Now the black horseman stepped forward. Both of his hands were so tightly clenched that I couldn’t guess in which one he gripped the rock. For a moment, I felt as if I’d failed the defendant, and had nothing left to say.
The red horseman goaded on the black, and shrieked,
“Remember, according to the law, you must stone someone. Striking first is the price of our royalty. ‘We three horsemen shall cast the first stones…’ ”
“You mean four horsemen,” I corrected him, “And I should know, because I was one of you when I first rode out of the city alongside this woman, and I’m one of you now too.”
“Are you sure you know what you mean?”
The truth was, I did not know. I’d yet to realize that I was even in a dream and had forgotten the content of my first adventure. But the words had dramatic resonance, somehow. Undeterred, I continued:
“Do you deny that according to a famous authority, you need four witnesses in cases of adultery, and not three?”
“Well, do you agree the girl is pregnant?” hissed the red horseman.
“And that she’s unmarried?”
“I suppose so.”
“And don’t you agree that there’s no hard evidence that rape took place?”
“I wasn’t there. I don’t have access to the evidence.”
“Answer plainly. It happened in the city, and not in the countryside. Witnesses would have heard her screams.”
“I have no proof but her word.”
“Well, then you’ve just testified against the girl. If there’s no evidence it was rape, and she’s unmarried, we must defer to stoning her for adultery.” The red horseman turned to his wiry haired colleague on the black horse and said, “End this quickly, to be humane. The poor child is suffering, and should be put out of her misery. ‘We three horsemen without sin shall cast the first stones…’ ”
“The idea that any one of you is without sin is laughable!” I said to the red horsemen. “You just threw a rock in that innocent child’s face.”
“Bad logic, Doctor Kimel,” said the black horseman. “Sometimes, great leaders must inflict punishment on others, even if we’re imperfect. Otherwise, crimes would go uncorrected.”
“Don’t be modest. Haven’t we met somewhere before? But that’s immaterial for today. Now, try to save this girl again, because one more stone will end the game for her, and then nothing will stop the crowd from its purpose.”
“You say that you must throw a stone? You have no other choice?”
“Those are the rules—we four horsemen must stone someone one at a time, now that the ritual’s begun. A single hit is painful, and two are lethal.”
“Then stone the Red Horseman!” I cried, inspired.
Why should I throw my rock at him? He defeated you in the game of True or False! I heard every word of the exchange. You said that the existence of other sacred laws in other parts of the world proves that no one holds the monopoly on truth. But this is a foolish argument, because even if an entire host of foul and deceitful doctrines exist on Earth, force of numbers doesn’t necessarily render any one of them morally right or in line with true wisdom. So, the only question left is…do we have reason to believe that our own sacred law is morally just? Well, you admitted that the most we can know of moral truth is what ultimately falls in line with our habits and intuitions. But then, you conceded that our intuitions differ in the same way that our cultures differ. Well then, if intuitions are the guides, I’ll follow mine, and not yours, and stone the girl. We may not love the law, or we may find it gruesome, but our job as blameless men is to follow it.
You’re a worthy adversary, to be sure, but hear me out. Think back on my argument about the existence of many sacred books. The red horseman completely misunderstood my intention in bringing up that example. And he didn’t let me reach the end of my argument. I wanted to say—at the point at which our intuitions differ, none of us can be sure that his or her Bible is the correct one. It seems like all we can do is make choices based on our culture and intuitions. But we can also appeal to reason, which is as universal in every human society as the existence of love and pain. Now, the only proof of the law’s morality that the red horseman gave was the mere existence of the law in his sacred book. But then, he began to fall prey to circular reasoning—the law is a just law simply because it exists. The book is sacred in all ways because he says it’s so, even though worshippers of demons could say the same things about their own sacred books. Why believe one over the other?
So the red horseman committed a gross injustice by assuming that the mere existence of a law is sufficient reason to have confidence in its justice. I could just as easily say, “First born children should be sacrificed to Baal—it is the law!” But it’s a bad law, and civil disobedience would be in order. Moreover, I can prove to you that it’s a bad law with appeals not to intuition and culture, but to logic and reason, which like science, transcend all national boundaries and are at home wherever honest men exist; and honest men, I think, are those who have the courage to subject their most treasured beliefs to scientific scrutiny.
I’ll concede the point that the mere existence of a law doesn’t necessarily make it just. But on what basis can you prove to me that the law is unjust? Remember, as a rational being, on the chance that God wrote the sacred law, I’d probably better follow it unless I have good reason to think there’s something fundamentally and obviously wrong with it.
Certain value systems transcend time and space, as I said. All human beings are conscious animals capable of feeling pain, and their minds are rational to some degree or another. Every society is composed of humans with these attributes. So, every culture creates a value system rooted, fundamentally, in the benefits of collective cooperation between such animals—strategies to share conscious experiences, learn from each other, and avoid pain as much as possible. The infliction of unwanted pain against innocent people is always immoral;the less it’s done, the better. And the amelioration of unwanted pain is always moral; the more it’s done, the better. This is true in any culture, though there are often tragic trade-offs involving excruciating means and ambiguous ends. But fundamentally, the elimination of pain accompanied by ever increasing access to freedom, knowledge, and interesting experiences constitutes happiness, the greatest human end.
From a human perspective, because all humans are alike in certain specific ways, it is possible to make moral judgments that transcend time and space from the perspective of rational human values. Customs that ensure the most freedom and knowledge and interesting experiences at the cost of the least pain and exploitation and ignorance are preferable, for many reasons, to customs which ensure the least happiness and knowledge and freedom for the sake of the most exploitation, ignorance, monotony, and misery. From this foundation, we can begin to construct a universal morality grounded in what is common to every individual insofar as he or she is human. This is true with or without recourse to belief in God.
Cultural relativism is a good reason to believe your Bible might be in need of editing, but not a good reason to lose faith in all values.
You’ve given me powerful reason to believe that my sacred law should be subject to rational scrutiny. But isn’t this particular law just? Isn’t it true that a woman raped in the city would have screamed, and it would have been heard?
The law is absurd! It breaks my heart to think that women lose their lives to this kind of logic. First, what if no one was around when it happened and she did scream? A city makes it more likely that others would be around than a rape in the countryside, but it’s not definitive proof that no struggle took place. Perhaps the man might have bound her mouth. Or, he could have threatened to kill her if she screamed, or harm her loved ones. Any just voice would admit that such a woman is a victim, not a criminal! Shame on this world.
And then, the very fact that premarital sex is a crime at all seems misguided, since marriage before an understanding of sexual compatibility might lead to great unhappiness. Really, the idea that women should never have sex outside of marriage in general is nothing but the product of restrictive discourse propping up patriarchal structures at the expense of human autonomy. The young deserve a chance to know themselves, and the married deserve the chance to escape unloving partners and find happiness with new people.To make matters worse, the practice of public stoning instills negative feelings toward women in general and violent misogynistic impulses in the crowd at large, only perpetuating the cycle of violence and ignorance. This is a brutal custom, and a barbaric one.
Finally, consider this. Your own sacred law would protect women raped in the countryside, proving that it values their lives and implicitly recognizes that when their guilt as “adulteresses” is ambiguous, they should live. The law tried to be clever by assuming that a city would necessitate screams and many witnesses, but this is not necessarily the case, and certainly not enough evidence to convict the girl. So, throw your stone at the red horseman if you must throw it at someone. He committed an injustice, and should be punished.
Sir, you’ve convinced me.
I… what? Did I really?
Your logic is sound. I know now that it’s possible for aspects of even the greatest books from all cultures to become outdated. If we have the opportunity to maximize happiness through freedom and education, we should defer to that standard, which, as you’ve shown, is inherently cross-cultural; if a law creates misery and limits freedom and is the result of ignorant logic, then civil disobedience is in order. This is true whether I believe in God, or whether I base my moral systems on what it means to be a human.
Now, as for my vote…I must be perfectly just. I won’t stone the girl, because you’ve convinced me that she doesn’t deserve to die. I won’t stone you or the pale horseman, because you’ve educated me and spoken the truth, and my friend over there is completely uninvolved in the story so far. Throwing a random stone into the crowd would be bizarre and unfair. So at the point he acted hastily and without wisdom when it came to this woman’s life…my choice is clear.
Without another word, he threw his stone at the red horseman. The man fell from his horse, but immediately stood up, enraged, his face vermilion, and his mustache engorged with sand and blood. I realized, then, that one more hit would kill him just as surely as it would kill the girl. The crowd’s temper was undecided, but would turn on him in a pinch.
So now the score was one to one. The pale face horseman came forward, knowing that life and death were hidden in his grip.
April 21, 2011
Next Chapter April 22, 2011