Saturday, June 15, 2013

Scripture, Ethics and Law: The Coexistence

Friend of the blog Jacob wrote us a guest post. He also writes for his own personal blog, The Experience Free Opinion.

Outside the most avid religious enthusiasts, nobody knows all scripture off the top of their head.

None but the keenest of ethicists espouses a consistent ethical code by which they rigorously abide.

Sure as your phone's been big-brothered, there's not one soul on Earth to recite every written law for the land of the "free."

And yet, uncertain as the lot of us "normal" folks remain, most- at least, among the Christians- have got a rough idea of what the Bible tells them; most have got some sketch of what they see as "good" and "bad"; most have got a pretty good idea about what gets them arrested-- and what they wish didn't.

It's trying to combine the three-- scriptures, ethics and law-- (or perhaps just a given two) into a single, unified, logical, consistent and self-representing philosophy that's got most of our thinking minds in a big, messy, politck-y knot.

To assist you, a vast intelligentsia has spent millions of lifetimes over hundreds of years in persistent speculation. They've produced books enough to last you your whole life and beyond-- but let the politicians interpret them for you, or let your high school teachers suffice, or visit one of the many totally-not-biased media outlets. Don't worry, they'll get everything wrong. I promise.

Everything easy enough to understand has been filtered through a source that is A. too simple for drawing conclusions or B. incentivized to twist the truth or, and most probably, C. both.

Don't believe me? Your whole life is a case-in-point. You've been through high school-- the knot's too controversial. You've watched the news-- the knot doesn't get analyzed. If you've read this far then you're still curious, you're looking for answers, you want to untangle the knot.

Spoiler: I will be attempting to untangle the aforementioned knot.

So what makes me any different? I'm just some guy on some other guy's wonderful blog you happen to visit every once in a while.

Well, first of all, I'm like you: not a professional, not a professor or a writer-- just a guy trying to make sense of it all with some spiritual leanings, a concept of "right" and a few political opinions. We speak the same language.

Second, if you think that somebody's paying for this article (or any other)... money doesn't grow on trees-- especially in college. I've got no interest but sharing my honest opinions on a topic I chose, and for which I'm passionate.

If that's not enough, remain skeptical, by all means. But you had the time to stop by and read the blog of these super-spectacular people, and I'm related to at least one of them by blood. So I'm pretty sure that means I get a chance. ;)

On to the topic then: tying scripture, ethics and law into a consistent philosophy.

Unrestrained, this is a many-volume topic. Since I'm lucky to have kept your attention this long, a good deal of restraining is in order. I really don't want to lay out a whole philosophy-- I only want to provide you with some ideas that were and are helpful for me in forming mine. Here we go.


Defining "good" takes a lot of outrageous thought experiments. You have to invent a definition such that no one could think up a "good" scenario that doesn't look so good.

Suppose we said that good and bad were defined by scripture-- the things it says to do are good, and anything it says not to do is bad.

Well I have a thought experiment for you:

Imagine that a giant asteroid is hurtling towards the Earth. If it hits the surface, it will end all life as we know it. There is only one way to stop the asteroid: if you steal an item from your neighbor worth one nickel. You recall, however, that the scriptures tell you not to steal. Is it "bad" when you do, and the Earth is saved? And "good" when you don't, and everything dies? Seemingly not.

You could contend that the scriptures also tell you to love one another, and so it's also good to save them, but now our definition is a mess. Some things are both good and bad-- how do we decide when the bad outweighs the good? The scriptures are silent.

I propose that sketching an ethical code should be done independent of the scriptures. Obviously you can check back-- if the life Jesus lived is morally equivalent to that of Hitler, you're probably off the mark-- but we should recognize that our sense of good and bad is deeply ingrained in human emotion.

To provide the most basic possible example, imagine two worlds where all things are identical except the emotions felt by the people on them. In world one, half the people are happy and the other half are miserable. In world two, all of them are happy. World two seems better than world one, and if people in world one acted in ways that made it more like world two, we could call those good actions.

Suppose we define good as human happiness. Well, that's a little too narrow-- some people value feelings besides happiness in a given moment, like when they want to be calm in meditation or when they want to be scared at a horror movie-- how about we make a word, say, "utility" to define the subjective value one places on their own emotions. We could come up with a convenient label for describing ourselves as defining good by maximized utility, like "utilitarian" or something.. just throwing out ideas. ;)

I'm not going to push you into the utilitarian club-- I promised I wouldn't impose a philosophy. But even if you find some actions to be wrong in and of themselves, like stealing or lying or murder, we can recognize that that badness is to be measured on a scale that includes how people are feeling.

(As an aside, I challenge you to invent a thought experiment where the utilitarian outcome is obviously worse than another possible outcome. :) Doesn't exist.)

Tie that back to the scriptures. Was Jesus a good guy? Yes. Was Hitler a pretty bad guy? Ok, you get the point. We can see how Jesus's teachings and the commandments of God are excellent guidelines for moral action, and fantastic rules by which one can live their life-- provided one uses a little extra reasoning in the instance of Earth-crushing asteroids. Furthermore, nothing scriptural is contradicted by our forming this concept of good-- God tells us that we should make people feel loved and cared for in about as many ways as one could possibly say it-- we're simply assigning greater value to particular divine directives in particular instances according to our God-given sense of ethics.


Le Mis watchers: who thinks Jean Valjean should've been jailed? For those unfamiliar with the story, Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread as a last resort to feed his starving family (and he's clearly a pretty good guy). Some of you might think he was still in the wrong, despite having no other option, which is perfectly fine-- for you, I ask to consider Batman: illegally taking his city's most dastardly bad guys and bringing them to the police. Is he in the wrong? What if we re-visit our asteroid thought experiment-- you're stealing something from your neighbor, which, despite saving all of humanity, is definitely against the law. We can probably agree that you're not in the wrong.

If we recognize that there are many things one could do that are good, but are also against the law, it begs the question: should that ever be the case? I think so, and I think you think so too.

There's an essential question that must be asked in determining whether or not something should be legal: what if everyone did it? Or, more accurately, how many people do we expect will start doing it, and what is the result of that? If it became legal to steal bread whenever your family was starving, everyone who could get away with "starving" would steal as much bread as they could possibly get away with. We could expect bread-makers to find a new hobby, because what's the point of making something if you're have to hand it all out for free? Even though there are perhaps some instances where a starving family steals bread and it's a good thing, it would be a bad thing if all starving families were allowed to steal bread.

Part of the problem is that we have no good way to speculate about people's intentions. It's impossible to make an exception to the law which states: "people can steal bread if and only if they are desperately in-need and have no other alternatives," because "need" and "no other alternatives" are things that no one can measure or determine for anyone other than themselves. If we did put that in writing, somebody becomes arbitrator of the impossible, and nothing screams 'expect corruption' more loudly than that.

Likewise, we couldn't make the rule "it is acceptable to act as an aid to law enforcement if and only if you are as cool as Batman."

If everyone pulled a Jean Valjean we'd be in a lot of trouble, but if only Jean Valjeans pull Jean Valjeans, then we're OK. If everyone pulled a Batman that wouldn't be too pretty either, but if only Batmans pull Batmans, we're in good shape. Not everyone is Jean Valjean, and not everyone is Batman, but who is a Jean Valjean and who is a Batman can only be determined by the Jean Valjean or Batman himself. It is preferable to keep them outside the law because nobody knows who they are but them, and the vast majority are not them.

Now, I hope that by pointing out that sometimes the good choice is against the law I'm not suddenly encouraging a bunch of nasty criminal behavior. You have to be a real outlier to be a good guy criminal, especially since the very fact that it's against the law is an ethical reason to think a few times-- getting jailed is basically never good.

So that's one side of the coin-- certain actions that are good, but we can see why they should still be against the law.

Onto the other side-- actions that are clearly bad, and shouldn't be against the law.

Smoking, Drinking, Drugs... not that these are necessarily always clearly bad (for at least one good example, Saving Private Ryan has an idea), but there are clearly a lot of cases where it's both a bad idea and legal anyway. Depending on your outlook, that may be a minority or majority or overwhelming majority of cases-- I'm not getting into that. Again, what matters in the case of the law is the overall effect of making it legal or illegal, and sometimes it isn't so simple. We know that when drugs are made illegal, people go ahead and use them anyway. Furthermore, drugs sold on a black market are usually a lot more dangerous, since they might be sold as a lighter drug and laced with a heavier one-- and it's not like the FDA's coming in and clear things up. We also know from experience that whether we're banning drugs or banning alcohol, that the results are expensive and violent.

I'm not going to go into a detailed economic analysis of drug legalization. I'm only trying to show that an action-- even if you think it's bad 99% of the time-- should not necessarily be illegal because it's bad; in a world where it's illegal, it might be substituted for something worse. Determining whether or not it should be against the law requires an analysis of the predicted state of the population in both possible scenarios, where it is legal or illegal, and the result needn't match your intuition.


I'll let you connect the dots.


These things coexist because they are different. You needn't suppose that because God's prophet advises against marijuana use, the world's going to end when it legalizes-- whether the latter is even a problem at all is unconnected to the former. Maybe it's alright. You needn't fret that the scriptures aren't true because gays are perfectly good, regular people-- guidelines from scripture are not the equivalent of good and bad.

You shouldn't feel constrained in your philosophy by your religious beliefs, but bolstered.

And whatever you do think, don't back down because your instincts suppose that it isn't compatible with something in an unrelated field. Think it through-- you're probably just fine.