Off the hook? When you really ARE responsible for your sins

Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Lee Randolph argue that as a result of recent advances in behavioral and neural science it is hard to preserve any meaningful concept of moral blame or praiseworthiness. If our behavioral tendencies are largely determined by genetics, upbringing and peer influence, can we say that we are ever truly responsible for our actions? As Randolph puts it: "Since the brain is a biological device. It can be influenced by physiological factors, and physiological factors induce desire and motivation. Since we cannot get outside of our thoughts and feelings, they make up our personality our 'essence'. This renders any judgment by an external supernatural creator meaningless because it would know that we are helpless to feel any other way than our physiological make up will support at the time, and that our behavior and desire will follow that. We are helpless to think any thoughts that are not supported by our physiological make up at the time. The physiological factors would have to be eliminated to make any judgment meaningful."

I would dispute that physiological factors have to be eliminated in order for judgment to be meaningful. One might as well say that 'soul-stuff' would have to be eliminated if that is the basis for our making decisions under a dualistic anthropology. The fact that our decisions have a structured basis constrained by various rules of operation does not rule out intentional agency.

That said, I do agree that a more nuanced understanding of the causes of human behavior is in order. There are biological conditions which should temper our eagerness to assign blame in the case of unusual or destructive behavior. But are there cases where a person with reasonable mental capacity and no obvious psychological imbalances still engages in calculated, destructive behavior that we can assign blameworthiness to? I believe there are many such cases. I list just a couple below:

1) Human trafficking: the sickening truth about the slave trade today is that it is mostly conducted by people who are in it for the money. The traders are for the most part smart, efficient and well-organized. They did not necessarily come from poverty or domestic abuse. Many were military officers who lost their jobs when the Soviet Union dissolved and borders became porous (see Misha Glenny's McMafia, reviewed here). There are certainly trans-individual factors at work which make women and young girls desperate and likely to be fooled by promises of work and money abroad, and conversely the economic deprivation that makes a 'career' in human trafficking seem attractive to certain people. But the fact is that these are not crimes of passion, they are not the result of seratonin imbalances (in fact many of the traffickers have families of their own whom they care about deeply so we can't argue that they're even psychopathic). Brothel owners and slave traders made a conscious, deliberate decision to profit from human misery and are often astonishingly creative and dedicated to honing their 'craft' by concocting elaborate schemes to fool border patrols and transport the girls to their clients. This is evil, not just inconvenience or a socially conditioned taboo, and the people who perpetrate it are completely responsible for their actions. No insanity plea can be effective here.

2) Pelting: despite PETA's notorious and dubiously effective animal rights activism they have put their finger on a horrifying phenomenon that continues unabated to this day: careless and rampant cruelty to animals in the fur trade and other industries. They have put up a truly disturbing video on their website (I warn you, this is NOT for the faint of heart) of pelters in China taking dogs, foxes and other furry creatures one by one, smacking them against the ground to subdue them (but without actually killing them) and then slowly skinning them alive, occasionally stopping to give the animal another good thwack on the ground if it struggles or twitches. After the skinning, with many of the animals still alive, they are left on a heap to die slowly. Again, this is no crime of passion and is not the result of a bad childhood. These pelters are simply businessmen doing their job. They could easily have chosen to mercifully end the animals' lives before pelting them. No seratonin deficiency would have overriden their conscious action. They make a choice every day to inflict the most monstrous brutality on these animals and no one is responsible but they themselves. (I won't go into the question now of whether God is justified in creating a world in which animals suffer in the wild as a result of natural predation. In the above case the chain of responsibility is clear: it lies with human beings. With God and creation the issue is much less clear cut, because we have to take into account the ultimate purpose of creation, etc.)


Steven Carr said…
Did God give the gift of consciousness to animals?

Where is the Christian condemnation of Samson burning foxes to death?
Steven Carr said…
I remind you of the wise words of William Lane Craig.

Craig refutes atheists on the problem of evil"

'We can summarize this new version of the argument from harm as follows:

1. If God exists, gratuitous harm does not exist.
2. Gratuitous harm does exist.
3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Now the most contentious premiss in this argument is (2). The first version of the argument from harm posed an essentially internal problem about the consistency of Christian theism, since the Christian is committed by his own theology to the truth of the propositions God exists and Harm exists. But the Christian is not committed to the truth of (2). How, then, will the atheist prove that the harm in the world is truly gratuitous?'

Mr. Walters may think he has found an example of gratuitous harm, but I remind him again of Craig's words 'Now, to be blunt, what Dr. Washington did in his last speech was basically an appeal to your emotions.{2} He read a very dramatic and horrifying account of a viral disease. But it didn't address the philosophical questions. We all admit this is horrible. We all admit there are horrendous evils in the world. But that doesn't address the question: is it necessarily true that an all-good God would create a world in which there is no harm? I suggested that you couldn't have a world without any harm in it, if you wanted rational behavior to be possible.'

Does Walters really want slave-trafficking to stop?

Does Walters really want a world where seals are not clubbed to death?

Does Walters really want a world where rational behaviour was not possible?

That's what Walters wants - a world without harm, and a world were rational behaviour was not possible.

Craig spells out the implications of Walters worldview 'I suggested that you couldn't have a world without any harm in it, if you wanted rational behavior to be possible.'
Anonymous said…
Didn't Steven Carr just shift the goalposts from gratuitous harm to any harm?
Steven Carr said…
No, Craig did that.

Perhaps Walters can produce reasoned arguments that the examples he gave :-

A) Really are examples of gratutious harm

B) There is no moral reason to permit these harms to happen.

Or perhaps people can see just how out of touch with reality Christian defenses against the argument from harm are, when Craig is forced to deny that slave-trafficking , or indeed anything else, causes gratuitous harm.

Incidentally, there is no condemnation in the Bible of buying and selling people for money.

Genesis 17:12

For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring.

Provided the people bought with money were forcibly circumcised the god of the Christians was quite happy that no covenant was being broken.
Anonymous said…

I'm not arguing for the existence of gratuitous harm, if by gratuitous you mean harm that simply occurs with no higher justification. I'm arguing that at least in some cases the harm that people inflict on others cannot be reduced to external sociological or internal biological influences. They have their explanation in the free exercise of sinful, corrupt human wills which either take pleasure in the harm other beings suffer or rationalize it if they personally profit from this harm.

So this evil is certainly not gratuitous: it has a good theological explanation, namely that human beings are often intentionally corrupt and violent above and beyond what their genes and upbringing would dictate, and this is what we would expect if there is such a thing as sin.

You misunderstand the Bible if you take it to be a big rule-book of commendations and condemnations of every conceivable behavior. The Bible is above all a narrative of God's interaction with his people. I doubt you have the ability but you should try to read the Bible as it was intended to be read.
Steven Carr said…
So this evil is certainly not gratuitous: it has a good theological explanation....

You mean evil is not gratuitous if human beings are corrupt and violence?

SO how would human beings ever commit gratuitous evil?

If these evils are not gratuitous why do you want to stop them , when your god himself has a good reason to allow them to continue?

These evils may very well be part of God's plans.

I quote Craig again 'All right, but then that makes it all the more difficult for the atheist to prove that truly gratuitous harm exists, for how could he possibly know what in God's providential plan of history does or does not contribute to the ultimate salvation of the greatest number of people?'

Does Walters really think he knows better than Craig and can say that clubbing seals to death will not result in people being saved?

You would almost think that Walters was using his common sense rather than relying on Christian worldviews about what is senseless evil.

And where is the Christian condemnation of Biblical heroes of faith tying foxes together and setting fire to them?

Is the Bible forever to be cordoned off from what turns the stomach of Mr. Walters?
Anonymous said…
What do you mean, exactly, by gratuitous evil?

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