Monday, September 18, 2017

Two ways of being vicious

Many of the times when Hitler made a wrong decision, his character thereby deteriorated and he became more vicious. Let’s imagine that Hitler was a decent young man at age 19. Now imagine Schmitler, who lived a life externally just like Hitler’s, but on Twin Earth. Until age 19, Schmitler’s life was just like Hitler. But from then on, each time Schmitler made a wrong choice, aliens or angels or God intervened and made sure that the moral deterioration that normally follows upon wrong action never occurred. As it happens, however, Schmitler still made the same choices Hitler did, and made them with freedom and clear understanding of their wickedness.

Thus, presumably unlike Hitler, Schmitler did not morally fall, one wrong action at a time, to the point of a genocidal character. Instead, he committed a series of wrong actions, culminating in genocide, but each action was committed from the same base level of virtue and vice, the same level that both he and Hitler had at age 19. This is improbable, but in a large enough universe all sorts of improbable things will happen.

So, now, here is the oddity. Since Schmitler’s level of virtue and vice at the depth of his moral depradations was the same as at age 19, and at age 19 both he and Hitler were decent young men (or so I assume), it seems we cannot say that Schmitler was a vicious man even while he was committing genocidal atrocities. And yet Schmitler was fully responsible for these atrocities, perhaps more so than Hitler.

I want to say that Schmitler is spectacularly vicious without having much in the way of vices, indeed while having more virtue than vice (he was, I assume, a decent young man), even though that sounds like a contradiction. Schmitler is spectacularly vicious because of what he has done.

This doesn’t sound right, though. Actions are episodic. Being vicious is a state. Hitler was a vicious man while innocently walking his dog on a nice spring day in 1944, even when not doing any wrongs. And we can explain why Hitler was vicious then: he had a character with very nasty vices, even while he was not exercising the vices. But how can we say that Schmitler was vicious then?

Here’s my best answer. Even on that seemingly innocent walk, Schmitler and Hitler were both failing to repent of their evil deeds, failing to set out on the road of reconciliation with their victims. A continuing failure to repent is not something episodic, but something more like a state.

If this is right, then there are two ways of being vicious: by having vices and by being an unrepentant evildoer.

(A difficult question Robert Garcia once asked me is relevant, though: What should we say about people who have done bad things but suffered amnesia?)

1 comment:

Sean Killackey said...

Concerning the last question you raised, I'm reminded of Psalm 19:12,13:

"Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults. Also keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins; Let them not rule over me; Then I will be blameless, And I shall be acquitted of great transgression." (I'm understanding "hidden" to mean unknown, perhaps forgotten, to even the psalmist, not just from other humans.)

The amnesia might be a kind of 'actual grace' that frees the mind to repent when it otherwise wouldn't. In a way it resets his will. Though, I have no clue as to how amnesia changes a persons developed behavioral dispositions; I'm not Catholic, so I'm not sure how strained that comparison is.)

If the person, after suffering amnesia, recognizes the Good as the Good, he would probably do so even if he was remembered the evil that he did and how he felt about his deeds, and what his desires were. So this counts as repentance, and so God could easily forgive him.

But what about the reverse, where a righteous man suffers amnesia, and later comes to be an atheist, a sexually immoral man, an unrepentant fellow. (Say for the last five years of his life.) Would we say that he wasn't really able to 'lock onto' this lesser or false goods as what he thought the Good to be, and thus would still be saved; because, say, when he recalled his past memories - what virtues he had, things he did, and why he thought them good, he will then accept the Good as the Good? I think that makes sense.

(Would it change if he lived for 45 years after having amnesia? What if, had he not had amnesia he would have remained or become more virtuous? But then again there are plenty of things about which we could say 'were it not for that, I'd be worse or better as a person' - yet we're still praise- or blameworthy for the kind of person we in fact are.)

What about this guy: ('the guy with the 30 second memory') I guess that he'd be judged by the state of his will before the accident. It doesn't seem radically different from those who die at young ages - 20 or 30, say. Just as we should always be ready to die, and thus be right with God, we should always be ready to suffer some injury that prevents repentance from grave sins.

Now, what if there was a surgery where you could forget your past that increased the chance of your becoming a virtuous person by 85% - would it be morally permissible to have the procedure?

Of course, you can play with these ideas forever - what if a man intentionally forgets getting married, so that he can 'marry' someone else and be subjectively innocent of adultery (or so he reasons). Could he repent of the sin of adultery that he intentionally made himself ignorant of? If not, could he be saved? (If no, that answer isn't implausible to me, anymore than someone who intentionally does drugs knowing that they might never get out of that life.) If yes, could we say that if he, though tempted with 'unfaithfulness' to his new "wife" refused to commit adultery now rejects the sin of adultery of which he is now unknowingly guilty? Maybe. I'm not God, so I don't know.