Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Euthyphro the Burglar; or, A Criminal Dilemma

One night, as I arrived home from my Knights of Columbus council meeting, I noticed that my front door was ajar, and that there was a shadow moving past the curtains on the living room window. A burglary, I thought, more angry than scared. So I called 911, retrieved my Sig Sauer from my glove box, got out of my car as quietly as possible, and crept inside.[*]

As I tiptoed into the living room, the burglar was bending over to pick up the television set from the entertainment center. “Stop!” I commanded, pointing the Sig at him. “Put it down slowly, then stand up with your hands in the air. The cops are coming; you’re going to go to jail for burglary.”

The burglar did as I told him. To my surprise, though, he asked, “Is burglary wrong because the law says so, or does the law say so because burglary is wrong?”

Puzzled, I asked, “What does it matter?”

“Well,” he responded, “if Texas law says so because burglary is wrong, then the State of Texas doesn’t really define burglary.”

I shrugged. “That’s a trivial objection, because Texas enacted the definition in its laws, and you’re still subject to Texas law. But what if I say burglary is wrong because Texas law says so?”

The burglar smirked — or, at least, I think he smirked; it was difficult to tell through his pantyhose mask in the dim light. “In the first place, if it’s wrong only because the law says so, then ‘wrong things are against the law’ is merely a tautology, and says nothing significant about wrongness.”

“I’d say the fact that you’re going to jail is pretty significant,” I shot back. “The statement ‘Water is H2O’ is tautologous, but it’s still significant. Definitions by their nature are tautologous precisely because they express an identity. Numbers are only definable by themselves; yet we use numbers for everything from counting pennies to calculating the trajectory of a space vehicle. So the objection that tautologous equals trivial is false.”

“If burglary is wrong because the law says so,” the burglar countered, “the law could just as easily have been written to say that rape is acceptable behavior. Therefore, it cannot be wrong just because the law says so!”

“How so?” I shrugged. “Just over one hundred fifty years ago, Texas state law said the chattel enslavement of black people was morally acceptable; and many if not most Texans took great exception to anyone who said otherwise. We criticize that attitude now because we come from a context in which slavery is morally abhorrent; had we been raised in the antebellum South, it’s more than likely neither of us would have thought it wrong. Heck, prior to the Civil War, many people in the North didn’t think it was unacceptable, or that they were called to end the institution. You’re assuming what you need to prove — that wrongness has a meaning defined by something other than what the law says.”

“You obviously think it doesn’t,” the burglar said bitterly, as cop cars began to arrive.

Sed contra,” I replied, “Scripture says, ‘You shall not steal’ (Genesis 20:15; cf. Deuteronomy 5:19).” I always seem to pick up St. Thomas Aquinas’ style in the middle, not from the beginning.

“I respond: There is a moral standard, a ‘natural law’ to which human law ought to adhere. We Christians believe that natural law takes its nature and being from God, Who wills good things to be good, and desires that the creatures to whom He’s given free will do that which is good. That our laws fail to encode the natural law fully or consistently is testimony, not to its absence, but to our fallen, limited nature. Texas law encodes the natural law by illegalizing theft, which includes burglary.

“However, God is at the beginning of all things. Once you get to the beginning, there’s no going further back, no beginning before the beginning. In a similar fashion, there can be no ur-standard logically prior to God’s standard; the moral law is good, not because it meets a certain benchmark, but because it is the benchmark. It’s like positing a natural number less than one but more than zero — by definition, it can’t exist. Therefore, there can’t be a standard by which the natural law’s prohibition of theft is wrong.

“To your first objection I reply: since all that is good comes from God, and God gives all things their goodness, it would be true in a manner to say that God calls them good because they are good — God does not lie. However, that manner wouldn’t necessitate a moral law separate from and prior to God.

“To your second objection I reply: the identity between God and goodness cannot be of a trivial nature, because the existence of the moral law tells us God is not only interested in our behavior but makes demands of it — we are called to ‘be perfect, as [our] heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48). If God could have defined goodness differently, what of it? He did not; to find the alternate-reality ethos repugnant only demonstrates the fact that we adhere fully to the ethos God did create. You’re assuming an independent standard your argument doesn’t make necessary.”

The burglar asked one final question as the cops entered the house. “But what if there is no objective standard?”

I shrugged. “Well, then there’s no objective reason to change laws we like. Morality is all about ought and ought not: People ought to respect others’ possessions; they ought not take things that don’t belong to them. If there is an objective natural law, then human law ought to conform to it, and ought not deviate from it except by the necessity of survival. But if there is no natural law, then there is no external standard to which human law ought to conform, and therefore no objective measure by which a law can be judged ‘immoral’. I might think it wrong; you might think it wrong; but why should our opinion of the law be privileged over everyone else’s?

“We’re left then with our subjective preferences and desires. De gustibus non est disputandum: you can’t dismiss on grounds of irrationality that which never claimed to be rational. We here in Texas prefer not to be burgled; heck, we prefer to have the option to shoot people we catch robbing our homes,” I said, wiggling the Sig to underscore my point. “On what grounds can you persuade us to adopt a more tolerant law, given that — in the absence of an objective morality — tolerance cannot be morally better or worse than intolerance? This is the way we like it here in Texas, and who the hell are you to say different?”

At that point, the police broke up the conversation, cuffed the interloper, and took my statement. As they cuffed him, he breathed a sigh of relief … probably for the same reason I sighed as I put down my Sig. We’d been talking for quite a bit, and that gun was getting heavy; no doubt his arms ached from holding up his hands all that time. Eventually, he was carted off; the CSI guys got their prints; the police left, and peace descended on the house. He’s in jail, now, having pleaded out to breaking and entering and misdemeanor misuse of philosophy.

I just hope that, when he gets out, he doesn’t try again using Hume’s “is/ought” problem. Then I might really have to shoot him.

[*] Of course you realize this is fiction.