April 7, 2009

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Repenting For Fear of Hell

Paul Gowder is discussing a recent case in which a man by the name of Elwin Wilson who used to be a violent racist and KKK member has changed his ways and gone around apologizing to the people he harmed or otherwise offended. Paul wants to know how we ought to respond to Wilson's repentance, given that Wilson states that he changed his ways out of fear of hell. Brandon's comments on that post are insightful (he notes, among other things, that the article gives another reason for Wilson's repentance: Wilson evidently believes that there will be blacks in heaven). What I want to do here is to note a very simple entailment.

Wilson presumably believes:

(1) God always does what is right.

But he is also explicitly committed to:
(2) God sends unrepentant racists to hell.

However, (1) and (2) entail:
(3) It is right for God to send unrepentant racists to hell.

Now consider:
(3*) Unrepentant racists deserve to burn in hell.

Strictly speaking, none of (1)-(3) entail (3*), but one would have to have some odd moral beliefs to consistently affirm (3) and deny (3*).

It is probable, then, that Wilson would affirm something like (3*).

Now, I haven't been able to find anything in Paul's blog archive that would tell me whether he would accept (3*). (Note that the claim that certain people deserve hell needn't imply that hell actually exists.) However, a great many people (perhaps most of them) believe that nobody could possibly do so much bad as to deserve eternity in hell. (Incidentally, I seem to recall reading about a survey, which I am too lazy to go googling for now, which said that the majority of Americans believe that hell exists and Hitler will go there, but that no one they know personally - friends or enemies - is going to hell.) We can claim at least, then, that Wilson (probably) offers a stronger moral condemnation of racism than most atheists.

His beliefs in God and in the possibility of punishment in an afterlife do not, therefore, interfere with his moral condemnation of racism. Rather, as both Richard and Brandon pointed out in the comments to Paul's post, these beliefs are tools by which he expresses an extremely strong form of moral condemnation.

There is still the possibility that Wilson, although he understands the wrongness of racism, would not abandon it without the threat of punishment. However, I think this is unlikely: it is difficult for me to imagine a moral agent with any significant degree of rationality offering a self-condemnation this strong and still having no desire to change. (Of course, failing to change, or even despairing of one's ability to change, is a different matter.)

Posted by Kenny at April 7, 2009 10:21 PM
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This is a fascinating point. However, I think you underestimate the problem of recognizing really strong moral claims and yet being unmoved by them. After all, haven't there been, though history, many, many, unrepentant sinners who were genuine religious believers, and who would thus on your argument endorse some version of 3* for their sins? Think of all the corrupt priests through history. It is, I suppose, possible that many could have rationalized away their behavior and thus concluded that they were not hellbound. But it's equally possible and consistent with being "a moral agent with any significant degree of rationality" for them to have had a tragic sense of their own moral failure.

Also, to what extent is the sort of moral sentiment we really want here a belief? I might believe "it is right that racists should burn in hell for all eternity," but still fail to be gripped by the emotion, or the sense, of the wrongness of racism. A truly good person, we might think, is just revolted by racism, and a person who feels that kind of revulsion, even if she doesn't endorse 3*, has a better character than one who endorses 3* but doesn't recoil.

Posted by: Paul Gowder at April 7, 2009 11:25 PM

If this argument has a weakness, I think it would be (1). It's quite plausible that a believer might think that 'right' means "whatever God says, and if you disagree, you burn." And that's where I would have a problem. (1) would need to be replaced with "Right is what God wills it to be." In which case, we could say the guy was only doing what God wanted; not what was right. And if one is following God's orders without regard to what is right, then what other possible motive could there be besides a fear of hell?

Posted by: Aaron at April 7, 2009 11:32 PM

These are both important points.

Paul, I take it your point is that it is possible to have a moral belief without the associated moral sentiments. This, it seems to me, is possible mostly in those odd cases where theoretical belief comes apart from practical belief as when, e.g., a parent knows that his son is dead but can't bring himself to clean out the son's room, just in case the son returns. Theoretically, the parent knows the son will not return, but practically does not accept it. If this happened in a moral case, I could believe, theoretically, that an action was abhorrent in a very strong sense (deserving of hell-fire), but believe practically that the action isn't so bad, and so continue performing it. If this is what you mean, it seems plausible to me (and it may be common enough that it could be an explanation of Wilson's behavior). It doesn't, however, seem plausible to me that someone could really believe that an action is abhorrent (in a stronger sense of 'believe') without wanting to amend her behavior. (Again, I don't claim that she must necessarily succeed in amending her behavior.)

Aaron - I take it that your objection is that an individual might believe in a Hobbesian God. There is, of course, considerable debate about whether Hobbesian ethics (or more traditional divine command ethics) really counts as a theory of morality at all. I will concede, at least, that I am unsure as to whether an individual committed to a strong form of divine command theory (where morality consists of rules arbitrarily imposed by God) actually believes (1). However, I would say that as long as Wilson has a concept of right that we think really counts as a concept of right, then we should attribute (1) to him, and the argument should go through.

Posted by: Kenny at April 8, 2009 10:01 AM

It seems to me that you have an agenda here.
Atheists typically claim that most theists are
morally bankrupt, if they need to believe in a
reward/punishment system to justify their
morality. It seems that you are launching a counter attack.
What you are claiming is, in some
way or another, atheists are morally inadequate.
You are using a logical arguments as a means to
this end.

How can you claim that his belief in God does
not interfere with his moral condemnation of
racism? He explicitly states that the reason he
came to hold the view, which motivates his
condemnation, is out of fear of punishment. You
are doing nothing more than coming to the aid of
a fellow Christian, which is fine, but I would be
more comfortable if you were more explicit about
what you are doing.

Posted by: dmk at April 11, 2009 4:05 PM

DMK: Look, I'm a philosopher. What I do (professionally) is evaluate reasons for and against various beliefs and entailments from those beliefs. And this is what I am doing here. It so happens that the position (likely) held by Wilson entails a form of moral condemnation stronger than what most atheists are comfortable with. Now, atheism as such does not entail that Wilson's condemnation is too strong: there is no reason you can't believe that unrepentant racists deserve hell without believing that hell actually exists. Many people do, in fact, believe that the universe is simply unjust in ways such as these. Furthermore, I haven't argued that Wilson is right in condemning racism this strongly. For these two reasons this post can hardly be regarded as a "counter attack" against atheists, or as claiming that atheists are "morally inadequate."

Now, you seem to be accusing me of some sort of intellectual dishonesty, but the nature of the charge is not at all clear to me. The purpose of logical arguments is (usually) to support their conclusions, so the fact that I am using an argument to support a conclusion is certainly not evidence of intellectual dishonesty. Furthermore, this post does not conclude that Christianity is correct or that atheism is morally inadequate or anything of that sort.

It is certainly the case that I have beliefs, and that I use these beliefs to order my life; this, however, is true of every rational inquirer. Furthermore, I don't keep these beliefs a secret; insofar as they might bias me, the potential bias is out in the open so that others may correct me if they believe that it results in flawed reasoning on my part. If your charge is that I am engaged in 'bad' apologetics rather than impartial inquiry, you will have to provide more evidence than simply the claim that I am committed to certain beliefs. Finally, I am committed to adjusting my beliefs according to any new evidence and arguments I receive, and there is evidence right here on this blog of significant changes to my belief system over the last several years.

Posted by: Kenny at April 11, 2009 4:58 PM

To make sure we're on the same page:

You're saying that some people who don't believe in hell use the expression "x deserves to spend an eternity in hell" to indicate a strong degree of moral condemnation. Further, most people don't use such severe forms of condemnation. I presume you consider most people to be atheists.

So Wilson's probable condemnation (expressed by 3*) has nothing to do with his belief in God or an afterlife. The phrase "deserves to burn in hell" is most likely used as a tool to express his view that racism is morally wrong; if there is any connection between the supposed condemnation and Wilson's religious views it is merely nominal.

OK, it seems very likely to me that his religious beliefs are more than just tools, but the sole reason he came to hold the view that racism is morally wrong. Prior to this he thought it was RIGHT. So it seems his religious views would be the impetus for the condemnation! Thus they "interfere" in a very significant way.

Posted by: dmk at April 12, 2009 2:59 PM

This is not quite my claim. Richard (who is not a Christian) did advance the sort of claim you describe in the comments to Paul's post.

What I am saying is that the expression "x deserves to spend eternity in hell" does not, as such, imply that hell exists. Most people (at least most Americans), whether theist or atheist, think that very few people, if any, deserve eternity in hell.

I do not claim that (3*) does not have to do with belief in God or an afterlife. I do not claim that Wilson's moral condemnation is not religiously motivated. What I do claim is that (3*) is a very strong form of genuinely moral condemnation. (3*) is, by its nature, a moral claim. Paul, to whom I am responding, does not hold (at least in the post in question) that moral beliefs have to come from some particular source in order to count as genuinely moral beliefs. Rather, he simply holds the Kantian position that if we act from fear, we are not acting morally. We must instead act from our moral beliefs (not in mere conformity with them). What I am claiming is that Wilson's comments show that he (probably) has the requisite moral beliefs, and they might very well be a major motivating factor in his behavior.

Religious beliefs, I claim, do not necessarily interfere with moral beliefs. This does not amount to the claim that religious beliefs have no impact on moral beliefs. Rather, it amounts to the claim that belief in heaven and hell does not undermine a person's ability to act from moral motivation.

Posted by: Kenny at April 12, 2009 3:27 PM

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