Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The challenging, questionable morality of Matos (part 2)

A few days ago I promised you a post on the immoral parts of Matos and how they can be made to fit our pre-existing idea of Judaism as a kind and just way of living and interacting with the world. Here it is.

Matos is alleged to be divine revelation, yet its full of dirty bits. Moses, the great man of God, commands us to murder innocents and to take sex slaves. God puts the V in Vengeful, demanding an act of jihadist genocide in retaliation for some Midianite frolicking and fornicating. And on a smaller scale we're told that women lack the moral authority to make vows. Their husbands and fathers are authorized to cancel any commitments they might make.

How do we square all of this with our ideas of morality? How do we make this fit with everything we think we know about justice and equality?

Easy.Just recognize this fundamental truth: Morality is - and always has been -  whatever the strongest or loudest or most persuasive people say it is.

Don't believe me? Open a history book. Slavery was once widely practiced and widely accepted.. Then better people made better arguments and morality shifted. At other moments loud, persuasive, brutal people made other arguments and morality shifted for the worse. (Tormenting Jews was never right and it was never just or fair or pragmatic but at particular times and places it was  perfectly acceptable.) And back in Matos when God ordered the eradication of all Midianites, and when Moses, acting on his own, tacked on the bit about sex slaves all that was acceptable, too.

Now it isn't. Now you can't wipe people out for the crime of being sexy, and you can't grab virgins for your own personal use. How did this shift occur?

I'll get there. But, first let me take you on a short detour through the Euthyphro dilemma, where the Matos problem is presented as a sort of chicken and the egg question:

Are things wrong because God says so, or does God say things are wrong because they are?

The nafka mina? It's complicated, but one thing is certain: No matter how you slice it you end up at the same place. Morality depends on human interpretation (and the loudest, strongest or most persuasive humans get to do the interpreting that becomes authoritative)

Here are the two choices the Euthyphro dilemma presents:

There is either:

(A) a rule in the sky that exists independent of God which says "Murder is wrong under these conditions" (God says things are wrong because they self-evidently are) or

(B) No rule in the sky, and no set of objective, logical, moral rules. Instead, murder is wrong because God said so (things are wrong just because God says so.)

More about Choice B:
Murder is wrong because God said so (things are wrong just because God says so.)

If you go with (B) you're saying that prior to God's decree there was no right or wrong; thus whatever decrees He makes are morally arbitrary. There's no right or wrong in a self evident or logical sense. There is no right or wrong that can be discovered. There's only what God says. For example, a genocidal war against innocent Midianites is moral because He says it is - and not for any moral reason. Thus we have no way of working out for ourselves what is or isn't moral because morality as an independent concept doesn't exist.  God gets to decide it arbitrarily. If He wills it raping and pillaging become moral. By His decree Auschwitz can become OK. It's all up to Him, and - here's the catch - before He decides there is no right and no wrong, no moral and no immoral.  (Wait didn't I say it all comes down to human interpretation? Yes and many of you already see where I'm headed. For the rest I'll get there.)

More about Choice A:
There is a rule in the sky that exists independent of God which says "Murder is wrong under these conditions" (God says things are wrong because they self-evidently are)

If you go with (A), God is not God, as there's something outside of Himself which he can not control. Instead of God being sovereign, the natural written-in-the-sky rules of morality are boss. Instead of God calling the shots, He has to defer to these rules. Worse, God is no longer necessary as we human can access those rules, without any help from the Big Guy. Instead, of waiting for God to tell us what to do, we can observe the universe, think things through logically and discover the moral reality on our own. 

The Consequences of Choice A:
Morality is Subjective  

If you hold with (A) you're forces to say that morality is subjective, because humans are subjective. Up in the sky, the rules of morality may be perfectly objective, but we human beings lack the ability to make objective perceptions. Our experiences, and biases, and perspectives will always get in the way. Its inevitable. So our attempts to discover the morality rules - the same rules God must have accessed as He prepared His revelation - will always be hindered by the flaws in our perception.

The Consequences of Choice B:
Morality is Subjective  

As you may have already realized choice B takes us to the exact same place. Even if morality and God are inseparable - because morality is only what God decrees - its still left to human beings to interpret those decrees.If, for example, the voice of God were to boom out "No gay marriages allowed" the perceiving humans would still have the challenge of determining precisely what God meant and the conditions under which the rule applies. At which point all of the competing biases, experiences and perspectives mentioned above would kick in. People being people, our interpretations - even interpretations of a direct Godly command - would likely end up coinciding with our own pre-existing moral ideas.

How does morality shift?

Now that you know that morality is the product of human interpretation, of either God's decrees or the observable universe, you can see why morality shifts. As time passes our perceptions change. As our perceptions change, our view of the universe, or our view of God's decrees, change right along with it.

No cheating! Don't look for the answers at Search for other things instead, like "How mad will Garnel be about this post?"

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