Monday, December 12, 2016

Magic button

In his debate with Christopher Hitchens, David Berlinski proposed the following thought-experiment:

I have in front of me a rather remarkable button. If you should press it, yours would be untold riches and whatever else you desire. The only consequence to pressing it beyond your happiness is the death of an anonymous Chinese peasant. Who among us would you trust with this button?

That's a provocative way to frame the choice between Christian ethics and secular ethics. Let's tease it out:

i) The debate was somewhat paradoxical inasmuch as Hitchens is an atheist while Berlinski is a secular Jew. So you might reasonably predict that they'd be in essential agreement. Why, then, is Berlinski defending the Judeo-Christian faith and attacking atheism?

To begin with, I believe Berlinski is an agnostic rather than an atheist. Perhaps he feels atheism is dangerous in a way that agnosticism is not. In practice, if not in theory, atheism is a social movement. 

Just before offering his thought-experiment about the button, he quotes Heinrich Himmler's statement: "After all, what compels us to keep our promises?" And he said earlier that the genocidal secular regimes of the 20C did not believe in any power higher than their own. 

So he may feel that atheism is threatening in a way that agnosticism is not, in part because atheists suffer from a dangerous conviction that man's not answerable to anyone higher than himself, which in turn emboldens them to act with ruthless impunity. They have no external moral restraint.

Moreover, atheism is a cause in a way that agnosticism is not. Atheists are moral crusaders, bent on setting things right. They suffer from indubitable belief in the utter rightness of their perspective. Having deposed God, they now occupy the position God used to occupy. They combine a totalitarian impulse with a utopian agenda. Since their utopian goals require everyone to get on board, they brook no dissent. Everyone must cooperate–or else! 

Furthermore, humanitarian ends justify inhumane means. That's the price of perfectionism.  

That interpretation would be consistent with Berlinski's historical examples, viz. Stalinism, Maoism, Nazism, the Khmer Rouge. Perhaps he thinks agnosticism is innocuous because it lacks the messiah complex of atheism. 

It's possible that Berlinski supports civil religion for pragmatic reasons. Maybe he thinks isolated individuals can be decent without religious morality, but that's exceptional. 

Or perhaps he thinks agnosticism is safe so long as agnostics are in the minority. Perhaps he's a reluctant agnostic. Maybe he regrets the fact that he lacks religious faith. And he appreciates the benefits of Judeo-Christian social ethics. That framework makes it possible for agnostics like him to survive and thrive. If so, his position is reminiscent of Bertrand Russell's illustration:

Let us take theft, for example. A community in which everybody steals is inconvenient for everybody, and it is obvious that most people can get more of the sort of life they desire if they live in a community where theft is rare. But in the absence of laws and morals and religion a difficulty arises: for each individual, the ideal community would be one in which everybody else is honest and he alone is a thief. It follows that a social institution is necessary if the interest of the individual is to be reconciled with that of the community. This is effected more or less successfully by the criminal law and the police. But criminals are not always caught, and. the police may be unduly lenient to the powerful. If people can be persuaded that there is a God who will punish theft, even when the police fail, it would seem likely that this belief would promote honesty. Given a population that already believes in God, it will readily believe that God has prohibited theft. The usefulness of religion in this respect is illustrated by the story of Nahoth's vineyard where the thief is the king, who is above earthly justice.

iii) An atheist might object on the grounds that a Christian is not immune to temptation. That's true, but when Christians do wrong, there's a standard by which to judge their wrongdoing, whereas atheists have no standard higher than themselves, which is no standard at all. Any rule you make you can break. 

Moreover, it's far less tempting for a Christian, because he doesn't think this life is a zero-sum game. He can afford to lose in the short-term. There's a long-term payoff that awaits him in the afterlife.  

iv) Honestly, if you thought this life was all there is, if you could have untold riches and whatever else you desire by killing a stranger, and get away with it, would it not be irrational for an atheist to resist the temptation? Everything to gain and nothing to lose. Why should he consider the life of a stranger more valuable than untold riches and whatever else he desires? Let your imagination run free. For that matter, what if the cost is not a stranger but a friend? 

v) An atheist might object that this means a Christian would do the same thing were it not for fear of divine punishment. Even if that's true, deterrents like that make the world a safer place.

vi) There is, however, more to it than that. It's not just about reward and punishment, It's not just about a heavenly incentive or a hellish disincentive. If he's consistent, when a heavenbound Christian sees a hellbound sinner, he thinks to himself, "That could just as well be me! I'm no more deserving than he is."

So he doesn't view a stranger as a rival who vies with him for happiness. Rather, redemption gives him a sense of empathy. Since he was once where they were, he hopes they will be where he is. To take a few related examples, teenage boys have been known to do foolhardy things. Suppose two or three classmates and I trespass on someone's property. There's a fence. It says "Private Property: No Trespassing!" And it has a warning sign: "Beware of quicksand!"

But we climb over the fence, split up, and explore the property. We can't see each other because trees obscure the view. Then I step into quicksand. I call for help. The owner happens to be nearly and pulls me out. He didn't have to. What I did was reckless. And I'm a trespasser. I have no excuse. 

Then I hear one of my classmates calling for help. I follow the voice and pull him out of the quicksand. Just as the owner saved me from drowning in quicksand, I spare my classmate that fate.

Or suppose my classmates and I go boating despite a threatening weather forecast. Our rowboat capsizes. We swim, but we're getting cold and tired. Just in the nick of time someone with a more seaworthy vessel comes by and fishes me out of the water. I then fish my classmates out of the water. 

Or suppose I escape from a concentration camp. But I'm expected, if at all possible, to return with reinforcements to liberate the camp and rescue my fellow inmates.

Or suppose I grow up in the Hood. I'm a juvenile delinquent. One day a street evangelist shows up from out of town. He comes everyday for several weeks. Befriends me. Eventually I convert. As a result I turn my life around and get out of the Hood, since that's a bad place to start a family. But I come back to do street evangelism. I come back for those left behind. 

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