Moral Calculus: An Admittedly Long-Winded Discussion

Math… I can’t seem to escape from sticking math into my thoughts on formation…

Recently, my wife stumbled onto an article discussing a subtle change in the underlying philosophy and self-image of the average Western individual. While the article didn’t go into detail, I imagine one could trace the change back to those philosophical thinkers just after the Enlightenment. I think in particular of two, but perhaps I’m already getting ahead of myself.

In the Western world, the Roman Catholic church generally formed the people’s self-image and philosophy of life, and the general idea was that human beings were inherently sinful. People were bent toward doing terrible things, and daily life was a struggle to choose a virtuous path. One had to fight against one’s flesh (and I’ll leave the Pauline scholars to debate endlessly about what exactly that term means) in order to do good.

John Locke was one of many who argued a slightly different perspective. He suggested that man is not inherently sinful, but rather than the human being is born a blank slate, the proverbial¬†tabula rasa, and that one’s behavior arose primarily out of what one had learned and experienced, not an inherently sinful character that needed to be resisted.

Rousseau, rather than denying the inherent character of man, flipped it on its ear and declared that man is inherently good. I haven’t read enough Rousseau (technically, I haven’t read any at all; I’ve only read about him), so I’m not sure where then evil comes from in the world, but that may not be entirely relevant to where I’m trying to go with this.

So now we have three competing ideas: is man inherently bad, good, or neutral but influence-able? Given the prevalence of Christianity in the States for many years, the general philosophy was aligned with the initial Roman Catholic idea, that man is sinful. Somewhere along the line, however, (perhaps in the 60’s?) it began to shift. The idea that people were born blank slates or even inherently good began to grow more prominent, even in the church.

Here’s why this matters, said the article. Your self-image or perspective on the human person affects that kind of scrupulousness that I mentioned before. If your philosophy of life is that you are inherently sinful, you must struggle against that tendency in order to do good. However, if you’re inherently good, then why struggle so hard? What is there to struggle against, even?

In fact, said the article that I can’t actually cite because I have no idea what it was anymore darnit, not only is the idea that you’re inherently good cause you to slacken against the struggle to do good, it might even subtly encourage you to not be good sometimes. After all, if you’re inherently good, then a little evil now and then isn’t going to be a big deal.

This little evil, that’s where the moral calculus comes into the article. You debate with yourself, “Have I been good enough lately?” You begin going through some very quick, partially instinctive calculations to determine if doing the bad thing you’re considering is going to take you past some arbitrary edge, if it will tarnish that inherent goodness too much. And oftentimes, it doesn’t. We justify our little infractions, our little white lies, as okay because we’re really good at heart and we really aren’t that bad.

While I’m loathe to go back to the idea that we are solely inherently sinful, and perhaps that’s just because I, too, am a product of my culture, I am sorry that having shifted away from it, we end up with this moral calculus going on in our souls and our culture.

How much do you find yourself engaging in moral calculus? How do you go about justifying those things, or do you even realize it when you do? What would God say to you if you asked Him and spent some time exploring what your image of the human person is like – good, bad, or blank, and how does that affect how you live?

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2 responses

  1. Dave

    I have long wrestled with this discussion/debate. I have found the term “fallen” works the best for me. It implies both the untarnished image of God as well as the results of sin that we all struggle with.

    The work of Dan Ariely brings to mind the GK Chesterton line about original sin being the one empirically verifiable doctrine (even though I am pretty sure I know longer hold an Augustinian view of original sin).

    July 26, 2012 at 2:30 am

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