This post continues a series on ethics (which began here). My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.
Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with thy most gracious favor, and further us with thy continual help; that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in thee, we may glorify thy holy Name, and finally, by thy mercy, obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Over the last three posts (here, here, and here), I have explored the idea of justice as a core ethical principal. Largely, I have come to the conclusion that justice in itself is not worth that status separate from the love it produces. I have, however, found that it is worthwhile for questions of social ethics – when you need a policy for large numbers of interactions. And so, policy may follow the ideals of liberty, equality, and responsibility when there are too many relationships to measure them all. Nonetheless, love trumps justice for any individual relationship, once you asses it. Justice is a social virtue.
I want to ask now, whether it is an instrumental virtue. To be clear, principles of justice have been invoked as necessary steps leading to love. Many have claimed that a predictable, retributive society is necessary for us to grow in loving relationships. The general arguments go something like this:
1) Love rewarded leads to more love.
2) Anti-love punished leads to less anti-love, hence more love.
3) Consistent reward and punishment lead to a more predictable environment; a more predictable environment leads to a feeling of safety; safety leads to people being more open with one another; and openness leads to love.
All three arguments have some merit, but I find none fully convincing. I want to look at them one at a time.
Justice as Love Rewarded
The first argument claims that love rewarded leads to more love. I agree with this completely, but must point out a question of competing ends. If we reward love with more love, then the argument holds beautifully. Love is being valued and increased. If, on the other hand, we incentivize love in some other way, perhaps with financial reward, then we send a mixed signal. We are saying that it is good to love, but it is primarily good because you’ll get money for it. Either love is its own reward or it is not. I do not think love should ever be made instrumental to something else – nor do I believe this is, in some sense, fully love.
The rule even applies to “loving” and “being loved.” I’m not convinced that the two can exist independently. Even if I were, we would still be left with the tradition favoring loving over being loved. Any true orientation toward faith and love must make them their own reward. Thus we must repay love with love, true reciprocity in that both people are entering into the same, deeper relationship.
Of course, we are also asked to repay persecution with love (Matthew 5:44; Romans 12:14). No conclusion may be drawn for justice here, only the general admonition to love in all cases.
Justice as Anti-Love Punished
My language is somewhat awkward here. Love is our goal, so perhaps we could speak of love’s opposite – hatred – or lack – apathy – as something to be punished. Many have argued that a loving society will be upheld by the punishment of those who do not contribute. This mistakes reciprocity for love.
It has been demonstrated, repeatedly and scientifically, that humans behave reciprocally. When we are given gifts, we feel an obligation to give gifts in return. When we are hurt, we feel a strong desire for retribution. The giving and receiving of gifts leads the creation of stronger communities and a stronger sense of belonging within a particular group. (Notably, spite – when you punish rule breakers at greater cost to yourself – can also lead to stronger communities.) If our goal is to strengthen group identity, even personal sacrifice for other group members, then we must admit that punishment and reward work. They bring about that end.
That end, however, is not love. Love has to do with a willingness to sacrifice without hope of reward. Jesus specifically instructed us in this kind of sacrifice (Luke 6:32-35). Reciprocity turns out to be the exact opposite of Christian love – it has to do with enlightened and long term self-interest. Doing things at cost to yourself but for the benefit of your group (even your church) sets up the group as the primary good.
I am a fan of reciprocity and I am a fan of group loyalty, but we must not confuse them with love. The challenge of Christianity will be to find those acts that we do not just for the benefit of self, not just for the benefit of group, but for the sake of the whole world.
Let us assume for the moment that some act was better than selfless love at producing selfless love. If such an act existed, we would, I admit, be obligated to do it. I think the burden of proof must be extremely high, though, for it would mean giving up actual selfless love in the present in order to accomplish potential selfless love in the future. The idea is not without merit. Isaac Asimov, for example explores the topic at great length in his Robots of Dawn books and elsewhere, when he asks whether love of humanity can trump love of a particular human (1st vs. 0th law of robotics). Neither Asimov, nor I am fully comfortable with either answer.
There may be cases where love of many is better than love of one; still it must be framed in terms of love. It cannot be an instrumental kind of punishment that you hope will achieve the greater good. It has to be done concretely out of love in the moment. Thus it is not a question of punishment or even justice, but a genuine case of balancing loves.
I have found safety to be one of the greatest idols of modern culture. Unlike previous generations, very few of us fear sudden death in a serious way. I am glad, and yet the safer we become, the more I think we make safety into a goal in and of itself, instead of an opportunity for happiness, love, and companionship. We will never be perfectly safe, and the more resources we devote to safety, the less we have for pursuing the goods safety was meant to provide. Thus I would contest argument three above.
“Consistent reward and punishment lead to a more predictable environment.” True. Predictability makes it easier to explore the world.
“A more predictable environment leads to a feeling of safety.” I’m not sure this is true; a more predictable supportive environment leads to a feeling of safety. The admonition to love seems to play a more important role than the desire for predictability.
“Safety leads to people being more open with one another.” This turns out to be unreliably true. Stress can often lead to bonding experiences. [That is not an argument that we should be producing stressful environments; rather, it is an affirmation that God allows love to happen in many different ways.]
“And openness leads to love.” True again.
Thus, the safety argument fails. Consistency does not produce love; consistency in love produces love.
I am in favor of rules and policies. I want to reiterate what I’ve said in the past two posts. We need justice as a way for institutions to set social ethics. We need policies that regularize sexual behavior and our responses to sexual misconduct. We need policies that lead to transparency and mitigate abuses of power. At the same time, we must recognize that the policies cannot replace – and in some instances must not trump – individually loving decisions. It is a hard truth, but unbendable policies increase trust in and love for policies. They may even increase trust in and love for institutions. They do not foster love for people. That kind of love is best fostered by love. We must remember that the law is for people and not the other way around (Mark 2:27).
Justice is an excellent social virtue; it may even be a good instrumental virtue in some cases; but it can never stand apart from love in Christian ethics.