Sunday, August 23, 2009

"It is simply wrong"

This morning I came across this interview with Tim Keller given last year in connection with the publication of his The Reason for God — which I recommend highly. Keller's responses to the interviewer are a fair representation of how he goes about making a case, but, of course, only a taste. For instance:
Jesus lived in a time when slavery existed. I don’t think the Bible reads as a major abolitionist tract, right?....Did Jesus ever explicitly condemn the practice of slavery? My point here is that people’s values are inherently influenced by the times in which they live, right?

The ‘slavery’ mentioned in the Old Testament was really indentured servant hood and was a very different kind of institution than the New World slavery that developed in modern times. For example, Exodus 21:27 says that if you knock a slave’s tooth out, the slave has to go free. That doesn’t sound like the same institution you are thinking of, does it? Slavery in the Greco-Roman world was harsher than the indentured servant hood of Israel, but it was almost never for life (average 10-15 years in length) and slaves were paid and lived about the same as other working people. So be careful when you equate the African slave trade to the forms of slavery and servant hood you hear about in the Bible. ....

There are no absolutes. My view of values is that they emerge from lessons widely drawn from human experience and around which consensus has emerged. Human rights as a language and as a normative construct came out of the horror of WWII. Such ideas emerge through consensus-building and eventually take on axiomatic existence for most people. Slavery IS bad. Torture IS wrong. Racism IS repugnant. These ideas emerged socially and became axiomatic socially.

…. There are a lot of problems with this view.

First, you seem to be saying that slavery wasn’t wrong until there was a consensus that it was wrong. Or that torture wasn’t wrong until we came to a consensus that it was wrong. Do you really want to say that—that slavery and torture wasn’t wrong in 1750, because then the consensus was that both were OK? If you fall back on saying that slavery was wrong in 1750 even though most people didn’t feel that way—then you do believe in absolutes, I think.

Second, what if you saw the consensus about slavery and torture eroding? What if you saw that half the world was moving toward a new consensus that slavery and torture were OK in many circumstances? (There are a surprising number of people who do think torture is OK if it might stop a nuclear attack, etc. It could easily happen.) On what basis, then, could you argue that the emerging new consensus is wrong, since, in your view, something is only wrong if there is a consensus that it is wrong? It seems that the only way you could say “reverse the new consensus” would be if you grant that torture is wrong even if the consensus changes.

Third, this is an elitist argument, because the fact is that there are plenty of cultures and places in the world that don’t agree with your ‘consensus.’ You are saying, then, that the part of the world that believes in human rights is the enlightened, correct part. When you say these beliefs take on axiomatic existence for ‘most people’ you mean ‘most people I know, the ones who are thinking properly.’

Fourth, if you don’t believe in absolutes, you can only offer at best a pragmatic argument against these evils. If you were living in 1750 and you came to believe slavery was wrong when few others did, you could not argue from consensus. You would have to argue that slavery is impractical for us, that it makes for a society in which we are all unhappy. You could only appeal to people’s self-interest. Only if you agree that there are moral absolutes could you say that “Slavery is wrong regardless of whether you feel it benefits you and society or not. It is simply wrong to treat people that way. Period.” [more]
Monergism Interview with Dr. Tim Keller

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