“People are scum.” “Mankind is a moral wasteland.” “I’m ashamed to be human.”
Whenever cynics express themselves, I’m tempted to retort that philosophy is autobiography and they should put their claims in the first-person: “I am scum.” “I am a moral wasteland.” “I’m ashamed to be me.”
A colleague once took me up on that challenge. He was a religious conservative, and we were debating human nature. He was a pessimist, arguing that humans are sinful, driven by dark, anti-social desires and not to be trusted. He was also a big guy who had played aggressive sports like football in college. The conversation turned to women, and he reminisced about a former girlfriend. She was naïve, he thought, because she had wanted to get to know the real him. He said, “I am male. I am 6’3” and weigh 240 pounds. And she wants me to express my true feelings?”
Cynicism is not a journalistic claim that there are plenty of nasty people out there. It is a general claim that it is human nature to be repulsive and evil. (See “Are We Too Wicked for Freedom?”)
In the Western religious tradition, cynicism about humanity is most strongly expressed in the incoherent but influential doctrine of Original Sin. St. Augustine, Christianity’s leading voice for a thousand years, argued that “None is free from sin, not even the infant whose life is but one day upon this Earth.”
If we ask where the sin originally comes from, then we have to locate it in either the body or the soul. According to religiously-dualist accounts of human nature, such as the one we read in Genesis, God took the dust of the earth, formed it into a human body, and breathed a soul into it. The first humans, Adam and Eve, also committed the first sins, and generations later we are still born infected with sin.
It is first tempting to locate sin in the body, as that is where our physical drives for food, sex, and drink come from. Our bodies are also all that we inherit via sexual reproduction from our parents — who received their bodies from their parents, and so on all the way back to Adam and Eve. Each individual soul, by contrast, is created afresh by God, and it is created perfect in keeping with God’s perfect nature. So the soul is pure, and it is the body that is the source of the corruptions of lust, gluttony, and so on.
But deep thinkers in the religious tradition, Augustine included, have almost always denied that the body is the source of the sin. Rather, sin is something the soul does by giving in to things that it knows to be wrong. In his powerfully-written, autobiographical Confessions, Augustine tells us that when he avoided his studies, when he stole a pear, when he had sex with a woman — the sin was in knowing these things were forbidden and doing them anyways. When he stole the pear, for example: “Nor cared I to enjoy what I stole, but joyed in the theft and sin itself.”
We don’t blame a squirrel for “stealing” a nut, since the squirrel doesn’t know any better. But Augustine did know better — and he wants us to hear the echo of the original theft in the Garden of Eden. Eve knew that the tree’s fruits were off limits, and she took one anyways. That is, her soul was corrupt, as it was her soul that made the choice to do the thing she knew to be wrong.
So, we are to conclude, the source of sin is in the soul. And here is the problem: the soul is created directly by God, so it cannot be originally corrupt. God is said to be a perfect being, so anything that God creates must be perfect. It is impossible that a perfect being would create a wicked soul — let alone billions of them.
Where then can the source of mankind’s evil be? And how does it get transmitted from generation to generation, such that we are all still responsible for Adam and Eve’s transgressions? Neither the body nor the soul is a possible candidate, so the traditional account seems incoherent.
A rearguard response to the incoherence is to blame free will. God did make the soul perfect, and he endowed it with free will. Free will is a kind of power — a capacity to choose among alternatives. So we cannot blame God for the giving us a capacity that each of us chooses to abuse.
But the incoherence does not go away, since our supposed God-given free will is so weak that it cannot help but sin. Eve sinned badly, and so did everyone for generations down to the time of Noah, and so again did everyone down to Augustine, and so has everyone since then. God knows it, yet he keeps making these weak-willed souls that he knows are just going to choose the bad, the wicked, and the evil over the good.
So we end up where the deep thinkers in the religious tradition have always ended up, which is with asserting that the doctrine of Original Sin is an article of faith — to be believed but not understood. What we are supposed to do is accept it and, realizing our weakness and unworthiness, submit to higher authorities and obey them.
In the modern era, the religiously-dualist account has declined in influence among intellectuals and much of the general public. Faith carries less weight in an era committed to evidence and logic. Appeals to souls have little explanatory power given the prowess of the physical sciences. And demands of obedience are an affront to those attracted to freedom and self-responsibility.
But if we move away from the religious-dualist account of human nature, then what is the alternative? If there are no souls, then does that not imply that humans are just animals? Animals, we moderns are often taught, are the product of long lines of evolutionary development and the result of material forces — the forces of organic chemistry and biology as shaped by the physical forces of geology and climate. Humans are a part of that story and not exempt from it. They may have emerged atop the food chain, but what enabled them to get there were their powerful predatory instincts.
So if we reject the religious-soul account of human nature and replace it with the materialist-predator account of human nature, then we still have a darkly pessimistic understanding of the human condition. “Nature red in tooth and claw” is hardly a foundation for the optimistic view that humans can handle wide-ranging freedom and work cooperatively to develop win-win social arrangements.
In my next article, accordingly, we will take up the challenge of reductive materialism and its understanding of human drives, emotions, and reason.