Philosophy: November 2008 Archives

One justification for disallowing bans on same-sex marriage is that it's seen as discrimination to prevent same-sex couples from marrying. [In this post I'm not considering under what circumstances discrimination is wrong and when it's perfectly ok. The moral issue isn't my interest here. I'm just looking at whether it's discrimination, leaving aside the moral issue of whether such discrimination is ok. It's ok to discriminate against black people when casting a part in a play for a character that was written as a white racist. But it's still discrimination, just a perfectly legitimate kind. I'm interested in the legal implications here, not the moral ones.]

Whether a practice or act counts as discrimination depends on some assumptions. Two key issues are (a) who is being discriminated against and (b) on what basis.

Consider Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that overturned bans on interracial marriage. The Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment prevents states from treating individuals of different races differently when it comes to who they can marry. If a man is black, he couldn't marry a white woman in Virginia, but if he'd been white then he could have. That's discrimination against individuals along race lines.

Restricting marriage to same-sex couples isn't quite parallel. It doesn't discriminate against individuals according to sexual orientation. A gay man has the same rights as a straight man. He can marry an unmarried woman who is of age or who otherwise satisfies the requirements for marriage (parental consent or whatever). Both can marry women, and neither can marry men. Similarly, a lesbian has the same rights as a heterosexual woman. Both can marry men, and neither can marry women. That's not discrimination according to sexual orientation, since people of both sexual orientations (holding sex constant) have exactly the same restrictions. The law is equally applied to gays and straights.

But it is discrimination against couples. Same-sex couples are not allowed something that opposite-sex couples are allowed. Does a couple have the kind of legal status to serve as a party in this kind of legal question? My suspicion is that it would be a major innovation in our legal system to treat a couple as a legal entity. I'm not sure that's the best strategy for same-sex couples to try if they want to make headway on this issue, but it is the easiest way to end up with a discrimination claim on the basis of sexual orientation.

I've long thought that the most promising case that bans on same-sex marriage are discrimination is to ignore sexual orientation entirely and to focus on a different basis of discrimination. Men are being discriminated against on the basis of their sex by not being allowed to marry people women are allowed to marry, and women are being discriminated against on the basis of their sex by not being allowed to marry people men can marry. If you ignore sexual orientation, as many social conservatives want to do, then this complaint gets a footing. Of course you have to think any discrimination on the basis of sex is wrong or explain why this particular one is if others aren't, which puts you back to square one if you want to draw a negative moral conclusion, but I'm ignoring that in this post.

Bart Ehrman's Master Argument

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A couple weeks ago, I finished Bart Ehrman's bestselling Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. I'm not going to do a full review of the book at this point, but I wanted to record some thoughts on what I see as Ehrman's master argument.

The bulk of the book is just standard textual criticism. Ehrman tends to be more radical on a few points than the average textual critics, but most of the book simply presents consensus views on the history of the discipline and gives examples that mainly do illustrate the points he wants to make. He's often criticized for the suggestion that the examples he picks are only the most extreme and thus give the impression that the textual changes are more common and more extreme than they really are. He responds that he does say that most changes are extremely minor and that the cases he's presenting are unusual. But what his response ignores is that his own master argument makes an explicit case for the point that his critics are only accusing him of suggesting, and he takes offense even at that accusation.

His master argument is presented in the introductory chapter and then again in his conclusion. The argument is basically as follows:

1. We know that there are textual changes in manuscript transmission.
2. Some of these are ideologically-motivated.
3. The earlier manuscripts have more diversity due to less-careful copying practices.
4. It's possible that there were changes in ideology from the original manuscripts that we no longer thus have any evidence of.
5. Therefore, we can't have much confidence about what the original New Testament manuscripts said. All we can do is give arguments for which of several existing readings were the earliest.

I think he overstates the ideological changes, although there indisputably are some. I didn't find myself agreeing with all his cases, several of which were extremely controversial among scholars (e.g. I Cor 14:34-35, which a few but only very few notable scholars think is an addition to the original text). I think the fact that there are more readings in earlier manuscripts makes it more likely that the original reading is among the surviving manuscripts in any given case, even if it also raises the possibility that we can't know if the original survives. So that same fact provides some support for opposite views.

But the main issue is really epistemological. Ehrman holds to a skeptical standard when it comes to being sure of original manuscript readings that would lead to hopeless conclusions about ordinary knowledge. Hardly anyone in epistemology accepts this kind of standard anymore, even if it has had firm support in the history of philosophy (perhaps most famously with Rene Descartes). The chance that any particular well-attested reading among the NT manuscripts is really the product of an ideological change from the original manuscript is extremely low.

Divine Supererogation

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Supererogatory actions are things that would be good to do but aren't morally required. In some sense, there are lots of good things that I could do that aren't morally required. I can't do every possible good deed I could do, for instance, because I only have a limited amount of time. But the difference with supererogatory acts is that they're supposed to be above and beyond the call of duty. They're actions that would be wonderful to do but are not required in the sense that I would be a better person if I did it, and the action is better than what I end up doing instead, but I still have no obligation to do it.

I've argued that Christians should not accept the category of supererogatory acts. I'm not changing my position on that, at least when it comes to human actions. I don't think there are any cases where I'd be doing a better thing if I did something different but am nonetheless perfectly ok not to do it. If I'm doing something less good, I'm failing in my responsibility to be perfect as God is perfect. I don't see how Christians can accept biblical teaching on ethics and accept this category for human action.

What hadn't occurred to me when I wrote the aforementioned post was to ask about whether certain actions are supererogatory for God. I think the standard Christian view has been that some things God actually does are supererogatory. It's hard to see grace as anything but supererogatory. It's undeserved favor, and how can God be morally required to bestow undeserved favor? I'm not going to question that line of reasoning, so I think it's fair to say that I need to revise my view. I'm not denying that any actions are supererogatory in general. It's just that human beings ought to do the best action in any circumstance.

One way to get such a result pretty easily is to take a page from Immanuel Kant, who speaks of a divine lawgiver as the sort of being who would have no obligations to begin with. His argument is that it doesn't make any sense to think of God as having obligations, because obligations make sense only if the being with the obligations could possibly fail to do the things the obligations require them to do. (William Alston interestingly applies the same line of thought to beliefs. God directly knows every truth, and therefore he must not have beliefs, because beliefs imply that the beliefs could be false, just as obligations imply that you could fail to fulfill them.) If Kant is right, then God is never obligated to do anything, and so every action God performs is supererogatory, but it still might make sense to say that no human act is supererogatory.

But I don't think that explanation is sufficient. I want to say that some things God does necessarily result from his moral perfection, and other things are a gift that his nature doesn't make him do. I want to say that he didn't need to create and would have been perfectly good had he not created. I don't want to say God is morally better for creating, and I don't want to say God is morally better for choosing to save people from the eternal destruction we all deserve. But even if all that is true, it seems that there are some things that are inconsistent with God's nature, such as making a promise and not keeping it or allowing the universe to be intrinsically bad overall. That means that something the concept of supererogation was supposed to capture is true of God in a way that it's not true of humans, and it doesn't just result from God's having no obligations.

I think the difference has to lie in some explanation why it isn't better for God to do this thing that seems like it would result in a better world, whereas it is better for me to do things that would lead to better consequences. That difference has to lie in God's nature. God would be perfectly good without even creating, so it doesn't make God's character or nature better to create. Also, God is infinitely good, so it doesn't make the totality of things better if God creates things and doesn't just exist on his own. On the other hand, I am imperfect, and there are always ways to be better. I have an obligation to seek to be better unless I am perfect. That seems to me to be the real reason why it isn't even better for God to do better things, while it's any merely human being's obligation to do the best thing possible.

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