Declaration of Independence: Justice

Introduction

Roy Clouser is my friend and partner (I’m the junior partner, just to be clear) in this effort to create a blog that addresses the issues facing philosophy. In the past couple of posts, I have began thinking on the subject of justice. Recently, I found a transcript of Roy’s lecture at Harvard Law School in October of 2007. He presents many insights into what our western culture considers to be justice and how to address this culture philosophically. A very short excerpt follows in which he speaks of the Declaration of Independence. Also, just to be clear, I believe it is rare for someone to be invited to give a lecture on justice at Harvard Law School!

I must hasten to say that this excerpt begins right after the introduction in which Dr. Clouser lays out his format for the content of the lecture.

A THIRD VIEW OF RIGHTS AND LAW: A critique of assumptions behind the Declaration and the Constitution The 13th Annual Kuyper Lecture for 2007, Harvard Law School 18th October 2007

natural law theory illustrated
This illustration does not necessarily reflect Dr Clouser’s description of natural law theory, but it does show something of how it is developed.

The Declaration’s Source for Rights

Let’s start with the Declaration’s version of natural law theory. The truth behind the words of that document may, I think, be summarized as follows. The truth is that all humans have a sense of justice. Every people, tribe, tongue, civilization, and culture that has ever existed recognized that it is a norm for life that people should “give to all their due” and be treated likewise by others. So I think it’s correct. Humans are “endowed by their Creator” with an awareness of this norm. And neither their awareness of it nor the norm itself are human inventions or anything they can make go away. Both seem instead to be “natural” and to generate obligations on people’s thoughts and actions whether they wish it or not. That is the element of truth I think the Declaration came close to getting right.

Is There A Universal Ought the Declaration Recognizes?

      But the Declaration doesn’t quite put the point the way I just did. It doesn’t say there is a norm for justice built into created reality, which all people have the ability to recognize. Nor does it identify that norm as the source of the obligation they feel to obey the statutes government enacts. The Declaration does not appeal to a universal norm that obliges all humans simply because they’re human. Rather, it skips the norm for justice and speaks only of rights.

This is a serious omission because such rights as it envisions could only result from the norm of justice. So as I see it, the Declaration gets things backwards. It assumes that people have rights and that those rights are the basis for justice. In fact unless people first recognized the norm of justice the whole notion of rights would make no sense. For a right can be nothing other than: a benefit or immunity that cannot be denied someone without injustice.

  Do Women and African Americans Have Rights?

   By getting the relation between the norm and rights backwards, the Declaration bases the authority for human law-codes on the subjective condition of individuals rather than on a universal norm. It was this significant distortion that led to arguments over exactly who is and isn’t born with rights. For example, in early US history political leaders actually debated whether women or African-Americans had rights. But such a debate would make no sense if rights were the result of a universal norm; in that case all people would have rights because the norm of justice holds for all people. But the Declaration reversed this and tried to make the rights of individuals the basis for knowing what is just. Then – sadly enough – it did make sense to argue over who was and was not born with those rights.

Does the Declaration Think Social Organizations Have Duties?

     The individualism of the Declaration is also deficient in yet another way. By making rights the possessions only of individuals, it fails to see that social organizations have rights (and obligations) as well. It is not only individuals who have rights and obligations vis a vis government. But so do marriages, families, churches, schools, businesses, and so on. For are not they, too, recipients of free speech and press? Are they not also to enjoy freedom from search and seizure? Should not each be guaranteed the freedom to conduct its own internal affairs rather than be dictated to by government? And do they not also have an obligation to obey the laws government enacts?

By speaking only of individuals and government, the Declaration has bequeathed to America a habit of thinking in a truncated way that misses an important point. That point stems from the universality of the norm of justice. That is, justice requires that there be rights and obligations not just between individuals and government but between individuals, between individuals and all types of organizations, and among the various organizations as well.

I hope this gives you some grist for your mill. We will continue this in my next post.

Ethics: Justice

Ethics

When someone in the Judeo-Christian tradition writes on ethics, they often begin by defining what is moral or immoral. To put it differently, the ethicist begins by outlining what the central focus of integrity ought to be. Now the Judeo-Christian ethicist is one who desires to be consistent with the canonical Scriptures. 

Logo for Center for Public Justice concerning ethics
Logo for Center for Public Justice

It is especially significant to understand that the prophets, as the spokespeople for the Lord, often addressed ethics.   A statement from the prophet Micah comes to mind,

 He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,[a]
    and to walk humbly with your God?  (6:8 ESV)

The Central Question

As I noted in the last entry here, Moore and Bruder contend the central inquiry of all philosophy focuses on this question, “What does it mean to do good?” Even the definition of a word like good is difficult to pin down. The thesaurus says that good can be replaced by decent. A Google search for the definition of good gets us this on this site

          that which is morally right; righteousness.

Synonyms are:

     virtue, righteousness, virtuousness, goodness, morality,  ethicalness, uprightness,  upstandingness, integrity, principle,  dignity, rectitude, rightness; honesty, truth, truthfulness, honor, incorruptibility, probity, propriety, worthiness, worth, merit;  irreproachableness,    blamelessness, purity, pureness, lack of corruption, justice, justness, fairness

The Prophet Micah

Since ethics is the study (or perhaps better, the pursuit) of what is good when speaking of the actions of a human being, we do well to ponder what the prophet Micah has laid out for us.  Do Justice. Love Kindness. Walk Humbly With Your God. OK, so that sums it up.

Greek and Jewish Ideas

The issues immediately begin to pop up, however, because already in ancient Greece, there was no common understanding of what justice means. As Plato considered what would make an ideal state, he rejected the usual answers which said that justice is giving another what they have coming to them. If we look again at the series of synonyms above, we see that they imply that in our relations with others, we are giving others their due.

When I read some Jewish writers as they describe what justice is, they are careful to differentiate it from charity. Giving people their due sounds like it is an action of grace on our part. Realizing that justice is a duty recognized and so pursued is a different idea. Deuteronomy 16 has this, “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”  

Til next time

When we pick this up again, we will need to dig a little more into the Scriptural concept of justice so that we may gain understanding of what it is God has shown us in the good.

Wisdom has seven pillars

Wisdom? Folly?

Background

Some years ago I wrote meditations which reflected on how I experienced a pilgrimage to Greece. As I reflected on what we saw and learned, I realized that in Greece, philosophy and the discussion of what constituted wisdom and folly were of great importance. As our resident philosopher, Dr Clouser, is away from our blog this week, I thought I would post one of the meditations I wrote. Enjoy!

A Scripture Text about Wisdom

13 The woman Folly is loud;
she is undisciplined and without knowledge.
14 She sits at the door of her house,
on a seat at the highest point of the city,
:15 calling out to those who pass by,
who go straight on their way.
:16 “Let all who are simple come in here!”
she says to those who lack judgment.
:17 “Stolen water is sweet;
food eaten in secret is delicious!”
:18 But little do they know that the dead are there,
  that her guests are in the depths of the grave.
Proverbs 9:13

The Acropolis in Athens

Wisdom has seven pillars
Wisdom and folly

High on the Acropolis in Athens is the Erechtheum.  A significant feature of this temple dedicated to Athena and the memory of her contest with Poseidon for the allegiance of the Athenians’ hearts is the porch of the Caryatids.  The temple was built in about 400 BC.  It is one of the more intriguing spots on the Acropolis.  Each of the pillars for the roof of this porch is a carved statue of a woman.  And each of them is unique. The ones on the near side all have the same leg moving forward and the three on the far side have the other bent forward.  Each seems to be inviting people to come to enjoy the cool shade of the porch they are providing by holding up the roof.  The statues demonstrate the skill of the artist to create something beautiful. 

You Cannot Go There

Yet, one of the interesting features of this porch was that it was only accessible from the inside.  Authorized religious figures could recline in the shade; and no one else.  It was an inviting place, yet was off limits.  That helps me to understand something of how Solomon’s personification of Folly can be understood.  The woman Folly has gone to the highest point of the city to call out to all the simple people, “Come to me!”  However, the problem is that no one can actually do that. 

The promise could not be carried out.  In reality, the promise was instead an empty invitation.  In fact, as Solomon says, little do the simple know that the dead are there, her guests are in the depths of the grave.   As this porch beckons to us to relax in the shade, little do we know that the dead are buried there.  This porch contains the tomb of an ancient king of Athens according to tradition. 

Seek Wisdom

But I react negatively to that thought. I believe it is good and right to avoid deceptiveness.  Furthermore, I am convinced that is what Solomon was saying as well.  He speaks about wisdom who has also gone to the highest point of the city. Wisdom calls to people to come to her and so to learn how to have understanding in life.  I know this pushes the symbolism in ways that maybe no one else sees, but Solomon’s wisdom has sent out her maidens and hewn out her pillars which are seven in number.  The porch of the Caryatids has only six.  Isn’t that the way it always is with humanity?  We come up short of what God desires us to be. We flounder around in folly, and miss out on wisdom.


Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment: Pros / Cons

Capital Punishment Background

Over the course of the 20th century, almost every industrialized nation has abandoned capital punishment except the US. This arguably points to the conclusion the rest of the western world has taken the moral high road. Meanwhile, the US remains relatively barbaric. “Besides”, we are told over and over, “there is no conclusive evidence that capital punishment (also known popularly as the death penalty) deters murder.” The Christian political activist might address the issue in the following way. (For an extensive review of the current status of the death penalty in the US, click here)

Capital Punishment
Death Row Inmate

            The law of Moses provides the first Scriptural basis for the execution of the convicted person in cases of premeditated murder. The fact that the victim bore the image of God forms the bedrock of this particular law. Further, the doctrine of a human being bears the image of God continues in the New Testament. The Scriptural teaching re the image of God in humanity means all humans have equal rights (Gen. 1:27 –31, Acts 17:26, Gal 3:28). If, as we believe, the image of God in humanity is the ground for equal rights, then how can we ignore it when seeking a Biblical understanding of the issues surrounding first degree murder?

The Need for Deterrence?

I know someone will say that capital punishment deters other would be murderers. However, so long as this doctrine is the basis for capital punishment, the deterrence argument need not be raised. The image of God in humanity makes the reason for execution that this is what the murderer deserves.  The wonder of the image of God in human beings will best deter others from premeditated killing.

            How do we explain the fact that so many nations have abandoned capital punishment? In my opinion, this change demonstrates just one of many shifts among western nations away from broadly biblical assumptions for democracy to broadly humanistic ones. Where God’s Kingdom that is not the highest value, some single aspect of human nature asserts itself. Humanism urges the acceptance of the teaching regarding the greatest good. The single aspect of a human being could be such as rationality, feeling, or will. The problem arises that there is no higher value than human life and execution is itself just another crime.

Whose Life Is Worth More?

Some version of the humanist creed also seems to underlie the compromise view about capital punishment now popular in the US. The compromise urges the avoidance of a death sentence. Humanism reaches a striking conclusion. The argument revolves around who or how many
victims there are. This criterion will or will not warrant the use of the death penalty. On this view, the death penalty is deserved, say, if the Pope or the President or 25 people were murdered. One ordinary person? Then no.

The humanist creed asserts that many victims or a famous victim “contained” more of whatever human quality is being regarded as the highest value. Then the wrong involved in taking the murderer’s life is outweighed on the justice scales by the greater wrong committed by his crime. From the biblical view, however, there are no degrees of being in God’s image; each human life has equal value and should enjoy equal protection. The premeditated destruction of any person should be equally punished. That holds no matter whether it was one person or many, the President or a homeless street person. (These thoughts and more are found here.)

A Safeguard

Perhaps you agree with all I’ve said so far. But you would still object that the danger of executing the wrong person outweighs all else. This is a serious point. It focuses our thoughts on the need for new safeguards in our justice system.

            Presently a death sentence carries an automatic appeal so that a higher court can review the case to make sure there were no errors in legal procedure at the trial. That is not enough.

The first thing we need to add is a review of the facts and evidence. A review board formed in every public defenders’ office (but not limited to only cases defended by that office) will do the review. Evidence tainted by illegal means will not stand in review. I judge this evidential review is as necessary as to catch unfair trial procedures.

            Secondly, we need to impose this penalty only when the evidence is not merely “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It must be beyond all doubt. And there are such cases. The evidence is some cases is irrefutable. These are cases where a defendant is caught on sound, color, videotape, has the victim’s blood on him, and/or is caught in the act. According to this proposal, when the evidence is anything less than completely certain, the sentence may be for life, but the death penalty should not be allowed.

Stewardship: A Human Calling

What Is Stewardship?

A Definition

The most basic form of stewardship is also the most encompassing form. It is a requirement of a faithful life that is first found in Genesis 2. When God places humans in charge of his creation he commands them to care for the garden of Eden. How? To leave it better than they found it (see Gen. 2: 15 by clicking here). The scriptures teach this idea in all the writings. The Bible teaches “all creation belongs to God.” Further, we are God’s vice-regents accountable for how we use and care for it. It is a responsibility that all humans bear just by being human. (For a comprehensive statement of this teaching of Scripture, see Our World Belongs to God.)

Our World Belongs to God

What does the Bible say?

The Scriptures teach us about individual accountability. How? We will be accountable for how we use the things that God’s entrusts to us as individuals along life’s way: time, talents, opportunities to serve others, and money. It’s easy to lose track of the fact that these are all gifts from God.

We tend to take time for granted until we get sick or old. We tend to think of our talents as our personal property until they begin to fade. And we tend to think of the source of our income as being our employer until we lose our job. Rightly, in such times we turn to God for help. All along, we knew deep down, “God lent us these gifts.” He did not give them away so that we can use them any way we wish. Rather, God entrusted each of these good things to us. Remember the solemn warning of Jesus, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).

The “Bottom Line”

The idea of stewardship boils down to a statement like this. The whole of life is stewardship (and you thought this was all going to be about money!). Our very lives are gifts, as St Paul reminds us: “you are not your own… you have been bought with a price” (I Cor. 6:19,20).

Therefore, we who have the benefit of the worship, preaching, and ministries of our churches are among those who have been given much. Along with these gifts come opportunities to work for God’s kingdom by serving others. That could be simply by inviting them to worship with us. But we also have the opportunity to support such kingdom works as a food cupboard, a soup kitchen, and the mission work of our congregation.  It is also open to us to serve in worship, in the church choir, or in Sunday school, in the care of the sick, or any other of the Church’s other outreach programs.

An Affordable Way to Receive Training

It is to aid with this sort of work that the Christian Leaders Institute offers its courses – free – to anyone who wants to improve their ability to serve their church. For all these reasons, we need to begin to think about stewardship as an ongoing part of our everyday lives rather than as a concern only about pledging of money to our church.  The call to service comes to all, and comes from God Himself. As Jesus once put it: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Roy Clouser, PhD

Prof Emeritus

CLI Philosopher in Residence