On Croquet and Subjective Morality — Questions from M

On Croquet and Subjective Morality — Questions from M June 29, 2017

Hope plays croquet.
Hope plays croquet.

Croquet is the new craze at our house. Age and general ineptitude have made it (nearly) impossible for us to beat our adult children at badminton, though we will keep trying. Croquet, however, that is another thing altogether. So far as I can tell it requires little or no endurance, already a plus for aging knees, and relies on skills that we have retained (ability to breath, basic vision, strength to hold a wooden mallet).

And it is fun.

The rules of croquet, however, are more than a bit odd. They are obviously the product of years of development and contain cool new words: I will roquet you, Mr. Hume!

They are entirely subjective, but inside the game, we play by them. In fact, once one starts the game, breaking them would be wrong, an act of bad faith. To walk onto the lawn, mallet in hand, is to agree to the weird rules of croquet.

They are subjective by nature, but binding once in play.

When I chat with folk, I am often surprised to discover that people that are non-Christians (and even a few Christians) think Christians oppose all subjectivity in moral reasoning. This may be true of some thoughtful Christians, but I have not met them. Most Christians agree with Aristotle: some acts are always immoral, but other actions are culturally relative or relative to appropriateness at the time.

For example, I should wash my hands, but not too much. The amount I should wash my hands or if I should wash my hands just now changes based on the situation. This does not prevent other things (killing people for fun) from being always objectively wrong. Oddly, this distinction is often treated as ad hoc (“I knew you Christians would back down!”) when it is built into our ethics from the start. Christians have always acknowledged that forcing a culture to do something they don’t grasp or are not ready to hear can lead to more harm than good. Jesus uses these sort of  distinctions in His discussion on divorce and remarriage. 

46. In what sense would you say God is moral? Is there anything could God have done or could he do that would show he is not moral, i.e., order someone put to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath, stoning a woman to death if she is not a virgin on her wedding night?

God could not do anything immoral, because God lacks the will to do so. God cannot bear false witness, for example, because He never could desires to do so. He is all powerful, but that does not include having the (very odd) ability to do things He cannot want to do. God is good by nature and that nature limits what he can choose.

Could He in justice put people to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath? Sure, God could. God has all the knowledge a person can have, including foreknowledge. He knows when a person’s seemingly “small” evils are part of a larger set of previous evils or the forerunner to greater evils. The trigger event (the last act that leads to death being better for the community than life) might be from a human perspective relatively small.

I think the question, however, confuses what God wills with the best laws God could give a certain people group at a time. The concept of simple monotheism was hard for ancients to understand. We forget all we have learned theologically and philosophically over the centuries. Asking people to do the best thing, might have been worse than asking them to what they could do. For example, my dad has had to advise people practicing polygamy to phase it out and not to “get rid of” multiple wives, since in the (bad, misogynistic) culture, the outcome would have been worse. The principle was preserved, but the implementation was limited by cultural circumstance.

The perfect was not made the enemy of the best that could be.

Put simply, cultures might decide to play by arbitrary rules. These rules are not God’s will, but become over centuries deeply ingrained in the folks. They cannot stop playing by those rules or when they break those rules are actually motivated by evil! How? They believe (almost pre-cognitively) from childhood that the rules are Rules (the objective moral truths). Most people (except for a few like Socrates) who break the rules cannot stop themselves from thinking they are defying Rules. They cannot unsnarl themselves. More important, is that if everyone else keeps playing by the rules, the rule breakers may benefit while harming the rule keepers.

It is a sad mess humans make. Croquet is a small analogy to this. There are rules that I think foolish, but if I break them I benefit and other players are harmed. We would have to agree on a modification of the rules and if you have ever been in a family game, you know this can be hard! Imagine a culture where thousands confuse the rules with Rules.

God, in His Wisdom, began to modify our behavior, teach us new ideas, by putting into place civil laws that people could have actually done more just than any up to that time. He also hammered in the basic principle: all people are created in His Image. Do justice. Love mercy. Over time, just as we learned monotheism and to now follow the God who was “winning,” so we learned to do better. Rules that were merciful at the time (like regulating divorce) could drop away.

Women, as God’s creation, were fully human (to use Dorothy Sayer’s wonderful language) and that was basic to all God did and said. In a world where might was right, that was hard to hear and even harder to implement. God gave us what could be done, and we failed at those rules! Over time, we learned and the rules were adjusted to agree more with the Rules.

For example, as we grew richer, and were no longer nomadic, we could substitute prison for death and so began the process of abolishing the death penalty in Christian lands in almost all cases.

I am sure that American Christians such as we are still confuse our own version of social croquet with the Good, True, and Beautiful. I am sure that God as our teacher still deals with us where we are at, but I am even more sure that God will not tolerate backsliding. As Lincoln and other abolitionists observed, American race based slavery was backsliding, we knew better or should have known better! It was as a result a “peculiar” institution in global Christendom at the time and was judged as such. This was an important part of why the South could gain no allies in Christendom and why nations like Russia actively worked for the Union.

Croquet is just for fun, especially because it is eccentric, but our human mistake of confusing the rules for Rules has been the source of great evil. This deep, institutional sin, in which we all participate when we should not, is one reason nobody can be save themselves or claim perfect justice.

Now off to play some croquet!


*M is a non-Christian that sent me 55 questions earlier this year. He has asked that I not reveal his or her name. I will write as if “he” is a male, but this is for convenience. I do not know if I will get to all his questions.  I try to limit my answers to hundreds and not thousands of words. Here are questions 1, 2, 3, 46, 7, 8, 1012, 1314, 1617, 19, 2023, 242627, 28, 333435, 36,  37, 3839, 4044, 464754 , and 55.

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