Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Objectivism & original sin

Don Watkins, a sycophant of Ayn Rand, has written an attack on original sin:

http://angermanagement.mu.nu/

<< Perhaps Christianity’s most vicious notion is that man is sinful by nature, burdened by Original Sin, and destined to continually fail to live up to the percepts of morality. There are various versions of this idea promulgated by Christians, some worse than others. Yet even the most plausible and seemingly benign account of this doctrine is, at root, virulently opposed to reason, morality, and man’s life here on earth. >>

This takes the form of a consequentialist objection. Original sin can’t be true because, if it were true, certain unacceptable consequences would follow.

Now, a consequentialist objection is unsound unless it satisfies either of two conditions:

i) It undermines our general truth-conditions

ii) The consequence is unacceptable to both sides of the debate.

Thus far, Watkins has failed to satisfy either condition. Although he has asserted that original sin is opposed to reason, he has offered no argument to that effect.

BTW, to say that something is opposed to reason could mean either of two things:

i) If true, it is opposed to reason at a global level, ruling out the very possibility of reason;

ii) If true, it is opposed to reason at a local level, placing various restrictions on the range of reason.

(i) is self-refuting, but (ii) is not. For example, head trauma may impair reason, but that is hardly an argument against the possibility of head trauma.

There is a further twofold ambiguity:

Something can be opposed to reason (i) either in the sense that the proposition itself is unreasonable, (ii) or else that it predicates unreason of another or others.

Again, (i) is self-refuting, but (ii) is not. It is not inherently unreasonable to say or argue that reason is limited.

And although original sin has consequences that are unacceptable to Watkins, it doesn’t follow that said consequences are unacceptable to his Christian opponent.

Suppose we raise a consequentialist objection to evolution:

<< Perhaps evolution’s most vicious notion is that man is violent by nature, burdened by his predatory nature, and destined to continually fail to live up to the precepts of morality. There are various versions of this idea promulgated by Darwinians, some worse than others. Yet even the most plausible and seemingly benign account of this doctrine is, at root, virulently opposed to reason, morality, and man’s life here on earth. >>

In fact, a number of Christians have argued that Darwinism logically leads to social Darwinism, which is virulently opposed to social morality.

They have also argued that evolutionary epistemology is self-refuting.

Indeed, these arguments are well worth considering. Yet I’d be surprised if Watkins applies the same standard to evolution that he imposes on original sin.

<< So man has a tendency to act sinfully? Two concepts there are important, “tendency” and “sinfully.” To begin with the first, what does it mean to say that man has a tendency to act sinfully? We must discount any definition that plainly denies free will. Morality presupposes free will, it presupposes that man’s actions aren’t determined by any outside force, but are an irreducible consequence of his volitional choice. >>

This simply begs the question in favor of incompatibilism without any examination of the arguments for compatibilism.

It is anti-intellectual of Watkins to discount the opposing position without benefit of argument. It is also self-defeating, for in that event he has failed to exclude the opposing position.

Notice, also, the vicious or regressive character of his description. Man’s actions are a consequence of volitional choice. But given freewill and freedom of opportunity, why does he choose A over B? Watkins has done nothing to explain the act of choosing itself. What supplies the differential factor that selects A over B when presented with two or more alternatives?

<< Furthermore, we must discount the claim that because most men act “sinfully,” each man has a tendency to act sinfully. To embrace such a non sequitur is to embrace the racist’s claim that we can judge a member of a race by the actions of other members of his race. >>

This is a straw man argument. Original sin is universal. Every human agent above the age of discretion is guilty of actual sin, and every human being regardless of age has an inborn tendency to commit actual sin.

In addition, one would suppose, from the standpoint of secular ethics, that the issue of racial equality or inequality is an open question, subject to empirical investigation and inductive confirmation or falsification.

Indeed, if we take Watkins’ operating premise (libertarian freewill) as our starting point, then if freedom of opportunity fails to yield freedom of outcome, isn’t the racist justified in his belief that his race is superior if, under the same circumstances, his race consistently outperforms the other?

It isn’t at all clear to me how Watkins, given his philosophical commitments, is in any position to rule out a doctrine of racial supremacy.

<< That leaves us with only one tenable definition of “tendency.” From Dictionary.com: “an attitude of mind especially one that favors one alternative over others.” A tendency in this view refers to one’s values. One has a tendency to act in the pursuit of one’s values. This is undoubtedly true. What the Christian maintains, then, is that people – by nature – value sinful acts (or the objects of sinful acts). >>

Going to Dictionary.com is hardly the best way to define a theological term. In addition, the word “tendency” was supplied, not by a theologian, but by Ayn Rand, in her polemical novel.

I don’t necessarily object to the use of the word. But a critique of original sin ought to begin with some representative definition in Christian theology, and not a novel by an atheist. Here, for example, is a classic definition:

<< The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consisteth in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of that righteousness wherein he was created, and the corruption of his nature, whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually; which is commonly called original sin, and from which do proceed all actual transgressions (WLC 25). >>

If Walkins wants to mount a serious attack on original sin, he needs to deploy his arguments against a definition such as this. Needless to say, Ayn Rand is not an accredited spokesman for Christian theology.

<< In the first place, this view denies volition in the realm of values; after all, if we aren’t free to choose our values, in what sense can we be said to have free will? Only in the sense that we are free to choose to act in service of other ends, that is, things we don’t value. And this is precisely the point. >>

True, we are not free to choose our values. We are only free to choose according to our values. How does the conclusion disprove the premise?


<< The Christian ethics is a variation of the altruist ethics. “The basic principle of altruism,” writes Ayn Rand, “is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest duty, virtue and value” (PWNI 61). According to Christianity, God takes the place of “others,” although according to many Christians, serving God consists of serving others. >>

Observe, once again, that Watkins doesn’t quote from any Christian creed or theologian of note, such as Augustine, or Aquinas, or Calvin.

Here’s a classic definition of Christian ethics:
<< The chief end of many is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever (WSC 1). >>

This is not a variation of altruist ethics. Rather, it’s a variation of teleological ethics.

It is true that altruism is an element in Christian ethics, but not in the sense of self-abnegation. To live for God is not a self-destructive act, but, quite the contrary, in one’s best self-interest; for it is God who made us, so that in living for God we are functioning as we were designed to function, in a purposeful and optimal existence.

A fish is free in its natural element. A fish may also be free to jump out of the stream. But a fish out of water is less free. It is free only to expire.

A land animal is free in its natural element. It may also be free to swim out to sea. But it so doing, it is free only to drown.

<< In fact, when Christians maintain that man is sinful by nature, what they often mean is that man is selfish by nature. But the relevant point here is that the Christian ethics holds something other than one’s own life as the goal of morality. (This does not mean that the Christian ethics is opposed to life on principle, only that it doesn’t uphold life on principle; which is appropriate for a philosophy that defines itself by sacrifice, the sacrifice of the moral to the immoral, as represented by Christ’s crucifixion.) >>

This, again, is an overstatement or half-truth riding on a false antithesis. There is nothing wrong with enlightened self-interest. Seeking heaven and avoiding hell is a very prudent course of action, all things considered.

Sacrifice for its own sake is no part of Christian ethics. Self-sacrifice is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. And God has coordinated the means and ends such that doing the right thing is not opposed to our long-term self-interest.

<< On the Objectivist view, morality is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions in order to enable him to secure his own life. Because life is conditional, because it requires a specific course of action in order to be maintained, man needs to know what is good for him and what is bad for him. Morality provides man with this knowledge. Morality is thus a tool of selfishness – it defines for man the principles of human survival. To adhere to a moral code, in this view, is not a self-sacrificial duty, but a selfish necessity. >>

Where does morality come from in the first place? And why is survival suc a good thing?

<< It is only when morality deviates from the requirements of man’s life that man must choose between his interests and his moral code, between life and ethics, between the practical and the moral. Only on the altruist morality will man have a tendency to act “sinfully,” that is, against his moral code – he has to…because the only alternative is suicide.

In the Christian view, then, our free will consists of this choice: to act morally or to act practically. But if man’s “sinfulness” consists of acting to sustain his life, then the problem is not with man, but with his moral code. >>

It is no part of Christian ethics to set morality and practicality in opposition to each other. God’s law is adapted to human nature, for God is the author of our nature, as well as the author of the law. Nothing is more impractical than to live in violation of God’s law for man.

<< Even so, there is a further issue. Even if one accepts the premise that the purpose of morality is to enable man to achieve his selfish values, to secure his own interests, most men do not act morally. Most men act short-range, indulging in their desires, living range of the moment, drowning themselves in the “pleasures” of the present moment. Men are not selfish in the Objectivist sense, the Christian might say, but they are naturally drawn to hedonistic self-indulgence. So even on the Objectivist view, do not men have a tendency to act immorally? To act against the good?

It might appear so. After all, according to Objectivism, the good demands integrity, honesty, and many other virtues routinely sacrificed by men. Does this not prove that, even measured according to a rational code of ethics, men have a tendency to act immorally? >>

Seems to me that the average unbeliever is being far more logical than the Objectivist. The average unbeliever knows that life is short, and the prime of life is even shorter, so why not indulge yourself when it will do you the most good? If you’re going to end up in a nursing home anyway, why not live for instant gratification while you can? Why deny yourself and plan for the future when the future is so uncertain, and when you can only reap the rewards by the time you’re past your prime?

<< What the Christian argument maintains is that because morality requires mental effort, man’s tendency will always be to act immorally, to avoid mental effort, to drift in the fog of irrationality and immorality. >>

Is that what the Christian argument maintains? Unbelievers often apply themselves with great diligence—especially in their opposition to revealed truth. They work hard to justify their immorality. They work hard to rationalize their irrationality.

<< As with all values, whether or not men prefer mental drift to mental focus is a matter of choice, a choice of man’s values. The rational man values focus, not drift. He desires clarity, not confusion. He thus views the effort of focus, not as a source of pain, but of pleasure. >>

Yes, and living for the moment in a riot of hedonistic excess, is one such choice—and a starkly rational choice given a secular outlook on life. It makes the best of a raw deal.

<< It is the Christian who views the unfocused mind as desirable, because it is the Christian who views mental effort as intrinsically painful. Why? Because of the Christian’s desire for an effortless existence.

The Christian ideal, represented in the tale of the Garden of Eden, is one where man’s existence is guaranteed to him – where no effort is required in order to achieve his values – where mental drift is sufficient to attain his values – where morality makes no demands and requires no effort. >>

To begin with, life on earth is far from Edenic. We live in a fallen world in which we are cursed to labor by the sweat of our brow.

The idea that morality is, or ought to be, demanding and effortful is part of a soul-building theodicy. And even on that view, effort would only be a means to an end, not an end in itself. Once the process of character formation has succeeded, there is no need to continue the process.

But if, a la Eden, it is possible to achieve one’s values without effort, then there is no intrinsic virtue in exerting ourselves to that end. So how is this an objection to an Edenic mode of existence, even if that were in the cards?

At the same time, there may be a trade-off between a lesser and a greater good. For there may be certain values which only a redeemed creature can enjoy. And he must be fallen before he can be redeemed.

Watkins also equivocates between pain and mental effort, as if these were interchangeable concepts, which clearly they are not.

For example, it takes a lot of mental concentration to play a good game of chess, yet chess is just that—a recreational mind-game. Mental effort can be a pleasure. A mathematician will invent a problem in order to solve it.

The superficial nobility of insisting that morality ought to be effortful and demanding loses its heroic halo when you remember that Objectivism is on the same moral plane as social Darwinism and lifeboat ethics.

<< To say that man has a tendency toward sinfulness, then, is to say that man’s life requires that he pursue and create the values that will sustain his life. In other words, the facts that give rise to man’s need for morality make him immoral. Man’s sin is that he needs morality. >>

Create values? And by what prior criterion does he judge a creative value to be valuable? Clearly he already has some ulterior standard that supplies the selection criteria. Where does that come from?

<< Man is by nature neither good nor evil – he is volitional and has the capacity for both. To achieve the good, man must choose to think. >>

This is sheer assertion. How can he achieve the good unless there is a good to be known and to guide his efforts towards the good? How does he make the good his goal unless he already knows what the goal ought to look like? What is directing his efforts towards the good if not a preconception of goodness? So is this an attainment or a prerequisite of attainment? An end or a means?

<< This is why the view that man is sinful is so vicious, because it is applied equally to the moral hero and the moral reprobate. To George Washington and Jerry Springer. To Ayn Rand and Joseph Stalin. >>

With all due respect, this is a perfectly inane statement, on Christian and secularist grounds alike.

On Christian grounds there are degrees of evil, as well as divergent destinies.

On secular grounds, Stalin shares the same fate as all his victims. They go, one and all, to a common oblivion.

So, given a choice, which would an atheist rather be—Stalin, living at ease with his every whim attended to; or one of his victims, rotting away in a Siberian labor camp?

7 comments:

  1. Great post. :)

    You mentioned compatibilism. Where could I find the best treatment of compatibilism (and arguments in its favor) from a Christian perspective?

    ReplyDelete
  2. The classic exposition is Jonathan Edwards' Inquiry on the Freedom of [the] Will. A summary can be found in Paul Helm's book on Divine Providence.

    Online treatments, not from a Christian perspective, include:

    http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/V014SECT1

    For more in-depth coverage, there's:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/supplement.html

    ReplyDelete
  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Travis:

    John Hendryx has compiled an index of material at his website, Monergism.com .

    The URL is here:

    http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/topic/freewill.html

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  7. "True, we are not free to choose our values."

    Says who?

    "Where does morality come from in the first place?"

    Not from God

    "And why is survival suc a good thing?"

    Why is death such a good thing? Are u serious when you ask this?

    "Yes, and living for the moment in a riot of hedonistic excess, is one such choice—and a starkly rational choice given a secular outlook on life. It makes the best of a raw deal."

    Why do Christians consider life on earth and living a "raw deal"? That's very uplifting!

    Christianity has been the dread of man sense it came about and this is partly why. It holds that man is evil and that this world is evil. What a great code for life on earth!

    "To begin with, life on earth is far from Edenic. We live in a fallen world in which we are cursed to labor by the sweat of our brow."

    Christians feel life is a curse, at least your honest.

    "Create values? And by what prior criterion does he judge a creative value to be valuable? Clearly he already has some ulterior standard that supplies the selection criteria. Where does that come from?"

    It comes from reality. One can quickly observe that food is better than poison and that freedom is better than slavery and theocracy. One can observe a car is superior to walking if transportation is your goal.

    Morality doesn't come from the boogieman, as you imply. It comes from man's need to make choices. You can either make objective and rational choices or not. If life is the standard then one must act in his own rational self interest.

    If you feel man is low and sinful and life is a curse like most christians then of course an individual's life has no value and he must sacrifice his cursed existence in servitude.

    "How does he make the good his goal unless he already knows what the goal ought to look like? "

    He embraces reason. The writer is saying that if life is the standard than the good is that which promotes his life. He must choose to live rationally and objectively define his values and then act to gain or keep them.

    "Objectivism is on the same moral plane as social Darwinism and lifeboat ethics. "

    based on what?

    "So, given a choice, which would an atheist rather be—Stalin, living at ease with his every whim attended to; or one of his victims, rotting away in a Siberian labor camp? "

    an atheist would rather be neither. If one is rational you don't go around like Stalin and kill people in the name of sacrifice to the "public good". That is what a Christian does but replaces "public good" with God.

    ReplyDelete