Saturday, May 5, 2012

God's Quality Control 8.2: Anger

Here I continue my thoughts on the message of Jesus. I'd like to thank everyone who has joined the conversation so far, from supporters to skeptics to hecklers. It seems that my hopes for a rich discussion are already being realized. Some of you have asked about the intro/outro music. It's a new piece I'm working on; I haven't completed it yet. It will probably evolve with this series. The title is, "If I can't punish my kid, then what am I supposed to do when he stabs the dog in the eye with a machete every 20 minutes?"

The ideas I'll present in this series have been forming in my mind for many years, but I have searched in vain for a rational underpinning. Sam Harris' recent works on morality have addressed that problem. Harris summarizes his underpinning as "the flourishing of conscious creatures." This is the foundation of invitational ethics. I invite you to define "good" as conducive to the well-being of creatures that can suffer. Now, if this were a philosophy course, we might here start a long discussion about utilitarianism or the like, but let's put that discussion on hold for now and explore some of the humbler practicalities of this definition. There's no point spending any time thinking about its applications to utilitarianism if we're going to find out early on that it can't be used in everyday life.

It seems that I haven't been clear on a couple of points, so let's get those worked out. First, there is some question about exactly who or what is the object of my criticisms in this series. Some of you have pointed out that the New Testament as we have received it may differ significantly from the actual words of Jesus. Others have pointed out that Jesus may have been addressing only his immediate audience and cannot be held responsible for 21st-century understanding. And of course it's possible that no such man ever existed. Let's make sure we're all weighing the same apple.

I think you'll agree that almost everyone, superstitious or otherwise, who has made any serious study of Jesus, will describe him as some combination of wise teacher, great moral innovator, promoter of peace and compassion, spiritualist, holy man. Even Gandhi, although he is burning in hell right now, is said to have found Jesus to his liking. If we were to ask Gandhi for a concrete example of some excellent attribute of Jesus, he would point to something in the canonical Gospels. The point of my complaints is that what I find in the Gospels is not a great man, but at best, one of the horde of run-of-the-mill street-preachers who roamed first-century Palestine.

I need to clarify a point about eliminating punishment. I don't mean to propose that we eliminate disincentive. Coercive morality confuses punishment and disincentive. Punishment is counterproductive. Disincentive has been shown with scientific research to be useful. Let's use science some more, to discover the most effective disincentives. Science is already telling us that prison is a terrible idea, as well as the use of emotional and/or physical punishment on kids.

I have a similar point concerning the elimination of prisons. I don't mean to propose that we allow serial murderers to roam the streets. Obviously, at least for a little bit longer, there will be people that we must remove from society in order to protect the rest of us from harm. But there is an enormous gap between that and the idea of prison. I propose, for reasons I hope to make clear in this series, that we treat everyone with kindness, and do our best to enable everyone to live the most fulfilled life they possibly can, including those who must be constrained for the safety of the rest of us.

A few of you have asked me for my thoughts on applying invitational ethics to child-rearing. I've been experimenting with these ideas for many years, in my relationships with my daughter and other people. I've also been making suggestions to my friends concerning their relationships with their own children and other people. These experiments and suggestions are starting to look like case studies in invitational ethics. I will probably present some of these case studies to you, but it might be more fun if any of you guys want to give me some material for a case study from your personal life. It doesn't have to be about child-rearing. Anyone who's interested, send me a PM so we can discuss details.

In Verses 21-22 in the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus introduces an idea that many of his admirers consider an excellent condemnation of legalistic thinking, but legalistic thinking is an inevitable outcome of coercive morality. Coercive morality assumes that people are fundamentally broken and need some sort of external mechanism to control them. This leads to the endless production of rules, often pointless and arbitrary rules, which leads directly to legalism. Jesus knew that legalism was a symptom of a larger problem, but he got it wrong when he guessed at what the problem was. The problem is the whole moral framework.

Sadly, many admirers of Jesus also see in these verses a ruling that anger is a bad thing. Or perhaps more sadly, many people admire Jesus because they agree with him that anger is a bad thing. This pronouncement, especially in light of his later words about turning the other cheek, has been taken by intelligent people the world over to mean that we should live our lives as doormats, never speaking up when someone steps on our toes, accepting injury meekly (or at least with the appearance of meekness). I will argue that habitually suppressing the most basic of our impulses induces in us all a kind of insanity from a very young age.

In Verses 23-24, I almost want to give Jesus some credit. He's telling us not to let bad blood linger between ourselves and others. But then what advice does he give us on how to attain reconciliation? Not a word. Similarly, in Verses 25-26, he urges us to settle legal matters privately, without going to court. But again, no practical advice on how to reach agreements. These enormous gaps in Jesus' message are key to the problem of people assuming that we're supposed to suppress our impulses so thoroughly as to live as doormats: given that Jesus is so wise, if he'd known of any better advice to give us, he would have done so. Unfortunately, when I step on your toes, the best anger-management advice Jesus has for you is, "Fuck your feelings."

That's 8.2. Thanks for watching.

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