Monday, September 24, 2018

Do you and I deserve to die?

I recently read about a Pakistani Christian who was falsely accused of violating Pakistan Penal Code 295-C:

“Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

I also recently read the ancient Christian account of King Herod’s death given by Luke the physician (who accompanied the apostle Paul on much of his travels) in Acts 12:21-23 (for contemporary biomedical accounts see here and here):

“On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.”

There are countless differences between the Pakistani penal code and this story of King Herod’s death. But each in their own way might raise the following question:

When, if ever, does a person deserve to die?

I recognize that “desert” is not explicitly mentioned in either text. But people in general—and believers in a God who is in some sense good and fair and just in particular—should be alert to desert-based discussions of each.

Consider four statements of how a person who believes in some desert-based explanations might explain what Herod deserved at the moment when the angel allegedly struck him down:

1. Herod deserved to live.

2. Herod did not deserve to live.

3. Herod deserved to not live.

4. Herod deserved to die. 

I think resistance to 4 is based on 1. But if 1 is overcome for 2, and 2 for 3, then 4 is a done deal.

I think the shock of being told that a person “deserved to die” for an activity is often due to our sense that death is a penalty that gets “tacked on” and utterly fails to fit the activity.

But perhaps death is not a penalty “tacked on” to certain activities, but is a reasonably expected outcome of the activities themselves. At least viewing it this way might clarify how the causing of Herod’s death does not necessarily come from an utterly different moral universe than our own.

Here’s my proposal:

A. If something is a continuous gift from one person to another, dependent on the will of the first person (the giver) at each moment, then anything the second person (the gifted) does that can reasonably change the will of the first can reasonably end the gift.

B. Herod’s life was a continuous (not one-time) gift (not entitlement) dependent on the will of the giver at each moment (not an enduring thing of its own).

C. So anything Herod did that could reasonably change the will of the giver could reasonably end his life.

An example to support A: Nun lives next door to beloved Nephew, who she gives the gift of a crisp twenty-dollar bill to each year, for each day between Christmas and Easter. But one year he turns around and makes an elaborate money shrine out of these bills and worships them. And boasts about it. Often. To her face. Even after her pleas to use the money better. Nephew can reasonably expect not to get a crisp twenty from Nun next Christmas—or even tomorrow. He certainly has no right to expect another installment of such a gift from her. If he keeps getting twenties from her, it may be that she is remarkably patient and hopeful of some good it will do him or others—but it’s not like she owes it to him.

I shall not try to support B. It does not challenge any sciences studying how we die.

Now consider: is not Herod’s offense here similar to what some politicians do during their speeches?

Or what you and I do every day?

Let me speak just for myself here. I am, to the giver of my life, much like Nephew to Nun. I practically worship my own life, even though I ought to know better, and even when the rumor’s out that I have been told better. And yet the spicket (sorry, spigot) supplying my life to me remains “on.” Why? It’s not entirely clear. But perhaps the giver is remarkably patient and hopeful of some good it will do me or others.

And yet occasionally the spigot is abruptly turned off—like with Herod.

Crucial clarification #1: we should be reluctant to invoke a desert-based explanation when someone today dies—to the point of almost never doing it.

There’s a brilliant line that the late Christopher Hitchens wrote about someone who asked the following horribly insensitive questions online:

“Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer [sic] was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him?...It’s just a “coincidence” [that] out of any part of his body, Christopher Hitchens got cancer in the one part of his body he used for blasphemy?”

To which Hitchens replied (in part): “my so far uncancerous throat, let me rush to assure my Christian correspondent above, is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed.”

Nice. But Hitchens’ point actually makes my point. I give the middle finger to God all the time, even when it’s not with my middle finger. And yet he is “patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Crucial clarification #2: there are many additional ideas that one must accept before she thinks we mortals should get involved in giving a person the death they deserve—especially in the form of a law, especially like the law I quoted from Pakistan.

Russell DiSilvestro
Professor and Chair
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Two thoughts come to mind here. Let me lay out my points and then explain. First, the slide from 2 to 3 is not as clear to me. The person may be lost forever once she gets to 3. But there's a huge gap between 2 and 3. Second, in the debate between traducianism and creationism, your proposal seems to assume creationism. If we assume traducianism (not that I agree with this view), however, life is less like a continuous gift of money and more like breathing (or spontaneous brain stem activity).

    Both points rely on traducianism. Traducianism refers to the view that the human soul is transmitted to the offspring by the parents (or that both the material organism and the immaterial soul come from the parents). Creationism refers to the view that every human soul is created by God (or that the material part comes from the parents and the immaterial part comes from God). For the traducian, life is not a special miracle involving direct divine intervention, but a natural process.

    Let's say in a possible world in which traducianism is true,

    2. Alice, a small child, does not deserve to live.

    She did nothing to earn her life. Even if she stood in a special relationship to her parents (or God), life may have been a gift, but not something deserved. It doesn't, however, follow that

    3. Alice deserved to not live.

    In the same way that she did nothing to earn her life, she also did nothing to deserve to not live. 2 is true and 3 is false, because being born and continuing to live has nothing to do with desert.

    Once a person lives, she may begin to exhibit bad behavior (saying "Mine!" or "No!" in certain circumstances), but then we'd need a theory of desert and, for the small human, a person's capacity to be held accountable under that theory.

    So, the upshot: a repulsion to desert talk in reference to death (or life) is not just because of a possible disproportionality, but the very idea that death is something deserved (or a repulsion at the imposition of the executioner's theory of desert on them, nonbelievers).

    Second, your proposal also takes life to be a gift and death a removal of that gift. But, for the traducian, the breath of life is not a gift at birth and a continuous gift through one's life. Life is the result of a natural process and death, too, is a natural process (maybe especially in a “fallen world”). The premature taking of life would require some other justification--e.g., punishment for some bad behavior (maybe being an adult and still saying "Mine!" or "No!" to one’s duty in certain circumstances).

    Of course, the traducian may be a heretic according to some, but not an egregious one. He still believes in God’s right to punish and throw both body and soul in hell, even if both came from one’s parents (maybe the traducian/creation debate doesn't make a ton of difference here if both believe that life ultimately comes from God and is sustained by God, but I thought it would be interesting to mention). I also agree with you, our ability to know whether a person dies because we all die, because we live in a fallen world, because God wants to spare a person from further demise, or because God wants to exact a special punishment, etc.,… is beyond our pay grade.

    (Reposted and signed, rather than as Anonymous)

  2. Thanks, Chong, for this solid push-back on several fronts I had not anticipated.

    I agree with you that there's a gap between 2 and 3. Your Alice example is one way to bring this out. But the gap is there even with Herod. I should have been clearer in stating that my Nun and Nephew example, designed to support my principle A, was meant to cover both 2 and 3 for Herod (and, by extension, other persons old enough or mature enough to be held responsible, accountable, etc.).

    I did not mean to suggest that accepting 2 required accepting 3. Consider:

    2R: That rock does not deserve to live.
    3R: That rock deserved to not live.

    2R does not entail 3R. After all, the fact that a rock is not subject to desert conditions at all is part of what supports 2R and undercuts 3R.

    Also, I actually meant for this argument to be neutral, not just between traducians and creationists, but between dualists and physicalists about human persons. (For example, so-called Christian physicalists or other "theistic" physicalists about human persons can sign on.)

    The picture I assumed was just that whatever physical conditions are necessary for human life to continue, those conditions are not sufficient for human life to continue; rather, they require God's sustaining action, "concurrence" as it's sometimes called. The original creation of the cosmos, including all its physical laws and physical stuff, along with said "concurrence" to uphold those laws and stuff in general and with a given human's life in particular, was the picture I was working with. Souls do not have to enter the story (though, for the record, I believe in them).

    (Also for the record, my own view actually leans towards the traducian rather than the creationist concerning the genesis of a given human soul, so I was doubly surprised that you thought I was assuming the creationist picture. Perhaps my spelling out of the sense in which one's life is a gift in this response makes this somewhat clearer. The concurrence of God is necessary to keep traducian souls in existence and in union with physical bodies, just like it's necessary to keep creationist souls in existence and in union with physical bodies. As I see it, the creationist merely affirms, while the tradition denies, that a distinct creative act of God, beyond concurrence, is necessary to generate a new human soul.)

  3. Russell, I take the point of your last clarification, but do you think your reasoning can be used to argue that a child may deserve to die for disobeying parents upon whom s/he is continually reliant for shelter and sustenance?

  4. Thanks for the clarifications. Your post also raised for me the idea of concurrence and also death, but I thought my original response was long enough.

    I was trying to think of what exactly God gives and then takes away. At first I thought the physical breath of life, but this is where the traducian and creationist disagree: the breath of life is given once and for all at creation for the traducians and miraculously anew with each birth for the creationist.

    If not the breath of life, another possibility is a spiritual breath of God, רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים. The breath of God may give both physical life and spiritual life. But that wouldn’t apply to everyone, including Herod.

    A third possibility is some other (some would say mysterious or superfluous) non-physical causal power. God’s effective and sustaining power that is required for anything to move and have its being. This is what I think you meant by the physical conditions being insufficient for a human life to continue. (This is compatible with both views of human generation, but I’m not sure how it is compatible with physicalism.)

    Under this possibility, a human life may depend on this concurrent causal power, but I still would want to know why it is a gift and not just another part of a more comprehensive way the world is, and why it is responsive to human behavior (e.g., squandering life). What may be responsive to human behavior is not the sudden cutting off of this sustaining power, but an active taking away of physical life. In other words, God’s concurrent causation (concurrent with human or natural causes) brings about (or is the means for) an effect in the world, but is not the effect.

    “An angel of the Lord struck [Herod] down.”

    According to the passage you quoted, God took away Herod’s physical life. The concurrent causal power of God continues through the work of the angel, the death of Herod, the rise of others in his place, and on and on. It continues to sustain the world and everything in it. That spigot didn’t run dry. For Herod, yes. But that’s because he was no longer part of the world.

    Consider these two explanations.

    Explanation 1: Herod offended God and God ended his physical life. God chose to end Herod’s life and carried it out by means of supernatural intervention.

    Explanation 2: Herod’s life is a gift from God that depends every moment on God’s will to sustain it. Herod offended God, so God chose to stop sustaining Herod’s life.

    In Explanation 1, God’s concurrent power presumably is active behind the scenes. In Explanation 2, God’s concurrent power is active front and center, but we still don’t have a complete explanation of God’s intervention. In Explanation 2, we also may be attributing too much to God’s concurrent causal power. It seems to be both intentional (determines ends) and effective (brings about those ends). I don’t think we need to refer to God’s concurrent causal power in this way; a way a man lives may affect how soon he dies (whether his physical death is brought about by natural or supernatural causes).

    My worry here is in attributing too much to divine concurrence, which may not seem problematic in the cases we’ve discussed, but could be very problematic in other cases involving evil in the world. It’s easier to think of divine concurrence as part of a comprehensive way the world is (which allows for occasional, special acts of divine intervention) than as being moment-by-moment intentional (maybe as opposed to programmatically intentional) as well as effective.