Friday, June 8, 2012

God's Quality Control 8.6: Who Says?

Here I continue my thoughts on Jesus and ethics.
I realize now that I have impeded the conversation somewhat by emphasizing this new concept of flourishing. It turns out that Bentham's utilitarian concept of happiness works just fine for invitational ethics. Sam Harris' idea of flourishing will be useful, I'm sure, but we don't need it in order to determine whether the framework itself is useful. After a lot of banging my head against the wall, I've discovered that the advantage of invitational ethics lies not in a new measure of well-being, but rather, a change in our relationship to well-being.
When Bentham talked about happiness, just like everyone before and after him, he was talking about a basis for coercion, a way of deciding when and how to treat each other badly, and how to justify said bad treatment. Without even blinking, John Stuart Mill asked, "What is the sanction of this moral system?" In other words, "To what authority can I appeal when attempting to impose my will on other people?" Or as the renowned ethicist William Lane Craig put it, “Who says?” Sorry, Billy, I called you childish. It turns out you were in good company. Everyone has been asking this question since the first glimmers of morality began to appear in human minds. The reason we ask it is because we can't see past the coercive framework.
Consider Mill's musings on justice. He tortured himself interminably, trying to locate the origin of the so-called "superior binding force" that justice seems to carry. He thought he had found something; he called it "the equal claim of everybody to happiness." A fatal flaw, the coercive word claim. Justice is an imaginary concept rooted in a false framework, a description that I note also fits perfectly the concept of blasphemy. Both presuppose the existence of a person somewhere who has some kind of claim. Invitational ethics makes various concessions to reality, among them that no one has a claim to anything. The lofty words of Jefferson's Declaration are the stuff of pipe dreams. Too bad George Carlin wasn't around in those days to dump a bucket of cold water down the pants of anyone who spewed nonsense about humans having rights at all, much less self-evident and inalienable rights.
You might object to my casual dismissal of the entire edifice of human justice. You might suspect a semantic game, as surely no one can conceive a society without some notion at least similar to punitive justice. Yet that is precisely what I propose. I imagine a world where we do nothing to diminish anyone's utmost happiness and well-being except when absolutely necessary to balance it against everyone else's utmost happiness and well-being, where causing any kind of suffering is a last possible resort. I don't mean that we would never cause suffering; obviously, we would continue to confiscate scissors from two-year-old children, knowingly causing some measure of suffering in the form of disappointment. I mean that we would cause suffering only when it is absolutely necessary, only when its contribution to well-being outweighs the potential contribution of all other feasible courses of action.
My experience as a parent suggests that the most effective way to prevent the aforementioned suffering among two-year-olds involves low-effort, proactive measures such as keeping scissors out of their world, hopefully thereby keeping scissors out of their minds and out of their hands. I'm sure that most of you parents out there will agree with me. My intuition suggests that alternatives to imprisoning lawbreakers are as obvious, as effective, and as supremely amenable to cost-benefit analysis, as the simple expedient of hiding the scissors.
An aside concerning the word lawbreaker. In the world of my fantasies, our ideas concerning law would differ radically from our current notions, and the notion of a lawbreaker would no longer exist. And I'm not talking about Big Brother imposing Newspeak. I simply see the idea fading from our minds as the ethical connotations associated with law and criminal behavior evolve away from coercion. One of the beauties of invitational ethics is that it could happen organically and from within society, being voluntarily adopted by people who see its usefulness, rather than as a new and arbitrary system forced on you by the priesthood of GreatBigBore. This voluntary and organic propagation would allow us to begin to apply the principles even now, while we still consider lawbreaker a valid concept. In other words, we don't need some big, unlikely, preliminary societal change in order to start seeing benefits right away. As I've mentioned in other videos, these ideas seem already to have benefited me, my kid, and my small handful of close friends. If they benefit you as well, then maybe we're onto something.
Most of the 7th chapter of Matthew is just more horoscope-talk. You've heard it all in some form or another: pearls and pigs, wolves in sheep's clothing, houses built on rock, houses built on sand. But in Verse 12, we have the Golden Rule. Finally, Jesus gets it right. Right? I mean, no, he didn't invent the idea, but at least we can commend him for lining up with other great ethical thinkers? No, they were all wrong.
First, it's a command. And, I just noticed, an oxymoron. Imperatives have brought us only so far, and this one certainly hasn't produced any significant positive change in the world, at least as far as I can tell. Second, just like every other moral maxim ever delivered, it is subordinate to considerations of punitive justice. We want to apply it to our general behavior, but everyone forgets it when the time comes for administering punishments. No one sits in courtrooms reminding judges—or society—of the Golden Rule during sentencing. No one implores the executioner to pause and ask himself whether he would like to be tortured and/or executed. Like many other concepts rooted in coercive ethics, there is just no way to apply it without having to make complicated and often arbitrary exceptions, because the concepts themselves are false, rooted in a disastrous misunderstanding of human nature.
Finally, golden would have been some specific advice about how to be at peace with oneself and one's neighbors, or maybe some thoughts on having compassion, on looking past the horrible caricatures we draw of each other, on seeking a genuine understanding of actual human beings.
That's 8.6. Thanks for watching.

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