're simply trying to put the Bible into the language most people in fact do use. Given that criterion, several translation choices that are controversial (and in my view worth avoiding if you do want to move the language in the right direction or prevent it from going in the wrong direction) suddenly become the most appropriate choices, in a way that both sides of the broader debate will quickly lose much effect from their arguments, since those often have to do with maintaining or resisting some kind of status quo about language-use. If that goal is no longer legitimate, then all you have left to do is translate into forms people actually use.

Recent Christian Carnivals

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Here are some recent Christian Carnivals that I've neglected to put links to:

Christian Carnival 351 at Revenge of Mr Dumpling.
Christian Carnival 352 at Fish and Cans.
Christian Carnival 353 at Thinking Christian.

Here is the hosting schedule for future carnivals.

For submissions info, see here. The dates are wrong for the current carnival, but I don't have time to put together a whole new post for this week right now. The deadline is Tuesday night at midnight EST, and you can submit any post since that time last week.

PhilPapers Survey Update

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Last year PhilPapers ran a survey among professional philosophers about their views on various philosophical issues, and the results have been online for a while now. They've just posted an update, including public listings of answers by people who want their answers public. Mine are here. There's even a feature to compare your views (if you took the survey) with those of others who took it, and I turned out not to agree with anyone more than 2/3 of the time. There are a lot of people who agree with most of my answers, but I guess they're not the same people as each other. No one shares more than 20 of the 30 answers with me, so I guess I've got a pretty idiosyncratic set of views.

Obama the Leopard King

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Cousin Danny found some guy arguing that President Obama is the leopard king of Daniel 7, with the especially convincing argument that leopards have spots of different colors, and thus they can easily symbolize someone of mixed race.

Obama's first book contains much interesting analysis of race. I took down several pages-long quotations from the library's copy in case I ever want to refer to them (since I don't own a copy and don't expect to get around to trying to find a used one anytime soon). His famous speech on race that distanced himself from his spiritual role model Jeremiah Wright also had a lot of worthwhile things to say about race. It's one of the few issues where I think he's more on the right track than not, and his background has allowed him to see things that a lot of people who are not from a mixed background will not be well-placed to notice.

Nevertheless, even he failed to latch onto the insights in the videos Danny linked to. But this makes great sense of his next-day comments on the results of the 2010 election. This explains pretty well why he prefers to read the election as a failure to explain to the ignorant voters why his policies are good, rather than admitting that so many Americans might just disagree with him on policy matters while actually being informed. But, you know, the leopard king can't easily change his spots...

Update 11/10/10: There really are a few interesting things in the second video. I hadn't noticed all of them initially.

1. This guy is a prophet, and he's not claiming that you can get all this from just reading the Bible. He's offering new revelation that this is Obama. So there's no complaining that he's speculating. He's giving a new revelation, just one that also involves the claim that no other country and leader combination best fits the leopard.

2. Keep in mind that he's a prophet, and he's revealing God's word to us in our day in addition to the scriptures. One of his arguments is that the four branches of the military and the four branches of the federal government are the four wings and four heads, and no other country has the four wings and four branches like the U.S. does today. So we should take this as divine fiat that there are now four branches of the government (the House, Senate, executive, and judiciary) as opposed to the three as declared in the Constitution (legislative, executive, and judiciary). Keep in mind that God can decree the Constitution invalid in terms of what it declares to be true of the United States government that it established, so this is entirely legitimate. It's just a huge surprise to me, and it shows that this revelation could only have come directly from God by means of a prophet like him. No one who knows just how the U.S. government works who reads this text could possibly have thought this interpretation even consistent with what Daniel 7 says and what the Constitution declares about the branches of government. We do need a prophet to know these things. So I stand corrected. The Constitution has been amended by a prophet by a method unknown to the Constitution itself.

3. Notice how he points out that Obama is the leopard as the leader of the U.S. with arguments both about the U.S. itself and Obama its leader. The leopard has skin that's both black and white, which reflects the racial makeup of the United States. Obama also has skin that's both black and white. Yes, it's not race-mixing in the sense that he is both black and white, which is what I was originally taking this to be, which would be yet another piece of evidence for my claim that the one-drop rule is on its way out, at least as applied in certain contexts. No, he says Obama's skin itself is both black and white, in the same sense at the same time. So I guess God can declare contradictions to be true after all, and his prophet is informing us of one particular contradiction that God has now declared to be true of our president. His skin is both black and white.

4. Read the comments on YouTube. You will discover a fascinating argument there against this prophet's claims. Obama can't the be leopard, because it's biologically impossible. Leopards are female, and Obama is male. The most amazing thing about that comment? No one even responded to it, and there are plenty of responses by the author of this video to claims made against him. Does this mean that he's finally encountered an argument that's making him reconsider his view? This is a pretty convincing reason not to accept the view, after all. Until I saw that, I was fully on board, but now I'm not so sure.

NIV 2011

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The NIV 2011 is now online. My general sense after looking over their preface is that it's an improvement over the TNIV, and most of the changes in the TNIV were improvements over the NIV. Here are a few observations:

1. I'm not 100% happy with the gender-translation decisions, but it's much better than the TNIV, and the things they didn't change are the ones I've always thought were minor annoyances, while the things they did change were the more serious ones that were never the focus of the stupid complaints of most TNIV-haters. (For example, it's pretty dumb to claim that we undermine the authority of scripture by translating "adelphoi" as "brothers and sisters", when the term actually does refer to brothers and sisters.)

2. It looks like they've also made some further changes not present among the TNIV changes that were non-gender-related, including that awful NIV translation of Philemon 6 that the TNIV didn't fix. It now makes it clear that it's talking about cooperation rather than evangelism, which even a quick look at the Greek makes clear, but the translation committee couldn't see that the original NIV and TNIV "sharing your faith" sounds to most people as if it's about evangelism.

3. I don't understand their use of "mankind" rather than "humanity". It's one thing to retain masculine-form terms to refer to gender-indeterminate or gender-inclusive people or groups when altering that would change the meaning of some other element (e.g. by making the reference ambiguous as to being singular or plural or by changing the person from third-person to second-person). But why insist on "mankind" when "humanity" will do just fine? That seems like a battle with absolutely no reason to have. (I've been told that some people strangely think "humanity" can only be used in contexts referring to someone's humanity rather than to humanity as a collection of all humans. Such a view is demonstrably false. Just do a Google search of the word. So I don't count that as a real reason.)

4. They have a healthy use of singular-referring "they". They resist it in cases where it makes the singular or plural reference ambiguous when the original text is not ambiguous, which I think is good. That was a big problem in the TNIV. But they use it freely when the context makes it clear that it's singular-referring, such as when it refers back to an earlier singular term in the same sentence. Their explanation points to the long history of singular-referring "they" in English going back to the KJV (but they forgot to mention its use in Shakespeare and Jane Austen to satisfy those who continue to complain that it's bad English and never has been used by respectable writers). In any case, it's far superior to use singular-referring "they" in these unambiguous ways than to engage in the awkward expressions the NLT, TNIV, NRSV, and other so-called gender-inclusive translations have used to avoid using masculine-form pronouns to refer to gender-unknown people or gender-mixed groups. They even looked at actual studies to figure out what usage is most common, and it turns out to be the singular "they" (not that this is any surprise to me).

I may have more to say as I read some of it and think more about some of what they've done, but I'll be looking forward to seeing how they've made some compromises between TNIV style and the ESV style that they wanted to move back toward (which was why they brought Bill Mounce on board to help with). I still will prefer the ESV and HCSB in general, but on gender-translation issues I think they've managed to bring the NIV much closer to what I'd see as ideal, and I do think the ESV and HCSB have irrationally resisted a little too much toward approaching ordinary English in this way.



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