Saturday, February 27, 2010
Down the Freedom of Choice Rabbit Hole
(Picture from here.)
I've been thinking about the bible panel from the Friday night Boskone (see here) a bit. The more I think on it, the more important it seems to me a response I didn't make. This was the thought in response to the idea that moral authority had to derive from a a higher power.
The more I think about it the more I think that this is the fundamental problem I have with religion. And, I think, it is a problem that religion has with itself. My understanding of Islam and the more eastern religions (Hinduism and Buddhism) are much more limited.
Here's the rub.
Christianity (and to different extent Judaism) is all about free will-- the freedom to make a moral decision. The freedom to make the right choice and, by extension, the wrong choice. Determining the nature of the rightness or wrongness of the choice is inherent in the freedom to make the right choice-- if there is no inherent analysis of the nature of the choice, there is no freedom to make the moral decision.
There's no inherent moral decision in whether or not the choose vanilla or chocolate ice cream. There is only personal preference that is independent of morality.
Investing divine authority in the choice ("rightness" being defined as following a particular moral code as handed down by God) weights the choice. If one believes in the reality of the divine authority, there is no freedom of choice; there is only evasion from responsibility. If God himself hands down kosher laws, then not following them is evading the contract-- no different than evading the contract with a car dealer or a mortgage house. Divine authority can elevate the contract to sacred status-- in point of fact, the contractual relationship between God and man in the Torah considerably raises man's status from supplicant to junior colleague-- but the very presence of divine authority reduces the significance of the moral choice.
To be sure, finding the right choice isn't easy. The Talmud is a record of the discussions of very, very smart men trying to figure out the essential right choice as implied, but not explicitly stated, in the Torah. The fact that the Talmud is many times larger than the Torah is no accident. Living the right way is not for the faint of heart.
But because of the avowed divine nature of the material, the first moral decision must be to accept or deny that divine origin. Accepting pushes the moral decisions into the complex dance of how to fit in and find the right path within the framework of divine will as expressed in a poorly understood manuscript. Is slavery an ethical institution? It's in the bible. Should adultery and homosexuality be punished by death? What is metaphorical example and what is deliberate edict?
My experience with Christianity takes it to a different level. If the New Testament is revelation of divine will, how is it to be reconciled with the previous version of the divine contract? If you thought Talmudic convolutions were complex, now we're in the position of reconciling the metaphorical examples and the deliberate edicts of two completely different personalities. The Old Testament was largely concerned with governing your behavior. The New Testament is more concerned with governing your mind. There is a huge amount of literature that is chiefly concerned with taking "prophecies" in the Old Testament and showing how they were fulfilled in the New Testament.
(My own inclination is to say that if it's not considered a prophecy by the authors-- and in a lot of these references I would argue the purpose of the quote is clear in the context-- it's not a prophecy at all. And, furthermore, if the author in the text says clearly what he's referring to, it's bad revisionist history to change it. But that's just me.)
Even so, once the divine authority of the text is accepted-- in even in the broken metaphorical way some modern scholars have managed-- it reframes the nature of the moral decision from what is the right thing to do into what have I been told is the right thing to do.
Denying divine authority pushes moral decision out into a new and unknown desert.
Out here in the scrub lands we have to decide what is the right thing to do without any other guidance than human beings. Is it enough to follow the herd? What is the personal cost of trying something new? What do I have to lose? My family? My children? The divine contract becomes the social contract, renegotiated every generation. Perhaps this is what Jefferson meant when he said "Every generation needs a new revolution." (See here.) It's the nature of revolution to look at things anew and not accept unchallenged what has been stated before-- divine or otherwise.
Moral decisions take on a new dimension if the only person deciding the nature of morality is the person acting on it.
"I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!"
-- Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carrol