Monday, September 17, 2007

Mercy and Culpable Ignorance

Last night I had an interesting argument with my son. If you have now, or have ever had, a 13 year old boy living in your house--or perhaps you yourself were a 13 year old boy at one time--then this story will either remind you of what you were once like or it will comfort you to know that you are not alone.

It was a silly little argument, but usually it's the silly little arguments that get parents and their children heated rather quickly. Of course it had to do with watching television. I'm not exactly a TV junkie--in fact I recently got rid of most of our cable because I didn't see the point in spending nearly $60 a month for 100 channels when we only watch about five of them when I could be spending $14 a month for just those five channels. The only thing I ever watch on TV is soccer, golf and football, and usually only the big events, because I don't even like sports all that much either except that I myself actually play soccer and golf and football gives me something to doze off to on Sunday nights. I was actually fairly interested in watching Sunday night football last night because I've been something of a Patriots fan for a while, and what with all the hullabaloo over Bill Belichik's videotaping of the Jets' defensive signals I thought it might be an interesting evening. My son came home, however, with a DVD of some Simpsons episodes that he hasn't seen, and he wanted to watch them right after dinner. It seemed to me, in my infinite wisdom and fairness, that if it came down to watching a live event that would not be on again, as opposed to watching something on a DVD that one had rented for a full week, it would be a no-brainer. But my son thought otherwise. He explained that he had "worked really hard all day" (he has a paper route--17 houses, all on our block) and that he really wanted to relax and watch some TV. He also explained that he had not seen any TV all weekend (he spent just about all day on Saturday at a local video game parlor; I guess those are technically "monitors", not TVs). I asked him whether he did or did not understand the bit about "live, not to be repeated" as opposed to "permanently engraved on a DVD and available all week", and, I kid you not, he not only stated, in rather loud and obnoxious terms, that he didn't see that point at all, but he then proceeded to throw quite a fit, going so far as to accuse his mother and me of not caring about him at all. He stormed off to his room, apparently forgetting that he has a computer with a DVD slot on which he could have watched his DVD. I didn't bother to remind him.

I tell you this story of domestic woe to illustrate something that I think it is very easy to forget if one considers oneself a rational person. My son seemed to me to be acting rather crazy: he was in tears, acting out, and was at least acting as though he were completely incapable of seeing a rather simple and straightforward point that any normal, rational person would accept immediately. The long and the short of it, from my parental point of view, was that he wanted something, and he wanted it right away, and he was not capable, for whatever adolescent reason, of postponing his gratification for a mere 24 hours. But what about from his point of view? Did he really think that his mother and I don't really care about him, or was he only saying that to strike out at us for not giving him what he wanted when he wanted it? Did he really not understand that perfectly straightforward point about the live program, or was he only saying whatever he thought it would take to get us to cave in?

If you're a parent, you may think that this is not all that deep a problem. You're thinking, Of course he just wanted what he wanted, and of course he was just saying those things. As soon as he calms down, you'll tell me, he'll see the point about the live program, even if he still would rather watch his own show. He may not admit that he sees the point, but how could he not, in his calmer and more rational moments, see something that is totally parallel to logical problems that he comes across in his 8th grade classes every day? In particular, you will say, if he had been the one wanting to watch the football game, and you had wanted to watch the DVD, you know perfectly well that he himself would have made exactly the same argument that you made to him, and that, you will say, settles that.

Except that it doesn't. Not really. The point about 13 year old boys is that they are not always fully rational. They are big smelly bags of hormones and they are not always capable of Kantian rationality when it comes to principles like the Categorical Imperative. So at times like these you hope that they storm off to their rooms or you send them there yourself and wait for a more opportune moment to discuss the problem. And if discussion doesn't help, you lay down the law, because often that is precisely what 13 year old boys need. Should you punish a boy who acts this way, beyond sending him to his room to cool off? I don't think so. It may depend upon what, exactly, he does in his acting out, but in this particular case it seems to me that the boy was just not seeing things properly, and punishing him is not going to get him to see things properly, it is just going to condition him to act in a certain way. Granted, I want him to act civil, but my hope is that such goals can be accomplished over time by reasoned discussion, good role modeling, and effective teaching. When you coerce behavior the behavior does not become a virtuous habit of mind of the sort that Aristotle claims is a necessary condition on moral goodness.

Now, arguably the behavior my son exhibited was not proper behavior, and the things he said to me and to his mother were not good examples of what is demanded by the Commandment to honor one's father and mother. He thought his actions were justified, but he was mistaken in that. His actions, particularly his sinful treatment of his father and mother, were not justified at all. He's old enough to know better, too, some will say.

Knowing better. What does it mean to say that he ought to have known something that he gives every appearance of having failed to know? Typically, I think, we assume that a person who acts rationally for the most part, who, indeed, seems to be on the same page that we are most of the time, will be able to understand the same sorts of things that we ourselves are able to understand. Now, in the case of very little kids, this is obviously a mistake, and I'm beginning to see that it's a mistake in the case of young adolescents as well. But what about other adults? Can I always assume that another adult ought to understand some issue or other in the same way that I myself understand it? I'm not talking here about understanding that Mozart is better than Nine Inch Nails, I'm talking about understanding difficult but arguably objective truths, for example, the fact that Leibnizian identity relations fail in the case of the doctrine of the Trinity. That kind of truth, while objective, and indeed "obvious" in a certain sense, does not strike everyone as completely intelligible. Indeed, I myself have some difficulty imagining just what sort of identity relation will make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity, but faithfully I have managed to arrive at a point in my life where my own intellectual assent to certain things does not depend upon my own private ability to make cognitive sense out of what I'm assenting to.

That, however, is a matter of faith, not intellect. It's just not the case that I ought to to have that kind of faith as a function of what I cognitively understand. Faith and reason are not related in that way (though they are related; I will perhaps do some blogging one of these days on what I think the relation really is, perhaps along some meditations on Fides et ratio).

This is an important lesson, I think, if we are to understand fully the passage from the Epistle read at Mass yesterday (1 Tim. 1.12-17):
I thank him who has given me strength for this, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithfully by appointing me to his service, though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly (agnoôn) in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
St. Paul appeals to his own ignorance, literally a lack of understanding, as an explanation of why Our Lord was merciful to him. It would be easy, indeed, too easy, to draw a distinction here between culpable and inculpable ingorance, between not understanding the truth and, shall we say "not wanting to understand" the truth. But to speak in these terms of the present passage is very much mistaken. St. Paul is not claiming that his ignorance is exculpating. Indeed, if his ignorance were exculpating, he would not be in need of mercy. Ignorance is rarely, if ever, exculpating in a legal sense. When the Highway Patrol pulls you over for doing 90 in a 65 zone, even if the officer were to actually believe you when you tell him that you sincerely thought that you were going the limit, he would not let you go by saying "Oh, that's all right sir, no problem." He would say "I'll let it go this time sir, but be more observant of the posted limit and your speedometer." When he says "I'll let you go" he is not saying "You are not guilty of speeding". He is saying "You are guilty of speeding but I'm not going to write you a ticket." He is being merciful. You are guilty of speeding whether or not you understand that you are guilty of speeding.

This is a particularly important point in the case of sin. Sin is a harm: one turns away from God, and this directly harms the sinner and it often also either directly or indirectly harms others. If I shoot somebody whom I believe to be an intruder in my home, but who turns out to be my elderly, senile neighbor who accidentally came into my house late at night by mistake, the law may draw a distinction and say that, because I acted in earnest, thinking myself to be defending my home against an intruder, I will not be prosecuted for murder or even manslaughter; but that fact in itself does not entail that I have done no harm, that there has been no suffering brought into the world by an act that I willed. It is, after all, a mark of our sinful world that honest and well-intentioned acts by fallen agents can result in evil. This is not the case with what God wills, it is only possible as a consequence of what creatures such as we will. There is a sense, an extra-legal sense, if you will, in which I am culpable, liable for the harm I have done, in spite of my ignorance of what I was really doing. It is a mere legality that I am not punished by legal instruments for what I have done. In a broader sense I am punished: I am punished by the feelings of guilt and regret that I will feel for the rest of my life; I am punished by the knowledge that a man who once existed no longer exists because of something that I did; I am punished by the knowledge that I have brought great grief into the lives of others, even if they genuinely forgive me for what I did in ignorance. Their suffering will remain real even when they can manage to forgive me for that, and I will know of their suffering and regret it.

Culpability, on this account, has less to do with the legal side of the question: should this person be punished in accordance with what the law demands, and more to do with the harm side of the question: has this person brought about suffering that otherwise would not have come into existence? In the former sense, ignorance can sometimes be exculpating, but the passage from 1 Timothy speaks of mercy, and mercy is not called for when someone has been exculpated. The point is that, even though we do deserve what the law demands, God is willing to forgo meting out that punishment if we repent and turn back to him. This is not because God is just willing to forget about it--it's because he does understand that people do things in ignorance that they might not otherwise do. If St. Paul had really and genuinely understood and believed the Gospel, he would not have blasphemed, or persecuted, or insulted God or his people. But part of the reason he did not believe the Gospel was that he did not understand it. He knew what the teachings were, who the adherents were, and he had no excuse for not knowing the Gospel other than the fact that his heart was hardened against it. We all know what it took to soften him up. But I think that we can say, of a well-educated, intelligent man, living in the thick of things right there smack in the middle of the Apostolic Age, that this is a man who ought to have known better. And yet.

And yet, he didn't. For whatever reason, he did not believe the Gospel. In an age when the Apostles themselves still lived and breathed and performed miracles, he did not believe the Good News. God himself had to intervene and call him with a voice that he could not ignore. I think that St. Paul was keenly aware of his failing in this regard, for in the same pericope from yesterday's Mass he goes on to call himself prôtos hamartôlos, the sinner who stands at the front of the line of all the sinners. These other people, well, who knows what their story is...but I know my story, and I know that I have failed miserably here. St. Paul accomplishes two things by calling himself the prôtos hamartôlos: he accuses himself of failure, and he simultaneously shows mercy to others in not judging their failures. Presumably there were then, as there are now, some pretty Bad Dudes out there, and he doesn't even know the half of them, and yet he is happy to make the (granted, largely rhetorical) claim, that he is at the head of the list of all of them. But in saying that, he admits that, as bad as some of those dudes out there might be, he himself really has no idea what God has in store for them, or what is really in their hearts. He shows them the mercy of letting God be their judge.

That is an important lesson for us, because we who are imperfect have a tendency to stand in judgment of others. To be safe, we appeal to a kanôn that we know is perfect: the Magisterium. By holding our object of judgment up to that standard, we at least know the objective details: this man has failed to meet necessary conditions x, y, and z on holiness, or to believe authoritative teachings p, q, and r de fide. And yet, we might as well say, "You didn't shoot an intruder, you killed your senile old neighbor." That is, after all, the objective fact of the matter. As it happens, God does not judge merely by toting up the necessary and sufficient conditions of objective belief as laid down by the Magisterium. As important as those things are, they do not determine for God to whom he will show mercy and to whom he will show severity. They are guides for us, not dictates for him. He judges by what is in the heart, and that is something that none of us can know, nor, more importantly, can we infer it from observation. Some people seem to think that it is sufficient merely to note which conditions a particular person has failed to meet, and we then know "this person, who ought to have known better, is lost". The trouble is, we can never know any such thing. The odds are that there are people who fall into the category of those who ought to have known better, and who will be held to a strict standard by Our Lord, but one really has to question the utility of thinking in such abstract terms. That the category is not empty may be true, but it is an abstract truth in that we cannot say for certain that it is true, only that it is a logical possibility, and even if it is true we have no idea who, or even how many, are in that category. Discussion of the issue is so very abstract as to be meaningful only within the context of analytic theology--it fails to have any relevance to the real world, where living Christians must learn to be merciful to their fallen brethren. I submit that it does not help us to learn how to be merciful if we focus instead on the ways in which we might be justified in our anger.

So when my son tells me that I don't care about him, and tells me that my "rules are stupid" or that "football is stupid", I suppose that, from a technical point of view, I have every right to send him to his room or to punish him in some other way. He has fallen short of the ideal behavior that is held aloft for him to aim at. But I was lucky that he went to his room all on his own, and I didn't have to send him. When he comes down, I can discuss the issue with him, and he can learn from my example that one does not necessarily have to apply force to get what one wants, and he may even learn that a person who has been wronged can, and will, if you cooperate, forgive you, which is not to say that you did nothing wrong, only that you will not be punished. You will be shown mercy, even though you ought to have known better.

1 comment:

Michelle said...

I have a 13 year old boy who provides much fodder for reflections theological and otherwise. Thanks for this one on mercy...