Monday, March 27, 2006

Is Domenech a hypocrite for being a plagiarist and a fundamentalist ? No, but...

The always insightful Echidne of the Snakes has a post about the Ben Domenech debacle over at Washington

For those who haven't been following the story, after decades of being accused of having a liberal bias, the Washington Post decided to hire a young rising star of the right to provide a hard core right-wing perspective to their web content. It turns out that their new hire, Ben Domenech, a fundamentalist Christian, was also a serial plagiarist.

Echidne accuses Domenech of being a hypocrite for being both a thief and a Biblical literalist.

Stealing is a sin in Christianity, and plagiarism is stealing. Ben Domenech, the Washington Post's new conservative blogger, tells us that he takes pride in his fundamentalist Christianity, including in a literal belief in the Genesis. This makes me think that he would also take pride in following the ten commandments of Christianity which include the command "Thou Shalt Not Steal".

But there is a serious problem with this argument. To consider plagiarism to be theft, and thereby violate the commandament, presupposes that the notion of intellectual property is included in a literal reading of Genesis. If we take literal Biblical interpretation to be something akin to the legal originalism that we see from Justices Scalia and Thomas, then there is a problem. The notion of intellectual property wasn't around at the time of the introduction of Genesis. It does not show up until the mechanization of printing made the mass production and marketing of printed material possible. It isn't until there is a publishing industry that the concept of intellectual property arises. The concept of stealing in the commandment, it seems, could be argued to only include cases like illicitly acquiring your neighbor's goat under the cover of darkness. Indeed, monks acting as scribes have a long history of copying all sorts of books, sacred and secular. There did not seem to be a problem with this copying before copyrights.

As such, it seems that Domenech's Christian fundamentalism is not the source of any hypocricy. Now, I would be willing to bet that Domenech does believe in intellectual property rights, and so he is a hypocrite, but not because he is a Biblical literalist; he is a hypocrite because he is a hypocrite. (I'm a philosopher, I say deep things.) Citing his fundamentalism here is simply ad hominem, although, yes, the irony is quite ironic.

But what we do see here is a great illustration of the problem with the Divine Command theory of ethics, the position that moral rightness and wrongness derive solely and completely from God's desires.

If you speak about ethics with people it is a frequent claim that, “My morals come from my religion.” Many people draw tremendous strength from their spiritual faith. Beside empathy, religious conviction surely stands as the other preeminent sources of moral courage, the ability to actually go through with what one knows one must do. In the aftermath of the South Asian Tsunami, hurricane Katrina, and any number of other disasters, not to mention feeding the hungry and housing the homeless on any given day, religious organizations are often the ones doing the morally admirable work for the neediest among us. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day, and countless other champions of moral justice and in-the-trenches good works explicitly place their spiritual views atop the reasons they did what they did. Religion can be a tremendous power for good and right.

But the Scriptures are written words, and written words may be understood in many different ways. Give me any set of sentences and there will always be multiple possible interpretations of those sentences which will make them all meaningful. (The philosophers Saul Kripke, Donald Davidson, and Hilary Putnam have worked this sort of maneuver out in great technical detail. Philosophers of language call it the inscrutibility of reference.) There is never a unique "literal" meaning of any text, as we see with this case of the simple imperative "Thou shalt not steal," interpretation is always involved.

This is especially true with the Bible and its many allegories, there are not easy, straightforward, unambiguous meanings to most passages. What you are accepting is not the Word itself, but a human interpretation of the words. The question, then, is that if moral rightness derives from the Word, but we only have access to it through a human understanding of the words – and there are several – how could we ever know which is right? How could we ever actually make moral judgments? On every side of every moral issue, you will find authentically religious people who derive the strength of their convictions from their faith. Just as one should worry about anyone who claims to have God’s beeper number, anyone who claims to have the one true interpretation of all of Scripture ought to be viewed with great suspicion.

This issue of having the one true way of understanding the Word of God tends is theologically connected more so to Christians and certain Muslim groups. Jews, on the other hand, while having some literalists in their ranks, tend to avoid this problem for two reasons. First, there is a long and prized Jewish tradition of celebrating multiple, clever Talmudic readings of textual passages. The other reason is that if any Jew ever did claim to have the one true interpretation, oy, would he hear it from his mother. “Oh, so Mr. Smarty Pants has the Bible Code now. Mr. Big Shot. Tell me, if you are so smart, why aren’t you a doctor like your cousin Seth? That’s all I hear from your Aunt Sylvia, ‘My son Morty, you know, the doctor, he does this and he drives that kind of car and he was at a conference in Hawaii…’ You wouldn’t even have to be a specialist, just a plain old internist would be fine. Then you could do something about this phlebitis.”...“Ma, you don’t have phlebitis.”...“Ok, maybe it’s cancer. Like you would know. What are you, now, some kind of doctor?”

Religious faith can be a fine place to start thinking about ethical questions, but it is not the end. You cannot, in fact, know what Jesus would do and if you find yourself next to someone who insists he knows with absolute certainty, put your hand on your wallet and run like hell. Faith can be the thing that leads you to do what you know is right, but it does not relieve you from having to think through the difficult question of what is right in any given situation. Rational ethical deliberation is still needed.