Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Infinite culpability

It's time to defend something like Anselm's idea of infinite culpability.  I once expressed a hope that I'd eventually do so, but couldn't think of good things to say.  Anselm's idea was that there was an infinity in our sins, because they were sins against an  infinite God.  Here, I just want to defend the real possibility that a human being is infinitely culpable.

Case 1. Mason justifiedly believes (correctly or not) that the universe contains infinitely many inhabited planets, each of them with rational beings as deserving of respect as humans are.  Mason works as a janitor at the Large Hadron Collider, and also justifiedly (but incorrectly) believes that if he loosens some bolts, the Collider will malfunction in such a way that it will destroy the universe with all its rational beings.  Mason wants destructive power--he wants to outdo Hitler and Stalin in their destructiveness--and so he loosens these bolts so as to kill infinitely many rational beings.  In so doing, he commits attempted murder of an infinite number of people.

Now, in most nearby possible worlds where Mason does this, he is likely so insane as not to be fully culpable for his action.  But it is within the bounds of real possibility (causal possibility consistent with the basic structure of the world and humanity as we know it) that Mason is not so insane as to fail to be culpable.

Case 2. Lara justifiedly believes (correctly or not--I think correctly) that there is a heaven and a hell, and that hell involves eternal suffering and heaven involves infinite eternal bliss.  She hates Samantha and tempts her into a serious sin, in order that Samantha would suffer forever in hell and lose the infinite joy of heaven.

For evaluation of Lara's culpability, it doesn't much matter whether her belief about hell is correct or whether she succeeds in destroying Samantha's soul.  Lara has acted so as to make Samantha lose an infinite good, and that is an infinite culpability.

Case 3. Alex justifiedly believes (correctly or not--I think correctly) that memories of moral goods had in this life contribute to the joy of heaven on infinite numbers of occasions, adding an infinite amount of joy.  He acts in a way that makes someone lose a moral good in this life.  According to his beliefs, he has acted in such a way as to have made someone lose an infinite number of goods.  Assuming he was sufficiently aware of this when acting, he is apt to have an infinite culpability.

What is helpful about Cases 2 and 3 is that the beliefs in them have some chance of being correct.

Question: Are there flip-sides of these cases that show that we can gain infinite merit?

Answer: This is not as obvious as it may seem.  For while it is twice as morally wicked to commit an act that kills two innocents, it is not twice as morally good to commit an act that saves two innocents.  If by giving a dollar I can save one life, and I do so, I have shown a small amount of virtue.  But if by giving a dollar I can save two lives, and I do so, I have not shown any more virtue, since I did something that was more strongly required and at no greater cost.  On the other hand, had I refrained from giving the dollar, in the two-life case I would have done something about twice as bad.  So one does not generate cases of infinite merit simply by supposing beliefs about infinite goods.

Nonetheless, one can manufacture cases of infinite merit by supposing beliefs about infinite sacrifice:

Case 4. Chuck justifiedly believes that (a) if he helps a slave escape, he will suffer infinite pain in hell; but (b) it is his moral duty to help the slave escape.   In that case, there is a kind of infinity to the merit of Chuck's helping the slave escape.  (There will, of course, be questions about ulterior motives.  If he does it to have a self-righteous feeling, there may not be such merit.  So this suggestion does not do away with the idea that one needs grace for infinite merit.)

(I don't know how close the case of Chuck is to the much-discussed case of Huck.)

1 comment:

Marc said...

Dr. Pruss:

Interesting thoughts. I especially liked the invocation of the Large Hadron Collider. Here are some worries regarding the thesis that a human being can be infinitely culpable.

As you noted, Anselm holds that sinning against an infinite God constitutes an infinite offense. So, if justice requires that a punishment be proportionate to the severity of the offense, and sinning against an infinite God constitutes an infinite offense, then justice requires infinite punishment. And I’m assuming you think that infinite culpability entails (or requires) infinite punishment.

The first worry concerns the claim that a sin acquires infinite offensiveness by virtue of being committed against an infinite God. How should we understand the manner in which God’s infinitude figures into estimating the severity of the offense? Perhaps sinning against an infinite God “only” requires a considerably serious and intensely painful punishment, which a finite sentence in hell could possibly achieve. Some traditionalists about hell appeal to the status principle to defend the thesis of infinite culpability, but it seems to me that such an appeal is plausibly unavailing.

The second worry concerns the issue of translating an offense against God’s qualitative infinitude into the punishment’s alleged quantitative infinitude. To my mind, it’s not obvious that sinning against God’s qualitative infinitude demands or necessarily translates into a quantitatively infinite punishment. And the notion of infinite qualitative punishment seems to present a conceptual difficulty.

The third worry doesn’t directly concern infinite culpability as such, but rather the kind of punishment which a human’s being infinitely culpable is held to require: infinite punishment (in hell). If infinite culpability requires a punishment consisting in (at least) an infinite temporal duration—an infinite punishment is, ex hypothesi, proportional to an infinite offense against God—then it appears that the demands of justice can’t possibly ever be served. It’s seemingly impossible for a person to endure through an infinite temporal duration. So if this is true, then infinite culpability can’t possibly be met with the requisite punishment. Perhaps the traditionalist will suggest that the demands of justice require only a punishment of everlasting or unending duration such that the sentence in hell is never terminated. While this appears to be a more promising suggestion, it involves the unfortunate consequence of reducing the punishment’s previous infinitude to finitude.

It may well be the case that these worries aren’t particularly worrisome. Maybe the considerations you discuss in your post at Prosblogion provide good countervailing resources to resist the above worries.