Ways of writing are ways of thinking, and the first thing to do in our thinking is to get our categories straight. To have clear categories and to understand all their possible relations is to have clear thought, which makes understanding and communication possible.
Example: “I need to tie my apple.” What does that even mean? Apples don’t have shoelaces. They can’t be tied. You could add qualifiers to the statement and it would make sense: “I need to tie my apple up in my knapsack.” But as the first example stands, it doesn’t make sense. Why? It is a category mistake. The person who wrote that sentence doesn’t understand what an apple is.
Sometimes the problem of category errors is basic and obvious (and sometimes hilarious). When a student of mine writes, “I were going to write good,” aside from sounding like Kevin’s newspeak in that one episode of The Office, he is committing two category mistakes. You might not think of it in those terms, category mistake, but that is what is happening. It is as painful as it is obvious. The singular “I” does not fit the plural “were.” The word “good” is an adjective used in the place of an adverb. Adjectives are one category and adverbs are another category. We can’t just swap them out willy-nilly without destroying language and thought and looking silly.
Such is the case in much thinking related to the role of government and the role of individuals. Romans 13 makes it abundantly clear what the government’s role is and what my role is. The government “does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” The state exists to execute justice: to punish evil works and praise good works. In verse 8, Paul shifts his focus to me as an individual. What is my job? What is my duty? “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”
It is the government’s job to execute justice by means of lethal force for the good of the people–not mine. If I take that upon myself, we would call it cold-blooded revenge and I would rightly be thrown in jail or worse. Conversely, it is my job to love my neighbor–not the government’s job.
The role of state is one category.
Personal ethics is a different category.
Keep them separate in your mind, or you will think badly and maybe look silly. Unfortunately, this particular category mistake is pernicious and not at all as obvious as, “I were writing good.” Not as obvious, but a million times more dangerous.
There is a widely shared article on Christian Today, published in September of 2015, that subtly confuses these categories. The author begins by making a good distinction between the categories of interpretation and application:
“…Christians, speaking as Christians, must be very careful to distinguish between what they can say with the authority of the Bible and of two millennia of Christian tradition, and what they can offer as a suggested outworking of that teaching.”
He gives five statements that are biblically authoritative regarding personal ethics, and then seven applications to the current refugee crisis. And without ever explaining how these statements in the category of personal ethics translate to the category of the role of state, he glibly pronounces:
“Christians have no special insight into the details of security, immigration and asylum policies that will need to be settled in order to meet this crisis. But we have a duty to call those responsible for these policies to account: to tell them when not just their actions, but the fundamental attitudes that guide those attitudes [sic-I think he means ‘actions’] are wrong.
“In this case, it is hard to avoid a sense of shame that Britain is doing so little, and that so reluctantly, when so many other countries are doing so much more.”
His argument goes like this:
I am personally responsible to welcome the stranger, be generous, and love my neighbor; therefore, the government must welcome the stranger, be generous, and love its neighbor.
See the leap of logic from one category to another? It doesn’t work. It is bad thinking.
Here’s something to try for fun: Read the article, which consists of a series of “We” statements. In every instance, replace the personal pronoun “We” with the words, “The federal government.” Do this, and you’ll start to hear the cognitive dissonance, the gears of your mind will begin to grind, and the argument that the government is morally obligated to accept refugees (or do anything that is of in the category of personal ethics) will start to sound as bad as, “I were writing good.”