Friday, October 24, 2008

The Good Person Test Re-examined

My friend Clayton has responded to my account of the Good Person Test.
I like Clayton, I always enjoy a good bit of theological repartee with him when I get the opportunity. I think our relationship is a good example of how two completely different people can get along as solid friends and I count Clayton among my best friends.
On to my disagreement.

I like this note. It is elegant.

However, let me do a bit of "hell" raising of my own if you don't mind.

You start off the note making a distinction between once-for-all minor offenses and ongoing faults, something which the individual behind the evangelization counter failed to do. We'll come back to the reasons behind him not making a distinction later on, reasons that he probably doesn't understand. However, later on, you reject vicarious or substitutionary justice on these grounds: justice would not be fulfilled if a murder were let go after someone else took the punishment. Yet, in this case, you are yourself leaving out vital details. Is the murderer ever going to murder again? Is the murderer's freedom going to result in further crime? The answer to these questions is important precisely because, if only habitual, and not singular crimes are to be punished, then you have no grounds for rejecting vicarious punishment on the simple grounds that it might let a murderer go free. That would require that "letting a 'murderer' (I note that you use the term 'murderer' in the same way as your evangelist used 'blasphemer' or 'adulterer') go free is unacceptably wrong. In other words, it begs the question.

Perhaps I didn’t elaborate my concept of Justice precisely enough. However, I don’t see how I’m begging the question, or how my argument that vicarious punishment is unjust fails. Of course I expect a murderer (and I am using the label “ accused murderer” because when on trial for the specific crime, we assign the label for the purposes of carrying on the trial; my distinction was between whether or not we should be considered “liars” or “thieves” when there is no recurrent or pathologic tendency associated with this behavior) to face the punishment for a singular event. Especially when the singular event is something so serious as murder. In a similar vein, I expect a child to be disciplined when he steals something even if it isn’t a recurrent problem. My argument isn’t that crimes should only be punished if they are habitual. My problem is with the concept that vicarious punishment of singular or recurrent crime is unjust—especially if the crime isn’t something that can truly lend itself to retributive justice, such as murder (sure, the murderer goes to prison for life… but that’s not bringing back his/her victim, justice is never completely fulfilled).

I’m willing to grant that in trivial circumstances, vicarious retribution is acceptable. For instance, if my friend stole a book of mine and lost it. Let’s say he is apologetic and his girlfriend heard about it, came up to me, and offered to take me to a bookstore to buy a new book. Justice would not be technically “fulfilled”, but I might accept the offer as resolution. Hell, I might even accept my friend’s apology and let it be.

Such is the nature of the social contract.

However, I would never accept the proposition that an innocent man knowingly take the punishment of a criminal found guilty of something like rape, or murder, is justice.

But let's narrow this inquiry down a little further. There is a reason why a young evangelical might buy into the idea that "Sin is broken forever until it's repaid by Jesus." As your thought experiment proved, it couldn't be because God was worried about repeat offenses (he could, of course, prevent those) or that God was mistaking a singular fault for a greater sin; therefore we have to look deeper for the ground of sin. Here it is helpful to think about the tragic heroes of Classical Literature. Now, in each case, a character commits some act of hubris or uncleanness, even if it was somewhat unknowingly, and, in order for balance to be restored, the tragic hero must endure far greater punishment than the act itself required.
He must pay not only for the sin which he committed, however slight, but also for all the ill effects of that sin. It is not his justice which is at stake, but the reputation and honor shown to the Gods. Why? Because if there were not someone who suffered to demonstrate the wrath of the gods, who could embody all of their anger and be the object of their wrath, that wrath would continue to be experienced by everyone around them until the impurity was cleansed. In fact, this was precisely the concept of justice in the ancient world, of the society being cleansed rather than the guilty being punished.

I think this makes a good argument for restorative justice, a concept that I’m in favor of. Retributive justice doesn’t quite address the larger social consequences of criminal behavior. However, I don’t see why this concept has to leave our mortal sphere. Why is it that “lying” against your fellow man breaks the bridge between man and “God”? Supposing that it did, shouldn’t restoring the simple indiscretions against your fellow man also restore your rapport with God?

Oops, I think you are about to explain yourself…

I would argue that, by analogy, we can understand this to be the root of your evangelist's concept of sin. He believes that sin is an offense against God, not merely a human fault against other humans, which must be avenged by God in some way, in order for God's glory to remain unblemished by human fault. In this sense, it little matters whether or not the victim is the person guilty of the fault, or even something of a completely different nature than the one at fault (a ram, a goat, a bull, etc.) as long as the conclusion is that "God is glorious, now and forever."

An important distinction to be made comes from the weakness of the "judge and executioner" analogy of God. God is the judge, yes, but he is a judge in the biblical sense of the term, where the judge is either a king or the voice of the king exercising prudence from his own majesty to your helpless situation. (If you know much about common law, think about God as the Court of Chancery and Equity). From this distinction we ought to at least conclude that when God forgives someone, or accepts a particular sacrifice in exchange for punishment, he does so solely as the person whose order, whose property, whose dignity has been maligned.

This would be a legitimate argument if we can, for a moment, believe that God is so petty that his dignity is maligned by the trivial affairs of men. Maybe I have lower standards than God, but I don’t get perpetually bent out of shape when someone fibs to me or takes something from me. Sure, I might ask for some apology, but I think we all live lives where the multitude of these indiscretions pass relatively unnoticed with relatively little consequence.

I still don’t get how my Mom lying to me to keep a surprise Birthday Party a surprise “maligns” God.

I also don’t understand why admiring a woman’s beauty (with the occasional lustful thought) should be held against me at judgment day unless I accept a third party, Jesus, as sacrifice and some metaphysical retribution.

Imagine if someone stole a hundred dollars from you, then came up to you and offered to take you out to dinner in exchange (after all, he had already spent the money). You know that the dinner is not worth $100, and you are fully within your rights still to report him to the law as a thief and demand back your money, but you accept his offer. The relationship is worth more to you. Are you not within your rights, as the one wronged, to accept this in return for the money? Most likely, as long as the individual will not continue this behavior (sic) towards others (then it is a matter of the society). This situation is an example of one in which your mercy is not in contradiction to justice, but instead reinforces justice by surpassing it with mercy (at the end of the day, your rights over the $100 dollars have been reinforced by your acceptance of one or another thing in lieu of it...yes, that's why we have equity in our court system...a relic from Church involvement in politics).

Your point here does a better job acknowledging the relativity of our moral code than establishing an argument for vicarious justice. And there’s nothing to my argument that would preclude this exchange. The social contract that makes up our system of law allows for things like “plea bargaining” in order to find a balance in what really is a morally grey arena.

Now, as I draw these distinctions I am not defending the man behind the counter. His test is silly and his approach is much sillier. For one thing, these evangelicals always assume that it is reasonable to posit a Redeemer (or, really Redemptive Sacrificial Victim) who, as it were, removes one from having to worry about whether this or that action is or is not a sin. However, at least from an ethical perspective, this would lead away from our human need, in my opinion, created by God, to inquire at all into what is just and equitable. Surely place must still be left for reason? No wonder evangelicalism is the most anti-intellectual force in this country! It also makes me seriously question why so many religious writers and thinkers, including the evangelists and St. Paul, wrote so long about personal ethics and standards to be kept among their believers if all that was really needed was spiritual fix-a-flat. I consider Jesus far more insightful into human nature than that
I agree with you for the most part. But I think when we draw this argument out to its logical conclusions we are faced with a dilemma: aren't we better off trying to answer the question of Justice without introducing the supernatural?

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