The Corner

The Ethics of Social Change


I’ve been working on a thought experiment that I’d like to share with readers, not because I think it’s a slam dunk for either side in the current marriage argument, but simply because it fascinates me. Here goes:

I’m a concerned Israelite citizen in the early-monarchy period, and I have come to believe that it’s morally wrong for King David to have more than one wife. I know he’s a national hero, and beloved of the Lord, and “the sweet psalmist of Israel”: All the more reason, say I, that he should set an example by getting rid of all of his concubines and all but one of his wives.

Now: In this thought experiment, I am just one Israelite citizen. I don’t have the police power of a Bull Connor, or the concentration-camp system of a Kim Jong Il to enforce my views. I’m just an ordinary Israelite who has an idea for moral reform. Should I try, through nonviolent political persuasion, to convince my fellow Israelites and our King David (blessings be upon him!), of my point of view? Or would this be an attempt on my part to impose a “dictatorship of relativism,” or something even worse — not just a relativist dictatorship, in which I claim that my opinion is equally as good as King David’s, but an absolute dictatorship, in which I claim that my opinion is actually better than King David’s? At the very least, I would be trying to change society’s clear definition of marriage — as a sacred relationship of a man and a woman and a woman and a woman and a woman and a woman and a woman, and a concubine and a concubine and a concubine and a concubine and a concubine and a concubine and a concubine — in conformity to my own whim. They didn’t have the word Jacobin in ancient Israel, but my brazen view would certainly qualify as something analogous.

The fact that King David appears to have God’s approval for all his wives and concubines — with the one stark exception that God is angry with him for the way in which he got one of them (Bathsheba, via killing her husband) — would certainly give me pause.

So: Should I be brave, and express my opinion in the public square of Jerusalem? Or should I refrain, lest I undermine the institutions that have brought Israel to its cultural zenith?

I believe in absolute truth. It’s the underpinning of any coherent metaphysics, and indeed, I think, of any coherent worldview at all. But I also believe that the way in which we apprehend truth — and the way in which society comes to realize and institutionalize such  truths as we do, haltingly, apprehend — can be very hard to diagram.

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