...if some men are to have authority over others, the source of authority must come from somewhere. It must come from somewhere where the seat of authority over all men lies. It must transcend mankind if it is not to be simply some men, even a majority, imposing their will upon others. The only reasonable source of that kind of authority is God Himself, and the only reasonable definition of how that authority is defined is by God's own revelation in Scripture.
This is a continuation of a previous discussion that you can catch up on by starting here.
Since I wrote my last post, responding to hers, Margaret Romao Toigo has written again on The Difference Between Crime and Sin. It would probably be best to read her post before reading this response to it.
First, I want to note some of the things we agree on. First, we both agree that working out these things is very important. I would go so far as to argue that this is the essence of the difference between liberty and tyranny, that is, finding that balance, in which civil government is big enough to effectively protect the rights of the people and yet limited enough to not infringe upon them itself. We also agree that a fundamental purpose for civil government is to protect the rights of the people from those (including but not limited to those in the government) who would violate them. I would also add that there is a role the civil government has in punishment of crime, which is not necessarily directly protective of others, but a goal in itself.
Where we differ, though, is on how to reach those goals we seem to agree upon. She wrote:
The question of whether any given law protects or infringes upon civil and human rights is the fundamental difference between the prosecution of crime and the judgment of sin, which is why we must guard our rights by recognizing the distinction between transient social conventions and the unchanging, unalterable truths of conscience as well as the difference between the mortal humans we elect to protect and defend our rights and the institutions we turn to for guidance in matters of conscience.
As mere mortals filled with pride, prejudice and all of the other weaknesses of the flesh, we are not fit to judge the finer points of the subjective concepts of virtue and sin, but our conscience is able to discern consensual acts and behaviors which do not directly encroach upon the civil and human rights of others from acts that cause direct harm to others.
I'm with her for the gist of this, but there are two concepts here that I'm sticking on. One is that I question the existence of, "unalterable truths of conscience," or the practicality of using such a standard to determine what should or should not be civil law. How does one determine if something is an unalterable truth of conscience? Is it by doing a survey of current thinking or by looking at cultural trends historically? Do we have experts who can decide these things? And then, who sets the standard by which these things are judged? It seems to me that this solution to the problem of determining when civil government should intrude and when it should not would be completely unworkable. All any tyrant would have to say is that this or that standard is an unalterable truth of conscience and that would be that. By what concrete standard could anyone object?
The second problem I'm having is the last line which seems to set up two opposites, that is, "consensual acts and behaviors which do not directly encroach upon the civil and human rights of others," as opposed to "acts that cause direct harm to others." Now I'm not completely clear on what is meant here, but Margaret seems to be saying that the standard we should apply is whether or not an act harms others. Again, I would say that this is a totally unworkable standard.
Let's say I'm in business and I start spreading information about my competitor, that he overcharges his customers and sells an inferior product. As a result of the information I have spread, his business suffers and mine prospers. I have clearly done him harm. Is my behavior criminal? Well, if my stories were false, then yes, I have slandered him. If my allegations are true, however, I have not committed a crime. But it is not the harm done that determines the nature of my actions, it is something else altogether.
I can cause harm to others in many legal ways. I could set up a business that competes with an existing business and never say a word about my competitor and yet still reduce his profits. I could build my house on my lot in a position that blocks my neighbor's view of a distant lake. I can have a party in my back yard with noisy children playing and screaming that intrudes on my neighbor's solitude.
So, who defines harm? I home school my son. Is someone in authority going to determine that I am harming him by not meeting some standard that they think must be met? Will someone decide I am harming him by requiring him to accompany us to church services on Sundays? Does the Jehovah's Witness harm me when she knocks at my door and tries to share her faith with me? Do I cause harm when I decide I am safer without a seat belt or am I allowed to be stupid? Again, just about any action could be said to be harmful, especially if we are willing to twist reality just a bit, which of course, is something tyrants are always willing to do. (I share Margaret's assessment of the weakness of the human condition.)
The problem I see with both of these points is not only that they are unworkable, but also that they are ultimately man-centered. I am not referring to a man-centered purpose--civil government inherently has a man-centered purpose--I am referring to a man-centered source of authority and a man-centered definition of standards. Man-centered standards are as fickle and varied as are men and women. The authority of civil government to restrict a person's choices of action, to imprison or compel restitution or even taxation has to come form somewhere other than mankind itself. Otherwise, by what right do people impose their will upon me? Why must I submit to them? Is it simply because I have a minority opinion? Is it because my opinion has been determined to be counter to an unalterable truth of conscience that someone else has defined or my action has an impact upon others in a way that someone else has determined to be "harmful"?
My point is, that if some men are to have authority over others, the source of authority must come from somewhere. It must come from somewhere where the seat of authority over all men lies. It must transcend mankind if it is not to be simply some men, even a majority, imposing their will upon others. The only reasonable source of that kind of authority is God Himself, and the only reasonable definition of how that authority is defined is by God's own revelation in Scripture.
Let me anticipate some objections to this assertion and address them here.