Ethics: February 2009 Archives

I've recently discovered that an argument I've often seen and sometimes used is based on something untrue. Christians pacifists (and pacifists intending to win over Christians) often make the claim that, since one of the ten commandments says "do not kill", it must always be immoral to kill. I've also seen the sixth commandment come up in lists of supposed Bible contradictions. Most such lists are filled with mainly easily-resolved surface-language differences with the occasional serious difficulty that takes some real work to resolve (although I know of no such difficulties that don't have at least one possible solution, thus showing that it's not actually a contradiction).

One (among several) responses to both of these claims is that the word used for murder in the sixth commandment in fact does not mean killing but simply means murder, so the only kinds of killing that it could be talking about are those that are wrong, leaving it open that there are kinds of killing that are not wrong. It turns out that this isn't true. There are several words for killing in biblical Hebrew, and this term isn't the most common one. It's usually reserved for contexts of killing within the covenant community, usually used in cases where the killing is especially divisive, often with inter-tribal conflicts in mind.

Its most frequent occurrences are all in one chapter, though, and that chapter is Numbers 25, which provides the details of the city of refuge provision of the Mosaic law. The ancient near eastern method of bringing murders to justice was to have an appointed avenger within each extended family or clan unit, who would hunt down and kill anyone who killed one of their own. The city of refuge provision took several of the Levitical cities and made them safe havens from avengers until a trial could take place, thus ensuring justice could be pursued more carefully as long as the accused was willing to flee to one of those cities. If the person was not found guilty of deliberate murder, they could live in the Levitical city until the death of the current high priest atoned for their sin of negligence, but otherwise they could be put to death once convicted.

I don't remember all the details now, but after looking over this with someone who knows Hebrew I discovered that most or all of the occurrences of deliberate murder used the same word as in the sixth commandment, but the term also occurs two or three times of the killing by the avenger, which as far as I can determine is legally sanctioned killing. It's not used of outright death penalties for specific crimes in the Torah, but it is used of the avenger's killing of duly convicted criminals. So what was probably the easiest response to the difficulties I mentioned above doesn't seem to be correct. The pacifist may not be able to claim that what the commandment says not to do can cover every kind of killing, but they can claim that the word can be used for legalized killing. Also, you can't get out of the supposed contradiction simply by saying the word doesn't mean "kill" but means "murder", since the Torah seems to allow instances of killing that use this very word. But I don't think this puts a stop to the kind of view I would defend. It just makes one of the easier and quicker responses no longer as easy and quick as I would have liked.

Rash Vows

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There are several cases of vows with strange conditions in the Bible. Many of these are rash vows, often morally negligent or suspect. In Joshua 9, the Israelites make a covenant with Gibeon under the false pretense that they were from far away, when they had a command from God to wipe out any of the peoples of the land. Once they made the vow, they honored the covenant with Gibeon and didn't kill them rather than keeping the command of God to wipe them out. In Judges 11, Jephthah vows to sacrifice the first thing to come through his gate, expecting it to be an animal, and it turns out to be his daughter. In a very tragic move, he ends up fulfilling his vow and sacrificing her.

King Saul makes a similarly rash vow in I Samuel 14. He says that if any of his soldiers eat during their attack, they would be put to death. His son Jonathan wasn't present for that vow, and when he found honey in the woods he ate some. In this case, however, Saul's soldiers convince him not to keep the vow. You get the sense that he only did it because his men were able to calm him down and talk some reason into him.

In I Kings 2, Solomon makes a promise to Bathsheba to grant her a favor but then refuses once he finds out that the favor was to do something that would in effect give his older half-brother Adonijah a foothold toward claiming the throne that David had passed on to Solomon. Adonijah flees Solomon's wrath and in fact has him killed. Adonijah had already been spared once when he grabbed the horns of the altar, and Solomon had let him go on the condition that he shows himself to be worthy; otherwise, he'd die. His request to Bathsheba showed Solomon the latter.

In the gospels, King Herod makes a promise to his step-daughter that he'd give her anything, up to half his kingdom, and is shocked when she asks for the head of John the Baptist. He complies to save face but perhaps only for that reason.

It's worth thinking through the conflicting moral principles that arise in these cases. The most fundamental is the third commandment the third commandment (not to take God's name in vain), which Jesus interprets simply as a command to let your "yes" be "yes" and your "no" be "no". The third commandment says not to use God's name in a way that doesn't take into full account who God is and our place in God's universe. The most fundamental way that we can take God's name in vain is simply to ignore God, thus living in a way that ignores God is the most serious violation of the third commandment. This is especially important for a people called to represent God as his ambassadors to the world, since the representation is a fact, and thus representing God badly takes his name in vain and drags it through the mud. But uttering God's name when you don't have any intention of referring to God, particularly in a sinful act of verbal outrage over something not all that important. So the common view that using a name that normally refers to God in a sort of curse is indeed correct. It's a violation of the third commandment. It's just not the most fundamental way to do so.

Obama's Abortion Statement

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Justin Taylor notes that President Obama, by implication, seems to have endorsed the following claims in his statement on abortion on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade:

1. The will of the stronger is the rule of law.
2. Women are congenitally inferior and need the availability of certain medical procedures that require the killing of an innocent to stand on equal footing with men.

The first claim, while he doesn't endorse it in general and certainly resists it in many cases, does seem to me to be true of his view of abortion. The stronger get to decide for the weaker whether their lives are worth living. Now this is softened because Obama's view of abortion is derived from his view that this is to compensate for women's being less strong than men and thus needing the availability of this procedure to prevent the will of the stronger ruling. So it's sort of ironic that he would advocate on the next level down (women with respect to their fetal children) the exact principle he seems to want to resist on the higher level (women with respect to men). It is a little strange, though, to think that social injustice on one level can be fought by introducing a social injustice with an uncontroversially weaker group.

His move to justify the first claim seems to me to rely on the second claim. I think Frank Beckwith's comment, that Justin included in an update to the post, is correct to say that such a view amounts to a pretty severe form of male chauvinism. One of the things I find refreshing in third-wave versions of feminism is their insistence that women should be recognized as good in what they are without having to compare them with male standards to consider them successful or expecting them to have to be like men in every way to be equal. Pro-life feminists have recognized that most abortion rhetoric, including comments like the President's speech on this occasion, runs contrary to seeing women as equal. Even if I were to grant some of the pro-choice arguments, I'd be loath to accept those that begin with the premise that women simply are inferior and thus need to be compensated for that by giving them permission to end the lives of their own offspring so they can be equal to men. That's not an argument that I could ever see myself appreciating even if I were convinced that there's nothing wrong with abortion.

I'm sure some will object to what I'm saying here by pointing out that pro-choice positions don't accept full moral status for the fetus. Given that, it follows that there need not be the kind of concern for the fetus that would make it a case of the stronger taking advantage of the weaker. While that's true of the standard pro-choice position, it doesn't help with the second observation, since that doesn't rely on the wrongness of abortion but on a view of women's equality. Also, it's not available to President Obama, since his view on abortion is that he doesn't know if it's wrong because he isn't qualified to try to figure that out. He doesn't let that get in the way of allowing something that, for all he knows, might be morally horrific, so I'm not sure his view is all that coherent (if indeed he's being honest about his claim that he doesn't have a view). But one thing is clear. He can't, without contradicting his clear statements in the past, respond to the first claim by asserting that a fetus has no or relatively small moral claim to a right to life.

I'm certainly hoping he's going to be a better President than I expected him to be during the campaign. For the sake of this country, I want him to succeed at the good things he's trying to do and hope he has good ideas that will move the country in a better direction on many fronts. But on this issue all I can do is pray he has a miraculous change of heart. His support for a bill that will surely increase the number of abortions, while insisting repeatedly that he wants to make abortion safe, legal, and rare strikes me as typical politician's rhetoric to play to both sides while not occupying a middle ground at all, something not at all consistent with his image of moving away from such dishonesty. Perhaps there will be ways that his administration will bring needed change to the U.S. government. There are enough warning signs about his reform message conflicting with his choices for his cabinet that I'm wondering if he's going to manage to maintain his reform image at all. Two cabinet appointees who I thought were demonstraqbly unqualified in their respective positions because of immoral behavior related to their specialty (Geithner and Holder) were approved, and two more (Richardson and Daschle) withdrew in the face of corruption complaints. That's a pretty high number for the Hope and Change messiah. But there's still hope that he'll introduce some significant positive changes given some of the refreshing moves he's made already, even if his record so far also raises some serious concerns.

But one thing I've become sure of. On this issue at least, he's either very confused (i.e. intellectually dishonest within his own mind) or obfuscating (i.e. rhetorically dishonest with the public), and I see little hope of the bi-partisan cooperation he was proclaiming on this issue when he courted the evangelical vote if he continues to support a bill that will remove most ways of legislatively restricting instances of abortion, restrictions most of the nation agrees with. I contend that he's not honoring the sense of moderation that he appealed to in order to get elected when he takes that kind of extreme view.

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