Saturday, December 29, 2018

Morality is Hierarchical, Not Absolute (Which Isn’t As Liberal As It Sounds)

One of the most useful ways I have heard moral dilemmas framed was that morality is hierarchical, not absolute.

I got this from an old church community group leader who studied both philosophy and theology and had a lot of very well-reasoned things to say. This was no exception.

Now, this is not to deny that morality is objective. This is not to deny that there is a lawgiver (being God). This doesn't mean that morality is dependent on culture or that there is no actual right and wrong. It just means that sometimes, moral principles will conflict so that you can't follow both of them fully and properly. In these cases, you have to choose to give priority to one over the other, and in doing so, you have not sinned.

Any time that you are in any moral dilemma, this idea of hierarchical morality comes into play, whether you think of it in those terms or not. After all, the whole reason we call it a dilemma is because different moral principles conflict and cannot both be followed.

Biblical Examples

The Bible has many examples, although of the two most interesting to me, one is actually pretty mundane (on the surface, that is). Consider the following two examples:

- The Israelites were tricked into making a treaty with a nation that God had told them to destroy. We see this in Joshua 9 with the Gibeonites. The Israelites were in a moral dilemma. They were commanded not to form a treaty with the Gibeonites, but having been tricked, they certified their treaty with an oath in the name of the Lord. They could not keep their oath without breaking the Lord's command to drive out all the Canaanite nations in the land, or vice versa. Ultimately, they chose to honor their vow (thereby obeying the commandment to keep their vows) at the expense of following the commandment to drive out the Gibeonites.

- In Matthew 12:1-13, Jesus's disciples were accused of sinning because they were picking and eating grain in a field while they walked with Him on the Sabbath. Under the Mosaic Law in the Bible, working on the Sabbath was forbidden.

It was by no means the only time Pharisees got upset about Jesus or His disciples doing things on the Sabbath, and Jesus defended their actions in different ways. For example, in another instance He pointed out that doing certain things are not a sin and, as part of His argument, appealed to the fact that no one bats an eyelash at someone untying a farm animal and leading it to water on the Sabbath (Luke 13:15). But here, Jesus goes a different route: He points to the hierarchical nature of morality.

In this case, Jesus brings up two instances where people were justified despite breaking the written commandment of God. The commands do not have exceptions written in, like modern legal statutes would today. The fact that Jesus would do this should therefore give us pause as believers. If we took an absolute approach to God's commands in scripture, we would have quite a problem. However, when we think of morality as being hierarchical, it isn't a big deal. All moral laws come from God, whether written or not. The written scripture of the Bible is uniquely authoritative because it is more defined and clearer (being written down in words), but all morality is from God just the same. If other moral laws are hierarchical and can at least potentially have exceptions, why would this not be the case just because a moral law is written down?

When His disciples were accused of sin by the Pharisees, the Lord reminded them of when, in the Old Testament, David and his men were in the midst of war and were given consecrated bread from the temple to eat. Although Jesus does not say so explicitly, the fact that He appealed to that instance to defend His disciples implies that they did not sin, even though it was against the Old Testament Law for anyone but priests to eat that bread (Matthew 12:3-4).

Jesus then follows up with how those working in the temple on the Sabbath, in His own words, desecrate that holy day. God commanded that no one should work on the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:3). But Jesus says, explicitly in this case, that they are innocent (Verse 5). They had two conflicting moral principles: follow God's command to not work on the Sabbath or fulfill the command that there be specific temple observances on the day of the Sabbath (e.g Numbers 28:9-10). An absolutist would have no choice but to say that God's law contradicts itself since both laws must always be followed no matter what (which is literally impossible to do). But just as the Jews before Jesus had no qualms about Levites working in God's sanctuary on Saturdays for over 1,000 years before Jesus came, here Jesus simply declares the innocence of those who rightly put one moral principle over another.

Other Examples

There are examples we can easily think of outside the Bible as well. Most serious Christians think sex outside of marriage is a sin, and most professing Christians (and many non-Christians) think adultery is wrong. However, most of us would say that if a married woman is threatened with a gun or a knife by a rapist and submits, she is not guilty of the sin of adultery. An absolutist would be in quite a pickle because such a woman technically had a choice. She wasn't physically bound. She could have chosen to resist and face almost certain death, rather than having sex with the rapist. She technically chose to have sex with a man other than her husband over getting killed. 

Nevertheless, no reasonable person would ever say the woman was guilty of any sin. It wouldn't even be a difficult moral determination. It is only a moral dilemma in the strictest, most literal sense of the term. We would say, without question, that she is completely innocent. But we can only say that because morality is hierarchical, and therefore, the extraordinary circumstances justified her actions.

Many real-life examples are not nearly so easy and clear-cut, but the same idea applies. Whether you are deciding whether or not to lie to protect someone, whether you're not sure if you should blow the whistle on wrongdoing at work when doing so could jeopardize your job or even the whole company, whether you're unsure of whether your nonprofit should accept that donation from a questionable source, there are many times where our duties and other moral principles conflict and the right choice will necessarily mean fulfilling some and not others.

Morality Is Still Objective and Divine

Some may confuse this with morality not being objective, as though there is no true moral law. But that is not true. There is a real, objective moral lawgiver, being God. It is just that principles are somewhat broad and we have to properly apply them to specific instances. In specific instances, if we could read God’s mind, we would know exactly what to do in that specific case. In each instance, the right thing to do is absolute. The point is that with any issue, you cannot simply consider one principle and ignore the others that are relevant. Even if the decision is easy and the right action is obvious, there probably is one principle that took a back seat to an obviously more important principle in that case.

Some might say this line of thinking is situational ethics and is therefore bad. But “situational ethics” is a bit of a nebulous term. In the broadest sense, yes, ethics are situational. But in that broad sense, we have the Bible to point to as affirming that yes, circumstances do affect what course of action is morally right and what is morally wrong. And even those who raise the specter of situational ethics will, in practice, acknowledge that an act that is wrong in one situation can be right in another. Many of them, for example, would agree that killing a human being is a terrible thing to do. In most situations, it is murder, a sin and a crime that should be severely punished. However, if that human being has a gun and is about to kill innocent hostages, killing that person is made right and justified (i.e not a sin) because of the…let’s say it together…situation.

The fact is, even those who take very absolute positions on things are ultimately working within a hierarchical moral framework anyway. Some see a command in scripture and say that therefore it is (as they interpret its meaning) always to be followed absolutely, no matter what. But they are simply putting that particular command above every other command and moral principle. And when moral dilemmas do come, they can cite the moral principle or explicit scriptural command that they followed until the cows come home as if it is the only thing that matters, but they ultimately chose that principle and the corresponding course of action over other moral principles that they surely had acknowledged at some point in the past.

For example, someone who believes a Christian must never, ever kill another human being under any other circumstances and who therefore refuses to use lethal force to stop the killing of others is putting one principle (killing is bad) over another (e.g. love your neighbor as yourself, love your wife as your own body, protect the innocent, etc.). And a believer who does intervene with lethal force is putting the latter principles over the former. Whether they consciously thought about it in the moment they made their decision is not the point. The point is that there were other principles at play whether they thought about it or not.

What about situations commonly posed by Christian apologists as absolutes, such as the common claim that it is always wrong to torture a small child just for the fun of it? Such scenarios, I believe, do illustrate that there is objective morality. In no cultural context and in no situation would it ever be morally acceptable to torture a small child for the fun of it. I don’t think any reasonable person can truly say there is no such thing as objective morality in light of that scenario. Some things just simply are wicked.

However, that scenario is not a broad principle, but rather a specific application of moral principles to a specific situation. That scenario already assumes the fact that there is no moral principle in favor of torturing a small child other than the principle that people should be allowed to have fun. And while the principle that people should be allowed to have fun is an important principle, the moral principles of “children need to be loved and nurtured” and “torturing people is bad” clearly outweigh it! It is an easy decision, obviously, But it still is hierarchical.

Application Outside of Questions of Pure Morality

In much of western civilization, but especially the United States, there is a lot of discussion about people's rights. Properly understood, all rights come from God and government can neither create rights to take them away. Government is supposed to protect the rights of its people. For this reason, especially in the United States, governing national constitutions affirm certain rights that the people have over the power of the government.

This matter is not purely a moral matter, as it pertains to human institutions trying to apply what is right and wrong, as far as they have a role in it, and not what is actually right and wrong itself. But since we do have a concept of individual rights, especially in the USA where our constitution has a whole section on them, the concept of morality being hierarchical also applies to individual rights. Rights are also hierarchical.

For example, in the United States, our constitution affirms that every person has the right to follow their conscience and practice their religious beliefs apart from any non-divine government using its coercive force to interfere. The first amendment to the constitution prohibits government from infringing on the free exercise of a persons religion, with no exceptions listed. The point is not that all religions are right or good (obviously I don't think they are), but that is to be between the individual and God.

At the same time, every person also has a right to life and to not have their life taken by another person. So with that in mind, imagine if a Islamic extremist determines that following his religion (at least as he understands it) means he must kill his daughter who abandoned Islam when she went to college. It is impossible for the government to avoid infringing on his free exercise of religion and to also protect her right to life. In this case, of course, any civilized government would not permit the man to kill his daughter because her right to life clearly and obviously outweighs his right to religious freedom. But while it was an easy decision, it still was one person's rights taking precedence over another, just as moral principles sometimes do.


Honestly, I’m not even trying to make any groundbreaking points here. I just think that when you start thinking of morality being hierarchical, it allows the moral intuitions we already have to make sense. For many, especially Christians, we think of moral laws and principles as rigid principles that can never be broken - except then we do break them and cannot explain why it was the right thing to do even though we know it was. Framing morality this way, as being hierarchical, gives us an intellectual explanation for what can seem hard to explain. And it probably will allow us to better think through moral dilemmas we might come across in our lives.

So, that's I had to say there, at least for now. Happy New Year!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Churches, Taxes, and Nonprofit Treatment

Every so often, the issue of tax-exemptions for churches and religious organizations in the United States comes up and raises a bit of ire. Of course, at least for the time being, it usually comes up because of an occasional meme floating around Facebook and Twitter, and not because of serious attempts by those in government to call the tax exemptions of religious organizations into question.

But what about tax exemption of churches and religious organizations? Isn’t this unfair special treatment? Shouldn’t pastors have to pay taxes on their income?

My goal here is to explain a bit about tax exemption for religious organizations, clear up a few misunderstandings, and hopefully improve the conversation about how to handle taxes and religious organizations by getting us all on some common understanding about the situation.

The first thing to note is that when we talk about tax-exemptions for churches and other religious organizations, really two different tax statuses are at play, not just one.

Tax-Exempt Status: Tax-Exemption At The Entity Level

The broader category of tax exemption applies at the entity level. And in this regard, there is nothing special about churches and religious organizations at all. Many kinds of organizations fit the requirements are tax-exempt. Others include secular charities, universities, political organizations, Elks lodges, sports leagues, labor unions, fraternal societies and many other kinds of organizations. It is not a matter of privilege for churches but simply fair treatment (although the Constitution does arguably create a degree of privilege due to the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom). To not give them tax-exemption at the entity level would be to discriminate against these organizations specifically because they are religious.

What then does it mean for an entity to be tax-exempt? This tax-exemption means that an organization that is tax-exempt does not have to calculate income and pay taxes on it like a for-profit business. A normal business takes in money (revenue) in exchange for goods and services, subtracts money paid out in the course of business (expenses), and if revenue exceeds expenses, the business has earned a profit (net income) and pays an income tax on that net income. How this plays out depends on the type of business entity (sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation, etc.), but you get the idea. Tax-exempt entities, however, do not pay taxes on this net income.

Why do tax-exempt entities not pay taxes on that income? The general rule is that these organizations do not exist to earn a profit, and profits they do earn stay in the organization instead of being paid out to owners or stockholders. These organizations don’t even have owners or stockholders to give profits to in the first place.

For a normal business, there is an owner or owners/stockholders who are entitled to the net assets of the company and the net income earned. If a corporation has a great year and earns huge profits, those profits can be paid out to the owners (stockholders) in the form of dividends. For a not-for-profit entity, there are no stockholders. You can’t buy or sell a share in the organization. The assets and income don’t belong to you or anyone else. They have to stay with the organization itself, and there are laws about what such organizations must do with net assets (after they pay their debts) if the organization dissolves. And if a nonprofit organization were to start paying out large amounts of its net income to interested parties (beyond the extent of reasonable wages for services rendered), kind of like a for-profit business paying dividends to its shareholders, the organization could potentially get in trouble with the government and even lose their tax-exempt status.

All that is to say that there is criteria for being tax-exempt at the entity level, and churches and religious organizations generally meet it (there are explicitly for-profit religious organizations that pay taxes but that is another story). So even apart from any argument in favor of granting them special privileges on First Amendment grounds, as some do, exempting a nonprofit entity like a church from business income taxes just makes good sense based on the rules in place. To argue that because they are religious they should not get the tax benefits that other similar organizations get is to actively discriminate against them, not simply decline from giving them special privileges.

Additional Tax-Exempt Status: Tax-Deductible Contributions to the Organizations

Now, there is an additional tax benefit beyond just tax exemption that religious organizations can use, and this benefit is more limited (although it still applies to many types of secular organizations as well).

Churches and religious organizations can receive an advantage reserved specifically under the Internal Revenue Code §501(c)(3). You have probably heard the term “501(c)(3)” before, and this is what it refers to. If you donate to an organization under IRC §501(c)(3), not only does the organization not have to pay income on its net proceeds (donations minus expenses), but those who make contributions get to deduct the money they donate from their taxable income (subject to several limitations). Since income tax in the US is based on taxing percentages of your taxable income, the lower your taxable income is, the less tax you have to pay. This reduction in taxable income helps make up for some of the cost of donating to the organization, and this encourages people to donate. This, in turn, benefits the 501(c )(3) organization by increasing donations to them.

For example, let’s say somebody donates $1,000 to a 501(c)(3) organization. They can deduct that $1,000 from their taxable income. If their marginal tax rate is 25%, they would have paid $250 in tax on that $1,000 had they not deducted it. This means that they get $250 back on their taxes because they donated. As a result, that $1,000 donation really only cost them $750 ($1,000-$250). So if they only had $750 to give, they could give $1,000 due to the tax benefit. This means the organization got $250 than they otherwise would have. That is a pretty useful tax benefit for an organization that depends on donations.

Religious organizations are specified under IRC §501(c)(3), so if you are a church or a synagogue or mosque or theology organization or whatever else, you can apply for 501(c)(3) status and donations to you can be tax-deductible to those who give.

Now, this benefit is not only reserved for religious organizations. IRC §501(c)(3) is one giant sentence, but it also includes educational organizations (e.g. universities), amateur sports (e.g. kid’s soccer), charities (religious and secular), organizations that pursue scientific research, and organizations that exist for the prevention of cruelty to animals. The basic idea being, if it is an organization that in some manner is used to benefit public welfare, people should be encouraged by the tax code to donate to them.

Here, one might argue that even if religious organizations should have tax-exemption out of fairness, it should not get this special designation. Fairness does not require it to the extent that it requires simply tax-exemption at the entity level.

That said, I think the benefits of IRC §501(c)(3) are broadly applied enough that it makes sense to include religious organizations. Contrary to popular belief, the 501(c)(3) benefit is not only for charities that feed the hungry and clothe the poor (although many churches and religious organizations do that as a part of their work). Because it applies to all sorts of entities that can have a broader, less defined benefit to society (like kid’s sports or a university that teaches some person I don’t know about classical philosophy), religious organizations would seem to fit the bill.

One might argue that because religion is controversial, and different religions conflict in their teachings, religious organizations broadly should not be considered beneficial to society, even if one religion is actually true. However, with other organizations and causes, there is no requirement under the code that entities all teach the same things or do not conflict with each other in their beliefs or even in their actions. That is why conservative and liberal universities alike are covered. That is why Feminists for Life and National Right to life are 501c(3) organizations but so is Planned Parenthood. And that is why even pro-atheism organizations like American Atheists and The Freedom from Religion Foundation are 501(c)(3) organizations with all the same tax benefits as everyone else here. The tax code lets the different, conflicting groups all have the tax benefit and lets the people decide whom they think is worth donating to.

It Is Not True That Pastors and Clergy Are Exempt From Paying Taxes

Some people think that pastors do not pay taxes, but that is simply inaccurate. Like the employees of any tax-exempt entity, their income is still subject to income tax like everyone else’s.  Insofar as the money taken in by tax-exempt organizations is paid to employees, that money is taxed in the form of individual income tax levied upon the employee who earns it. Money just isn’t taxed at the organization level when the organization earns it (as it would be in a for-profit corporation).

Now, because of the unusual nature of a clergy job (not just Christian), there are certain tax provisions that apply specifically to them. And there can be some benefits to this. For example, for some clergy (not just Christian), sometimes a church or similar entity can provide housing or a housing allowance, subject to limits, and the clergyman does not have to report this as taxable income. Clergy are not the only sort of employee who get some form of employer-covered housing that is not subject to income tax, but this is certainly a great potential tax benefit to being a pastor.

Despite some benefits, pastors do still have to pay income taxes like everyone else. So while a handful of charlatans may make millions of dollars by lying to people in the name of religion, they still have to pay taxes on it – no matter what those memes you saw on Facebook say.

Churches are tax-exempt. Pastors are not.

Churches and Religious Organizations Actually Do Pay Some Taxes

Churches and religious nonprofits can get out of income tax at the federal level and probably in most (if not all) states. However, they may be subject other forms of taxation common to businesses.

For example, most religious nonprofits have to withhold and remit FICA taxes (Social Security and Medicare) and also pay a matching amount on their employees’ behalf, same as every other employer. Churches specifically have some unique rules when it comes to FICA, but most will have to at least pay the standard employer portion of FICA taxes for any non-minister employees.

Churches and religious nonprofits may also be subject to sales tax and other taxes levied at the state level. As you might imagine, this varies by state.

Nonprofits, including churches, can also potentially owe tax on what is called unrelated business income (UBI). In a nutshell, if a nonprofit engages in a trade or business beyond what is incidental to their mission, they may be required to pay taxes on the income earned. This doesn’t come up too often with churches, as there are exemptions and threshold requirements (the first $1,000 of otherwise taxable UBI is not taxed). But a nonprofit cannot create or buy a business arm and expect to be able to engage in that trade with no taxes. So a church couldn’t create a clothing line or buy an ice cream shop and expect to not have to pay taxes on what is clearly business income.