Actions don’t stand alone

In two recent posts, Peter Leithart considered how we evaluate actions, asking whether adulterous sex and marital sex are the same action in different contexts, whether Moses killing the Egyptian was just his own version of what the Egyptian was inflicting on the Hebrew slave, or whether God’s judgment is just another form of violence.

In answering the marital/adulterous sex question in the first post, he writes that we can only say that they are the same if we believe that matter and/or the individual, independent of “relationality” and anything else, determine what actions are: “We can reach that conclusion only if we have stripped each participant down to his/her individual body.”

He concludes in the second, which focuses on criticisms of the Bible’s depiction of God’s judgment, that God is not violent but rather defeats violence with his judgment. He concludes:

Put into a more philosophical idiom, the biblical writers imply that intentions, aims, contexts, and results are not extraneous additives to our actions, but constitutive of actions. Our actions are more than their physical components, just as we are more than the matter that makes us. Change the intention, and you change the act. In many cases, if you change the actor, you change the act. A sniper on a battlefield is not a murderer; a sniper in Brooklyn is. Enslavement and exodus are not two forms of violence, one perpetrated by Pharaoh the other by Yahweh, any more than marital sex and adultery are simply variations on the generic physical act of “having sex.”

Dawkins to the contrary, the “ogre” of Israel never acts violently, nor does Jesus. The Judge of the earth does right, and if Jesus carries a rod, it is as the Good Shepherd who strikes the earth to deliver the afflicted and bring justice to the wretched.

I can’t reproduce Leithart’s entire train of argument here. Neither post is too long and they’re both worth your time if you’re trying to think through these issues.

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One comment

  1. Leithart’s posts read like a rebuttal but I’m not sure who would make arguments like adultery is morally equivalent to marital sex. He also seems to redefine ‘materialism’ and ‘individualism’ a bit. And ‘violence’. I don’t usually assume that violence is immoral by definition as he seems to. Or should we say that in a just war only one side is being violent?

    Leithart wrote: “Put into a more philosophical idiom, the biblical writers imply that intentions, aims, contexts, and results are not extraneous additives to our actions, but constitutive of actions. Our actions are more than their physical components, just as we are more than the matter that makes us. Change the intention, and you change the act.

    Was that really in question? Is Leithart debating pacifists who believe that violence is never justified? Or materialists? Materialists acknowledge the relevance of thought and intentions and context, they just believe it is all grounded in physical matter, no?

    I suspect that the actual point of contention (of e.g. Dawkins) is the degree to which we have to read into some of the stories of the Bible in order to make them moral by our own standards. e.g. massacres or genocide must be justified by assuming the enemies were so evil that the alternative would be worse.

    Leithart believes God is good by definition, so there always must be a moral explanation for His actions. Dawkins is unwilling to interpret that way. As if to complicate matters further, some parts of the Bible don’t even seem to have a moral point; they’re just a record.

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