What Christians could learn from rabbis and science fiction

January 30th, 2015

“A mine accident leaves five miners alive but trapped with a dwindling supply of oxygen. A wall of rubble separates you from them. Trapped under the rubble is another miner. You have a stick of dynamite. If you dig him out, the five will suffocate. The only way to save them is to blow up the wall, killing the one to save the five. What do you do?”

This is a variation of a classic ethical dilemma: Do we decide our action based on the greatest good for the greatest number, or do we make distinctions between “killing” and “letting die”? While most of us will never face such a situation, movie dramas and popular culture often grapple with this kind of question.

Imagine you wake up after having been drugged, and learn that a group of people has surgically attached a world-renowned classical violinist to you so that he can use your kidneys. He will die if you have him removed, but if you wait a few months, he can be removed with less risk and survive. Are you obligated to leave him attached? What if you will be bedridden for a few years, rather than months? This is the scenario described by Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1971 in her article, “A Defense of Abortion.” When we tweak the story (making the consequences more or less dire, changing the identity of the actors, and so on) people often give different answers about what is right or wrong in this scenario.

The story itself does not answer the real-world issue of abortion, and indeed the framing of the story may have its own problems. Even so, these analogies are valuable because they reveal our internal moral intuitions. We are often inconsistent in our thinking about moral issues. Inconsistency is not necessarily a bad thing. Exploring these stories helps us understand better how we think about life and how we make judgments about what is right and wrong, virtuous or vicious.

I’ve always loved the way science fiction gives us more opportunities to create far-out scenarios to challenge our moral judgments and our ethical principles: Do sentient robots have the same rights as humans? What about aliens? What if you fell in love with an alien member of a species that had three genders, or one, instead of our (assumed) two? How would language be different if we only spoke in metaphor? How would society be different if we were all born from artificial wombs? For some of these questions, science fiction has a way of becoming science fact and continuing to force us to re-examine our philosophical assumptions.

The Pharisees were experts at this kind of ethical exploration. Although anti-Semitic teaching has led many Christians to assume “Pharisee” is a synonym for legalist or hypocrite, Pharisees were excellent philosophers and ethicists, and often created scenarios that may have seemed absurd to outsiders. With self-deprecating humor, the Talmud refers to rabbis arguing over a hypothetical tower that flies in the air. We can only imagine their discussion about airspace and holy space, or work and travel on the Sabbath. This kind of “thought experiment” is not frivolous. It allowed them to figure out the ethical principles in play. None of them expected that one day, air travel would be common! (Muslims face similar issues with praying towards Mecca from space.) Jesus and other Jewish rabbis used parables to help his followers stretch and understand more fully what he meant by the kingdom of God.

As our society and our church continue to debate issues like “enhanced interrogation” (torture), same-sex marriage, abortion, artificial intelligence and stem-cell research, I believe we are missing great opportunities to educate our congregations about how to think about ethics — not to mention exegesis or hermeneutics. Instead of exploring the deep and wide ancient traditions of Jewish and Christian ethics, our religious vocabulary seems thin and stunted, trapped by polarized questions: “What does the Bible say?” and “What would Jesus do?” While these are important starting points, they do not, by themselves, lead us to good answers. After all, the Bible says to stone disobedient children (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). Jesus calls people fools (Matthew 23:17), even though he says doing so is the same as murder (Matthew 5:22). How we justify departing from the text in these cases demonstrates that other principles and norms are in play.

These principles are not explicitly written in the Bible, though they may be derived from the Bible. For example, while the Bible does not condemn slavery, we have the narrative of the Hebrew slaves in Exodus, the Year of Jubilee, Jesus’ concern for freeing the oppressed, and Paul’s letter to Philemon. So, even though the Bible contains some scriptures that support slavery, we use our reason to give greater weight to principles we derive from it. Similarly, the Bible never talks about the importance of consent in a sexual relationship. In fact, there are plenty of scriptures that seem to indicate consent is barely relevant at all (Deuteronomy 22:24-28). Yet we can derive the importance of consent and respect for the autonomy of persons from the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

There is important language missing from our discussions of ethics and polity: the language of people being used as ends or means, the importance of consent or autonomy, the role of social power, coercion, or violence and the material conditions that lead to human flourishing. These are surprising omissions if we claim to value tradition and reason as well as Scripture. The Bible is relevant to all of these, but ancient Jewish scholars, recognizing that the Word of God didn’t directly address some of their social concerns, used stories and hypothetical situations to derive ethical principles from Torah that they could then apply to real-world problems. So, instead of only asking “What does Torah say?” Jewish scholars came up with stories about flying towers.

I do not think that questions about abortion, sexual orientation and gender identity or gender expression, economic policy or torture are easily resolved simply by “thinking harder” about them. But I do believe that part of being a disciple means developing our moral imaginations.

Want to stretch your moral imagination? Try answering Jeremy Stangroom’s compilation of Philosophy Experiments.

You might also try George Dvorsky’s “9 Philosophical Thought Experiments That Will Keep You Up At Night.”

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. He blogs at DaveBarnhart.net.

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