Thursday, November 2, 2017

Errors in Moral Reasoning

The political events in the States and the transformation of its political culture over the past 18 months have given me much food for thought. Most of what has happened has been the result of previous trends, but the thing which most stands out to me is that there has been a tremendous ramping up of intensity on both sides. It seems as if people have lost the ability to negotiate their disagreements in any reasonable way.

Here are some crimes against reasonability which I see committed almost daily in terms of how people think about right and wrong and which I believe add fuel to the fire: 

1) That moral responsibility is a zero sum game.

There is a tendency to interpret the criticism of one aspect of a position or action or event as a corresponding support for or justification for the other side. We saw this repeated over and over in the near universal criticism of Trump's statements on Charlottesville. I myself got my feathers singed on Facebook in trying to make what some others deemed to be inappropriate moral distinctions. But God judged Adam and Eve and the serpent separately for their respective sins without assigning any one credit for the contribution of others, and so He will each of us.

People who rely on the zero sum concept for self-justification are less likely to examine themselves for wrong actions and attitudes and are more likely to judge others harshly.

2) That passion is an index of virtue.

That your commitment to a value and therefore your virtue is measured by how vociferously and how intemperately you advocate for it. But I believe that moral reason is like a computer: it doesn't work properly over a certain temperature. In watching the storms of emotion rage through the body public today I am reminded of W.B. Yeats' words:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Movements which elevate passion in moral, religious or political questions are more likely to be complacent about extreme actions by their members and even though the majority may be otherwise reasonable people, the more extreme members tend to set the direction for the rest because they are assigned the moral high ground within the movement and are thus given the capacity to shame the more moderate members into following them or at least not opposing them. 

3) A failure to balance values - the idea that one value should be supreme over others.

I think of justice and mercy as values which are conceptually opposed. Justice means to give to someone what is due them for their wrong actions. Mercy means to refrain from doing so. Yet both are necessary and the moral task of humanity under God is to balance the two. An exclusive focus on one over the other leads to objectively evil outcomes.

The same thing applies to human rights codes. A code contains a laundry list of rights and they are all listed co-equally, but there are various situations where different rights come into conflict. It is the job of courts to balance them in an equitable way. If the court were to privilege one right absolutely over another in all circumstances, the second right would be on its way to being nullified or marginalized.

4) ...and that therefore the end justifies the means.

If one value or cause reigns supreme in the moral universe, then petty considerations of reason, truth, integrity, fairness, compassion or legality may be subordinated to its pursuit. Stalin or Lenin are variously reported to have said "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs". The irony in their case is that though millions of eggs were broken, the omelette never arrived. 

The problem with this thinking occurs on several levels:

a) The supreme Good that is pursued in the case of a utopian or millenarian or morally perfectionistic movement never arrives. 

It is either unattainable or the movement moves on in pursuit of ever higher levels of purity. In the end the movement breaks down and its adherents find that they have committed real evil in exchange for an illusionary good.

b) It degrades the person morally. 

He may persuade himself that these tactics are necessary to achieve his Good, but in the end he becomes his tactics or he becomes what he habitually does.

c) It is immoral (I would say wicked) because the practitioner of these tactics in effect is penalizing his opponents for their virtues. 

The pushing aside of certain values may give the activist a momentary advantage over his opponents - but only because they are not doing the same themselves. So someone who is committed to telling only the truth is punished for that because no matter what the truth is, the liar can tell a better story. 

d) Which leads to the moral degradation of society as those depreciated values go out the window on all sides. 

Some may think of this as a temporary price to pay on the way to victory, but a society which loses the values of truth, integrity, fairness, civility, social peace and tolerance will not quickly recover them. A generation after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia still struggles to recover the freedoms and rule of law which were denied to it by the Bolsheviks.

5) Moral supremacism - the temptation to think that there is no wisdom or virtue or good faith on the other side of an issue. 

Another word for it might be moral narcissism, only this is a narcissism which takes place on a collective level rather than just on an individual level.

This attitude makes its holders correction proof. It impedes their goals by creating unnecessary conflict and resistance to their ideas. Any movement which runs on this basis finds itself splitting into factions over time because its adherents will apply the same intolerance for dissent toward each other as they do toward people outside the movement. 

Writers in the Talmud have described "gratuitous hatred" between Jews as the cause for the destruction of the Jewish nation. The rabbis go on to say that this mutual hatred took the form of various factions disputing, then fighting, then hunting down each others' members over the question of who was the better Jew. Isn't this what is happening today? That Americans are starting look at each other with fear and loathing over the matter of who is the "better Jew"? Or more accurately, who is the better American or better human being.

6) Language abuse to muddy the water. 

Strictly speaking these are not usually errors but deliberate strategy. But for those who are taken in by them it does lead to errors in moral reasoning.

One is the use of constructive language to describe values, so that terms like "love", "justice" and "tolerance" are used with special ideologically coded meanings which are different from, and in some cases opposed to their common everyday meaning. This is wrong because unless those special definitions are made explicit they are deceiving to ordinary folk. They are often used manipulatively to put opponents into a false position where because they oppose the specific application which is being advocated, they are portrayed as being against the value altogether.

Related to that is the use of baggage filled cant phrases to express a position without actually reasoning it out or fitting it to the circumstances. "Person of color" is one such. It immediately invokes a narrative of oppressor and oppressed which is intended to produce a certain reflexive response to any situation where it is applied. 

Both of these practices are described in detail by George Orwell under the heading of "Newspeak". 

7) Outsourcing moral reasoning to others. 

The idea than a group as a whole has a truer moral instinct than any individual in it is based in part on the idea of the wisdom of crowds. However studies where this has been tested for quantifiable matters (the only way this theory can really be tested) have shown that the principle only works when people reach their own conclusions individually without referring to others. So I suggest that the path to collective moral wisdom always runs through each individual's own moral compass.

When people look to the group itself as the ultimate moral arbiter, then its "wisdom" becomes an artifact of the views of its more dominant or vocal members and the benefit of collective wisdom is lost. In some cases, a relatively small but cohesive and coordinated vocal faction can create an apparent consensus where there is none and lead the group in a direction where most of its members in fact do not want to go.

Which has brought us to where we are now.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The student

One day as Jesus walked in Jerusalem with his disciples, He saw a blind man who had been that way since birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?” according to the common belief that misfortunes such as these were the punishment of sin. “Neither”, Jesus replied, “but that the works of God should be revealed in him.” Jesus proceeded to spit on the ground and mix his saliva with the dust, and spread the mixture on the man’s eyes. “Go”, He said, “wash your eyes off in the Pool of Siloam”.

The man did so and became able to see for the first time in his life. He did not go directly back to Jesus; in fact he did not really seem to know who He was, because when his neighbours asked him how he had come to see, he could only tell them that “a man named Jesus” had put clay on his eyes. Not Jesus the Messiah, or Jesus the Wonder Rabbi, but Jesus the random passerby.

The people brought their formerly blind neighbour to the Pharisees, who apparently deduced who had healed him, because they seemed disturbed by the news. Perhaps they were thinking of what Jesus had said of Himself in the synagogue at Capernaum while reading from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free….”

The man was the unwitting carrier of an unspoken message from Jesus to the teachers of the people. Here I am. I am the fulfilment of these words of the prophet. What will you do with Me? And that was the problem, the Pharisees didn’t know what to do with Jesus, because they had already ruled out the possibility of recognizing that He was from God. So they tried to reason their way out of the dilemma.

Some said, “This man is not from God because he did not observe the Sabbath in healing you”. But others saw a problem with that, because the same theology that saw disease or disability as the result of sin left no room for the idea that miraculous healing could come from a sinner.

The healed man shared nothing of this wrestling, for when the Pharisees asked him what he thought of Jesus, he said straightforwardly, “He is a prophet”.

Their next move was to probe the miracle. The Pharisees called the man’s parents to them. “Is this really your son? Was he indeed born blind? How is it that he now can see?” Perhaps the man only resembled the blind man; perhaps his blindness was a more recent condition that had cleared up on its own; or perhaps it had spontaneously begun to heal before Jesus came by.

The parents wanted nothing to do with this inquiry. They knew who Jesus was, they knew what the Pharisees thought of Him, and they knew what they were in the middle of. They confirmed that the man was their son, that he was indeed born blind, but for every other question they said, “He is an adult, let him speak for himself”.

The miracle could not be impeached for the time being, so the Pharisees brought back the man. “Give glory only to God! We know that this man is a sinner.”

One wonders why they were so concerned what this nobody, who just that morning had been a beggar, should think of Jesus. But the problem was that this nobody was a witness to the work of Jesus – a source of testimony which they were concerned to suppress.

But the man only brought the hard, awkward fact of his healing back up in their face. “I don’t whether or not he is a sinner, I only know that I was blind, but now I see.” This brought the Pharisees back to their earlier line of questioning: “What did he do? How did he open your eyes?” The man began to lose patience. “Why do you want me to tell you again? I’ve already told you once, and you didn’t listen. Do you also want to become his disciples?”

The Pharisees sneered and said, “You may be his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this fellow is from.”

At that the man became very bold and replied, “Why, this is a strange thing that you, the teachers of Israel can’t work out where this man is from, even though he opened my eyes. We know that God doesn’t hear sinners , but He hears those who worship Him. If this man were not from God he could do nothing.”

The Pharisees lost all pretence of civility: “You are nothing but a sinner. How can you presume to teach us?” and they threw the man out.

Afterward, Jesus found him and asked, “Do you believe in the Son of God?” The man now saw Jesus for the first time, though he must have recognized his voice from earlier. “Who is he, Lord, that I should believe in Him?” Jesus said, “You are looking at Him and He is the one speaking to you.” The man said, “Lord, I believe!” and knelt to give homage to his King.

* * * * * * *

Here are some applications which I believe this event has for us as believers:

1) Even if you are a nobody, your witness is important. If you have received Jesus, then God has done a true work in your life. It may be opposed, or questioned, but it cannot be resisted because it is powerful.

Do you believe that your testimony is powerful? The world does, that’s why it wants to suppress it.

2) A lot of us struggle with timidity in sharing our faith. So it is worth asking, what was the source of the man’s boldness? I believe that it was his sure knowledge of God’s work in him in healing his blindness. What keeps me from being bold? It is the lack of that knowledge in me when I have not stayed current in my walk with Jesus. It weakens my confidence in the good news I have to share.

How can I authentically invite someone to have fellowship with God if I’m not consistently walking in that fellowship myself?

3) Why was it so hard for the Pharisees to accept Jesus when for the blind man it was so simple? For the Pharisees their starting point was their tradition, and they could find no place in it for Him. I don’t believe that their point of stumbling was so much Jesus' innovative teachings or that His coming didn't fit the prophetic specs as they understood them. It was more that they believed fervently and devoutly in the coming of the Messiah as a religious, other worldly event. It fell into a category outside of their daily life, and they couldn’t associate it with the flesh and blood man who stood before them in dusty feet. Nor did their conception of practical reality include his miracles.

Religious unbelief. This reminds me of Del Tackett’s question in his video series The Truth Project: “Do we really believe that what we believe is really real?”

The blind man, on the other hand, knew little of the Pharisees' theology, but that didn’t matter because his starting point was what Jesus had done. It was a foundation he could stand firmly upon while scholars paced around him. What he needed to know of God he would learn from the man who had done God’s work in him.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Update for Rachel

Our daughter is working as a missionary in Costa Rica, carrying out a discipleship ministry to children and youth in partnership with her friend Anita. Here is her latest blog update:

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Why there is no peace in the Middle East

The September 14 issue of the Globe and Mail runs an article by Michael Bell entitled Israel's New World. ( The central message of the piece is that it is in Israel's interest to show restraint and not always react to incidents with an iron fist. I don't disagree with that as a general policy, though I'm not sure how much difference it will make in Israel's specific situation.

The reason for my pessimism is expressed in a comment that Bell slips in as an aside but which I believe goes to the heart of the issue:

".........particularly in a region that finds it difficult to accept the legitimacy of any non-Muslim governing authority."

What this means is this (this is my personal understanding as an observer from outside of Islam and I stand subject to correction by others more knowledgeable): The territory of Israel (Palestine) is considered an integral part of dar al-Islam (roughly that's the Islamic counterpart to what we used to call Christendom). The establishment of a non-Muslim state on that territory is therefore experienced by Muslims as a violation. Its very existence is a permanent irritant. As a result, the only thing that Israel can do to make peace with its neighbours in anything other than a provisional and temporary sense is to either cease to exist as a political entity, or cease to have a non-Muslim majority.

Understand the above, and you will understand why there is a deep abiding hostility against Israel in other Middle East countries, even in ones that have cooperated with it such as Turkey, Jordan and Egypt, and in others that are separated from the Palestinians geographically and culturally, such as Iran. You will also understand why, as a condition of peace, the Palestinians insist on a full right of return into Israel proper even for those who have never set foot in the country.

As I understand its definition in Wikipedia, Israel should be able to be considered part of Dar al-Islam if Muslims are able to enjoy peace and security with and within the country. Given the history of conflict in the region however and Israel's sensitive location, I'm not sure it is possible in practice. In any case, as long as there is Israeli conflict with the Palestinians that condition of peace and security is not met. It is in Israel's interest therefore to avoid or defuse such conflicts but in the Palestinian interest to maintain a state of conflict. By doing so, they continue to enjoy the support of their fellow Muslims against the common enemy.

I believe that is why, whenever things seem to be in danger of settling into a peaceful status quo, someone initiates a new intifada or suicide bombing campaign or fires more rockets into Israel. From the Palestinian point of view, these actions, together with the responses they provoke from the Israelis, keep Israel in harbi status and prevent it from achieving acceptance in Islamic terms.

Friday, July 29, 2011

His purpose

I was looking at Romans 8:28 the other day, which reads,
.......we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

I was thinking, what does it mean that all things work for our good? That's a very sweeping statement. As part of God's Word I'm bound to accept it as it stands, but I want to understand it right. What is "good"? Evidently not a painless, stress free, healthy, conflict free, prosperous life, because none of those things is available to us in all circumstances. In other words, the "good" that is worked for the believer in all things is not necessarily what we would naturally consider good, but it is based on some other criterion.

The key to what this good is I believe is found at the end of the verse:
who have been called according to his purpose
Perhaps this good is identified with God's purpose for us? And what is His purpose? Verse 29 continues,
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

The for at the beginning of verse 29 means that what follows is an explanation of what preceded it in verse 28. So if I read this back into verse 28 I can construct a fairly simple declarative statement: all things God works to conform those who love him to the image of His Son....

To someone who has never tasted the utter balance and peace and rock-solid stability of God's nature, God's idea of good might seem less than compelling, but for someone who has answered His call, there can be nothing better.

If you love the Lord,
you will love His will for you.....

- Keith Green

Anita's Blog

Anita is a friend of our daughter Rachel in Costa Rica and her partner in ministry. For anyone who visits this site, I encourage you to take the time to read her blog. It contains a powerful story of how God has worked in her life to bring her to faith and purpose.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Jacob I have loved.....

The proverbs of the Bible are presented as a series of actions/consequences; i.e., do this and good things will happen; do that and bad things will happen. On the surface they are couched solely in terms of self-interest. Yet at their heart I believe that they are really signposts to the character that God wants to develop in us. The references to self-interest are inducements to someone who does not yet have wisdom. To someone who is pulled between doing the "right thing" and doing the "smart thing" its message is: the right thing to do is also the smart thing. Obeying God's direction is in your long term interest. Taking a short cut may seem to benefit you in the short term but in the long term it will lead to destruction.

This may seem like an unspiritual means of leading someone into God's ways but it is spiritual to the extent that accepting this direction requires faith that God is in control of one's destiny and will bring these consequences to pass. That is why it is written in the beginning of Proverbs that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Not the end of it by any means, but it is a necessary starting point.

It was the beginning of character development for Jacob. He did a lot of unsavoury things to obtain the inheritance and blessing that properly belonged to his older brother. He extorted the inheritance from Esau through taking advantage of his extreme hunger, lied and cheated to get his blessing from their father; yet he had this that Esau lacked: faith in God's promise to Abraham and Isaac. For that's essentially what the inheritance was - a promise from God to give the land of Canaan to Abraham's descendants. An IOU.

Jacob believed in God's promise enough to lie, cheat and steal for it. The belief in this promise alone qualified Jacob as the heir of these things even in the absence of any other virtue. It gave God a starting point to work in his life and begin the long wrestling that would transform Jacob.

Esau, other the other hand, believed so little in this promise that he was not willing to skip a single meal for it. The lack of this faith disqualified Esau spiritually to be the heir of God's promise even though he had every legal entitlement to it according to the standards of the time. This I believe is the interior justice of Jacob's success and reason behind God's statement in Malachi: "Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated." Jacob engaged God through faith in His promise; Esau did not.