Monday, August 4, 2008

Sharp cutoffs in the moral life

Ted Sider apparently has an argument (I reporting second-hand) that there is a continuum in the degree of sinfulness, but there is no continuum in the heaven-hell welfare spectrum, since there is a sharp jump in welfare as one moves from an eternity of suffering to an eternity of joy. Therefore, he concludes, divine judgment cannot be just if the outcomes are heaven or hell.

Now one way to answer this is to say that there really are sharp cutoffs in the moral life, such as that between those in a state of mortal sin and those not in a state of mortal sin. The cutoffs would not be defined by some kind of a moral arithmetic[note 1], but by a qualitative fact about the state of the person's will. Thus, Aquinas defines the state of mortal sin in terms of the lack of charity. Now, charity is a fairly sharply defined state of friendship with God (which state is always the fruit of grace). The mortal sinner lacks charity entirely, though the charity will be restored in repentance and forgiveness. Now, there might be a continuum in the degree of charity, say from zero to a hundred, but the difference between zero charity and even the tiniest bit of charity is deeply significant. Even a tiny bit of charity makes one fit for eternity with God (but the more charity there is, the more blissful that eternity will be). But a complete lack of charity makes one fit for damnation.

Is it plausible that there should be such sharp cutoffs in the moral life? Well, what led me to this reflection was watching the excellent 1953 film Pickup on South Street. The central character, Candy (Jean Peters), is a woman who has lived somewhat on the wrong side of the law, and is now trying to leave that life behind, but has one last task of greyish legality. However, she finds that she is enmeshed in a situation of Soviet espionage. And then it becomes clear that she sees a yawning gulf between mere crime and treason, and she assumes, perhaps wrongly, that other people living on the wrong side of the law see it this way, too. It is one thing, in her mind to be a pickpocket (though she is not one herself), and quite a different to work for the Reds. The film makes it plausible that there is indeed a sharp cutoff between other crimes and treason. It's almost as if treason were an allegory for mortal sin. See the film—it is really good. (If you have Netflix, it's available from their Watch Instantly section—that's how I watched it.)


Mike Almeida said...

Actually, Sider does not argue that moral agents must go determinately to heaven or determinately to hell. He just develops an interesting argument on the assumption that this is true (along with non-universalism and degrees of goodness). So you could take his argument as showing that some agents are indetermnately in heaven, or on the verge of heaven, etc.
Anyway, I think his argument is unsuccessful, even granting his assumptions. It might be that the unsaveable are just those that are definitely irredeemably evil. It could be that God saves all those agents that are not definitely irredeemably evil. So if you are on some border of irredeemable evil, but not definitely so, then God can and does save you. There will be some agents that are indefinitely definitely irredeemably evil. These will be saved, since they are on the borderline of irredeemable evil. And there will be some agents that are not much worse, but are nonetheless definitely, definitely irredeemably evil. They are beyond redemption. In any case, I give such an argument in 'On Vague Eschatology' coming up in Faith and Philosophy.

Brandon said...

I discussed the paper on my blog a few years back; looking back, I think my response was less sophisticated than the argument really deserves. One of my problems with the argument, though, was that it seems to play a little loose with the notion of a difference that's morally relevant to a just response; Mike's use of (un)redeemability makes me think I was at least on the right track.

Heath White said...

Formally, any solution would seem to have to follow a three-step schema.
1. Identify a non-vague property. The difference between “having no F” and “having some F” seems promising (where F is charity or redeemability, say).
2. Argue that this is the property on which salvation is based. So you have to meet various theological conditions of adequacy here.
3. Argue that the difference between lacking this property entirely, and having even a tiny bit of it, is significant enough such that basing salvation outcomes on this difference is not unjust, capricious, arbitrary, etc.

Alexander R Pruss said...

A variant on 3 is to argue that the property is such that basing salvation on it is non-arbitrary and that it is either not a property that comes in degrees, or if it comes in degrees, there is a lower bound on how little of the property it is possible to have (assuming one has some of it).

Something like a complete unwillingness to betray one's country, or one's God, may be like that. Moreover, if one thinks that charity is something that affects all of one's actions, then there may be no such thing as having "just a tiny bit of charity".

Brandon said...

I think Heath's heuristic is probably right for the problem as it is set up; but I think the argument trades in part on the fact that it assumes one and only one principle (a particular account of proportional justice), rather than, say, a hierarchy of values to be fulfilled, will constitute the criterion of decision. This is not really a very plausible assumption, since it amounts to assuming that hell or heaven could be given for one and only one reason, with that reason not conditional on anything else -- that is, that there is one absolute standard that leaves borderline cases, and not an ordered set of standards that weed out vagueness according to different filters, and that this standard requires exact proportionality, with no room for any rational admission of exceptions. This is a pretty hefty assumption to make, and I'm not convinced any version of the argument could be made to survive eliminating it. But if we stick within the framework of the argument itself and argue on its terms, then I think Heath is more or less right about the structure of possible solutions.

Mike Almeida said...

There are lots of criteria that would serve here. Suppose all you need to do is accept God as your savior. And suppose God is sufficiently generous that he takes as an acceptance all cases where an individual does not definitely reject him as savior. So, you're asked: Do you accept God as savior? You can answer in a clear way, Yes or No, or you can indefinitely say 'Yes' or indefinitely say 'No'. Now suppose you know this--since knowing how to get into heaven is perfectly consistent with Sider's discussion; his conclusion is not based on any epistemological worries. You know that all you need to do is to not definitely say, "No". Then (leaving aside temptations to say no, psychological disorders that would have you say no, or some failure to appreciate the consequences of saying no--none of which are part of Sider's argument) then it does not seem unjust that those who indefinitely say 'no' are treated differently from those that definitely say no.

Alexander R Pruss said...

In general, it doesn't seem unjust if God simply is always willing to "err" on the side of mercy.

Mike Almeida said...


I think I agree, but there is a tension in Sider's discussion I didn't see clearly until recently. The assumption that universalism is false has a moral justification. Universalism would involve treating wildly unequal agents in ways that are equal. But this entails that God cannot save everyone (given the fact that there are some extremely bad people). So the best God can do by way of salvation has some limit or other: there is some point in the degrees of moral evil E such that God cannot save anyone that whose moral state is E. If he cannot, then there's no worry that he does not. So, his mercy can be very extensive, but at some point you are just beyond redemption: there is literally nothing God can do to help you once you have arrived at that point.
Now suppose we deny that there is any such point. In that case, God can save everyone. But then there cannot be any problem with the justice of universalism. Either way, the problem is solved.