Friday, December 14, 2012

Values and judgment: Judging Scalia, judging tradition

Antonin Scalia is in trouble again with liberals and the media over his viewpoints. This happens fairly often, but with little effect on the offender or the offending behavior. Scalia, with a lifetime appointment to the US Supreme Court, doesn't have to change. No amount of anger, demonstration, fury, or criticism will dislodge him if he doesn't want to go. Besides, he seems to love the attention and the fight.

This is the latest fracas: on Monday, Scalia spoke at Princeton. Unsurprisingly, he defended his support of laws against sodomy. He defended his comparison of laws against sodomy to laws against murder. That's expected. However, he unnecessarily twisted the knife when he added:
"I'm surprised you weren't persuaded."
Hey, Justice Scalia, a lot of people have opinions that differ from yours. That doesn't make them stupid or contemptible, so don't treat them that way.

Many people dissent

Tradition vs. Change
Aside from Scalia's atrocious manners (and he's not alone--there are way too many nasty, screeching liberals too), there is a huge question on how we respond to our traditional moral teachings. To gain some perspective, let's look at a case of conflict between tradition and change.

The Christian Example
Christianity had a major problem back in the first century. Did adherents have to follow all the laws of Judaism? On one hand, the laws had made the Jewish people keenly aware of right and wrong, and they endeavored to live in ways that were deeply virtuous. On the other hand, the laws were crazy in their extent. Not only was there circumcision with prayers, etc., but there was a huge number of dietary laws, marriage laws, maybe just about any law you could imagine. This was offputting to people who were interested in living virtuously as God intended, because it strained belief that God intended so many strictures for everyone, not just for the high priests.

St. Paul probably saved Christianity by giving adherents a pass on the old laws, which he deemed to be superseded by the new laws, which were a new covenant with God.

So there's a precedent for looking at your laws (moral rules), and chucking them when they don't make sense anymore. It certainly didn't turn Christianity into a shameless, vile religion that led people into evil ways. Christianity has generally been a force for benevolence to mankind, just as Judaism was and is.


America questions
Now we in the US are in a similar process of questioning some of our traditional morals. Specifically, are homosexual relationships immoral? Can we, like the early Christian founders, examine the laws and judge their merits?

I think we can and should. There are a lot of sources for our moral laws, and many of them are specific customs. The permission of a father or brother used to be required to get married. Was it really a moral necessity, or just a custom? How do you answer such a question? Furthermore, what are the implications of asking such a question?

There are typically two ways to answer the question. One way is to appeal to an established authority, such as custom, religion, or an authority figure. Another is to test the action in a moral system such as the Golden Rule or Kant's categorical imperative.

The Advantages and Problems with a Moral Authority
It's interesting that there is a method other than appealing to authority. For many people, the authority is the final word, and the only safeguard from a moral free-for-all. However, the problem there is that people strenuously disagree on who or what is an accepted authority. Having an acceptable alternative, such as a test by way of a moral system, solves this problem to a certain extent, but many find it an affront to the authority they deeply respect.

Based on what I know of the American founders (admittedly just high school history), they were probably more comfortable with testing within a moral system. Political philosophers such as Locke were developing ideas of government based not on authoritarian justifications, but on consent of the governed. John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant are the two philosophers who have tried to develop systems for testing moral precepts that didn't depend on a moral authority. They haven't been completely successful, but that's true for all the other moral philosophies too.

I don't think we'll ever have a perfect moral system. I prefer a non-religiously-based moral system, but that is a preference that reflects my values, not a demonstrably superior position. As I've written before, there aren't absolutes when it comes to values, judgment, and morals.


Extra. An earlier gotcha moment for Scalia.

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