The ABCs of moral responsibility

In the previous post, I argued that Pope Benedict had gratuitously insulted Muslims — a serious screw-up.

Some readers leaped to the conclusion that I was defending Islamic terrorism. In my view, such criticism is a moral non-sequitor. Here’s why.

Imagine that you are the parent of two children, Po and Laa-Laa. (Teletubbie names — I wanted to avoid anything ethnic-specific.)

You are in another room when the trouble starts. It takes a while to sort out what happened, because both children are angry and Po is crying. Eventually it becomes clear that Po poked Laa-Laa in the arm repeatedly. Laa-Laa asked her to stop, to no avail. Finally she got so frustrated that she slugged Po in the shoulder.

You’re the parent. Which child’s behaviour do you correct?

The right answer — or so it seems to me — is to correct both children.

Laa-Laa could have asked you to do something about Po’s behaviour, instead of taking matters into her own hands. She certainly shouldn’t have resorted to violence.

But Po is not blameless in this conflict. By persistently “bugging” Laa-Laa, she “started it”. Thus Po must come in for some correction as well.

The point is this: to find fault with Po is not to exonerate Laa-Laa.

I don’t mean to speak down to anyone, but I suggest this analysis is part of the ABCs of moral reasoning. Laa-Laa is responsible for her misconduct; Po is responsible for hers (even if we regard Po’s misconduct as a lesser offence).

Let’s shift our attention back to Pope Benedict. He is no toddler on life’s journey. He is a learned man in a discipline (theology) which specializes in distinguishing right from wrong.

Moreover, as the Pope, his words carry extraordinary weight. He has to choose those words very carefully, because friends and foes alike will parse every sentence.

A well-known text in James says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1). The text obviously applies to Pope Benedict.

Being the Pope doesn’t elevate Benedict above criticism: it exposes him to a more stringent judgement than one might apply to, say, the pastor of a local church.

Now a quick comment on Pope Benedict’s apology. I don’t want to belabour my point, but apologies are relevant in this context.

Did Pope Benedict take responsibility for offending Muslims? Not in his first apology. As the current issue of Macleans puts it:

Benedict, 79, may despise contemporary moral relativism, but that didn’t stop him from issuing a thoroughly modern “I’m sorry if anyone was distressed by my comments” statement of contrition.

I haven’t followed Pope Benedict’s subsequent apologies, so maybe he has done better since then.

I sure hope so! Because he’s the Pope: he ought to know his ABCs.

copyright © 2006

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Pope Benedict seriously screws up

Out of context, here’s what Pope Benedict said:

Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.

The context? He was quoting a 14th century Byzantine Emperor. According to media reports, he did not say whether he agreed or disagreed with the Emperor. But presumably there was some point to quoting that text: i.e., to assert that Muslims need to renounce any recourse to violence.

But really, the context is irrelevant. The Pope seriously screwed up by quoting this particular text.

Pope Benedict is dreaming in technicolor if he expects the Muslim “street” to strive for a sophisticated, nuanced interpretation of the quote, in context. And today’s apology will accomplish nothing: it is mere whistling into the wind.

The quote says that Islam — or at least, anything new about Islam — is only evil and inhuman. There isn’t a single good thing that can be said about it. And note the words, “such as”. Islam’s use of the sword isn’t the primary point of the text quoted: it is secondary, mentioned only to illustrate Islam’s alleged evil and inhumanity.

It’s a completely indefensible statement. The reaction to it was not only predictable but even sympathetic (so long as the reaction stops short of violence).

Pope Benedict has fuelled the perception that the “War On Terror” is really a dispute over religion.

He has undone the work of his predecessor in the office, who had begun to build bridges to Islam at a time when they are desperately needed. He has forfeited any (limited) moral influence he might have had over Muslims.

But what concerns me most is this: the West cannot afford major screw ups like this one. The solution to the current geopolitical crisis depends on a voluntary reform from within Islam. That is, moderates must become the dominant voice of Islam, instead of the radicals who currently seize the initiative.

Every time a Western leader like the Pope makes a mistake of this magnitude, he increases support for the radicals.

The Pope isn’t responsible if the next act of terrorism is a consequence of his speech — I want to be clear about that. But the speech is now part of the problem, and Pope Benedict has ceased to be part of the solution to Islamic terrorism.

copyright © 2006, Stephen

Been there

This made me laugh, so I decided to share it.

The university years

My oldest son left for university today.

I’m excited for him, of course! But I must confess, I’m also more than a little envious.

I was once in the same place, beginning my studies with a world of opportunity beckoning me onward. But that was a couple of decades ago.

Here’s what I’ve learned since then. At critical junctures in our lives, we make choices. And it’s impossible to choose one thing without not choosing something else. With each option not chosen, a door closes to us. Sometimes a series of doors close, like dominoes falling.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not necessarily talking about immoral choices, or foolish choices: just choices. Some of my decisions have been bad ones. But most have been of the other sort, choosing one good option over another.

It’s impossible to live without making choices; and it’s impossible to make choices without limiting your future options. That’s what I’ve learned, sometimes with lasting regret.

I didn’t understand how it works when I was Benjamin’s age. Now I look back, wistfully, to that earlier, innocent time, when whichever way I turned, the horizons before me were unobstructed.

I hope Benjamin savours the moment. It’s a season unlike any other in the life of a young man or woman.

Home is behind, the world ahead,
And there are many paths to tread
Through shadows to the edge of night,
Until the stars are all alight.
Then world behind and home ahead,
We’ll wander back to home and bed.

(J.R.R. Tolkien,
The Fellowship of the Ring, book one)

copyright © 2006, Stephen