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The Choice of (and for) Your Life

Suppose your enemy is trying to frame you for murder.  He does a good job of fabricating evidence, and you are arrested and charges are filed.  Of course you are not guilty, so you refuse all plea offers.  But being innocent does not guaranty you will win at trial, and your “no plea” position is very risky.  Indeed, the stakes could not be higher.  Under the law of your state the only allowable penalty for murder is life in prison without possibility of parole.  Your case goes to trial, and the DA’s entire case against you comes down to the testimony of two witnesses.  Even though you are not guilty, it is clear to everyone that if either of these witnesses testifies against you, it is CERTAIN you will be convicted.   

Suppose the DA is feeling magnanimous and says to you, “I don’t need both of these witnesses.  If either of them testifies against you, I will get a conviction, so I will call only one of them and what’s more, I will let you choose.”   

Finally, suppose that all you know about the witnesses is that one of them is an orthodox Christian and one is an atheist and that your enemy has offered each of them ten million dollars to testify falsely against you. 

Two questions: 

1.  Do you have enough information so that you would be other than indifferent about which witness to choose? 

2.  If the answer to the first question is “yes,” which do you choose and why?

 

 

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37 Responses to The Choice of (and for) Your Life

  1. The atheist with an utilitarian ethic would be a good candidate because the hapiness of having $10million is heavier than the suffering of an innocent in jail, or much more if he has gone to the electric chair (lest time suffering in prison)
    The ortodox christian is a good candidate too because he can repent and give perhaps 10% of his reward to a church, and if he is catholic even can be buried in the future inside a church, perhaps for 20%.

  2. Yes. Why?

    Other things being equal, the orthodox Christian (OC) is a better pick.

    This has nothing to do with whether he or the atheist has a better overall character as such.

    The OC believes that there is such a thing as truth, and that he must one day account for his behaviour.

    The materialist atheist believes that notions of truth are the buzz of neurons in the brain, programmed by genes, and that morality is an illusion (cf Darwinian philosopher Michael Ruse). Also that if the law does not call him to account, no one will.

    The $10 million may buy the atheist a life full of pleasant experiences before his annihilation.

    But the OC knows he won’t enjoy the $10 million because he believes he won’t just be annihilated later. On the contrary, he dreads the judgment of God, who in the Catholic formula, “can neither deceive nor be deceived.”

    If he is a Catholic and confesses his sin, the priest may (should) tell him to go and admit the truth to the Solicitor General, on pain of his immortal soul.

    The priest can only offer him God’s forgiveness for past offenses beyond recall, NOT for inflicting ongoing suffering on an innocent man in prison.

    So he would end up doing time for perjury, and getting a big fine, and a ruined reputation, not spending his $10 million as he pleases.

    On the whole, he may as well just tell the truth in the first place and go back to his normal, humble life and be content with it.

  3. Um, “orthodox Christian”? Do you mean “Russian Orthodox”? You can’t be “orthodox” anything if there isn’t a central authority defining which bits of dogma define Orthodoxy. I’m guessing you just mean “fundamentalist Protestant”.

    Very unrealistic situation. I write fiction, and this is nonsense.

  4. 4
    Barry Arrington

    mahuna, employs two typical atheist debate tactics:

    1. Change the subject. “Orthodox”? What does that mean? mahuna, I suggest you consult a dictionary. This thread will not be about the meaning of Christian orthodoxy.

    2. Show scorn and contempt rather than address the question.

    That’s all fine. Refusing to answer is answer enough.

  5. I couldn’t lie and send some one to prison. I think anyone who would lie and take the money is scum. How could anyone do that to another human being?

  6. 6
    Barry Arrington

    Jerad, people have been framed by false testimony for centuries. Read I Kings, chapter 21 for an example of a man who was framed so that a powerful man could possess his property.

    The issue is not whether perjury is possible. Of course it is.

    The issue is not what you would personally do. I will concede for the sake of this discussion that what you say is true and you personally could never commit perjury.

    Now that we have cleared away these two distractions you have attempted to inject into the discussion, do you care to answer the questions that were actually posed?

    See News’ response in [2] above as an example. News takes a position and defends it with arguments. That’s what we are looking for here.

  7. I know people perjure themselves all the time for a lot less than that much money. It’s just sick though. I wasn’t attempting to distract, I was just reacting to the scenario.

    1. I don’t feel I have enough information. Christian or atheist doesn’t matter to me. What matters it the person I think I could bring around via cross examination and looking very pathetic to tell the truth. I’d want to know more about the individuals before I made a choice. Any personal details I could get.

    All other things being equal or unknown if one was a woman I’d probably pick her.

  8. 8
    Barry Arrington

    Jerad says there is not enough information provided so that he would be other than indifferent with respect to the choice between the orthodox Christian and the atheist.

    Interesting.

    Let’s give you some more information.

    Both witnesses will take an oath to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

    Let’s say the orthodox Christian believes that breaking this oath by bearing false witness is prohibited by one of the Big Ten Commandments given by the very Creator of the universe and that if he commits perjury he will have to bear the guilt of breaking a commandment and also that God will punish him both in this life and the life to come.

    The atheist obviously does not believe that God gave the Ten Commandments, and he obviously does not believe he will be punished by God (since there is no God) in this life. He also does not believe there is a life after this one. Once you are dead, you are dead. Let’s also say that the atheist is a consequentialist. He believes that all morality is subjective and situation dependent and that the “correct” moral choice is the one that results in the greatest net pleasure. He says to himself, I will give eight million of the bribe for hunger relief in the Sudan and keep only two million. Then literally thousands of people’s lives will be saved from starvation and I will still have enough money to live a comfortable lifestyle. Surely my pleasure combined with the pleasure of all of those whose lives I save from starvation exceeds the pain of one person going to prison.

    What do you say now?

  9. Well, if the atheist said that to himself then I wouldn’t know that would I? hahahahahahahahah

    Seriously, if all I knew about the two people was what you’ve just presented then clearly you have to pick the Christian BECAUSE you don’t know what s/he is going to decided whereas I know what the atheist is going to do: send me to jail.

    I don’t really care about their world views, I’m trying to stay out of jail for a crime I did not commit.

  10. 10
    Barry Arrington

    Jerad,

    Exactly. Now let’s go back to the original scenario. All you know is that one is an atheist and one is an orthodox Christian.

    Your life is on the line. This is all the information you have. Are you seriously telling me that you would be satisfied with flipping a coin to choose between them?

  11. of (and for) X:

    “Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.” – Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (an ‘Orthodox’ Christian)

    Do atheists (@16% of current U.S. population) still have to take an oath saying “so help me God” in your neck of the woods?

    A propos:
    http://www.eastoftheweb.com/sh...../Bet.shtml

  12. Okay, so now I don’t know what you’ve told me just now. Back to before.

    Then I stand by my original statement. Just knowing someone is a professed Christian is no guarantee they wouldn’t take the money and run. There’s lots of dodgy Christian faith healers who rake in loads of cash and do nothing and know they do nothing. There was . . . what’s his name who was done for drugs and hiring a prostitute. Without the extra info for all I know the devout Christian is from the Westboro Baptist Church and would like nothing better than to see a stinking atheist rot in jail. You did say Orthodox but I’m not sure what that means precisely. Doesn’t matter, it doesn’t mean they’re going to give me a fair shake.

    Nope, sorry. I know lots of ethical and moral atheists and Christians. And I know some dirt bags in both camps as well.

    I’ll take the woman if there is one.

  13. I think that there is insufficient information to make a choice. The reason is simple – atheists tend to use the morality of the surrounding culture as the basis for their own, but think that it arose from their own rationality and compassion. In Christian nations (even in semi-secular post-Christian nations, to a large extent), atheists behave essentially as Christians. However, this is not the way they behave in other nations. The weights, measures, and measurements that atheists use all borrow from Christianity. They just also lop off large sections in order to make it look less theistic, and pretend that it came from themselves.

    There are a few who genuinely took the time to throw off Christianity as a whole and see where it takes them. Nietzsche is one of the more prominent of this crew. Ayn Rand did it partially, but not completely. But most atheists just sponge off of Christianity for their ethics, but pretend that they came up with it independently.

    They will say things like “X is *obviously* wrong” but give no justification for it. Then, when you consider that in many areas of the world, X happens regularly, then you can see that there is nothing immediately obvious about X being wrong. It is obviously wrong *to us*, because we were raised in a Christian culture with largely (if fading) Christian values.

  14. But, johnnyb, this is a situation where the surrounding culture need not rule. No one but the one person called to the witness stand will know whether or not he told the truth. Are you saying that the atheist would assume he must conform to the culture in that case even if he doubts its fundamental assertions?

  15. 15
    Barry Arrington

    Jerad and johnnyb,

    Interesting responses. Thank you.

    We are on trial for our life. We have a decision to make. What do we based that decision on? If we are smart we make our choice based on what we know and what we can reasonably infer from that knowledge.

    What do we know? We know very little. One potential witness is an atheist; one potential witness is an orthodox Christian. That’s it.

    Since our knowledge is so limited, we must make our choices largely based on what we can infer from our knowledge, not the knowledge itself.

    Let’s address Jerad’s conclusions first.

    Jerad knows a few scoundrels who call themselves Christians. He also knows some moral atheists. From this he concludes that there is no guaranty that a Christian will tell the truth and the atheist may tell the truth.

    But we are not talking about “guarantees.” The question we must ask ourselves is not whether the orthodox Christian or the atheist is “guaranteed” to tell truth. Of course neither is guaranteed to tell the truth. Instead the question we must ask is this: Other things being equal, is it more probable (probable, not certain) that the orthodox Christian will tell the truth, or is it more probable that the atheist will tell the truth? (Or can we just not make any sort of estimate with the information given, in which case we find ourselves at equipoise and must throw up out hands as Jerad has done).

    Jerad uses the following methodology: He selects a very tiny sample of bad people who call themselves Christians (Westboro Baptist and Ted Haggard) and extrapolates from that sample to the billions of Christians on the earth. He then selects a tiny sample of atheists (“moral atheists I know”) and extrapolates from that sample to all atheists on the planet. He concludes from this extrapolation that there is no more reason to trust a Christian to tell the truth than an atheist.

    What’s the problem here? The problem is obvious. Jerad’s sample sizes are not large enough to make statistically valid conclusions about the populations being sampled (i.e., Christians and atheists generally).

    Jerad’s methodology is clearly flawed, and since his methodology is flawed it would be a mere coincidence if the conclusions he has drawn are correct. Therefore, those conclusions are suspect.

    Now let’s turn to johnnyb.

    He says that atheists live on the ethical capital bequeathed to them by a Judeo-Christian civilization and therefore tend to make the same ethical choices as Christians. Both of these observations are indubitably true, and beside the point. The question we must ask ourselves is not what atheists tend to do. The question we must ask is whether atheists are JUST AS LIKELY to act in accord with Judeo-Christian principles as orthodox Christians? Why? Because even if what johnny says is true and atheists tend to act according to Christian ethical principles, we would still have reason to choose the Christian if we believe that Christians act according to Christian ethical principles AT A GREATER RATE than atheists.

    Do we have any information that would help us with this “greater rate” question. I believe we do.

    We can infer the following about the orthodox Christian:

    He probably believes in an objective grounding for ethical norms.

    He probably believes that God Himself commanded “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

    He probably believes that God would be deeply displeased if he breaks his oath.

    He probably fears that if he breaks his oath God will punish him in both this life and perhaps also the afterlife.

    What can we infer about the atheist.

    He certainly does not believe in God. That’s what it means to be an atheist.

    He certainly does not fear that a non-existent God will punish him in this life or the (non-existent) next life.

    He probably does not believe in an objective basis for ethical norms.

    If he has even thought about the ethics issue, he is probably a consequentialist of some sort.

    From these inferences could anyone really rationally answer that he would rather have his life riding on the atheist’s commitment to telling the truth over the Christians. I anticipate that later commenters will say yes, but I know for a certain fact they will not really believe that.

  16. 1. Orthodox means “pertaining to the Greek (Orthodox) church” (or “Russian Orthodox”)
    2. Orthodoxy means “belief in established doctrine”.

    Where am I wrong?

    What meaning have you assigned to the made up phrase “orthodox Christian”? What central authority defines such a person’s “established doctrine”? Are you talking about Roman Catholics? The Pope is allowed to “establish doctrine”.

    How does this silly bit of amateurish logic have anything to do with Intelligent Design?

  17. The atheist. We are commanded not to cause a brother to stumble. The atheist is acting as Paul did when persecuting the church, in moral ignorance, and so like Paul may be given more grace.

    I have never experience permanent blessings in my life from ill gotten gains.

  18. Barry,

    Jerad knows a few scoundrels who call themselves Christians. He also knows some moral atheists. From this he concludes that there is no guaranty that a Christian will tell the truth and the atheist may tell the truth.

    Actually, all of my atheist friends are honest to a fault. I don’t know any like the one you descrbed earlier . . . a ‘consequentialist’? In fact most seem determined to make up their own minds about things and NOT just get swayed by the majority.

    Anyway, my point is that you have to try and get to know individuals and not your perceived catagories. When we try and wrap individuals up in generalities we lose their humanity.

    Jerad uses the following methodology: He selects a very tiny sample of bad people who call themselves Christians (Westboro Baptist and Ted Haggard) and extrapolates from that sample to the billions of Christians on the earth. He then selects a tiny sample of atheists (“moral atheists I know”) and extrapolates from that sample to all atheists on the planet. He concludes from this extrapolation that there is no more reason to trust a Christian to tell the truth than an atheist.

    I think MOST Christians and MOST atheists are honest and moral. You were asking if there was a reason I’d prefer one over the other and I was saying, based on their social catagory, there’s no reason to pick one over the other. Unless one was a woman. Don’t forget that.

    What’s the problem here? The problem is obvious. Jerad’s sample sizes are not large enough to make statistically valid conclusions about the populations being sampled (i.e., Christians and atheists generally).

    I agree, but I’m not saying all Christians are suspect or all atheists are moral. If I was then my choice would have been clear.

    I’ll try and say it better:

    I have no reason to prefer an Orthodox Christian over an atheist if that’s all I know about them. In my experience most people do their best to be honest and moral and ethical. In fact I think most atheists and Christians come to their morals from the same basic postition: The Golden Rule.

    Also, I don’t know ANYONE whose morals are dependent on the culture they happen to find themselves in. Do you? I’m not saying it doesn’t happen (when in Rome, blah, blah, blah) but the characterisation of athiests as not having any innate morals is laughable. In fact, most athiests I know think very deeply about ethics and morals and believe fervently in fair play. I have no idea what kind of atheists you know but they aren’t like that in general just like most Christians aren’t like Ted Haggard (thanks, that was who I was thinking of).

    Don’t create gulfs when it’s unwarranted. Do atheists break laws or act immoral at a greater rate than Christians? Do they murder, lie, cheat or steal more often? What about Buddhists? Muslims? Hindus? Jains? Shintos? Zoroastrians? Are Protestants better than Catholics? Or Druze? Or Copts? Or Mormans? I think we need to work at building bridges not burning them. We need to get to know each other not label each other.

  19. Jerad @ 18

    Do atheists break laws or act immoral at a greater rate than Christians?

    Depends on your definition of ‘immoral’.

    If the Christian witness believed that God had commanded them to give false testimony, then — from the Christian’s point of view — the false testimony would be the moral choice and telling the truth would be immoral.

    You probably wouldn’t have that worry with an atheist witness.

    Cheers

  20. CLAVDIVS,

    CLAVDIVS . . . I wonder what that means?

    If the Christian witness believed that God had commanded them to give false testimony, then — from the Christian’s point of view — the false testimony would be the moral choice and telling the truth would be immoral.

    Well, I’d never make that assumption though. In fact, I doubt it would ever occur to me nor would I ever ascribe that kind of behaviour to anyone without knowing more about them. I was going to say ‘People aren’t really like that’ but then I thought about the folks who shoot abortion doctors.

  21. Jerad @ 20

    CLAVDIVS means Claudius, but with Roman ‘V’s instead of ‘U’s.

    I guess my point is that it’s *possible* for the Christian to see lying as the moral choice; but this is not possible for the atheist. Other things being equal, then, the Christian is the slightly riskier option.

    Cheers

  22. CLAVDVS,

    Ah, got it! On both things.

  23. Jerad at 18 congratulations on your choice of exemplary companions. Doubtless we all need reminding to be uniters, not dividers.

    But the point of the thought experiment was not testimonials about our personal friends.

    It was this simply: Does the belief that truthfulness is simply a disposition of one’s neurons – vs. the belief that it is in accord with the way the universe really is – make lying under temptation easier? If not (as you say), why not? We look forward to your answer.

    You are, of course, aware that all the traditional religious orientations you cited teach that truthfulness is in accord with the way the universe really is. Materialist atheism is stark raving alone in saying that it is not.

  24. Jerad at 20, you really do have a talent for running a discussion off the rails. No one is talking about shooting abortion doctors. Or anyone.

    The question was a simple one. Temptation: Tell a lie that sends a man to prison for life, for ten million dollars. Is the person who believes – by doctrine – that there is a moral order to the universe more or less likely to tell the lie than a person who – by doctrine – believes there isn’t?

    Barry Arrington explicitly avoided capital punishment as the convicted man’s possible fate. In the event of perjury, he’s stuck in jail and the perjurer is living high off the hog.

    Do you plan to answer the question or tell us more about your enviable set of friends and despicable set of disapproved persons?

  25. CLAVDIVS at 19: As a great Roman lawyer said, “Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas.”

    You surely know as well as anyone that no orthodox Christian could believe in good faith that God wanted him to perjure himself for $10 million. We are not talking about choices of evils, so he must assume that God’s general position is given in the 8th commandment, Thou shalt not bear false witness. The size of the incentive leaves no room for honest doubt about the moral position.

    So the question is, what motivates the person who does not even think that there is an 8th commandment, and believes he faces no judgment?

  26. News (O’Leary),

    But the point of the thought experiment was not testimonials about our personal friends.

    True but our opinions of perceived classes of people start with our personal experiences. In my experience. I’m just wanting to make sure we don’t lose each other in the rush to categorise everyone.

    It was this simply: Does the belief that truthfulness is simply a disposition of one’s neurons – vs. the belief that it is in accord with the way the universe really is – make lying under temptation easier? If not (as you say), why not? We look forward to your answer.

    Well, I don’t think it is just a disposition of one’s neurons. It think our morals are PARTLY learned from our upbringing and environment. But I think much of the way we treat each other comes from recognising the humanity in each other and empathising with each other. And I think when the other person doesn’t see us as a human being then it’s easier for us to treat them likewise.

    For example: If you see a child who is scared and in pain you want to help because you can ‘feel their pain’ having been there yourself. On the other hand if someone broke into my house and threatened me or my child I wouldn’t hesitate to do whatever I had to to stop them. If they make the first move they get what they dish out.

    Obviously there are situations (like in Rwanda) when the tribal antagonism is so great (has been whipped up with rhetoric and dogma?) that some are blinded to humanity and only see enemies.

    And this is why I resist categorising and labelling other people. For the most part it only creates barriers to understanding and makes it harder to see each other as fellow travellers. I’m not interested if Christians are more likely to do blah or if Atheists generally behave like blah. It’s time to stop drawing lines in the sand. Treat each other the way we wish to be treated ourselves. Give individuals the benefit of the doubt until they prove otherwise. And when we’re ill treated, if possible, rise above the nastiness and repay it with kindness and understanding. And walk away if that doesn’t work. Turn the other cheek? :-)

    We can’t get rid of all our biases but we can work at it by not promulgating them. yeah? I think the universe is the way we make it. Let’s make it a better place.

  27. It was this simply: Does the belief that truthfulness is simply a disposition of one’s neurons – vs. the belief that it is in accord with the way the universe really is – make lying under temptation easier? If not (as you say), why not? We look forward to your answer.

    No, it does not. Unless the person in question is pathological. Because most of us have the ability to empathise with others.

  28. Jerad at 26, if you really believe that the universe is the way we make it, you are a solipsist. It’s your choice. But then a discussion with you cannot by definition prove fruitful.

  29. O’leary,

    Jerad at 26, if you really believe that the universe is the way we make it, you are a solipsist. It’s your choice. But then a discussion with you cannot by definition prove fruitful.

    Oh well. Can’t avoid the definitions I guess.

  30. But I don’t believe only my mind exists. I think our society is what we make it. That’s better.

  31. If you knew that $10 million was being offered to the (any) witness to testify against you, then that is all you and your lawyer need to know. Any honest judge or jury would see that the “testimony” was driven by $$$.

    And if it is a good defense lawyer then she/ he should be able to pick apart any testimony that was not true.

  32. Although an atheist may not believe in eternal retribution, he may still feel guilt. He may not realize that this must mean that he is created in the image of god, but he nevertheless is.

    And I have met and heard about a number of insincere Christians who are more devoted to money or sex than they are to their faith. Even faithful Christians sometimes succumb to temptation. So this question is hard. But if “orthodox” means sincerely understands and believes in Christ’s teachings, then I would certainly pick the Christian. The atheist may still be a good choice too though.

  33. Joe, unfortunately they are good at picking apart honest witnesses as well.

  34. News @ 25

    You surely know as well as anyone that no orthodox Christian could believe in good faith that God wanted him to perjure himself for $10 million. We are not talking about choices of evils, so he must assume that God’s general position is given in the 8th commandment, Thou shalt not bear false witness. The size of the incentive leaves no room for honest doubt about the moral position.

    Is it so safe to rely upon the Christian assuming God’s will is given in the 8th commandment? God commanded the Israelites to deceive the Egyptians for their own enrichment (Exodus 3 & 12), for example.

    My point is that it is actually possible, for the Christian, to believe that lying for gain is the moral choice, if they believe God has commanded it. Such a belief is not possible for the atheist.

    So the question is, what motivates the person who does not even think that there is an 8th commandment, and believes he faces no judgment?

    Two things. First, the atheist faces the judgement of his or her own conscience. Second, the atheist likely believes there are rational, objective reasons not to give false testimony — contractarian reasons, for example.

    Cheers

  35. Collin @ 32

    And I have met and heard about a number of insincere Christians who are more devoted to money or sex than they are to their faith. Even faithful Christians sometimes succumb to temptation. So this question is hard. But if “orthodox” means sincerely understands and believes in Christ’s teachings, then I would certainly pick the Christian. The atheist may still be a good choice too though.

    Well said, Collin, but, of course, how would anyone know whether somebody sincerely understands and believes in Christ’s teachings, rather than just paying lip service?

    In any case the general question posed in the OP has in fact been empirically studied and “[t]he claim that atheists are somehow more likely to be immoral has long been disproven by systematic studies.” (Beit-Hallahmi, B. (2007), “Atheists: A Psychological Profile” pp. 300–17 in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Michael Martin Ed. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press).

    Cheers

  36. 36
    Barry Arrington

    @Clavdivs re [35]

    Oh dear! You seem to have mistaken the tendentious musings of an atheist (“my fellow atheists and I are really swell”) for a scientific conclusion. Sorry, the question posed by the OP has not been “settled” by science.

  37. Some evidence on the point, from American Atheists. Still busy, things coming to a head. KF

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