Friday, September 23, 2011

Love, Freedom, Universalism...and Abortion.

In his blog post today, Richard Beck has offered a beautifully accessible and compelling case for universalism in the form of a critique of Rob Bell's "conditionalism" (the idea that God's offer of salvation is unlimited, but whether all are saved depends on the free response of creatures). Really worth checking out if you are interested in the topic.

Beck's essay is so nicely done that I'm inclined to let it speak largely for itself. But since his essay bizarrely dovetails with the class discussion I had today about Judith Jarvis Thomson's essay, "A Defense of Abortion," I can't help but say a few words about that connection.

Thomson makes a distinction in that essay between the question of what you ought to do and the question of what you have a right to do. There are some things we ought not to do--it would, in Thomson's words, be "indecent" of us to do them. But we might still have a right to do them.

Thomson's distinction here led to a class discussion about what it could mean to have a right to do something that, morally, you ought not to do--especially if it's not merely a legal right we're talking about, but some more basic right that is invoked to justify the legal right. In what sense can I affirm your right to do what it would be horribly indecent of you to do? I can't mean that your choice is a matter of moral indifference, so that either choice is morally "alright." So what, then, could I mean?

The basic idea seems to be that, in some sense, the choice should be yours. The choice should be left up to you. But what, exactly, does that mean? Does it mean I've violated your right if I try to talk you out of it? If I point out that it would be an indecent thing to do? If I seek to persuade you not to do something so terrible?

(I'm not implying here that the choice to abort is necessarily indecent here, although it might be. Thomson certainly doesn't think abortion is always indecent. But she thinks there are choices which are indecent which we nevertheless retain the right to make. So let's have in mind a different choice: Suppose your sister is dying and urgently needs a bone marrow transplant. You are the only one who can provide it. But to save her life means being out of comission during the championship baseball game that you finally have a chance to play in. The choice, we might say, should be yours. But many, I think, would regard the decision to play the game and let your sister die--assuming this was a certain outcome--as the wrong choice to make. Seriously wrong.)

In our class discussion, we generally agreed that there was a difference between persuasion and coercion, and that the right to make a choice is more clearly a right to be free from the latter than from the former. Of course, there may be efforts at persuasion that are pursued in deeply intrusive ways--I may, in effect, force you to put up with my persuasive diatribes, shoving my opinion down your throat so relentlessly that the persuasion becomes coercion. The message becomes, in effect, "Unless you choose as I want you to choose, I will hound you relentlessly."

And, clearly, one can be coerced into being subjected to persuasive efforts one would rather not hear. In short, there are legitimate question about how to draw the line between persuasion and coercion, or about when persuasion is as problematic as coercion. The line here is not neatly drawn. But still, there is a difference.

We also talked about species of coercion. If I make it clear that I don't want to associate with you any more if you make that indecent choice, is that coercive? Presumably it has a different status than putting a gun to your head or telling you that I will inflict financial ruin on you if you choose to let your sister die. But still, might it not qualify as coercive?

On the one hand, it seems I have certain rights about who I will and will not associate with. And it may be only fair to let you know how I will exercise those rights if you choose in ways I find detestable. We might think you have a claim on making a fully-informed choice, aware of the consequences for such things as friendships. If I just can't spend time with a person who would choose to play in a baseball championship rather than save their sister's life...well, shouldn't I have the right to tell you that, even if I acknowledge that the choice between playing the game and saving your sister is yours to make?

Then again, telling you something like that may be manipulative or even coercive, a way of intruding illegitimately into your choices. One might imagine that a great deal depends on context. In any event, there may be a difference between threatening a cost if you make the "wrong" choice, and letting you know what I will do if you make that choice, where what I will do is something you won't like. Not every case of the latter is necessarily a case of the former.

These were the sorts of things we talked about in class today. And what is the lesson that my class drew from this discussion? Well, there were more questions than answers, I think. But I would guess that the following constitutes one small point of consensus: To say that the choice should be yours is not to say that others--others who care about you and your choices--must abandon you to your choices, so as to ensure that you operate in a social and personal space completely free from others' thoughts, feelings, and convictions.

And here is where my class discussion about what it means to have the right to choose merges with Beck's line of thought.  There is, obviously, room for discussion about the concept of freedom at work in Beck's argument, his idea that what you care about has a more basic status than what you choose. But even if you lean towards a more strongly libertarian view of freedom than Beck seems to have, there is something to be said for Beck's conviction that the kind of God affirmed in Christian theology would never merely abandon us to our choices--especially not when those choices are rooted in confusion and ignorance and deeply misguided priorities.

It is possible to let a person make choices without abandoning them to their choices. It is possible to be involved, and involved in a loving way, even though there are difficult boundary issues, even though the line between persuasion and coercion--or between stating intentions and making threats--is sometimes hard to draw. Consider again the case involving the choice between a playing a championship game and saving your sister's life with a bone marrow transplant, but now imagine that a loving parent is on the scene. Would staying out of your choice be the most loving thing? Could she still respect your freedom while urgently pleading with you to make the life-saving choice?

And what about a choice more akin to what is at stake in salvation--a more choice without a time limit and more clearly about one's own fate, one in which the resources to turn away from a destructive path remains available. Imagine an addict and a loving parent who cares deeply about the addicted child, who has resources that can help break the addiction. Is the parent violating the demands of respect for freedom by staging an intervention?

There are difficult boundary issues here, lines between respectful persuasion and coercion, between manipulation and loving confrontation. But a God of love who knew the heart of every creature would, it seems, be uniquely situated to maneuver those complex boundaries, to preserve the balance between loving involvement and letting people choose.

Love does not walk away, even if it does not coerce.


  1. Eric-

    "But a God of love who knew the heart of every creature would, it seems, be uniquely situated to maneuver those complex boundaries, to preserve the balance between loving involvement and letting people choose."

    After a nice discussion touching on our social instincts, mutual duties, and individual rights, suddenly god? Whatever does that have to do with it? Did god take part in your class discussion? It seems insulting to drag pink ponies into a serious discussion of ethics among actual thinking, feeling human beings. Where is your conception of human rights?

    Even if someone believed in the existence of a god, how does this kind of argument work? Do you know what god wants? Did he tell you what he wants? Did god say we had to do as he wants? Or else what? I can not believe that adults, let alone scholars, engage in such fraud, posing as knowing things they can not possibly, and do not actually ... know. The problem of intellectual standards can not be wished away with pontifications about "deeper frames", etc.

    I know, I know, I sound like an impolite ranter. Attacking your self-projection will only reinforce it all the more. All I ask is that you take Hegel and issues of evidence seriously, especially that sentiment, cultic tradition, and psychological congeniality does not validate truth.

  2. Sorry, the link above should have gone to something a bit more coherent.

  3. Burk, *that* kind of response is why I don't want to have conversations with you. It's one thing to miss important points (as you did), but it's quite another thing to miss thise points *while* being demeaning and insulting (as you were and often are). Your own description of "impolite ranter" is quite apt.

    Can you imagine the justified annoyance many atheists would feel if a "believer" disrespected an atheist philosopher the way you disrespected Eric? I don't mean to speak for Eric here, but those kinds of posts contribute to the poor quality of discussion on all things "religious".

    You need to reevaluate some things.

  4. Burk,

    Consider this parable. Three siblings--Abe, Betty, and Cathy--grow up being told stories by their mother about their “Uncle Joe”—a man they never met who, according to the stories, was a concert-level violinist AND an Indiana-Jones-like adventurer. Abe believes the stories. Cathy thinks Joe never existed and that Mom’s stories were just made up. Betty thinks Joe was real but that many of the stories Mom told about him are probably false or exaggerated.

    Because Betty is a professional violinist, she has particular doubts about a tale in which Joe’s life depended on playing Schubert’s L’Abeille without a technical error at least once in four attempts. According to the story, the technical challenges of the piece were so fierce that perfection eluded him on the first three tries—and rather than face certain death after a fourth failed attempt, he escaped by leaping out a fifth floor window into a raging river.

    Once, when the siblings are gathered for dinner at Betty’s house, Abe insists to Betty for the umpteenth time that the story is true. Betty, frustrated, fishes out her sheet music for L’Abeille. She slaps it down on the table and walks Abe through the piece from beginning to end. Cathy—who’s interested in music—listens in.

    “L’Abeille just isn’t that hard,” she says. “The opening and concluding sections are triplet runs with minimal bowing challenges. The middle section is a series of slurred arpeggios that sound much harder than they are. I was able to play it without technical mistakes four times out of five when I was fourteen. Pretty much every kid who seriously studies violin learns the piece.”

    She goes on to explain that the only real challenge for a decent violinist is speed, but that’s just a matter of working it up slowly with a metronome. “Once you make it to playing speed, you mark the passages where your fingers still trip up, and you work on them.” She explains various ways this can be done. “It can be tedious, but once you’re done it’s in your bones. You just know the thing. A concert-level violinist like Joe would be able to whip it off like nothing. There’s no way he’d flub it three times in a row, and certainly no way he’d rather bet his life on leaping five stories into a raging river.”

    While Betty is explaining all of this, Cathy listens with interest. But as soon as Joe’s name is mentioned she gets an appalled look.

    “Wait a minute here!” she interjects. “After a nice discussion touching on violin technique and practice methods, suddenly Joe? Whatever does Joe have to do with it? Do you bring up Joe with your violin students? It seems insulting to drag pink ponies into such an otherwise interesting discussion on the finer points of playing the violin.”

    Betty looks up at Cathy in perplexity. “Um…You’re kidding, right?”

  5. I recall Hauerwas making some comment about the fact that there are no important ethical decisions that won't cause others in our community to suffer.
    I think he was calling attention to the myth of the liberal society: that it is possible for all of us to live 'freely' by making our own choices so long as no else's freedom is impinged.
    And yet at other points he is interested in the claim that truthfullness isn't coercive, and that unlike the universalistic claims of humanism or rationalism or whatever, the truth never needs to be coerced unto someone else.
    This at least is my recollection of his argument... what I don't quite get is how the making of difficult decisions in a community (which will necessarily cause some to suffer - otherwise they aren't difficult decisions), isn't thus in some way coercive.

    Abortion seems to me an example of the above.

  6. Eric-

    Is that the extent of your theology- that Joe is a story, and that one could invoke Aesop's fables just as well as Christianity for the purpose of ethical idealism and instruction? If so, then I have been quite mistaken in my critique. We each seem to lack belief- me as an atheist, you as a crypto-agnostic but lover of stories.

    But somehow I doubt that is the case, and you make far more out of old Joe than your parable implies. Much more.

    Here, the story of Joe provides the dramatic armature for a lesson in violin technique. Joe is not presented as a friend one should imagine one can talk to, confide in, and love (despite not having ever.. you know.. met). Joe is also not presented as a specter who will judge the living and the dead at the final dispensation, sending the slackers off to hell (however temporarily!). Nor is he presented as a part of the godhead, individual and fully human, also fully god, and fully three in one and one in three, a la the Musketeers, etc.

    You get the point. But admittedly, I was only key-ing from your posted text, not from the cited blog, which doubtless put all this in a god-centric formulation. You only brought up what god wants at the very end, after what seemed like a reasonable discussion.

    What's not to like about a god who runs the whole universe, makes us in our wretched fallible state, lets us fester in our wars, torture, and depredation, but "wants" us to be good? It all reeks of self-projection and social engineering. As a liberal, I am all for social engineering, but please- under honest auspices!

    Going to the Beck blog, it is indeed drenched with all the god talk that was missing (almost) from your own post. Again, I simply ask- does he have any idea what he is talking about? I know you share an extensive theological ouvre explicating exactly what it is that god does and doesn't want, how far it is willing to go, how far it will torture us to get us there, etc. Where do these ideas come from? Don't they come from inside, where the gates are? Don't they come from that place inside that could either be our wonderful imagination, or else the incredible worm-holing god of the universe entering our humble vessel with its wisdom and premonitions that are so vague as to leave no trace of distinct knowledge, powerfully convincing and profound-seeming?

    "In short, God wants our choices to be voluntary." (unless we have so much affection they aren't.. but anyhow...)

    Very well, a logical deduction from the premise that god is love, or mostly characterized by love, etc. Where did that bedrock of liberal Christianity come from? It comes, at best and most clearly, from the scriptures, though one would have to do a bit of cherry picking.. another issue. So, how certain are we that the scriptures tell us the truth about god? Ah- there we reach the stumbling block that the scriptures are rather obviously human products of their place and time, clearly written by people inspired as the occasional person is in our day today, and not in any evident way more attuned to cosmic truths than we are. Again, we have the choice between seeing the source as the human imagination, or the fantastic super-being who gives us such tenuous deliverances that just seem like imagination, most of which are flushed down the "false prophet" chute. I think Occam's razor alone would make such a choice pretty clear.

  7. Burk, You've clearly missed the point of my parable. I'm busy and tired from a head cold, so I'll be quick. The point is that controversies arise in the context of a set of common assumptions or "givens." To disagree within the context of certain givens and debate within that context is to have one conversation. To debate the givens of the first conversation is to have an entirely different conversation.

    Sometimes those who agree on a set of givens want to address significant questions that arise within that framework. For someone who doesn't share those givens to listen in on such a discussion and interject, "Why are you bringing the givens of your discussion into an otherwise interesting discussion?"...well, it misses the point of the discussion.

  8. Thanks for the clarification, Eric- I definitely did mistake your point.