It’s been over 3 years since I last posted on this blog! Where on Earth have I been?!
First, having two children is a lot harder than just one. Second, my career has become quite a bit more demanding. Third, it was hard to think of more things to say without repeating myself, and I’m happy with the amount of airtime my existing posts have been getting.
From this and direct feedback, it’s apparent that folks appreciate quiet theology. It doesn’t skyrocket YouTube hits from dramatic confrontations and rebuttals. But perhaps it accomplishes something a little better.
A while ago I made a “clip show” post that summed up my views on libertarian free will. The time has now come to make a “clip show” post on metaethics. Brazenly I assert that all metaethics can be captured in brief.
All of it.
Let’s see if you agree.
- Morality is subjective in one way and objective in two ways (“SOO“). It is subjective in that it always proceeds from the interests and preferences of persons (or Persons, like God). It is objective in that there are statements about those interests that are factual (such that I could lie about them). It is also objective in that the way to optimize those interests is a strategic question with correct and incorrect answers. Any search for “ultimate objective value” is doomed to failure.
- Ignoring or “failing to mention” the subjective component makes commands more effective. We parents learn this very quickly. It catches the listener flatfooted and often roots the imperative in what feels immovable and irresistible. In other words, there is memetic fitness in using moral language that ignores the “S” in #1. We then trick ourselves into thinking that the “SOO” framework is bad, because it fails to capture the moral language with which we’re familiar, and which proves so effective on us and others! But this is only because our familiarity has a utile error embedded in it, into which we’re inculcated from a very young age.
- Per the 2nd “O” in #1, we tend to think consequentially. But since we’re not omniscient — in fact, we’re rather poor at anticipating all the meaningful consequences of our actions — heuristics can be helpful. While heuristics always come with certain risks, they can also give us powerful shortcuts and social cohesion. Here we distilled it into three “moral musicians”: Red (rules), green (clumsy goal-seeking), and blue (intuition). The article includes a breakdown of “minority reporting” showing that, schematically, this is indeed all a consequential system.
The above 3 observations adequately explain the existence of any metaethical position you please. In other words, take any moral theory, and you can explain it in the above terms.
This is a significant discovery if true. Right now we’re simply proposing it and trying it on for size. To do so, if you’re interested in more details about the above observations, follow the links inside to the deeper explanations. Then, put it to the test: Think of a moral theory, and see if it can be explained by the above 3 observations. A more fiery way to frame it: Try to think of a moral theory that cannot be elegantly explained by them.
Addendum for Christian readers:
These observations are also consonant with Scripture, which has a “social interest exchange” view of morality that incessantly puts it in monetary language (covenants, debit, credit, obligation/owing, justice in merchant’s scales terms, etc.) that is alien to the purely objective moral realism of the Hellenic schools.
“Heed God” doesn’t come from him weirdly entailing some Platonic abstract. “Heed God” comes from his being Creator (so we owe him everything), Father (so he has our best interests at heart), and Judge (so he’ll eventually bring everything to account).
“Fatherhood” (so-defined) theoretically cancels out subjective impasses, like canceling out terms in math, leaving us with objective normativity. And therefore, “at the end of the day,” nothing much changes; “during the day,” however, we enjoy a solution to the Euthyphro Dilemma that doesn’t involve (as much) special pleading.
(WARNING: This article presents a significantly simplified taxonomy. Further, there are many meta-ethical views within Christianity; this article is incompatible with some of those views, including Divine Command Theory and moral absolutism.)
Until confronted with moral dilemmas, right decisionmaking — after we untangle our interests — seems pretty straightforward.
Like this guy. One happy fellow, playing his guitar:
And when we’re no longer “in dilemma,” we can forget about the complexity of morality, and revert to this “straightforward” / “common sense” / “plain to see” / “easy” falsity.
But it turns out that our moral practice is — roughly — a trio of three guitarists, all playing at the same time.
- Red is all about the rules. He represents moral stipulations that you’ve been taught, or that you’ve “red,” or what have you.
- Green is all about seeking goals in service of all sorts of interests. But that’s not all; he’s also clumsy. Very clumsy. In the day-to-day, we’re rather inadequate at forecasting the innumerable consequences of each action we take. But, Green tries his darndest.
- Blue is all about intuition; his feelings and gut-reactions to moral situations. His moral force is powered by direct appeals to conviction, disgust, anger, felt affection, etc.
A Beautiful Song…
For the most part, the three musicians play together very nicely.
Even if one musician rests while another plays, it sounds good.
Even if one musician plays a major and another its relative minor, it sounds pretty neat as a minor seventh.
But sometimes, one musician plays a radically mismatched chord vs. the other two.
And it sounds terrible.
In other words, sometimes the gut and the clumsy goal-seeking go way against the rules. Sometimes the clumsy goal-seeking goes against both the rules and the gut. And sometimes the rules and clumsy goal-seeking are allied, but the gut dissents.
Judging the Musicians
So when one musician is out of sync, how do we figure out if he’s right to be out of sync?
To explore this question, let’s examine the three out-of-sync dilemmas in the abstract.
Red Out of Sync
This is when a common moral rule seems very counterproductive according to Green (clumsy goal-seeking) and Blue (gut intuition).
- Maybe Red is wrong. It may be that times, culture, or circumstances have changed so that the rule is no longer useful.
- But maybe Red is right. It may be that the rule remains good, but the ways by which the rule is useful are very difficult to understand or untangle, and the gut and clumsy goal-seeking fail to ascertain them.
Green Out of Sync
This is when clumsy goal-seeking feels wrong and violates the common rules. The tension here is whether the person can be certain enough in his goal-driven analysis that he can say, “I’ve gotta do it anyway.”
- Maybe Green is wrong. The forecast was incorrect.
Example: You live in poverty and your family is very hungry. You see an opportunity to steal some groceries. You do not notice a plainclothes officer nearby, who will arrest you if you do; you will then be put in prison, and your family will be even worse off.
And this is just considering the interests of you and your family. Ideally our actions are in the best interests of our other relationships and even the world at large. Perhaps you won’t go to prison, but your theft will damage other people irreparably through unforeseen butterfly effects. And perhaps it may do damage to your own conscience, setting you on a dark path that ends in ruin.
You are not omniscient. You cannot know about every detail of your circumstances and what exhaustively will come of your actions. This is what makes your forecasting clumsy. The rules tell you not to steal, your feelings tell you not to steal, and even though your clumsy goal-seeking says to steal, you’d be best — here — to ignore it.
- But maybe Green is right. The forecast, though clumsy, is indeed correct.
Blue Out of Sync
The rule says “do it,” the decision analysis says “do it,” but it feels wrong anyway; the gut says, “No, don’t!”
- Maybe Blue is wrong. The intuition is molded and crafted by experience, but that doesn’t make it impeccable — in fact, it’s largely driven by momentum and unconscious “preprogrammed” feelings of disgust, loss-aversive fear, righteous indignation, and even vengeance without fruitfulness. Good decisions can yet rub it the wrong way.
- But maybe Blue is right. The rule is counterproductive (perhaps outdated, or should have been regarded as context-constrained) and the clumsy analysis was incorrect. Thankfully the intuition had been molded and crafted by experience to rebel against both the official rules and the incorrect analysis (clumsily performed).
The Common Denominator
Let’s simplify the above to answer our earlier question.
- When Red is out of sync, Red is right when the rule is useful (beneficial and constructive).
- When Red is out of sync, Red is wrong when the rule isn’t useful (beneficial and constructive).
- When Green is out of sync, Green is right when the analysis (albeit clumsy) is correct. (The analysis measured benefit and constructiveness.)
- When Green is out of sync, Green is wrong when the analysis is incorrect. (The analysis measured benefit and constructiveness.)
- When Blue is out of sync, Blue is right when the rule isn’t useful (beneficial and constructive) and the clumsy analysis (which measured benefit and constructiveness) was incorrect; thankfully, the intuition’s formative experience and other “preprogramming” raised warning flags.
- When Blue is out of sync, Blue is wrong when the intuition’s limited formative experience and other “preprogramming” yields a gut-feeling contrary to usefulness (benefit and constructiveness).
See the pattern?
It’s consequence. Consequence is schematically “king.” We know this because it is the common judge against which all the musicians are measured.
- A rule is bad when it makes things worse.
- A prospective analysis is bad when it through erroneous forecasting makes things worse.
- One’s intuition is bad when it bends toward making things worse.
Let’s call “consequence as schematic ‘king'” CASK for short.
The Danger of Pure Consequentialism
As we’ve talked about several times, pure consequentialism can be dangerous. CASK can be true, but Green is still a clumsy analyzer.
We are not equipped for pure consequentialism; we are clumsy.
A practical adoption of pure consequentialism has us pitiful, clumsy humans deferring to Green every time, foolishly hoping that Green is a perfect “oracle” for CASK.
But as we’ve seen above, Green can be wrong.
Conflation of CASK and “always defer to Green” is a modal scope fallacy, and — tragically — fosters doubt in CASK.
The Danger of Deontology
But it’s also horrible to proclaim that the rules are schematically “king,” as if “Do this and not that” is the fabric of moral decisionmaking. It isn’t. Rather, rules are very useful ways of helping to guide us pitiful, clumsy humans to good decisions.
Rules are tools. And Red can be incorrect — or become incorrect over time, as circumstances change.
As Emergent Patterns
These strategies — rules, robust character guides called “virtues,” clumsy goal-seeking, and gut intuitions — emerge when CASK collides with the “real world” of human limitations.
When we recognize them as emergent from CASK — and not “more fundamental” than CASK — things make a whole lot more sense.
- Deontology, the idea that rules are the schematic “king” of meta-ethics, is misguided; rules emerge as useful under CASK.
It surprises us that Red and Green can “fight” so much, given this emergence. But it shouldn’t; this surprise is a product only of the aforementioned modal scope fallacy. Red and Green can fight all day; only the referee of true consequence — something to which we humans have limited access — can judge the winner.
- Similarly, moral intuition is not the schematic “king” of meta-ethics. It likewise emerges from CASK, through both genetic and memetic evolutionary patterns.
It surprises us that Blue and Green can “fight” so much, given this emergence. But it shouldn’t. Blue is a bit “stuck in the past” due to how it’s made, and Green makes clumsy guesses about the future. It stands to reason they’d be prone to argument.
Retaliation as an Emergent Pattern
There are other patterns that emerge as well.
One of the biggest relates to justified moral reaction.
Under CASK, a justified moral reaction (to some bad thing) ideally has three missions: Repairing the situation, repairing the person, and repairing the institution.
- The situation was such that the transgressor was free to transgress and hurt others. Attempt to repair that situation by restricting that person.
- The person needs to learn — convincingly — not to transgress anymore. Attempt to repair the person by whatever means are most feasible and practical.
- Society as an institution seems to be producing people who behave this way. Attempt to repair the institution by going after institutional cofactors, like domestic abuse, poverty, and lack of education and mentoring guidance. (One very common play at institutional repair is to overpunish people for its deterring effect… but we’d hope to find a better way.)
It goes without saying that if all of these missions were “easy” for us, we’d do them with every transgressor, and with no rational hesitation.
But they aren’t easy for us. They’re really hard.
And thousands of years ago, they were even harder.
- It’s not easy to restrict a person when you have no secure prisons and a lack of sufficient infrastructure to sustain prisoners indefinitely and humanely.
- It’s not easy to repair a person. Even to this day, our most common remedial response is “put them in a prison for a long while and see if that teaches them a lesson.”
- And it’s not easy to repair an institution. It’s especially difficult when people’s views of culpability view institutional repair as “excuse-making” and dismiss the exercise entirely.
So, what happens when the “three missions” are incredibly difficult, but correct under CASK?
For beings that aren’t very developed — either in terms of biology or civilization — this “rough approximation” is remarkably optimal (as compromise between “CASK” & “doable”).
It’s so optimal that we see it baked-in to the intuitions of birds, fish, dogs, and a host of other animals.
(After all, that highly complicated network of causes and effects is vaguely triangle-like.)
But this — purely retributive justice, “just deserts,” lex talionis, etc. — isn’t the schematic “king.” This isn’t really how morality “works” underneath.
Retaliation is just a crayon-drawn approximation of silicon circuitry. It’s an emergent result of CASK being confronted by the complexity and challenge of the real world, which includes our amazing-and-pathetic (depending on your reference point) brains.
And as human civilization “grows up,” we should be graduating more and more toward a more nuanced and difficult understanding of justified moral reaction, even including decisions that come at personal cost for a better, greater good.
- “The Fourfaced Writ.” A thought experiment that shows us how, under Christianity, the New Covenant points us to greater recognition of CASK with the goal of loving others.
- “The Angelic Ladder.” How one’s place on the “ladder” — the degree to which a person or a people-group is truth-aware, altruistic, and good at forecasting — determines one’s allowed moral freedom (even as this freedom comes with New burdens).
- “Omniscient Prole Dilemmas.” Certain thought experiments will try to convince you that CASK is untenable by granting you CASK-knowledge in a situation, then watching you squirm with resultant Red/Blue dissension. These hypotheticals are loaded garbage. The answer against these people is, “Give me a hypothetical with Clumsy Green instead of CASK, and I’ll tell you what I’d do.”
We are no longer under the guardianship of the Law, but rather are made-right with God by faith, through love, working (Galatians 3:24-25):
“So the Law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”
Some people, however, would like it if we as Christians are still under the guardianship of the Law.
- Christians who would like to selectively cite Leviticus so that they can cudgel other people with judgment.
- Anti-Christians (people who go after Christianity as false and bad) who want to claim that Christians don’t take their religion seriously and/or are bound to follow Laws that no longer make sense in our cultural context (indeed, many of those Laws we’d call rather bizarre and unacceptable, requiring faith in a ‘time-and-culture-limited’ ancillary context).
- … And some other folks.
By far the most popular passage cited in support of this is Matthew 5:17-20:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The incorrect reading of this passage often employed by anti-Christians will contradict Paul’s statements about no longer being a slave to the Law, especially in Galatians and Romans.
Anti-Christians have an explanation ready for this: “Yes, Paul contradicts Jesus.”
This rides along with a popular “Pauline conspiracy theory” meme, which claims Paul hijacked Christianity from the original Apostles and changed it considerably from the original teachings of Jesus.
The text, especially when primed with the idea that Jesus is talking about maintaining the guardianship of the Law, very easily yields that incorrect reading if we’re not careful to answer the following 2 questions:
- (A) What did “fulfill” mean?
- (B) Why did Jesus go out of his way to say this? What was his intent?
The word for “fulfill” here is pleroma.
Pleroma means absolute filling-up to completion, even to excess, such that it was sometimes used as an idiom for patched clothing.
It is one of the most theologically significant words in Christianity, leveraged in assertions about God’s sovereignty, Jesus Christ’s Godhood, and God’s ultimate plan in Romans ch. 11.
Jesus came, therefore, to absolutely complete the Law.
Imagine the Law as a cup that demands to be filled; Jesus came to fill it up, up, up, right up to the brim, and even spilling over.
And what is the means by which Jesus would do that?
By instituting a moral reformation, restructured entirely upon love (Galatians 5:6,14):
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith, through love, working (pistis di agapes energoumene). … For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
In other words, through Christ, the entirety of the Law can be satisfied/completed/pleroma’d just by loving others, and doing so passionately, wisely, genuinely, patiently, mercifully, and self-sacrificially.
This is the means by which “your righteousness can surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law.” Faithful love “practices” all of its commands, so to speak. Teaching faithful love “teaches” all of these commands, so to speak.
Notice “so to speak.” A flat, surface reading really does seem like Jesus is not fulfilling the Law, but holding us to fulfill it ourselves, as before. And yet, he says he came to fulfill the Law!
The resolution here is this “so to speak” replacement of how fulfillment of the Law — down to the tiniest command — “works” under the New Covenant.
It’s a bit confusing, to be sure. This article wouldn’t exist if such confusion didn’t exist. Indeed, many things Jesus said were confusing, and interpretations of his teachings and parables are debated among Christians to this day.
Given this confusion, we wonder, “Why did Jesus say this, then? Why did he put it this way?”
The answer is that the Law stands to convict us as sinners who fall short, in a general and broad sense. Jesus wanted everyone to feel convicted. He wanted people to marvel at the impossibility of fulfilling the Law themselves.
Jesus wanted to provoke this: “How could my righteousness surpass even that of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law!?”
Which, of course, is a great question.
This is also why he kept hammering on keeping the “tiniest command.” Many of the religious elite who antagonized Jesus — frequently Pharisees and teachers of the Law — saw themselves as having fulfilled the Law themselves. But they had a tiny problem: Many had unjustly divorced and remarried, and were adulturers under the Law. As such, “the Law stands to convict” was the means by which Jesus could tell them and convict them, “You are Lawbreakers, too. You, too, need what I’ve come to offer.”
(A) + (B) = Correct Reading
When we answer those two questions, we can finally read this passage correctly, and understand that we can bear the Law’s burden — an otherwise astronomical impossibility — by taking advantage of what Christ offered:
- Through Christ, the Law is completely satisfied, completely taught, and completely practiced, down to the tiniest command, by faithfully loving others.
It can seem a bit strange that you could get credit for various commands you’re only doing “by love-proxy.”
But that’s the correct reading, as the next section will help make very obvious.
Rebuttal of “Pauline Conspiracy Theories”
Since Paul most clearly articulates in what ways the Law lingers (and in what ways it doesn’t) under the New Covenant, Paul is “inconvenient” for those who’d prefer the incorrect reading, insofar as the incorrect reading would be very problematic for Christianity.
As such, these folks often argue that Paul is radically out-of-sync with Jesus and the original Apostles — that he “hijacked” Christianity and changed it.
This assertion requires imaginative fantasy about first century church history, but more humorously, requires simply not reading the Bible, where the correct reading is supported by Jesus elsewhere and by epistles from the original Apostles, including James, John, and Peter.
Jesus taught that all the Law and Prophets “hung on” loving others (God and neighbor) (Matthew 22:36-40):
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Jesus made it clear that the Law stopped being proclaimed with John the Baptist, because the imminent Kingdom of God (under the New Covenant) was the new paradigm. But Law would continue as a convicter, especially against the self-righteous who were technically adulturers according to the Law (Luke 16:16-18):
[Jesus spoke to the Pharisees and teachers of the Law sneering at Jesus, saying,] “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.
It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law: ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.'”
Jesus made similar remarks, later, to the chief priests and elders at the Temple (Matthew 21:31b):
“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors [known as grifters in that culture] and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you. For John [the Baptist] came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”
John, one of the original Apostles, made sure we understood the love-based architecture of the New Covenant (1 John 4:7-8, 18):
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. … There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
Peter, Jesus’s prime Apostle, supported Paul as a brother and explicitly endorsed Paul’s articulation of the New Covenant (2 Peter 2:15-16):
“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”
James “home-runs” — or “touchdowns,” or whatever sports analogy you please — the proclamation of the Law’s fulfillment in love (James 2:8-10, 12-13):
“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. … Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
That “Royal Law of Freedom” is love, and its power — through Christ — to completely fulfill the Law in teaching and practice, every jot and tittle, up to the brim, and overflowing it.
This is why we listen to Paul: Because Paul was just conveying, explicitly and eloquently, what Jesus taught and the original Apostles reiterated, and the exciting, beautiful, brilliant New Covenant that Christ instituted (Romans 13:8-10):
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law.”
Additional Note, August 7, 2020
It’s important to point out that the Epistle of James was written to professing believers who were failing to love.
Professing believers who fail to love others are not justified before God; they have lost their rightstanding.
For example, those who show cruel dispassion for the widow and orphan, or who exalt the rich and show snide contempt for the poor, are failing to love others in this way.
Let’s read together from James chs. 1 and 2:
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. … Whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom [‘love others’], and continues in it — not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it — they will be blessed in what they do.
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become wickedly judgmental?
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor! Is it not the rich who are exploiting you?
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. … Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom [‘love others’], because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but doesn’t act on it? Can such faith save them?”
People who call themselves believers but wallow in hypocritical judgmentalism do not have saving faith. Their religion is worthless. God’s wrath looms for them and he will repay them according to what they have done (Romans ch. 2):
“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? … You are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.
God will repay each person according to what they have done.”
To avoid self-satisfied judgmentalism and hypocrisy, to avoid that star-struck temptation to show favoritism to the wealthy, powerful, famous, influential charlatans of the world, to avoid conflating worldly success (whether in business, or politics, or religious leadership) with piety and glory, to avoid “punching down” upon the downtrodden and putting the poor “by our feet” (often by focusing exclusively on what they did or failed to do that resulted in their situation), we must come to understand a weird neurobiological problem we have when Speaking Truth in Love.
A while back, my wife and I attended a small family reunion, and observed the behavior of some little humans to which I am related.
Three of the children were involved in a drawn-out game of tag, and one of those being chased was clearly losing steam.
That’s when he had an ingenious idea.
“Okay, break time!” he cried out. And all three children stopped immediately.
After all, it was break time now.
Had he shouted, “I want to take a break!,” it probably wouldn’t have had the desired effect. The chaser might even have responded, “Tough luck!” and tagged him.
By wrapping his interests in objective language, it no longer felt a disputable and subjective matter; it’s almost as if the universe itself was invoked. Discussion isn’t needed or wanted. It’s just break time.
My wife teaches second grade, and has her students do a certain small group exercise in which each group member has a role, one of which is “writer.”
During one of these exercises, she recounts a certain little boy (we’ll pretend his name was Charlie) announcing, “I’m the writer, period, end of discussion.” His groupmates were subdued immediately.
My wife saw this happen, though, and asked, “Charlie, why do you get to be writer?”
“Because,” Charlie revealed, “I want it the most.”
At this point, a wave of realization swept over the children — it wasn’t “end of discussion” at all. They’d been tricked!
Everyone wants to be writer. You don’t get to be writer just because you want it.
But if my wife hadn’t intervened, they’d never have put that together. When he just is the writer, objectively, there’s nothing to discuss.
But when he just wants to be the writer, the matter’s in dispute.
Both “Break Time” and “Rightful Writer” proceeded from personal interests, and a desire to manipulate or subjugate group behavior. But both proclamations “invoked the universe” — cited objective states of the world — in order to obfuscate those interest contingencies, since personal interest contingencies weaken attempts at group manipulation and subjugation.
The “Rightful Writer” case was especially amusing to me, because I’m almost certain the child learned this technique from his parents.
Parents do universe-invocation all the time.
Silencing the Ice Scream
There are several good reasons to reject a child’s plea for pre-dinner ice cream. If the child pesters for a “good reason,” there are many to give.
One is that delayed ice cream is effective to compel dinner-finishing. It’s “bait,” in other words.
We can’t say that, though. “You can’t have any yet because I’m using it as bait” feels manipulative, and too arbitrary against such a “really-really-needs-ice-cream-now” emergency.
Another reason is that too much dessert is unhealthy, and inconsistent giving-in yields child-spoiling. But recognition of incentive gradients to ill consequences aren’t very convincing in the moment; “I know, I know,” the child says, “It’s just this once.”
Another is that you just plain don’t want to bother.
“I’ll get it myself!” the child offers.
Nothing is working.
But what if you invoke the universe?
“Dessert comes after dinner, not before.”
Now, this isn’t to say that a child won’t continue to protest. But this new reason doesn’t feel so dodgeable. You can “rest your case” here and repeat this invocation until the child is exhausted.
Indeed, every reason that made an interest appeal had the weakness of interest-circumvention. This new reason doesn’t have an interest appeal; as a result, there’s no circumventing it.
It’s just a “fact” about dessert and dinner. No subjective referents. No slipperiness.
Hot and Cold
There are all sorts of objective things about hot and cold.
- Water boils at 100° C. That’s hot. Water freezes at 0° C. That’s cold!
- When my wife and I get into our outside-parked car on a sunny day, we rush to turn on the air conditioning. It’s hot! We want it cooler.
- During summer, it’s on-average hotter than during winter. In winter, it’s on-average colder than during summer.
Pretty straightforward, right? Seems basically objective.
The other day, though, my wife and I had a dispute in the car. I thought the cabin temperature was hot, and flipped the dial to barely-blue. My wife thought the temperature was cold, and responded by cranking the dial slightly into the red zone.
This is our eternal struggle.
You see, we have different comfort zones. Whether it’s the temperature of water or the temperature of the car, there is a dispute within the blurriness between hot and cold.
That’s because “hot” and “cold” are experiential reactions to objective things. They’re ultimately interest-driven.
Did I arbitrate my comfort zone, and my wife hers? Of course not. If we could, we’d avoid all sorts of drama by syncing-up.
But they’re subjective things — proceeding from personal interests — nonetheless.
To what can my wife appeal to win the dial debate over what we “should” do? (It’s a zero-sum game in a car without dual-zone climate control.)
She could appeal to interest-consensus to invalidate my interests. “You always are too hot. Everyone else would think it’s cold right now.”
She could circumvent interest-appeals entirely by invoking the universe. “It is not cold right now. You’re just wrong.”
But those don’t work on me anymore. I can spot them a mile away.
And so, she does the only thing left: She engages me in a physical battle over the dial, a War of Mutually-Assured Destruction (given that I’m trying to drive) that I quickly concede.
As we’ve talked about many, many times on this blog (and will continue to talk about), right decisionmaking — the way in which we determine the answers to “shoulds” and “oughts” — works like this:
The square on the upper-right is purely objective.
But the circle on the upper-left proceeds subjectively. And this can cause problems when presented with zero-sum interest impasses.
So how do we solve those problems, in practice?
- (Plan A) We can assert personal interests for sympathy or (Plan B) appeal to (hopefully) shared higher interests, but those often don’t work in genuine impasse.
- (Plan C) We can then play at invalidating their interests by appealing to consensus interests. But why should a vegetarian bow to getting pepperoni pizza just because the rest of the group wants it?
- (Plan D) We can then invoke the universe; “The thing that aligns with my interests, and against yours, is simply right, purely objectively.”
Notice what’s happening. A failure to subjugate through sympathy, shared consensus, and invalidation by external consensus naturally leads to the “pure objectivization” backup plan.
It’s technically erroneous (clearly, it is not “pure”; there are clearly interests spurring this thing).
It is meta-ethically incoherent.
It’s a language bug.
But it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that pure objectivization is the natural plan D and often works.
And, of course, a refusal at this juncture leads to a bland power struggle.
So “plan D” is the last “civilized” border town before the wild frontier, even while it’s corrupt.
Non-Objective Meaning and Morality
Meaning and morality are non-objective, which is to say, they are not purely objective.
Similarly, they are non-subjective, which is to say, they are not purely subjective.
Both the circle and the square are essential for coherent moral facts.
Ecclesiastes goes out of its way to explore this puzzle, and comes to the very same conclusion.
It’s a bullet we must bite.
But that doesn’t mean it ain’t handy to ignore this conclusion. Many smart folks have been doing so — by mistake or on purpose — for centuries.
Is killing in self-defense a sin?
As a follower of Jesus Christ, you are supposed to do everything in your power to self-defend doing the least possible damage. Killing should be “prioritized last” on our list of options, and the manner of self-defense we employ should not recklessly catalyze a “killing” conclusion.
This makes us and our families more vulnerable — when in immediate danger — than someone who is willing and eager to kill any assailant.
The previous sentence bothers some folks enough to rationalize violence in their minds. This anxiety can affect even us Christians, who are called to radical love and peace, even at the expense of our property, welfare, and lives.
The debate within Christianity is mostly tension between deontological morality and consequential morality.
Deontological morality is where “rules rule.”
About what rules are we talking here? Jesus told us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek, and showed by example what that can mean: martyrdom.
Many believers thereafter, and I’m sure plenty of their family members, too, followed that example to their graves.
Consequential morality is where “results rule.”
We can vividly imagine situations in which an otherwise ill action is the right action in terms of consequence.
For example, James praised Rahab for saving lives through deception, and we praise those who used deception to save Jews from Nazi investigators.
The clearest statement of New Covenant consequentialism comes from Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:23 — “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable; all things are lawful, but not all things are constructive” — after he relaxed a moral rule (forbidding the eating of idol-sacrificed food) held sacrosanct by the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.
Some of us — for better or for worse — extend this “justified means” to allow killing in certain circumstances.
Now, consequentialism is how morality “works,” if “morality” is defined as “right decisionmaking on lofty or grave issues.” Or, at least, that’s the assertion driving this post!
But there are two big problems with pure consequentialism:
- First, it has a subjective appeal to make. A particular person’s interest set might be wildly out of sync with the interest set of society in aggregate.
There is no “objectively right” interest set under consequentialism, because the question of “rightness” in turn makes an appeal to an interest set. Is Madeline consequentially right to defend herself and her family if her actions unintentionally spark a war? Well, depends whose interest set we’re using, right?
Madeline may say, “I don’t care! My family’s all that matters.” Under consequentialism, it is not foregone that humanity “ought be valued” at all, let alone society vs. me (some New Atheists propose otherwise, and are flatly mistaken).
- Second, we’re notoriously terrible at understanding the full consequences of our actions.
A more plausible version of the above “sparking war” example would have Madeline not at all fathoming that defending her family would spark a war!
To solve these two problems in practice, a two-fold solution is employed:
- An agent can force his interest set upon another agent. The more powerful he is, the more he is able to do this.
This power can be in numbers — i.e., a town against a serial killer — or can be in raw ability — i.e., God against the wicked.
So, an interest set is forced. It helps if these forced interests are not popularly thought to have subjective roots (even though they do).
- Once we have an interest set, we can simplify moral action using rules.
Instead of permitting a person to think for himself when contemplating whether stealing bread is justified (Surprise! He very often thinks it’s justified!) we tell him “You are forbidden to steal.”
Occasionally, this will cause something bad to happen, but a good (as defined by the interest set) rule will be generally profitable (as defined by the interest set) when followed by everyone all the time.
So, morality is simplified into rules. Assuming these rules are good (that is, generally consequentially profitable), it helps if morality is popularly thought to be “primarily about rules” (even though it isn’t) so that folks don’t think their rule-breaking is ever justified (even though it can be).
Now, we don’t simplify everything into rules; consequentialism is still how morality “works,” and we can make most decisions day-to-day by applying observation, reason, and prediction.
But for very impactful actions whose consequences are numerous and incalculable, we say to ourselves, “Only an expert should feel entitled to violate this rule” (trivially true) and “No human is an expert” (trivially true). The “free truth” that pops out of these trivial truths is, “No human should feel entitled to violate this rule.”
Further, we’re more inclined to “rule-ify” something if we notice that individuals are weirdly quick to take certain actions at the expense of everyone else. That is, for highly-tempting actions.
We can see Jesus employ this practical solution in his radical advocacy of nonviolent response:
- An interest set is forced. Our own interest set, including the safety of our families, is made subordinate to the will of God and the good of his Kingdom, and his good purposes for the whole world.
- Knowing that violent response is high-impact and highly-tempting, the morality thereof is simplified into rules.
It remains false that “the ends never justify the means” — under consequentialism, means are justified (or not) by their many ends — but extrapolating the impact of killing people to defend ourselves and our families is astronomically above our “non-expert” paygrade.
As such, we’re “no longer allowed” to think completely for ourselves about killing people.
Put simply, God’s interests reign supreme and we are non-experts. And so we’re called to be hyper, hyper reluctant, exhausting every other option, even if it means our families are at greater risk because we try warnings before punching and punching before shooting (so to speak).
We recognize that “results rule,” but we reject pure consequentialism and find rule obligations very useful. This is what compels us, in humility and obedience, to resist violence under the banner of Jesus Christ.
The following talks about the intersection of deontology and consequentialism through the figure of the “Angelic Ladder,” introduced by pivotal 20th-century Christian philosopher of language R. M. Hare:
- The Angelic Ladder (with video)
The following talks about why “the ends can’t justify the means” is false in theory, but why it’s super-useful and, for most of us, practically true when it comes to very-ill means:
- Thorny Moral Chestnuts, Pt. 1 (with diagrams)
Love is great.
But truth is great, too.
What do we do when the two appear to be in conflict?
The answer for some believers is to “speak truth in love.”
But is this reliable as an M.O.? Are we actually equipped to do this consistently?
First, it’s important to dissect what “truth in love” actually means.
The phrase comes from Ephesians 4:14-15.
“Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”
This is “truth against gullibility,” ferried by loving concern for the health of the church.
It is a very specific kind of truth. It’s not an affirming truth, but a discerning or, more specifically, judgmental truth.
It’s a truth that calls-out and puts-down and, as such, must be buttressed with love to avoid being needlessly discouraging or excessively offensive.
We can imagine it a bit like this:
In an ideal world, when we try to practice “judgmental truth in love,” we’d see this:
“A delivery of judgmental truth with a balancing portion of patience, compassion, understanding, mercy, and tenderness.”
But this idealism is confounded by…
One Weird Psychological Quirk
This quirk is called validation-seeking.
Our inner piping works with several different neurotransmitters, two of which are dopamine and serotonin.
- Dopamine is correlated with feelings of anticipatory excitement and stimulation; problems with dopamine are correlated with a bleak lack of hope.
- Serotonin is correlated with feelings of satisfaction and well-being; problems with serotonin are correlated with prospective anxiety and retrospective guilt.
Excitement about prospects, combined with our desire to minimize past guilt and future anxiety, makes us extra-prone to seek self-securing “proofs.” We want external praise from bosses, loved ones, and even strangers, in service of a feeling of being “well-equipped” to tackle anything.
When someone insults us, it stings precisely because it threatens our future.
It can make us doubt our attractiveness or our intelligence or our knowledge — and we need attractiveness to charm people, intelligence to figure things out, and knowledge to know how the world is. Heaven forbid we are repulsive, stupid, or ignorant!
And these insults hurt all the more when they’re done in front of others.
We worry, “What if the others think I’m repulsive, stupid, or ignorant? They won’t want to be my friend,” or “They won’t offer me the good assignment,” or “They won’t want to go out with me,”
It’s one thing to feel like we have the “mining tools” to excavate whatever “gold mine.” That feels good. And when those tools are threatened, we react very poorly.
But we’d also like to find that the “other person’s tools” are subpar, or that she can’t mine opportunities like we can.
In other words, it helps our self-confidence when other people — especially those with whom we are not close — are revealed to have faults.
The last sentence should resonate with most of us.
- It’s what makes gossip so addictive.
- It’s what makes “this generation stinks” narratives so stimulative to parent generations.
- It’s what cultivates “us-versus-those-idiots” political and culture warfare.
When someone we don’t care about or actively dislike stumbles, we delight in it, as it validates our lives (our choices and character) through the invalidation of their choices and character.
But why does this matter?
The Hidden Weight
It matters because, thanks to these neurochemical patterns, there’s a hidden weight of “love for judgment” attached to the scale.
That is, whenever we try to practice “judgmental truth in love,” our secret “love for judgment” tilts the scales, and the “judgmental end” far outweighs the expressed patience, compassion, understanding, mercy, and tenderness.
When the hypocritical teachers in Jesus’s day went after sinners — like prostitutes and grifters — I’m sure a large number of them convinced themselves that this was a loving judgment; “I indict because I care.”
When we try to practice “judgmental truth in love,” we express an imbalance, just like that expressed by the teachers that Jesus
We imagine that we’re doing this:
But what actually happens is this, making the whole structure unbalanced:
In other words, “practice judgmental truth in love” leads to “express judgmental truth with little love at all.”
The solution is to “practice love overwhelmingly“:
This is uncomfortable for us, because it seems like we’re loving too much. Our loss-aversive fear and worry of “excessive tolerance” and “slippery slopes” makes us terrified of how unbalanced we imagine the final expression will be.
But when we “practice love overwhelmingly,” our innate predilection towards judgment magically makes up the difference — without us even trying! — and the final expression is a balanced “truth in love”:
It’s not that Jesus didn’t care about virtuous behavior, it’s just that his M.O. was always “accept first.” He openly invited the “classic” sinners, as well as hypocrites with hidden sins, to rush in to the Kingdom of God.
It’s no mistake that Jesus says the greatest commandment is love (Matthew 22:36-40):
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
It’s no mistake that Jesus’s “sheep/goat” judgment is based on expressed, charitable love (Matthew 25:37-40):
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”
It’s no mistake that Paul says love fulfills the Law and prophets (Galatians 5:6b, 14):
“The only thing that counts is faith, through love, working [Gr. pistis di agapes energoumene]. … For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
It’s no mistake that Jesus mandates a “plank-removal” prerequisite to judgment (Matthew 7:4):
“How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”
It’s no mistake that Paul lambasts those who hypocritically judge unbelievers and hedonists, as if they themselves were completely faithful and pure (Romans 2:1):
“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”
It’s no mistake that Paul explicitly declares love superior to faith (1 Corinthians 13:13):
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
It’s no mistake that John predicates true faith on expressed, merciful love (1 John 4:7-8, 18):
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. … There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
It’s no mistake that Paul gives us only one continuing debt — that of loving others (Romans 13:8-10):
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
It’s no mistake that James lauds the “royal law of freedom” — loving others — by positing that mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:8, 12-13):
“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. … Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
These aren’t typos.
The specific admonitions to specific audiences in Scripture are not our “highest pillar.”
Niddling legalism and culture mores — even those declared universal, like Paul’s opinions about gender and hair length — must always be subordinate and subservient to the royal law of freedom.
It’s one thing to recognize this “king love” hierarchy in the Kingdom of God.
It’s another to express it.
And to express it truly — to fight past the human propensity for self-validating hypocrisy and judgment — requires overwhelming love-driven practice.
To hit the target with a weak bow, one must aim shockingly high.
So aim shockingly high.
For a thought experiment that explores the disruptive force of love under New Covenant morality, read “The Fourfaced Writ.”
When I was a product manager on social games, we enjoyed several different avenues of direct communication to our players, like e-mails or mobile push notifications. These we called “channels.”
In order to remind players that our games existed, we took advantage of these channels and sent messages. Up to a certain point, the more frequently you sent messages, the higher rate of average user engagement you’d receive in return.
The problem was that in order to fill that “air time,” you’d be forced to send more and more messages that wouldn’t be considered meaningful. It would start to come across as spam. Eventually, players could get so annoyed that they’d either block us, or they’d mentally ignore our messages. We’d have “burned our channel.”
Remember “The Boy Who Cried Wolf?”
“There was a shepherd boy who was so bored that he cried, ‘Wolf! Wolf!’ to feign an emergency, summon the town, and prompt some excitement and attention. The town showed up, and the boy claimed that the wolf fled just before they arrived.
Each time this happened, the town’s trust in the boy eroded more and more, until eventually they concluded that the boy wasn’t trustworthy.
One day, a wolf really did show up, and the town ignored the boy’s cries.”
The boy, in this story, also burned a channel — his avenue of receptive communication to the town.
In the former case, the catalyst was true information that lacked value to the receiver. In the latter case, the catalyst was false information (which thereby lacked value to the receiver). Notice that whether the information is true or not is not important for catalysis; rather, the catalyst is whether the information has or lacks value to the receiver.
Put another way, “Can the receiver trust that the information being conveyed is dependably important?”
There are 4 big ways for communication to lack or lose value to the receiver.
- It is completely non-resonant; it’s aggressive, offensive, confusing, or eccentric.
- It’s seemingly worth less than its postage. As with the case of spamming to players, there’s some resonance, but the updates are too anemic and/or non-novel.
- It’s a “wolf cry“; the information is knowingly deceptive or disingenuously toes the line.
- It’s a “shadow cry.” What if the boy, each time, really did think he saw a wolf’s shadow flitting along the tree line at the edge of the field? The boy’s paranoia and excessive panicking over shadow problems would similarly burn his channel to the town, even if he isn’t trying to be malicious.
The endeavor of Christian evangelism has been guilty of all 4 of these communication blunders.
That wouldn’t be a big deal, except that these blunders burn channels.
1. Non-Resonant Evangelism
Paul saw evangelization as a process of slavish bowing to resonance in order to convey the Gospel therethrough.
1 Corinthians 9
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
Evangelization wasn’t a prideful bulldozing. It wasn’t a juggernaut, let alone a state-sponsored and state-funded juggernaut.
It was a crawling appeal, in person, for the cause of Christ.
Consider Paul’s evangelization strategy with the pagans in Athens:
“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘to an unknown god.’ So you are unaware of the very thing you worship, and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. … He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone — an image made by human design and skill.'”
The controversy and confrontation was there, such that “some of them sneered,” but it was full of shrewd parleying along vectors of shared resonance.
This aligns with Jesus’s command for evangelization in Matthew 10: “Be as shrewd as snakes but as innocent as doves.”
Paul recognized the Athenians’ genuine sense of spirituality. He quoted their own poets. And he appealed to their reason, arguing how a genuine deity wouldn’t need anything, let alone need to be graven into visibility — rather, a genuine deity would be known by his power, found through genuine seeking and finding.
Anti-atheism is now a business. Under the auspices of evangelization, and/or “fighting fire with fire” against the New Atheist luminaries, some notable Christians have taken it upon themselves to launch acid volleys at anyone who dares doubt the “obviousness” of our God — our God, who is invisible and must be sought.
Books, blogs, Twitter accounts, seminars, and conferences are being filled with what amounts to choir-preaching that reaches very few atheists at all.
Acts 17 says that some Athenians sneered, but some became followers.
What is the response from unbelievers when faced with aggressive charges of nihilism, amoralism, immoralism, or outright stupidity?
I’m probably lowballing it still.
And when I hear, “But that notorious New Atheist is acerbic, too!,” I must ask, is that person’s behavior to what we should aspire?
When the reputation and impression of Christ is on the line, we shouldn’t be weaponizing our witnessing, nor should we be banking on the efficacy of excessive eccentricity. God wants to meet people where they’re at, and we’re called to help foster that rendezvous.
2. Spam Evangelism
Dropping millions of leaflets from the sky is a great way to get raw volume. But are recipients more likely to read and absorb the content, or are they more likely to gripe about the litter in their lawn?
Whether one’s evangelical “carpet-bombing” is in the form of something as benign as bumper stickers or as insulting as tip tracts, cheap volume floods and destroys channels.
Think about it. Which is more effective?
- A bumper sticker with “WWJD” on it, or a co-worker exemplifying patience and wisdom?
- A tract on a car window, or a commitment to volunteer work?
- A billboard with a scary Bible verse, or an invitation to church?
Now, this isn’t a zero-sum proposition, as if doing the latter precludes the former. But the former things are so cheap — and thereby ubiquitous — that they can mold what following Jesus “looks like” to nonbelievers.
And it looks like spam.
Folks aren’t deeply reached through sterile, inauthentic ad blasts.
3. Crying Wolf
You can convince a lot of people that you’re healing people when you’re not. False faith healers are exploiting people all around the world, giving false promises of recoveries of which they are obviously uncertain.
But there’s another kind of faith healing: Healing bank accounts.
Some — like Pat Robertson’s 700 Club — insinuate that by sending them money, miraculous wads of money will start showing up in return.
Others — like Joel Osteen — giftwrap “The Secret” positive thinking in vaguely-Christian clothing. From his book, “Your Best Life Now”:
“Each day, you must choose to live with an attitude that expects good things to happen to you. … Friend, that’s what faith is all about. You have to start believing that good things are coming your way, and they will!”
And what if they don’t? What if no miraculous money wad pops into their mailbox? What if they don’t get that promotion or that new house? What if monetary success and security is not at all a guarantee for every believer, and the “Prosperity Gospel” is a load of garbage?
What happens, of course, is that the disappointed folks will stay silent or stop attending, and the successful folks will stay hooked.
Such a result is great for business, if we’re talking about the publishing and broadcasting businesses of Robertson and Osteen.
But not so good for the health of the church.
Like crying wolf, crying “Monetary success is headed your way!” is dishonest and reckless. It hooks plenty, but it burns the channel of genuine, healthy communion with Christ and his church.
4. Crying Shadow
Apocalyptism — the idea that the world is getting worse and that we’re on the precipice of a collapse — is extremely dopamine stimulative. However frightening such a situation might sound on the surface, it’s actually an exciting narrative that provides many folks with a sense of existential meaning and self-validation.
Apocalyptism subsists on a perception of “shadow wolves” — that any tree-line movement is from vicious, drooling wolves, planning their imminent attack.
In the case of Christianity — at least, American Christianity — it’s most often in the form of overblown “Culture War” memes in a grand persecution narrative.
Consider the following facts:
- Increasingly, government institutions are being barred from praising God as part of their official state business.
- Department store employees are commonly instructed to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
- States are overturning, as unconstitutional, bills that outlawed same-sex marriage. [EDIT: Since this writing it has become the case that, in the United States, any person can now legally marry his/her life partner.]
These facts are easily woven into a persecution narrative that’s powered by the fuel of apocalyptism. And the paranoid alarmism about these facts is, in turn, crafted into what the general public perceives Christianity to be “about.”
But these three facts are, at the end of the day, rather trivial, regardless of where you stand on they’re being good or bad.
Even if these facts are considered lamentable (which is debatable), they frankly aren’t that big of a deal compared to the horrors, injustices, vice, idolatry, laziness, violence, and wanton selfishness that pervade our culture.
And, thus, the outrageous focus on “Culture War” drama burns that channel of authentic Christ-seeking. Outsiders can’t depend on Christian expertise on moral issues because the high-volume, apocalyptic kind of Christianity is so obsessed with trivial things.
In these cases, the boy does think a wolf is stalking his flock from the tree-line. But that doesn’t change the fact that the town has learned, rightly, to ignore his paranoid cries.
It’s hard to articulate the virtue of self-control when it comes to something that is, in proper doses and proper method, a good thing.
We humans generally have trouble leaving food on the plate, even when we’re full.
That’s why it can be useful to put vice and virtue in terms of fables or parables, like Highlights for Children‘s “Goofus and Gallant.”
As we weigh evangelization strategies and how bad ones might burn bridges and damage the mission for Christ, Goofus and Gallant provide for us an easy way to envision which strategies are praiseworthy.
Regarding non-resonant evangelism, Goofus:
- … Brags about how he is saved and everyone else is going to hell.
- … Goes out of his way to insult those who disagree with him.
- … Is needlessly offensive to those of other religions.
- … Puts non-believers into pigeonholing boxes.
- … Gossips about other groups with which he is unfamiliar.
- … Finds common ground.
- … Recognizes the good in contrary positions while staying honestly critical.
- … Is strikingly courteous and charitable.
- … Is warm and polite.
- … Is patiently articulate and slow to anger.
- … “Walks” more than he “talks.”
1 Corinthians 10
“I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.”
Regarding spam evangelism, Goofus:
- … Leaves a tract instead of a tip, while brazenly assuming his waitress isn’t a believer.
- … Litters driveways and windshields with literature, causing more irritation than interest.
- … Plasters his car with loud, aggressive slogans unlikely to intrigue anyone.
- … Pays for billboards that make people more afraid of Christianity than attracted.
- … Searches for opportunities to reach non-believers in meaningful ways.
- … Acts in service of people individually rather than as a group to be pelted.
- … Finds creative ways to avoid offense and irritation while prompting interest.
- … Engages folks with authentic, personal witnessing, even though it takes longer and targets fewer.
“Each one should carry their own load… Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
Regarding crying wolf, Goofus:
- … Promises that life will be easy with Christ.
- … Assures folks that any suffering will yield payoffs in life (Zophar’s fallacy).
- … Guarantees that giving to the church will yield monetary dividends in return.
- … Insists that some fortunate event must have been due to God’s miraculous blessing.
- … Insists that some unfortunate event must have been due to God’s miraculous judgment.
- … Insists that some amazing natural wonder or mechanism must have been due to God’s miraculous, exceptional intervention.
- … Preaches a hope in a downward payoff for any suffering in life.
- … Paints a realistic picture of the difficulties but peaceful promise of the Christian faith.
- … Stays reluctant about reckless prophesying, encouraging others to admit the mystery of the intricacies of God’s plans.
- … Searches for natural explanations for the amazing, natural phenomena of God’s creation, rather than rushing to, “God zapped this!”
- … Helps folks make wise, responsible decisions given our stewarding role on Earth, rather than fatalistically punting on decisionmaking.
2 Corinthians 8
“For we aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man.”
And regarding crying shadow, Goofus:
- … Gets worried about the extrication of church from state.
- … Sees “agendas” around every corner.
- … Thinks state sponsorship of gay marriage is a “top 10” issue to which to devote his attention.
- … Imagines Satan’s visage behind anything with which he disagrees.
- … Imagines Satan’s visage behind anything he hasn’t taken the time to research or understand.
- … Falls for “news entertainment” that hooks people into paranoid, apocalyptic narratives.
- … Understands that the Kingdom of God needs no theocratic representation.
- … Recognizes that of which he’s ignorant and which deserves close, critical investigation.
- … Is skeptical of “news entertainment”; he checks his food before eating.
- … Is earnest and diligent about keeping Christ’s message pure and undefiled by the image-crafting of commercial interests that seek to exploit Christians and the Christian “brand.”
- … Prioritizes important problems like violence, sickness, poverty, laziness, injustice, and oppression above trivial things like how department store employees send good December tidings to customers.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Like chocolate, there is such thing as too much evangelism, even though evangelism is good.
“Too much” is when our ministerial message is crafted haphazardly and broadcasted brainlessly.
“Too much” is when we find ourselves enthralled by numbers games, lazy carpet-bombing, and manufactured culture controversies.
The ministry of Christ, to which we’re called to passionately and carefully pursue, is a ministry of the heart. Let’s not get carried away by the loud, aggressive, reckless patterns of this world, however tempting that too-much-chocolate can be.
Catchy quotes and sayings — “chestnuts” — can undergo slight mutations over time.
Sometimes, those chestnuts are proverbs or rules. And sometimes, those gradual mutations can modify those proverbs or rules so much that their original wisdom is completely destroyed, converted into non-wisdom.
Last time in this 2-part series, we talked about “The Ends Can’t Justify the Means.” Today, we’ll talk about “Ignorance is No Excuse.” Both of these are false chestnuts.
“Ignorance is No Excuse”
Let’s say you’re a manager who delegates many of your responsibilities to your subordinates.
One day, one of your subordinates mails a package without including a special serial number, and it causes problems for your team. You call him into your office.
“You’re in trouble,” you say. “You mailed a package off to finance without including the sorting number.”
“But I had no idea I was supposed to do that!” he replies.
“Ignorance is no excuse,” you say.
The thing is, it was your responsibility to train him, a week ago, in applying proper serial numbers on special packages. You know that you failed to do this; you cut the training short to pick up your dog and didn’t get to the part about numbering packages. You knew this would leave a gap in his ability to make right decisions according to your company’s processes, and yet you did it anyway, and didn’t bother to fill him in later.
The reason I transferred the responsibility for this mistake to you is because it most obviously alleviates the subordinate’s responsibility. Clearly, ignorance was a perfectly valid excuse.
How can you act upon what you did not know, and couldn’t have known?
When Ignorance is Blameworthy
Here are some alternative versions of the above thought experiment.
- You (the manager) stayed for the whole training, but the subordinate left early, and never followed-up to get the information he missed.
- The training hasn’t happened yet, but it was expected of the subordinate to ask a superior or experienced coworker to make sure that new-to-him tasks are done properly.
In these cases, the subordinate’s ignorance was catalyzed by his own blameworthy behavior — here, negligent behavior.
Ignorance that was not catalyzed by blameworthy behavior is called “invincible ignorance.” Invincible ignorance is a legitimate excuse.
I myself am not a Catholic, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church correctly identifies this brand of ignorance (1790-1791, 1793a):
A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.
This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.” In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.
If — on the contrary — the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him.
When Ignorance Cannot be Respected
Even though invincible ignorance is a legitimate excuse, there’s no way for one human to know for certain that another’s ignorance is invincible.
Humans lie all the time, and will (if given a cultivating environment) pretend that their blameworthy (usually by way of negligence) ignorance is invincible.
We will, in fact, lie to ourselves to alleviate guilt of this kind. “I couldn’t have known,” is a common self-encouraging mantra, when we often could have known, if only we had practiced some due exploratory diligence.
(The trick, here, is not to “overcorrect” into paranoia or worry — that is, excessive and deleterious bet-hedging and consciously-made anxiety. Diligence is a “too cold,” “too hot,” “just right,” Goldilocks issue, like with many virtues.)
Humans Can’t Verify Invincibility… but God Can
Of course, verifying invincibility isn’t a problem for an omniscient God.
This is why the judgment to which we Christians look forward judges the secret thoughts of everyone. A person’s thoughts will at times accuse them, but at other times excuse them.
They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
… But, Again, Humans Can’t
Many practical human-to-human systems will have “ignorance is no excuse” as an official position because of the impracticality of verifying invincibility.
This position, though not how morality “works,” is a decent practical rule to account for the failings of human weakness (that of one party to lie, and that of the other party to be unable to verify).
The previous article in this series, if you remember, ended similarly. And this gives us a cool pattern in the abstract against which to evaluate those funny moral chestnuts. It tells us that just because something is a classic chestnut, and is a popular rule, and is a useful rule very often, doesn’t mean it should be considered fundamental when we’re talking meta-ethics — that is, how morality “works” underneath.
Catchy quotes and sayings — “chestnuts” — can undergo slight mutations over time.
Sometimes, those chestnuts are proverbs or rules. And sometimes, those gradual mutations can modify those proverbs or rules so much that their original wisdom is completely destroyed, converted into non-wisdom.
Today, we’ll talk about “The Ends Can’t Justify the Means.” In the next post, we’ll talk about “Ignorance is No Excuse.” Both of these are false chestnuts.
“The Ends Can’t Justify the Means”
I’m sure you’ve heard this one a billion times.
It’s usually uttered by the hero of a story, against some villain who’s decided to bring about some praiseworthy conclusion by means of a horrific plan.
“But I’ll create a better world!” cries the villain, Viktor.
“No,” responds the hero, Herbert. “The ends can’t justify the means.”
We cheer the Herbert at this point, right?
Okay. Now let’s take these characters and transplant them into a different situation.
Viktor and Herbert are shop owners in Nazi Germany. For months, they’ve been harboring a Jewish family in a secret attic above their shop. This morning, they’ve heard that Nazi investigators will be going shop to shop and asking for information about harbored Jews in the area.
“We should lie to the investigators,” says Viktor. “A little dishonesty will bring about a greater good by saving lives.”
“No,” responds the “hero,” Hubert. “The ends can’t justify the means.”
Notice how in both cases, Viktor wants to do something considered morally wrong in order to bring about a greater good. But in the latter situation, we can all clearly see that it is no longer Viktor who is the villain — rather, it is Hubert who we all rebuke as morally askew.
We’re quite practiced at cheering duty-bound heroes and chastising “good ends / ill means” supervillains. What we forget is that there are plenty of “good ends / ill means” heroes as well, from Oskar Schindler to Rahab, who we (alongside James) recognize as righteous for heroism that required deception.
The Better Chestnut
The answer to the puzzle is that “The ends can justify ill means.”
The question is, when?
Well, ends are more likely to justify ill means when:
- The ends are really, really good…
- … and you’re really, really sure that they’ll come about.
- The ill means aren’t that bad…
- … and you’re really, really sure that there won’t be horrible unintended consequences, neither for those in your local area, nor for the world in general, and neither for things right now, nor for things down the road.
- There aren’t safer, more praiseworthy ways to seek those good ends.
Similarly, ends are less likely to justify ill means when:
- The ends are good, but not that great.
- You’re not sure they’ll come about.
- The ill means are pretty bad.
- You aren’t sure that there won’t be a bunch of horrible unintended consequences.
- There are safer, more praiseworthy ways to seek those good ends.
Decisionmaking is Complicated
Consider the following diagram, where the ill dark-red “bad” circle is committed, while intended to make the green “good” circle come about.
Wouldn’t it be nice if it were that simple? We could say, “You can’t use bad things to make good things happen.”
In reality, those “circles” need moral weight/gravity/intensity assigned to them according to what we value.
Suddenly, that seems okay. Once we account for the moral weights, a tiny moral ill can indeed be acceptable in service of a huge moral payoff.
But it still isn’t that simple! We need to account for the likelihood of that good consequence coming about!
If there’s only a 20%, or one-fifth, chance of that big payoff happening, it might still be a good investment, but it’s “worth less” as a prospect. In decision theory, we call that “net worth” our “expected value” or “EV.”
But it still isn’t that simple! We haven’t accounted for any of the consequences that are foreseeable but unintended!
Ew, gross! This decision is looking pretty ghastly now, isn’t it?
… wait for it…
… it still isn’t that simple! That’s because there are all sorts of unforeseen consequences lurking in the shadows of human unknowability.
It turns out that we, as humans, are so bad at considering the unintended and unforeseen consequences — often when a bee-line prospect looks very tantalizing — that “blind rule-following” has a certain consequential strength or fitness. This is especially the case when, in the shadows of human unknowability, habitual ill behavior can translate into numerous personal erosions of character and will.
And that’s why “The ends can’t justify the means,” is a decent “rule” for folks who can’t handle the complications of decision theory, or who think themselves wiser and/or more knowledgeable than they really are — which is almost everybody.
But it’s not really true.
That’s what makes it thorny.
And so when we’re engaged in lofty discourse about how morality “works,” we need to be careful not to treat that thorny chestnut as fundamental or sacrosanct.
For more about how deontology (“morality is about rules”) and consequentialism (“morality is about consequences”) “converge” on the practicalities of human weakness, take a gander at the Angelic Ladder.
As we’ve talked about before on this blog, the determination or judgment of a right decision — a “should” — is made up of what is valued (preferences, interests, goals, etc.) and what thing(s) would happen as a result of various decisions.Both of the above pieces are required.
- If you’re not looking at prospective results, you’ll have nothing to gauge.
- If you’re not looking at what is valued — at least implicitly — then you’ll have no metric (like weighing a bowl of cereal without any reference to “grams” or “ounces”).
The following illustrates how goofy it is to weigh things while lacking one or the other:
This isn’t some stretched analogy, as if this double contingency is a requirement for cereal-weighing but not for decision-gauging. Try to build a decisionmaking A.I. without both of these. It can’t be done without building a pure deontological A.I. (what’s called an “expert system,” which blindly follows a pile of “If this do that” rules).
Most of us understand that prospects are important. Unfortunately, we forget that the value definition is equally as important. It’s just that we normally define that value implicitly and ambiguously — it’s usually some vague amalgamation of things like happiness, satisfaction, contentment, fulfilled aspiration, liberty, delight, and nonsuffering.
That we think these things are “good” does not require some ultimately rational appeal. In fact, if we go groping for a rational “justification” for “liking satisfaction,” we’ll end up making appeals endlessly. That’s because each value justification must, in turn, have a justifying value, giving us a disaster like this:
The Funny Solution
The strange, unsatisfying solution is to admit that our decision judgments, while containing rational and objective components (“What thing(s) would result?”), also necessarily contain non-rational parts that represent values we “just have.”
You could say that they’re “part of us” or “part of our nature,” but because we’re causal and contingent and mutable beings, we have to remember that “who we are” is dynamic and can change.
So, at the end of the day, we’re stuck with this: There’s stuff we just like, and some of it can be changed, and some of it can’t, and it cannot be ultimately rationally justified.
It’s — ultimately — non-rational.
Is That Biblical?
Ecclesiastes tells us that there is no ultimately objective meaning, and that this is an “upright and true” teaching.
We dealt with this before:
- Part 1: Ecclesiastes and Non-Objective Meaning
- Part 2: Christus Victor: Existentialism Faces Eternity
But the fact of the Bible teaching us about a certain philosophy does not mean that this philosophy is useful to us as we develop and criticize theology. It might just be a ball-and-chain we must “endure.”
In my experience, this is one of the most common reactions to the Bible’s existential view of meaning.
“Sure, the Bible says it,” one might admit. “But all that means is that we’re now burdened to deal with this sad, useless, but true philosophy.”
But what if the non-rational basis of value was theologically useful? What if the Bible told about the ultimate non-rationality of meaning not just to burden us, but to help solve some of our most vexing problems when thinking about God, his will, and his plan?
As it turns out, the essential non-rationality of meaning serves as a reduction–stopper, which aids us significantly when speculating about questions of God’s interests, theodicean problems, and maintaining the difference between God’s direct and indirect orchestration.
Let’s talk about two examples of reduction–stopping that we employ for the every-day concepts of:
- Appreciating pets
- Recognizing altruism
I know that my dog is material. He is a complicated machine, a collection or colony of cells.
In turn, those cells are colonies of organic molecules, which are in turn bundles of atoms. My dog is, thus, a bundle of atoms when we fully reduce.
I also know that a dirty napkin is also, at its fundamental level, a bundle of atoms when we fully reduce.
Given these facts, are these my only two options?:
- Treat my dog and a dirty napkin equivalently
- Deny that they are both, ultimately, collections of atoms
No, of course not.
The third option is reduction–stopping.
I love my dog. I interact with him, and like doing that. He does all sorts of things that resonate with me, in good ways and bad. He keeps me occupied and energized and satisfied.
A dirty napkin, by contrast, cannot do those things I like.
As such, I can stop that radical reduction as it suits my interests, and proclaim, “My dog is quite meaningfully different from this dirty napkin.”
Where did that meaning come from? My interests. Do I need to justify those interests? No; such a justification is ultimately impossible (as we discussed), and it’s moot. The fact is that I have those interests and, as such, a meaningful distinction is appreciated.
There are selfish motivations and altruistic motivations.
But I know that even altruistic motivations are driven by my own interests. In a very real sense, even sacrificing my life is an egoistic act, since it is a product of self-satisfaction, where the part of myself interested in preserving others is taking control over that of which is interested in preserving myself — but it’s still my interest!
Some folks say, then, that we can practice “eliminative egoism” and call all willed actions “selfish.”
But do we have to do this?
No, because we are also interested in a meaningful difference between actions that are grossly in self-service, often at the expense of others, versus those that overflowingly serve others!
It’s true that both are merely “actions in the world” and that both “proceed from self’s interests in the self’s brain,” but we appreciate the difference such that we stop that reduction, and proclaim, “Some actions are selfish, others altruistic.”
Direct and Indirect Orchestration
Those of us who “bite the bullet” on God’s complete sovereignty realize the difficulty in admitting that God is superordinately responsible for the “bad stuff” — Heb. raah.
We take some comfort in the fact that, when we parse out the different senses of “wanting” and “willing,” God creates evil only in one very limited and special sense, and does not create it in the 5 other, more common senses.
We talked about this a few weeks ago in the following article:
But even if we accept this approach (and I think we should), there’s still a problem of the reduction of orchestration. After all, the above argument only “works” if God finds value in being “hands off” — that he loves his creation, but prefers that it develop mostly naturally, in a “chaotic garden bloom” of emergence.
This yields the “bloom vestiges” of trivialities and non-instrumental evils (or, instrumental, but only insofar as it satisfies that “mostly hands-off” interest). It also explains God’s preference to remain invisible but be sought, explains his indirection through prophets and the like, and syncs-up very well with Scripture’s holistic picture of God’s activity (which, as it so happens, doesn’t involve a high frequency of public miracles).
But what’s the difference, if God ultimately orchestrates it all?
After all, under this theory, God set up the initial “rules,” as well as the initial conditions, of the “garden.” His sovereign “paint” covers the Earth and, as such, even indirect products of his plan can be reduced to “it was up to him.”
In other words, direct action and indirect actions (often through what’s termed “permissive will”) can both be reduced to “orchestration,” like how a napkin and my dog can both be reduced to “a bundle of atoms.”
This is where God “just preferring” to be mostly hands-off becomes useful. When we don’t require some ultimately rational justification for that interest — which, again, is impossible — this frees us to say, “God just prefers it.”
And this serves as our reduction–stopper.
God’s omniscience and omnipotence know no boundaries, and as such, his sovereign plan encompasses everything.
But just as God can appreciate the difference between a napkin vs. a dog according to his interests, and altruistic motivation vs. selfish motivation according to his interests, he can also appreciate direct intervention vs. indirect teleology according to his interests.
This is a big payoff. The “non-rational” foundation of meaning empowers reduction–stopping in all three cases.
By biting the bullet on the impossibility of “ultimately rational meaning,” a truth the Bible teaches anyway, there’s no burden to justify — in an “ultimately rational” way — the point at which a reduction is halted. And this is because “ultimately rational,” under the coherent schema, entails a contradiction.
And this allows us to say, “God is mostly hands-off because that’s what he prefers. And this preference, alongside his other interests (like to intervene when absolutely vital), yields everything that comes to pass.”
This topic was later revisited, in a grander form, in “The Sun Also Rises (or, the Heterophroneo of Everything).”