"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Is Man Good? Redux

Once again, I defer to Adam Smith's wonderfully wise and sadly overlooked other book, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments (1759):

"How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.... The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it."

"What is it that prompts the generous, on all occasions, and the mean, upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? Is it not the soft power of humanity, is it not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love?"


Smith, Reagan, and I are softies, I admit...

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Smith and Jesus, liberal hippies both.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Me & Reagan, too, it seems. Put that in your bong and smoke it.

Matt Huisman said...

I'm with you, as long as you don't get too carried away. The last sentence you quote from Smith hardly describes a dominance of good within us (we’re only capable of counteracting…).

Since you're revisiting Smith, I'm going to revisit Dennett. One of his interesting observations is that man needs a reason to trust that our own sacrifices will be reciprocated - and that without this trust, everything goes wrong. (This may explain why the government is such an attractive option for the good intentions of this or that group - why risk being the only sucker that ‘gave to the cause’ when you have the power to bring everyone on board?)

Now Dennett is no fan of religion, but at least he recognizes that religion addresses this significant human fear (actually, he reduces religion to this). Isn’t this an odd thing for a fundamentally good man to be worried about? He’s suggesting that we won’t do good unless everyone else is on board.

That ‘feeble spark’ no doubt exists – there must be some remnant of goodness within us, for badness can only be spoilt goodness - but it seems that all sides agree that we require assistance beyond what we each possess in order to properly ignite that spark.

Evanston said...

JFE is wrong to group Jesus with Smith. Hint: read any of the 4 gospels to read how "liberal" Jesus really was...

Anonymous said...

JFE is wrong to group Jesus with Smith. Hint: read any of the 4 gospels to read how "liberal" Jesus really was...

Uh, what? Jesus took the Jews' mandate for economic redistribution a gazillion steps farther. Eyes, needles, camels, rich folks, n'est-ce pas? The Sermon on the Mount reads like Marx after too many bong hits. Matthew 25: 31-46 reads like a primer on liberalism. Dude. Come on. He certainly wasn't a conservative. Dude was a radical if ever there was one.

Matt Huisman said...

The dude was radical, no doubt. But I must have missed the part in Matthew where he confiscates the Pharisees property to redistribute to the poor. Probably just an oversight on his part.

Tom Van Dyke said...

That ‘feeble spark’ no doubt exists – there must be some remnant of goodness within us, for badness can only be spoilt goodness - but it seems that all sides agree that we require assistance beyond what we each possess in order to properly ignite that spark.

Very nice on two counts, Matt.

As to the latter, we may look to Aristotle (and my pal Aquinas follows him there)---virtue is a habit. We are born a tabula rasa, a blank slate (also translated as "scraped tablet"), except for that "spark" that knows good when it sees it.

That's where society comes in, to foster the habituation of virtue, and why I'm a social conservative. (The Founders certainly saw the freedom we accord each other as dependent on us governing ourselves as individuals, and self-government is impossible without virtue.)

On a more metaphysical level, we must learn of goodness; it gives meaning to our days---if we were born already perfect and good, we might as well just die right away and dispense with this madness.

The human experience indicates that it's indeed useless to legislate morality. I only object when we're called to legislate what I consider immorality, in the name of "freedom" or "tolerance."

If badness is spoilt goodness, then I'm opposed to spoiling it, no more, no less.

Anonymous said...

The dude was radical, no doubt. But I must have missed the part in Matthew where he confiscates the Pharisees property to redistribute to the poor. Probably just an oversight on his part.

There is a Jewish tradition of redistributing wealth within the community every seventy years, is there not? And then there's his commandment to eschew earthly things and give one's riches to the poor. But then, I'd expect narrow thinking and semanticism from conservatives. They have little else to offer these days.

Matt Huisman said...

James, your familiarity with THE text is always encouraging; someday I’m sure you’ll read it for all it’s worth.

In either of the examples you cite, how central do you think economic redistribution was to the message? If you are unaware of what was being promoted here, I’ll be happy to spend some time going over it (the Year of Jubilee is really pretty cool – and is light years away from tax and redistribute). But the radicalness of Jesus was in his restoration and fulfillment of the vertical significance behind the law.

Does that make him progressive or old school, I don't know. But the fact that your horizontal (narrow?) reading of scripture is still enough to inspire speaks to how remarkable the book really is.

Evanston said...

JFE: Instead of cherry-picking individual sentences, how about reading a paragraph before and after each one to get the meaning in context? You would do the same for any other author, so put forth a little effort.

If you don't have a Bible handy, use Biblegateway.com. You can select from many different versions. The "Rich Young Ruler" scene is repeated in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) but take Mark 10 for example. I'll cut to the quick: there are many wealthy men in the Bible (Abraham, Job, Solomon, etc.) and wealth itself is never denigrated. The sin is putting wealth ahead of God. Put another way, your wealth becomes an idol (because anything that is more important to you than God is an idol). This is why Jesus' explanation (if you would bother to read it) is that those who leave material wealth "for my sake and for the gospel" will be rewarded.

The Sermon on the Mount should make political liberals scream. It not only reiterates that murder, lust, divorce, and breaking of oaths are sins -- He says that just wanting to do these things in your heart is a sin. That is, Christ is "raising the bar" on what constitutes sin, not discarding the moral Law as some would say.

Is Jesus a Marxist? Read Matt 5:17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." Jesus' never contraverts the 8th Commandment "thou shalt not steal." He does not abolish private property. He never says to the thieves accompanying Him at the crucifixion that their punishment is unjust.

You mention Matt 25:31-46. No doubt Christ is talking about acts of kindness to the helpless. Yet you overlook the fact that Christ is sitting on the judgment throne. He is not a "dude." Second, He sends malefactors to eternal hell. Is this a liberal doctrine?

Yes, Jesus was and is the ultimate counter-cultural figure. His message, and that of the whole Bible, is that man is fallen and is not good and must rely on God. Yes, those who have God's love are moved to compassion. My church supports missions world-wide (not just monetarily -- members go there for years and often decades), to HIV patients in Africa, poverty stricken people in Armenia, Albania and Russia for starters. We give out of love, NOT out of government compulsion. And we always preach the Word for His sake and for the gospel.

If you ever read this, no doubt it will seem radical and harsh. It surely is. I think you need to re-read any of the Gospels (there are 4 -- take your pick) to get the whole meaning of Jesus' ministry. You will find in Matt 26:6, Mark 14:3, and John 12:3 accounts of Jesus being anointed with expensive oil. Complaints are made that the money could have been spent on the poor. But Christ puts the incident in context. The money is well-spent to commemorate His coming death and burial.

In sum, it is cheap and easy to believe that Jesus' message was about economics. Go to the Sermon on the Mount again, Matt:19 "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
THAT is the central message of Christ. He is neither a political conservative nor a political liberal. He is God.

S. T. Karnick said...

Well said, Evanston.