But Is It Valuable? A Response to Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins apologized (sort of) for his tweets concerning his recommendation to abort a fetus with Trisomy 21, or Down Syndrome. In response to someone who would be unsure what to do if she were carrying a fetus with Down Syndrome, Dawkins said, “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” Needless to say a firestorm erupted. Some objected that such an action fundamentally disrespects the humanity of the people with Down Syndrome. Dawkins initially replied with another tweet referencing Jeremy Bentham’s famous contention, “The question is not ‘is it human?’ but ‘can it SUFFER?’” Then others claimed that fetus’ can feel pain (at 20 weeks) to which he replied that if that matters, we should all be vegans. People didn’t understand what he meant, so an apology was written for not expressing himself very clearly.

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A Non-Religious Argument Against the Use of Pornography

A non-religious argument against the use of pornography begins with the observation that it often does not make the user happy. These sorts of users do not believe that they would want to look at it again if they had the time and opportunity. While they may acknowledge that viewing it leads to powerful sensations of physical pleasure (which explains its draw), their experience is that it does not produce a lasting feeling satisfaction or the belief that they are living well. Quite the opposite, actually, it makes them feel sad, lonely, and pathetic. At any rate, that it undermines their happiness renders their act of viewing pornography as one that is not choiceworthy. There is no good reason to do it; it detracts from living a happy life.

By ‘happy life’ or ‘happiness’ in general I mean the ultimate end of human action; like Aristotle, I envisage it as a state of affairs more than a feeling, though it does involve good feelings. I admit, I haven’t give a robust definition of happiness or the constituents of human flourishing, but note that it goes beyond merely experiencing physical pleasure. We might also think that happiness involves virtuous activity and good relationships with others since the act of viewing pornography produces sadness and loneliness. With these preliminary thoughts in mind, the argument against viewing pornography goes like this:

  1. If an action militates against happiness, it is not choiceworthy.
  2. Viewing pornography militates against happiness.
  3. Therefore, viewing pornography is not choiceworthy.
  4. If an action is not choiceworthy, then choosing to perform that action is not wise.
  5. Therefore, viewing pornography is not wise.

As stated, this is not necessarily a moral argument; it can easily be read as merely a prudential argument about what is rational to do. But I think it is a bit more than that, because living wisely is part of living morally and prudentially. In any event, the conclusion that viewing pornography is not choiceworthy is a good enough reason not to do it.  

The obvious objection to this argument is that viewing pornography should not undermine one’s happiness whether ‘happiness’ is construed in terms of one’s subjective feelings or one’s objective states of affairs. I’ll pass over this for now except to say that the burden of proof is on the objector to tell people how they should feel and what a life well-lived truly involves.

Eichmann in Jerusalem

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of EvilEichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hannah Arendt’s controversial report on the trial of Adolph Eichmann is one that refuses to view the event in black and white terms meaning that Eichmann is to be seen as a diabolical villain and the Israeli court as a righteous executor of justice. Although she judges Eichmann to be evil, it is through a moral vision that only sees shades of gray. It is easy to see why so many were (and still are) upset with her writing. Nonetheless, I found myself resonating with the following quotes:

“Eichmann, asked by the police examiner if the directive to avoid “unnecessary hardships” was not a bit ironic, in view of the fact that the destination of these people was certain death anyhow, did not even understand the question, so firmly was it still anchored in his mind that the unforgivable sin was not to kill people but to cause unnecessary pain.” (p. 109).

“Let us assume for the sake of argument, that it was nothing more than misfortune that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you have carried out, and therefore actively supported, a policy of mass murder. For politics is not like the nursery; in politic obedience and support are the same. And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations–as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world–we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.” (p. 279)

“Eichmann was not Iago or Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III “to prove the villain.” Except for extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was not criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he has doing. […] It was sheer thoughtlessness–something by no means identical with stupidity–that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is “banal” and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling commonplace.” (p, 287, 289)

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Rejoinder to Welty

 

Greg Welty did me the favor of taking time to respond to my post in which I criticized his objection to Plantinga’s free will defense (FWD). He did a fine job too, and I learned a lot from him (maybe not enough), but some worries remain. First, a summary of his view, and then my response to it.

Assuming that wills go with natures (that is, dyotheletism is true), and that the Son of God took on a human nature in his incarnation, it follows that the human nature Christ took on in the actual world had a created will that was not corrupted by sin. As far creaturely essences go Christ’s nature satisfies Plantinga’s analysis: Jesus’s human essence is identical with the set of properties essential to anyone who takes on that particular created human nature. He writes, “There are world-indexed propositions about the human-willed choices made by any person who has that created human nature, and the set of these just is the essence.” Thus, it follows that there is a creaturely essence that is instantiated by the uncreated person of Christ that is not subject to transworld depravity; therefore, Plantinga’s FWD fails. The defense given by Omelianchuk [sans the c - yes my name is crazy, and yes I hate referring to myself in third person] works only if wills go with persons, which would be to affirm monotheletism. The upshot is that I, along with Plantinga, face a dilemma: either give up the FWD or conflict with orthodoxy.

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On Welty’s Objection to the Free Will Defense

With respect to the logical problem of evil, Greg Welty argues that Alvin Plantinga’s ‘Free Will defense’ fails. This is because, according to Welty, Plantinga fails to take into account a distinctly Christian belief: Jesus had free will and did not suffer from transworld depravity: it was not possible for Jesus to go wrong with respect to some morally significant action at some time. Since Plantinga’s defense depends on the truth of transworld depravity, and Jesus is a counterexample to it, Plantinga’s defense fails.

Is there a way out for Plantinga? I think there is if it is wrong to assume that Jesus is a member of the set of people that exemplify the property “being created by God.” My thesis is that Jesus does not have a creaturely essence, because if he did, he would not be identical with the Son of God. Surprisingly, then, this core Christian belief exonerates Plantinga from Welty’s charge. To see why, I shall begin by outlining the broad contours of Plantinga’s free will defense; then I shall rehearse Welty’s argument against it; finally, I shall give my rebuttal to Welty’s argument.

Plantinga’s thesis is that the deductive argument for evil fails. The goal of the free will defense (FWD) is to give an account of how the following conjunction (G&E) can be consistent: God is both omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good, and yet evil exists. Wouldn’t a good agent eliminate evil as far as it can? And wouldn’t an omnipotent agent be able to do so, completely? If the answer is ‘yes’ to both of these questions, then the existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of God. But according to Plantinga, there is nothing explicitly or formally contradictory stated in G&E; what is needed is a premise that shows that G&E is implicitly contradictory. One that might do the trick is that God could have made us to act freely and always go right with respect to some morally significant action. Plantinga demurs. God can create free creatures only if God cannot causally determine what they do; and if God cannot causally determine what they do, then he cannot guarantee they will always go right. If he cannot guarantee they will always go right, it is possible that for every morally free person P God could create, if P were created, then P would go wrong with respect to some morally significant action at some time (that is, transworld depravity is possible). The upshot is that it is not within God’s power to create any world that is, in principle, logically possible–only those worlds that are feasible.

Welty directs his attack upon the possibility of transworld depravity. To be sure, he thinks Plantinga’s argument goes through if both [1] and [2] are true.

[1] God is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good.

[2] Every creaturely essence suffers from transworld depravity

But, he says, there is nothing to keep one from revising [1] to say:

[1*] God is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good, and Jesus was a sinless human being.

Since no Christian would want to disagree with [1*], Plantinga’s free will defense is not viable for Christians, because as Welty claims, [1*] is incompatible with [2]. Presumably, Jesus is a member of the class of creaturely essences, and is such that he does not suffer from transworld depravity.

But is he? Is the essence of Jesus a creaturely essence?  By “creaturely essence” Plantinga refers to essences that include the property of being created by God (God, Freedom, and Evil, p. 53). The Christian has a good reason for questioning this assumption, because according to Christian belief Jesus is identical with the Son of God, and he is identical with the Son only if every property the Son has is one that Jesus has, and vice versa. One of the properties the Son essentially has is being uncreated. Therefore, Jesus is uncreated, and if he is uncreated, he is not a creaturely essence.

No doubt this is a surprising conclusion, and one we might be skeptical of, but following the work of Tom Morris, it is defensible. In his work The Logic of God Incarnate, Morris distinguishes between the properties that are essential and accidental to human nature, the former being such that a human must have them in order to be human, and the latter are such that they are not essential. Likewise, he distinguishes between properties that are essential and common to human beings. Morris argues that properties like “being created” are common, but not essential to human beings; therefore, human beings need not be created in order to be human. If that were not the case, then Jesus could not be the Son of God. And since it is a core Christian doctrine that Jesus is the Son of God, which is taken to be true by both Welty and Plantinga, it follows that the property of being created by God is not essential to being human. If that is right, then Plantinga’s solution to the logical problem of evil survives survives Welty’s objection.

Update: Greg Welty responds. It’s good too.

Rethinking Hell: A Review

Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical ConditionalismShould Christians “re-think” the doctrine of hell? The editors of a new volume entitled Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism certainly think so. (At the outset, I should disclose I personally know two the editors: Greg Stump was my pastor at the church I attended in California, and Josh Anderson was a friend and fellow student at Talbot School of Theology). Theirs is a compendium of articles written over the last hundred years or so that claim three things: (1) the human soul is not naturally immortal, (2) the duration of punishment suffered by the wicked is finite, and (3) the effect of the final punishment on the wicked is the cessation of their existence. The authors of these articles, hailing from vastly different neighborhoods of evangelicalism and the broader Christian world, argue for each of these claims via biblical exegesis, historical survey, theological consideration, and philosophic argument. That these three claims–that go by the names “annihilationism,” “conditionalism,” or “conditional immortality”–could garner support from such a diverse cross-section of believers merits serious attention (I will refer to this view as “conditionalism” hereafter).*

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What I Don’t Like About the Hobby Lobby Case

By now you have heard the SCOTUS ruling regarding Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, that compelling employers to pay for certain forms of contraception is burdensome to their religious liberty. When outlining these burdens, Justice Alito said, “It [the HHS mandate] requires the Hahns and Greens to engage in conduct that seriously violates their sincere religious belief that life begins at conception.” The problem I’ve had all along with this case is that I fail to see how life beginning at conception is a “religious belief.” What makes it religious? Nothing as far as I can tell. No biblical text, or major creed, or longstanding sacred practice claims as much (the Bible recognizes that we exist before birth, but it does not say we exist at conception). You don’t even find this sort of thing in “statements of faith” save the Catholic Catechism, and the plaintiffs were not Catholic. If anything, whether or not life begins at conception is empirically determined. Why, then, is it counted as a religious belief?

Of course, there is more to it than just the beginning of human existence. For the plaintiffs, the belief that human life begins at conception implies that human life has moral status and should not be killed unless there is a good reason for doing so. Thus, we have a conjunction of beliefs at issue in this case: (1) human life begins at conception, and (2) human life has moral status. But the second one is no more religious than the first: one can reasonably hold it without being religious. There is even a third implied belief: killing early-stage human beings by virtue of birth control that is possibly abortifacient isn’t justifiable. Religious teaching may be the most relevant here, but like the other three beliefs, it need not be.

The Hobbly Lobby case is seen as a victory for religious liberty, and it surely is. But I doubt that it is a victory for the pro-life movement, because its key premises are judged merely to be “sincerely held religious beliefs,” which in the eyes of law at least, are beliefs that cannot be rationally supported. If they could, then we wouldn’t need to appeal to religion to prop them up.