Mister Pterodactyl
Friday, March 12, 2004
Got a letter from an Alert Reader (I'm stealing a Dave Barry bit) about my Cal Thomas post. Here's an excerpt:

“The core Christian values have not and do not change. Human beings sometimes, as you've pointed out, distort the Bible's teachings to further their own ends, whether out of greed, ignorance, stupidity, whatever. A crooked lawyer or politician can distort the law to further his own ends, too. That doesn't disqualify the law, it just means people are imperfect and prone to do bad things.”

This is approximately what I expect to hear from Thomas (and I haven't written to him yet, although I did get his email from a public relations person at TMS. I'm sending him a letter that'll be an amalgamation of my previous post and this one).

Mr. Thomas accuses me of having no ethical values because I have no standard on which to base them. It is true that I don’t have a single infallible source to rely on; what I do have are two fundamental principles from which I can extrapolate ethical rules.

The first is sometimes called the Categorical Imperative, the Golden Rule, enlightened self-interest, etc. I behave the way I want everybody to behave, treat people the way I want to be treated. If I am rude to the people around me or steal from them, then I’m de facto admitting that it’s okay for someone else to do the same to me.

The second is the Social Contract. To wit: in order to live together, we’re gonna need some rules. Any group of more than one person is going to have them, stated or unstated. The larger the group, the more rules it needs, and anyone who wants to be part of the group (and enjoy the benefits thereof) has to abide by them.

This account is necessarily imperfect (libraries of books have been written on the subject of ethics), and the ethical system I’m describing is incomplete (they always are). It’s true that individuals are left to make decisions for themselves – there is no absolute authority to turn to. It’s also true that people often err in their decision-making or purposely disregard these principles. However I am convinced that if one could always apply the principles in a consistent and rational manner, one would always behave in a blameless way. Further, as technology advances and society evolves, new moral questions appear. To answer them an ethical system has to be able to grow as well.

The same things are evident in Thomas’s system, though he seems unaware of them. Actions and attitudes that were accepted in the past aren’t accepted today. Christianity changed, it grew, it evolved, whatever, along with society. Why, if the ‘standard’ is so absolute, should this happen? Because that standard is still subject to interpretation. Just as important, it’s susceptible to misinterpretation, ignorance, or defiance. There’s no eternal, all-knowing arbiter handing down pronouncements whenever something new comes up; we hapless, fallible mortals have to choose, based on our religious writings/teachings/doctrines, between right and wrong.

Not to forget, he claimed in his column that supporters of gay marriage are trying to impose their (subjective) will in the matter, thus defying the (objective) standard imposed by his religion. But what’s the difference between his system and mine if both depend on mortal actors, and how can Thomas claim that his is superior?

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