Thursday, September 29, 2011

A hopeful sign

I was delighted to see that, in Scotland, the Unitarians, Quakers, Metropolitan Community Church, the Pagan Federation and Liberal Judaism are backing members of the the Scottish Youth Parliament in the campaign for same-sex marriage.

In England, the campaign for religious civil partnerships brought together the Unitarians, Quakers, Metropolitan Community Church, and Liberal Judaism - but sadly did not include the Pagan Federation. The issues surrounding marriage for Pagans in England (whether same-sex or opposite-sex) are slightly more complicated, in that Pagan celebrants are not licensed to perform opposite-sex marriages. Whereas in Scotland, where the marriage laws are different, Pagan celebrants have been licensed to perform weddings. But still, I hope that the Pagan Federation will also get included in the English campaign.

Anyway, it's great that liberal faith groups are getting together to campaign on this issue (which, as any regular reader of this blog will know, is one I consider to be important), and I hope it signals a move towards campaigning together on other areas of common ground. A liberal interfaith alliance for peace and social and environmental justice - just think what that could achieve. And I hope it will soon include other religious liberals too.

Monday, September 26, 2011

What is the source of morality?

Recently, when the US state of Georgia decided to execute Troy Davis, and the state of Texas decided to execute Lawrence Brewer, many bloggers wrote some heartfelt and moving articles arguing against the death penalty. I wrote one myself outlining what I think are the reasons for abolishing the death penalty.

Many of the Christian blog posts on the subject focussed on the commandments of God and/or Jesus as a basis for the ethical argument for abolishing the death penalty. The trouble is, there will be many Christians who think the opposite, and will probably find some Biblical text or other to justify their position.

I think you probably can make quite a good case that Jesus was against the death penalty, as in the story where he saves the woman taken in adultery from being stoned to death by saying "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone". On the other hand, he is also recorded as saying "I come not to bring peace, but a sword" and "if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off"; so in order to work out what Jesus' ethical stance was on anything in particular, we have to select the texts that support our argument. So wouldn't it be easier to work out whether something is right or wrong without reference to Jesus' views, or indeed God's commandments, which are similarly ambivalent ("Thou shalt not kill" as part of the Ten Commandments, but lots of injunctions to stone people to death for various infringements of the Law).

The death penalty is not wrong because Jesus was against it, or because it's against God's commands as handed down in the Bible. It's wrong for far more basic reasons than that; because you can never know to what extent the person was responsible for what they were doing when they committed murder, or to what extent they might change. They may well be innocent, as evidence is not 100% reliable. Killing is wrong because it cuts short someone's life and does them extreme harm.

The Golden Rule (attested to by every religion) says that we should do unto others as we would have them to do unto us - and being killed is pretty high on the list of things we would not like to have done to us. (The fact that a version of this rule has been worked out by every major religion suggests that it transcends cultural context and is based on universal human experience). God's commands (and Jesus' ethical stance) can be interpreted one way by one group of people, and another by a different group of people; so the Bible is not a reliable guide to ethics. It's got some rattling good stories in it, which when pondered can produce some interesting insights, but I would not use it as a guide to ethics.

So what is the source of morality? According to Richard Holloway, author of the excellent book Godless morality, morality is based on weighing two conflicting good things. So, in deciding whether abortion is ethical, one weighs the good of the life of the foetus against the good of the mother who may or may not bring it to term. In the case of the death penalty, it cannot benefit the victim of the crime to have the perpetrator killed. Society should be protected from the possibility that the perpetrator might repeat their crime, but the life of the perpetrator outweighs the cost of maintaining them in prison as opposed to killing them. There is also the very valid point that carrying out the sentence places a burden of distress on the people who carry it out.

The source of moraliy is not some absolute command handed down from on high (the very absolutism of which can often cause more distress than it alleviates) but the pragmatic considerations of the context in which the ethical decisions must be made: who benefits? who suffers? and to what extent?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Let's not lose the momentum

The death penalty is wrong no matter whether the victim of judicial murder is innocent or guilty.

Here's some reasons why it's wrong:

  • The person being executed might be innocent. (Even if they're guilty, it's still wrong.)
  • They may not have been entirely compos mentis when the crime was committed.
  • People on Death Row frequently have learning difficulties or mental illness. If they weren't mentally ill to start with, the conditions on Death Row frequently send them over the edge.
  • Executing them means they will never have a chance to make good.
  • Killing is wrong. Two wrongs don't make a right.
  • The judicial murder weighs on the consciences of those who carry it out.
  • The process of killing the person is inhumane.
  • The endless waiting on death row (20 years in the case of Troy Davis) is extremely stressful for the person waiting to be executed, and for their family.
  • We don't have the right to decide to kill others.
  • Quite often it is the poor and disadvantaged who get executed, while those who can afford a good lawyer get acquitted, or get their sentence commuted.
  • How can any country that has the death penalty preach about human rights and democracy to the rest of the world?
  • As Lindsay Beyerstein points out: "the same logic that drives the death penalty is also behind a large percentage of murders. The idea is that some transgressions are so bad that they can only be settled by blood. Encouraging people to think that their pain isn't honored and avenged unless the perpetrator is killed probably makes our society more violent on the whole, not less."
What you can do about it: