Ethics and the Third Person -- the fall of me

[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, Chapter 43, can be found here.]

[This entry begins Chapter 44, "The Fall".]

In my previous chapter, I probably sounded as if I was waxing rhapsodic about death, and how great it was, and how much I need it.

In a way, I was doing precisely that. But I agree it seems specious for me to sit here in my comfortable chair, sniffling over whatever puny sins I have committed in my life and trying to resolve myself to Face Death Like A Man; when all across our planet tonight vicious rapes and murders and grotesque physical and psychological violations are being performed by human fiends upon people whom I cannot possibly have definite grounds for saying 'the victims deserved that'.

No, I refuse to argue that each and every victim of atrocity is receiving the just deserts of their own sins. There is no way I can possibly know that, and I staunchly insist that it certainly doesn't look that way to me--as it doesn't to most sceptics (as well as to most believers).

Then again, agnosticism on a topic tends to cut both ways: if I cannot possibly know that every victim is (thereby) getting what he or she deserves, then I also cannot possibly know that they aren’t (thereby) getting it, either. That may not be a very palatable thought, especially to a charitable heart (such as I presume honest and righteous sceptics have); but that is the way the logical math goes--at least, from this direction.

This is why I started with the one person I have any real chance of deriving the most accurate information about: me.

I know I do things I think are wrong. I know (especially after factoring in the arguments I have been developing throughout this book, concerning the existence of God and the properties of His relationship to me) that I deserve at least some of the sufferings which happen to me--not only as part of the self-consistent chain of cause and effect, but ethically speaking as well.

But: am I inflicted with sufferings I do not deserve?

It seems to me that this happens to me; and I think I can safely presume that you, my reader, also have had sufferings that you think you do not deserve. I don't mean sufferings for which you or I merely cannot happen to see why we would deserve them--within such a vacuum of understanding, such sufferings might (after all) also be something we deserved and perhaps even were sent to help us.

No, those inscrutable sufferings are not what I mean, although those are still important and worth considering in themselves.

I mean that I (and I expect you) have had sufferings happen which, as far as we can tell, we should not have had to suffer. We are not only doers of injustice, we are also victims of injustice. And not only are we victims of injustice, we are beset by intense sufferings driving us to react impersonally.

In my own case, the sufferings were not that great--not in retrospect, although emotionally they were intense at the time--but that does not change the fact that as far as I can tell I was truly a victim of the sufferings, and was not receiving them as part of a punitive and/or purgative process related to particular sins of my own. (I do think I have also received, and am still receiving, some intense sufferings that serve a purgative purpose. I expect to receive more, too.)

I am presuming that at least some of my sceptical readers shall have had experiences of the same sort, and have drawn the same inferences about them: you did not deserve what happened to you as part of some punishment or purgation related to a sin of your own. Beliefs such as this (which I remind you I share) can legitimately be severe emotional, and even logical, stumbling blocks toward accepting certain types of theism.
Nevertheless, another piece of information should also be accounted for, when discussing the problem.

I might think sufferings happen to me, which I did not particularly deserve in relation to some sin of mine.

But I know that I have inflicted troubles on people, which as far as I can tell they did not deserve!

They may or may not have 'deserved' the troubles after all--I don't know that; but I do know that I was inflicting those troubles either in total disregard for whether the people might deserve it, or after essentially deciding that I was going to do it even if they didn't deserve it--because I wanted to!

Once again: however terrible the problem of suffering (and evil) is, I find that when I take my own actions into account the problem becomes, not less terrible (I think it becomes even more terrible!), but far more coherent, explicable and understandable in principle.

The question "Why do people suffer things they apparently don't deserve?" is not only difficult to answer, but any attempt to answer it can look as though the scholar is some sort of monster who advocates needless suffering.

But when I ask the same question from the perspective of myself, matters begin to smooth out:

"Why am I allowed to be some sort of monster who on occasion can and does instigate suffering which as far as I know is undeserved?"

I think I can say that the sufferings I unjustly instigate are (and so far have been) relatively small: but the fact of the unjust suffering I instigate, is the important point in principle; just as the fact that my own (apparently) undeserved sufferings are really quite minor, makes no difference to the problem in principle.

I do not know what you, my reader, think of your own actions. Perhaps you think that every single action you have ever taken concerning other people, or even concerning yourself, has been completely justified--not merely by your own flat wish that they be justified, but justified objectively.

But if you can think of even one action you have taken, that you not only didn't know whether it was justified but you didn't care whether it was justified, and you also know that the receiver of the action suffered because of your action--then you are in the same boat with me.

I have a ground for thinking that virtually all humans are in the same boat with me here; but it is not a ground I have 'grounded' yet, so to speak, and I may never be able to ground it sufficiently for you, so I do not apply to it. If you recognize that you are in the same condition I am, then perhaps you can follow along more closely; but if you do not, then I think it is still technically possible for you to understand why I am drawing the conclusions I will draw.

I am not basing my conclusions primarily on whether you or some other person actually must be instigating undeserved suffering. I don't have to talk about the sins of other people, to make this point. I know suffering exists which is to some extent undeserved--and that is the only fact necessary in principle for my argument to continue--because I know that I contribute to it myself. I am guilty of not basing all my own actions upon the constant resolution that I will never induce undeserved suffering.

Notice, by the way, that it doesn't even matter whether you and I agree over definitions of what sorts of suffering are or are not 'undeserved'. I admit, as shameful as it is, that I am occasionally willing to induce suffering, even if only very minor suffering, that I think is undeserved. This sort of admission of intent establishes the principles adequately.

Also, I will point out that if I constantly resolved to treat all actions I take as automatically justified, that would most certainly not solve the problem. It would perhaps fit into a reality where the only 'ethics' are intentionally invented in an individually subjectivistic manner; but I have already deduced that objective ethics exist which are independent of derivative reality--and my own wishes would count at best as part of that derivative reality.

This being the case, even though I could resolve to insist that whatever I choose to do is automatically justified by my mere intention of doing it, such an intention on my part would eventually entail resolving to set myself over against the objective standard of final reality--an usurpation which is not only impossible to ultimately succeed at (I cannot ever be the final standard for what is ethically right and wrong) but which in and of itself is just the type of action on my part I have been calling 'sin'.

I have deduced in previous chapters that I can possibly be, and actually am, a person who sins. Even if I disregarded that I am a rationally active person, and that God is a rationally active Person, then I could still account for the severity of this breach by describing it as a fundamental inefficiency on my part in relation to basic reality.

If I partially factor back in my sentience, the situation becomes even worse: I am intentionally acting in such a way that I am inefficient in relation to basic reality.

If I factor God's own rational sentience back into the situation, then I am describing a treachery which, in its own minor(!) derivative fashion, mirrors the cataclysmic results that would follow from the breaking of the divine Unity.

Now--would it, in any cogent sense, be love or justice to me (much more for any other people who have to put up with me!) for God to have created me in this condition originally?

Well, what is my condition?

I can willfully choose to sin. It makes sense for this capability to exist in me originally (or at least originally in concurrence with the development of my cognitive faculties), because the risk is a necessary corollary of my free will. If God creates a derivatively active entity, such as myself, it always remains technically possible that I could choose to personally transgress against the personal standard of basic reality, thus bringing upon myself the consequences of my actions--consequences which would reach deep into my relationship with basic reality, including my person-to-Person relationship with God. And if my relationship with basic reality becomes dissonant (it cannot ever become separate, for there is nowhere 'outside God' for me to successfully reach), then I shall obviously suffer something sooner or later.

To put it bluntly (and mechanically, in a reductive metaphor), this was not how I was designed to most efficiently behave.

It is therefore justice to me, if negatively so--it is another way of saying that some types of consequences necessarily follow from some types of events--that I should suffer for my transgressions.

Would it be love to me for God to allow me to suffer for my willed faults?

I think it would be love to me.

If I did not suffer from my willed faults in some fashion--even if the fashion was merely an ache of emotional conscience--then how could I possibly know I was doing something wrong?

In the Sam Raimi movie Darkman, the hero has lost the ability to feel pain, and is struggling to retain as much as he can of his humanity. At the end of a montage of frantic months-long research, he is so weary that his attention wanders while warming a test-tube over a bunsen burner. Without realizing it, his hand drifts over the burner, and he bursts into flame. But he doesn't feel it; he only realizes later that his hand is burning from the sound, and perhaps from the increase of light from that direction.

The scene is pitiful: the man, as a man, deserves to know he is burning his hand--so that he can do something about it!

In much the same way, I deserve to know that I am doing something ethically wrong; because without having some way to know it, I can never be in a position to responsibly do something about it.

Perhaps a mere warning 'of the conscience' would be sufficient?

I do not know about you, my reader, but I can testify that it is entirely possible for me to feel such a warning in my conscience--and then choose to smother it so I can get on with doing what I want to do! That smothering actively cuts off my relationship with even what little personal relationship to God trickles through that channel.

What should happen to me then?

If you think I should be given more direct, and harder-to-ignore warnings, then I quite agree with you--but is it merely your uncharitable barbarity that prompts you to wish this for me!?

Or is it, in your own degree, a perception on your part of what it would take to fulfill love and justice in me?

I, at least, in my moments when I am simultaneously rational and willing to take responsibility for my actions, say: such a result to me, such an increase of intensity of warnings, fulfills the principles of both love and justice to me.

So provisions must be built-in to me, so that it is not only possible for me to suffer to greater and greater degrees, but so that the suffering follows necessarily upon certain cause/effect sequences (be they natural, or supernatural, or any combination of the two).

But these things could be true in potential even if I have never done anything to 'realize' that terrible possibility. Would God originally create me, so that I was already in the state I would otherwise willingly choose to reach by wishing (in essence) 'to hell with reality'?

No, I think this would be contradictory to His own standard of interPersonal willed intention.

Yet, here I am: in that condition of existence.

I conclude, therefore, that somehow, in some way, I have 'fallen'--fallen out of the ideal state God would have acted to create me to be in, and into the condition I find myself in.

[Next up: the fall of man]


Jason Pratt said…
Extended footnote:

For what it is worth, the scriptures I consider to be authoritative affirm that sufferings do not always happen to people who specifically deserve those sufferings. The entire Book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures stands as testimony to the real tragedy of undeserved suffering. Job is quite correct: the story verifies from the first that he is not being punished in any fashion through the terrible events happening to him; and his three main friends are wrong, for they keep insisting that he is lying and there must be some secret sin he has committed which would provide ground for his sufferings being divine justice. At the same time, Job through his perseverance does become (apparently) a better person--so some good ultimately comes to him from his suffering.

Meanwhile, in the Christian New Testament, Jesus affirms that some calamities, such as people crushed by a falling tower at Siloam and a man born blind, were not judgments against the sins of those people.

However, I understand that my reader may not accept those scriptures as authoritative; I have not been using them to justify positions earlier in this book, and I won't start now--even to justify a position that I think most sceptics agree with: sufferings occur which people do not particularly deserve (no matter what good may come to those people, or others, later through the sufferings).

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