Thursday, July 15, 2004

Too hot to handle-1

There are a number of ethical issues for which I’ve read no entirely satisfactory treatment. Sometimes they’re passed over in silence because Christian writers are uncomfortable with the subject-matter. Sometimes they’re assumed to be wrong without adequate argumentation. Sometimes there’s a failure to draw elementary distinctions, or else the distinctions are wrongly drawn. Sometimes they draw us into borderline cases that are difficult to adjudicate.

But these need to be scrutinized, for many of us will find ourselves in situations where we must make a choice, or advise someone else.

Even if we cannot always give a clear answer, that is important to recognize. We need to know what we don’t know, to know the limits of our moral certitude.

1. Abortion

What are the arguments against abortion?

i) Exod 21:22-25.

In this situation, two men get into a brawl. A female bystander is accidentally injured. She happens to be pregnant, and as a result of her injury she miscarries. The perpetrator is put to death.

This is remarkable for its severity. Ordinarily, Scripture does not classify manslaughter as a capital offense. If, therefore, the lesser crime is punishable by death, how much the greater in the case of induced abortion?

ii) Presumption of life.

The Bible generally treats the taking of life as murder. Special circumstances must obtain to justify homicide.

iii) Innocent life

The unborn baby is innocent of actual sin. An abortion involves the taking of innocent life. In the absence of mitigating circumstances, this cannot be justified.

iv) Culpable life.

Although prolifers usually appeal to the innocence of the baby, this appeal, while valid, overlooks the counterintuitive fact that a prolife argument can also be constructed along the lines of prenatal guilt.

Infant mortality is a consequence of original sin (Rom 5:12-21; 6:23; 1 Cor 15:22). This implies that, at some level, the child, whether born or unborn, is a morally responsible agent. He is subject to the law of God. On the other hand, original sin is not a crime. Under the Mosaic law, no one was put to death for original sin, only personal sin.

So the unborn child cannot be treated as subhuman. He is a child of Adam, under the law of God, not of man.

v) Mitigating circumstances?

The most commonly cited mitigating or exculpatory circumstances are rape, incest, life & health of the mother, or health of the baby.

a) Some of these circumstances involve cases of emotional and physical hardship. The mother is entitled to all the support that church and family can muster.

However, Scripture never treats a hardship as an excuse to duck our duties. Frankly, the Bible is rather hard-nosed about this. Hardship goes with the moral territory. It is hard to be moral in an immoral world. But you have a duty to do the right thing even if you suffer for it. Indeed, that is the acid test of virtue. Anyone can do the right thing when it doesn’t cost him. But personal sacrifice is of the essence of moral fiber.

b) Regarding the life of the mother—in Scripture our social obligations are hierarchical. It is the duty of a husband, if need be, to lay down his life for his wife (Eph 5:25). The principle here is that the social superior has an obligation to defend the social inferior. With greater authority comes greater responsibility.

By parity of logic, it is a maternal duty to die for one’s child, not vice versa. Once again, this goes to the moral toughness of Scripture.

A possible exception would be where both the life of the mother and the child are forfeit unless medical intervention is taken to save the mother. It is a choice between either allowing both to die, or sacrificing one for the other. This is a tragic choice, but that’s a fact of life.

This would be analogous to approaching a busy crosswalk, only to have my brakes go out. I cannot avoid running over some pedestrians, but I can limit the damage.

c) Regarding the health of the baby, the Scriptural prohibitions against murder make no exemption for the disabled or retarded. And we must remember that the Bible was revealed before the advent of medical science, when poor health was commonplace. So the Biblical value of life is not predicated on the quality of life.

In addition, the Bible does not place a premium on high intelligence. Indeed, Scripture says that most intellectuals are hell-bound reprobates (1 Cor 1-3).

The only possible exception I can think of would be in the case of anencephalic infants, where the unborn baby has no functional brain, or no brain at all. Such a child will never be viable outside the womb. So abortion might be permissible in this instance. But I would raise a few further caveats:

i) Whether or not a baby will ever be able to survive on its own can only determined by letting it come to term. So an abortion is not necessary. Why not allow nature to take its course?

ii) The mere fact that someone is not naturally viable is not, of itself, an argument for the suppression of life. People can come down with all sorts of medical conditions that require artificial assistance to keep them alive.

iii) The mind/body relation is complex. The soul can be very ingenious about rewiring or rerouting a defective brain to interface with the sensible world.

For example, Dembski reports the case of a socially well-adjusted honor student with an above-average IQ who had no brain to speak of. Cf. B. Dembski, Intelligent Design (IVP 1999), 216.

2. Civil Disobedience

Scripture strikes a balance. On the one hand, it inculcates a general principle of submission to the state (Mt 22:15-22; 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-17).

On the other hand, you have a theology of revolution in the OT. The OT magistrate was a constitutional ruler (Deut 17:14-20), not an absolute monarch.

During times of national apostasy, the godly remnant rebelled and plotted an overthrow of the regime (e.g., 2 Kgs 9-11).

Of course, civil resistance will ordinarily fall short of revolution (Exod 1:15-20; Dan 3, 6)—which is a last resort.

The basic principle is this: resistance is warranted as well as obligatory if we are either bidden to do what is wrong or forbidden to do what is right (Acts 5:29).

3. Deception

Is deception always wrong? Some Christians are of that opinion. Their reasons are as follows:

i) God is the exemplar of truth

ii) Scripture generally condemns deceit

iii) Scripture generally commends honesty

By way of comment:

i) Although God is the exemplar of truth, God is also an agent of deception. God deceives the reprobate (2 Kg 22:23; Ezk 14:9; 2 Thes 2:11). So this appeal cuts both ways.

It may be said that God has the right to do certain things that we don’t have the same right to do. And that is no doubt the case. But such a codicil modifies the original argument in the opposing direction. For the original argument was predicated on the moral analogy between God and man, whereas the fact that God has some rights which we do not is predicated on a moral disanalogy between God and man.

It may also be said that the counterexamples involve the use of secondary agents. And that is, indeed, so. But its relevance is unclear:

a) Working through a second party doesn’t necessarily absolve the first party of complicity. The first party is still responsible for delegating the action to a second party. The deputy would not have acted except at the instigation of his superior.

Since the question at issue is whether a rational creature is ever entitled to deceive his fellow creatures, the fact that God sometimes tasks a rational creature to do just that is no counterargument to the original claim that deception is always wrong.

Regarding the next two points, a couple of comments are in order:

i) In Scripture, ethical prescriptions and proscriptions are generally addressed to the community of faith. It doesn’t necessary follow that the code of conduct within the church carries over in toto outside the church.

To this it may be objected that I am proposing a double standard according to which we must be truthful with fellow believers, but are at liberty to freely lie to unbelievers. But that objection is a wild overstatement.

a) To merely bandy the phrase “a double standard” as a term of abuse begs the question, for it assumes that a double standard is intrinsically wrong. Yet that assumes the very point at issue. So this objection needs a supporting argument.

b) There is nothing inherently outlandish about the idea that a subculture may have its own code of conduct. For example, the Uniform Code of Military Justice does not obtain in civilian life. I am not in a chain-of-command. I don’t have a license to kill.

c) The objection also assumes that this is, indeed, a double standard. But is it? Church life assumes a certain level of mutuality. One Christian is truthful with another Christian.

But this sort of moral reciprocity cannot be assumed in relations between believer and unbeliever. For the unbeliever, by virtue of being an unbeliever, does not operate with a Christian value-system.

So there is nothing necessarily duplicitous about treating someone differently if he treats you differently. That is not a double standard, but a single standard. If a sex offender is released back into the community, I will treat him differently than I would my wife or pastor.

ii) Priority structures.

In Bible ethics, not all obligations are equally obligatory. Some obligations are instrumental to other obligations. Some duties are higher duties that others.

And there are times when one obligation interferes with another. In that event, the lower imperative is temporarily suspended in the interests of the higher. The classic case is Sabbath-keeping. In Scripture there was (some one say, still is) a general duty to keep the Sabbath. But under special circumstances, a higher duty could supervene over a lower one.

If, for instance, a man's ox, which is the source of his livelihood, falls into a ditch, it is permissible to break Sabbath in order to rescue the best (Lk 14:5).Likewise, homicide is ordinarily classified as murder. But in the interests of justice or the defense of the innocent, where the talking of life is permissible and even obligatory—viz., the deathpenalty, holy war.

As a rule, believers are to be truthful with fellow believers and unbelievers alike. But the question is whether there are ever situations in which the general obligation is demoted?

And there do seem to be concrete cases in Scripture where that principle is in play (e.g., Exod 1:19-20; 1 Sam 16:2-3; 2 Kg 6:19; Heb 11:31).

At this point the critic may introduce a number of hair-splitting distinctions to show that, appearances notwithstanding, none of these verses really justifies deception. But there are a number of problems with this move:

i) It is only necessary if you feel the pressing need to harmonize these passages with your prior belief in the universal obligation of truth-telling. But if, as we have seen, the Bible does not justify this overarching presumption, then there is no reason why we must explain away these otherwise awkward verses.

ii) It interpolates into the text a number of fine distinctions that are not present in the text itself. These arise, not as a result of exegesis, but as face-saving distinctions to salvage the original thesis.

iii) In the name of honesty, it resorts to a brand of exegetical casuistry that savors of special-pleading. This is an ironic way of defending the truth.

iv) It either assumes that the subject of the action had a practical alternative, or absent this, that he should have refrained from action. In other words, either the Rahab and the midwives had, and ought to have availed themselves of, an honest alternative, or—absent that—they should not have tried to save the lives of the spies or the babies.

This contention is offered without any direct supporting argument. I guess the argument is that if it is always wrong to lie, then either providence will intervene, or else we should stand by helplessly as evil-doers do their worst. By way of reply:

a) I deny the presumption.

b) Scripture does not promise providential intervention.

c) There is sometimes a positive duty to take action.

We always have a duty to do the right thing. All other things being equal, we should do the right thing by honest means. But if evildoers prevent us from doing the right thing by honest means, we have a right to do the right thing by dishonest means.

That does not justify any means whatsoever. Some means are sinful. But I’m thinking of something like, say, smuggling Bibles into a country where the Bible is banned. We have a standing order from God to evangelize the world.

Ordinarily, unbelievers are entitled to the truth. But unbelievers are not entitled to the truth when they prevent us from doing the right thing by honest means. They are the ones who have imposed unnatural restrictions on our moral sphere of action.

On a related subject, what about broken vows? If we make a vow to God or man, are we under obligation to keep it no matter what the consequences? The classic case is Jeptha's rash vow.

Many Christians seem to be of the opinion that an oath, once taken, is inviolate. I demur.

As foolish and fallen creatures, we are often guilty of making shortsighted offers. If this is a sin, it lies in the making, rather than the breaking, of the promise. It can never be right to do what is wrong.

In addition, it is hard to see how I have the right to bind a second, involuntary party. And if breaking my word is punishable, then it is I rather than an innocent party who ought to endure the penalty. And a merciful man would release his neighbor from a foolish vow.

In this I agree with William Ames:

"Lawful contracts are not properly exercised, but about lawful things.

i) Because in every contract, consent is given; but consent to an unlawful thing is sin.

ii) A contract in itself has the force of a promise, but it is not lawful to promise what it is not lawful to perform.

iii) From a contract an obligation arises; but no obligation can be lawful which obliges us to sin, [for that would be] repugnant to the obligation of the divine law," Conscience: with the power and cases thereof (Stillwaters, n.d.), 228.

Vows are regulated in the Mosaic Law. But since this supplies the legal framework for lawful vows, it is unreasonable to suppose that a vow which broke the Mosaic Law would be binding.

In addition, the Mosaic Law itself addresses various circumstances under which a vow could be commuted or voided (Lev 27; Num 30). Case law doesn’t address every conceivable situation, so these examples do not, presumably, exhaust every possible exception under which a vow could be commuted or voided.


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