Mind Your Own Business

Mind Your Own BusinessGod respects our free will and permits us to live our lives for better or worse, but we ought not think His forbearance  signals an opening for us to step in and interfere with our neighbors’ lives. On the contrary, many scriptural passages condemn meddling in the affairs of others. When others threaten or harm us, we have a right to protect ourselves, our property and our loved ones. It is our affair.

We may even come to the aid of a stranger who is being robbed, but with a caveat: The further we are from a problem, the more we must pause before interfering with matters that do not concern us (and which we may not understand). This is never more true than when others behave in ways we disapprove but are not harming anyone, except perhaps themselves.

People who meddle in others’ business we call busybodies, and the scripture has nothing good to say about them

The mildest biblical reproach for the busybody is when King Solomon declares him to be a fool. Prov. 20:3. Elsewhere Solomon advises that he who meddles in another man’s quarrel is only buying trouble for himself “like the man who seizes a passing dog by the ears.” Prov. 26:17.

The New Testament is harsher, describing such people as lazy idlers: “We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others.” 2 Thessalonians 3:11 They are meddlers going from house to house with gossip “talking about things that ought not to be mentioned,” rather than being productive.1 Tim. 5:13. St. Peter, calling them “intriguers” (or mischief-makers), classes them with thieves, murderers and other criminals. 1 Pet. 4:15.

There is a common thread here: MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS

Mind Your Own Business

God gives free will to make virtuous people

In the beginning, man was created with free will. In paradise, Adam and Eve had complete freedom of action and only a single rule: Do not eat the fruit of one particular tree. They were free to obey or disobey. God warned them that eating the fruit of the tree would kill them, but God—having made them free—could not prevent their abuse of that freedom and so death came to our world.

We have heard the story so many times we do not stop to consider how odd this is. From a human point of view, this is very peculiar. When men wish to prevent something bad from happening, they take concrete steps to deter it. If it is in their power to stop something they do not want to happen, they stop it. If they cannot reliably stop someone from doing something, they declare it a crime and punish the offender afterwards.

From our point of view, God’s reaction to evil is shockingly different. Unlike man, God has the absolute power to stop evil from happening. He could have stopped evil at any stage. He need never have made men in the first place. He might have made us so that—like robots—we never acted wrongly, but He did not. He made man and woman in his own image, with the freedom to choose good or evil. He gave them dominion over the earth and then God declared that it was good.

Having made men who could choose evil, He might have chosen to punish evil instantly, whenever it occurred, but God did not do that either. While many wrong actions have natural consequences in this life, most of us are given a full lifespan before being called to account for our lives.

In God’s wisdom, free will is so important that He gives it to every man, not just our first parents. Why did God permit such freedom? The abuse of our free will brings death and sorrow to every generation, so why did an omnipotent and good Creator risk the evil that often results? It seems free will is necessary to make men who are capable of sharing in God’s life. Only free men can become good men. True virtue requires liberty.

St. Augustine, vices and the criminal law – Part 2

[Part I here]

In the last post, we saw that St. Augustine taught against the criminalization of all but the most egregious human conduct. Beyond keeping the peace, he wrote, government does more harm than good when it uses force to make men behave rightly. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, he essentially adopts the libertarian non-aggression principle as a limit on the use of force by government.

In his “Letter to Macedonius,” St. Augustine goes further, challenging the idea that government can make bad men good by force of law:

[The bad] are not to be described as good just because they do not sin, out of fear of such penalties. One is good not through fear of punishment, but through the love of justice. Punishment by the government is useful so that “the innocent can live in security among the unscrupulous.” 

Not only does he reject the notion that criminal punishment removes an interior disposition to evil, he goes on to assert the opposite. He writes that, “prohibition increases the desire of illicit action.” [City of God, XIII:5.] This cannot be denied, for the attractiveness of “forbidden fruit” goes back all the way to the garden of Eden and is especially enticing to less mature individuals. Teenage rebellion is a testament to this proposition.

St. Augustine, vice and the criminal law – Part 1

ST. AUGUSTINE, BORN IN 354 A.D, WAS BISHOP OF HIPPO IN NORTH AFRICA. He is best knwon for his autobiography Confessions  (398 A.D.) and his later work, The City of God.

St. Augustine taught that mankind is divided into two groups or “cities,” the City of God and the City of Man. Inhabitants of the City of God have their will and reason turned toward communion with God. The City of Man looks to purely earthly ends, yet these groups are “commingled” in this life, just as the wheat and the chaff grow in the same field until the Judgment Day.

This creates a pluralism of moral and religious values that will persist until the end of the age. There can be no common agreement as to every right and wrong, except for a common desire for “the sweetness of peace which is dear to all,” and the “tranquility of order.” [City of God, XIX:11, 13]

Here again, one sees that same common ground inherent in the non-aggression principle. Augustine wrote that, “peace is a good so great, that even in this earthly and mortal life there is no word we hear with such pleasure, nothing we more strongly desire, or enjoy more thoroughly when it comes.” [City of God, XIX:11.] The citizens of both cities have a common interest in peace. They can agree, at a minimum, upon a secure and orderly society that lets them pursue their goals, be they spiritual or material.

When laws truly protect us from harming one another, we respect those laws so unanimously that even criminals will agree (at least as those protections apply to themselves). On the other hand, when we cannot agree on moral values that do not impinge directly on others, we lose respect for the law. It seems brutal, rather than just and leads to contempt for the law.

Libertarians, along with St. Augustine, see the wisdom in limiting government (of whatever sort) to a least common denominator between the City of God and the City of Man; i.e. the protection of life, liberty and property. St. Augustine—along with St. Thomas, as noted above—believed vices must be tolerated because governmental suppression would only result in more evils:

What can be mentioned more sordid, more bereft of decency, or more full of turpitude than prostitutes, procurers, and the other pests of that sort? Remove prostitutes from human affairs, and you will unsettle everything because of lusts; place them in the position of matrons, and you will dishonor these latter by disgrace and ignominy. This class of people is, therefore, by its own mode of life most unchaste in its morals; by the law of order, it is most vile in social condition. [De Ordine, 2.4]

In condemning prostitution, St. Augustine makes it clear that just because we do not punish these sins does not mean we approve of the conduct. In his letter to Macedonius (413-14 A.D.), he uses the example of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery (whom Jesus saved from stoning). Augustine recommends that believers of his own day adopt Jesus’ merciful example: “Impious Jews yielded to his pronouncement; may pious Christians do so too.” He also notes that “[God] punishes very few offenses in this life, in case no one believes in divine providence; and he keeps most of them back for the final assessment, in order to remind us of that future judgment.” [“Letter 153: to Macedonius,” ¶ 4, 11]

[Read Part 2 here]

Thomas Aquinas: Should all vices be crimes?

Should all vices be crimes? This a question St. Thomas addresses explicitly in his Summa, wherein he objects to the criminalization of most vices on the ground that it would make criminals of most people. St. Thomas argues that “human law rightly allows some vices, by not repressing them” and with good reason:

[Virtuous conduct] is not possible to one who has not a virtuous habit, as is possible to one who has. Thus the same is not possible to a child as to a full-grown man: for which reason the law for children is not the same as for adults, since many things are permitted to children, which in an adult are punished by law or at any rate are open to blame. In like manner many things are permissible to men not perfect in virtue, which would be intolerable in a virtuous man.

Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of oth-ers, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.

What St. Thomas is teaching is nothing less than the non-aggression principle: that human law should limit its punishments to acts that hurt other people or their prop-erty. He goes on to assert that criminal punishment “belongs to those sins chiefly whereby one’s neighbor is injured.”

St. Thomas also cites God’s own unwillingness to prevent earthly evils, often times because the cure would be worse than the disease:

Human government is derived from the Divine gov-ernment, and should imitate it. Now although God is all-powerful and supremely good, nevertheless He al-lows certain evils to take place in the universe, which He might prevent, lest, without them, greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue. Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred: thus Augustine says (De Ordine ii, 4): “If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust.”

Elsewhere, St. Thomas repeats this truth that suppressing vices can lead to greater evils: “[Human law] does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous . . . Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils.

As St. Thomas foresaw (along with St. Augustine), the criminalization of other moral evils–drunkenness, drug abuse, sexual immorality and other vices which are not directly harmful to others or their propertyis unjust and results in greater sins.