Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How does God judge? (3)

One of the most tempting moves to make at this point is to some form of relativism. There are two ways to do this:
Subjectivity: Only I can know if I am being as good as I can be?
Blunt relativism: No one can know, so we never can judge.
The second argument is just stupid and while we all make it absent-mindedly at some point in our lives we only need to be reminded that not only we actually do make moral judgments all the time, we make moral judgments that we all agree about all the time. Yes, it is true that there are grey areas where we might have a hard time agreeing but there are so many more areas where we do agree.

But what about subjectivity? Subjectivity is a big thing in a lot of current Catholic moral theology debate. The argument might be put like this: Only the person living their life can really know what it is like to struggle against what they are struggling so no one else can judge for them.

Is that true? I don't think so.

It is true that we often fail to understand others but we also often succeed. Men can understand how it feels to be a woman and women can imagine what it feels like to be a man. We may not get it exactly right but we can develop our empathy such that we can grasp what it is like. And yes, we can grasp how people of other races and cultures feel and why they feel that way.

It's not scientific knowledge, it's not like knowing how to navigate from Ithaca to Bethesda, it is not like knowing how to generalize the Pythagorean theorem for four dimensions and it's not like knowing how to make a Sidecar. But it is something human beings can and do do.


  1. "Only the person living their life can really know what it is like to struggle against what they are struggling so no one else can judge for them."

    I think we can make moral judgements about certain acts, e.g., it is a bad thing to deny another person his or her civil rights, but I don't think we can judge the moral culpability of the person doing the act. That's really what this is all about, how morally culpable is someone if they do certain things, and only God can determine that because only God can see the big picture. That is not to say that if someone does something illegal or criminal he or she should not be held accountable, they're two separate issues. But even in the civil realm, if a 12 year old does something sexually inappropriate to a 10 yr old, is that child as culpable--legally and morally--as a 35 year old who does the same thing to the 10 yr old? I don't think so.

  2. I think your example slides from one kind of consideration, which is to say legal, to another which is moral. If we catch 12 year old Tommy having pulled down 10 year old Alice's pants we treat that case far differently under the law than we would for 35 year old Tommy yes, but we have no trouble making a moral judgment that Tommy has done something wrong here.

    And anyone who knows Tommy well, say his mother and father, would have no trouble reaching that conclusion very quickly. And they'd almost certainly reach the right moral judgment, which would be some form of punishment.

  3. That's right, but the punishment would (or should) be tailored to his level of culpability. If Tommy pulling down Alice's pants was part of normal adolescent experimentation I think the moral implications of the act would be less than if he had done it before, was caught, and told never to do it again. How about if no one, say Tommy's parents, ever told him that pulling down Alice's pants was wrong, how would he know? Or say Tommy has a developmental disability and can't retain information except by rote with consistent reinforcement? The level of culpability in those cases would be less than if Tommy's father pulled down 10 yr old Alice's pants. All the same act, which is objectively morally wrong, but with different degrees of wrongness, which would call for different consequences.

    I think that the moral and the legal overlap here. The degree of sin for Tommy pulling down Alice's pants would be less than if his father were to do it. This would be true in the legal realm as well, hence the Juvenile Justice system. Thiry or forty years ago Kohlberg-Gilligan devised a theory of moral development that corresponds roughly with the developmental stages children go through into adulthood. And we know now--within the last ten years--that the adolescent brain is not fully developed until sometime during the early 20s. The part that develops last is the part that controls impulsive behavior and the ability to project potential consequences of one's behavior to oneself or others. So there can be different levels of culpability for the same act depending on who is doing the act. To say that one ought to do something assumes that one is capable of doing it, in this case not pulling down Alice's pants.