Everything I Know About Sin I Learned in Law School – In a Good Way

Let’s talk about sin and law school. No, not for the purpose of introducing some kind of worldview law education (!), to denounce the ACLU, or to explain the current drift of the Department of Justice. Instead, let’s talk about how a law school concept helps to differentiate sin from simply living in a sinful world. Then, if there’s a rainy spell in the near future I might write a subsequent post to talk about whether the Obama administration’s HHS directive requires Catholics (and others sharing their convictions) to sin.

To get there, consider the following scenario that could have been lifted from a torts final examination:

Obi Wan Kenobi handed the keys of his boat, The Force, to Luke Dockwalker. Luke, having no experience with The Force, stood at the helm blindfolded. As Obi Wan recommended, he opened up The Force full throttle and, out of control, struck a swimmer, Darth Wader, who was injured and drowned. The Force then stuck a dock, dislodging it from its moorings. The Force and the dock then drifted downstream into a floating tree that had been dislodged from a recent storm. The Force, the dock, and the tree jammed in a narrow section of the river and created a dam, raising the water level. When the water rose it submerged the nesting ground of the rare Ewok. Upon hearing news of the devastation of the Ewoks, Leia, a conservationist, fainted, falling off her balcony and severing her spinal column. Evil capitalist Jabba, who had purchased the Ewok nesting ground under pretense of conservation when he was really intending to sell Ewok meat to McDonald’s, effectively lost his entire investment.

Who can sue whom, and for what?

For our purposes, the key issue is causation.

There’s one kind of causation we can call actual causation or “but for” causation. Under this kind of causation, we say “but for” cause X, cause Y would not have happened. For example, if Obi Wan hadn’t given the keys of The Force to novice Luke, Leia would never have been injured. So we can trace Leia’s injury all the way back to Obi Wan Kenobi. We could also say that, “but for” Obi Wan’s fateful decision to hand The Force over to Luke, Jabba wouldn’t have lost his investment. But it seems odd – perhaps against the light of nature – to make Obi Wan responsible for either Leia’s or Jabba’s injuries. Clearly we need some analytical concept other than actual cause to navigate the waters of Culpability, which just happens to be the name of the river where all this took place.

The law has such a thing, and it’s called proximate cause. Proximate cause asks a different question than actual cause. Rather than merely tracing cause and effect, it asks, as a matter of equity, how far we should proceed up the chain of actual causes to hold an upstream cause accountable for all its effects. Under proximate cause we might feel quite comfortable holding both Obi-Wan and Luke accountable for the broken dock and for the death of Darth Wader. But, on the other hand, we might be inclined to say that neither Obi-Wan nor Luke should be held accountable for Leia’s accident or for Jabba’s financial loss.

But the concept of proximate cause can be useful for more than personal injury lawyers. It can also be handy in understanding accountability for sin. Going back to actual causation, one could, for example, trace the tax dollars I give to sinful activity of the government. Let’s say the U.S. government did something outlandish and unthinkable like giving guns to Mexican drug cartels and other criminal elements on our southern border who then used the guns to murder. Well, a fraction of a penny of my tax dollars would have bought those guns. “But for” my tax money and your tax money, those guns would not have been purchased. Yet we look to the scriptures and see that we are bound to pay taxes to Caesar. Caesar, you recall, was from the Roman Empire which did worse things than giving away guns, yet the directive to pay taxes remains.

Out in my part of the country we occasionally get out on rural roads and see horse-drawn buggies with a red triangle on the back. The buggy drivers are Amish, and they have concluded that, to avoid sin, they need to physically separate from “the world” lest they become tainted by it. One might say they lack a robust sense of proximate cause, i.e., they have a sense of accountability for what they perceive to be sin whenever there is a “but for” cause between their actions and the actions of “the world.”

But most of us don’t live our lives that way. We pay taxes under the conviction that we are not the proximate cause of what the government does with our money. We might buy ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s while not being convicted that we are the proximate cause of all they do with their profits. Maybe we haven’t scrutinized every company that benefits from our retirement plans for the same reason. There are some valid counter-examples here – like avoiding investment in companies centered on sinful activity – but, on the whole, we have concluded that we live in the world and we aren’t called to a finicky separation from it. And, if you went to law school, you might say we are not the proximate cause of every downstream effect; there is a difference between living “in the world” and sinning.


Filed under Ethics

4 responses to “Everything I Know About Sin I Learned in Law School – In a Good Way

  1. If paying taxes don’t implicate me then I wonder how does casting a vote? Some who would suggest voting can might stand to learn a few things from this line of reasoning. Thanks.

  2. Aleck

    If paying taxes don’t implicate me then I wonder how does refusing to cast a vote? Some who would suggest NOT voting can might stand to learn a few things from this line of reasoning. Thanks.

    • First let me say that, with two successive “thanks,” Presbyterian Blues must be the politest niche the whole blogosphere.

      I hadn’t really thought of proximate cause with respect to voting. Zrim, if a candidate says he will do something, and you vote for him for that reason, and he does it, I’m not sure proximate cause is your city of refuge. But there may be another. My view of why voting should, 99.99% of the time, be non-censurable is because of the complexity of political/civil/social decision making and that the scriptures seldom give plain answers in that context.

      On your point, Aleck, I recently talked to someone who thinks any candidate for office has to meet the requirements of a NT elder. I think that came out of theonomy and an identification of the US with Israel. Others think we may only vote for Christians. Then others, as you say, won’t vote at all because there is no pristine candidate. I think, as you suggest, there may be something to the notion that their idea of causation is more like that of the Amish (or monks) than that of the scriptures that call us to live in a messy world and sometimes muddle along as well as we can.

  3. MM, I’m thinking in terms of your realistic alternative. If the straight line from my taxes to funding something evil cannot implicate me, then how can a vote which likely doesn’t have direct cause for something evil? My point is that it’s an even farther distance in the latter instance, and yet there are many who suggest certain votes are incriminating yet don’t blink when it comes to the former instance. Maybe they think being commanded to pay taxes is the justification, but we’re not commanded to vote so how can certain votes, or even abstention, be in any way incriminating for Christians? I know some think voting is next to godliness, but that’s no more in the Bible than the stuff about cleanliness.

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