Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The interplay of the corporate and individual and the doctrine of two kingdoms (Part 1)

The two most common arguments I hear against the kind of pacifism I articulate follow along these lines:

(1) Surely it is wrong to stand by and let someone vulnerable suffer harm, when you have the power to step in and stop it

(2) The restraint of evil is a necessary part of Godly order in a fallen world, and so Christians must employ violence to do so, but it is not the Church’s role.

In this post I want to explore some of the logic that undergirds or plays into these positions. Firstly, I want to consider how the former argument is often based on a kind of utilitarianism that ends up in logical convolutions of increasing counter-intuitive absurdity.

(1) is based on the premise that ends can shape, and fundamentally alter, the moral dimension of means. What is the end or consequence that is in view in (1)? Let’s suppose that it is some violent crime, murder or rape or the like. These things are truly horrendous, and are to be stopped. Let’s further suppose that the prospective victim is someone dear to me, a family member. Suddenly our hypothetical is taking the shape of, “What sort of moral monster would you have to be to stand by and watch a family member get murdered?”

I have already critiqued in other places the kind of deterministic logic that says only violence can solve this situation, and your only options in this situation are (a) violence, (b) acquiescence. Instead, this time I wish to point out how this hypothetical makes two other problematic moves. Firstly, it atomises the corporate.

Is it right for the church to willingly accept martyrdom? I would think the scriptures and the history of the church teach us yes. And yet, the kind of example above breaks down that solidarity, and says that if its in the power of individuals to prevent, by means of violence, other individuals from dying, then they should do so. The church as a collective, then, would never be a church that accepts martyrdom, but one in which individuals never practice self-defence, but instead always practice other-defence. There is a mis-translation of individual and corporate sensibility here that I want to engage further below.

Secondly, it absolutises this life. If the greatest evil we could suffer would be the deprivation of mortal life, then death would be the great evil to be avoided. But this is untrue in several dimensions. The greatest good is to know God and his gospel. Indeed, Jesus goes so far as to say that to know God and his Son is eternal life (Jn 17:2). So when I make the lives of those nearest to me the highest value in a life-threatening situation, I over-value temporal existence, and under-value eternal existence. Because the eternal life of those dear to me in Christ is secure. The eternal destiny of those that threaten them, almost certainly not. Should I choose to save that which cannot be prevented (i.e., the mortal death of Christian loved ones is certain), at the price of the enemy’s life, thereby ending all hope for their redemption? By this utilitarian logic, Christians should prefer to kill each other to prevent the deaths of non-Christians, in the hopes of their repentance to eternal life. This logic won’t do at all. Indeed, it makes Jesus a moral monster, since he indeed has the power to prevent the deaths of his brothers and sisters, those who he loved to die for, and he prefers their death to their life. Why does Jesus stand idly by?


gbroughto said...

Okay, a few thoughts.

While sympathetic to your aims in this post, and remembering that your 'logical reasoning' is quite ell developed, there seems to be a few flaws in the above:

i) the analogy with martyrdom only seem to hold if the loved one being attacked is willing to die as a testimony to Jesus.
I'm not trying to be too strict about defining martyrdom - which covers a great variety of way to die - but the voluntary/testimony elements seem pretty essential... (ie. the nonresistance must be practiced by the victim as well as the bystander for the analogy to hold).

Most times the scenario described is a helpless loved one who desires to be rescued / saved, and this is where the martyrdom analogy breaks down, I think.

But I think your link to the corporate dimension is a great point

ii) the second part of your argument appears to be predicated on some foreknowledge of victim and wrongdoers eternal destiny... which our theology is normally cautious about

But again the point about there being 'things worse than death' is a strong, if unpopular one, that we would do well to reflect on more. I think Byron had some posts on a similar idea some time back

Seumas Macdonald said...

i) Yes, this is a correct premise to my argument. To expand a little, my undergirding premise is that the loved one in view shares a common community and set of beliefs and practices around Christ.

But, to invert the analogy, what if the loved one doesn't share those commonalities. What if their prime desire is to avoid temporal suffering and death? To what extent can my ethical behaviour be dictated by their desires? If they want to live, at all costs, does this then legitimate my killing of the third party? And doesn't this then reverse the whole situation, so that the third party becomes the victim, who presumably by their initial move to violence would also like to live, at all costs, so that now I'm the agent of my loved one's violent agenda?

We must have a casuistry sophisticated enough to avoid making one's one moral choice contingent upon the potential victim's ethics.

ii) I think it's quite right to be cautious about presuming the eternal destiny of the person's involved, but even without knowing that, I think this is a rabbit hole worth following, if only because of what it shows up about some of our assumptions and the logical ends of arguments.

gbroughto said...

We must have a casuistry sophisticated enough to avoid making one's one moral choice contingent upon the potential victim's ethics

but is this the point?
notwithstanding your latter point about things 'worse than death' the victim's inherent right to life is still defensible, no? Or are you suggesting that the victim's right to life is contingent upon your ethics?

Seumas Macdonald said...

The victim's right to life is defensible, but not at all costs. Even a utilitarian will grant that. I'm not suggesting that their right to life is contingent upon my ethic, but that the just means of defending their right to life cannot be contingent upon their ethic, because then the only restraint to my (im)morality is the morality of the victim. Then the more unethical the victim, the more I am morally permitted to do to defend them.

gbroughto said...

okay, lets back up a little, because I think we have got a little cross-wised:

surely it is wrong to stand by and let someone vulnerable suffer harm, when you have the power to step in and stop it

we have equated 'suffering harm' with its extreme form of dying and 'power to stop' with the unethical use of violence.

I think I'm more interested in the original discussion than our recent exchanges...

Same questions arise

Seumas Macdonald said...

True, I have equivocated and let one thing slide into another without good definitions of terms.