Ethics and the Third Person -- the waging, and the wages, of sin

[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, concluding Chapter 40, can be found here.]

[This entry starts Chapter 41, "The Consequences of Sin".]

In the previous chapter, I began to discuss the concept of evil--not in the abstract, nor for potential special-cases (such as particular individuals who may honestly not recognize any responsibility they have to actual reality)--but in the most concrete and personal way I could find.

I began examining the concept of evil, by examining myself.

The person who thinks ethics are something we humans have created, says that good and evil are what we personally define them to be. I have noticed that such a person rarely, if ever, admits, "What I have done is evil". Usually, the gist of this sort of person is that we define 'good' as whatever we ourselves want to do, and 'evil' as whatever someone else wants to do (or wants us to do) that threatens our desires. Or he may perhaps say, "Very well, I agree that what I have done is 'evil', taking the average of human opinion into account. Nevertheless, it is what I wanted to do. I may be sorry I got caught, but if I could do it without getting caught (and especially punished) I would. I don't consider it to be something I should not have been doing."

(A more objectivistic secular ethicist wouldn’t go this route, I think, but would recognize instead that the violation of coherently fulfilling interpersonal relationships would be objectively evil in some sense--including when they themselves do it. I discussed this, including with important critiques, back in Chapter 36.)

On the other hand, the person who thinks ethics are our irrational responses to our environments (natural, social, whatever), will say that our understanding of what is 'evil' is merely an irrational response that we happen to be suffering at the moment--qualitatively similar to having a headache. Such a person may find herself saying, "What I have done is evil"; but (if she sticks to her theory) she will probably eventually tell herself, "All that happened was that I reacted to the herd instinct, or to the parental instinct, or something of that sort." She will probably figure that if she can get a good night's rest, the feeling (being only a 'feeling') that she has done something wrong will go away by morning; and if not, then she may need to see a doctor.

But the person who thinks there is an objectively real and truly ethical standard that we may possibly willfully violate--for example, we Jews, Christians and Muslims (and that special sub-class of secular ethicists, too, to be fair)--shall in theory, and even sometimes in practice, say to ourselves:

"What I have done is evil. There may be excuses for other things I have done, but there is no sufficient excuse for this. I willfully chose to do something I should not have done, and I knew at the time I should not have done it."

This person--a person like myself--may easily agree that there are times when one of the other two explanations for 'ethical' feelings or 'ethical' behaviors do in fact apply. But we also maintain--and at bottom the proponents of the other two theories will also maintain--that those sorts of behaviors were not in fact good or evil.

Except: we ethical objectivists are likely to decide that there is never any such event that falls into the category of 'active ethical subjectivism'--the mere choice to define what is good and evil according to our whim.

We might agree that if such behaviors were possible, then those behaviors (still) would not be good or evil at bottom. But typically what we will infer, and say, about such willful ethical finagling, is likely to be this:

"I did try to set myself up as the final authority for what really is good and really is evil, despite what I knew deep down to be true--and that is precisely where, and how, and why I did the evil thing."

In previous chapters, I have deduced that even though there may very well be 'ethical' situations which (merely) seem to be 'ethical' but are explained by one of the two subjectivistic theories; an objective ethical standard does nevertheless exist--and the standard is God's own behavior toward His own transPersonal self-grounding Self from all eternity.

God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in unity of deity) does not act against His own active self-existence--otherwise all reality would cease to exist, including you and me. Therefore He must also prefer for us not to do--not even to intend to do--that sort of thing to each other and/or to Him: to act in violation and non-fulfillment of interpersonal relationships. If, or when, we do so, we are acting against the grounding principle, even the grounding action, of all reality, including our own derivative sentience.

But when God created free-willed derivative creatures--such as I must presume myself to be, or else I cannot legitimately claim any argument or even mere assertion of mine to be reliably worth anything--then He willingly set up a situation where it remains possible for these creatures to actually choose to do what He always shall always refuse to do.

The existence of creatures who are not-God and who are not mere sock-puppets for God, entails the necessary possibility that to a limited extent, these creatures might thwart God's intentions.

I say 'to a limited extent': it was God's wish for them to exist and to have this potential capability. Their--our, my--misuse of that capability does not ultimately defy the power of God. My misuse defies a subordinate wish on His part, His wish being subordinate to the fulfillment of the greater intention on His part: that you and I shall exist as free-willed creatures who are not merely Him.

God set up a special situation, where a limited set of His wishes was within our power, by God’s own grace, to grant or deny.

That was the honor and dignity God granted to us: He put us in the position where we had some power to complete or deny His wish that He might have true sons and daughters.

I, for one, have denied that wish.

I have, at times, acted in ways which I knew then--and still know now--to be wrong.

I didn't want it to be 'wrong'. I wanted it to be 'right'--without wanting the character of my action to be changed.

I wanted to be the one who ultimately defined what was true and what was good.

That may not have been the exact 'form' of what I was telling myself when I resolved intentively to do those things. But that is what it boils down to, at bottom.

I wanted not only to be God, but to be over against God.

And, in a way, I got my wish.

God has made it possible for me to do just that.

Not to the degree that I wanted, perhaps; but He made it possible for me to act toward myself, toward other created people (such as you), and toward Himself, with intentions God never chooses to have toward me, toward other created people (such as you), or within the unity of His own transPersonal Self.

The way God treats me is based on the principles of the way He (as the substantial unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit) treats Himself. His application of those principles, toward and in regard to me, must be somewhat different because I am not one of the Persons of God's Unity; but the principles themselves must still be the same, for God will be self-consistent. It is not intrinsically necessary for Him to do 'good' to me; but He (and everything else) would utterly die if He did choose to do 'evil' to me. Because He grounds all reality, and because I am still here, then I can be certain He never has nor never shall behave that way.

But: what happens to me, if I behave that way!?

What happens if, unlike God, I do decide to be false to my own best perception of what is true; or if I do decide to put my own desires first at the expense of giving love and justice to you? What happens if I willingly break the derivative unity that binds you and I together as people, and that binds God and myself together as people--the unities which are shadows of the self-existent Unity of God-to-God that grounds all reality?

If God shall die if ever He chooses to do this--then what shall happen to me?

If I choose to breach my relationship with God; if I choose to turn my face from Him; if I attempt, insofar as I can, to cut myself off from the ultimate source of my life and power--then what shall happen to me?

Then, I shall die.

It is logically necessary, as a function of the relation of things, that I shall die.

It is ethically necessary, insofar as I have breached the principles of the Personal relationship that grounds the Life of God and of all other lives, that I shall die.

Look at me, you who are my reader. See me: the sinner.

Do you understand, now, the extent of what it means for me to sin? Do you not agree that I should and shall die for what I have done?

Well--I understand, at least.

And the 'size' of my sin does not matter.

Whether I even completed the action I hoped to undertake--but perhaps was thwarted in achieving (by God's good grace!)--does not matter.

I have violated the principles of interpersonal relationships: the principles which root and are rooted in eternity, by the God Who begets Himself in self-existence, and Whose action of self-begetting serves as the preliminary necessary causal ground for all other actions of God, including the creation of you and me, who are derivative creatures with our own interpersonal relationships--and what sort of relationships should those be, but mirrors in their own derivative degree of the love and justice which ground all of reality?

I will not say here that this-or-that particular expression of the relationship--this code or that law--is less or more accurate than others. I am certain there are less and more accurate ones; and I think I know which one is most accurate, although I am willing to allow plenty of credit to others.

But establishing such a comparison, is not presently (nor really ever be) my goal. You yourself know some part of The Law; God would not leave you without at least the internal (and eternal) witness: you should choose to reject contradictions and actively work to foster interpersonal relationships of love and justice.

But only you--and God--can answer the question: Have you always done this?
Or have you even once willingly chosen to disregard the light you think you have?
I know what the answer is, in my own case.

And so I will proceed; hoping that if your honest answer to yourself is qualitatively like mine, you will find the remainder of this book to be of more than merely intellectual interest.

[Next up: regarding the argument from evil]


Jason Pratt said…
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