Moral luck

It’s Saturday night and you’re at a party.  You drink too much and foolishly decide to drive home.  On the way, you lose control of your car.  Then one of two things happens:

Scenario A

There is no traffic around.  Your out-of-control car careens across the left lane and into a ditch.  It hits a fence post.  The car is damaged, but you are unhurt.  The police come  and arrest you for driving under the influence.

Scenario B

A car is approaching.  Your out-of-control car careens across the left lane and clips the oncoming car, which crashes into a tree.  The driver and her two young children are killed.  The police come and arrest you.  You are charged with manslaughter.

The crucial difference between the two scenarios is sheer luck.  In scenario A, you were simply lucky that no traffic was around.  In scenario B, your luck wasn’t as good, and three people ended up dead.

You made the same irresponsible decision — to drink and drive — in both scenarios.  Is your moral culpability greater in scenario B than in scenario A?  If so, why?

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128 thoughts on “Moral luck

  1. But your question is about luck. As in, what would we think (or what would the law do), if at the moment of killing, a wave caused the weapon to miss its target, and at the same moment, a rescue ship appeared.

    This is the Minority Report scenario. At the moment of killing, the police arrive and prevent it. But the perp is not redeemed.

    When I worked in protective Services I was assigned to monitor a family in which the wife and mother had stabbed her infant during a dispute with her husband. The kid survived, and the mother returned to the family after a few months in jail.

    I had the enviable task of deciding if the kid was safe. This is fairly common in the real world. I had a bunch of comparable cases.

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  2. keiths: Is Dudley still equally culpable for being the kind of person who would have killed Parker if the ship had sunk, the men had been cast adrift, and the rescuers hadn’t arrived soon enough?

    It’s weird, but in the God’s eyes view, what actually happens is irrelevant. You just know whether someone is a jerk or a saint.

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  3. petrushka,

    But your question is about luck. As in, what would we think (or what would the law do), if at the moment of killing, a wave caused the weapon to miss its target, and at the same moment, a rescue ship appeared.

    This is the Minority Report scenario. At the moment of killing, the police arrive and prevent it. But the perp is not redeemed.

    The perp is partially redeemed, because the law considers attempted murder to be a lesser offense than murder.

    I disagree with that, and judging by their answers, so would Corneel and Sal. It’s a great example of a conflict between law and morality, and it’s why I’m focused on morality, not legality, in this thread.

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  4. Corneel:

    It’s weird, but in the God’s eyes view, what actually happens is irrelevant. You just know whether someone is a jerk or a saint.

    Let me throw a further wrench in the works by pointing out that whether someone is a jerk or a saint is also a matter of luck. It depends ultimately on factors outside their control, like genes and environment.

    This is why I think we aren’t ultimately responsible for what we do, and why retributive punishment is therefore unjustified. (Punishment as a deterrent is still okay, in my opinion.)

    We’re proximately responsible, but not ultimately responsible, for our decisions and deeds.

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  5. As Spinoza said, we don’t have to blame the rabid dog in order to understand that we ought to drown it.

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  6. walto,

    As Spinoza said, we don’t have to blame the rabid dog in order to understand that we ought to drown it.

    Right. We drown it not to get revenge, but to protect ourselves. Along with deterrence, I think the protection of society is a legitimate purpose for punishments such as incarceration.

    Revenge isn’t a legitimate purpose, IMO, since like the rabid dog, we are not ultimately responsible for what we do. Proximately responsible, but not ultimately responsible.

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  7. What we need to do in order to protect ourselves is not at all obvious.

    I mean that without implying that people are stupid or malicious.

    I mean simply that we haven’t invented the vaccines against bad behavior. It isn’t because we haven’t tried. It’s a tough problem. We still have cancer, but we have moved beyond claiming illness to be devine retribution.

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  8. While it’s true that we can’t vaccinate against bad behavior, we do have ways of protecting ourselves, including incarceration.

    It causes suffering to the prisoners and their families, but that can be an acceptable tradeoff if the deterrent and protective effects are large enough. I like the Norwegian approach, which seeks to minimize the suffering:

    I toured prisons around the world — and the system that seems the most relaxed is also one that works

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  9. Keiths,
    You really want to cause trouble, don’t you.
    I rather think it falls into the category of those silly trolly problems, the difference being, I suppose, that it is real. It probably happens daily.

    Its just funny to see the xtians fluffing about. Stcordova waffles about god judging us by whats in our heart, or some such nonsense. If they really have access to objective morality, why cant they just tell us the answer, and put us out of our misery ?

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  10. A related moral question relates to a drunk that kills someone. The drunk doesn’t know what he is doing, so is he temporarily not responsible ?

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  11. graham2,

    Its just funny to see the xtians fluffing about. Stcordova waffles about god judging us by whats in our heart, or some such nonsense.

    The funny thing is that the Bible actually contradicts that notion of Sal’s. For instance, Uzzah gets killed by God for trying to keep the Ark of the Covenant from falling:

    When they came to the threshing floor of Kidon, Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the ark, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah, and he struck him down because he had put his hand on the ark. So he died there before God.

    1 Chronicles 13:9-10, NIV

    Uzzah’s good intentions didn’t do him any good. Even David got angry with God over that injustice.

    Here’s another example where God is all about results, but couldn’t care less about intention:

    When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.

    Exodus 21:20-21, NRSV

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  12. graham2,

    A related moral question relates to a drunk that kills someone. The drunk doesn’t know what he is doing, so is he temporarily not responsible ?

    I’d say the drunk is culpable, assuming he drank voluntarily. If he drank too much punch, not knowing that someone had spiked it, that would be a different story.

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  13. Keiths,
    Yes, the reply to the drunk situation is the obvious one, one I would take.

    Your reference to slavery in Exodus 21, though, is just fun fun fun. I have wasted too much of my life watching debates and watching the many many ways, some incredibly creative, that xtians use to worm their way out of Exodus 21. Its a real education. In what Im not sure, self delusion probably, but just fun to watch.

    Objective morality. Jeez, what a crock.

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  14. graham2,

    Yeah, Christians are at their most creative when they’re trying to justify some heinous bit of scripture.

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  15. keiths: This is why I think we aren’t ultimately responsible for what we do, and why retributive punishment is therefore unjustified. (Punishment as a deterrent is still okay, in my opinion.)

    You have ventured into legal matters now, and I am not sure I agree. Let’s return to Scenario B in the original OP. Surely the legal system should take into account that people have been killed. The sense of justice of the relatives of the deceased will be harmed if no retributive punishment is issued against the perpetrator.

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  16. Keiths:

    The funny thing is that the Bible actually contradicts that notion of Sal’s. For instance, Uzzah gets killed by God for trying to keep the Ark of the Covenant from falling:

    Good intentions can get someone killed too. Just because someone dies doesn’t mean his heart was in the wrong place. Ignorance can also lead to bad consequences.

    But hey, maybe someday you’ll face the Judge himself. You can bet your life on it.

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  17. keiths:

    The funny thing is that the Bible actually contradicts that notion of Sal’s. For instance, Uzzah gets killed by God for trying to keep the Ark of the Covenant from falling:

    You don’t have all the facts…again…
    This is the same situation as with Adam and Eve…
    If God had forgiven them, He would have been a liar..
    Same with Uzzah…nobody but designated people were supposed to touch the ark or they would die..
    You should know better… You had given me the hint about it few months back…for which I’m grateful…😊

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  18. Regarding Uzzah, here is a related incident:

    https://www.wacotrib.com/news/waco-pastor-electrocuted-during-baptism-subject-of-father-s-book/article_ca7292d1-490f-5a35-9af8-ca7492031e0e.html

    Kyle Lake, then 33, was serving as pastor of University Baptist Church in Waco when he reached for a microphone during a baptism and was electrocuted in front of 800 church members.

    His tragic death on Oct. 30, 2005, shook the church and the entire community. Lake was married with three small children. His energetic approach to ministering attracted college students by the hundreds.

    Going against the laws of physics (instituted by God) can get one killed, so can violating the ceremonial laws of God.

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  19. This OP is an example of oxymoron keiths…
    There is no such thing as moral luck just as there’s no such thing as guided evolution…
    It is immortal to drink and drive the same as having an affair. Some get away with it, some get HIV, get pregnant or get some pregnant, ruin marriages and families, get fired, start dinking or use drugs, lose their mind attempt suicide or try to kill someone in rage…
    It’s the consequences of being immortal…

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  20. stcordova: Going against the laws of physics (instituted by God) can get one killed, so can violating the ceremonial laws of God.

    A little bloodthirsty your God is.

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  21. J-Mac: You got bloodthirst mixed up with the strong “desire” for justice…

    Tell it to the children…

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  22. J-Mac: You got bloodthirst mixed up with the strong “desire” for justice…

    Bloodthirsty describes how the “justice” is enforced.

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  23. Corneel,

    Surely the legal system should take into account that people have been killed. The sense of justice of the relatives of the deceased will be harmed if no retributive punishment is issued against the perpetrator.

    I touched on that here:

    On the other hand, I can understand why people resist that idea. To members of the victims’ families, for instance, it might seem offensive, as if the deaths themselves carried no moral weight.

    The desire for vengeance is deeply ingrained in us, no question. But should the penal system cater to that desire? Norway takes a non-retributive approach and achieves a recidivism rate of 20% — the lowest in the world. The US treats prisoners like crap and “achieves” a rate of 75%.

    Society is worse off when the system is focused on revenge.

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  24. Sal:

    Going against the laws of physics (instituted by God) can get one killed, so can violating the ceremonial laws of God.

    Compare that to what you wrote earlier:

    So, morality is based on the intentions of the heart, and God is the ultimate judge, man only make faint approximations how to dispense justice.

    Uzzah’s intentions were good, and so were those of the electrocuted pastor. They got killed anyway.

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  25. J-Mac,

    If God had forgiven them, He would have been a liar..
    Same with Uzzah…nobody but designated people were supposed to touch the ark or they would die..

    A smarter and less creepy God would have added a qualifier to the law, such as “unless there are exonerating circumstances” or “unless it’s needed to protect the ark”.

    Was he too stupid to think of that, or did he just not care whether well-intentioned people could get killed?

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  26. newton: Bloodthirsty describes how the “justice” is enforced.

    Bloodthirsty describes the emotions; the desire for justice same way the parents and the family of a raped and killed little girl described…

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  27. keiths:
    J-Mac,

    A smarter and less creepy God would have added a qualifier to the law, such as “unless there are exonerating circumstances” or “unless it’s needed to protect the ark”.

    Was he too stupid to think of that, or did he just not care whether well-intentioned people could get killed?

    You are being very foolish, keiths… Uzzah was presumptuous in his act of “saving” the ark
    I thought you’d learned something during your absence from TSZ…🤔

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  28. J-Mac,

    Uzzah was presumptuous in his act of “saving” the ark

    It’s “presumptuous” to save the ark from falling to the ground? Come on, J-Mac.

    Even David thought that God was a jerk for killing Uzzah.

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  29. keiths:
    J-Mac,

    It’s “presumptuous” to save the ark from falling to the ground?Come on, J-Mac.

    You don’t know your bible… 😉

    keiths: Even David thought that God was a jerk for killing Uzzah.

    David also thought other people were jerks until he realized the story the prophet Nathan had told him was about him… I know my bible…now… believe me! 😉

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  30. You’re demonstrating graham2’s point. You’re squirming to avoid the plain meaning (and implications) of a scriptural passage.

    A God who would make that law and kill Uzzah is either dumb, or unloving, or both.

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  31. keiths:
    You’re demonstrating graham2’s point.You’re squirming to avoid the plain meaning (and implications) of a scriptural passage.

    A God who would make that law and kill Uzzah is either dumb, or unloving, or both.

    The law of gravity has the same implications… since you or graham can’t change it, you gonna have to live with both the good and the bad that gravity comes with…😉

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  32. The Old Testament teaches there are unitentional sins and intentional sins. The most generous view is Uzzah committed an unintentional sin. But God could call us into account for unintentional sins too. Is it fair? Well, who am I to judge?

    But Jesus Christ dies so our sins can be forgiven, both intentional and unintentional. Otherwise we face the wrath of God who, for those the reject Him, will be the most unpleasant character in all of literature, but for those who believe in Jesus and have their sins forgiven, they will find Love eternal, for God is Love.

    I’m also trusting that the pastor who was electrocuted, assuming he put his faith and trust in Jesus Christ, will be with God forever, and that for him “this momentary light affliction built for him an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.”

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  33. stcordova: The Old Testament teaches there are unitentional sins and intentional sins. The most generous view is Uzzah committed an unintentional sin

    God said that no man can look at Him and yet remain alive. If Moses had decided to peek at God from under the anti-nuclear shield, would his death be an unintentional sin?

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  34. Regarding Unintentional sins (reminds me of Walto’s rabid dog):

    Leviticus 4:

    4 The Lord commanded Moses 2 to tell the people of Israel that anyone who sinned and broke any of the Lord’s commands without intending to, would have to observe the following rules.

    3 If it is the High Priest who sins and so brings guilt on the people, he shall present a young bull without any defects and sacrifice it to the Lord for his sin. 4 He shall bring the bull to the entrance of the Tent, put his hand on its head, and kill it there in the Lord’s presence. 5 Then the High Priest shall take some of the bull’s blood and carry it into the Tent. 6 He shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it in front of the sacred curtain seven times. 7 Then he shall put some of the blood on the projections at the corners of the incense altar in the Tent. He shall pour out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar used for burning sacrifices, which is at the entrance of the Tent. 8 From this bull he shall take all the fat, the fat on the internal organs, 9 the kidneys and the fat on them, and the best part of the liver. 10 The priest shall take this fat and burn it on the altar used for the burnt offerings, just as he does with the fat from the animal killed for the fellowship offering. 11 But he shall take its skin, all its flesh, its head, its legs, and its internal organs, including the intestines, 12 carry it all outside the camp to the ritually clean place where the ashes are poured out, and there he shall burn it on a wood fire.

    13 If it is the whole community of Israel that sins and becomes guilty of breaking one of the Lord’s commands without intending to, 14 then as soon as the sin becomes known, the community shall bring a young bull as a sin offering.

    The New Testament said Jesus is the true atonement for sins, and these are but physical illustrations for our instruction.

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  35. How about a scenario in which your vehicle suffers a mechanical failure, and results in the deaths of others? Are you more morally culpable if you suspected something was wrong with the vehicle but failed to fix it, than if you didn’t know of any problems? How about if you knew, but couldn’t afford the repair?

    To me, what we’re trying to calculate is the degree of risk of anything you do, and the degree to which you consider yourself responsible for identifying and reducing that risk. People drive drunk (and texting, and sleepy, and too fast, etc.) far more often than these conditions are direct contributors to accidents. Yes, driving drunk increases the risk of accident, but the vast majority of the time the drunks have no accidents — even for them, accidents are fairly rare events. Only a small minority of smokers die of lung cancer.

    Similarly, if you think about almost any misfortune you or someone else has suffered, that misfortune COULD have been avoided, if only you (or they) had done any of a large number of things differently. So should you have known better? Perhaps the most obvious avoidable risks can be reduced, but most risks fall into neither category – not obvious, and (perhaps therefore) not avoidable.

    We live in a litigious culture, where blame must be placed somewhere for every misfortune. I think our religious conceptions are largely responsible for all this litigation, because those conceptions lead us to seeking that blame, pointing the moral finger even though sheer luck (good or bad) is the deciding factor in cases where the misfortune is not inflicted deliberately.

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  36. Flint,

    Nice analysis.

    How about a scenario in which your vehicle suffers a mechanical failure, and results in the deaths of others? Are you more morally culpable if you suspected something was wrong with the vehicle but failed to fix it, than if you didn’t know of any problems?

    I would say yes, because the former is more akin to negligence than it is to bad luck.

    How about if you knew, but couldn’t afford the repair?

    Still culpable, in my opinion, because “my poverty gives me the right to put you at risk” doesn’t seem like a valid moral argument. But it would depend on the magnitude of the risk and the availability of alternative forms of transportation such as public transit.

    Here’s another interesting question: How hard must a driver look for looming mechanical problems in order to satisfy their moral obligations? It would be unreasonable to expect the driver to tear down and rebuild the vehicle, or subject it to a 50-point safety inspection, every time they want to drive to the convenience store. At the other extreme, we’d certainly fault someone who ignored the signs of impending brake failure.

    To me, what we’re trying to calculate is the degree of risk of anything you do, and the degree to which you consider yourself responsible for identifying and reducing that risk. People drive drunk (and texting, and sleepy, and too fast, etc.) far more often than these conditions are direct contributors to accidents.

    And even when they aren’t doing any of those things, driving itself subjects others to some degree of risk. What’s an acceptable amount? Any specific level will seem somewhat arbitrary.

    We live in a litigious culture, where blame must be placed somewhere for every misfortune. I think our religious conceptions are largely responsible for all this litigation, because those conceptions lead us to seeking that blame, pointing the moral finger even though sheer luck (good or bad) is the deciding factor in cases where the misfortune is not inflicted deliberately.

    Yes, and the more serious the harm, the stronger the urge to assign blame.

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  37. Sal, regarding the sacrificial rigmarole described in Leviticus 4:

    The New Testament said Jesus is the true atonement for sins, and these are but physical illustrations for our instruction.

    Why should the Israelites have been obligated to go through all that unnecessary crap, when we aren’t? Why couldn’t God just forgive them?

    As described by the Bible, he really is quite the ass.

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  38. keiths:
    Sal, regarding the sacrificial rigmarole described in Leviticus 4:

    Why should the Israelites have been obligated to go through all that unnecessary crap, when we aren’t?Why couldn’t God just forgive them?

    As described by the Bible, he really is quite the ass.

    God could, but God wants to be the hero of the story.

    It’s for a similar reason people build Rube Goldberg machines when a more direct route is to achieving the goal is available — that’s my take anyway.

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  39. Sal,

    The Old Testament teaches there are unitentional sins and intentional sins. The most generous view is Uzzah committed an unintentional sin. But God could call us into account for unintentional sins too. Is it fair? Well, who am I to judge?

    Let’s assume that God exists. Then we’re all in the position of judging him, because we have to decide how to respond to him. If he’s evil, we might want to resist him. If he’s incomparably good and wise, we might want to obey him. The God described in the Bible doesn’t appear “incomparably good and wise”, not by a long shot.

    But God could call us into account for unintentional sins too.

    Not according to what you wrote earlier:

    So, morality is based on the intentions of the heart, and God is the ultimate judge…

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  40. Sal,

    God could [just forgive them], but God wants to be the hero of the story.

    Like I said, he really is quite the ass.

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  41. Sal,
    Do you believe your god is going to save us from climate change ?

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  42. keiths: The desire for vengeance is deeply ingrained in us, no question. But should the penal system cater to that desire?

    It shouldn’t, but the legal system needs support from society, or it won’t be able to function at all. If there is sufficient support to remove retributive punishment from all legal considerations, then I am all for it. I just don’t think there exist many places that are ready for that just yet.

    I agree: Love the Norwegian system.

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  43. stcordova: God could, but God wants to be the hero of the story.

    It’s for a similar reason people build Rube Goldberg machines when a more direct route is to achieving the goal is available — that’s my take anyway.

    Looks like keiths has moved on to more “whys”…He doesn’t understand why this or that, or doesn’t want to, so God must not exist and this is the best evidence for the self-creation of the universe and life on the earth only…

    I’ve heard that the best way to retain one’s cognitive function and prevent the decline is to argue…
    A story like that has gotta be true…😉

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  44. J-Mac: I’ve heard that the best way to retain one’s cognitive function and prevent the decline is to argue…

    You don’t actually argue. You allude. You imply. You pretend that a few people use your account.

    But let’s look at the facts of the matter. And the facts of the matter is that your purported god is a big bag of shite.

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  45. J-Mac: Looks like keiths has moved on to more “whys”…He doesn’t understand why this or that, or doesn’t want to, so God must not exist and this is the best evidence for the self-creation of the universe and life on the earth only…

    I don’t think his position is God must not exist, rather certain versions put forward are unconvincing based on the evidence claimed as support. Much as Christians find Allah.

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  46. newton,

    I don’t think his position is God must not exist, rather certain versions put forward are unconvincing based on the evidence claimed as support.

    Right. The Christian God is supposed to be wise and compassionate, but in stories like Uzzah’s, he comes across as a Trumpian boor.

    “You dare touch my precious ark? You’re a dead man, even though you were trying to do the right thing by keeping it from falling.”

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