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10.7.08

Nobody Cares About The State Of Your Soul

One of the enduring philosophical questions is: are humans basically good, or basically evil? I don't believe that humans are basically good. Nor do I believe they are basically evil, or that some are good and some are evil, or that each person is some mix of good and evil, or that we're amoral. Instead, I reject the premise of the question -- that it's worthwhile and meaningful to make summative evaluations of the moral worth of a person. Actions are good or bad, and situations are good or bad, but to say a person is good or bad is a category mistake.

For this reason, I have little patience for discussions about whether, for example, we can consider Thomas Jefferson a good person despite the fact that he owned slaves and whether historical circumstances can excuse him. Jefferson's worth is a meaningless question, like asking how much phlogiston his body contained. And I'm not excited about the recent resurgence of virtue ethics in philosophy.

The insistence on making summative judgments about a person was, if not created by, at least abetted by Christianity. The central question in Christianity has been: are you going to heaven, or to hell? The state of your soul depended on your moral worth (whether acquired through works, faith, predestination, randomly bestowed grace, or reciting the Sinner's Prayer), and everything in the world would culminate in the Judgment, when Jesus would separate the sheep from the goats*. This sort of thinking has become so ingrained in our culture that even people who don't believe in orthodox Christianity still frequently think this way.

On the other hand, Jesus quite clearly instructed his followers not to judge. That command gets taken too often as a command not to criticize, to cut everyone lots of slack. But I think it's better to interpret Jesus' message as saying that we shouldn't make summative moral judgments of others' worth, of the state of their soul. Such judgments serve no purpose in the mortal world (and hence no purpose whatsoever if you're a Universalist or don't believe in an afterlife).

There's a strong tendency for people today to want to shift debates into discussions about the status of their soul, about their overall evaluation as a person. I noted it here in objecting to talk about having one's feminist card taken away, and here with respect to white people missing the point about accusations of racism. It shows up in discussions of criminal justice, where the population is (explicitly or implicitly) divided into Criminals and Law-Abiding Folks. Depression does its damage in part by leading the sufferer to think of themself as a "bad person" or "worthless person," while hubris hurts others by convincing someone that they are a good person and hence can do no wrong. I was inspired to write this post by the discussion of this post by Jeff Fecke, where commenters K.A. and Helen make good points about the fallacy of seeing rapists as a separate species of monster, and belledame sums it up by saying "I don't care what's in your soul. I care about what you DO."

*This used to be one of my favorite Bible passages, since it puts the focus on doing good to other people rather than correctness of ritual observance toward Jesus, and I could set aside the soul-judging as a metaphor for act-judging. But hearing it again recently, I realized that it runs afoul of the problem raised here by Hugo Schwyzer -- it erases the fact of doing good to other people for their own sake and instead makes your deeds good or bad because of what they did to/for Jesus.

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