Ethics: January 2009 Archives

I've been reading through Joshua lately. When I got to the Gibeonite episode in chapter 9, I noticed something that I don't think had ever registered with me before. Several other examples have since occurred to me.

In Joshua, Israel had a divine mandate to carry out: God's judgment on the Amorites declared all the way back in Genesis 15. I think most Biblical scholars take the Genesis 15 reference to include all the people living in the land, not just ethnic Amorites, just as later texts use the term 'Canaanites' to refer to all of the people, even though several lists include Amorites and/or Canaanites among lots of other names (Hivites, Girgashites, Jebusites, Hittites, Perizzites; no list actually has exactly the same combination in the same order).

The Gibeonites were part of that mandate, but they deceived Israel into thinking they were from a far-away land and had come to Canaan to make a covenant with Israel to protect them. Israel bought the deception and made the covenant.

What I hadn't noticed before is that the text seems to assume Israel's responsibility to keep that covenant, even given the deception. It's common nowadays to assume that a promise is void if it's made under false pretenses, because your words didn't apply to exactly the thing you thought you were agreeing to. If I promise to pay off a debt you have that you tell me you accrued due to an oppressive landlord's cruel policies, and then I later discover that you have the debt merely because of gambling, the idea is that I don't have any obligation to pay the debt for you, because I didn't agree to pay off a gambling debt. I only agreed to pay off a debt caused by an unjust landlord. I know of one philosophical paper on the subject of consent that argues that someone hasn't given voluntary, informed consent to sex if they've given explicit consent but the person had been hiding the fact that the two were close relatives, because giving consent to sex doesn't amount to giving consent to incest if you don't know the person is a close relative and the other person does.

I'm seeing a several biblical accounts that seem to assume a contrary position. The Gibeonite case is just one instance among a few that have occurred to me, but it's a particularly vivid example of how fully in force this covenant is, even generations later, even to a king who had no idea that it was being violated until he inquired of God. By II Samuel 21, Israel's failure to keep that covenant in Saul's time (Saul had tried to wipe the Gibeonites out) had led to God causing a three-year famine as judgment. David, in his ignorance, was facing the famine in the kingdom as a consequence of not keeping that covenant. The covenant was made in ignorance, and it was continuing to be broken in ignorance, but that did not exempt Israel from their obligation to it. David was even ignorant of the cause of the famine, but he still bore responsibility for dealing with it. David remedied the problem and honored the covenant.

I can think of several other instances just in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 12, Abram visits Egypt and says that his wife Sarai is his sister (which he later says is technically true; see Gen 20:12, but it's still deception). Pharaoh gets upset when he discovers the deception, because he could have married her and thus married another man's wife. Even if he had done so in ignorance, the reason he gives for his outrage is that Abram could have caused him to sin ignorantly. A similar circumstance occurs later in Abraham's life in Genesis 20 but with Abimelek the king of Gerar instead of Pharaoh. A third instance of the same fault occurs with Abraham's son Isaac in Genesis 26, who also faces a similar situation with someone called Abimelek the king of Gerar (not necessarily the same figure, since it could be a title like 'Pharaoh'). It's possible in these cases that it's just an ethical framework shared by the Hebrews, Egyptians, and Gerarites. If so, it doesn't mean someone holding to the authority of scripture would have to say that God endorses it. It's the words of the Pharaoh or Abimelek that assume the principle.

But in Joshua and the subsequent Samuel text, it seems harder to say that. I think the narrator more clearly endorses the principle there. That also seems to me to be true of a couple more cases in Genesis, involving Jacob. First, In Genesis 27, Jacob deceives his father Isaac into giving his blessing to him rather than to his older twin brother Esau, who would normally have received it. Since this was not just a father's blessing but a passing on of the blessing bestowed on Isaac via the covenant with Abraham, there was only one blessing of this sort to give, and Isaac recognized that once the blessing was given, he'd passed on what had been entrusted to him by God. He couldn't undo it. That sacred trust had been given to Jacob now. The narrator seems to assume that as much as Isaac does when he explains to Esau that he can't now give his blessing to him also.

As I was responding to this comment from Neil, I realized that I was getting into a bunch of issues that I don't think I've ever discussed comprehensively on this blog before, and I thought it might as well be its own post. Neil raises some questions about Christians reading (and presumably watching) science fiction and fantasy, questions that are more general (and more legitimate) than the common complaint about magic in fantasy. He wonders whether certain writers or stories (he has in mind a series by Stephen Donaldson that I'm not familiar with) can be dangerous in leaving behind what he calls an amoral residue. There's also the worry that spending time in fictional worlds is escaping from reality and might even be an addiction. It also might be a waste of time when there are more important things to do. He suggests that God might speak through such literature, but hasn't God spoken much more clearly in other ways already, so why should we need this kind of thing?

I think there can be a number of different healthy motivations for a Christian to read or watch science fiction or fantasy, many of them no different from the motivations for any other kind of fiction. One is simply entertainment. The idea that entertainment is just escape from reality seems wrong to me. I know people who think of it that way, but I don't think that's what they're actually doing when they see themselves as escaping. They might be distracting themselves from things they don't want to think about, but the things they're thinking about, while fictional, are based on reality in some way, or they couldn't think about them. It's just a rearrangement of real things, and those are good things that God created. It's also an engagement with the process of creation, an ability that I think God has given to us as part of being made in his image. The use of the imagination develops abilities God wants us to develop. Thinking about fictional worlds is one way to develop intellectual virtue. It's also simply good to enjoy good storytelling and to appreciate people using their God-given abilities to produce something enjoyable.

There are also moral themes in literature, and fiction of any kind helps us evaluate our lives in many ways. If the story in question only motivates moral evaluation of fictional cases, and those cases could never come up in real life, then at least it allows us to practice our ethical thinking in hard and strange cases, which is still a good skill to develop, because we will confront new situations that require such skills, especially as technology develops and social relations become further changed from what we see as the norm. But many ethical issues in fiction, even in fantasy and science fiction, are also going to come up in real life. Sometimes the author wants to make certain moral points, and sometimes we need to develop the ability to think for ourselves about those questions and not just accept what the author wants us to take away from it. But that's not a reason not to read or watch it except in cases where someone has a problem doing that. Maybe in Neil's case the Donaldson series was like that, and for all I know it might have that effect on me too (I know little about the series in question, so I have no idea). It's certainly worth being vigilant about how things affect you, but that's true of any fiction, and it's true of a lot of things besides fiction. It's true of observing how your friends live, and Paul tells us not to isolate ourselves from those who aren't Christians, even if he also says that Christians ought to live differently from the world.

I like fantasy and science fiction in particular because they help illustrate philosophical questions in ways that real life sometimes can't. One way to show that a sophisticated hedonism is wrong is to point out that with Harry Potter's invisibility cloak or Sauron's ring you could get away with almost anything you want, and it would still be wrong to do so. A sophisticated hedonism says it's only wrong to do certain things because it's against your self-interest (given that people will be mad at you for doing it and want to stop you and punish you). But these cases show that the real reason it's wrong isn't because it's against your self-interest, because you can achieve the self-interested goal in such cases, and it's still wrong. Scenarios like the Matrix or science fiction or fantasy worlds with very different social relations raise interesting questions about the moral principles that we assume as fundamental, because they lead us to wonder if they would apply in a very different situation. If I spent ten minutes coming up with a list, I could probably name off at least a dozen examples from science fiction and fantasy that I use regularly in my philosophy classes to illustrate points that are a lot harder to make clear or vivid without the aid of such examples.

So you don't need to think of fiction as revelation in any important sense to think that it provides an occasion for something that can be productive. It's bad if it distracts from more important things, as is true of any kind of enjoyable activity. At the same time, a little rest and relaxation, especially if it engages aspects of our thinking that we don't otherwise use, is part of being productive in the long run. So there has to be a balance, but I think this kind of imaginative fiction can contribute a lot of good toward our moral development and to our lives as well-rounded human beings, even if there are also risks and dangers, as there are with most pursuits in life.

A commenter here directed me toward a series by Michael Craven on the moral issues regarding homosexuality and same-sex marriage, asking what I thought of it. This post gives a pretty detailed answer to that request. I think Craven is better than most conservatives on this issue. He doesn't seem to have the screed that I often find in many of those who bother to spend much time on this issue. I don't think all his arguments are as effective as they could be, though, and a few seem to me to be real mistakes. Overall, I don't think he's actually achieved his goal, which is to provide an argument based on secular premises that establishes the traditional view of marriage in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Craven's first part starts in the right place, by noticing the difference between what the Bible calls marriage and what most Americans call marriage. That's the most fundamental observation you need to make if you're going to have an intelligent conversation about this issue. I'm a bit disappointed in how he handles comments. Instead of pointing out that his commenters are tackling issues he hasn't gotten to, he asserts conclusions he hasn't argued for yet, and it makes it sound as if he's just making assertions that he can't back up.


Craven's design argument in the second part seems to me to rely on a mistake. He seems to think that evolutionary theory allows for a purpose in nature that affects morality. It's as if there's a purpose to procreate, and homosexuality prevents that. It's not as if homosexuality does prevent the continuance of one's genes. For one thing, gay people could become sperm or egg donors. For another, they could have a hand in raising their nephews and nieces, who may then go on to pass on genes that overlap with their own in a full enough way. So homosexuality isn't contrary to this supposed purpose of evolution anymore than singleness is. Even worse, it's a mistake to think evolution has purposes to begin with, at least if you restrict yourself to arguments that are secularly available without relying on theism.

I think it's kind of ironic that naturalistic evolutionary theorists can't resist talking in design terms, as if subconsciously they can't avoid attributing a designer behind the scenes, but they can't mean it literally and remain consistent. When Gould talks about selfish genes, he doesn't literally mean that genes have interests and that they consciously seek to promote them. So why should we think evolution has the purpose of procreation simply because it leads to a higher chance of procreation among those who survive to be able to pass on their genes? That could only be true if there's a designer (and it doesn't follow even if there is).

So he's trying to offer an argument that doesn't rely on controversial theistic premises, but I think this particular point fails in that regard, at least given that he doesn't spend the time motivating the thesis in a different way, such as arguing for a designer first on secular premises and then arguing that a designer who designed the world via evolution as contemporary biology holds must have intended procreation as a moral goal that requires some commitment to heterosexuality. That's at least not an easy task, and Craven hasn't really tried to fill out his argument in that way anyway. I happen to think the first step (a design argument) can be done. I don't think a natural law argument can succeed without that. But I'm also not sure a convincing natural law argument will work on this issue even given theism. The only versions I've seen lead to too much being immoral (e.g. voluntary celibacy or choosing to remain married to an infertile spouse) or involve a step to avoid such a result that seems hard to motivate independently (e.g. choosing to avoid a human purpose is wrong if you use the body parts associated with that purpose for non-natural goals but ok if you don't).

There's another gap in his argument in part 2 as well. If homosexuality is an unnatural perversion of something that has a designed purpose, it doesn't follow that it's morally wrong unless you again assume theism and our moral obligation to follow the intent of the designer as our purpose. The idea that we have natural purposes that we should follow goes back to Aristotle, so the argument finds good company in many who do not rely on theological premises. But I'm not sure they have a right to such attribution of purposes and to conclude moral properties as a result, not without divine intent as the basis of such a connection.

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