Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Tim Keller on Social Justice - Part I

A frequent reader sent along Tim Keller's A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory. First up, it's good. Because I tend to immediately gravitate to the parts I disagree with or think someone is missing a trick when I comment, I know that I come across as too negative about essays and books that deserve better from me. But that fits with my "let me adjust this just a bit" mentality. If I am passing something along too you, I think it valuable unless i specifically say otherwise. But sometimes I like to comb its hair and straighten its tie before I send it out. So read it or browse it first, so the remainder of this makes sense.

Keller has to thread the needle with regards to popular discussion, and likely wants to anyway. This essay is part of a series I have only glanced at, but focuses on the racial aspects of justice more than I think necessary.  I get it that this is the current conversation and can be used as a jumping off point for more general discussion. But I think race is a much weaker driver of injustice than is currently credited, and focusing on it distracts us from deeper issues.  Do I sound like a Marxist, harping that it's really all about class and race disguises the real struggle?  A bit.  They do have good points from time-to-time, though they run aground trying to fit their own explanations to whatever data shows up.  There is a great deal of unfairness and even oppression in the world, so focusing on any bit of it necessarily obscures the rest. We can and should put serious attention into each of them, yet always with the recognition that we are working on a single bit, not the whole.

Two advantages result

1. We become more alert to noticing when the drivers of injustice change around us. More on this in a later post. I think Keller missed some of this, because the idea of "generations" steers us down a particular road.

2. It becomes easier to admit that sometimes we benefit from unfairness, and sometimes we are harmed by it. This is related to my 100%-0% theme. For all the buffetings and unfairness that has come upon me in my life, I have been dealt a very good hand, starting with being born in the 20th in America. Pretty much everyone in purgatory from the millions of times and places isn't going to credit my whining very much. (Those in heaven will be kinder, and I'll be better myself.) In America we are currently locked in yet another episode of the Tim Tebow Effect, in which both sides perceive themselves as an oppressed minority that no one is listening to. 

In Keller's Essay, under the section "The Problem of Foundations," there is a comment from an atheist who was challenged on a podcast what the foundations of his ideas of justice were. 

Christian Smith:..I’m not saying atheists can’t choose to be good, but when they do so it is an arbitrary subjective preference, not a rationally grounded view that has persuasive power over others.

Atheist: That does not make sense to me. I just figure that because people are human beings that they should be treated fairly. I know what it feels like to be treated with kindness and with meanness. I know that others feel the same way, so I want to treat them with dignity and respect because that is what I would want. I don’t have an objective source for the dignity of people—it is based on the fact that I would want to be treated in this way. Why isn’t that compelling to a reasonable skeptic? Why do I need more reason/justification than that? It seems common sense.

This particular atheist did not state the case as well as he might have, but if you dig down into other atheist/humanist/etc arguments you will find they are at root not much better, however much cultural history and neuroscience they put it. The foundation of my theory of justice is that we all just basically know what it is.  It's just obvious and good for everyone. My counter would be that this is one thing that nearly every society in history has demonstrated the opposite. It has not seemed obvious to anyone that the people across the way deserve to be treated well.  Our people deserve to be treated well, and even of those, only the ones who are in charge. What happens to slaves and peasants is of little concern. That is the "common sense" that most of humanity operates on. To put that other idea forward only reveals that you come from one of those few nice times and places in history. 

So we need more, and I think Keller does a good job of providing a Biblical foundation Christians can work from. Pay particular attention to his critique of Critical Theory, as I think he does better than just saying bad things about it and pointing out its abuses.  I think he hits solid points.

If you want to brush up in advance on Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory, I will be bringing that in in Keller's discussion of the "spectrum" of justice theories. Spoiler: I don't think it's a spectrum.


Texan99 said...

Game theory wrestles with this: on the one hand, it's obvious to many people that the world would be a lot more like Paradise if we all felt internally compelled to stick pretty close to the Golden Rule. (Tit-for-tat, or tit-for-tat with forgiveness, something along those lines.) And in fact many people do stick pretty close to the Golden Rule, at least until times get desperate. It's what makes ordinary life consistently bearable.

At the same time, there is always a solid fraction of one's society who are in it for whatever they can get away with. You've got to arrange things to take them realistically into account, no matter how rosy you feel about the ability of most people, in most circumstances, to do something that looks like roughly the right thing to everyone. Or at least, the ability of most people to find enough people they can trust for most purposes.

C.S. Lewis used to talk about how he'd rather play cards with an ethical atheist than with a Christian who couldn't overcome the temptation to cheat. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, it doesn't help that much to know that a man's convictions about ethical behavior stem from the right supernatural assumptions: he either has dependable convictions or he doesn't. Nevertheless, we also have to take into account that hard times do come round, and atheistic or vaguely deist assumptions about standards of behavior mostly turn out to wilt awfully fast in a gulag. Codes of conduct that people aren't willing to die for just don't hold up when the clinch hits.

Does that mean I'm right when I say God has to be the source of durable ethical convictions? That's not something I can prove. I do know that assuming the contrary doesn't work all that great, which is the utilitarian approach, for those who will listen only to the utilitarian approach.

Grim said...

Does that mean I'm right when I say God has to be the source of durable ethical convictions? That's not something I can prove.

That proof is relatively straightforward if you accept that God exists and created reality; whatever ethical systems inhere in it, whether drawn from revelation or from things like observing the positive outcomes associated with certain strategies in game theory, are features of reality. The atheist who learns from reality to adopt Tit-for-Tat-with-forgiveness is learning a durable ethical conviction from experience, but what he's experiencing is God's work. The moral structure he's learning, he's learning from experiencing the structure God set up to be discovered.

It's that first proof, the proof of God, where people tend to raise objections. If you get them past that one, the moral proof is easy.

Texan99 said...

That makes it easy to prove to people who already agree with me.

Korora said...

It seems to me that any sort of truncated ethos is doomed in the long run to thwart itself. I just don't know how to explain how.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Korora - I recommend CS Lewis's The Abolition of Man. Short, and on one level easy, because it is clear, yet on another level difficult as there are serious philosophical issues at play. I think it will give you words for your expression.

james said...

I agree--it's not a spectrum. It's a junk drawer--unrelated things piled in together.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ James - I laughed at that. That's a better analogy than where I was going, and I may modify my thoughts in that direction. To be fair, however, a junk drawer is often quite useful. No one designs their house around the junk drawer, but over time it becomes a strong expression of one's home and family.