Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Thought Crimes and Misdemeanors

In a recent piece in Vanity Fair magazine, the endearingly and eternally inebriated neoatheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens launched into a prequel of his new book project: dismantling and replacing the 10 Commandments. They are, as he would argue it, a rather quaint bunch of antiquated silliness. They are eminently replaceable. Any highly rational and enlightened individual would be capable of coming up with a vastly superior set of Commandments to govern the lives of humankind.

So that's what he sets about to do. First, of course, he has to explain why the existing Mosaic Decalogue is utterly unacceptable. He's got a bristling quiver of bon mots and whiskey-sharp snark at his disposal, and is as entertaining as always as he deconstructs the Big Ten.

It's not all negative, truth be told. He's OK with the not killing, not stealing, and not adulterificating. He even seems impressed to the point of doing homage when he talks about not bearing false witness. But Hitchens being Hitchens, there's a whole bunch of erudite smackdown going on. One of the more interesting arrows he lets fly comes at the end of his attack, as he goes after the tenth and final commandment. You know, the one about "not coveting."

The primary thrust of his attack is this: Unlike most of the other commandments, this doesn't proscribe a particular behavior. You know, like Don't Kill. Don't Steal. Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys. Instead, the Tenth Commandment asserts that you should not feel a certain way. Instead, a particular pattern of human thought and emotion is prohibited.

Hitchens sees this, points his finger, and in a voice not unlike that of Donald Sutherland at the end of the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, says, "THOOOUGHT CRIME!" As Chrisso sees it, mandating a particular pattern of thought is the nastiest tendency of totalitarian regimes. Your every thought must be of the Dear Leader! Those who do not think in this way will be re-educated!

It's an interesting charge, one that he then goes to further level against Jesus for his provocative statement that even thinking about adultery is as bad in God's eyes as adultery itself. How can you command people to not even think something? How can you say that a person needs to feel a certain way? It's outrageous! Oppressive! Inhuman!

Or so the argument goes.

Here, though, Hitchens seems to have made a rather significant conceptual blunder. He has forgotten the difference between laws and ethics. A legal framework stipulates a particular pattern of behavior, and provides for ways to take folks to the woodshed if they don't comply with that mandate. Laws have to do with specific material actions, with concomitant rewards and punishments. But legal frameworks are not the highest form of governing human behavior. A human being who does not engage in a particular pattern of behavior out of fear of punishment...and would happily do all sorts of unpleasantness if they knew they could get away with it...that human being is not truly moral. They are not "good," not in any meaningful sense.

Morality and ethics, on the other hand, have to do with a deeply internalized set of values. They might involve certain proscribed behaviors, true. But they are ultimately about not just the actions of an individual, but go deeply to that individual's motivations and desires.

When Jesus challenged his legalistic listeners to consider their own desire to schtupp the deliciously zaftig wife of the village rabbi as functionally adulterous, he was getting at the heart of what it means to be a moral being. If the only reason you don't do the humpty hump with another man's wife is because you're afraid of social approbation and/or being stoned to death, then you haven't internalized your own set of values. When you condemn others for doing what you'd do if given half a chance, you are being hypocritically self-righteous.

Further, the inward transformation of human beings is the core purpose of every great human ethical tradition. In the Buddhist Eightfold path, for example, fully half of the paths speak to the nature of our internal lives. Human beings are, according to that tradition, to have right views, to have right intentions, right mindfulness, and right concentration. All of the material manifestations of that system of belief are to flow forth from an inwardly transformed self.

In condensing the 10 Commandments into the Great Commandment, Jesus did essentially the same thing. That Commandment is all about our orientation as beings, as we approach our Creator and on our neighbor. It doesn't command a particular action or set of actions, but rather asserts a particular attitude of our whole being: we are to love God. We are to love neighbor.

While the 10 Commandments do tell us to avoid particular actions that are universal to human brokenness, they are also not an exhaustive legal code. They are a higher level set of guidelines, ones that overarch, encompass, and guide the nattering specificity of legalism. As such, they're closer to a defining ethos than they are to being a legal code.

So when Hitchens confuses a call for personal and ethical integrity with "prosecuting thought crimes," he's critically overreached.

Ah well. At least he's entertaining.


  1. You know, David, first of all, I think all snide little alcohol references in this are beneath you. It's not good form to drop as many broad hints as possible that you think your interlocutor has a drinking problem. It may even be true, but (a) I doubt it's something you have any personal knowledge of and (b) even if it were, it's petty, catty ad hominem.

    Second of all, your argument does not make any sense. It just doesn't add up. The Ten Commandments are supposed to be just that -- commandments. It's not the Nine Commandments and One Suggestion. And you ARE supposed to be punished if you break them, and you ARE supposed to be afraid of that punishment. In the story, God orders for a man to be stoned to death for gathering wood on the Sabbath -- so the threat of legalistic punishment in the real world is not to be taken lightly. (I also think of Nadab and Abihu in the temple, or Uzzah and the Ark. For the Commandment's putative author, your innocent intentions are irrelevant. You follow the law to the letter, or you will pay heavily.)

    But that's not all. In our recent conversations about hell, you've made it clear that you think we will be punished eternally for in the afterlife for our sins. So the framework of the myth says very plainly, over and over, that if you even desire your neighbor's possessions, Big Brother will know, and he will punish you with eternal torture. That's thoughtcrime, plain and simple.

    There are a number of other problems that you've skated over entirely. (1) The fact that it's not so clear that coveting someone's possessions is such a bad thing in the first place -- because coveting your neighbor's garden is often the impetus for growing your own, and because coveting the lord's possessions is also the basis for seeking social equality and justice. (2) The fatally embarrassing fact that God apparently considered human beings to be possessions. Commandment #10 is just the sort of thing that a "have" would decree to the assembled "have nots," and claim that he'd gotten straight from the finger of God.

  2. @ Browning: May be true? That's like saying Tommy Chong "might smoke pot." It's Hitchen's schtick, mon frere. He's absolutely legendary for it, and has even written about his own efforts at detox..which, unfortunately, didn't take. Though it's hardly healthy, it's a defining characteristic. He's like a neoatheist W.C. Fields. I'm not being ad hominem. It is actually kinda endearing.

    My arguments are nonsensical? Arguing that the commandments are of a higher order, even in the face of their specificity, is self-evident from the context of Torah and the Deuteronomic Code.

    The point about ethics needing to be authentic and internalized...well...meh. Perhaps that core point was too fiddly. Although you're welcome to take a swing at it. Relating the concept of "thoughtcrime" to the concept of ethos might help here.

    And I just love it when you channel Gordon Gekko. Greed is good, baby! :0)

    As for ways that this commandment plays out in the Bible, it's hardly an endorsement of those who have power. This commandment is at play in the story of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah. And Ahab and Naboth's field.

  3. Actually, most intelligent critiques of Hitchens, don't mention his drinking habits at all, unless they are somehow relevant. Which they aren't here. I'd say rather that the defining characteristic of lamest Hitchens' critics is that they cannot keep themselves from commenting early and often for his reputation as a lush, and it's usually because that's the only sword they've got in their scabbards. I suppose in some circles, it passes for wit. But just because the other kids are doing it....

    And, no, I am not channeling Gordon Gekko. But what he is praising is just social Darwinism on a corporate level. Gekko says that greed is good because it causes only the strong to survive, and he takes only what others are too weak to hold onto. I'm not down with that.

    I'm talking about two things that are each very different from that: (1) You see what others have, and instead of conspiring to take it from them, you become inspired to earn it for yourself. Kid from the bad side of town works hard to get an education because he wants a better life. Or (2) the serf sees the wealth of the manor, and wants to see a society where wealth is more equitably distributed. Neither of those can be called "greed" but both of them begin with clear examples of "coveting." I proscription against wanting what you do not have is a recipe for maintaining the status quo. It's poorly stated. It needs fixing, obviously.

  4. It seems to me that David's and Ahab's crimes were not the wanting. It was the taking. The actual crimes are all amply covered in the other commandments against adultery, perjury and murder. (Though, in Ahab's case, the sin was his wife's, and punishment his son's. Yahweh, as ever, has a screwed up sense of justice.)

    In any case, you've carefully avoided the enslaved elephant in the room. The real question is whether a mere desire warrants a spot in a list that neglects to mention some of the worse barbarous acts, and, in fact, implicitly condones them. I wrote this in a comment on another post, but here it is again:

    I think it's telling that the author of this list doesn't just neglect to mention slavery at all, but mentions it in passing, as he is prohibiting certain kinds of thoughts or wishes. He takes it for granted as ethically neutral. "Do not covet a man's house, animals, wives, slaves, or other possessions" is a rule with roughly the same moral aptitude as one that says "Respect the privacy of a man when he is eating dinner, sleeping, or having sex with his wife or children."

  5. @ Browning: Which is why it isn't a part of my critique of his position, but just part of the introduction. I like that about him. Heck, if given the opportunity to raise a glass with him, I'd take it up in a heartbeat. It'd make for a memorable evening.

    I'm glad the predatory element of covetousness annoys you as it does me. That consumptive, grasping, destructive aspect of human acquisitiveness is an affront to both faith and reason.

    You then seem to have wandered off into another conversation, to the point of cutting and pasting from it. Given that we've played out that particular thread, I'll endeavor to get us back into the core of things. Ethos? Thoughtcrime? Compare and contrast? As Gold Five might say...stay on target...stay on target...;)

  6. David, I can understand why you would want to limit the conversation to little area you've staked out -- "You say thought crime, I say internalized ethics. Let's call the whole thing off." But please. I brought up Hitchens to you in the first place because I was curious about your take on his take on the Big Ten, and so this post seems to me like just another round in that conversation. And, yes, you have tried, understandably, to change the subject to a much narrower focus on one aspect of Hitch's argument. But the bit that I pasted was never "played out." The fact that you wouldn't (or couldn't) reply before doesn't make it permanently out of bounds.

    It's pertinent. It's in the same freakin' commandment, for cryin' out loud. The ethic you are supposed to internalize here explicitly says "Don't covet your neighbor's slaveholdings." Have you personally internalized that ethic as stated? Did you not find it hard to do so? Because when I read that part, my reaction is to say "Wait just a minute here. Whoever wrote this has no business telling me how to be a good person. Even I know better than that." And that makes me question many other things, including whether it makes sense to threaten punishment for thoughts or desires even if they don't lead to actions.

    But, okay, Darth. You clearly feel a little vulnerable in the vicinity of your thermal exhaust port. So I'll spot you slavery. (For the time being. But I think you have to account for it eventually.)

  7. Even children understand that there is something silly in proscribing a thought. It's why we liked it when we first heard someone say something like "Don't even think about taking one of my fries." You have the right not to share your fries with me, but it is self-evidently absurd to claim that your property rights extend to what I can imagine myself doing with your fries. "Don't even think about it," is hyperbole. That's what makes it funny.

    Also, there is no ethics at work without a desire to overcome. Suppose Uriah has harkened to the words of the calypso classic: "If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life..." Or suppose Jonathan had been more David's type, if you catch my drift. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, Leviticus notwithstanding.) Under those circumstances, is David's disinterest in Bathsheba to be praised? In other words, would you make a virtue of necessity?

    Or suppose David had fallen in love with beautiful Bathsheba but had never acted on those feelings, or maybe had even acted on them in ways that were above reproach. Say he had redoubled his efforts to see that Uriah and Bathsheba had long and happy lives together both in spite of, and because of, his real affection for her. (Or think of Carton's sacrifice for Lucie in A Tale fo Two Cities.) Would you claim that such ethical actions didn't count because they were in spite of desires?

  8. It seems to me that it is unwise to cultivate desires if acting on them would be unethical. But it's not unethical to want an iPad. Or even to want Jesse's girl. It's not unethical for Ahab to wish to buy Naboth's vineyard for a fair price, nor for him to feel disappointed when Naboth refuses to sell. (It is unethical to want to own Hagar for yourself, but that's because it's unethical to own Hagar at all, even if you bought or captured her fair and square. Whoops. Sorry.)

    But the main thrust of the Christian argument, it seems to me, is that it not enough for you resist temptations to do evil. Your human impulses even within the confines of your mind are enough to convict you. The thought is as bad as the act, and for it alone you deserve to suffer the eternal torments of hell. Your only recourse is to beg forgiveness -- which you do not deserve -- from Dear Leader. It is literally a law, enforced with threat of the greatest imaginable punishment, against certain thoughts. In short, a thought crime.

  9. @ Browning: I'm not asking you to "call it off." Quite the contrary. Just attend...as you now have...to the central point of this post, and not to re-construing a commandment about covetousness and desire as being a commandment to enslave. I'm glad you've moved on from that, and I'm sure you'll bring it up again some other time.

    It's interesting that you would identify as a positive the desire for material possessions. It's pretty consistently something that we theists find to be at the foundation of all manner of unpleasantness. In my observation, it has some rather nontrivial effects on human happiness. Another difference, perhaps, between our worldviews.

    Given that Christian ethics is essentially transpersonal, yeah, we do view our underlying intent as important. If your well being is my own, then it is not enough for me not to insult you. I must seek not to hate, understanding that my intentionality forms my actions in ways both direct and subtle. Am I great at that? Sometimes. Sometimes not.

    Whichever way, faith does not mean being cowed into compliance. It's about being inwardly transformed.

  10. Well, no, it's not a commandment to enslave. Never claimed it was. But it is a commandment to respect the property rights of slaveowners to own their slaves in peace. The point is that this particular commandment implicitly endorses slavery when the Decalogue ought to have explicitly forbidden it. I just don't see how you can get around that embarassing fact. Which is why I think you are so eager to put it outside the parameters of this discussion.

    But really, you can't. It's directly pertinent. You can't say the 10th Commandment requires us to internalize an ethic without somehow addressing the fact that the ethics of the self-same commandment are obviously, hopelessly, fatally flawed. You either have to (1) argue that OT slavery was not unethical, (2) argue that the 10C, despite all appearances, were as opposed to slavery as I am, or (3) concede Hitchens' point that the 10C are far from perfect and badly need fixing. That's a tough spot, I know, and I sympathize with your quandry, but I can't just let you get away with claiming that you've adequately addressed this issue elsewhere and that it has no relevance to the subject of this post.

    Also, I don't see that I have "identified as a positive the desire for material possessions." I suspect you and I would largely agree on the proper stance towards material possessions. I think is inadvisable to let a desire for material possessions consume your life. I would heartily agree that if you are constantly unhappy with X, thinking that X+1 will make you happy is likely to disappoint you. It may even lead you to behave unethically. What I said is that having desires for material goods is not inherently unethical. Until the desire results in behavior, it's neutral, and even then the resulting behavior may not be negative. It is not actually evil to want to own an iPad. Or an Xbox. Right?

  11. @ Browning: Yes, that is indeed what you said. Coveting is, as we both know, a term that implies negative and destructive desire. That is, at least according to most Biblical scholarship, the point and purpose of the 10th Commandment. Interestingly, the moderate commentaries I have interpret this towards your moral position...it is "enacted predatory desire" that they argue is at issue in this commandment, not desire itself. I tend to feel this is not sufficiently radical, mostly 'cause of, you know, the whole Jesus thing. But it's nice to know you're on the same ethical ground as some of my brethren.

    And of course it's evil to desire an XBox. The PS3 is far superior. ;)

  12. Well, no, that isn't what I said. If that's the way you want to play it, then we have what amounts to a trivial semantic misunderstanding. I've been using "covet" simply to mean desire (which is a common definition). I've assumed that the negative connotation is merely by association with the commandment. If the word in the context of the commandment is meant to entail a "negative or destructive" desire by definition, then obviously it cannot apply to my positive (or neutral) versions of desire for material things. Kid from the projects wants a house in the burbs. Serf wants a more socially just society with a more equitable distribution of wealth. Pastor sees his neighbor's PS3 and wants one of his own. None of those can properly be called "coveting," by that definition, right?

    And if I accept your definition, then it follows, logically, that you could, in principle, experience non-destructive, ethically-acceptable, desires for your neighbor's house, etc. You could, for example, make an offer to buy Nahob's vineyard for a fair price in good conscience. (Just don't moan about it to Jezebel when he refuses to sell. That b**** is evil.) You could chastely love and lust after Bathsheba from afar -- which would be uncomfortable for you, but ethically impeccable. If you wish to argue that is impossible to have such desires that aren't inherently destructive, then I think you have to relinquish your special definition and admit that "covet" refers to any and all desires.

    I think the moderate commentaries you refer to sound redundant. How would one enact a predatory desire without breaking another commandment? (Well, I guess you could enslave Nahob to get his vineyard.) But, yes, they are obviously motivated to interpret the commandment in a way that acknowledges that there is something inherently wrong with thought crime. So that is nice, as far as it goes.

  13. @ Browning: Yes, as you say. Obviously it cannot. Glad we're in agreement! Well, agreement-ish. Your interpretation, and the interpretation of the moderate commentator I referenced (Brueggeman, in the N.I.B. Commentary, if you need a cite), really do set the garden variety desires of marketplace and material self-improvement up as basically hunky dory. Honestly, I think that's the original social use of that commandment. Meaning, you are simpatico with the ethic it was intended to establish. Which is good, so far as it goes. :0)

    As I've said before, I tend to radicalize that commandment, 'cause Jesus radicalizes that commandment. Fretting over material things, outside of the basic necessities of existence, is something Jesus identifies as ultimately negative. He and the Buddha and Mahavira all seem to be on the same page on that front. Must be a theist thing.

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  15. It's not necessarily a theist thing to recognize that hankering after material things may not be the true path to happiness or to the most ethical behavior. It is a theist thing to say that such hankerings are in themselves unethical regardless of how they are enacted, and that they deserve to, and will be, punished with death and/or supernatural torture. As an atheist, I get to keep the wisdom and discard the noxious nonsense.

    Also, again, I can't be simpatico with the 10th commandment because (a) I agree with you in this instance rather than Brueggeman -- that's not really what the text says, or means, and (b) it is explicitly indifferent to the institution of slavery, which makes it hateful to me (as, say, McDonnell's recent declaration was hateful to you). I can only be simpatico with it after it has been "spun" (as McDonnell has spun his words) to mean something more or less in keeping with my rational humanist ethic. But because I do not credit its source as being divine or sacred, I don't need it to be spun. I am free to judge it and/or revise it, keeping what is good and discarding what is wicked.

  16. @ Browning: Funny thing is, I'm the one "spinning it" based on a later interpretive approach. It's Brueggemann and others that are giving the...to my eyes...more likely contextual meaning from an objective historical-critical perspective. The text itself..particularly given it's focus on not coveting your "neighbor's" stuff..seems more geared towards preventing socially destructive acquisitiveness. Given what you've said, you seem more sympathetic to the original meaning, and less so to the mystic ethos of detachment from possessiveness that I'm articulating. Am I incorrect? It's not entirely clear from your last comment.

    And Here you are spending a beautiful Sunday talking Bible with a pastor! What better way for an atheist to spend his time?

    Do get away from the screen today...Charlottesville is a vision of glory at this time of year. Just 'cause I'm stuck at my desk prepping for church meetings doesn't mean you can't revel in the delicate green riot of Spring.

  17. Hey, David.

    Yep, just back from a long walk around the neighborhood with the kidlings. We counted ten different colors of flowers (conservatively), and along the way they gave me some feedback on a children's picture book I just started writing. Going to a garden party in the afternoon over by UVA. Sorry to hear you're cooped up. It's my fervent hope for you that you get a chance to get out into the glory of creation before the day is through.

    But I enjoy our discussions too. Working the mind, as well as the legs. I hope you do as well.

    To clarify: I am more sympathetic to the ethics of the interpretation that Brueggermann projects onto the text, and more sympathetic to the reliability of your semantic interpretation. That is, I think Breuggermann is stretching the meaning of the words in order to make the message more palatable to his modern bourgeois sensibilities, which are nearer to my own than those of a violent Bronze Age tribal culture. But I think you are right that the intention of the text is more radical than he would have it. I can see how that might be confusing, but it's actually logically consistent.

    But I don't understand your position. You think Breuggermann's interpretation is objectively "more likely" and yet you reject it in favor of the more radical one? I mean, I think I can predict the language you would use to rationalize this position -- that you view the text "through the lens" of Jesus' radical love ethic. But aren't you claiming that you prefer an interpretation that is objectively less likely to be true?