Leithart had a fantastic post yesterday on the philosophy of action. Here is some of it.
Is an adulterous one-night stand the same action as a night of marital love with one’s wife?
If we say Yes, what have we assumed? We have assumed that the determinative dimensions of actions are the physical actions of sex. To an outsider who didn’t know that one woman is a mistress and the other a wife, the action looks identical – same foreplay, same change of blood pressure and temperature, same climax, etc. To put it more starkly: If we say that adulterous and marital sex are the “same” action, we have assumed a materialist view of action. Action is defined by the physical facts of the case.
We have also assumed an individualist view of action. The fact that one act is man-with-mistress and the other is man-with-wife is irrelevant. Relationality is canceled. What makes the action what it is is simply male-with-female. Move this another step, and it’s easy to see that homosexual relations are “the same” as marital sex.
Only on an materialist and individualist basis do the two acts appear to be variations within a genus of action, two varieties of “sex.” We can reach that conclusion only if we have stripped each participant down to his/her individual body.
If we deny materialism and individualism, then the two acts are not the same.
Now, the upshot: If this is true of sexual acts, then it is presumably true also of acts of force or “violence.” Using deadly force to save a Hebrew slave who is being beaten to death is not the same as beating the Hebrew slave. The two actions are not species in the same genus, but two different actions. So too, carrying out a death penalty against a murderer is not another murder; it is an act of justice. Fighting a just war against violent oppressors is not another act of violent oppression.
The thing that immediately came to mind as an extension of this insight is the nature of corporal punishment with children. By far the most common argument presented by advocates of “gentle discipline” is that spanking your child is a form of violence. If they hit their brother and then you hit them, you are a hypocrite. But this is not so. Only raw materialism could arrive at this conclusion – as if all instances of striking MUST be exactly the same. But they are not.
The metaphysical reality of a properly applied spanking from a loving parent to his child has almost nothing to do with a violent outburst of wrath against a brother over a stolen toy. Just like a night with one’s wife is thoroughly different than a night with a prostitute. Only on the very thin surface do they appear to be the same.