30 March 2016

Easter and Atonement: The linchpin of Christianity is trouble

Stephen Kershnar
The Philosophy of Easter
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 29, 2016   

            Most of this paper’s readers celebrated Easter this past Sunday. Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead in 30 AD. It occurred on the third day of burial after the Romans crucified him in 30 AD. The resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of the Christian faith (1 Corinthians 15: 12-20). The holiday is linked to atonement theory. Atonement theory asserts that Jesus’ suffering and death explains why God forgives or pardons people for their sins. The Bible repeatedly asserts this. See, for example, 1 Peter 2:24 and 1 Peter 3:18. Let’s consider whether atonement theory is true and, also, whether its truth should matter to us.

            The philosophical issue surrounding atonement theory is why God would cause or allow Jesus to suffer horribly and die as a way to forgive ordinary people for their sins. Here I will leave aside historical theories such as ransom theory (Jesus gave his own life as a sacrifice to buy mankind from Satan) and focus on more plausible theories.

            First, consider penal substitution theory. This theory was defended by Protestant luminaries such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley. This theory holds that God punished Jesus, who didn’t sin, instead of punishing people who did and that this substitution justifies his forgiving our sins. The problem is that penal substitution is unjust. If a young man commits a brutal battery and rape, it is unjust for the state to punish someone else for what he did. For example, it would be wrong to punish his mother, even if she volunteers to be punished in his place.

            The best theories of punishment assert that the right to be punished is held by the victim or her agent (consider, for example, her government). A third party does not have a right to punish a wrongdoer because the wrongdoer did not wrong her. God is not the victim of most, if not all, of people’s sins. In the above example, he was not the one who was beaten and raped. Thus God has no more right to punish sinners than a random Chinese man has a right to punish an American who murdered someone in Detroit.   

            God would have a right to punish sinners who victimize others if he owned people similar to how farmers own livestock. It is a loathsome theory, though, that one person can own a second in this way. Things might get murky if the second consents to being owned, but we can ignore this technicality because many people have not consented to God owning them.   
            Worse, many instances of sins (consider, for example, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride) do not victimize anyone and hence do not justify punishment. Even if they did justify punishment, they surely do not justify eternal torment in hell. It is incredibly harsh to impose an infinite punishment on someone for a finite wrong. This would be analogous to sending someone to prison for fifty years for stealing a candy bar (and not even a good one, just a Peppermint Patty).

            If we assume the trinity is true, then in some sense God punished himself in order to forgive or pardon others. It is hard to see how this is any different from his just forgiving or pardoning them and thus, on this account, Jesus’ suffering would be irrelevant to God’s forgiveness.

            Second, consider debt theory. Catholic luminaries St. Anselm and St. Aquinas held this view (Satisfaction Theory). This theory holds that human beings are so full of evil that they owe a debt to God that they cannot pay. Jesus’ suffering and death pays off their debt and allows them to go to heaven.

            The problem with this theory is that it is unclear why Jesus’ suffering pays off people’s debts. Compensation in law (consider, for example, damages in tort law) aims to restore a victim to as good a position as she would have been in had she not be victimized. It is unclear how Jesus’ suffering and death could compensate God in this way for humanity’s sinful ways. It is not like the payment of money or services that are ordinarily used to compensate victims.

Also, it is hard to see why God doesn’t just forgive everyone’s debt. Creditors forgive debtors all the time. Consider, for example, how often fathers forgive their children’s debts.  

            Moreover, as in the punishment case, wrongdoers do not victimize God. Rather they victimize each other. The rapist mentioned above should be made to pay compensatory damages to his victim, but not the victim’s father, sister, or aunt. Similarly, wrongdoers didn’t victimize God so they don’t owe him a debt.  
            Again, the doctrine of the trinity makes debt theory mysterious. It is hard to see why God would sacrifice himself to pay off someone’s debt. Again, it is also hard to see how this is any different from his just forgiving their debt and thus, on this account, Jesus’ suffering would be irrelevant to God’s forgiveness.  

            Other theories of Jesus’ sacrifice make less sense than do the punishment and debt theories. The notion that Jesus died to teach people to refrain from sin, love God, or become virtuous is strange in that this is an inefficient way to present such a message. Why not do it directly? Alternatively, why not change people’s hearts? In any case, hell or annihilation would be an appropriate response to people’s failure to learn only if this failure warranted punishment or a debt and so we return to the above theories.

            Given the joy of Easter, chock full of family, friends, church, brunch, and chocolate Easter bunnies, it seems churlish to ask whether the holiday makes sense. Still, we want our holidays to make sense or, if they don’t, we might want to keep that in the back of our mind so that we emphasize the family, friends, and laughter and deemphasize the theory leading people to get together. 

16 March 2016

Republican Civil War: The Establishment Embarrasses Itself

Stephen Kershnar
The Republican Civil War
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 13, 2016

The civil war in the Republican Party has begun. The establishment declared war on Donald Trump and would be at war with Ted Cruz if they didn’t fear a two-front war.

The civil war is over different visions of the country. The Republican establishment either support the status quo or think it not worth fighting over. House speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, and other “moderate” Republicans have chosen to rubber stamp Obamacare, amnesty for millions of illegal aliens, skyrocketing debt, race preferences and quotas, and an accelerating expansion of spending and taxes.

They believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a worthwhile expenditure of American blood and treasure ($2 trillion and 50,000 casualties) and promise more of the same. They even signed off on Obama’s recent foreign policy debacles, such as the blatantly unconstitutional war in Libya, continued involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and treaty with Iran.

They couldn’t even defund minor but symbolically important crony capitalist programs, such as the Export-Import Bank, or Planned Parenthood. Their contempt for civil liberties as seen in their backing of the Patriot Act, inactivity on the recent attempt to muscle Apple into being an arm of the FBI, and an FBI director who wants to eliminate (end-to-end) encryption. Leaving aside their rhetoric, they stand for the status quo or, perhaps, the gradual expansion of the welfare state, erosion of civil liberties, and an interventionist foreign policy.

On the other side, there are two Republican insurgencies. Presidential candidate Donald Trump stands for a nationalist agenda. He favors an end to amnesty and to immigrants who as a group increase the risk of terrorism and who would be an economic drain as well as diminish American unity. He favors various protectionist measures in trade and mild isolationism in foreign policy, the latter seen in his bold criticism of the Iraq war. Similar to the establishment Republicans, he shows no interest in cutting back the entitlement policies (social security, Medicare, and Medicaid) that are driving the debt to dangerous levels. His policies do not focus on freedom or the Constitution. His foreign policy aims to promote Americans’ interest rather than some Wilsonian ideal (using the U.S. military to force other nations into being democracies).

Candidate Ted Cruz (my preference) is a liberty freak who alone takes the Constitution seriously and thinks that the government needs to be sharply pared back. He can be expected to push hard for cutting spending and taxes and protecting civil liberties against government intrusion. If Trump were not terrifying the establishment, it would train its guns on Cruz.

Establishment Republicans are embarrassing themselves. Mitt Romney gave a ragtag collection of charges against Trump, specifically that he made fun of another candidate’s looks, attributed a reporter’s question to her menstrual cycle, used vulgarity, bragged about his marital affairs, mocked John McCain, scapegoated Muslims and Mexican immigrants, changed his position on the Klu Klux Klan, did not release his tax returns, and so on. Romney compared Trump negatively to the “giants” who have been presidents. Only five Congressional Republicans and two governors have endorsed Trump.

Romney unleashed holy hell on Trump, yet he has had next to nothing to say about the clearly unconstitutional Obamacare and the even more obviously illegal ways in which the various mandates and rules have been delayed or eliminated. He has been similarly silent on Obama’s repeatedly telling lies to pass Obamacare, blatantly unconstitutional attempt to amnesty millions of illegal aliens, illegal Libyan war, and so on. Attacking Obama would have required he put his reputation on the line, so, of course, he ran and hid, but when given a chance to stab Trump in the back to an adoring press, he jumped at the chance.

His comparison of Trump to presidential giants is what passes for wisdom in the ruling class. Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon repeatedly showed themselves to be terrible presidents and despicable people. Other terrible presidents, but perhaps less despicable people, included such all-stars as Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Jerry Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama. John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton were also despicable people, although not terrible presidents. Trump might be a bad president, but he would most likely do a better job the above failures (with the possible exceptions of Kennedy and Clinton) and unquestionably he is a better person than bottom dwellers such as Wilson, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton. Romney’s sense of giants is ignorant and silly.  

What reasonable moral code would suggest that Romney should sit scared and quiet in the corner when Obama and company tell blatant lies to pass Obamacare and institute grossly unconstitutional amnesties and wars, but spring into furious action because Trump said something mean or vulgar. Even Romney’s personal attacks lack proportion. It is more likely than not that Bill Clinton raped and assaulted multiple women (for example, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey). Hillary Clinton took payoffs in Arkansas, headed a pay-for-play foundation, and is uncontroversially guilty of violating the law on handling American secrets when in the state department. What kind of man worries more about vulgar speech than celebrating these sleazebag criminals?

Romney’s defamatory comments about Trump on immigration depend on people not remembering his stalwart opposition to illegal aliens. As Ann Coulter and others have pointed out, as a governor and presidential candidate, Romney supported a fence on the border, E-verify to ensure that employees are legal, and allowing state police to arrest illegal aliens. He also opposed in-state tuition, driver’s licenses, and amnesty. Trump’s plans go further, but in essence build on a Romney-like approach.

When the establishment decided to give Obama everything he wanted on the budget, foreign wars, civil liberties, race preferences, and Constitution, it chose its comfort and ruling class amity over fulfilling promises it made again and again to the conservatives and libertarians who voted them into office. Once in office, they have repeatedly shown these groups the back of the hand and are those facing a well-deserved revolt. Trump and Cruz are just messengers.   

02 March 2016

The Case for Open Marriage

Stephen Kershnar
Open Marriages: Quiet but not uncommon
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 28, 2016

An open marriage is one in which the partners agree that they can have sex with other people without it being considered cheating. The rules of the open marriage vary between couples, but they sometimes include things such as no emotional attachment, barrier contraception, no use of the marital bed, no out-of-wedlock children, and limits or prohibitions on sex with people known to both partners.

Open marriages are surprisingly common in the U.S. Writing in Psychology Today, Stephen Betchen notes that estimates range from 1.7% to 6% of American marriages are open, with some estimates running as high as 9%. A number of famous people have or had such marriages, including Ayn Rand (philosopher), Margaret Sanger (founder Planned Parenthood), Shirley MacLaine (actress), Will Smith (actor), Erica Jong (author), and Larry King (talk show host).

The argument for such marriages being permissible is straightforward. A marriage is a contract couples make to one another. The nature of the commitment is largely, although not entirely, a matter of whatever the couples agree to. The agreement can, and sometimes does, address children, work, or religion. If the agreement allows extramarital sex, it is no more wrong than agreements that allow for the spouses to have close friends of opposite sex or explore other religions. More generally, if an arrangement does not infringe on anyone’s right or break a promise, it is not wrong.

The standard ethical arguments against it fail. One objection is that it’s cheating. As philosophers Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins and Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa argue, an open marriage clearly isn’t cheating because neither partner is breaking the marital rules. In the same way that kosher and non-kosher households have different food-preparation and consumption rules, and thus different rules about food-cheating, the same is true for closed and open marriages.  

A second objection is that open marriages are physically unhealthy or psychologically damaging.

First, it is not clear that marriage contracts include conditions against doing physically unhealthy or psychologically damaging things. Consider a husband who marries a pretty little runner (110 lbs. and marathon thin). After her first child, she loses interest in running or even controlling her eating and her weight balloons up to over 200 lbs., resulting in her having health problems and her husband finding her unattractive. Most husbands would have a hard time explaining what condition she violated in the marriage contract, whether we look at the formal vows or the implicit understanding that accompanies it. The same is true for women married to men who serve in the infantry and come back from war with severe posttraumatic stress disorder.

Also, if there is no duty for people to become healthy after they become married when they were not beforehand, then it is unclear why they should have a duty to avoid becoming unhealthy after they marry.

Second, it is not clear that premarital sex or promiscuity is unhealthy. 95% of Americans had premarital sex and there is little evidence that this has damaged them. Many people have had a surprising number of sexual partners over their lifetime and there is little evidence that this is physically or psychologically unhealthy.

In any case, open marriages need not involve promiscuity in that some of the contracts can and do sharply limit the number of extramarital partners. In fact, one study of people in an open marriage found that the majority did not have extramarital sex over the preceding year even though their marital agreement allowed them to do so.

Third, it is not clear that an open marriage is bad for a relationship. A number of dated studies found that there was no different in marriage satisfaction between those in open and closed marriages and a more recent study found those in open marriages had higher levels satisfaction than those in closed marriages. Perhaps the people who enter into open marriages are happier or more stable than others and this accounts for the difference, rather than the open marriage itself, but at the very least it is unclear that being in an open rather than closed marriage makes a marriage worse.

For bisexuals, an open marriage might lead to a more honest way of living. The same is true for a heterosexual couple in which one member discovers she is gay years into a marriage but does not wish to break up her family or even leave her spouse. The stories of men or women discovering they are gay after they are married are surprisingly common, although one must always be wary of treating anecdotes as data. Open marriages might be more honest for people who just cannot stay faithful (consider, for example, Bill Clinton and Martin Luther King). It might also be benefit someone who is frigid and would prefer her spouse seek sex elsewhere.

Unsurprisingly, dated studies show that couples in open marriages are jealous more often and there is anecdotal evidence that the openness of the marriage leads to divorce in a substantial minority of openly married couples. However, it is unclear whether this breaks up marriage more than does adultery. More importantly, it is unclear whether the increased risk of jealousy and purported risk to marriage isn’t outweighed by greater marital satisfaction or sexual satisfaction.

In any case, many types of marriage increase the likelihood of divorce. Consider, for example, marrying at an early age, having an interracial marriage, and marrying someone dissimilar to you. These marriages are not wrong or bad even though they come with an increased risk of divorce.  

There are religious objections to open marriages from groups such as the Catholic Church, but given their objections to clearly permissible practices such as premarital sex, masturbation, non-procreative heterosexual sex (oral and anal), gay sex, and contraception, these objections should be ignored.

An open marriage might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this doesn’t make it wrong or harmful.