Section 377 of India’s Constitution was in the news this week. It states, “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for [a] term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.” Although Section 377 does not spell out what is “against the order of nature,” conservatives have interpreted it to bar homosexual activity, among other things.
So it was big news this week when India’s Supreme Court ruled that “In a democratic Constitution founded on the rule of law, rights (of minorities) are as sacred as those conferred on other citizens to protect their freedoms and liberties. Sexual orientation is an essential attribute of privacy.”
In the movie Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne (a.k.a. Batman) is acting the part of an outrageous playboy in order to maintain his cover. At the tail end of one escapade, who should appear but Rachel Dawes, a friend from years ago whose admiration he craves. He tries to explain that what she has just witnessed does not represent the real Bruce Wayne.
Rachel devastatingly replies, “Deep down you may still be that same great kid you used to be. But it’s not who you are underneath; it’s what you do that defines you.”
Is that true?
You are standing at a fork in a trolley track, your hand on the lever that can cause the trolley to go one direction or the other. A trolley is coming toward you. If you do not pull the lever, it will go down the fork where five children are on the track. They will surely be killed. (They are tied up, or facing the wrong direction and deaf, or what have you.) If you do pull the lever, their lives will be saved, but your own child, who is immobile on the other fork, will be killed. What is the ethical thing to do?
This is possibly the earliest in a famous series of ethical dilemmas known as trolley problems.
The fun begins when we vary the scenario to tease out people’s moral intuitions. Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson posed the most famous version:
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed? [quoted in Wikipedia]
In my childhood, comedian Flip Wilson was big. His Grammy-winning album, The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress, took its title from this routine he performed on the Ed Sullivan Show:
Flip is playing the character of a preacher who wants to know why his wife, Geraldine, has bought a third dress in the course of a week. Their interchange is an enlightening study in the theory of knowledge, or epistemology.
GERALDINE: I didn’t want to buy this dress. The devil made me buy this dress.
President Obama has built a reputation as an incrementalist. Before he was elected in 2008, liberals had high hopes that he would turn the ship of state 180 degrees and sail in their direction. But as Howard Kurtz put it in the Washington Post as early as 2009, “Anyone who’s spent two weeks in Washington would know that Obama’s yes-we-can idealism would run smack into the capital’s no-we-won’t culture.”
As we reach the end of president Obama’s second term, he has become more assertive with the liberal aspects of his agenda, using the powers of the executive branch to bypass congress and get things done.
Did the God of the Bible follow a similar course as he brought his people from ignorance to salvation? Did he start by meeting them where they were — in the moral harshness of the Bronze Age — and bring them along incrementally until, finally, he made a full revelation in Jesus Christ?
Paul Copan’s book, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, is the best apologia I have read for the disturbing actions and characteristics of the God of the Bible. I had read a lot on this subject and did not expect to find anything new, but I was surprised to find exactly that.
For example, he defends the Canaanite genocide by arguing that passages such as Deuteronomy 7 and Deuteronomy 20, which command the Hebrews to “completely destroy” the occupants of the Promised Land and not to “leave alive anything that breathes” don’t literally mean that. Rather, they are indulging in the same sort of hyperbole we use about sporting events: “our team totally annihilated them.” I’m not sure if I buy this, but it’s an argument I had not heard during 40 years in the evangelical church.
As a Christian, I was always suspicious of the Enlightenment. I associated it with the idea that “man is the measure of all things” and a rejection of God.
If man is the measure of all things, we must be in a moral free-for-all, right? Why should your moral ideas take primacy over mine?
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of the wonderful Plato At the Googleplex, recently wrote a review of a book by Matthew Crawford in which she sets the record straight.
[Crawford] believes that Enlightenment thinkers, in rejecting the old sources of authority, left every person with nothing to resort to but his particular point of view, muddling through both the “is” and the “ought” all on his own.
Such an extreme warping of Enlightenment ideas about knowledge is a bit like saying that the Catholic Church has just got to stop pushing its radical atheist agenda on us. The last thing the Enlightenment aimed to do was overthrow the very idea of intellectual and moral authorities. Rather, it was about insisting that any authority must be established by arguments that can be evaluated by others exercising their cognitive capacities—the antithesis of subjectivism.
Lately, the project of using Enlightenment ideas to derive “ought” from “is” has gotten a boost from books such as Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape and Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc. They are in line with Goldstein’s characterization of Enlightenment thought:
[For Enlightenment thinkers] only certain kinds of justification for beliefs would be countenanced—namely those that were, in principle, accessible to all humans relying only on our shared cognitive capacities. Insisting on this standard was the Enlightenment’s revolution. There could be no privileged knowers who appealed to special sources of knowledge—available to them by way of heavenly revelation, or authoritative status, or intimations to which their group was privy.
How about you? Can you justify your ethical convictions with reasoning and evidence that are available to all? Or do you feel that “ought” cannot be derived from “is” and morality can only come from God?
Next time: What if an Enlightenment thinker were to be struck by an apparent divine revelation? Should he believe it?