FakeBook and Friends

Perfect idea for fake birthdays: fake hamburger cup cakes.

I’m currently in the middle of my first fake birthday. It’s like my real birthday in that I don’t care about it, and my email inbox is full of FaceBook greetings; but it’s unlike my real birthday in the sense that my wife didn’t fall for it, and so I got no presents.

Today I’m running the sort of experiment that idle-minded procrastinators do on a whim. I changed my FaceBook birthday to a random day to see who would notice. I intended to do it every week or two to see how long it took for the greetings to dry up or be replaced with abuse, but FaceBook is obviously tired of fake birthdays, and so limits the number of birthday changes one is allowed to make.

It’s not a clever joke, and the results are not surprising. Predictably, I have received about 30 birthday messages, and only 3 non-family-members have noticed that it’s not actually my birthday. My favourite messages have wished me ‘many more’. (I’m trying, people, but FaceBook won’t let me.)

In no way is this meant to be an accusation or an indictment on anyone who believed the lie. I would have. I don’t expect you to remember my birthday, and you can be certain that I don’t know yours, unless you belong to my immediate family. I’m useless. I don’t know my grandparents’ birthdays, my in-laws, my nephews and nieces; no one. So I’m grateful that FaceBook tells me these things.

But I do think that there is a reminder in this. We allow things like FaceBook to take over the details of our relationships so that we don’t have to make the effort to remember the important dates and numbers connected to the people that we really care about. It’s nice to know that my FaceBook friends care enough to wish me happy birthday, but it’s not a lot of care. For how many people would you actually pick up the phone and speak to them on their birthday? When last did you write someone a letter, as opposed to emailing a funny cat picture to a group? You can’t automate relationships; time and effort are unfortunately key ingredients.

For this same reason, the greetings that we send each other also tend to lose their meaning. Because I know very well that the FaceBook message that I get on my real birthday is as prompted and generic as the one I get on my fake birthday, it tends not to mean very much. I have 300 or 4oo friends, and about 10% responded to the prompt and wished me happy birthday. Only 1% were aware that it is not actually my birthday. The same will be true in January when the messages come in again. How touched should I be?

So, keep those messages coming. Maybe even throw in a FarmVille gift or something. But I certainly need reminders often enough that real friendships require proper cultivation and commitment, and we’re not exactly set up these days to go much beyond the fakery of FaceBook. Figure out who your real-life friends are, and invest deeply in those people.

Freethought and Bullying

There is a popular website called Freethought Blogs — a meeting point for secular thinkers — that is currently embroiled in a bullying row.

The mudslinging seems to have arisen out of a post or two about sexism within the atheist movement, which in turn prompted certain commentators to disagree that the specific problem was as broad or as bad as key figures on the site made out. This led such commentators to be villified, insulted, expelled, even seriously threatened. Respected secularist figures such as PZ Myers became involved, incurring criticism for abusive language, pulling rank, being arrogant, choosing sides, being irrational, and so on. It seems to be that for some time, popular writers on the site have constructed a status quo, and dissenters from it have been shouted down. This bullying behaviour is now being outed. You can google the subject for more information.

I know I shouldn’t find it funny, but I do.

Firstly, it’s obviously amusingly ironic when a place that names itself ‘Freethought Blogs’ decends into virtual riots over what people are allowed to think or say, and how ‘lesser thinkers’ should be treated. Such a title was always asking for trouble, I suppose.

In any event, I think this all demonstrates that no-one’s thinking (no-one worth listening to anyway) is ever really free; you can be free from one set of norms and restrictions, but you merely adopt another. We think in obedience to different masters. It’s an open question whether your master is better than mine.

Secondly, atheists (rightly) catalogue the hypocrisies of the religious when they behave badly towards unbelievers, so much so that I think they may have started to believe that atheism is a step of evolution beyond ‘less enlightened’ religious folk. It’s nice to see occasional demonstrations that even greats such as PZ Myers can be just as idiotic as the rest of us.

Finally, the truth is probably that both sides have a point, and both sides have reason to claim the moral high-ground when it comes to the the thing that they’re defending (whether anti-sexism or anti-bullying). But it is wonderful to watch the world’s cleverest people injuring themselves in an attempt to learn the principle, ‘The ends don’t justify the means.’


EDIT: Perhaps worth pointing out that I have no idea who is ultimately right, whether or not PZ Myers, for example, is the good guy or the bad guy, whether he is justifiably harsh, whether party x or y is lying or not. But clearly even clever people can have wisdom failure, being nasty tends to make things worse, and apologising is hard.

EDIT 2: Spelled Myers as Meyers before. Sorry. I think Austin Powers 2&3 broke the part of my brain that likes to spell that surname that way.

Get your problems out the way of my comfort

We naturally dislike people who attend to the bare minimum of their responsibilities begrudgingly and with endless complaint. I no longer shop at certain retailers because asking assistants for assistance earned me bad attitude. There are hundreds of films that feature lazy people who, if they had just gone and done what they were supposed to, none of this would have happened, or who do it with endless grumbles but just in time to avert huge disaster (but I can’t think of a single example right now).

This week, South Africa’s most in-the-news hospital, Baragwanath, left a badly burned man to die, seemingly neglecting the bare minimum of their profession and their humanity. You can read that sad story here (caution: unpleasant pics). However, one of the state doctors today wrote a must-read response arguing that when it comes to lack of care and responsibility, blame should rather be placed on the politicians who have run health administration into a state of collapse. Either way, such lack of care is horrifying.

It is easy to take moral high ground in such circumstances, but sometimes we’re just as uncaring; we’ve just found ways of clothing our selfishness in diplomatic dress. Such as in church this weekend…

In Religion: Speak to God about it (just don’t make your problems mine)

In the church, we’re champions at spiritualising our selfishness. I spoke on the weekend at a church on the subject of relinquishing our wealth as a necessary part of Christian discipleship. Afterwards, a woman apparently in terrible poverty spoke to me about it, claiming that at other churches, she had been told to bring her problems to God and ‘leave them at the altar’; to let God sort them out. She felt unable to speak about her desperate needs to anyone in the church any longer.

Of course, we must trust God, and God is the ultimate provider. However, telling someone to leave their problems at the altar is another way of making sure that they don’t share their problems with you. We can sound spiritual while also telling people not to bother us with their uncomfortable issues.

The Bible should make us very uncomfortable when it comes to our money and the poor in our congregations, because when it tells us that there ‘shall be no poor among you’, it also tells us the mechanism by which this relief from poverty takes place, namely, those whom God has given much must be generous towards those who have little. For example, in Acts 2 & 4, when there was need, the church would not consider their property to be their own, but would sell something so that they could provide for one another. That’s an often-repeated pattern in the Bible for provision for the poor in our congregations.

Now, the Bible is not at all like communism, and it is true that giving handouts can sometimes do more harm than good. Nevertheless, we do not therein find an excuse to avoid our responsibilities as the rich in the church. Be strategic about how you use the wealth God has leant you, and be sure that you use it for the reasons for which He gave it.

In Politics: Look to the future (Don’t remind me what I did in the past)

A third thing this week that illustrated selfish comfort trumping concern for due responsibility was an article in the City Press, written by Alistair MacKay, called How Whites Can Reconcile. He points out that after the horrors of Apartheid, most whites have coasted along in silence (usually, I’d add, breaking silence to complain that the new government is ‘ruining the country’), until now, 20 years later, we become impatient with people who still feel the hurt and injustice of the past system. As MacKay says:

I saw this comment on reconciliation in South Africa from a white guy the other day: “Why are we still talking about this? Haven’t we done enough?” No, we haven’t.

It’s curious that among white people now, it is hard to find a person who was ever racist during Apartheid. We’ve washed our hands of it and ensure that we now deflect away any blame for that system, because it makes us uncomfortable to be associated with it.

In response to the article, many of the comments demonstrated exactly that, ironically confirming the author’s message in their criticism of him.

“Alistair, what I can remember about apartheid was that it oppressed just about everybody. There is a reason your parents, their friends and acquaintances didn’t ‘toyi-toyi’ outside parliament. They did what they could under the circumstances.” (sean.crookson)

“Oh please, look its your opinion but lets face one fact. You cannot continue to cry about the past. If I hear another person say apartheid I will soil my pants. When can people stop. We live for tomorrow not for what happened yesterday! Maybe it was horrible, maybe it wasn’t so bad. Honestly I do not care.” (Mr.T)

“The past was awful yes, but it is not today and we cannot change it other than changing what we think and feel now, so stop focusing on what was wrong and start focusing on what is right.” (WessBergg)

If I were a sufferer of Apartheid, I’d not be experiencing feelings of forgiveness hearing that whites were oppressed too and did all they could; that we should just live for tomorrow. It’s easy to look forward to tomorrow when today was so pleasant. Not everyone can say that.

Three Lessons: #1 Empathy

We can learn a few things from the mistakes of these commenters. The first thing is empathy. Let’s remember that whites in the past 300 years or so took something like 70% of the best land for the white minority and put the black majority in the remaining 30%. In living memory, many South Africans lost homes and land without compensation due to group areas legislation, and were put in new high-density housing areas.

I don’t think I’m too far wrong if I say that black South Africans weren’t allowed to touch the same crockery or toilets as whites, or go to the same beaches and parks. They couldn’t buy houses in the best neighbourhoods. They had to carry passes to be on their own streets. They could have any job as long as it was manual labour, were forced to study in Afrikaans, and couldn’t vote or tell the newspapers if they didn’t like it. That’s besides the daily attitude and abuse from many whites, ‘special treatment’ from the police, continual propaganda that said they were less valuable, less able, less human. I can still remember how unusual it was to see a black person driving a car in the 80s, and how we as whites would normally suggest that he must have stolen it.

Like me, you may have grown up in a home that aimed at being non-racial, but even still we owe the country an apology. If nothing else, there was not a mass exodus of upset whites to other countries, nothing like the one we have seen since Apartheid fell. We stayed and we didn’t fight what was wrong. That’s bad enough. But I can see — even as someone who hated the more overt racism of my classmates — how part of it I was. We were racists, as much as we might hate to admit it now.

But here is an example of how whites still respond to the suffering caused by Apartheid:

“Great article? It’s just another whining, guilt-tripping piece distorting our past. It’s all to obvious that separate development… was a necessity for Whites to survive and shield them against risks for their livelihoods. Any rational person could have seen that. Ultimately this is shown step by step to be true now. Fact is also that Blacks had a fair chance developing their own communities. And that they were supported in this by the then White government. One may say that Blacks were poorer. Really, but why was that? Despite efforts of Whites to lift them up or due to something else?” (andreas.meyer.12327)

That’s right, whites had to be separate from blacks out of necessity for survival, and the white government was trying to uplift black communities the whole time. The fault was somehow with the blacks. That’s the undistorted version of our history.

“Blacks under apartheid were more literate than black Americans. They also enjoyed the highest standard of living of all blacks in Africa. Even in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission it is stated that 40% of SA’ns claimed that life was better under apartheid (whites constitute about 9%). The tragedy is that modern youth has become so narrow minded, stupid and uncouth that they can’t distinguish between freedom and slavery anymore.” (alan.secreve)

The fact that we can pull narrow statistics to ‘prove’ that we were actually being kind to black South Africans is startling. It’s sad that people still experience terrible quality of life, but hardly stands as an argument that Apartheid was freedom.

So, fellow whites, when our brothers and sisters of other races are still struggling with pain and dire social circumstances created by Apartheid, try to have a little empathy before you decide to dodge how uncomfortable it makes you feel.

True, we can’t go back and fix what we’ve done, and it will take decades to get beyond it. True, we must look forward. But while we’re moving forward, we can stop making hurt worse by parading opinions that range from pretending we had nothing to do with it, to the idea that blacks should be grateful for what whites did for them in Apartheid.

And while you’re at it…

Lesson #2: Count your blessings

We are extraordinarily good at taking all the credit for our personal achievements and claiming that we never received a dime from anyone. Whites are generally under-appreciative of the benefits we had under Apartheid. Years ago this Zapiro ‘cartoon’ offended me into thinking about it:

I could argue that my upbringing was not privileged — we sometimes had to rely on ‘handouts’ to be able to eat, for example — but it was. I lived on a nature reserve on the edge of a quiet white suburb. There was no poverty and hardly any crime in our areas. I was at excellent schools that were cheap and well resourced. I could even play tennis for free.

When I began my tertiary education, I had to work nights and weekends to support myself for much of it, and I eventually got excluded from the course because I couldn’t pay. Yet for all my life, I had the freedom, government support, and social infrastructure to be able to learn and to excel. I am who I am because I benefitted from Apartheid.

But some say:

Sorry but you are saying that we should feel sorry for other peoples lack to move on. I was born in 1983 and had to work 2 jobs through varsity while my black counterparts had scholarships and used the money to drink and party… JUST because your classy English Family benefited from Apartheid doesn’t mean that all whites were as lucky or unlucky as you… I will not feel ashamed and neither will I apologize for working my ass off to get to be where I am today. (R3ndi3r)

Hard work and struggle is what 95% of people everywhere have to endure. Yes, that is true of many whites under Apartheid, but that is a far cry from receiving no benefit. Everything about Apartheid government was structured to give whites the best and to keep blacks weak. If you are white, you received favour and benefit at the expense of the dispossession and cheap labour of everyone else. To complain that black South Africans are now just seeking handouts is to forget that the whole country was previously engineered for your welfare.

David Wong recently wrote an outstanding article called Six Things Rich People Need To Stop Saying that deals with exactly this attitude, but on a more general level. You should read that article right now.

Lesson 3: Make relevant arguments

Maybe there are some reasons for us not to dwell on the past. Feel free to argue for them when it’s appropriate, but make sure you don’t make hurt and division worse by using irrelevant smokescreens to escape taking responsibility. Take this commenter for example:

Most blacks… are made to believe by their “leaders” that all whites fell into bottomless riches during Apartheid. Taking myself and my family… Afrikaners before WW2 were the poorest Europeans on the planet. My late father had to go to the township in the small town we lived in, to go and BEG for food. World War 2 saved him from poverty… When I finished school,there were no money for university. I had to struggle on my own, leaving South Africa, in the hope i can get my foot in the door somewhere… If I see the opportunities black people have today, in the new South Africa, I feel envy. I did not have those opportunities. Every time I went back to South Africa, to find work, the door just became more shut every time I tried… Just in “AA”, racist (ANC) SA that I had this problem. (HenriLeRiche)

It’s a sad story of struggle. I don’t want to minimise that. But it ends with an invective that calls affirmative action and the present government racist, and none of it has much at all to do with the article that it criticises.

There is ample evidence that white South Africans have showed far too little awareness of how bad their behaviour was and how gracious the current government has been in visiting absolutely no punishment upon whites at all. Even affirmative action is not punishment, and we still have (warning: statistics from my sketchy memory) something like 90% of whites employed, versus less than 60% of the rest, and about 50% of the economy in white ownership. The article is about us dodging responsibility for our role in the past. What does it have to do with anything that some whites aren’t rich, or that the Afrikaaner was also poor once? What does present government performance or policy have to do with it?

We all have reason to be apologetic for our role in Apartheid, even if small, and to be thankful for the grace that black South Africa has thusfar shown. Yes, it is an uncomfortable position to be in, but let’s not make things worse by refusing to let pain that we helped cause intrude upon our comfort.

Response to Tauriq Moosa on Defending Morality with Religion

A friend of mine, Tauriq Moosa, wrote recently arguing on the basis of Euthyphro’s dilemma that it is indefensible for theists to claim their theism as a basis for ethics (‘The Flaws in Defending Morality With Religion‘). There was at least one blog offering a ‘Christian response’ that did neither side any justice, so I thought I’d have a go.

The dilemma as he put it is:

 “(1) Is conduct right because the gods command it (voluntarism), or (2) do the gods command it because it is right? (objectivism)”

It is derived from one of Socrates’ dialogues, and both Tauriq and Plato favour the second option, finding that the voluntarist option fails and renders the input of the gods redundant.

Although I discovered in the middle of writing this that what I’m about to say (or something similar) was succinctly argued by Augustine 1700 years ago (‘God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather His very nature is the standard for value.’), perhaps I can put it in a novel way.

The major problem with the dilemma is that it seems only to work if you conceive of the world as Plato did.

Plato’s world versus the Christian one

In Plato’s world, the gods were part of the universe, not beyond it, and the universe itself was seen as infinite and uncreated. The gods were spiritual powers within the same system that we inhabit. In his view, we either source our morality in the wishes of the gods, or we source it in an independent principle (reason, for example). In his worldview, the gods could be in disagreement about what was right, so divine commands that were binding upon people would have to be limited to what could be agreed upon. If even the gods disagree about what is right, it means that they are also subject to a principle of rightness external to them; this, of course, makes their opinion on the matter largely redundant. Furthermore, the fact that the universe itself was thought to be eternal and governed by absolute principles would have lent moral reasoning (which taps into those principles) considerable authority for someone like Plato.

However, if God is the Creator of the system and outside the system, it radically changes the game board. The dilemma treats God as divorced from the universe, so that the two can be conceived of separately. Plato could reasonably do so because his ‘gods’ were separate in this way, but Christian theism is not so structured, and accordingly the dilemma seems not to hold. The universe is not eternal and God is not a resident of it. The universe is His creation and dependent upon Him.

Everything that exists has its existence (according to Christianity) because of the ongoing command of God. In other words, God’s command does not merely govern moral imperatives, but also the patterns and structures and functioning of the universe too. Any system according to which we would measure rightness (be it reason, logic, whatever) would at the same time be a function of the mind of God who set the system up in the first place. The moral commands that He has given (taken for granted that there is a set of these that are identifiably from Him) would also be a function of that same mind. If God exists in the biblical way, He is both the author of moral command and moral reasoning, both of which are a function of His mind and character.

So conduct is not right because God commands it but because it is fittingly related to His character. Conduct is not commanded by God because it is right either, but it is commanded because it is fittingly related to His character. Whether we learn of that relatedness and that character by means of command or by good moral reasoning is irrelevant. God doesn’t merely give His blessing to something that is ‘good in itself’; His is the mind that made the rules and framework by which it can be recognised as such.

Objection: Following commands destroys moral freedom

“Whether god or the Bible, you are not making a proper moral decision if someone else is telling you what to do: it is not a decision, it is a command being obeyed. To be able to reason morally, you must be able to engage freely… Furthermore, [voluntarism] makes ethics a useless subject since we need only consult the gods.”

The complaint that command destroys free moral decision-making would perhaps be true if God dispensed command like a sergeant major. This is not how Christianity works.

Let’s hypothetically accept that the commands/laws in scripture are indeed from God’s mouth. These laws are surprisingly few, not exhaustive, given in a context, and intended to be applied and recontextualised very broadly. Over and over, the Bible models the idea that obedience to the letter of the law is insufficient and misses the point of it.

The law conveys a snapshot of Godlike character that needs to be investigated, expanded, understood, and embodied. Clearly, even obedience to God’s command requires the careful application of wisdom (which connects us again to the domain of moral reasoning).

So God’s commands require His followers to be as competent as anyone else at moral reasoning, because without it, command is bound to be misunderstood and misapplied. Biblical commands cannot function to ‘tell us what to do’ because they’re not structured in this way. So one cannot solve moral problems merely by consulting the scriptures (hence the disagreement among even followers of the Bible that Tauriq mentions). Moral reasoning, albeit of a dependent kind, is still required of Christians.

Additionally, it is certainly not the case that on moral issues one can merely ‘consult the gods’ directly. Given that the structure of God’s command is not to have a constant stream of orders from heaven, there is no expectation for Christians that God will provide fresh, specific commands for daily eventualities. His commands in scripture are expressions of underlying guiding principles, which (once laid down) are there for our study and application. This means that God’s commands are not as open to change or subjectivity or arbitrariness as you might think.

Objection: God is redundant

“…the gods are useless, since if the action is right, why do we need the gods to recognise it? We are already using another standard…”

From my earlier argument, it should be clear that God is not separable from the standard of right; God is not lending approval to ‘another standard’, He is actually foundational to morality and to the reasoning by which we attempt to gain access to it. He is the one who speaks the language of reason according to which the universe has been programmed.

But why the need to provide commands? Doesn’t moral reasoning at least make His intervention redundant?

Christians argue no, because it is basic Christian belief that humanity does not by nature have direct access to God, because sin separates us from knowing God, which means that our moral reasoning is left to its own devices. Because people have limited capacity and we’re generally unable to foresee the consequences of our moral decision-making, we do not have the faculties and the vantage point to see what is truly moral behaviour. In Christian terms, we are supposed to be aware that we are dependent creatures, not autonomous.

God does not experience such failings, and so ours can be partially overcome if God reveals His character in a more decisive way, and this makes command desirable. This is why Christians will tend to revert to the Biblical basis for morality that Tauriq’s article complains about. If God exists and if He has spoken, His words would necessarily be a primary moral resource. (Again, this assumes that we have a body of God’s revelation. I understand that this is questionable, but it is for now a separate issue than whether revelation/command would trump human reason.)

As Tauriq says: “One may appeal to reasons made by smarter people, but then you are engaging in their reasoning which any other free agent can assess and dispute”. God is the ultimate ‘smarter person’, and He does, surprisingly enough, frequently supply some of His reasons for moral commands. It is entirely reasonable to appeal to His thoughts, if we have them.

Another important reason why it is preferable to prioritise command is that Biblical religion is about restoring people to a relationship of dependence upon God, rather than autonomy. Having come to believe that God has commanded something, it is anti-relational to behave as though one knows better than Him how His creation works.

Objection: Third way makes God equivalent to goodness a priori

Tauriq’s article mentions a third way (besides the two raised by Plato), which makes rightness something internal to God. This is much the same as what I’m arguing, so I must answer the related objection. Tauriq says:

“We can’t simply be saying ‘god is good’ before the conversation on what constitutes good has even begun: because then it would render the discussions circular. Equating God with good doesn’t answer the question of what constitutes good, it just redefines God.”

I’m not sure that anyone is spared from his objection here, because everybody must eventually say what it is that constitutes good, and I don’t see how we can avoid doing so without describing a set of principal characteristics. By what criterion we say they’re ‘right’ thereafter presumably is circular for everyone.

When Christians say ‘God is good’, we do not leave God or goodness undefined, as if our idea of God could be redefined to suit any moral standard (which seems to me to be a modification of voluntarism). When we say God is good, we mean that goodness is based on His characteristics, not something external to Him (whether His commands or moral universals).

So this is why morality is ‘being fittingly related to His character’. Take for example what Jesus calls the founding principles underlying all law: love for God and love for neighbour. We are saying that love (as it is exemplified in Scripture, especially the crucifixion) is not an eternal principle that God likes, it is who He is, and so it is hardwired into His command and His creation.

There are two related objections that I’ll answer far too briefly: Firstly, some would say that if God existed prior to the creation of anything, then how could he have been moral (loving, for example) before there was anything that required the exercise of morality (love is other-person-centeredness; there needs to be others for it to exist)?

Ignoring the fact that we know nothing about eternity or things before the universe came to be, this objection is answered by the evidence in scripture that God is ‘Trinity’: a pluriform being, for want of a better term. God thus eternally practices other-person-centeredness by nature within his own being. So morality can be a set of particular characteristics, without also having to be external to God.

The second related objection is that God commands things that seem to us to be evil. I have written about the problem of evil before, so I’ll merely summarise. Firstly, for the greater good God opts not to bring evil (and thus all mankind) to an end, but rather works within a corrupted system to bring about ultimate good.

Secondly, there are direct divine commands (e.g. to annihilate) that are distasteful. Yet they are in line with the otherwise-obvious fact that God takes every life. Even those that die peacefully in their old age are nevertheless put to death by God, because as He says in the third chapter of the entire Bible, those who rebel will be put to death. He’s never really hidden that part away. Meting out judgement is not actually in direct conflict with God’s love. What is in conflict with God’s love is human hatred and rebellion, and so God either cures it or removes it.

Seeing as this still makes people unhappy, I would add to the above something that I have not argued on this subject before: It is a remarkable feature of God’s work in the world that He doesn’t mind bearing the accusation that He is evil. In working for the ultimate Good, God never seems to labour too hard to clear His own name.

Take the example of Jesus. His family line includes famous ancestors born out of prostitution, incest, adultery, and non-Jewish lineage. He was conceived out of wedlock inviting the assumption that he was a bastard. He worked as a manual labourer, not a scholar or priest. He hung around with traitors and hookers. He broke cultural interpretations of God’s law. He was condemned as a blasphemer. He died like the lowest of slaves. Nothing that he did was particularly aimed at protecting his reputation, and yet his shameful birth and death is all directed towards curing the evil and rebellion in those people who killed him.

So although the rightness of God’s actions are not always apparent to us, He seems not to mind the loss of reputation, even if it turns out that He was all the while doing good.

Peter Bruce fumbles Zuma Spear

Yesterday I posted an article that laments poor analysis of art. This morning’s Business Day includes yet another literalistic interpretation of ‘Spear of the Nation’ that shows little capacity for visual communication. Editor Peter Bruce says,

But I cannot for the life of me understand what he has done to deserve to be immortalised in a painting with his genitals hanging out of his trousers. Too many wives? It’s legal in SA. Rape? He was acquitted. A womaniser? So what, as long as his sex is with consenting adults. What then? Having your genitals depicted in public is a hell of a price to pay for being a rotten political leader, for being weak on economics or beholden to too many political interests. Brett Murray is, of course, free to do as he pleases in this democracy and you could just bet on the ANC to make matters worse by kicking up such a fuss.

But the sad fact is stuff like this only works in a Victorian society like ours. The artist went out of his way to shock and it proved depressingly easy, whatever side of the “debate” you are on. There’s no artistic thought here, merely the prudish notion that you can hurt somebody you disapprove of by pulling his pants down in public and giggling as you run away, this time crying “artistic freedom” as you go. (Business Day)

This again demonstrates confusion about what the painting is and what it means.

Firstly, Jacob Zuma hasn’t has his genitals displayed anywhere public; it’s someone’s drawing of a penis on someone’s drawing of JZ. Similarly, no one pulled JZ’s pants down; they remain firmly around his waist. Both of those are massively important distinctions when it comes to supposed abuse of his dignity. It’s a painting, an idea, not a sexual assault.

Secondly, why the assuption that the painting means what this author thinks it does? Everyone is interpreting it clumsily with zero appreciation of symbolism and the way that protest art communicates. The painting could mean a myriad of things other than ‘JZ’s penis is out too much’. It’s an overly-literal analysis, decrying a field that the author seems not to understand.

Even if this painting is so crass as to be merely taking a shot at Zuma’s embarrassing sexual exploits, why is it so unbelievably hurtful to raise such issues by means of visual protest, but acceptable to tell the entire nation in newspapers like Bruce’s that he impregnated his friend’s daughter? I’d rather someone drew fictional naked pictures of me than made my actual private transgressions into international news. Whose hypocritical ethical yardstick are we being forced to use here?

Romney, Obama, Gay Marriage and Freedom

I’m not particularly invested in US politics, but seeing as half the country votes for the Republican party and many of those because it’s the default ‘Christian vote’, I take an interest in the role that theology and faith plays in their rhetoric. In that vein, I’ve been keeping half an eye on the recent ‘gay marriage’ issue in the presidency war.

Obama’s View

Obama has been getting flak from the GOP for claiming that his view on the issue of gay marriage is ‘evolving’, and for eventually coming down in favour of ‘civil unions’ (I’m not sure whether he’s decided that it is right to call it ‘marriage’ just yet).

I don’t think the criticism is deserved; there is something commendable about each of these points. Firstly, it means that his opinions are open to change and that he’s actually thinking about things, rather than giving whatever his party/publicist considers to be ‘the Right Answer’.

Secondly, while conceding civil unions, he also identified his faith as a reason why he is/was unhappy calling these unions ‘marriages’. Maybe he was overtly trying to appear more centrist than the average Democrat — to appeal a tiny bit more to Christian voters — bit still, I thought that it was a risky admission and demonstrated a bit of principle. It’s probably politicking, but it may just show that he is willing to express a personal belief that may be unpopular, and also to subordinate it to what he considers best for those who don’t share his beliefs.

Romney’s Recent Speech

This morning I read that Romney had been campaigning at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, and had used the opportunity to take a veiled jibe at Obama, but mostly to argue that:

  • Marriage between “one man and one woman” is an “enduring institution” that should be defended
  • Faith in our Maker is more important that trivial things, and that differences in creed and theology can be overcome by emphasising shared moral convictions and worldview
  • Religious freedom is something that needs to be protected

I agree with nearly everything that he argues here. Nearly. But the point at which we disagree seems to me to call into question the integrity of everything else he says. My issue is the supposed ‘shared moral convictions and worldview’.

Romney is a Mormon talking to a broadly Christian audience. There is a great deal of difference in ‘moral convictions and worldview’, even just between Mormons and Christians, so much so that Romney’s church would typically be defined as a cult by his audience that day. We do not share beliefs and worldview, except maybe on the broadest terms.

More importantly, this attempt at finding common ground with his audience is even more unpracticable when applied to the nation as a whole. As he tacitly acknowledges by pleading ‘freedom of religion’, there isn’t complete homogeneity, even among the religious. The US is a pluralist society where opinions on morality and worldviews vary drastically, and their right to differ is constitutionally protected.

It is freedom of religion that enables Romney to be a Mormon, and he can be one even when Christians or Atheists or Clintons are in office. Leaders who are willing to protect the rights of those with whom they disagree ensure that such freedom exists. Leaders who only protect the liberties that suit them are actually a danger to liberty altogether.

Someone so eager to collect on the leeway that this particular freedom offers him ought to be more sensitive to groups that consider their freedom to be unfairly restricted in other areas. Romney’s talk about protecting marriage is the positive way of saying that he plans to restrict the freedom of people outside his camp to be married. Because their different moral and religious beliefs are too different. Now he may be right, but he’s not even acknowledging the complexities involved, let alone solving them.

It is ironic for someone defending the long and venerable tradition of Christian marriage that the Mormon church spent 50 years defending their right to practice polygamy. Some factions still do. Interestingly, polygamy was outlawed in the US because freedom of religion protects what people believe. What people do is governed by law, and polygamy was considered unlawful practice, not an idiosyncratic belief. Seeing as the US does not consider the practice of homosexuality to be unlawful, I find it hard to see how lawmakers can become inflexible concerning beliefs about marriage and deny civil benefits to couples whose behaviour is perfectly legal.

Romney makes pretty speeches, but he needs to demonstrate why his message doesn’t amount to ‘Yay freedom, except for those who are too different from us’.

So Romney received a standing ovation from the 30,000 in his audience, when in reality, it seems that Obama is the one whose faith and worldview is closer to that audience, and Obama is the one who is concerning himself with protecting the civil liberties also of people with whom he disagrees, not just in the convenient matter of religious freedom, but in the more contentious areas of governance too.

It’s easy to love your friends and to protect what is yours, but what does Romney plan to defend and protect for those people who do not fit into the homogenous faith community that he tries to paint here?


A note on my own beliefs: As a conservative Christian, I believe that homosexuality is wrong, and I would prefer marriage to be defined in traditional ways. The trouble politically is this:

  • Marriage is not Christian. It is nearly universal, and even in ‘Christian’ countries, non Christians may marry regardless of their faith. Seeing as marriage is not exclusively Christian, I find it hard to see how it can be protected on religious grounds, except if Christians campaign to protect some  religiously defined marriage concept that belongs only to them (which I would support).
  • Homosexuality is not illegal. If homosexuals have all the sexual and relational freedoms of marriage made available to them already, it makes the matter of calling them ‘legally married’ or not fairly irrelevant. We seem to me to be scrapping over legal status and benefits. The horse has bolted.

If gay marriage is wrong, it needs to be demonstrated more carefully. There may be some value in arguing that long-standing definitions of marriage are inherently worth protecting, but antiquity is not necessarily a sign of value. There may be some worth in arguing that there is social and psychological value in preserving the definitions of family that we do. I certainly believe that children probably benefit from growing up with a parent of each gender, but kids have turned out OK after being raised by one parent or even one grandparent, so what do I know? Point is, it’s complicated, and the matter isn’t settled by shouting ‘protect the family’ really loudly.


Reader Comment

A friend helpfully observed the following:

You’ve alluded to something that could be made more explicit.  There are two aspect to marriage, a legal and traditional part.  The tradition of marriage, which is informed by a person’s beliefs, came first and because of the partnership accept to marriage and the resulting implications for society, governments have realised the need to legislate marriage.  The distinction is very obvious in countries such as France but can also be observed in South Africa.  In France, you get legally married before the town mayor as the agent of government.  The traditional ceremony is then performed afterwards according to your beliefs. Priests, Rabbis and other religious leaders don’t have the right to perform the legal ceremony so one can clearly identify the two different aspects.

Given these two distinctions, I’ve always thought the legal partnership should be made available to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation because of the impact on society.

I see two questions, the first is: is gay marriage wrong?  The answer is most certainly yes, according to God’s word.  The second question is: given the reality of life in fallen world, should it be legislated?  Here I would say yes, to protect the weakest person in this partnership.  I don’t think one has to assume that because it’s legislated it’s not wrong.

I therefore think Obama’s stance on gay marriage says nothing about his beliefs.  His stance on abortion probably says much more…


Spanking and Obedience

Solomon was the wisest of all kings, but he failed for lack of obedience. Christian parents these days seem to me to be making sure that none of our kids resemble him in any way, whether good or bad.

I’m no model parent and I dislike reading or writing about parenting, and so I feel a little out of my depth commenting about such things. Nevertheless, I feel like there is an imbalance in Christian thinking about obedience (virtue though it is) and the use of spanking (which is treated like a virtue, though it isn’t) when obedience is lacking.

Corporal Punishment

In government legislation, the trend is increasingly to view any physical punishment as abuse. It has (unless I’m misled) been banned from schools, which has led many teachers to feel that their arsenal of disciplinary measures is worryingly depleted.

While I feel for teachers, I can also understand the blanket rule outlawing corporal punishment. That’s because teachers are frequently insane. For example, I had a history teacher called Mr Nielsen who had only one eye and suspiciously bottle-like scars around the blind one. He used to throw things — even wooden board dusters — at misbehaving boys (surely not a good idea when you have only one eye), and forced some to eat pieces of chalk. I would not have liked to see him with a cane in hand. I heard unconfirmed reports that he eventually fled when it was discovered that his teaching qualification was fictitious. I was also caned with a cricket bat for wearing our official purple athletics shorts instead of our white cricket shorts to practice (as if being the only high-school kid in purple shorts wasn’t punishment enough in itself).

More to the point, even with the practice outlawed, we have regular reports of horrific abuse taking place in the classroom. Lenient sentences were given out to firstly a female teacher who was filmed repeatedly beating a girl’s knuckles with a wooden duster, and a principal who lashed a boy four times with a hosepipe. In another incident this month, four teachers took turns beating a boy so that he required surgery after forming blood clots and losing sensation in one testicle. The boy was not particularly angry, because he claims that such discipline is normal where he comes from (he received twelve lashes on his rear and three on his hands – that was last normal in Ancient Rome, son).

These are sadly not isolated incidents or the worst of the lot; they were just the ones in the news this month. The prevention of abuse must surely be a priority.

Parents fare even worse when it comes to discipline. The NY Times reported in November that spanking and other physical punishments had led to three separate child deaths in America, including a 7-year-old girl literally spanked for hours (with pauses for prayer).

Abuse like this rightly provokes outrage, and this seems to drive the move to ban physical discipline entirely. Nevertheless, we don’t ban kitchen knives because people stab each other with them; similarly, banning spanking itself may be an overreaction. Within limits, spanking can be a helpful way of teaching children that bad behaviour reaps unpleasant consequences. It can be administered without rage and without cruelty. Furthermore, I doubt that banning spanking altogether would do much to stem physical abuse, as I can’t imagine that legality is a strong motivator for an abuser. Even if spanking did die out, it might spare children some physical pain, but it won’t spare it the need for therapy later in life. One less mode of punishment, but the same abusive parents.

If banning spanking would be an overreaction,  some Christian writers have overbalanced the other way, making spanking a virtue.

Spanking for Jesus?

A number of websites have published criticisms of Michael and Debi Pearl’s book called ‘To Train Up a Child’, especially after it received the attention of CNN, and after the book turned up in each of those 3 homes in which the punishments killed the children.

I haven’t read the book, but what I’ve read and watched from him suggests that Pearl is sensible more often than his detractors give him credit for. For example, he advises parents not to spank while they’re angry, which is good counsel. On the other hand, he has spanking advice for children as young as six months old, which is well before children have shed that salamander-like blankness from their eyes, and seems a lot early. He also says this:

A child with unacceptable habits becomes a rejected child, then a dejected child, and eventually a self-loathing kid who feels that he can never please anyone and that no one likes him. I am sorry the psychologists and secular child advocates don’t get it, but then if all parents practiced child training as I have suggested, there wouldn’t be any need for abnormal psychologists or child protection agencies. A lot of people would move on to more practical kinds of work, and there wouldn’t be any more crime or war. (Source)

Good parenting would solve much of life’s problems, but I doubt that utopia would actually break out if we all just followed the steps.

In fact, ‘following the steps’ is one of the problems. Parenting requires uncommon amounts of wisdom. And while we can benefit from the wisdom of others, learning wisdom is learning how to think, how to apply, how to foresee. You have to be provoked into thoughtfulness, not taught a more complicated system of laws. Provoking thoughtfulness is the goal of Biblical wisdom literature, which is why it is so often intentionally paradoxical (see Proverbs 26:4-5). It is a violation of wisdom literature to treat it as law, and yet that is what Christians so often do.

For example, when Proverbs 13:24 says, ‘He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him,’ it is not making a law to specify beatings with a rod as the godliest form of discipline. One can use the rod liberally and hate one’s son, and one can use forms of discipline other than the rod and completely fulfil the Proverb. The rod is a figure of speech: it is at least a synecdoche (where a part, the rod, stands for the whole, discipline), and it is possibly even imagery borrowed from farming where shepherds use the rod to keep their sheep in line, but not necessarily meaning to suggest that we should be applying these farming practices to our children. The proverb is advocating discipline as the hard-but-loving thing to do for one’s children; it is not making a law to command God’s people to beat their children with sticks.

So please do away with the idea that you are somehow more godly, more obedient, more Christian, more Biblical for hitting your children. It is not wrong to do so (lovingly), but there are many other forms of discipline that you can and should use, including positive incentives rather than only negative experiences. Don’t imagine that you’ll somehow get a better seat at God’s banquet for literally using a rod.


Not only do we get in a muddle concerning the mode of discipline, but also in the matter of when discipline is deserved.

‘Gospel Centred Family’ by Moll and Chester seems like a decent enough booklet. The first chapter was fine anyway, although, I was under-impressed by the quote included in the questions for further reflection at the end:

Paul Tripp says obeying parents = ‘willing submission to authority without delay, without excuse and without challenge’.  (Source)

This ‘first-time obedience’ idea has its merits. Obedience is an important, potentially life-saving lesson to learn. Submission to authority is OK as a general rule. Kids also have a habit of begging, coercing, stretching, and bargaining away little pieces of their parents’ souls, so it is obviously an attractive idea for parents that they should be demanding unquestioning, undelayed obedience (and of course, if they get anything less from their kids, it’s a green light to give the kids a spanking!).

Raise your kids to obey unquestioningly if you think it’s good, but please stop calling it Christian.

If Christian parenting has anything to do with teaching our kids about God and modelling God-like principles to them, then first-time, unquestioning obedience is a misrepresentation of His character. God demands obedience, to be sure, and its lack was the downfall of heroes such as Saul and Solomon. But consider the following that is also true about modelling God’s character to our children:

  • Most Biblical laws (more explicitly so in the NT) are given with either a justification, a motivation, or an incentive (look at Ephesians 4 for example). ‘Because I said so’ is rare in the Bible. So why should our kids not be able to ask why before they obey (assuming defiance isn’t their only motivation)?
  • We are not God. This seems obvious to say, but we obey God because we believe He is a good and omnipotent King. We are neither good nor consistently right. Our kids should have the right to appeal against our pronouncements made in error. Fathers, do not exasperate your children, it says.
  • God displays incredible patience towards us, giving us numerous chances to obey.
  • God does not punish us immediately.
  • God does not give us what we deserve.

I’m not advocating that parents allow endless bargaining and backchat; without firmness and consistency you’re sure to breed an unruly mob. Nevertheless, first-time, unquestioning obedience is not what God insists upon from us, or demands what we instill in our kids, and neither is it particularly good for teaching our children to become wise. Again, you may still think it is the best way to raise kids, and it may be (much of the time), but just don’t call it Christian.

Compassion in Torah

It’s typical these days to caricature the Old Testament as brutal and intolerant. Of course there is some reason to take offence at its violence and the harshness of some laws, especially when passages are torn from their theological context.

“Thou shalt… what?… defend the right to bear arms? Sure, OK, you got it.”

Yet, I suspect that such caricatures owe just as much to the general revulsion towards modern hyper-conservatives and fundamentalists of all sorts of religions, whose attitudes get super-imposed back onto Biblical text. After all, the Old Testament is old, and conservatives like the old ways. Most religious extremists have beards, and Charlton Heston wore a beard when he was in that Ten Commandments flick.

However we’ve come to the conclusion that the Torah is backward and brutal, looking at its details frequently throws up surprising challenges to that view. The following is one that I noticed recently.

In Deuteronomy 27, as Israel prepares to enter Canaan, Moses commands that representatives of each tribe should pronounce curses upon immoral behaviour, one curse for each tribe. The intention seems to be that breaking the law in heinous ways brings curse upon society as a whole. Each member of each tribe — as member of a theocracy — has a responsibility to choose blessing and the good, rather than evil and curse.

As you’d expect, the twelve evils that bring on curse include serious cases of lawbreaking, such as incest, bestiality, and stealing land from one’s neighbour.

What strikes me as entirely unexpected is that within the collection of the top twelve sins that bring on curse, Moses includes, ‘Cursed is the man who leads the blind astray on the road’ (27:18).

If we were to construct a list of things that are to be forever associated with curse, we would presumably make it a collection of the worst things that you can do, or relate it somehow to the the most important constitutional laws. It is strange then that this list includes something that is neither especially harmful or illegal. I’d be surprised if such behaviour made it into even the top 100 curse-worthy things we could think of; it’d be somewhere near ‘dawdling while in rush-hour traffic’, I’d suspect. Nevertheless, here it is in Moses’ list of twelve.

The reason for including it is not hard to see; it’s just not as crusty and Old-Testamenty as we may have expected. Enshrined in Israel’s foundational blessing-and-cursing material is the idea that there is something fundamentally abhorrent about exploiting the helpless, even just for fun. Taking even relatively harmless advantage of the weak, just because you can, invites the curse of God. Put positively, one of the major lessons that ancient Israel were meant to learn before they entered the Holy Land was that blessed, law-abiding people ought to be characterised by compassion and kindness, otherwise they had not understood what it means to be like their God.

It’s a shame that people are quick to single out God’s acts of judgement as evidence of vengefulness of character, when there is so much evidence to the contrary. The theme of kindness to the enemy runs throughout the Biblical material. There is a tension to be felt between God’s judgement and mercy to be sure, but that’s just it: to miss that tension (by discarding either side) is to miss the point.

Animal Abuse

Is it right to condone animal abuse just because the creatures involved are barely sentient? Should we allow creatures to live dreadful lives just because it benefits us to do nothing?

A group of puppies were recently discovered that had been kept in a basement since birth, and had never been allowed outside. The cellar that they were kept in was extremely small, not allowing them enough room to exercise, and it was rarely cleaned. As they grew, there was eventually insufficient space for them to move around at all.

The animals were left with a huge supply of food, but the room was artificially lit and lights were turned off for only short periods at night. As a result the puppies had little to do but to eat. With no exercise and little care and attention, they became obese as adults, and suffered a number of physiological problems. Some of the animals had developed blisters, rashes from the poor cleanliness, and some were virtually unable to walk. The animals with mobility problems were often unable to reach drinking water and were badly dehydrated.

The animals were discovered when the owners were in the process of transporting them. They had shackled their legs and dumped them in the back of an estate car. The dogs were handled poorly and one of the dogs died on the journey. The owner had planned to slit their throats before he was interrupted and the remaining animals were rescued.


I’m not really one for sob stories, and this isn’t one of those email chain letters that tell you how many more puppies will die if you don’t fwd it to ten friends. There are probably more heinous cases of animal abuse every day.

The thing is that this story is in a way fictitious. I made it up, and no poor little puppies were harmed quite in this way. The story is nearly true though. To make it a true story, you would need to add that the animals were not rescued, they were killed; the owner was not interrupted, he was paid; you would need to extend the size of his group of animals from ‘a few’ to ‘billions’; and you would have to change ‘puppies’ to ‘chickens’.

The fact that the scale of chicken farming is so huge seems to give us licence not to think of them as animals any longer, or at least not as our problem, but if people were deriving entertainment from treating a room full of pets in the way that we treat chickens, we would cry foul. As soon as we get a slightly stupider, less cuddly animals involved and add that it’s for food, we pretend that these creatures are some sort of senseless crop, unfeeling and eager to surrender themselves to the knife.

I can’t see any compelling reason why people at large should get all misty-eyed about puppy abuse and angry that certain Eastern nations enjoy a nice chunk of Maltese Poodle now and then, and in the next minute tuck into a bucket full of pre-abused chicken.

Notes and Caveats

  • I’m not arguing that we should turn the whole world free range.
  • I’m not suggesting every farmer loves punching chickens in the face.
  • I’m not suggesting that alarmist animal welfare groups have all their facts straight.
  • I’m not suggesting all chickens are abused.
  • I am all for (responsible) scientific involvement in food production.
  • I am suggesting that we have double-standards about animal treatment.
  • I am suggesting that we ought to be more concerned than we are about what our food has to go through to get to our plates.
  • I am suggesting there is a duty to be responsible with our consumption.

So what then?

Myth-busting websites, such as ‘http://www.safefoodinc.org/‘ (run by America’s beef and poultry people. Hmm…), helpfully raise issues about the problems with free range. However, their reasons are not exactly above criticism. They say (if animals were treated less like walking food),

  • Food prices—especially meat and poultry prices—would rise dramatically because of the increased costs of their inefficient production approaches.
  • Vast amounts of land would need to be used to raise livestock and poultry in free range systems.
  • The environment would suffer from open systems lacking environmental controls.
  • Many fresh fruits and vegetables, which are seasonal in nature, would become unavailable in many areas of the country for much of the year.
  • Imported foods like salamis from Italy, Danish hams and many other items would become “politically incorrect” because of the distances the products travel

That’s all true, and all based on the assumption that human consumption levels (and habits) are an unchangeable factor in the calculation. It is unthinkable that people should consider not eating a gazillion tonnes of KFC and hamburger; it is unthinkable that people could survive without tangerines and strawberries all year round.

Of course we all have to eat, but we pleasure-eat more than we realise. Maybe we should be less tolerant of the argument that we have to farm animals in abusive conditions, because there are too darn many of us waiting for our third helping of Buffalo Wings.


Ethics: No Harm No Foul?

I recently wrote criticising the Democratic Christian Alliance for being over-sensitive in the matter of the slightly-sexually-suggestive DASO poster. In the same post, I also hinted that, according to my moral outlook, sex belongs only within a marriage relationship. A reader complained that, in implying that certain sexual acts are immoral, I was demonstrating that I actually agree with the CDA position that I claimed to oppose. This is my attempt at explaining how the CDA and I differ.

The difference between my approach and that of the CDA is the difference between public and private ethics. In a pluralistic society, there is likely to be (or ought to be) a difference between what one personally considers to be morally right, and what one considers to be morally binding on everybody else. The CDA response to the ‘immoral’ poster was out of line because as a political organisation they need to demonstrate why their moral opinions should be binding on all; they ought not to be making accusations without evidence and on the basis of their preferences.

The harm principle

Public morality—at least in the hands of liberal politicians—tends to be governed by the harm principle. It says that one is permitted to do nearly anything, so long as no one gets hurt (against their will). It is not too different from that common moral teaching, ‘Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you’. It is a good principle in the sense that it gives wide and satisfying scope for individual freedom, and it is also a reasonably simple and practical guideline for public behaviour.

I am in favour of the harm principle as the criterion to which members of society should be held. While it makes it highly unlikely that the wider public will ever live in a way that I consider moral, it also means that no one will force their ideas about morality on me. Furthermore, the same principle gives me the freedom to practice Christianity even under the rule of non-Christian governments, it allows me to tell people what I believe, and it allows us all to change our beliefs if we wish. Even if I wanted a government that forced Christian standards upon all citizens (I don’t), I would undoubtedly be at war with a government that attempted to force me to live according to another religion. If I would find this government interference to be evil when it goes against me, how could I consider it good and loving to others to support such interference just because the moral preferences suit me?

So I find the principle of harms to be the best way of accommodating the variety of belief present in pluralistic society, but I don’t think therefore that it is an ideal moral system.

The problem with harms

The harm principle is something of a lowest common denominator. I strongly believe that there are moral criteria that extend beyond merely inflicting pain on others.

For example, when conservative religious parties complain about sexual immorality (such as with the DASO poster), the usual response from further left is that the act involves consenting adults acting within a relationship of love, they are harming no one, and so who has the right to tell them that their behaviour is immoral? It seems to me, however, that this line of reasoning is abandoned by nearly everyone when one of the lovers also falls in love with a third consenting adult. There remains a relationship of love between both pairs of consenting adults, and yet the first lover experiences it as betrayal.

As far as I’m aware, infidelity (or is this just premarital polygamy?) doesn’t violate the harm principle. There is no compelling reason why you have to feel hurt when someone loves  you and someone else, and certainly there is no intention to inflict pain. Either way, it is the absence of the positive virtue (fidelity) that defines this sort of action as immoral, rather than the presence of a negative (harm). Sleeping with someone else remains immoral, even if your spouse could not possibly find out and never does.

So, as a public-policy-defining moral basis, the harm principle is good. But as an actual standard of moral ideals, it leaves out too much. Morality, for example, ought to include positive virtues.

The love principle

Rather than ‘harm’ as the main idea, I prefer ‘love’ as the basis for morality, even though that may sound vague or hackneyed. Instead of ‘not doing to others what you’d not want done to you’, the moral ideal should be ‘do as you would have done to you’. It’s an active principle of doing good, rather than merely avoiding evil. Furthermore, the love principle incorporates the principle of harms; as St Paul says,

Whatever commandments there may be are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law. [Romans 13:9-10]

Love allows people of different beliefs to coexist in freedom, but it also demands more, both in responsibility to others, and in the limiting of one’s own freedoms for the sake of higher goods, such as fidelity.

Qualities such as ‘love’ and ‘the good’ are difficult to define and harder to legislate, but nevertheless, an individual’s moral judgements should be informed by avoiding immediate harm, positive application of virtue, positive action for the good of others, consideration of function and purpose, and willingness to intervene to prevent present or future harm to the individual or to society. Love, as they say, must sometimes be tough, and so this principle may prove more restrictive (in some ways) than harms does, but nevertheless, morality is always a higher calling than what we do by nature.

Me, the CDA, and sex outside of marriage

So, like the CDA, I believe that promiscuity is immoral, yet unlike the CDA, I don’t believe that it is the responsibility of officials and organisations to agree with me or to insist that the wider public must. This is especially true of issues that we consider immoral because they are against God’s commands. If something is to be binding upon everyone, then there needs to be strong support for it beyond ‘It’s against my beliefs’. After all, I wouldn’t want to be punished for having a birthday party or refused a blood transfusion for my child just because a Jehovah’s Witness happened to be in power.

While I believe that adults should be free to engage in sex outside of marriage if they wish, I consider it immoral for reasons in addition to divine command. To be moral, sex needs to conform to the principle of love, and therefore be suitably other-person-centred, yet sex can easily be selfish behaviour that can be extremely unloving.

Because the sex act involves unparalleled levels of intimacy and trust between participants, and because participating in it (generally speaking) includes the possibility of bearing children, there is a level of commitment implicit in the act. If one is truly acting in a loving way towards one’s partner, then one should be able to precede sex with an act of commitment that matches the level of trust implicit in sex. If you’ll commit in word to be faithful, but not in deed (by actual contract), then what good is your word? You may well argue that the commitment of marriage is disproportionate to the one implied by having sex, but that’s a matter of opinion. Sex is a powerful emotional force that can do damage if abused, and especially if one adds a pregnancy to the equation, then the willingness to commit to a relational environment built to cope with such consequences (i.e. marriage) no longer seems that extreme. Again, if you can’t take responsibility for those kinds of consequences before sex, are you sure that you will after? So I’d agree with the Biblical judgement that premarital sex has a tendency towards self-gratification rather than the other-person-centeredness of love, and is as such immoral.