Piketty Notes and Quotes, 5: Inequality Language Games

Here’s another post on Piketty that isn’t really about Piketty per se, but about the sorts of conversations one finds oneself in when talking about him.  Over the past week and a half, I have been struck by a curious tendency I have encountered in a number of Christians when the subject of inequality comes up.

“So are you saying inequality is a problem, inequality is bad?”

“Well, yeah, I do think that, at least beyond a certain point, it’s a problem.”

“So why is it bad?”

“Well, it tends to create all these negative consequences, you see: social unrest, unhealthy concentrations of political power, oppression, etc.”

“So the problem then isn’t inequality, but people being envious, or people being power-hungry and corrupt, or people being oppressive, right?”

“Well, yeah, but high inequality tends to create those problems.  What’s your point?”

“Ah, but see you’re admitting now that inequality is not bad in itself.  It’s people who are bad, and these sins are just as much sins whether or not I have the same as you or a million times as much as you.”

“Um . . . ok.  But my point is that inequality is still a problem for our society.”

“But you’ve just admitted that inequality in itself isn’t the problem.”

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The Purpose of Discussion

Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World and Time, pp. 45-47:

Discussion is a shared struggle to reach truth and overcome error.  It may often unfold in an eristic form, as an exchange of arguments and rebuttals.  (We see this especially in the phenomenon of the combative personality, the individual who has difficulty thinking through anything at all without picking a quarrel, thrusting discussion-partners into the role of opponents.)  The eristic form has its own right.  Differences at the outset provide the stimulus for thought to progress dialectically.  As we know from politics, the discussion cannot get off the ground if either party denies the other the right to its independent starting point; when the condition for entering discussion is that a key point is surrendered in advance, no discussion can occur.  Paradoxically, then, discussion depends at once on conflicting assertions and on mutual concessions.  But what is asserted and what is conceded are not the same.  We may enter a discussion in perfect confidence that we are in the right against our opponent.  We may be sure that once we have explained ourselves fully, no shred of an answer can be made.  Yet we may still sense the need to prove our impregnability in a clash of steel, to gain real knowledge of what the opponent actually says when confronted with our case and to discern, if we can, what alternative reasoning can be brought to bear against our own.  Even the most confident discussant can expect to learn something from the exercise.

Let us suppose that I disapprove strongly of the death penalty, and take up the cudgels against someone who defends it.  As our discussion proceeds, certain things will become clear.  One is that there are various reasons for disapproving of the death penalty, some of which may plausibly claim a perennial moral truth, while others are more circumstantial.  If my opponent forces me to think hard, I shall understand better what social and historical conditions have made the death penalty appear reasonable to past generations, and I shall have to ask whether those conditions could ever recur.  I shall come to see that my view of the matter is part and parcel of a wider philosophy of penal justice and governmental responsibility, and I shall be forced to elucidate that philosophy more fully and to test its capacity to shed illumination on other questions, too.  None of this could I have gained from talking to those who agreed with me.  What it amounts to is that if at the end of the day I still say, ‘I disapprove of the death penalty!’ I know much better than before what I mean by it.

. . . Individual moral thinking is social not only in its beginnings but in its ends.  Our most secret deliberations, our most independent conclusions, are directed towards a community of understanding.  We think as though trying to win the approval of a judicious audience hidden in the darkness of the stalls, ready to applaud our point of view when the lights go up.  It is not simply that without a community of inquiry our thought cannot begin.  If we cannot envisage a community of agreement our thought cannot have any end in view, either.

When parties to a discussion punctuate it with decisive stands expressed in the first-person singular (‘I passionately oppose . . . !’) that is neither the beginning nor the end of moral thought.  It is a moment in-between, a moment at which the common inquiry has broken down and the common agreement at which thought is aimed has disappeared from view.  The affirmation of the ‘I’-position is a strategy for regrouping and relaunching the discussion, as when a standard is thrust into the ground and the scattered soldiers gather to it.  Rhetorical inebriation may make the standard-bearer forget that he is part of an army, but that is the logic of it.  In the moment of affirmation the ‘I’ takes responsibility for the whole, making a decision on what must be held in common by all.  And so together with the right of a distinctive point of approach must be granted also an anticipation of persuasion.  Serious discussion is entered expectantly, with a view to finding a common perspective which makes sense of an object of hope, still to be looked for; yet it is something to be discovered, not devised.  It is not a negotiated add-on to the prior private convictions of the discussants; it is the realization of those convictions, which, though they may have been held privately, were intended socially.


Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology Review, Pt. 5: Hooker and the Moral Life

In considering the sixth chapter of A.J. Joyce’s Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology, we encounter much the same strengths and weaknesses as ch. 4 offered: a clear and sound summary of key building blocks of Hooker’s thought, vitiated at times by a running undercurrent of polemic against the idea of Hooker as a Reformed Protestant, which surfaces in explicit form from time to time.  The subject of this chapter is “Hooker and the Moral Life”—more precisely (since this might seem to be what the whole book is about), Joyce here offers an examination of Hooker’s crucially-important discussion of the “law of reason” (what is usually called natural law), followed by a consideration of the relationship of morality and soteriology, and of morality and change.  I will follow the order of Joyce’s exposition here, pausing to give particular attention to the more contentious points of her exposition.

She begins by noting, as she has several times before, Hooker’s quite close dependence on Aquinas and the Aristotelian tradition he mediates: “Although Hooker is by no means uncritical of Aquinas, and seldom quotes him explicitly within this context, both the framework and content of his exposition of the law of reason would appear to be substantially dependent upon the Thomist tradition of natural law, which derives ultimately from Aristotle” (150-51).  In this, she of course echoes the opinion of most, if not all, Hooker interpreters, although it is worth noting that this repeated observation betrays a bit of laziness on their part.  Many of the features of Hooker’s thought that scholars reflexively label “Thomist” could simply be called “scholastic” generally, commonplaces of the philosophical theology that sixteenth-century Christianity was heir to, and there is no need to posit a direct dependence on Aquinas at many of these points.  Moreover, the equation of Thomism and Aristotelianism, and of Hooker with both, is similarly lazy; there is, as Torrance Kirby in particular has argued of late, perhaps as much neo-Platonic influence upon Hooker’s thought as there is Aristotelian (and the same, indeed, could probably be said for Aquinas himself). Read More


O’Donovan, Law, and Scripture Lecture, Pt. 2

(see Part I for context)

Now, let’s turn to consider in detail O’Donovan’s article, “Towards an Interpretation of Biblical Ethics.”  In this essay, O’Donovan seeks to address the question, “Do the commands of the Bible apply to us?”  He does so in two stages.  First, he asks the question of the Old Testament, and looks at the way that the Church has traditionally wrestled with the question of the applicability of Old Testament law.  Then, he turns to consider whether a similar strategy could bear fruit when it comes to the moral content of the New Testament.

As soon as he raises the question, though, O’Donovan calls out attention to a distinction: between “claim” and “authority.”  If I am walking down the street and someone calls out, “Stop where you are and don’t move a muscle,” I have first to decide whether the voice is addressing me, or someone else—this is the question of “claim”—and second, whether the voice is one of someone whom I am obliged to listen to (e.g., a police officer), which is the question of authority.  Of course, even a voice without authority may be one worth listening to if it knows something that I do not—perhaps a passerby has noticed that I am about to step into a sinkhole and is trying to warn me of my peril.  In any case, though, O’Donovan says that when it comes to Scripture, including the Old Testament, the Church has from earliest times insisted that it does speak with authority.  The question, then, is one of claim.  To address whether or not Old Testament law laid claim to us—spoke to us, or merely to ancient Israelites—the Church developed a threefold distinction. 

There were three categories: the moral, which do continue to claim us, for they are in fact universal, claiming all people at all times; the ceremonial, which do not, but served only for Israel until the coming of Christ, to whom they pointed—once Christ came, we must still learn from them theologically, but need not heed them as rules for action; finally, the judicial, which were intended only for the political entity of Israel, so they do not continue to claim us directly, although, inasmuch as our own political circumstances may have some parallels, we should continue to learn from them and occasionally apply them.   

O’Donovan raises two chief objections to this categorization: (1) It is anachronistic, because Israel did not see its commands this way; (2) all the commands were contextually time-bound, including the moral ones.  The first objection, he says, misunderstands the purpose of the distinction, which is to say how we can subsequently analyse the commands, not how they were originally understood.  The second will be addressed in what follows.

Now, O’Donovan does not propose to use this distinction in its classical form, although what he ends up with, after drawing his own distinctions, is something quite similar.   

 

O’Donovan proceeds to show us three different sorts of Old Testament commands that would not continue to claim us: 

  1. Individual commands
  2. Socially-regulative commands
  3. Theologically obsolete commands

Let us look briefly at each of these.

First, he says, some commands are addressed to individuals (e.g., God’s command to Abraham to leave his home); others are addressed universally.   Although it is quite obvious that God’s command to Abraham is addressed only to Abraham (though we may still learn by example), this distinction does run into some objections.

First, some might like to say that all Biblical commands, because all divine commands, because all morality, should be understood to be particular, not universal.  This is the contention of Karl Barth: God addresses each one of us in a unique, immediate summons, and we cannot tell in advance what form this summons will take.  To this, O’Donovan offers the rather commonsensical response that even Barth himself cannot resist talking of summaries that can capture what God summons every individual to (e.g., the Ten Commandments, with universal commands such as the prohibition of murder).  Second, we might ask whether some of God’s commands to Israel were intended, not in as particular a sense as Barth has in mind, but for Israel as a people, a political unit.  This leads us to O’Donovan’s second category—socially-regulative commands.

We have a basis within Scripture itself for the relativization of this category, says O’Donovan: Jesus’s response to the Deuteronomic divorce-law.  

Why can Jesus take this cavalier stance toward Moses?  We might say, “Because the original command was context-dependent.”  But of course, all past commands are context-dependent in some sense, and that does not make them irrelevant.  Context can either tell us that the command did not in fact mean what we might take it to mean, or it might tell us the purpose for which the command or permission was given.  For instance, my son might protest, “But Mommy told me last week that I could watch movies in the afternoon for up to two hours,”to which I could respond, “That was only because you were sick, and she knew you didn’t feel up to anything else.  Now you need to go play outside.”

Jesus approaches the Deuteronomic divorce-law like this.  A complete prohibition of divorce, while ideal, would not have been practically achievable for Israelite society as a whole, so Moses compromised.  This sort of compromise is intrinsic to politics.  

Clearly, then, there are many Old Testament laws of this sort—laws by which God’s people are directed toward the good, but which get only partway there, and do not fully describe the good.  This does not mean they are useless for us; indeed, the Christian legislator, confronted with the same imperfection in society, may want to imitate some of these compromises, as for instance Britain did eventually do on the subject of divorce.

Finally, there are Old Testament commands such as the duty of circumcision, which the Apostle Paul makes clear are no longer binding on the Christian.  How can this be?  He does not see it as a merely particular command addressed to Abraham.  Nor does he argue that it was dependent on Israel’s identity as a political society, and not applicable after the exile.  He argues on theological grounds that the purpose of this command, and many others like it, has been fulfilled in Christ and thus they are superseded.  The early Church, however, only felt at liberty to make this sort of argument for commands of an essentially ritual nature, concerned with the liturgical and purity codes of the Old Testament.

 

So, what about the New Testament?

Many theologians have not wanted to speak of moral law in connection with the New Testament at all.  Jesus, we are told, offers gospel—good news—a proclamation of God’s embrace of sinners.  He does not come to condemn us by telling us more things that we are meant to do, and which we will surely fail to do sufficiently.  Thus, theologians have wanted to try and translate these imperative statements into descriptive statements—from, “This is what you should do” to “This is the sort of behavior that characterizes my disciples.”  Now, while there is something to this, in that Jesus obviously intends us to extrapolate from some of his specific commands to a more general way of life that we are to follow, we cannot get around the fact that this is a way of life that he is calling for us to follow.  He does not merely describe it as some interesting hypothetical—“wouldn’t it be interesting if people lived like this?”—but is summoning us to make this way of life our own.  So, the New Testament does contain authoritative moral commands.  We are then back to the question of claim: to what extent can we take these commands to be addressed to us?  We cannot, certainly, claim that they are theologically obsolete, like the ceremonial law of the Old Testament; for that was brought to fulfilment by Christ, and there has been no new Christ.  We must then argue that these commands were somehow particular, not universal.  

It is here that O’Donovan turns to face the biggest criticism brought against the concept of Biblical ethics: the problem of historical distance—how can we take seriously for today commands given two thousand years ago?  

To this, O’Donovan says, “We are perfectly entitled to say, if we wish, that a New Testament norm does not claim us, but we are bound to do more than appeal to the lapse of time to prove our case: we must show how circumstances have changed to make the New Testament norm inapplicable to our own situation.”

Now, very often, there will be very significant changes in circumstance.  For instance, many will argue that Jesus’s prohibition of divorce was given in a society where divorce meant that a woman was left entirely on her own resources, liable to fall into poverty and be exploited.  Nowadays, structures are in place to ensure, usually, that this is not the case.  That being so, might we not say that the command no longer applies?  It is as if my son were to say that he can’t walk in the kitchen, because his Mommy told him not to yesterday.  I might point out to him that she only said that because she had just mopped the floor and didn’t want him to walk on it while it was wet; as it is no longer wet, he may walk.  Does this mean that many or most New Testament commands will not apply to us?   The question, O’Donovan thinks, is too simplistic.  Inasmuch as the relevant circumstances have in fact changed, the commands have changed.  However, the fundamental human condition has not changed in two thousand years.  A great many of our experiences, our temptations, our needs, remain basically the same as ever they were before, and to this extent, when the Bible says “do not become angry with your brother” or “do not lust after a woman in your heart” as we saw in last week’s readings, it speaks timelessly.  Even when conditions have changed, though, the command is not thereby devoid of moral content.  Perhaps the kitchen floor is now dry, but the bathroom has just been mopped today.  My son now knows that he is free to walk in the kitchen, but he may extrapolate from yesterday’s command to conclude that he ought now to avoid walking in the bathroom.  We must, says O’Donovan, first exegete the command—determine its original meaning and purpose—and then “re-specify” it to fit a new context.  

Finally, O’Donovan briefly considers the possibility of “socially-regulative” New Testament commands, like the Old Testament judicial law: commands given by church authorities to regulate the life of the community, but not necessarily intended to directly convey enduring moral principle.  There do appear to be some examples, and here the principle of application will be the same—a modern church leader is not bound to follow them, but he should give them serious respect and attention, and inasmuch as circumstances have not changed, he should consider making use of the original law.

 

What then have we learned?  O’Donovan has tried to pick apart the common claim: “A text thousands of years old cannot be a moral authority for us now, but only for its own particular time and place.”  He has sought to draw our attention to the careful distinctions whereby we can discern which aspects of Scriptural moral teaching are universal, and which are particular, and how even those that are particular are not without any instructive value or enduring relevance.  Commands addressed to particular individuals of course lay their claim only on those individuals.  Commands addressed to humans as a whole will often continue to lay their claim on the human race inasmuch as the fundamental human condition has not changed, although changes in society, culture, and technology may render them inapplicable (though not thereby un-instructive).  Perhaps most liable to change will be those commands intended for the people of God as a social or political unit, since the changing circumstances of time and place render many of these only distantly applicable.  Moreover, in these commands, we should be alive to the possibility that something less than a full moral ideal is being given. 

 

Having learned all this, then, what might someone committed to the moral authority of Scripture say about the examples at the beginning?   

Specific Old Testament laws against homosexuality do not bind, to be sure.  Even in the New Testament, though, homosexual conduct appears to be condemned.  Perhaps we could argue, however, that this was due to particular forms in which homosexuality appeared in the ancient world.  If so, then inasmuch as circumstances have changed, perhaps the prohibition no longer applies.  We would have to look carefully at the Scriptural texts to discover how particular, and how universal, the rationale was.  Finally, mindful that public legislation does not necessarily aim at perfect morality, but at what is reasonably achievable, we might say that even given a Biblical condemnation of homosexuality, no Christian legislator should try to apply this at a societal level.

Likewise, specific Old Testament laws about debt release do not continue to bind.  Perhaps we would view them as specifically cultic in purpose, and hence entirely obsolete after Christ.  Or else, we would view them as specimens of judicial law, intended to help provide justice in the Israelite polity, but not binding on other polities.  However, inasmuch as the command is predicated on the universal concern that the poor not be exploited because God demands mercy, we might well ask how this command continued to lay its claim on us today.  We must “re-specify” in our own circumstances and look for creative opportunities to end the cycle of debt-slavery and landlessness that afflicts so many in developing countries today. 


The Bricks of Scripture

“The items in a code stand to the moral law as bricks to a building.  Wisdom must involve some comprehension of how the bricks are meant to be put together.  This has an immediate bearing on how wwe read the Bible.  Not only is it insufficient to quote and requote the great commands of the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount (and there are still many who need persuading of this, in practice if not in theory); but it would be insufficient even if we added to them, if we could compile a complete list of things commanded or prohibited; it would be insufficient even if we included in such a list, with a shrewd awareness of the relativity of semantic forms, principles derived from other modes of moral teaching in the Bible, such as stories, parables, and lments.  

We will read the Bible seriously only when we use it to guide our thought towards a comprehensive moral viewpoint, and not merely to articulate disconnected moral claims.  We must look within it not only for moral bricks, but for indications of the order in which the bricks belong together.  There may be some resistance to this, not only from those who suspect that it will lead to evasions of the ‘plain’ sense of the Bible’s teaching, but from those who have forebodings of a totalitarian theological construction which will legislate over questions where it would be better to respect the Bible’s silence.  But in truth there is no alternative policy if we intend that our moral thinking should be shaped in any significant way by the Scriptures.  For it requires only very limited talents at scepticism to raise doubts about the application of any biblical teaching, however plain, to any situation whatever; and if, when such doubts have once been raised, we are denied any biblical recourse in quieting them, then we are doomed to think the Scriptures inconclusive for any question that is worth stopping to doubt about in the first place.  The result will be tht all important moral questions will be settled explicitly on non-biblical lines.  It hardly needs to be added that it is constantly stressed in the New Testament itself that to understand the moral law of the Old Testament we must attend to the principles of order which are to be found within it.” — Resurrection and Moral Order, p. 200