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Render unto Caesar

April 17, 2015

[Last June, after reading a great deal of John Henry Newman and Ludwig Wittgenstein, I made a series of posts about epistemology-talk, whose implicit theme found explicit expression in a later post about analogy. Recently I’ve been reading J.L. Austin and Geoffrey Hill, and my thoughts have centered on a different form of non-univocal language: equivocation, which, as I see it, relates to political ethics, our relation to each other, much as analogy does to philosophical reasoning, our relation with the truth. I have a number of posts on the topic planned, but I thought it would be helpful first to get clear (hah) what “equivocation” here means, in a way that makes clear its political and ethical stakes.]

Imagine a Christian living in the Roman Empire, during one of the sporadic persecutions of Christianity. His religious obligations are clear: he must not worship false idols. The laws of the Empire, unfortunately, are also clear: prostrate yourself in front of a pagan statue, or you will be killed. What are we to think, if he goes and burns incense in the temple? We would not accept, as an excuse for his action, that he had not intended to worship a false idol, but had just happened to walk into the temple and had just happened to decide to burn some incense once there. This is about as plausible as if St. Peter had, instead of going outside and weeping bitterly, claimed not to have actually denied Christ, but to have just happened to enunciate the words “I do not know the man!”

Yet Christ, when asked whether one should pay the Roman tributes, said “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21); and those tributes were used to pay for the construction of pagan temples. If the tribute-paying Christian can deny that he supports pagan temples, what prevents Peter, or the incense-burner, from denying that he denied Christ?

The tribute-payer, if he knew the technical language, might invoke the principle of double effect: he foresees this inevitable use of his tribute, but does not intend it.The incense-burner cannot do the same because idol-worship is built into the nature of incense-burning, in a way it is not in general built into tribute-paying. The difference is unrelated to the size of the effect: it’s not that you can ignore bad effects so long as the good effects outweight them. Paying tribute, after all, does more to maintain idol worship than does a single act of incense-burning, but it’s the latter, not the former, which is an act of betrayal. Rather, the difference stems from the manner of relation of effect to cause–intrinsic versus accidental. To burn incense just is to worship idols, while to pay tribute might happen to bring that worship about, but need not itself participate in it.


That above language is vaguely scholastic; in a more modern philosophical idiom, we might talk about the various descriptions under which the actions could be intended. It’s just a fact that, while tribute-paying can be described in relation to idol-worship, it’s quite naturally described in ways that do not even mention it. Any description of incense-burning that does not mention it, however, is simply inaccurate. To accept the principle of double effect is to accept that, when it comes to ethics, these descriptions matter as much or more than do the raw matter (if such a thing exists) of the action performed–more than anything that could be quantified, e.g. the amount of incense caused to be burned.

These descriptions, these determinations of what is intrinsic to an action, are not natural kinds. They emerge, like all meaning, within communities: in the examples given, incense-burning and tribute-paying meant what they did because of their conventional significance with them in the context of the pagan Roman Empire. Actions, in other words, have meanings, just as words do. Speaking poetically, words are actions charged with meaning in disproportion to the magnitude of their physical effects.


So the Christian can faithfully pay tribute because he does not thereby lie; he says only, “I acknowledge the empire’s lawful authority.” He cannot defend the burning of incense, however, any more than Peter can say that he “meant nothing” by his words “I do not know the man.” No one has complete control over the meaning their actions and words carry. In the words of J.L. Austin,

we are bound to non-play [such an attempt], not merely because the convention is not accepted, but because we vaguely feel the presence of some bar, the nature of which is not immediately clear, against it ever being accepted. (How To Do Things With Words, 31)

Yet we do retain some control, some ability to play with the meaning of our words and deeds; not a lot, but rope enough to hang ourselves with. As Geoffrey Hill puts it,

The crucial questions are how much ‘play’ remains in language after the logical excisions have been performed and whether this play is definable as ‘controlled interplay’ or as that ‘play’ which means that something designed for precise mechanical utility is showing signs of malfunction. (The Lords of Limit, ‘Our Word Is Our Bond’, 139)


Play enters into it insofar as the same deeds and words can be described and paraphrased in incompatible ways. Tribute-paying, for example, is quite naturally described without mention of supporting pagan temples. But obviously it can be so described, and someone can do it while intending that description. These actions would at first glance look identical, but would have quite different meanings.

This slack in the conventions cannot be ignored, lest the machinery of language break down. If the Christian simply does not know that what he does might be described as idolatry, there is little more to say, other than that he should have known what he was doing. But if he does know–if he foresees it, without intending it–then what he does is, like all actions justified through the principle of double effect, an exercise in equivocation. Equivocation, we can now say, is the performance of an action (giving someone a gold coin, making certain sounds with your mouth), foreseeing that within one’s current civil polity multiple possible meanings can be ascribed to it, but still intending for only one of those meanings to be understood.

To put it this way inverts the usual line that equivocation is a special form of the principle of double effect, but this is, I think, not a substantial difference, but a mere shift in emphasis. I shift the emphasis thus because, while equivocation is enormously controversial (exploring its licit uses is what gave Jesuits a reputation for dishonesty), the principle of double effect seems to me unavoidable, if we are to do avoid reducing ethics to balancing the scales, while still taking into account the bad effects every action inevitably has.


To say this is not, of course, to forestall any of the myriad objections to the more subtle forms of equivocation give rise. Still, it’s worth recognizing that not only does Jesus’ “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” advocate a course of action justifiable through the principle of double effect, but it is, itself, equivocal. On the surface, it simply advocates following whatever laws the legitimate civil authority passes, but its logic is in fact far more subtle: the tribute is one of “the things that are Caesar’s,” not because he can legitimately demand it, but because it must be paid in coins stamped with his visage. Does this mean that all coins, because minted by Caesar, all already belong to him? That coinage is therefore idolatrous, and so it’s sinful to hold onto any of it? That despite the face on the coins, nothing belongs to Caesar, and everything to God?

I’m not sure how to interpret this passage. I suspect that this difficulty is intentional, and that any explanation for it would resemble the answer Jesus gives to the disciples’ question, “Why speakest thou to them in parables?”:

Because to you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven: but to them it is not given. ‘ For he that hath, to him shall be given, and he shall abound: but he that hath not, from him shall be taken away that also which he hath. ‘ Therefore do I speak to them in parables: because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. (Matthew 13:11-13)

4 Comments leave one →
  1. CJ Wolfe permalink
    April 20, 2015 9:50 pm

    I was just discussing double effect today with my politics students. It came up when I was teaching the Supreme Court case of “Carter v. Carter Coal.” In that case, Justice George Sutherland discusses when it is and isn’t legitimate for Congress to claim it is doing something in the interest of regulating interstate commerce. Certainly, ONE of the consequences of a law in some way is going to affect interstate commerce, so to avoid that overly broad allowance Sutherland resorted to talking about “proximate effects.” Congress could only make a law about something that had a PROXIMATE effect on interstate commerce, not some distant entailed consequence.

    So to take your “render under Caesar” example, Sutherland might have said that the proximate effect of paying taxes is the Roman government having money, but the more distant effect is the burning of incense for pagan gods.

    Here’s the paragraph from Carter v. Carter Coal where Sutherland discusses his standard (which the Supreme Court does not anymore by the way, unfortunately):

    “Whether the effect of a given activity or condition is direct or indirect is not always easy to determine. The word “direct” implies that the activity or condition invoked or blamed shall operate proximately — not mediately, remotely, or collaterally — to produce the effect. It connotes the absence of an efficient intervening agency or condition. And the extent of the effect bears no logical relation to its character. The distinction between a direct and an indirect effect turns not upon the magnitude of either the cause or the effect, but entirely upon the manner in which the effect has been brought about. If the production by one man of a single ton of coal intended for interstate sale and shipment, and actually so sold and shipped, affects interstate commerce indirectly, the effect does not become direct by multiplying the tonnage, or increasing the number of men employed, or adding to the expense or complexities of the business, or by all combined. It is quite true that rules of law are sometimes qualified by considerations of degree, as the government argues. But the matter of degree has no bearing upon the question here, since that question is not what is the extent of the local activity or condition, or the extent of the effect produced upon interstate commerce?, but what is the relation between the activity or condition and the effect?”

  2. April 21, 2015 12:04 am

    Fascinating! I often wish I knew more about the law than I do–it often seems relevant to the kind of philosophical issues that interest me. I’ve been reading J.L. Austin recently and have been struck with how often he takes his examples from legal proceedings.


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