The Myth of Mitigating Circumstances: An Essay on Power and Morality

If you like, you can get this printed on a t-shirt.

If you like, you can get this printed on a t-shirt.

Money, sex, and power are the three sins to which people in power seem most prone to fall. Money, because it is tempting to allot extra to yourself, to permit yourself another dip in the bucket, and to make use of the fiscal resources at your disposal to illicitly advance your agenda (i.e., bribery). Virtually every politician in history has had some connection to the misappropriation of civic funds—and in my home state of Illinois three of its recent governors are serving prison sentences for just this. Sex, because power is attractive, and the allure of power appeals to people who want to be near power, possibly to influence power, and who consequently mold themselves to appear more attractive and appealing to your desire. They prostitute themselves to the powerful in exchange for power, whether real or perceived. The list of examples for this is quite long as well—Bill Clinton, David and Bathsheba, etc. Lastly, power itself awakens its own breed of temptations. The allure of getting your own way, the desire to exact vengeance on your enemies, the pleasure of achieving something for your own name, no matter how you damage others in the process, the allure of justifying improper means with appealing ends. In recent news, we might point to Mark Driscoll, pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill church, who is on record saying that “There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done.” Do the ends justify the means?

Hundred Thousand KingdomsThese thoughts trundled through my mind when I recently read N.K. Jemisin’s fantasy novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Jemisin’s book was a compelling story, portrayed an interesting world, and did these things with above average execution. But after I had finished the book I was troubled by a fundamental flaw in the book’s logic. The premise of the story is that a group of gods walk among humans, imprisoned and unable to access their full divine power. The main character, a human, is unexpectedly jettisoned into a position near the apex of earthly power. As the story unfolds, Jemisin makes an explicit point that the humans have been made in the gods’ image, and that this explains their immorality. The humans are capricious and cold, violent, vindictive, acting according to whim and fancy, and are profoundly immoral (or possibly amoral)—just like their gods. But as the heroine acquaints herself with the imprisoned gods she discovers that they answer to a moral code which, because of their power, is inscrutable to human minds. This shows up in capriciousness, violence, and, especially (in the novel) sex—these gods are permitted to sleep with whomever they like, each other, without boundaries, consequences, gender differentiation, or limits.

As I hope you can see, Jemisin has taken a common assumption—that power mitigates morality—and simply extended it to a divine level. We humans assume that the more powerful a person is, the more immoral he or she will become. If this is the case, then how much more will a god be immoral by extension? Look, for example, at the Greek gods, who are essentially personifications of human emotions and whims—war, sex, creativity, love, thought, power. The Greek gods are essentially human figures boosted to levels of incredible power, and with the freedom to exact that power on any human figure they desire.

The flaw within Jemisin’s book is fairly simple, if essential, because all actions, whether they are divine or human in origin, are moral actions; all choices are moral choices whether the actor is powerful or weak. The strength of the heroine’s position is that she maintains a moral centre within the chaos of the immoral world she inhabits. She judges the actions of others. But if Jemisin’s world really is a place of shifting morality, shifting especially as you achieve more power, then her heroine has no viable perspective from which to judge the immorality of her compatriots. Furthermore, assuming the logic of the world is accurate, then we the readers have no position of morality from which to consider either the heroine’s actions just or the divine actions unjust. To remove morality is to remove the judgment of any motive entirely. The plot falls apart because there is no reason for concern, growth, or change.

What troubled me about Jemisin’s book was not the immorality of her characters, but rather the assumptions about morality that she made in writing it. We seem to believe that circumstances have power to mitigate our morality, that power causes morality to blur. When President Bill Clinton was being investigated for his illicit sexual actions while in the White House, there was a strong move, at that time, to excuse Clinton’s actions precisely because he was president. I even remember one person suggesting to me that one of the perks of being president ought to be sexual access to whomever he liked at any time—after all, this person reasoned, he’s got other things to think about.CLINTON LEWINSKY

Whether the issue is money, sex, or power, with each indiscretion there is a temptation to blame immorality on power. As if by identifying the fact of power we have at the same time made full excuses for its abuse. “What did you expect?” we reason, “It’s power we’re talking about, and don’t you know that power corrupts?” Thus we are given permission at the same time to both excuse and blame those who have power.

But something else bizarre happens—not only do we mitigate the circumstances of the powerful because of their power, we also mitigate the circumstances of the powerless because of, ironically, their powerlessness. In recent news, (some) protesters in Ferguson, Missouri have rioted and looted local businesses—their excuse for this behaviour is their powerlessness. Against the militarized perception of the police, some have reacted with (un)civil disobedience. And so, in either case the problem isn’t that power corrupts, it is that we use both the presence and the absence of power as excuses for immoral behaviour. It seems that whether power or powerlessness is involved, we are eager to throw off the yoke of our morality.Fergusun Rios

Ironically, we do this with the Christian God as well. We make a deduction from our perception of power, then apply it to His character. We assume that power mitigates morality, then we conclude that because God is the absolute apex of power His morality must be of a different order than ours. Luther once remarked, in attempting to assert the absolute authority of God, that if God chose to declare something evil to be good, it would be good, even though we considered it evil. It seems our perceptions of power have changed little in the past 500 years.

Sir-John-Dalberg-ActonThere are a few things to say about this. First of these is a clarification about power itself. Our widely held perception that power is essentially a corrupting force has been given cultural strength by a famous quote from Lord Acton—one that we famously misquote. The actual quote is as follows: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.” (Note the missing word in bold.) Today we take Acton’s sentiment as axiomatic, but I think it fair to ask if it is even true. Does power corrupt people, or are people natively corrupt, and power only magnifies their inherent corruption? The latter, I hope, is self-evident. As humans we have wickedness within us. It can be small wickedness of petty words, spiteful actions, tax-fibbing, or little lies; it can be great wickedness of murder, theft, adultery, and false witness. We can commit our wickednesses in the quiet of our homes, or we can commit them on stages of public viewing. It is the same wickedness in both cases—the only difference power makes is that of the amplification of the wickedness. David sins with Bathsheba, and the wickedness is common enough—the consequence, however, affects the whole kingdom. Clinton sins with Monica Lewisnky and the sin is common enough—even banal and stupid—but the consequence drags a whole nation down. Driscoll sins with power and the sin is common enough—doing anything to get one’s way—but the amplification by power affects the reputation of the church catholic.

So, to begin, let’s be clear about something: power is neutral. It is neither evil, nor good, but can be used by humans for either good or evil purposes. It is a magnifying, amplifying force, one that projects the inherent faults in the human creature onto a canvas both visible and large. It is not that people in power sin more, it is that their sins are visible for everyone to see.

That being said, there is a real danger in power—the danger of trusting in one’s power. It is a very slight, subtle shift from the sentiment of, “I want this” to the belief that “the power that has been allotted to me means that I deserve this.” The temptation of power is precisely in its ability to turn our wants into deserves. I want to get my way—am I appealing to power in order to force my way? I want to enjoy the benefits of illicit relationship with person X—am I appealing to power in order to permit myself that illicit relationship? I want this benefit, this reward, this advantage—am I using the excuse of power to claim that I deserve it?

Again, however, it is not just the visibly powerful who have this temptation. The man who feels powerless in his relationships may turn to pornography to feel the illusion of power, to experience some relational control where he has none. He, quietly, is also sinning in his power. The woman who uses her words to put others in their place is also appealing to the power of her language to dominate and control. She also, quietly, is sinning in her power. And this is one of the dangerous misperceptions of power: that only the visibly powerful—presidents, celebrities, megachurch pastors—have power. In fact, each and every human is endowed with incredible power—power to bless or curse.

The computer creates the illusion of power--a powerful illusion it is.

The computer creates the illusion of power–a powerful illusion it is.

But, you may ask, does divinity mitigate morality? Are things different at the apex of power? That this is impossible ought to be clarified by a simple illustration. To the human mind, an error in measurement of .01cm would seem irrelevant—one not worth considering. Is it an error? Certainly, but other circumstances (among them the impossibility of perfection) mitigate the mistake. But imagine making a .01cm mistake in plotting a journey from one solar system to another. .01cm magnified by a distance of four light years has become an enormous error in magnitude. It is the difference between finding your mark and missing it completely. The point of the illustration is that at the level of divinity—which is comparable essentially to a measurement of infinity—the small errors become not inconsequential, but absolutely essential. At the apex of power morality is not ambiguous but absolute—the heights of power demand a perfection beyond anything humans have conceived. Therefore God’s power makes morals explicit. When Isaiah beholds a vision of God’s power, his first response is repentance for his unclean lips. Visions of absolute power convict us of our moral imperfections. Holiness and ethics are foundationally inseparable.

It should be clear, then, that the ends never ever justify the means. We cannot calculate costs and conclude that injustice in one area is permissible if it achieves a separate justice elsewhere. Especially at the level of divinity, this is absurd. After all, our arguments for ends and means each depend on an assumption of time and temporality. We reason that we can endure a temporary evil for the sake of a later good. But at the Divine level the same divisions of time do not apply—injustice once is injustice for eternity. Therefore if God participates in evil it does not follow that evil is good, but rather that God is evil.

But the lie of ends and means continues. In the church it takes the form of a kind of unholy expediency. We place volunteers in positions of authority because we have a perception of their qualifications and choose to overlook the significant flaws in their character. We resolutely refuse to acknowledge the bodies under the bus by pointing at the successes of a ministry—people saved, ministry accomplished, churches planted. We spend our funds on unnecessary building projects while the church catholic struggles, suffers, and starves. And we excuse all of these with a perception and apprehension of power that, ironically, we lay at the feet of God Himself.CrystalCathedral

But the place where, perhaps, we sin against power most is the way that we militate one kind of justice against another, particularly when we pit morality against ethics. “How can you care about Driscoll when there are people suffering in Ferguson?” “The focus of the church shouldn’t be on homosexuality, especially when there are suffering people overseas.” Or, as Tony Campolo is famous for saying, “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a sh*t. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said sh*t than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.” Can we at the same time pursue God’s character for Justice while repudiating His moral character? Can we pray “Thy will be done” while ignoring “make your name holy?” In each case we have missed an important reality—that a justice which compromises with injustice ceases to be justice. Or, theologically, a Christian justice that compromises on the character of God is no longer Christian. Morality and Ethics cannot be separated.

And yet the narrative of the world says something different. Our world’s narrative tells a story that grants license to immorality because of injustices experienced, whether perceived or real. A person in poverty cannot be blamed for his moral indiscretions. A person suffering under an unjust regime cannot be blamed for her immoral behaviour. Riots are permissible because of the imbalance of power. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sexual indiscretions are overlooked because of the good he accomplished and what he stood for. The ironic twist remains, and both power and powerlessness are used as mitigating circumstances. In the process morality is rendered meaningless—but then again, so also is justice.

In the end, power does not diminish, but rather magnifies the need for morality. The book of James says that not many should presume to teach, because we ought to know we will be judged more severely. Each week I stand and speak before a group of gathered Christians. I will answer for the incautious, misleading words I have spoken. You also will answer for your own misleading and incautious words to your friends, family, children, parents, and people online. But the Scriptures teach that my judgment will be more severe for the simple reason, I suggest to you, that my power has amplified my influence. If you sin, it affects you. If I sin, it affects my whole church. And as with me, so also with every human on earth—as our power increases, as we gain more access, more influence, a bigger platform, then our need for absolute morality increases as well. Power in no way mitigates morality; it only enhances our need for it.Spinal_Tap_-_Up_to_Eleven

Lastly, we cannot defer the need for moral growth to people in power and authority—each and every person is endowed with incredible power, and each and every person will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and answer for his use of that power. And that means, from small to great alike, that it is essential for us to develop and grow our moral fiber. We must reject the myth of mitigating circumstances, resisting the urge to excuse our indiscretions through appeals to power in whatever form. This will create integrity, so that when we are presented with access to power, what is projected out to the people around us is an image of the Christlike moral core we have labored to build. Amazingly, from such a position even our failures become opportunities for leadership, because our confession and repentance are also projected by power to a wider audience. In this way the individual grace of God allotted to you can be magnified by the power of your position. In this way, Christ’s power is made perfect even in our weaknesses.

12 comments on “The Myth of Mitigating Circumstances: An Essay on Power and Morality

  1. Stan says:

    Thanks for the post. It makes me think of Philemon and Onesimus and the dynamic of slavery there. The appeal was for the master to welcome back the former slave in love, notwithstanding the power he must certainly have been able to exert.

    I can’t recall who I spoke with about this but I once had a discussion with a person who stated that the natural conclusion about the African slave trade (one of the most stark pictures of power and powerlessness) was its abolition in light of the command to love others as one’s self (I am aware that slavery still exists however). I guess the question is how deeply has that command “marinated” the Church?

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hi Stan–sorry for the delayed reply. Your mention of Philemon and Onesimus invites a much larger discussion about the revolution of power dynamics brought about by the coming of Christ. Think about non-Jews helping out Jews, of non-relatives offering money to one another. Think about the Acts passages where none of the believers lacked for anything. Think of 1 Corinthians 11 where those believers who are abusing the Lord’s Supper are doing so on the basis of their wealth (they have the means to eat elsewhere, so why are they eating the food which can benefit the poor? Hence, they are judged and “become sick” because of it). See, in line with this, Ananias and Sapphira. Consider also the letters of Paul where the household codes address both slaves *and* masters, wives *and* husbands, children *and* parents. The Gospel turned the ancient world on its head. The new principle of power seems to be: if you have it, you must use it to benefit others.

      As it turns out, this isn’t that new a principle at all, but can be seen in the Psalms (the Kingship passages), the Isaiah prophecies, and even in the call and blessing of Abraham at Genesis 12.

      As for the command to love, and its ‘marination’ throughout the church (a nice metaphor, by the way)–I think many in the church have become confused about the meaning of love. Thinking it is a certain feeling, or a certain moral laxness, they have jettisoned Christ the judge in favor of their idea of Christ the saviour (i.e., they want Jesus but not Immanuel). To this I would suggest that true love will never marinate the church as an end in itself (as if we could set ourselves to the task of loving one another perfectly), but is a product instead of our commitment to the risen Christ *as he really is*. Our true attention on Jesus ought to make us loving, and is the only thing that can successfully marinate us. Make sense?

  2. Roger Hui says:

    Did you misspell “Ferguson” (twice) unintentionally or is it for effect?

    Roger Hui

  3. Roger Hui says:

    > It should be clear, then, that the ends never ever justify the means.
    > We cannot calculate costs and conclude that injustice in one area
    > is permissible if it achieves a separate justice elsewhere.

    “Never ever”? That covers a lot of ground. Consider the following examples from recent history.

    A key element of the 20 July plot during WWII was exploding a bomb or bombs in a room with Hitler and staff present. So the means would have been an act of mass murder. The end, had the plot succeeded, was shortening WWII and saving many millions of lives.

    In Israel and in Iraq, there have been instances where a bystander (policeman or soldier) held tight to a suicide bomber as the bomb exploded. So the means is the sin of suicide. The end was greatly reduced casualties from the suicide bombing due to smothering of the shrapnel effects.

    In going from A to B through step C (“the means”), where B is a just end, I think it is difficult to show that an unjust C is “never ever” justified. At least, it is not so clear.

    Roger Hui

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hi Roger–thanks for your patience while I found time to reply :)

      I think there might be three things to say in response to your points:

      First, and here at the start, I will restate that yes, I think an absolute morality is necessitated by the nature of divinity. Ends cannot justify means because a) they do not do so at the level of God’s perfection, and b) we are commanded to be perfect at He is perfect. So however we formulate the difficulties of our morality (casuistry) we never get to excuse our immorality for any reason–it is what it is, absolute and independent of the circumstances under which it was committed. (Here I am reminded of James 2:10, that the man who keeps the whole law but breaks one commandment is guilty of breaking all of it.)

      Second, this implies that an unjust action undertaken to achieve a just end would poison the good of the supposedly just end. The justice achieved would be less just. If I must steal in order to feed my family, the theft certainly sullies the nobility of my desire. In fact, in this absolute sense, I’m not sure if I can think of any circumstance where an injustice can serve as a stepping stone to true justice.

      But Third, and finally, there is a different mitigation of the circumstances you listed above, and it is one of terminology. During a situation of war, to kill an enemy combatant is not considered murder. Even in the Old Testament there are two different words used for “kill”–the one used for the Sixth Commandment is different from that used for, say, killing animals for sacrifice. Clearly there is a disambiguation made between intentions in those circumstances. Therefore I’m not certain that we can label the July 20 plot murder, but rather that it was an act of war, within war, that is justifiable (as such things are considered justifiable) by the nature of war itself. Alternatively, for the bystander, there is a clear distinction between the suicide of a person who takes his or her own life, and the heroism of a person who lays down his or her life (I think of the words of Jesus, that “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”). Self-sacrifice, in that sense, is in no way the same as suicide, so the concept of injustice is removed, and it is no longer a question of ends and means.

      Now, quite fairly, we could discuss the nature of ends and means during situations under which no true justice is possible–perhaps war is a good example. But then, I might propose, it becomes even more imperative for our motives and actions to represent true justice within those unjust systems, rather than allowing the injustice of the environment to color our actions accordingly. And that principle would clearly apply to almost all our actions in the world–the largest and most pervasive unjust system of all.

  4. Roger Hui says:

    I try to find guiding principles to live by, such as: love your neighbor as yourself; or, what you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others; etc. When I saw the title of your post, “The Myth of Mitigating Circumstances …” and the statement “it should be clear, then, that the ends never ever justify the means”, I wondered if I have found another such principle. Alas, the indications so far are not good. There is the resort to questions of terminology; there are the tell-tale signs (“true justice” — how exactly is that different from justice?); and there is the possible name calling (“casuistry”).

    Apparently, mitigating circumstances are never ever permitted, but are permitted if it can be converted into a question of terminology. Murder is not just, but if it occurs in war against an enemy combatant, then it is not murder. What then, is war? For example, is the “war on terror” a war? I note that there has never been a declaration of war in the war of terror. Who then, is an enemy combatant? Was Werner von Braun, a central figure in the Nazi rocket development program, an enemy combatant? Would killing him during WWII be justified? Would killing the manufacturers of Zyklon B during WWII be justified?

    In any case, who was and who was not an enemy combatant was not applicable for the July 20
    plotters. They were German military officers. The men they intended to kill were not even enemy non-combatants, let alone enemy combatants, but fellow German officers. In particular, the main person to be killed was Hitler, their lawful commander-in-chief to whom they have sworn a personal oath. Therefore, as I said, the means was an act of mass murder, and the end, had the plot succeeded, was shortening WWII and saving many millions of lives.

    You say “If I must steal in order to feed my family, the theft certainly sullies the nobility of my desire.” But imagine this, and imagine it especially if the family is starving (I imagine that is the case since I must steal to feed them): What if I leave a note identifying myself, promising to repay the debt as soon as I am able? Is that still stealing, or can it be considered borrowing? If that is still considered stealing and an unjust means, how about redefining it as a self-sacrifice? I sacrifice myself by committing the sin of stealing, jeopardizing not only my earthly life but my eternal life, in order that my family would not need to steal and also would not starve?

    For these and other reasons, I remain unconvinced that “it should be clear … that the end never ever justify the means”. I am convinced that it is not so clear. It is especially not clear in “the largest and most pervasive unjust system of all”.

    Roger Hui

  5. Roger Hui says:

    Your blog post presented two points of view:

    (a)

    Luther once remarked, in attempting to assert the absolute authority of God, that if God chose to declare something evil to be good, it would be good, even though we considered it evil.

    (b)

    [A]t the level of divinity … small errors become not inconsequential, but absolutely essential.

    It should be clear, then, that the ends never ever justify the means.

    We reason that we can endure a temporary evil for the sake of a later good. But at the Divine level the same divisions of time do not apply — injustice once is injustice for eternity. Therefore if God participates in evil it does not follow that evil is good, but rather that God is evil.

    I wonder how these conflicting views apply to the problem of the Amalekites. From I Samuel 15:2-3 (NASB):

    2 Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt. 3 Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’

    I came up with the following possibilities:

    (a) is correct.

    We err in applying modern sensibilities to ancient times. But what about “divisions of time do not apply” and “injustice once is injustice for eternity”?

    The Amalekites deserved it. But even the children? Even infants?

    Being put to death in this world is not necessarily an injustice. On departing the earth, the Amalekites went to Hell or Heaven according to God’s judgment. Presumably most of the children and all of the infants went to Heaven. (One hopes that when the Israelites put the children and infants to death they went about it gently.)

    The Israelites were at war with the Amalekites, and (as you said in your later comment response) killing enemy combatants in war is not murder and not an injustice. I do have trouble imagining infants as enemy combatants.

    The NASB translation is wrong. Other translations are wrong.

    This is an unknowable mystery of God.

    Other possibilities that escape me or that I dare not utter.

    Roger Hui

    p.s. I may have to repost this text if the website garbles it. I am sorry about that if it happens but I don’t know what exactly are allowed as mark-up.

  6. Roger Hui says:

    [Only formatting is changed from the immediately previous post.]

    Your blog post presented two points of view:

    (a)

    Luther once remarked, in attempting to assert the absolute authority of God, that if God chose to declare something evil to be good, it would be good, even though we considered it evil.

    (b)

    [A]t the level of divinity … small errors become not inconsequential, but absolutely essential.

    It should be clear, then, that the ends never ever justify the means.

    We reason that we can endure a temporary evil for the sake of a later good. But at the Divine level the same divisions of time do not apply — injustice once is injustice for eternity. Therefore if God participates in evil it does not follow that evil is good, but rather that God is evil.

    ______________________________________________________ 

    I wonder how these conflicting views apply to the problem of the Amalekites. From I Samuel 15:2-3 (NASB):

    2 Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt. 3 Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’

    I came up with the following possibilities:

    • (a) is correct.

    • We err in applying modern sensibilities to ancient times. But what about “divisions of time do not apply” and “injustice once is injustice for eternity”?

    • The Amalekites deserved it. But even the children? Even infants?

    • Being put to death in this world is not necessarily an injustice. On departing the earth, the Amalekites went to Hell or Heaven according to God’s judgment. Presumably many of the children and all of the infants went to Heaven. (One hopes that when the Israelites put the children and infants to death they went about it gently.)

    • The Israelites were at war with the Amalekites, and (as you said in your later comment response) killing enemy combatants in war is not murder and not an injustice. I do have trouble imagining infants as enemy combatants.

    • The NASB translation is wrong. Other translations are wrong.

    • This is an unknowable mystery of God.

    • Other possibilities that escape me or that I dare not utter.

    Roger Hui

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hi Roger!

      Before I respond, I wanted to say both thanks for your interaction, and thanks for your patience while I sort out our family move. I also felt like it would take some time to respond to you, and didn’t want to throw out a hasty reply. I am a person who does value interaction (banter, back-and-forth), and any time a discourse can bring more clarity I’m eager to see it through. Okay, then. On to a brief response.

      First, in an earlier comment you expressed the suggestion that my use of “casuistry” might be name calling–please know that I meant no such thing! Casuistry in discussions of ethics is the endless repetition of case-studies. It means that, instead of working with principles, we are working with too many individual situations–losing the forest for the trees, as it were. So, when I said that, “however we formulate the difficulties of our morality (casuistry) we never get to excuse our immorality for any reason–it is what it is, absolute and independent of the circumstances under which it was committed” what I meant is that no amount of circumstances–the individual formulations of moral conditions–can serve to mitigate the absolute nature of morality. I hope you can see that I intended nothing of a personal attack in that at all.

      Second, I think it is important to recognize the difference between a difference in terminology which indicates an actual difference, and equivocation (which blurs a key difference). A good example of the first is the language of the Ten Commandments, which proscribe murder but allow killing (of some kinds). There, the difference between murder and killing–both terms–presents a very important distinction between two things. However, an equivocation uses terms to blur differences, often to excuse immorality. Stealing and borrowing here might be a good example. The person who equivocates his stealing might say, “I was only borrowing it.” But this is a blurring of terms used to excuse bad behaviour.

      So, if above you feel that I have been equivocal, rather than terminological, we can work through those cases and attempt to find some common definitions for words. Practically speaking, the discussion can’t continue effectively until we are on the same page terminologically. (For the record, I do not think I have been equivocal.)

      Third, I appreciate your desire to have key principles to live by. I think that is a valuable ethical practice, and I wish more of us would take it seriously. As I review our exchange I find myself wondering what it is, precisely, that keeps you from accepting “The ends never justify the means” as one of them? Perhaps that is why you brought up the Amalekites later? Does it appear, in the Scriptures, that sometimes for God the ends do in fact justify the means? If so, then it would imply that we could perform similarly without qualms of conscience. The key to this discussion, it seems to me, is to really hone in on the question of whether or not, at the level of divinity, ends can justify means. This would invite the following possibilities:

      A) God is just. Ends never justify means. Therefore God never uses unjust means to achieve any ends. Therefore we must behave similarly. If we perceive injustice in God’s means or ends, then the problem lies with us and our perceptions, rather than God.

      B) God is just. Ends sometimes justify means. And God sometimes employs unjust means to achieve His ultimately good ends. If we perceive injustice in God’s actions, then it means that somewhere He is accomplishing some other good that we don’t yet know. We are commanded to be holy as God is holy, but sometimes–like God–we can take part in unjust means for ends that are good overall.

      C) God is not just. Ends justify means. God does what He wills–in fact, the only thing we have is the will of God, and nothing else. It doesn’t matter what we perceive at all, it only matters what God has done. The only rule we have is the will of God in the scriptures.

      It should go without saying that I hold position A. What may be less clear is that, in reality, positions B and C are the same, because if God performs injustice, then God cannot be just.

      All in all, if we are able to sort out the big ideas, then we can make sense of the smaller situations. In fact, there is no other way to exercise our ethics.

      Blessings, Roger!

  7. Roger Hui says:

    [Only the formatting and the text in [ ] are changed from the immediately previous post.]

    I am pleased to hear that you used casuistry in a technical sense, because my source indicates that in non-technical use the term is consistently and ubiquitously pejorative.

    I would be happy to start with terminology, but I would be happier to engage in discussions
    where words are used in straightforward and ordinary ways, where interpretations are derived from plain readings rather than careful or even convoluted parsing, where we don’t have to talk about, for example, “it depends upon what the meaning of the word lsquo;is’ is”. (Other than typos, of course. I had to ask you whether “Fergusun’
    was misspelled for effect, because it was spelled that way twice and therefore I wasn’t sure that it was a mistake.) In that regard, please explain to me what the difference is (if any) between “justice” and “true justice”, and between “the ends never ever justify the means” and “the ends never justify the means”?
    All are phrases used in either your original blog post or in your responses in the comments section. And, in a more minor way, your use of “it should be clear”. Either it is clear or it is not. If it is, then I should be able to see it clearly (and, forgive me, I don’t) and you don’t have to say it; if it is not, well then it is not clear. And I wonder what you mean when you say “it should go without saying” and then immediately you say it (hold position A).

    I am all for “big ideas”, even more if they are universal principles. (I am a mathematician.) “The ends never ever justify the means” (or “the ends never justify the means”) sounds like a universal principle or, less stringently, a guiding principle that I can live by. So I conducted a few thought experiments to see how it would apply in specific cases. I am not trained in philosophy, theology, or ethics, but it seems to me that a big idea or a guiding principle, let alone a universal principle (“never ever”) ought to be true in specific cases, no? A guiding principle would be especially useful, especially convincing, if it is applicable in difficult specific cases. If that is casuistry (in either sense), so be it.

    The thought experiments:

    • The July 20 plot of WWII. You argued that killing enemy combatants in war is justified.
    What say you, then, to my arguments: (a) what is and what is not a war can be quite murky; (b) just who is and who is not an enemy combatant can be quite murky; (c) the intended targets of the July 20 plot were not enemy combatants with respect to the plotters.

    • Hold tight to a suicide bomber in order to reduce casualties by smothering the shrapnel effects. It is almost certainly suicidal to hold onto a suicide bomber. Suicide is a sin.
    But in this case it seems to be justified because the number of bombing victims are greater reduced. This contradicts the principle. But no: we distinguish between self-sacrifice and suicide.
    (There is a class of similar heroic acts called “falling on a grenade” in which the hero sometimes survived. Thus the “almost certainly” above.)

    • Stealing is a sin and therefore an [unjust] means. If I steal bread to feed my starving family, that is not justified. I know this, but I do it anyway because my family is starving; I do it knowing that the act is not justified even though the end is much to be desired. I sacrificed myself to achieved the end. Is this self-sacrifice allowed? And if I leave a note identifying myself, promising to repay the debt as soon as I am able, does that mitigate the sin, even just a little? You are apparently saying no.

    • God instructs the Israelites to put to death all the Amalekites, specifically including children and infants. In your latest response, you did not respond directly to any of the possible explanations I presented, and point “A)” says “if we perceive injustice in God’s means or ends, then the problem lies with us and our perceptions”. This may be true, but it leaves the principle rather inadequate as a guiding principle to live by. How am I to know when something is a knowable sin and when it is an unknowable mystery of God?

    __________________________

    Recent events in my life have took this discussion from an intellectual debate and thought experiments to a real-life application. I was in a situation where I had to do something that I felt uncomfortable doing, in order to achieve an important good. The actions were not unethical.
    Far from it: a second party whom I trust and respect even praised the initial part of the action, and indeed viewed in isolation it was praiseworthy in a minor way. But the second party did not know my intentions, nor did any other observers, nor could any observer. Only I know, and of course God knows, and I, knowing what I know, felt dirty afterwards for having done the whole action. In the middle of it all I told the other people involved, I hope God will forgive me as I did X with not the best of intentions.

    In this case, neither “the ends never ever justify the means” (or “the ends never justify the means”) nor its negation “the ends justify the means”, provided any guidance or comfort. What does provide comfort, is a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer regarding his role in the German resistance during WWII. Did you know he was involved tangentially in the July 20 plot? Anyway, I quote the passage from Wikipedia:

    In the face of Nazi atrocities, the full scale of which Bonhoeffer learned through the Abwehr, he concluded that “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” He did not justify his action but accepted that he was taking guilt upon himself as he wrote “when a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it… Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.”

    I am of course not equating my little dilemma with Bonhoeffer’s dilemma, but what he said is relevant to this discussion. Not a universal principle (“never ever”), just a quote: “He answers for it … Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.” This has the appearance of a guiding principle I can live by: Think of the July 20 plot: the quote is directly from the July 20 plot. Think of “falling on a grenade”: not much of a moral dilemma, just the courage to do it. Think of the situation of stealing the bread: yes, dire necessity,
    and if I leave a note identifying myself I am at least throwing myself at the mercy of the person I am stealing the bread from, and at the feet of God in the final judgment. Think of the Amalekite children and infants: well, it is an unknowable mystery of God, but if God ever orders me to commit such an act, I hope I will have the courage to refuse, yes, refuse even God, and like Bonhoeffer [I hope] only for grace and mercy before God.

    Roger Hui

  8. Roger Hui says:

    The human factor design of this website is terrible. At the very least it should provide a writer a way to preview his comments before posting them.

Discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s